I knelt on the floor of my study all night, my forehead pressed into the carpet, my fists pressed against my temples. I pulled my hair and wept until I fell asleep, exhausted. Waking in a fetal position, I remembered where I was and what I faced and begged, “Lord, please . . . please . . . please . . . send someone else.”
I pressed my face into the floor and sobbed, no longer able to pray with words. Tears and snot and saliva soaked my beard and the carpet. Alone in the darkness, I didn’t care.
A faint light shone through the blinds but the rising sun did not bring hope. I wiped my face and tasted blood. Weeping face down through the night, the capillaries in my nose had broken and bled into the cream carpet. Time was up. I had to shower. I had to dress. I had to go to church. I had to preach.
In the early morning light, I knelt with rags and carpet cleaner and scrubbed the spot until it changed from crimson to white. The words of the prophet repeated in my head, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
Although that was the last time I bled into the carpet, it was not the last time I met Sunday morning with a breakdown. I didn’t want to preach. I didn’t want to pastor. I didn’t want to live.
How had it come to this?
From childhood, I longed to serve God. As a little boy alone on the swing set, I improvised songs about God and the devil, praising the first and mocking the other. I promised God that, wherever the devil was in the world, I would go and fight him, even if I had to go alone.
But I also longed to be recognized. Standing in our living room as a small boy I looked up at a collection of plaques on the wall given to my dad for leadership and service. I told myself, “One day I will have a wall full of plaques.” Then sitting in the gymnasium watching a high school musical I became captivated by the leading role. He got the most lines, the most songs, and the most applause. In that moment, I longed to accumulate my trophies on a stage.
The two competing elements of my life—a desire to serve God and a longing for the spotlight. Two motivations that would grow and intertwine, eventually reducing me to a thirty-something-year-old mess on the floor of my dark study.
During my high school years, I became zealous for what I thought was the service of God. I discovered Rush Limbaugh and his brand of abrasive conservatism and political commentary. I delved into “Christian” apologetics and activism, which largely consisted of critiquing evolution, condemning abortion and homosexuality, and defending capitalism and American democracy. These discoveries produced a religious cultural warrior—confident in his eloquence, quick wit, and rhetorical skills, loving to debate and ready to take on the world with a few Bible verses and a copy of The Way Things Ought to Be. This, I thought, was what it meant to be on God’s side.
When the curtain fell on my first high school musical, I told a friend that we should go out front before the audience left. “Why?” he asked. I said, “So, they can tell us how good we were,” I said. “Why would we want to do that?” he asked. He didn’t understand why we’d want to seek praise. I couldn’t comprehend why we wouldn’t.
Then those two loves collided. Throughout college, I delighted in studying the Bible and discussing Christian theology. On an overseas mission trip the summer after my freshman year, I was invited to teach at a few meetings. These opportunities brought affirmation that I was gifted in preaching. My return to campus ministry that fall came with increased opportunities to lead and teach—along with increased applause from my peers. I had found a new stage on which to perform.
Through this affirmation, a “calling” solidified in my heart. I would be a pastor—in particular, a preacher. I would serve God by becoming a precise theologian, a skilled orator, and a fearless reformer of his church. Preaching would provide me with an audience, a platform, recognition, and applause. It was a simple formula with a reasonable expectation—exalt God with clear, competent, faithful preaching and he will exalt you.
It is surprising how sincere one can be in both pursuits—glorifying God and glorifying self. I really did want people to know, enjoy, and glorify God in Christ. And I really did want people to know, enjoy, and glorify me. In the church, however, you can only admit to the former. You must never, ever mention the latter—unless you are doing so for the sake of displaying your humility—a surprisingly effective means of garnering praise.
Owning the stage?
After graduating college, my wife of one year and I headed off to seminary. Seminary is no different from any other place under the sun. Both the wise and the foolish roam its halls. I watched faculty and students pursue some people and ignore others, fight and make alliances, jockey for place and position. I also met humble, sincere brothers and sisters who suffered and served and encouraged me, setting examples of faithfulness.
My heart staggered like a drunken man between those two paths—service of God and service of self. I studied, prayed, and served in the church. I believed what was true, repented of sin, and strove to be a faithful disciple and husband. At the same time, I sat in chapel critiquing the sermons, thinking about how much better a preacher I would be than them. I caught myself thinking that my fellow students didn’t know who they were studying with—that one day they would hear my name and boast that they rubbed shoulders with me in seminary.
In my pride, I did not want to learn from someone else unless I knew they agreed with me on most (if not all) things. I declined an invitation to a quality internship. I graduated without ever serving on a church staff or being mentored by an experienced pastor. Eager to establish myself as a preacher, I decided not to “waste my time” in a place where I wasn’t the main attraction, so I accepted a call to my first pastorate uncoached and unprepared.
My first church was in a small town—a small congregation of people who were largely patient and supportive of a young pastor, far more gracious to me than I deserved.
