Columnist Ramon Presson

Columnist Ramon Presson

I think we can agree that being a pastor is nobler than being a convict. But announce that you are a former pastor and there will be raised eyebrows and whispers as though you had identified yourself as a former inmate. Either will likely elicit the silent response, “I wonder what he did.” 

Unless you are 65+ years old and retired from ministry, being a former pastor seems to be an indictment of your character, your faith & perseverance, and/or your obedience to God. Regardless, you didn’t finish the race. You either quit or got disqualified; and both are considered disgraceful. 

Been There, Done That

I had served as an assistant pastor in large churches for almost 20 years when I moved to the largest of the churches—a growing mega-church outside Nashville, TN.  In retrospect I was ripe for a crash. It was with profound grief that I left the staff and the loving congregation of a church in South Carolina. When we moved to South Carolina I envisioned ministering in the Greenville church until my retirement which was decades removed. The pastor and I were childhood friends. This was going to be great! And it was… for a short while. 

As marriage & family therapist coming out of grad school (I had never planned on being a pastor) I have always viewed the system of a church staff as being very similar to the system of a family. Churches and church staffs are either healthy and effective; or they are unhealthy and dysfunctional.  

I was struggling to hold on as other associate staff members had either left or were considering it. The senior pastor was steadily losing the respect and trust of the congregation and the associate staff had formed a survivors support group of sorts. But it was a life raft with punctured holes from which hope and perseverance were leaking out.  A wise church leader in the state who knew about our drama and dynamics said the pivotal words to me, “Ramon, how long do you think that you can stay healthy in an unhealthy system that isn’t going to change?”  

The Crash

I knew the system was not going to change without a change in leadership. As long as the senior pastor stayed, this is how it would be…or worse. I have very strong convictions about not creating division so I left quietly and graciously. But I left reluctantly and arrived in Tennessee in disguised pain.

The unfinished business of grief, the stress of relocation and starting over, and the demands of a large growing church that measured every kind of growth statistic imaginable were for me the perfect storm that ripped my sails and overturned my boat. When it finally sank I was admitted to the hospital for severe depression and anxiety. 

The church was gracious in giving me a 3-month medical leave and I did my best to return. I knew I needed to make this work. Emotionally I wasn’t up to another move. I came back and did my best but apparently my numbers didn’t meet quota and I was invited to find other employment. That’s when I elected to return to my original career as a Christian counselor and have been in private practice here in Franklin since then.

I know what it feels like to leave a church voluntarily but reluctantly; and I know what it feels like to be shown the door, when the offer of a severance package feels like a game show host saying, “Thanks for being on our show; we have some lovely parting gifts for you.” Since then I have met a multitude of assistant pastors, worship leaders, and associate staff members, who have had a similar experience. I’ve talked with senior pastors worn down by unreasonable expectations and criticism until the brake pads are gone and the sound of the heart and the spirit is just metal on metal.  

Let’s Be Honest

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m coming out and saying there’s a problem when in Franklin/Brentwood alone I’ve encountered a large multitude of former employees I would call “church staff survivors”—the walking wounded who have been mistreated, manipulated, and in some cases emotionally/verbally abused before being pushed out the door or before jumping out a window to safety.

One lay leader of a large church in Tennessee, in response to the constant enter/exit traffic of pastoral staff, quipped “It’s so common here that we’re adding a new bakery item in our church café—it’s called a “staff turnover”.   It’s a farce to say to the community that the church is a great place to worship when it is a toxic place to work; and it is a false message to the visitor that the church is a safe place to heal when there’s a large invisible cemetery out back.

 

Author and therapist, Dr. Ramon Presson, is the founder of LifeChange Counseling and the Marriage Center of Franklin, TN. www.LifeChangeCS.org  He can be reached at ramonpresson@gmail.com

(3) comments

Rick Kloete

Your great opinion piece reminds me of a quote that I was told is attributed to President Harry S. Truman, where stated in response to the "Give em Heck Harry" slogan that "I don't give people heck, I just tell them the truth, and to them it sometimes is heck"! A lot of truth in your writing, and what matters most is the response. Thanks!

Larry Langteau

Ramon--
Excellent article.
I guess baggage is baggage, even in a church setting.
Larry Langteau

Joohn Edwards

Ramon, I think your article is right on. I just recently left a church over a legalistic opinion I didn't want to engage in. A number of things led me to this decision after attending this church for over five years. Not your 20, but time spent in a fellowship in music and volunteering as a sound tech.

I have been a Youth Pastor, years ago, one thing I know today, is that church can be and is to a large part of our Christian life, over rated. Being a Christian does not mean I have to go to church every Sunday. I agree with not forsaking the fellowship of my brothers, and I don't, but we do not have to go as much as we think we do.

Churches have flaws, mainly because we're in them. We have flaws too because we think our way of thinking is better then another Christian church down the road, when in fact we do not. Its just that our religion (we think) is better then theirs so we must congregate by ourselves, away from every body else.

The Tower of Babble is a live and well in the churches of America. One language is spoken here, where in another church its not. But, we say we all read from the same word. Apparently we don't.

The stress (in my opinion) of Pastors who have served like Dr. Presson has is charged by the guilt of not producing counts laid on them from a churches Board of Directors, and or Elders. In actuality, none of these groups have anything to say about numbers; that's the Holy Spirits job. The Board if Directors are to clean the tables of the church and the rest-rooms, while the Elders help advise the Sr. Pastor of issues that need their advice.

Ramon, again, your article was right on. I of course would have used more poignant words to describe the reason why our churches have Staff infections, and to get the word out, that church does not begin until Monday people, Monday!

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