The Good Fruit

After working with this group of five teenagers for a few week, two more asked to join the group. They weren’t enticed with milkshakes made from hamburgers and french fries, loud music, or corny games. In the words of one of the new participants, “I just want something real.” And that’s what they got. We talked about the “taboo” issues in the church, from creationism to immigration.

When it came to creationism, kids in that group believed everything on the spectrum. I still remember the heated debate about what the Bible says and what science proves. Eventually, they asked for my thoughts and I pointed them to John 2:1-11. At first, they questioned how Jesus turning water into wine had anything to do with the creation of the world. But, I told them to look deeper. I told them to notice what KIND of wine Jesus turned the water into.

It was the “choice wine,” the good stuff. Not the cheap wine made from a hodgepodge of discarded fruit that found its way to the supermarket shelves with a mass produced twist off cap. This was wine that tasted like it came from the most exquisite grapes, kept in barrels for years… aged to perfection. But, created at the snap of a finger. I remember watching the teens as the lightbulbs started to go off in their minds. If Jesus could create wine with age built into it, couldn’t he create the earth with age built into it as well. I mean, He is God, right?

These teens were learning to see the Word in a new light. They were learning to NOT skip over the passages they disagreed with, but to push into them. I taught them to expose the tensions they find in scripture, to wrestle through what culture tells us is truth and what the Lord says is true. And some of that was uncomfortable.

Then there was our monthly Bible Study and breakfast when we read through the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). At the time, the Syrian refugee crisis was all over the news because there was talk of no longer allowing refugees from certain countries (of the Muslim faith) into the US. I already knew some of the teens had strong feelings on this subject, on both sides of the issue. So, I invited a young women to the group who actually worked with some of these refugees when she lived in Greece.

After reading the Good Samaritan, I simply put down my Bible and said, “Okay, given that passage, what should our response be to the Syrian refugee crisis?” Some were quick to say things like, “We can’t let terrorists in our country!” My response, “Awesome, show me where you see that in the passage.”

Silence.

I asked them if they had ever spoken to a Syrian refugee. The answer was no. At that point, I introduced them to Emily and asked her to tell them about her experiences. She told them about seeing families leave everything behind, fleeing on a black, inflatable raft, overflowing with so many people that collapse was more than possible. It was probable. She talked about people living in fenced in areas for months at a time, children with little to do…. some of them without parents to take care of them. She talked of the friends she made, the faces she would never forget. And, then I asked my question again: “Given that passage, what should our response be to the Syrian refugee crisis?”

Silence.

I wasn’t looking for these kids to come up with an answer to our immigration problem. Paid professionals can’t even do that. But, I was asking them to look at the situation and filter it through nothing else but the Word of God, as followers of Jesus Christ. I told them that sometimes we’re tempted to look at these issues through a national identity (as Americans) and not a kingdom identity (as Christians). (Side note: I understand the arguments for the former, but if you NEVER allow the latter to enter into your thought process, you’re missing the point. And for the record… I think the latter should PERMEATE and dictate our thought process as followers of Jesus.)

This is what our group was about. We looked passed geographical barriers in our own communities. We tried to push back against our tendencies to look at things as a Republican or Democrat. We wrestled through the passages of scripture that made us uncomfortable. We did it together… and the number of teens in the group grew. (And no Happy Meal Milkshake was even necessary.)

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

These next several blog posts will cover the next year of our lives. As of this moment, there are only a handful of people who know about the events of that year, those who walked through it with us and those we trusted enough to share our pain, frustration, and anger. I can count those people on my two hands. There are many reasons why we haven’t talked about it, but mainly for unity. So why share it now?

Because as hard as it is for me to fathom, my story is not an isolated event. Versions of my story are being lived out… at this very moment… in churches across this country. Stories FAR worse than mine. As far as my story goes, I’m sure there are two different versions of this narrative. I can only share mine, but I can also verify my side of the story with witnesses, emails, and Facebook messages. Something I’ve already been forced to do because some of this story, quite honestly, is hard to believe. I’m sharing it now because years have passed, perspective has been gained, and forgiveness has taken place. BUT, also because truth is important, accountability (ESPECIALLY in leadership) is imperative, and the abuse of authority in the American Church must come to an end.