After a few years, I accepted a call to a slightly bigger church in a much bigger city—an opportunity, I reasoned, to shepherd a church that would influence other churches. I intended to stay forty years—unless (I always qualified with appropriate humility) God had other plans—believing that a long tenure is necessary for any lasting impact. I determined to put down roots and patiently grow a ministry.
We averaged about a hundred and forty five in attendance when I started. We averaged that or a little less when I resigned seven and a half years later—though only a dozen of those attendees were there when I started. In those first three to four years, about two hundred people left the church. It was heartbreaking on every side, the last thing anyone wanted.
There was never one issue that caused the exodus, just the slow friction of clashing personalities, differing ministry styles, misunderstandings, and the failure to practice healthy peacemaking on all sides. Most people operated with relative grace and patience, but hostile parties hid in the shadows and sniped. Rumors and accusations abounded. Constructive conversations did not.
The church became a dangerous place to be—a place of anxiety and shame, of conflict and wounds. My blood pressure rose and my stomach tightened just walking to the front doors. Some Sundays, when I would stand up to preach, my eyesight would darken to the point that I couldn’t see. I would walk across the platform to the pulpit by memory and pray until my sight returned. I told no one.
At some point, the long, slow exodus stopped. There were almost no original members left to leave. I thought we’d arrived at a season of peace, but internal conflicts arose among new members over the direction of the church. Some criticized me for my interpretation and application of the Bible and attacked our elders in unfair ways.
Working seventy-hour weeks on a regular basis, I often pulled all-nighters on Saturdays, staying up to complete my sermon manuscript. I hoped that clear, careful, exhaustive preaching would satisfy the critics. It did not. Elders interviewed exiting members—friends—and returned disheartened, saying, “If we believed what they say we believe, we’d all quit.”
A not so Shining Star
Beyond the church trials, we suffered four miscarriages, conflicts at home and with friends, medical emergencies, my father-in-law’s leukemia diagnosis, and several bizarre afflictions.
Through it all, I was dying—emotionally, physically, spiritually.
I would hear my wife say, “Eric . . . he’s talking to you,” and find myself lying on the floor, looking over scattered toys into the face of a child I couldn’t focus on. On my way out the door, my son would ask, “Daddy, can you play with me?” “Not right now, buddy,” I’d say. “But you want to, right?” he’d reply, having memorized my stock condolence—“Not right now, buddy . . . but I really want to.”
I couldn’t feel joy. I couldn’t enjoy my kids. I couldn’t talk to my wife. I went to urgent care with chest pains. I lost fifty pounds from stress. I woke up many mornings no longer wanting to live. It felt as though the world was falling apart and everyone was against me. That wasn’t true, of course. There were many good friends and faithful members who encouraged me, prayed for me, stood by me.
Then on a family vacation we drove through the Black Hills at night returning from Mount Rushmore. As my family slept, I listened to “Light for the Lost Boy,” Andrew Peterson’s album about the death of childhood. I thought of my childhood vacation to this same place, one of my favorite trips before my parents divorced. I looked at my children in the back seat and thought of all the years I’d squandered, the affection they’d been robbed of, the anger and bitterness that too often overflowed from this dying heart—and of the father who lived in their home in body but not in soul. I couldn’t do this anymore. My family could not die on the altar of my vainglory. I had to quit.
When we returned home I told my wife that I wanted to quit, to do anything but pastor. In all the times I’d said, “I want to quit” in over a decade of pastoring, this was the first time she said, “Okay.” She saw and she knew. She understood it was time.
So I quit. I sat with my elders and explained where I was. By God’s grace, these friends understood, asked good questions, and offered wise counsel. Over the next several months I sought the wisdom of seasoned pastors and counselors who affirmed that I should step out of pastoral ministry for a season. We broke the news to a church full of people who loved me, who were saddened but supportive, and who allowed me a season of slow transition out of leadership.
Quitting was a matter of life and death.
My identity died. I would not have a forty-year pastorate. I would not be a famous preacher. I lost friendships. I forfeited membership in seemingly significant fellowships. Those who “quit the ministry” are often viewed with suspicion and seen as unfortunate failures.
As God graciously killed the me I had created, he brought something good to life. He forced me to find an identity outside the pulpit, off the platform, and entirely in him. His smile and my place in his family do not rest in what I do, but in something that has been done for me. I don’t need to be recognized by anyone but him. Service to him is not measured in applause and plaques. He loves me as I am, not as I hoped I’d be.
The trials haven’t ended. I have not become the perfect husband, father, friend, or pastor. I continue to wrestle with depression, anxiety, and “pastoral PTSD.” I still take deep breaths as I walk into a church.
My trials haven’t ended, but neither has God’s grace. He takes in order to give. He breaks in order to mend. He casts down in order to lift up. He gives us death for the sake of resurrection. Crucifixion. Resurrection. Crucifixion. Resurrection. Crucifixion. Resurrection.
Cover photo by Nycholas Benaia.