By Michael C. Mack and Jim Nieman
It was intended as a feel-good story for the October 2017 issue. Managing editor Jim Nieman reported on a son turning his life around, through God’s grace, and returning to his hometown to minister to those who are “down on their luck.”
It was a story with a stern warning and a storybook ending.
And then everything utterly collapsed.
The preacher’s son who had battled years of addiction to opiates during and immediately after high school, and then managed to turn his life around and graduate from Christian college and return to his hometown to lead a ministry to the homeless and addicted, relapsed and lost his job. He reentered a residential program that had helped him once before.
And then his father, a senior minister of a large church in the same small Midwestern city, and his mother, also a minister with that church, were dismissed from their positions.
The same church leaders who had once stood behind the minister and his family, wayward son included, and who had rejoiced when the son seemed to break the bonds of addiction—and even helped pay for his college—decided after the son’s relapse that enough was enough.
The son was left struggling to regain control over his life. The parents were left looking for ministry positions with retirement only a couple of years away. And the church was left looking for a new preacher and children’s minister.
We never published the story, but have decided to share it now—in this issue about dealing with conflict, division, and failure in ministry—because we believe church leaders can learn from, or at least be given the opportunity to think through, these issues.
It’s important to say up-front that we do not condemn the church or its elders, the ministry parents, or the son. We all love uplifting stories, but not every chapter of life is uplifting. People are human and people fail. Churches must make tough decisions.
That’s why we’re not naming the ministers or ministries in this article. We could—perhaps we should—but it just doesn’t seem fair. No one wants to be memorialized in perhaps their lowest moment.
We write this, really, to highlight two things, both of them rather pointed and poignant.
Addiction and Heartbreak in Ministry Are Real
In his short time leading the ministry, the son was building relationships throughout the town. In fact, the town’s churches and the underfunded downtown ministry were beginning to work together. They seemed to be developing a relationship that could serve as a model for other towns.
“We know we need resources, but [we are] a resource too,” the son told us back in July 2017. “Everyone knows someone who is struggling.” As an example, he mentioned the elder of a church in town who had called to ask him to counsel his son, who had overdosed.
“People come here who would never come to a church otherwise,” the son said. “These people are going through some of the roughest times of their lives.” A jobs program, Celebrate Recovery, and a food pantry were among the services the son was helping to coordinate.
Even in those good times last summer, the recovering addict’s parents were mostly interested in spotlighting one thing—a ministry void, as they saw it, among Restoration Movement churches and agencies.
“We went through hell for about five years when he was addicted to heroin. He would come in the door at night and we didn’t know him,” the father told us back in July.
The parents looked for help among our fellowship of churches, but couldn’t find any. “We did not know one person to call,” the father said. Our churches and ministries still seem to want to ignore the problem of substance abuse and addiction instead of addressing it, he said.
“It’s an epidemic,” the father said, speaking specifically of heroin abuse, “but our brotherhood just wants to sweep it under the rug. Satan is killing a generation with drugs.”
Does help for the addicted, and/or the families of the addicted, exist within our fellowship of churches? (Seriously, we would like to know. The parents still would like to know.)
And if no such ministry exists among our churches, what should be done about that?
(Help for this family ultimately came from Adult and Teen Challenge USA, a Christ-centered, faith-based program for people struggling with life-controlling problems such as substance abuse. The Assemblies of God helped start the organization in 1960. The son reentered the program that helped him once before.)
We Must Make Tough Choices in Ministry
This article, we emphasize again, is not intended to condemn the church’s firing of this ministry couple—the parents of the boy struggling with addiction—after their decade-plus of service. It’s possible other factors were involved.
But this situation does raise some questions we would do well to consider.
How many times should we extend grace? How many times should a church extend grace?
The church leaders stood with this family during their first trial with addiction several years ago. Back in July, when we conducted the first interviews for this article, the father—who was senior pastor at the time—called it “the most nonjudgmental church in America.”
Months later, after the son’s relapse, the father said the church’s leaders “decided that was too much.”
The parents have chosen to hang with their son through his relapse into addiction. We would expect that, and we should applaud that. God, after all, willingly forgives us when we—every one of us—fall prey to our various sinful addictions time and again.
But a church, admittedly, is in a different position. It must weigh many factors. It must consider all of the other souls who attend the church. It must factor in the church’s reputation in the community. It must weigh whether the minister’s ability to lead has been compromised. A church feels pressure to continue moving forward.
As Christians, we love turnaround stories. They capture the heart of the gospel. And often those testimonies conclude with the storybook ending of “and they lived happily ever after.” Yet, the reality is that people sometimes fall back into bad behavior. We live, after all, in a fallen world full of spiritual battle.
So, we must consider even more questions: How does the church live in this tension? How do we extend grace and yet stand firm in truth? How far will we go and how often will we offer real restoration? How do we love imperfect people and yet allow for natural consequences of sin?
These are tough questions—questions worth thinking about, praying over, and dicussing.
Several of the articles this month can help you consider how to approach these questions. You’ll read about other true stories of how God uses broken people and churches to carry out his mission (“Our Heavenly Father’s Favorite Thing,” by Ken Idleman and “When the Church Splits: Hope After the Loss,” by Jessie Clemence). You’ll also find practical advice on these issues from Bob Russell, Shawn McMullen, Jerry Harris, and Walt Wilcoxson. Our regular columnists provide guidance and encouragement as well.
A few days ago, we closed this article this way: “There are no winners in this story—not yet. That is sad . . . but that is life, and life is hard.”
But a new ending is being written.
The senior minister wrote today to say a congregation in his state had just voted to hire him as their lead pastor. His service with them will begin about the time this issue is printed.
The son, meanwhile, has completed a restoration program at an out-of-state Adult and Teen Challenge facility and is working at a church in that area in addiction recovery.
“God is good!” the father wrote, while requesting prayers for his son’s “continued sobriety and faithfulness.”
The church where the mother and father served for many years also recently hired a new senior pastor. We rejoice with them, as well.
It isn’t the story we set out to write. For everyone, it seems, it’s a story that is still being written. But we’re glad this “storybook” is trending toward a happy ending.
Michael C. Mack serves as editor of Christian Standard, while Jim Nieman serves as managing editor.