But, before we get to the BAD and the UGLY, I want to shine an enormous light on the GOOD. As our first year was coming to an end, we were approached by the youth pastor about our commitment for the upcoming year. I was honest and told him that I felt my gift for discipleship wasn’t being used and that if I was to continue serving in the ministry, I needed to be with a group of kids who took their faith seriously and wanted to really dig in. I believe we best serve our youth by encouraging them to use their gifts to lead others. I made a simple proposal: Find a group of high schoolers who had an interest in being discipled, a willingness to invest in middle schoolers, and a desire to be stretched in their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus (aka… there’s more to being a Christian than living a moral life and going to church on Sunday.)

The youth pastor agreed to my proposal, offering me the freedom to mold these teens into leaders. Without going into too much detail, my method was similar to the one I used in discipling young women. I implemented a weekly and monthly plan. Every week, these high schoolers….I started out with five…. would be in charge of the games and worship for the middle school youth group. As the pastor began teaching the lesson, the high schoolers would come hang out with me for their lesson.

We started out talking about doubt, specifically where they were doubting God. We talked about sin and I had them find scriptures to combat those sins. I made scripture memory cards (from the verses they picked out) and we memorized them as a group. We talked about prayer and tithing. I taught about the Holy Spirit and gave them my frozen orange juice concentrate comparison. (We are the water. The frozen orange juice concentrate is the Holy Spirit. In order for what comes out of us to be of the Lord… the Spirit needs to be stirred in us. How is the Holy Spirit stirred: reading the Word, praying, community, etc. It’s not a perfect analogy, but few are.)

Then once a month, we met for breakfast, Bible study, and service in the city. (This is important to note: These kids were going to church in one of the wealthiest towns in the state of Maine, and I was taking them into inner city Portland.) We did prayer walks in the city. We gave away breakfast sandwiches to the homeless. We walked around with coffee and met people these kids will never forget. (Like that time we had a long conversation with a stripper. That night, when I walked into youth group, one dad said, in front of a whole group of kids, “So, I heard you introduced my kid to a stripper today.” I wish you could have seen all the jaws of those kids drop at once. Best. Reaction. Ever. Thankfully, that parent appreciated the experience for his son.)

Thankfully, all of the parents appreciated those experiences. There was only one person who didn’t: the youth pastor.

Youth Ministry Mirrors the American Church

When I switched my degree program in seminary, I was right in the middle of my two year tenure of youth ministry at this new church. The first year was exactly what I expected: a ministry primarily focused on a weekly event. If you broke that event down into percentages it would go something like this: 60% games, 30% music and message, 10% small group discussion… which had a tendency to stray WAY off topic no matter how hard we tried.

At the end of the day, here are my takeaways from that first year: #1 I was nothing more than a babysitter and that was TOTALLY ON ME. We had sleepovers and events outside of church, which went far in growing deeper friendships amongst the kids, but did little, if anything, to help them grow closer to the Lord. My relationship with them was superficial. To them, I was Sydney’s mom and I let it end there. I dropped the ball and I own that. #2 Fun and games have a place, but it should not take up the majority of our time together and it should NEVER make you throw up. NOT. EVER. (I could tell you about the contest where we put Happy Meals in a blender to make a “milkshake” and then had the kids drink them. You might be dry-heaving right now. I cleaned up so much vomit that night… and none of it from my own kids.) #3 and probably most important… a lot of these kids see the hypocrisy in the church and in their own families. And I’m not talking about perfection here. None of these kids expect their parents to be perfect. But, they saw inconsistencies in how their parents (and others) acted at home and how they acted outside of the home… especially at church.

I could tell you about the kid who said he only got baptized because he was tired of his parents telling him he’s going to be in hell, and not with his family, if he doesn’t. (That one took the air out of my lungs. I wept in my car on the way home and still think about it today.) Or the kids who were counting down the days to graduation so they didn’t have to go to church anymore. (Studies show that upward to 85% of teens walk away from the church after leaving high school. Several of the ones I met, walked away before then. They were just buying their time.) Or the kids who were raised in the church and knew every “right” answer to say, but were either afraid of their own shadow (and everything in the world) OR living a double life… maybe modeling their parents‘ behavior.

