Five Stages of Injury to Recovery

by John Schmidt

Each morning, when I check my email, I find messages from pastors and spouses who’ve been wounded. Some are from people I’ve been trying to encourage, since hearing their stories weeks or months earlier. Other messages are the first cries for help from couples that have just found our website.

A real life example

One recent email recounted a painful story:

“I am the wife of a pastor who was forcibly terminated. Revival was so close we could taste it. New people were coming, but those who held power in the church were threatened by them, so the power holders asked for a vote of  confidence. At one meeting, 75 percent of the people who spoke supported our ministry. But not all our supporters were official members, even though they were faithful in the nitty-gritty work of the church. The vote was to be taken in two weeks, and during that time every member was contacted and manipulated by lies and innuendos to vote against us. We were voted out. As a result, nearly half the people left the church. They did not want to condone what really was pastor abuse.”

Tears filled my eyes. I cried out to the Lord for their blessing and healing. Then I paused to focus on her parting statement:

“I don’t know if any of this is coherent or making sense.  I am just very frustrated.  I am on sleeping pills and antidepressants.  I have had thoughts of suicide.  I am scared of the future.  We were forced out of the parsonage. Thank you for reading this.  Any help would be appreciated.”

I prayed more earnestly and immediately contacted her.

I know all too well the devastating impact this kind of experience can have on a minister and spouse. Here was a young couple that lost their ministry, home, income, reputation, church, friends, and hopes for the future. Humiliated, they were trying to put their life back together. Their wounds are deep. Once trusting, they are now suspicious of the motives of church people and leaders. Disillusioned and desperate, they turned to a stranger’s website for comfort and guidance.

God’s call to help them

I’ve been a pastor for over thirty years. In 1998 the Lord started speaking to me about giving more time to helping restore wounded and fallen ministers. In early 2001, I met with a few others to officially begin the Pastoral Advocacy Network. Since then, we’ve been flooded with requests for help from injured pastors and spouses.

There is a serious lack of understanding and help available for wounded ministers. Most people don’t know what to do for a departing pastor. It’s all so awkward. All they know is that something went wrong and the pastor and family “left in the night.” A few months later another minister and spouse take their place.

But, where do the wounded ministry couples go?  What happens to them?  Who cares for them?  We might assume that wounded spiritual leaders recover easily, trusting God and finding victory, and move to another church to pick up where they left off.  But the truth is, for the majority, life rarely goes back to normal.  They are wounded people who often struggle to recover in isolation.  Seldom are there helping hands ready to pull them out of their sorrow and pain.  They are often forgotten, left in a dark pit of discouragement.

Let’s remove the cover of that horrible hole, and glimpse what goes on when a minister is forced out of a church. The process begins much earlier than the day of resignation or termination. As I’ve heard story after story, and looked for a pattern, I’ve seen…

Five Stages in the Process of Injury and Recovery:

The Turmoil

During this time, spiritual enemies seem to gain a foothold in the church. There are subtle changes in attitude toward the minister. Once he was held in esteem, but now there are conflicts and discontentment expressed toward certain aspect of his work or life. The spiritual battle increases in intensity almost daily. Pressure on the pastor and confrontations with certain people grow worse, with no satisfactory resolution.  Even fasting and prayer often fail to turn things around. The particular events that cause the turmoil vary from church to church, and pastor to pastor, but this stage is a common one in most stories I’ve heard.

The Trauma

Eventually, the opposition that’s been partially hidden comes to a head.  Open conflict breaks out, or secret meetings take place. Either way, it leads to the resignation or termination of the minister.  As a result, there is deep emotional damage. The pastor, spouse and family experience an overwhelming sense of rejection and disbelief. The extent of the injury varies, depending on how ugly things become before the pastor is forced out. It may range from a minor scratch on the heart to complete soul crucifixion. Sleeplessness and depression are common, and often bring a minister and spouse to the point of despair.

The Aftershock

This phase is much like the smaller tremors that follow a major earthquake. It is characterized by great fear and concerns about practical matters. As time goes on, the minds of the minister and spouse are pummeled by earthshaking questions—many more questions than answers: What just happened? How could this happen to us? How are we going to support ourselves? Where are we going to live? Who can we trust?

They feel alone, facing problems they never anticipated. It’s at this time that the pastor and spouse need to find help; but, they’ve focused on giving their lives to help others, and it’s difficult to shift that focus to their own needs. Even if they want assistance, little help is available. The crisis eventually affects every aspect of their lives: their spiritual and emotional state, their financial condition, and their physical health.

They experience something similar to the grief cycle people go through when a loved one dies. They go from denial to acceptance of their situation. They walk through a minefield of painful and challenging emotions and experiences. This Aftershock chapter in their lives may last up to two years.

It is important for injured ministry couples to seek help, no matter how difficult that may be. An assessment of the damage, both emotional and physical, is crucial. Sleeplessness and depression often result in other problems if immediate action is not taken. The pain and complications don’t go away on their own.

The Hidden Battle

The damage that began months or years earlier in the Turmoil quietly spreads into the everyday life of wounded shepherds. This phase is unseen by all but the most discerning. Major problems—such as where to move, how to earn a living, etc.—may appear to be behind them; but the resulting pain has burrowed underground to continue its destruction.

