I write to you as you gather at Avondale for your quinquinial Australian Union Conference ministers meetings.
Two decades ago, on Sabbath morning, I told the children's story at Avondale during the divine service at the minister's meetings. If you were there, perhaps you remember John the Baptist recounting his nightmare about a seven headed dragon. Storytelling was and is my passion.
Over the next ten years, I went through severe faith deconstruction. The apex of which occurred during my time as Associate Editor at Signs Publishing. I went through it alone. I spent many a drive home from Warburton calling to God and waiting for an answer. I even tried the silent treatment and listened for a still small voice. As you might expect, I heard nothing.
There was no one spiritually mature and safe to whom I could talk. My ministerial secretary was perfect and distant, as were all the men at the top. That seemed to be the way to survive. So, I tried. I joined the acting game.
I didn't want my storytelling to end but there were fewer and fewer topics on which I could preach or write with honesty. I read old scripts, danced old jigs. And in my private time I devoured books by McLaren, Campbell, Rohr and Spong. I needed to find God. I needed to find myself. Both were shadows of who they once were.
January 4, 2013 a brain tumour was safely removed from my auditory nerve. It left me deaf on that side with severe tinnitus but otherwise normal in appearance. My energy levels were massively depleted as the neurosurgeons said they would be. For three months, I took all my sick leave as I couldn't drive and stayed home on doctors orders, to recover.
One year later, to the day, I was removed from ministry permanently.
So, what happened during that year? The three months of recovery were bliss. Too tired to do much, I laughed with my family and ate every meal at home. I decided to be honest. When asked to go back to work, I would tell them who I really was. I would tell them what I believed and didn't believe.
When the call came, two churches - one small and one as assistant to a power pastor, I said exactly… nothing. During that year, I rode my motorcycle too fast. Numerous corners nearly took me. I spiralled into spiritual self loathing. One day I told my wife she would leave me if she knew what I really believed. She disagreed vehemently! And then, in my private thoughts, I wondered if I still had the old charm. So I tried. And I failed by succeeding.
January 4, 2014 I received a phone call from the conference President. We met in a McDonalds birthday party room. Our family had just moved so I could take a full time school chaplaincy role. When the President, General Secretary and power pastor asked me why, I told them everything. All the above but in greater detail. It felt blissful to unload a decade's burden! I talked and talked. The General Secretary commented that I seemed relieved not upset. True. Finally someone was listening and I couldn't be punished for my deconstruction.
My risk taking could have been partly a result of surviving brain surgery. It happens. But, it was definately a result of my faith deconstruction. The broken me was being unbroken and didn't want to go back into the paddock. I didn't want to sacrifice my new found freedom and honesty to return to the cowardice of the past. And so I bucked at the system's reigns. I took risks. Big ones. And I was fired, guilty as charged.
I went home with my tail between my legs. I'm grateful I wasn't brave enough to wrap it around my neck as some do. I went home where I was loved into accepting reconciliation. I was forgiven the moment I confessed. I still don't fully understand it. Much as I struggle to understand the cross, even though there is no better place to fall.
I've been told by others that I didn't deserve mercy. Duh. One pastor's wife told me her husband would be on the street after she emasculated him (not her words), should he ever dare! A decade later, she obviously still believes he is perfect as he remains intact.
A year later, while attempting to share a devotional I was writing on healing, a pastor told me if he were to help me it would send the wrong message. He said he wasn't sure how much time needed to elapse before He could be seen helping me. He didn't want to be unfit for duty in the temple, I guess.
The laity have been kind and accepting, welcoming me into their ranks with inclusive embracing arms. Over all, I've come to realise we teach and preach forgiveness well enough for the people to understand and act. And as I have listened to them over the past decade, even deconstruction is welcomed and expected. The discussion is vibrant.
Unfortunately, pastors are human. Deconstruction is part of maturity. This means, pastors who mature deconstruct and rebuild their faith. The needs for nonjudgmental mentoring, safe policies and empowering procedures for pastors with questions still remain unmet. Room to breathe and a safe place to debrief is desperately needed.
And thus, pastors in deconstruction manifest a variety of unhealthy behaviours.
In the pulpit: Poor preaching. Flimsy exegesis. Pathetic proofs. Weak point, pound pulpit.
In the home: Disconnection. Impossible expectations. Fake smiles. Do as I say, not as I do.
In the heart: Anxiety. Depression. Loneliness. Unbalanced relationship with God. From broken vessels that hold nothing - to - being so heavenly minded you're no earthly good.
I write to you not because I want back in. I'm much safer and healthier out here. I'm a better Christian now that I've come through my rebuilding phase.
I write to you because keeping our heads in the sand is killing pastors. We loose them to safer professions. We loose them in deconstruction. And, shockingly, we even lose them to death. The Seventh-day Adventist church must stop killing pastors.
While you are gathered this weekend, demand better. Your leaders have titled this gathering "The Empower Ministerial Convention." May it live up to its name. Pastors are deeply loved by God. It's time we started treating them that way.
Yours in Faith,
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