I began thinking about my own kids, wondering what category they would fall into. (The fact that I’m even writing this makes me nauseous.) Are they just going through the motions of “church”? Were we inadvertently teaching them to be American church goers and not kingdom-minded Christ followers? And PLEASE hear me out on this… it had nothing to do with “youth ministry” because my kids had NEVER been involved with it up to this point. It had to do with the culture of church as a whole. But, I was beginning to see that certain youth ministry programs were underscoring the bigger problem in the church.

At the end of my time in seminary, I had a cumulative research assignment required for graduation. I decided to focus on the future of youth ministry in America. During this process, I learned the contemporary, mainstream youth group model used by many churches today was born from a program called Son City, created by Bill Hybels in the early 1970s, and was built on the idea of STUDENT leadership. In the beginning, Mark Senter explains, “The message Bill Hybels preached was hard-sell Christianity done in a manner that would offend teenagers only with the gospel of Jesus Christ, never with the cultural encumbrances of their fundamentalist backgrounds at Camp Awana.” Senter’s words, not mine. There were no Happy Meal milkshakes, and guess what, it doubled in size in one year. It was built on uncompromising truth and a commitment to raise up a generation of leaders.

However, with the influx of teens and the inability to cultivate leaders fast enough, they decided to change the model… and thus compromised the integrity of the program. Student leaders were replaced with young adults. The youth group continued to grow, but at what cost? The social dynamics that once allowed this youth ministry to flourish were gone. Just so we’re clear, when they removed the potential for teens to become leaders, where responsibility, accountability, and growth were requisite, something changed. In other words… WHEN THEY STOPPED MAKING DISCIPLES, something changed.

Does that sound familiar? I look at the American church as a whole today and see this exact thing. We aren’t growing the church, per se. Yes, some churches are growing…. but not because we’re evangelizing the lost. A lot of those churches are growing because they are gaining members from other churches. (Take a look at the stats on churches closing their doors over the past 30 years. There are some interesting number we should be looking at.) Again, this isn’t true of all churches. We’re talking trends, mostly within the “mega-church” movement.

People are quick to say that Christianity is on the rise because there are more Christians today than 50 years ago. Well… that might technically be true. There are more Christians today because we have more people populating the world today. But statistically speaking, Christianity is losing ground to other religions… or to the choice of NO religion. And I believe it’s because we’re not doing the work Jesus called us to: TO MAKE DISCIPLES.

Mark Senter, When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), xiv

Ibid., 270.

Don’t Complain About the Problem Unless You’re Working Toward the Solution

Choosing a church proves difficult when you have trust issues WITH the church. I want to address two points specifically pertaining to our situation: #1 We’re against church hopping. This isn’t a post about the multitude of variables people consider when deciding on a church (many of which can be self-centered and self-serving). However, given our current situation, we needed a church that was small and not program driven. Right or wrong… that’s the truth. #2 Given our track record with leadership, we trusted people about as far as we could throw them. (Translation: We trusted no one.) We’re STILL working on that one.

Back to the story…

Now entering high school, our oldest wanted to go to youth group, but her first experience was less than stellar. (You can read more about that here.) She had been invited to a few events at a nearby church and liked the small size of the youth group (approximately 20-30 kids). As a homeschooled kid, and having recently left our co-op, she yearned for peer connection. And as the summer came to an end, we dreaded the request we knew was coming: Can I go to youth group?

We knew it was coming so my husband suggested inviting the youth pastor and his wife over for dinner. I think I rolled my eyes almost immediately. (It was a great idea, actually. Like I said, I was skeptical about everything and everyone related to church.) But, they took us up on our offer and came over for dinner.

I didn’t start interrogating him immediately upon his arrival. I’m astute enough with pleasantries to navigate my way around small talk… but, honestly, I can’t do it very long. I don’t do shallow, surface level stuff very well. I cut to the chase by the time dinner hit the table. In my forward, to-the-point style, stated: I’m not a fan of the ‘fun and games’ approach to youth ministry, and I’d rather not waste my kids’ time teaching them something I don’t find to be biblical. (Like I said, I can be pretty rude direct.)

