The Year I Lost My Mind

How criticism affects a pastor.

I lost my mind because I was swimming in criticism.
Pastors swim in criticism.

My hardest year in ministry was the year of the Inquisition. No, not the Spanish Inquisition. I’m not that old despite what my teenager says. It was the year that I faced the most intense criticism I’ve ever felt. It was the year I lost my mind.

I’ve had some really hard years in ministry. The year my wife battled breast cancer was draining physically, emotionally, and financially, but we had a deep sense of God’s gracious presence through it all. The year a 22-year old woman whom I had discipled was killed in a car accident was traumatic. I still struggle with that grief from time to time, but again I felt God’s presence through it all. These years were hard but nowhere near as hard as the year I felt so alone I even lost myself.

I tell the following story to illustrate two things:

  1. We need to do a better job training young pastors how to handle criticism.
  2. We need to train the church how criticizing their pastor can affect the whole church.

Please, do not be hard on any of the characters in this true story. We all make mistakes. We all operate from pain at times. Instead of focusing on the bad things that happened, learn from them and ask, “How can I prevent this from happening in my church?”

My Personal Critic

When the church voted to call me as their pastor, there were only two dissenting votes. I don’t know for certain who they were, but I have a pretty good guess. One man in particular made it very clear that he did not want me as his pastor. He disagreed with me on theology, church government, and just about everything else. He would sometimes wait to see what position I took on an issue just so he could take the opposite. He would even “correct” my word choices in my sermons.

As a young and insecure pastor, I didn’t know how to take it. I never had to work so closely with someone who disliked me so much. Every six to eight weeks he would find something else to complain about. He had a circle of friends who would listen to his complaints and who followed his lead. On occasion, he would misunderstand something in my teaching and make an accusation to one of the board members. This particular board member thought it was his job to appease the man, so he would listen to the man and his friends.

“People are saying . . .” he would start off. Then he would relate the man’s latest complaint. I tried to show this board member that he was just perpetuating gossip and that he should direct the “people” to come to me – it was necessary for me to hear it from them so there would be no confusion. The board member just continued listening and became critical himself.

After several years of this, I started to dread going to church. I just didn’t want to face the critic again. I hated the way it made me defensive and fearful. I’d heard stories of pastors who were forced out of ministry by a small minority, and I did not want that to happen to this church (or to me and my family).

I wasn’t the only one this man attacked. He had a critical spirit that he unloaded on everyone who got in his way. I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who was beginning to hide from him. People in the church were hurting, and some in the community told me they wouldn’t come to our church because he was there.

I confronted the man several times over his critical behavior. I even did it with witnesses present. For the good of the church and for my own sanity, I felt it was necessary for the board to discipline this man. So I asked them to intervene.

“I have never seen church discipline work,” responded the critical board member. That settled it in his mind and the rest of the board followed his lead. The answer was a firm “no.”

Swimming in Criticism

Six more years passed with the criticism flowing in and out like the tide. Jared Wilson once said, “Pastors swim in criticism.” I felt like I was being pounded by the waves. So I just accepted this as reality and did my best to ignore the man.

Over the years, I tried to understand why this church member was so mean to me. I looked for things we had in common. I tried to connect with him on a personal level. Every time I thought I was getting close, he unloaded a new barrage of criticism to drive me away.

By this time, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I couldn’t think clearly. My sermons were suffering. I even found it hard to pray. It felt like my soul was drying up and no one cared (except my wife). Charles Stone, in his book People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership, describes this condition:

“We now know that chronic anxiety causes what scientists call allostatic load, or wear and tear on the body. Such prolonged stress causes sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol, along with an overabundance of other hormones and neurotransmitters, can lead to these problems: impaired immunity, weight gain, greater emotional reactivity, heart problems, decreased memory and diminished brain functioning.”

Stone, Charles Kindle Location: 652

I wasn’t leading like I knew I should. I couldn’t lead like I wanted. The shame was overwhelming. I was looking for a new church but no one wants to hire an anxiety-filled pastor (and I don’t blame them).

The Review

My critical board member decided that it was time for the board to do a performance review, something they had never done in the twelve years I’d been their pastor. They got a comprehensive review form from another church. Each of the four men filled out the form and called a meeting. When I arrived, the rest of the men were already there. Clearly, they had started without me (I heard them talking as I arrived).

For the next two hours, the men took turns. Each told me one or two things they appreciated about me then told me the things they wanted me to work on. It reminded me of the time I saw some boys beat up one of the weak kids at school. I intervened to stop the school bullies but no was intervening on my behalf, so I defended myself.

I gave reasons for why I was struggling. I blamed their unreasonable expectations and expressed the pain of being stabbed in the back. It was raw and unfiltered, but I did not attack. When the meeting was over, there was no trust left in the room.

Hijacked

Two months later, my critic saw his advantage and launched a campaign to get me fired. His accusation was that nine years earlier, I had tried to drive him, his wife, and two other couples out of the church. The board launched an investigation.

For the next two months, I had to answer question after question. The board checked into the truth of the claim. By now I was in full-blown panic mode. This was a small rural church that barely paid us enough to live week-to-week. If I lost my job, I would likely lose the house too. I knew that God would care for us, but I also knew that it would be devastating to my family.

I felt like my defenses were so high that I wasn’t even myself anymore. I was saying whatever I could to make it stop. Excuses that I didn’t even believe came pouring out of my mouth even as I thought “What am I saying?” This wasn’t an attempt to lie, nor was I demon possessed, but it was like someone else had control of my actions. I was acting before I had the time to think. Daniel Goleman calls this an “Amygdala hijack”:

“The structure that plays the key role in emotional emergencies – that makes us ‘snap’– is the amygdala. . . . The brain’s crisis response heightens sensory acuity, stops complex thought, and triggers the knee-jerk, automatic response – This can have dramatic drawbacks in modern work life.”

