Thursday, May 19, 2022

Put It in Writing


“It doesn’t mean a thing unless it’s in writing.” I don’t remember hearing this statement before I went to work for Kenneth Woods at Bethel Life Center in1992. 

As the Music Pastor of BLC, I learned lots of people skills very quickly. The number of quick-witted, but poignant statements my pastor and boss would throw out at staff members are too many to recount. But I’m amazed at how, in just the right moment, an applicable platitude full of wisdom comes rushing back. 

Pastor Woods was a stickler for writing. He wrote well. He communicated well, especially in writing. He wasn’t one to make snap decisions just because a staff member burst into his office with an awesome idea. He was a processor as a leader…and boy did that trait get driven deep within me. 

Ministry is a very active exercise, especially on Sundays when most of the church people have gathered. Well-meaning people whom you haven’t seen in at least a week can and will come at you fast. “Hey, can you give me call this week?” “My aunt is having surgery on Thursday, can someone visit?” “I get off work tomorrow at 5:00 PM, will you give me a call at 5:05 so I can discuss something with you.” (These are the easy ones…the tough ones I’ll leave alone for the moment.). It’s okay…but the pressure to remember and make people feel prioritized is very real. Nothing feels worse than someone needing you to be there for them and you blew it off. Never intentional but deflating all the same. 

Therefore, as a staff member, I quickly learned the power of sticky notes. Remember, in 1992, no one had cell phones that texted and messaged back and forth. I didn’t even have a computer in my office at that point. 

I learned the importance of writing things down. Leaving my boss a note or memo (or sticky note) in his box was the preferred method of communication. My idea may have been awesome. I may have had the next great revelation to thrust the church forward. But if it wasn’t in writing it didn’t mean anything. 

One of my favorite written communications received from Pastor Woods usually happened during our weekly staff meetings on Monday mornings. After a couple of hours of reviewing the calendar, talking through challenges, preparing for coming ministry, a yellow sticky note would slowly make its way from his desk, through his secretary, then around the circle of chairs finally landing in my hands. (After a while, some rolled eyes and chuckles usually accompanied the note from my co-workers.) They understood that it was his usual simple note with a golf course name and tee time for that afternoon which he had already made. Remember, it didn’t mean anything until it was in writing. 

I eventually got very good at reminding others, “Please don’t hit me up with a question just before I walk on the platform to minister. I simply can’t promise I will remember it.” But if it was jotted down, I never forgot. Still don’t. 

Today of course, we email, text and message with great speed. And that method of written communication has actually become preferred. “Hey, text me. Shoot me a message and remind me.” Or “I’ll text you and give you details later.” Works so well. 

But there’s a much deeper harvest to glean from this tidbit, something that can save one’s bacon in a big way. It certainly rescued me in my time of distress. 

After becoming a Sr. Pastor in 2001, I carried on the mantra: “It doesn’t mean anything if it’s not in writing.” I quickly became a veracious recorder of written information. “Document everything” became my theme. 

I was young and a bit suspicious. I came into pastoring with a bit of paranoia due to the very public fall of a local pastor just a few years before my arrival to Hillside Assembly. The reason I was keenly sensitive was that our church quickly began to grow with many who were closely involved and victimized by the scandal. I knew these people because I used to attend church with them prior to marriage and settling into church ministry. I loved them and they loved me. However, I knew they had been hurt and their pain was something I wanted to help heal. I also was desperate for people to trust me and overcome their horrible experience and not carry that baggage into our small but growing church. 

I went overboard by documenting everything. I never wanted anyone to ever be able to question decisions or think I was ever moving forward unilaterally without board consent. I insisted on an Employee Contract that would detail my agreed upon income/benefits/bonuses as the church grew. I kept very detailed copies of every Board Agenda and Board Meeting Minutes. I actually used to bore myself talking so much at the beginning of each Board Meeting trying to answer questions that were never asked. 