I feel like this is a good place to tell you WHY I’m not a fan of the mainstream youth ministry model. At the end of the day, I feel like many churches succumb to some perceived pressure to compete with para-church organizations like Young Life. (I actually like the Young Life model. It’s a place, both literally and metaphorically, where teens are introduced to Jesus with no expectations. It’s non-threatening. Non-committal. It’s fun. (And that last point becomes the sticking point for most youth groups.) But, what I admire most is the fact that Young Life offers opportunities for teens to dig deeper in their faith. They have in-depth bible studies and opportunities for one-on-one discipleship. And look, I KNOW there are churches out there doing this. My point is that a lot of them aren’t. My larger point: The statistic has pretty much been the same for years… roughly 85% of church-going teens walk away from their “faith” when they leave high school. But the truth is… many of them walked away long before leaving home. Whatever we’re doing in our youth groups isn’t working. (And I believe it’s actually contributing to the problem!)

As I explained my feeling and opinions at the dinner table, the youth pastor had one simple response, a challenge if you will. He wanted us to become volunteers in the youth ministry. Um…. I’m sorry, what?!?! He then went on to tell me they specifically needed help with the middle school students. Um… I’m sorry, WHAT?!?! Working with pre-pubescent teens is my worst nightmare. I had a quick, absolute ‘NO’ which was met with words usually coming out of MY mouth: You can’t complain about the problem unless you’re working toward the solution.

And I really can’t argue with that logic.

Severing Ties

After officially leaving the church… well, it wasn’t REALLY official. We weren’t “members” or anything like that. (Confession: At this point in life, we were anti- church membership. But that’s for another post.) I was still leading the discipleship group for young women as a partnership with our old church.

The church saw the growth, both in the size of the actual group and the spiritual formation of the members. In a meeting with leadership, I was asked to increase the size in an effort to accommodate the growing interest. I was hesitant… just kidding, I was totally, 100% against it and voiced my concerns. I was also super sensitive to the fact that I was truly at their mercy. They could shut down the group at any time and I didn’t want that to happen. (A lot of people have questioned this decision. I mean, why not continue the group on my own, without the oversight of the church. Well, despite popular opinion, I actually value authority and understand the importance of accountability. It’s super easy to go off the rails, with relationships, or teaching, when you don’t have that layer of supervision and protection.) But, in this particular case, submitting to their request was a train wreck waiting to happen.

Why? Well, for two reasons, I think. For one, the past two years had been focused on building relationships and trust within the existing group. We spent two years going through the book of Romans. The expectations were solidified. Our time together centered around teaching first, fellowship second. I was able to meet with these ladies, outside of group, one-on-one, for deeper individual discipleship. There was a rhythm and trust within the group and adding so many new people into the mix would disrupt the balance. (The group went from 12 to 23 overnight.)

Second, some of the newcomers had seen the fruit of the group and wanted to experience that same transformation. But, they didn’t want to put forth the effort needed for that transformation to take place. (Please note: I said SOME. Many of these newcomers were ready to meet those expectations, but, like my Kindergarten teacher used to say, “It only takes a few bad students to ruin it for everyone.”) Also, several of them saw the group as a social gathering/counseling session. (There is a place for that… but not with me. Not my gifting. I don’t really do the social thing very well.)

I was able to recruit some other “seasoned” women to help me facilitate the groups. (I would teach and then we would break into groups for discussion.) And I tried to couple up the young women for weekly accountability and prayer with one another, but this was equally disastrous. This was TOTALLY my fault. It went against my instinct of letting people come together organically. People-pleasing usually goes against my best instincts… and I don’t do that anymore either.

