Finding Restoration After Your Ministry Dreams Fall Apart

“I didn’t know what was in store for me when I let go of the dream of being the pastor at that big, beautiful church.”

A few years ago, a long-held dream shattered in pieces all around me, and something inside of me died. Out of that death came an invitation to something bright and brand new, but it took a while to see it.

It turns out that dreams are sturdy and stubborn things.

Dreams are all about where you are going. But it takes a wise person to know if your dream calls you to where you need to go or if it’s a distraction from where you need to go.

Until the spring of 2014, I was the associate pastor at a church I had loved for a very long time. The senior pastor (Dave) and I grew very close. We often sat on his front porch and talked about the future. He has seen to my shalom in very meaningful ways. It was an unbelievable honor for me to be able to see to the shalom of this church—his church—together.

I’d been listening to his sermons for 20 years, first on tape, then CD, and finally in person. It was from him I learned how to question the Bible, how to become an archeologist of those words and those stories, and how to uncover the God of amazing grace. He was the first preacher who helped me see underneath and around the perplexing stories found in the Scriptures.

My dream was to be the next senior pastor at this church, and it almost happened. It felt as though I had been preparing for this promotion my whole life. I was certain that God was leading me into it.

“I dream of the day,” Dave told me more than once, “when I walk across the gathering place and I hear people whispering that you’re better than I am. If you weren’t a son, you would feel threatening to me,” he said. “But because you are a son, I can’t wait for that day to come.” I believe that he meant it, with all his heart, and I drank those words in. I idolized him for years; I patterned my preaching after his when I was young. I couldn’t think of anything in my career that I wanted more than to follow him as the next senior pastor at this church. But things went wrong. I love the people of this church to this day, and I love Dave, and I believe that they love me. And we honestly all did the best we knew how to do. But navigating a succession plan is a minefield of potential problems, and we stepped on quite a few of them.

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I’m an activator—I see things that need to happen, and I make them happen, usually pretty quickly. Sometimes that is exactly what my surroundings need to get them unstuck. But I’m not sure if a succession process goes very well when the potential successor is an activator. I flared my nostrils too many times. Sometimes I was too eager to be the next senior pastor and not eager enough to be the associate pastor.

There were times when my desire to possess that title (senior pastor) was silently killing off the gentle breeze of my real self, which doesn’t have a title. But it was so alluring.

Terry, the executive director (and my good friend), said that working with me was sometimes like sitting in traffic, when nothing is moving and everybody is frustrated, but some guy keeps honking his horn anyway. Another time he told me that I kept veering into other people’s lanes, merging into their areas of responsibility. He was right on both counts. Another time he mentioned how difficult leading this church was, because the engine needed to be replaced even though we couldn’t stop the car.

Terry really likes car metaphors.

After about four years, Dave and I were preaching roughly the same number of weekends per year. I saw this as the natural progression toward me becoming the next senior pastor. Then one day, during a board meeting, they said they wanted Dave to significantly increase his preaching load. This came out of the blue (at least for me), and I balked.

“But that means I’ll be preaching a lot less,” I blurted.

I felt as though something had been ripped from my hands that had previously been given to me. I did the math in my head. Instead of preaching 20 or so times a year, I’d be preaching 12 or 13 times. I loved preaching. It was hard to swallow a reality in which I’d preach less.

As time went on, my dream was dissipating and my mood grew dark. I kept telling myself to have patience, to do the job that was my actual job, instead of working so hard to earn a job that hadn’t been offered to me yet. Sometimes that worked.

At one point, some members of the board gently asked a question of compatibility. One of them suggested that I was built for speed, like a Ferrari, and that the church was built more like a Clydesdale, plodding along slowly but surely toward a destination at which they would arrive someday. I hated that comparison, even though it did hold some truth. I interpreted it as a lack of confidence in me, and perhaps it was. But it was also someone simply trying to figure out why things kept going so sideways.

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We agreed that we needed a time of mutual discernment, to see if we should keep pursuing this idea of succession with me. They put me through a life-coaching process with an outside firm, which has a unique and very thorough process of listening to stories of your life to determine the things you are best at and are motivated to accomplish.

What I found out was encouraging but not all that surprising. I was wired to be a leader in an organization in which I could empower people to discover latent gifts they didn’t know they had. They said I’d be happiest if I could create culture through my leadership and preaching.

The culture of this church is very embedded and unique. It was not a place where I would be able to create culture.

“You keep crossing into other people’s lanes and honking your horn in traffic,” they told me, “because you aren’t doing what you are wired by God to do: You are most happy and most fulfilled when you’re creating environments in which people’s latent gifts can emerge. For whatever reason, you aren’t doing that there.”

It was liberating to hear, but it was also very painful. I’ll never forget a conversation with a mentor of mine, while sitting by a large, ancient tree. I told him all about what was happening to my dream of being the senior pastor at this church.

“Perhaps it’s time to let it go,” he said with sadness in his voice.

Where are you going?

This is an exciting question when you suspect you know the answer. For years, I had imagined myself in the role of senior pastor at this church. It felt right. It felt comfortable. It felt scary, but I felt up to the challenge.

But when the bottom falls out of your dream, Where are you going? begins to feel like a desperate question. Mary and I had dozens of long conversations about what this all meant. She loved this church, too, and at first, she really didn’t want to leave. Neither did I. Letting go of the dream that would have secured a very public success was extremely difficult. Becoming senior pastor would have felt like validation. Approval and admiration were cheering me on to get this job, no matter what.