This habit, in which I’m still very committed, saved me and my family twelve years later when I entered a difficult conflict with our church board and subsequently stepped away from the church. Every negative comment, every ounce of hyperbole or exaggeration (even just complete misinformation) could be easily accessed and explained away by strong documentation. Even when the church board decided to engage legal representation for counsel and I was forced to do the same. The minute the attorneys were made aware of how thorough my documentation was, the conflicts were resolved, and everyone stood down. (Praise God for that!). Understand, I made mistakes, made assumptions and in the final couple of years of my tenure there, did not communicate clearly enough. I was burned out, functioning in a fog and had poor judgment in several areas of my leadership. I freely admit that. But I’m glad my first Sr. Pastor taught me the power of documentation. (More on my burnout in another article). 

It’s funny. The most important things I’ve learned in ministry were things never taught in theology classes. I have often thought that universities and seminaries should require classes in business, interpersonal communication and social work for those seeking degrees in ministry work. Those are things that offer such value and protection to young pastors. 

Side note. As the age of technology was shifting communications from verbal to digital I was blessed to have hired an incredible young man as our Media Pastor. Without my knowledge, he had set up all of my email communications to automatically back up into my personal Gmail account. As I waded through lots of my own Word files of Agendas and Minutes…I stumbled upon an archive of literally every email I had sent and received tucked away online “in the cloud.” I had no idea he had set that service up and thought I no longer had access to all those pieces of communication until a year after my departure from BT. The day I found those files I wept. All of the interactions, requests I had made, responses I received and offered to others was right there. The things I thought I couldn’t document were there! I’m so thankful. That kind of discovery may not mean much to you, but it was golden to me. It gave great peace to my heart to see, in black and white, what I had only known in my head but could never prove. Thanks GB! I owe you.

My wife and I have kept copious notes through all our children’s educational journeys, especially for our child with special needs who struggled with school. Teachers and counselors were always surprised when we would walk into IEP meetings with notebooks full of printed off notes, emails and research. 

So, remember, it’s good to make phone calls, have meetings, confer on decisions, cast vision, even dole out discipline as a leader…but write it all down in the moment. Send the email to review and follow up. Keep copies of EVERYTHING for your own personal records. And if you haven’t already…get very familiar with The Cloud. Because it doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t in writing.

My Story Verse 2

I’ve neglected to write down the “breakthroughs” that the Lord has provided to me through very difficult losses, trials, tragedy, etc.  Writing is processing and healing for me. So here's a bit more.

Before 2013, I really had not known much loss. I was the “golden boy.” Doors opened before me. I actually had never, ever applied for a job. It was my phone that always rang, even since Paul Smith, manager of our local C.O. Mammel’s grocery store in Great Bend, KS asked me one day to come work for him at age 14. In 2012, an interesting, perfect storm of circumstances and pressure gathered and it became too much to manage with talent and grit (my typical default). 

Polly had gone back to school in 2009 to earn her Master of Social Work from Wichita State University. Our two oldest boys were in school, she now had the time after spending so many years raising our boys at home. She graduated with honors in May of 2011. 

Just after our 20th wedding anniversary (September 2011), she called me on the phone to ask me a life-altering question: “Are you ready to start over?” (She then explained that she was at her annual OBGYN appointment and had discovered that she was pregnant for the first time.) Disbelief was an understatement. 

We had toiled and worked hard at raising our two adopted sons while simultaneously “raising” a church that had been on the brink of closure. God had blessed our ministry, the church was strong and healthy. Our boys were settled into their educational routines and doing very well. All was right with the Freemans. 

Polly decided to go back to school to do something “for her.” She deserved it. She is extremely talented and while completing a practicum at the Kansas University/Wesley Pediatric Clinic, she was informed that they were planning to create a new position for her after graduation. This was our retirement plan. Her income would be saved and invested for our future. It was a great plan! But as the old saying goes, “Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.” 