I’ll speak in generalities here. A few takeaways: I began to see a trend. Those women who wanted accountability and hard truth would seek out my advice. Those who wanted more grace would seek the advice of another leader. (Here’s the thing, this other leader is AMAZING! She single-handedly has taught me more about the grace of Jesus than any other person on the planet. We often joke, she is the yen to my yang. And both truth AND grace are integral components to walking out our faith. BUT, sometimes we want to make a crutch out of grace when we’ve been convicted of sin. (Grace is an unmerited gift, and, in my opinion, continuing to sin with the expectation of that gift is dangerous.) Sometimes we know the choices we’re making are driven by flesh and not by righteousness and we make them anyway. Sometimes we avoid people who call us out on it, which is fine. (Not really) BUT, a pre-requisite of the group was accountability. Some of those young ladies didn’t like that pre-requisite. (But, then again, a lot people in the church today don’t seem to like it either. So, I guess it’s par for the course.)

In the end, my group became a program and I don’t do the program thing very well. People have expectations and the one thing I’ve learned in all of this… the Lord doesn’t really take your expectations into consideration a lot of time. I, as well as the group, limped along that year, but as we became more invested in our new church, my time with the group came to an end. (Actually, I was given an ultimatum… which should have been my first clue that the season we were about to enter into was going to be BAD.)

Commitment and Allegiances

Along this journey the Lord has revealed flaws in my character. (I assure you, this most definitely isn’t a blog about how I’m right and have all the answers. I don’t… not even close.) I’m opinionated and incredibly stubborn. I’ve had more than a few pastors tell me I have a problem submitting to authority. But, in the wise words of my husband, “She only has a problem submitting to those who abuse their authority.” (Yes, my husband, while not perfect, is AMAZINGLY wonderful.)

I’ve been thankful to come across a few really great pastors over the years and I’m going to share my love for one of them today, because the Lord has used him to humble me. It’s quite beautiful actually, because his heart has always come from a place of love, not control…. from a willingness to learn, not a fear of perceived weakness. Years ago I judged this man unfairly. My theology doesn’t align with his on a few matters… you know, like the topic of pre/a/post-millennialism… and in my arrogance I distanced myself. Seriously, nothing makes you more like a Pharisee than theological arrogance. (I’m not talking about false teaching here, so don’t bother drafting the email.)

One Christmas, the Lord convicted me of my sin toward him, so I reached out to apologize. I remember sitting in front of my Christmas tree, only the soft glow of the white lights illuminating the room. I stumbled through the first few minutes of the conversation. Seriously, I’m not sure if there’s anything more uncomfortable than apologizing to someone you hardly know, about something they have absolutely no clue you did. Some might be asking, “Why bother?” Great question…. that I don’t have an answer for except to say that the Lord placed it on my heart. Reason enough.

I remember asking for his forgiveness and him willingly giving it. His graciousness left a lasting impression on me. To this day, I look back with fondness on how approachable he has always been, even in hard situations. One of those situations was transitioning to a new church. At this point in our journey, we were attending “church” with another body of believers on Sunday and their youth pastor was interested in Jamie and I helping with the youth group, but we were still serving our home church during the week through small groups, outreach, and women’s ministry.

I remember asking this pastor how open leadership would be to our family being active at both churches. I mean, statistically speaking, the ‘ole saying goes: 20% of the people do 80% of the work. We were willing to be a part of that 20% at both places. (We were willing to financially support both as well.) At first, he was completely open to the idea and this was such a huge relief. So much of our lives had been built around that community of faith. And we had also seen so many people leave on bad terms, only to be ostracized. (Confession: That should have been the first red flag MANY years ago.)

But, after talking it over with the rest of leadership, it was decided that our family needed to “not split allegiances.” His words, not mine. (But, knowing him, I’d bet good money… but, not really, because I was raised Southern Baptist… that they weren’t his words either.) When I asked, “Allegiance to what?” he began talking in circles about people being confused and who’s authority I would fall under. There were no hard feelings in the exchange and I can say with complete honesty that every time I see him, my joy is genuine. (Side note… My joy is always genuine, I just said this because there have been several occasions when we run into people I’m not particularly thrilled to see. You know those people. I don’t avoid them, but I don’t pretend to like them, either. I’m not a “fake-it-to-you-make-it” person. I’m praying for growth in this area and He is growing me. (But it’s usually by putting those people in my path. It’s super annoying.)

