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FIRST PERSON: Grace for a terminated pastor

KENTUCKY (BP) — I was in the first year of my first pastorate when things unraveled. I had experienced a few rough patches in previous ministry roles, but nothing to kill my dreams and make me question my calling. I was familiar with stories of petty pastoral terminations and “difficult deacons,” but I was convinced that it wouldn’t happen to me, at least not at this church. A phone call changed all of that.

I was out of town performing a friend’s wedding when a man from my church called very troubled about an issue. “Are you aware that there is a man in leadership at our church that has been sexually abusing his stepdaughter for 16 years?” he asked. I was shocked at the question and informed him that I knew nothing about it.

Evidently, the long kept secret had been shared by the victim in a college essay about what sexual abuse had done to her. The man calling me had somehow learned of this essay and had begun his own investigation. He told me that he expected me to accompany him to the police station upon my return home to make a report. I shared with my deacons what I had been told and later told the police. My deacons told me to “leave it alone” and the police said, “We will look into it.”

As quickly as I could, I met with the alleged perpetrator, his wife and a deacon. I shared with them what I had been told and that I hoped this was just some gross misunderstanding. The wife spoke up and said, “It’s true and if you want to know why I’ve stayed with him, I don’t know.” After a few moments of being speechless, I informed them of the need for thorough repentance and that he would have to step down from his leadership roles at the very least. I also stated that I was going to do everything I could to get their family help, particularly their daughter.

I updated the police, and though they had opened an investigation, there was nothing they could do because the daughter was now an adult and wouldn’t press charges. I updated the deacons, but they persisted in their position that I should “leave it alone.” Eventually, the deacons told me that I was on “thin ice” and that I would likely be the one getting voted out.

Shortly after these events unfolded, I arrived at church one Sunday to find the perpetrator carrying out his leadership roles and acting like nothing had happened. I confronted him with my dad as a witness (my dad was attending our church) and the man became combative, which led to an altercation between him and my dad. We all went into a meeting with the deacons, where the deacon chairman said I was fired and told me to get out.

A business meeting followed the next week and I walked into a firestorm. The abuser had visited members and convinced them of his innocence. They had all turned against me, save a couple of families, and were hurling insults. Even after the daughter who had been victimized testified against her dad, he was only voted out of leadership by two votes. Then a motion was made to fire me. The motion was tabled and I resigned the following week. I was in shock.

Adding insult to injury, I was blacklisted in my association for being one of those “discipline people” and “church destroyers.” I couldn’t find a ministry position to save my life. I worked construction and then eventually in the coal mines to provide for my family. The more time passed, the more disillusioned I got. I eventually decided that I couldn’t make it in the ministry and quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to anyway.

As a last resort, I emailed one of my seminary professors, Hershael York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. I shared my story and asked for advice. Amazingly, he responded with encouragement and eventually invited me to do an internship under him at his church in partnership with the North American Mission Board. The time I spent with him and the amazing people of Buck Run was one of the greatest and most restorative seasons of my life. For nearly a year, I lived in the midst of a pastor who deeply loved his people and a people who deeply loved their pastor. It changed me.

Eventually I found a pastorate, where I have now served for 16 months. A text message I sent to Dr. York shortly after assuming this position remains true: “I’ve fallen in love with pastoring all over again.” Incredibly, I wouldn’t trade my experience if I could. God has graciously restored all that was lost and more. He revealed things to me about Himself that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. The final words of the famous poem by Martha Snell Nicholson have proven true: “Though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore, as long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more. I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace, He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.”
Matthew Fowler is a pastor in Kentucky. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Matthew Fowler