It seems almost too obvious to say it out loud, but it’s deeply and profoundly true: pastors are humans, too. We have all the baggage, pain, hurt and brokenness inherent in the human condition. We never talk about it. We aren’t superhumans, invulnerable to grief and pain. We weren’t given an extra dose of divine spark or a path to redemption any different from anyone else. That brokenness is often the elephant in the sanctuary, though. We all try to pretend it isn’t there while talking around it, under it, over it. If we pretend it isn’t there, maybe it will just wander away and everything will be okay.
I’ve been on a self-imposed blog vacation because my personal life has taken a painful but not entirely unexpected turn. After completing the ordination process in the United Methodist Church and becoming an Elder in Full Connection, my marriage completely fell apart. In July my wife left and we were divorced in August. I have avoided blogging about it to this point because I am self-aware enough to realize that I might approach the line between reflection upon my experiences and airing my dirty laundry inappropriately. I respect my ex-wife, our children, and myself too much to air my grievances publicly, so I have remained silent.
I don’t want to be thought of as a statistic regarding the divorce rate among clergy. I don’t want to be an anecdotal example of “what the ordination process does to candidates.” I don’t want to point fingers, place blame, or discuss why my marriage collapsed. I just want to reflect on what happens when a pastor enters and works through the grief process.
It was difficult meeting with my Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. I met with my District Superintendent, and at her suggestion, prepared a written statement about the fact that I was getting divorced. I presented my letter to them, and anticipated with dread how the fallout would affect my ministry in the local church. Everyone was shocked. My spouse and I had done a good job hiding our problems from everyone, including ourselves. Waves of shock hit the PPR. Grown men wiped tears from their cheeks. The DS assured them that the Conference would do everything possible to support both the churches and me during this process. She asked for grace from the churches in supporting me through my grief. As the meeting ended, I was surrounded by people who have been both incredibly supportive and deeply critical of me, and their sincerest prayers for my healing and well-being. I returned to the parsonage and cried.
The written statement I issued was then copied and mailed to the rest of the households in the congregation. By Sunday, nearly everyone had received the letter. I never announced my divorce from the pulpit. The elephant entered the sanctuary, planted himself between the pulpit and the pews, and he was angry. He stomped, snorted and trumpeted to make his presence known. I was faced with the seemingly impossible preacher’s task of proclaiming hope while feeling utterly hopeless. My sermons reflected my personal pain even as I tried desperately to prevent it. I fought back tears most Sundays, occasionally with some success. Even when I didn’t cry, my hangdog expression was obvious. One parishioner commented to me one Sunday, “your message was great, but you just look so sad.” Every sermon had not-so-subtle subtext: “Pray for me. I need your support right now. Please don’t leave me in this place alone.”
I was sad. I ended up in the Emergency Room one Saturday. I hadn’t been eating, and my stomach rebelled against me. I had chest pain and thought I was going to die. I received mixed messages from the congregation. One fellow showed up at my house with microwave dinners for my freezer and words of encouragement. Another parishioner called and said harshly, “you’re going to have to find some way to pull it together.” Others said, “you have vacation time coming, why don’t you take some?” And my mind was too preoccupied to process it all.
Then came financial troubles. I had to find a way of paying the bills on my income alone, which was difficult because my wife made over twice what I do. I had to ask family for help. I started cutting expenses, begging for grace, and learning to budget more strictly. I had a tire blowout 150 miles from home when I really couldn’t afford it. I learned to pray that nothing else would break down or go wrong.
I started seeing a counselor. I joined a very private invitation-only online support group. I met with the Bishop’s office and a representative from the Board of Ordained Ministries for a “Divorce Review.” I rebuilt a circle of close friends. I learned quickly who my friends were, and weren’t. I kept company with denial, anger and despair. I slept on my couch with the TV on every night. I forced myself to eat. I avoided my clergy friends because I just didn’t want to talk about it.
Grief is a funny thing with a life of its own. I started turning around, and I’m not sure why. My online friends provided a great roadmap for what my process would be like, and they really supported and encouraged me all the way. Having great support through the grief was like making the trip with a GPS: I traveled the road more confidently and swiftly because I trusted my guides, and I knew immediately if I was headed down the wrong path. My sermons have moved from “With God’s help, we’ll get through this,” to “Trust God, our best days are ahead of us.” I lived out John Wesley’s admonition to “preach faith until you have it, then preach it all the more.” Anger and despair gave way to quiet acceptance and vocal hope.
Grief never leaves you like it found you. When my grandfather died, it left me a harder, more cynical person. This process has softened me. I’ll shed a tear when I try to sing a sad song. I’m a more patient and deeply compassionate person than I was before. I really believe I am emotionally healthier than I’ve been in years as a result of grieving well. I have newfound determination and purpose in my vocation as a pastor.
I’ve learned firsthand that my brokenness and humanity are not just part of who I am as a person, but also part of who I am as a pastor. It’s difficult for churches when the pastor’s brokenness comes to the surface. It’s hard for a pastor to be so profoundly broken. But it’s essential for God’s people to know that God has always been in the business of redeeming, not preventing, suffering. God has always been in the business of making art out of broken lives. We aren’t called to be perfect, or to pretend that we are. We are called to remember that our brokenness gives us an opportunity for God’s grace and healing to be revealed to us and in us.