I feel like so much of our church environment today is molded by cultural traditions and mores… whether it’s catchy slogans for a sermon series, cute shirts that brand and advertise a particular church, or worship services with light shows and larger-than-life video screens projecting images of rock concerts (where congregations are more spectators than participants). I feel like there’s more emphasis on WHERE we worship than WHO we worship. As a result, sometimes our allegiance to the WHO gets lost on the WHERE.

At one point, our home church decided to do something new. Twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, they would take an offering that would be given to an organization in the community. (For the record, I think this is a great idea and this church has contributed greatly to the community through this giving.) But, that first year, I was puzzled as to why they were giving the money to our local children’s hospital instead of a local Christian organization that was struggling to make their budget that month.

I was told by one of the elders it was all about branding. For. Real. His words, not mine. He went on to say that leadership wanted the church to be known for giving “BIG” to the city…. so, I guess this explains the press releases that went out. (So much for not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing…. said with an exaggerated eye roll and sarcastic smirk, just in case you were wondering.) I was also told they were targeting the hospital in hopes of getting more people, with deeper pockets, to our WHERE… I mean church. (This is also FOR REAL people. The conversations that go on behind closed doors among church leadership are some of the most flesh driven I’ve ever witnessed. And they’re usually followed with some “Christian-sanitized” excuse about the end justifying the means. I’m also sure that will go over really well with Jesus when we meet him face to face.)

I bring this all up for one purpose: Church isn’t about one community over another. It’s not about branding ourselves in a way that stands out from all the other churches in town. WE’RE NOT SUPPOSE TO STAND OUT AT ALL… EXCEPT IN OUR LOVE TO THE LORD AND TO ONE ANOTHER. It’s about all of us working together. My allegiance is to Jesus. Period. And I’m not saying that to get out of accountability or tithing. I’m a big proponent of both. (And I TOTALLY understand the argument for the local church, but honestly, I don’t know too many people who actually go to the church within the closest proximity of their home.) We’ve made church about preference. We’ve made it into something it’s not. Our family was willing to be committed to both, because we saw a need at both where our gifts could be used. But, I guess that’s not acceptable. (FYI… the other church in the equation was fine with the dual church scenario, so there was hope.) So just like that, we left. But, there was still one string that needed to be severed.

Our First Step into the Darkness

There’s no easy way to start this post. In, quite literally, the time it took to snap our fingers, our lives completely changed. Looking back, it was 100% a spiritual attack. (And this is coming from a girl raised in the Southern Baptist Church. I don’t throw around phrases like “spiritual attack” flippantly!) From the time it took to load up our U-Haul and unload it at our new house, our lives were turned upside down. I can tell you about the time the kids on our street would gather together and chant, “Jesus sucks!” whenever they saw our family. Or, about the young man in our neighborhood who would writhe on the floor, covering his ears, when we’d start to sing worship music. But, instead, I’m going to tell you about how our oldest son entered into a storm cloud of depression that consumed our family for years.

Like a light switch, his personality completely changed. We chalked it up to hormones because he was entering that phase of life, but it was more than that. There was no reprieve from the darkness. He was consumed with every bad thought that entered his mind and the more he tried to push it away, the worse it became. The guilt was too much and eventually the tears and helplessness overtook his sweet soul. I prayed and fasted, searched the scriptures, nothing was elevating the oppression and we became desperate.

At this point, we hadn’t been back to a Sunday morning service at our church for about 5 weeks. I needed space to breathe because my attitude and heart were toxic. I knew it. That’s what made all of this so painfully difficult. I didn’t trust leadership in the church for a multitude of reasons and if I couldn’t trust them with teaching my family truth, how was I going to be able to trust them to lead us through this. After living through the darkest week of my life… up to this point… I called the two people I knew would be honest, no matter what. They are STILL the people I call, despite moving to Arkansas a billion years ago, whenever we need advice and trusted discernment.