At 44 years old, Polly’s pregnancy was “high risk” in every form of the word. Her dad had diabetes, so she was put on a strict diet and had to test her blood sugar four times a day. Her mother had recently undergone heart bypass. Therefore, a complete cardiac workup was ordered. We were then informed that after age 40, 1 in 12 births resulted in a Downs Syndrome child. Everything got very stressful very quickly. Church members and friends were laughing and celebrating the news. All the while I was panicking, dying inside with no one to tell, except Polly. 

At the same time, I was feeling remarkably stuck and frustrated with our church. After 10 years of continuous growth, we had plateaued, and I wasn’t handling it well. I was offered lots of answers. “We need a new property.” That was true. “You need to hire an Executive Pastor to take some of the load off your plate.” Tried that once and it didn’t work out well. “You need a sabbatical to clear your head, to slow down, ‘get it from God.’” Probably. It had been a fierce 10-year sprint and I found myself managing staff more than I was pastoring the church, the thing I was best at. No one to blame but myself. My heart wasn’t dark. There were no sin issues. I was simply running on empty and I didn’t know how to refuel. 

On top of that, my wife was pregnant. Our slick, future plans were washed away amid the pressure to “perform” for my congregation and team; and the extreme fatigue and concern of how we were going to manage a newborn along with two teenaged boys. 

It didn’t end well. (I’ll write more of why and how later). I was encouraged to request a sabbatical by our denominational leaders and other pastor buddies of mine. When I finally mustered up the courage to request a three-month break, I was met with obvious push back. “I don’t get to take three months off from my job.” “What’s wrong with you that can’t be fixed with more prayer and fasting. Go get it from God.” “The finances are going to tank without you here.” I was stunned by the reaction of so many I had trusted for so many years. It felt like my performance was much more important than my mental and emotional health. I just wanted to survive, to figure out what was causing me to live in this cloud of confusion and stress. 

Leadership finally relented and I spent the three months away from the one place I felt most at home…the church I was leading. My heart was there but I was struggling to find out why it wasn’t as joyful as it once was. Why I was avoiding the office, passing off important decisions to others…and in reality, creating a leadership vacuum that was bound to be filled by someone else if I couldn’t get my act together. 

In short, after four months away, many meetings, weird accusations and hurt feelings…I was told by my pastor that I must resign. He told me, “The noose they are about to put around your neck won’t work for you or your family. If you don’t leave, they will find a reason to fire you. If not now…six months from now.” That was it. It was decided for me. Twelve years seemingly vanished. My family lost personal friendships that had lasted decades. My kids lost their youth group and friends. Every investment, prayer, sermon, worship time seemed to be nothing. None of it mattered any longer. 

The loss was, at that point, the most crushing thing I had ever experienced. It wasn’t life or death…but it sure felt like a death. And for anyone who’s ever been in that type of situation, the loss of identity, significance and security cannot be understated. “How will I provide for my family?” “What will people think?” “What do we do next?” 

Our decision process took about two months. Of course, I was being pressured into making life decisions much quicker than that. I simply had to resist and take time. I had learned as a leader, a husband and a father, that snap decisions made under pressure is a recipe for disaster. After some wonderful counsel, some time to hear from the Lord, rather than be overwhelmed by self-doubt and debilitating fear, we made an important family decision. My mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer while I was on sabbatical, was undergoing treatment. We had a one-year-old baby who needed grandmas and grandpas, a family value we had decided upon when our older two were born. We would not have made it through this storm without our strong family roots. We simply were not going to leave Wichita to pursue other ministry opportunities, even though offers were made. We were staying close to family and the Lord would have to work out the rest. There was tremendous peace with the decision, but a tremendous cost as well. More storm clouds would be on the horizon. 

The Lord opened doors for us…as He always had. I was healing and recovering as was my wife and three boys. But depression was a new companion for me. More to come…

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