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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