Three years ago life was going very well. I had a thriving practice as a therapist, counseling people towards wholeness in their relationships with themselves and others.
A new house, cars that didn’t break down, kids plugged into friends and community that they loved; more than enough money in the bank…exhale…it felt like a ‘page had turned’ and my family and I were settling into a new routine, and had navigated the challenges of our recent past during that time.
About 18 months before this, I was working full time as a pastor of one of the largest churches in our area. My role as an associate pastor, with a full time staff of 20 pastors at that time, was overseeing the ministries related to spiritual, emotional, and relational health. I loved my church, and what I was doing. My favorite ministry was one called Celebrate Recovery, mostly because the people were so authentic; they may have been messy by the worlds standards, but at least they were honest.
As this ministry grew to a few hundred participants per week, and was leading the charge for modeling service, practical love, and grace to the church. I felt a ever increasing disillusionment within myself. I realized that I did not believe in grace the same way the leaders of this ministry, or the participants did. Yes, it was easy for me to teach the message of grace from the front, I’m the leader I show up and deliver, that’s what we do. I knew all the answers chapter and verse…but deep in my heart I did not believe that ‘this grace’ applied to me…it was for everyone else.
They don’t tell you in bible college that when you become a pastor the rules change. What you preach and what applies to everyone else, no longer applies to you as the pastoral leader. This occupational hazard requires you to make your humanity appear less messy than everyone else. You “should know better” as the head elder at my church said publicly once, referencing the choices I had made. Years before, I went to bible college and chose to become a pastor because I believed that was the solution, the formula, that if I did it good enough I would feel complete and whole once I had “arrived.” Yeah…that was a waste of time, and only taught me the head knowledge, how to do the legalistic “look good” dance, but not how to get the real experientially into my heart.
At a Celebrate Recovery conference with my leadership team, a pastor from another church shared his story. It was pivotal for me, because it was my story. He concluded by saying “When we confess our sins to God he frees us; but when we confess our sins to others, God heals us.” He was referencing Biblical passages 1 John 1:9 and James 5:17
Now I’ve heard God be clear with me a few times in my life, and this was one of them. It’s as if God was saying to me, “Trav, you’re not healed and free because no one knows your secrets. You don’t trust anyone. I’m not enough, you need to experience my grace, love, forgiveness, acceptance, and hope from other living breathing human beings. You need to risk”
That was hard to hear. I am notoriously self sufficient. I am a profound “D” for driver and builder that finds a way to get it done, and does not settle for no. I can bulldoze my way through anything, and anyone, if necessary to get what I want. However, my supporting value is “S” of security and stability, the safety that comes from being consistent, dependable, loyal. You want someone like me on your team.
I returned from that trip, and mustered enough courage to begin to share some of my struggles, secrets never spoken, to those I trusted at the time. At first I was met with compassion, but that tone quickly changed. Remember, as a pastor, the rules are different for you.
False accusations of misconduct with clients forced me to close me therapy practice. The most painful part of all this for my family and I has been the betrayal, attacks, and disdain from those we considered family from our church. We did our best to participate with the church “Restoration Team,” but they were more concerned with giving consequences and punishment to satisfy their sense of justice, (and cover their backside/image)…more than they were interested in applying the grace they preached.
These were my closest friends, now treating my wife and I as enemies. During one final meeting at our church, they actually looked me in the eye and said, “it’s our job to protect the world from you Travis.” They facilitated false unethical allegations being reported regarding my conduct to the state licensing board for therapists. They said they did this because they felt since I “betrayed” them in my leadership role as a paid pastor, that I shouldn’t “have any leadership role ever again, in any setting.” They waged their war against me through gossip, liable, and slander of me with mutual colleagues in our community, getting newspaper articles published. We felt hunted. They even went so far as to mail copies of their allegations to people they thought I was connected to through viewing my LinkedIn profile. [Yes, I have screenshots of every member of the church who ‘viewed me’ and amazingly a letter would show up to one of my connections a few days later.]
Through all the attacks, I chose to take the high road, take it on the chin, and do what I needed to do to stay healthy and navigate all the chaos with my family and closing my business.
They treated my wife as an enemy because she chose not to believe their version of their story, nor join their self-righteous judgment attitude. Our church family disowned her, and our kids, asking them not to associate with the church, nor our friends, as long as she was connected to me. If she would have divorced me, they would have come running to her aide. [Quite a contradiction, since, as the marriage pastor for the church, I helped write the church policy discouraging divorce and advocating for restoration, which the church board adopted.]
The unfortunate thing about unethical allegations, especially when they are salacious, with Boards is that the worst is always assumed. And when a church is the one making the complaint, it must be reputable and vetted right? Not even close. I was dead in the water, and my attorney defending my secular therapy license said the Board was “trying to make an example of me.” I was never interviewed, my side of the story to refute the allegations was never heard. The states boards allegations have never been founded or proven as facts and are untrue.
The best choice I could make to give my family and I a chance to move on was to resign my license to practice in my state. The truth didn’t matter, no one wanted to hear my side of the story. The worst damage from the press, liable and slander from our church, had already done it’s work at killing my standing in the community and ability to keep my business solvent.
Moving on has been tough. When your resume is all leadership in the “people business” of church ministry, therapy, counseling…with a graduate degree…translating that into other verticals is hard. All of my skills fit well with business development, teaching, team building, branding, marketing, coaching, training, human resources, etc…except getting any of those opportunities is just like shifting to a brand new career. Prospective employers or business partners treat you like you have no experience. But most, rather than believing truth, allow the negative press of “allegations” to justify their lack of courage engaging in any strategic alliance.
So, our pastor recently preached a message on ‘being grateful for disappointment” which I did not like hearing. Life is hard, bills are late, debt is mounting, I can’t remember the last time I smiled and my wife and I had bandwidth to experience joy. We are both working the best jobs we can get, managing our food stamps the best we can, and doing our best to equip our kids with tenacity and perseverance. I spend my free time building online courses, and hustling to get a job that is more inline with my experience, passion, and skill set — and one that pays more than food stamps would allow 🙂
As I thought more about my pastors message, I settled. Mental toughness is about embracing the present, “be here now”, be still and breath, so that through acceptance, you can move forward. We each have a choice who we will be in this story, the role we play in others lives, and the role we play in our own. If real love and practical grace is “making life better for the other guy” as my pastor says, then that’s the plan.
If the best I can do for my family in helping us rise and start again is paint the parking lot, then I will be the best parking lot painter I can.