Goleman, Daniel. Working with Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books. New York, NY. 1998. P. 74-75

I thought I was going crazy. I felt like a dog that had been repeatedly beaten and was now backed into a corner. I looked for answers as to why I was being so sensitive. Susan Cain’s book Quiet was a great help in understanding my introversion. In it, she describes a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). As I read the description, it sounded exactly like me. I began to believe that I was just a HSP. That’s why I was so defensive. That’s why criticism hurt me so much. If I could just get people to understand, maybe we could live in peace. But no one would understand.

Trauma

Months later, I found out that this wasn’t true at all. My counselor told me I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. I was experiencing the hyper-vigilance that comes from being in an extended state of heightened anxiety. I even learned that I wasn’t an extreme introvert. I was hurting and, just like a hurting animal, I was withdrawing to protect myself from further pain. I wasn’t myself because I needed to be someone else to survive. My brain was making that happen without my permission.

The board continued the enquiry. The other two couples, who had left the church years ago, denied that I was the reason they left. The truth was that I had suggested to the critic that if he couldn’t follow my leadership he might be happier somewhere else but the choice was up to him. It was a reasonable suggestion that was for the good of all involved. I truly wanted the man to be happy and to not cause so much pain for everyone else.

After weeks of trying to get the man to talk face-to-face, he finally agreed to meet with me provided his wife and the whole board were present. In front of everyone I asked him, “Have I done something to hurt you? To cause you to feel animosity toward me? Please, name it so that I can confess and ask your forgiveness.” That’s when the meeting fell apart.

“You know what you did,” said my opponent.

“No, I don’t. That’s why we’re here.” I was confused.

“You lied,” he said. When pressed about my “lie,” he wouldn’t give details. Over the course of an hour it became clear that he had taken a difference of opinion and turned it into a lie on my part. When the board tried to make him see this, he refused. Eventually, the man began to press and press for my removal. It was clear there would be no peace. He gave an ultimatum and made it clear that he would not reconcile.

The meeting ended with nothing resolved. The board, however, saw how unreasonable this man was being and said that I handled myself well in the meeting. We prayed for the man and went home. He and his wife left the church.

At our next meeting the board reprimanded me for what I did nine years earlier (I sill believe I didn’t do anything wrong). They said that the matter was resolved.

It took me two years of intense study, prayer, and some counseling to recover my sense of self. To this day, I still feel defensive whenever a board member criticizes me. It takes a minute or two of focused prayer to center my identity in Christ and let down my defenses. I don’t know if we will ever fully trust one another again, but I’m still working on it.

Peace and Unity

Shortly after this event, the church began to experience greater unity. Several of the changes I had tried to make were finally accepted. Leaders began to emerge and work together for the good of the church. In the last few years, we have been able to accomplish so much more and with greater ease than ever before. This is what pastors sometimes call “addition by subtraction.”

While I hated this time in my life, God used it to strengthen me in him. I learned to pray in a different way. I learned the importance of self-care for the sake of ministry. Most importantly, I learned how to find my identity, my security, and my hope in Christ alone. I learned that peace comes from being a child of God in the presence of God.

I’m better off now than I was before. God used this trial to toughen my hide, but I still have some painful scars. Healing takes a long time. Should I thank God for the critic? No, his actions caused too much damage in the church. I do thank God for taking the destructive purposes of one man and using them for my good. God has a way of doing that, doesn’t he?

What I did wrong:

  • I didn’t have consistent patterns of self-care to keep me centered and healthy.
  • I didn’t spend enough time in prayer and reading of the Word for my own spiritual nourishment.
  • I got defensive instead of listening to my board’s critiques.
  • I didn’t trust that my board loved me and wanted my good.
  • I engaged in people-pleasing instead of living confidently in Christ.
  • I lost my sense of calling and with it my authority to lead.
  • I focused on the critic instead of focusing on the many who were supportive.

What the board did wrong:

  • They listened to the accusations of the critic without insisting he work it out with me.
  • They conducted a review without my consent or input – making themselves the judges. (Firing squad)
  • They made me come before a group instead of talking one-on-one.
  • They didn’t allow for a mutually agreed-upon review process. (Review)
  • They interrogated me before verifying the truth of the critic’s claims.
  • The deacons didn’t trust my judgment as the shepherd of the church (under Christ) to know when it was best for a sheep to find another flock.
  • They didn’t stand up for the people who were wounded in the congregation.

This was a hard lesson for everyone to learn. In some ways, we’re still learning it.

What lessons have you learned from my story?
What else did I do wrong?
How would you have responded if you were me? How about if you were the board?
What does this story tell you about how you relate to your pastor?

Thanks for listening. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Do you have a story to tell?

Stories can help churches understand the realities of pastoral ministry. They have a powerful impact. Maybe you’ve experienced conflict, burnout, or depression and God brought you through. Maybe you have a story of encouragement or leadership that would inspire others. Tell your story here and we may publish it on our site!

Please, leave a comment below. I personally read all the comments and I try to respond within a day. Or we can interact on Twitter (@PastorsSoul) or on our Facebook page.

© Sean Nemecek, 2018. All rights reserved. Request permission.


Sean Nemecek, (M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet and freelance book editor. Together, they have a 17-year-old son.


2 thoughts on “The Year I Lost My Mind

  1. Pingback: Signs Your Pastor Needs Rest — The Pastor's Soul

  2. Pingback: Why you should make your pastor take a sabbatical — The Pastor's Soul

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.