After explaining the situation with our son, they told us we needed to call our pastor. They assured us that despite our current situation, he loved us and that he and his wife were the closest thing to family we had. And she was right. What many people don’t know is that in our will, we entrusted two couples with the responsibility of raising our four children if something should ever happen to us. The first was this couple in Arkansas and the other was our pastor and his wife. We considered them family. We spent holidays with them; they watched our kids when we went to the hospital. They were family… and that’s what made this all the more difficult. But, I knew she was right and humbled myself to ask for help.

I remember the call like it was yesterday. I remember calling while I was in the car, stopped at a stoplight in front of the grocery store by our house. I remember the receptionist, a dear friend, picking up the phone and I remember praying in my head that she wouldn’t put me straight to voicemail. I remember pleading with God that our pastor would actually take the call when he knew it was me on the other line. I remember the rush of adrenaline I felt when I heard his voice on the other end of the phone. I began telling him about our son… how in less than 24 hours his personality had completely changed, how his mind was consumed with thoughts he couldn’t escape, how I would hold him as he cried, pleading with me to help him and unable to do anything that offered true, lasting comfort. I remember crying uncontrollably, desperate for any bit of hope and direction our pastor could offer. But, that was the last thing I received.

By the time I finished explaining everything, my car was safely parked back in the driveway. I turned off the ignition and sat expectantly for wise counsel. This was, by the way, a man who had studied biblical counseling in college, he would undoubtedly know how to walk us through this darkness. I was expecting him to offer us a time to come in for a conversation and to pray. I was expecting him to ask how my son was doing. I was expecting for compassion and a shepherding heart. What I actually received fell inexplicably short of those expectations.

There was a short pause after I stopped speaking. I still remember twisting my car keys through the ring claps, gripping them so tightly my finger tips were turning white and began to ache. The soft sound of hiccups, proof of the previous deluge of tears, interrupted by one disjointed comment, “Well, Deirdre. I don’t know what to tell you… that’s tough.” I’ll spare you the remaining dialogue. (I almost remember it verbatim. I have a CRAZY memory, especially when it comes to moments that leave an indelible scar on my life.) But, long story short, our pastor, a trained counselor, advised us to visit the Focus On the Family website to find a counseling referral for our son. PLEASE, LET THAT SINK IN. There was no offer to meet with our son, or with us. There was no offer to personally refer us to someone he trusted. There was no offer to pray with us. We were simply advised to find a referral on a website. The end. And he NEVER called to check up on us. Not once.

I remember hanging up the phone, unable to grasp what just happened. It took a few minutes, but the anger finally began to boil in my blood. I remember being able to almost taste the adrenaline in my mouth. It was like I had been sucking on a mouthful of brand new, shiny pennies. Then this horrific sound escaped my mouth. (Only three other times has this happened in my life: when both of my parents died and at another pivotal moment about 18 months after this incident.) Looking back, I felt betrayed and abandoned by the church… at a time when I needed it the most. Our family DESPERATELY needed a shepherd, a pastor. We soon began to realize, after talking to so many others, TRUE pastors were hard to come by. Those entrusted with the spiritual shepherding of their flock were being replaced by gifted orators who could captivate an audience.

We recently saw the pervasiveness of this conundrum while traveling. Our family makes it a priority to visit different churches when we’re on the road, but making that decision can prove difficult when there’s a plethora to choose from. Interestingly enough, the BEST filter has been eliminating those who promote their pastors’ books or speaking tours on their church websites. (And PLEASE hear my heart on this: I don’t have a problem with books and speaking tours. I’ve benefited from the words of many men and women a faith through these mediums. It’s more about the culture we’ve created where pastors use their roles in the church as a stepping stone to “bigger” platforms…. especially when it comes at the cost of shepherding the flock entrusted to them.)

At this point, our family hadn’t officially left the church in question, because I had committed to leading the Women’s Bible Study for the summer and was still spear-heading the young adults ministry. But, we were transitioning to another church. I was hopeful this experience would be better… that a season of healing and restoration was upon us. It seems almost laughable now because our family was about to walk into a nightmare. But, God is SO GOOD and He most definitely used this impending season to propel us into our current mission. Be The Change Youth Initiative most certainly would NOT exist today if we hadn’t walked through those fires.