Spiritual enemies seek to extinguish the flame of faith and desire for ministry by using two powerful weapons: isolation and condemnation. The minister and spouse feel alone, perhaps no longer intimately involved in the lives of other believers, or comfortable around “successful clergy couples.” They’re tempted to mentally replay their failures. “Maybe if we were more holy or more loving we wouldn’t have lost our ministry.” They struggle with guilt feelings. Self-doubt and frustration plague them. They desperately grasp at solutions that seem to offer hope, but to no avail.

This stage can involve a kind of temporary blindness. A minister and spouse may lose sight of God’s faithfulness and grace, of their gifts and calling, or of any likelihood of a positive future. If they do have dreams of future ministry, they often can’t find the motivation or power to accomplish them. Soon after new pursuits begin, dreams evaporate. They feel paralyzed by an invisible force, held in , hemmed in by feelings of loneliness and betrayal. They can’t get beyond the memories of injustice. And they’re plagued with the nagging question, “Will God ever use us again?”

Some languish in this stage for a long time. One minister told me he was stuck there for over twenty years. Misguided individuals may exacerbate the situation by saying, “Oh, so-and-so left the ministry.” But real shepherds can never leave the ministry. God’s gifts and call are without repentance.

Paul spoke of a Divine compulsion to minister when he said, “necessity is laid hold on me….” (Cf. 1 Cor.9:16) He’d been “grabbed by God” and God wouldn’t let him go. So it is with the wounded minister. He may not serve in a formal church, but his calling compels him to serve. Injured pastors don’t need pity; they need respect, healing and deliverance.  Our work is to set them free to serve again, wherever God leads: inside the institutional church, in a home fellowship, or in some other unexpected place.

The Reconstruction Phase

Wounded shepherds need to begin to minister again, even if they never again do so in a formal church setting. Healing for injured ministry couples requires affirmation. No matter what led to a termination, they need encouragers who will come alongside them and recognize that a gracious God is working to restore them. They need loyal friends who will affirm them as “full-fledged ministers” even if they serve outside of a traditional ministry mold. Though a person’s “professional ministry career” may have been bulldozed, God can reconstruct a future ministry out of the rubble.

I sometimes compare the rejection of a pastor, and what follows, to a Joseph’s Pit Experience.4  It is filled with danger and pain, caused by the rejection of brothers and sisters (compare how Joseph suffered the rejection of his brothers, who put him in a pit, and then sold him into slavery). But, in God’s providence, that rejection can lead to a new place of service (remember how the LORD allowed the evil plot to get Joseph to Egypt where he would be raised up to do an important work, preserving Egypt and his own family during the coming years of famine). When God allowed Joseph to be mistreated, and then delivered him, it was not to do “traditional work.” God had a special place for him that no one could have anticipated.

Ironically, many who are judged by traditional churchgoers as having “left the ministry” are actually doing more for God’s kingdom than ever before.  Our definitions and perspectives of ministry are too narrow.  Sometimes, God allows a pastor to be pushed out of the formal church in order to reassign him in a “secular job” where he can share the gospel with needy souls who’ll never step through the doors of our best sanctuaries.

The Lord’s people need to learn to respect and honor the call of God on a person’s life, whether that means being the pastor of a large church or being a “street shepherd.”

What can you do?

Perhaps you’re wondering, “How can I help to heal hurting shepherds?” Awareness of the problem is the first step toward a solution. You should know that the problem is not a small one. Statistics indicate that shepherds are being struck down in ever increasing numbers. And it isn’t only ministers and spouses who suffer. Whatever injures them often scatters the Lord’s sheep as well. People leave the church with every damaged shepherd’s departure.

Our world can’t afford to lose true messengers of God. Someone must seek them out, honor them with actions and words, and help them get moving in ministry again. Their gifts are needed more than ever. We can’t afford to waste spiritual resources. Wounded ministers are a vast reserve of leadership for God’s kingdom.

Has God burdened your heart for injured ministers and spouses?  Pray that he will lead you to another person or two who share that concern. Then, commit yourselves to find an injured minister or ministry couple and begin to express compassion and support. Strategize how you might be able to network with others in the body of Christ to give practical help to wounded shepherds. They may need assistance finding work, or a place to live. They’ll certainly need a listening ear, and encouraging words; but be careful not to spout a lot of advice. Weep with those who weep. Care for the caregivers who’ve been hurt. Hurting pastors and spouses need respect and affirmation. They need someone who’ll love them and their families back to spiritual health.

Contact us for advice on how you can begin a NetMender Ministry,5 or assist us in what we’re doing to help wounded shepherds.

  • Our website is www.PastorsInPain.com . Or, you can contact us by phone at 619-818-2901 or by mail at Pastoral Advocacy Network, 10606-8 Camino Ruiz # 326, San Diego, CA 92126.
  • A scriptural exploration of the Turmoil to Trauma progression can be found on our website in the article “The Pattern of Enemy Intrusion.”
  • See Genesis chapters 37 and 39-50, especially 50:20, where Joseph speaks of God’s good purpose being worked out despite the evil his brothers had done.
  • The idea of “net-mending” occurs in connection with the actual mending or preparing of fishing nets (Matt.4:21; Mk.1:19). It is used figuratively in reference to those who equip or prepare God’s people for the work of ministry (Eph.4:12), and to describe how spiritual Christians should restore fellow believers who are overtaken by sin (Gal.6:1). It is also used to speak of how God’s grace can equip us, through Jesus Christ, to do the will of God (Heb.13:21), and restore us and make us strong (1 Pet.5:10).