What Do We Do When We Are The Ones Who Doubt?

depress2Pastors are not to struggle in their faith. Pastors are not to doubt in their faith. Pastors are not to fail in the subject of spirituality or bottom out in the well of piety. Pastors are supposed to set the pace of spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing in their congregations – right? Yet we do struggle, we often doubt, we are capable of bottoming out, and we crash and burn – and the statistics don’t lie.  In fact, the statistics are quite staggering as it pertains to pastors.  And when we find ourselves in the midst of our own crisis, where do we turn?

My crisis centers around the spring of 2001 as I was laboring as a full-time youth pastor in the Denver suburb of Littleton, CO.  On a very typical Tuesday morning, I received a phone call from one of our elders who happened to work for a local news affiliate who told me that two people had just walked in Columbine High School with “hand grenades and shotguns.”  I raced down the street to the school that was nearly visible from my office; as I arrived on campus just moments after the two perpetrators enter the building, it was crystal clear that this day would be anything but typical.

The day itself was surreal.  The week was painful.  The month was unbearable.  The rest of the year was saturated in a fog that robbed my clarity of purpose; my confidence in hope and peace; and my satisfaction with the good, pleasing and perfect will of God.  I was thrown into a myriad of circumstances and conversations in which I was to give answers to impossible questions.  Certainly I had some finely tuned theological answers to why bad things happen to good people, and I gave them in such a rote fashion that my responses were almost easy. Yet, deep within my own spiritual cavity, I was becoming extraordinarily feeble and parched.

I often tell people that time does not need to be the enemy – there are plenty of events in one’s life that, as time unfolds, lead to growth.  It is often difficult in crisis to trust that time functions as a companion of healing. We are often wandering around in our “fogs” or “deserts” hoping and praying that the pain will cease and when it does not, time becomes the enemy.  In my case, time proved to be a healer. Eventually I would come out of my crisis fixed on my vocational calling and with a renewed sense of willingness to rest in God’s sovereignty.

Here are three particular things that happened to me during that time that perhaps could help someone else.

First, I stumbled into a mentoring relationship.  Within days of the school shooting, I found myself in one of the thousand meetings I would attend.  I entered the meeting expecting the discussion to center on helping students in crisis but quickly found myself surrounded by pastors, seminary professors, and other Christian professionals that were there strictly to assess the spiritual welfare of the youth workers.  I was humbled by their presence and grateful for their offer.  One person in particular approached me and identified himself as Rich, a senior staff person with Compassion International and a long time youth worker. He told me that he had been contacted by several individuals around the country to find me and pour into me.  Again, I was humbled and grateful.

We began to meet.  I rambled.  He listened.  I lamented.  He listened.  I doubted, questioned, yelled, wept and feared.  He listened.  Then his listening moved to speaking into my life and challenging me.  I listened.  Over time I began to hope again, I began to believe in a God ordained peace, and I began love God and others with a fresh conviction.  Even today, I am lucky to call Rich my dear friend, mentor, and trusted listener.

If you are struggling, then you need to talk with someone: in particular, someone who has NOTHING to do with your local fellowship yet who can uphold a profound biblical standard.  Perhaps this person is a professional counselor, or retired pastor in your area, or a former leader in your past that would step into this new role.  You know your area as well as anyone and it will take some discernment to find the right person but that person is out there.

Second, I became an active participant and contributor to a local network gathering of youth workers.  This group had been meeting for years but I did not think it was necessary for me.  However after April 20, 2001, I accepted their invitation to join them in fellowship and prayer.  I found myself surrounded by a host of individuals that understood me through and through, who identified with my struggles and doubts, and were willing to be equally transparent.  Two amazing things came out of those gatherings: 1) deep and long-lasting friendships were birthed and 2) we stopped being competitive as it pertained to students and churches.  Instead, collectively, we began to care for the spiritual growth of our city and we truly began to care for one another.  It came to be that the ground at those meetings was truly level and I remained in that fellowship for the next seven years while I labored in Colorado.  I am grateful for those pastors and the genuine and transparent time we shared.

I suggest that you consider joining or starting a network in your area.  I cannot guarantee that you will reap the same benefits we did. If, however, the group is truly built upon the idea of creating a “level ground” then you will benefit from it immensely.  There is something simple yet extraordinary about being in community with fellow pastors in your town: you will recognize others on the journey, you will realize you are not alone, you will learn to love and appreciate the other fellowships in the area, you will teach your congregations that your neighboring churches are to be esteemed and not gossiped, you will begin to see your town with fresh eyes (realizing you are not the only one in town thinking of creative and unique ways to live out the gospel), and you will be humbled about the prospect of pouring yourself into a fellow laborer.  If you have one – go.  If it is not “level” find another one (even if it means you drive a bit out of your way).  If you don’t have one– start one.  Find one other pastor in your town you connect with and invite them to coffee every other week for conversation and prayer.  From there, seek others to join you and celebrate who God is and what he is doing in your region.

Finally, I read the Psalms.  Perhaps this seems simple, but at least for me, it was profound.  John Calvin once commented that if he could only have one book of the bible for the rest of his life to read, it would be the Psalms since that text covered every human emotion and longing: rescue, redemption, reconciliation, hope, promise, peace, assurance, doubt, fear, pain, loneliness, anger, selfishness, hatred, love, praise, lament and the like.  When one recognizes that half the Psalms are songs of praise and the other half are songs of lament, one begins to understand how God will use his text to minister to the plethora of issues one is wrestling with – including crisis.  The Psalms became a refuge for me in the midst of my crisis. I found human writers dealing with similar issues and expressing similar feelings and this gave me hope.

The first Psalm I read after the shooting was Psalm 14.  David writes at the end, “You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.  Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!  When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!”  In these few words I came face to face with God as a refuge in the midst of crisis and David as true worshipper in the midst of God’s salvation.  Over the next few years, I was constantly drawn to this book: reading, praying, meditating, studying, lamenting, wondering, confessing, hoping, and longing to sense God as my healer and my deliverer.

Thus, my suggestion is to soak in the Psalms, let these words, these songs, these poems speak into your crisis.  Allow dedicated time to be a student of this text, be willing to go the second mile in your crisis and find yourself before God, use these guided passages to guide you, and allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through you.

In my situation, Psalm 14 assured me that God would serve as my refuge in the midst of my crisis and that it was possible in time to once again rejoice.  And in time I did rejoice.

Mike Lawrie is lead pastor at River Valley Community Church in Waverly, OH. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University (BA) and Calvin Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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