I was recently on the Bridgecast Podcast with Pastor David Lewkowicz. We met an ARC event last year, and he has been a huge blessing to have as a friend. I am so glad he asked me to be on Season 3 of his podcast to talk about Believe Again and church planting.
It was a lot of fun recording this episode. We talked about my favorite superhero (no way you guess who it is), I tell a Boudreaux and Thibodeaux joke, and David does a pretty amazing Coach O impression. You will also hear us talk about disappointment, burnout, and religion. I share some lessons learned from my book, Believe Again, and also include some stories I wish I could have included in the book.
This was a lot of fun, and I think you will enjoy listening.
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas[a] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.”
When was the last time you had a headache or another type of pain in your body that prevented you from the normal activities of your life? It is hard to think about anything else, until you experience relief.
I have had headaches for as long as I can remember. Even as a child, I could hear other kids playing outside in the middle of the day, while I remained under the covers of my bed. In college, they would flare up during exams. I made changes that decreased their frequency, but the migraines never completely went away.
As I gained more responsibilities in my church job, the regularity and intensity of my migraines increased. Sometimes in meetings, I would start to see flashes then spots. I would feel lightheaded and nauseous. When this happened, I would abruptly cut my day short and go home. Hours would go by, as I lay in a dark room in agony until I was finally able to come out of the pain. Can you relate to stress impacted your life in a similar way?
These headaches became such an issue that my doctor ordered a CAT scan. Soon, I was back in the doctor’s office looking at images of something beneath the sufance that no one could see from the outside. There was a mass resting between my brain and the tip of my spine. It was an arachnoid cyst. We didn’t know if this was causing my frequent headaches—or what it meant for our future.
The cyst had apparently been there most of my life. It had grown with me through my parent’s divorce, through rejection as a teenager, and even abuse. It was there when I first became a leader in my youth group, as well as when I eventually joined the church staff.
Allowing myself to fall into a religious routine that created unhealthy amounts of stress in my life did not appear out of anywhere either. I started leading in my church because I loved God and loved what he loved—people. Fifteen years later, I had become a Pharisee, legalist, and avoider of grace. While I was once full of compassion and excitement, over time, I had become judgmental and overbearing. This negatively impacted not only my own life but also those around me. I had no grace for myself, and therefore, none to give anyone else.
There are many things in our lives that appear to be the problem but are really only symptoms of the real issue. My headaches were the symptoms of something going on underneath the surface. The same was true for my overly religious perspective that led to burnout. I had to address the root in my soul if I was going to change the fruit in my life.
Have you experience the frustration of a health, emotional, or spiritual issue that you hoped would get better, but only got worse as time went on? What happened?
How does Psalm 55:10 reflect how we can sometimes fail to resolve the issues of our lives?
What issue is just beneath the surface of your daily life that needs to be addressed? This is most likely that one issue connected to fear, shame, or doubt that you will hope that will go away by avoiding it, but continues to resurface.
Can you do the right things for the wrong reasons? Is this something you have ever done?
Do you sometimes find it hard to say, “No,” even if it is something that can conflict with your priorities? I find this to be especially true for me when it is a good thing that conflicts with the best things. What about you?
How would you know if you have begun to become proud and judgmental instead of humble and grace-filled? What are some warning signs you should be aware of that would point to the need to change?
In Paul’s testimony given to us in Galatians 1:13-24 we see how it was his zeal for God that lead him to do the wrong thing. He needed to believe again in order for God to redirect his passion for the wright thing. Have you had a “believe again” experience after coming to faith and realizing your faith needed a perspective shift?
“The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!’”
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Have you ever felt discarded, overlooked, or forgotten? If so, I want you to know that your story is not finished yet. It is in these valleys, the place between our mountain peaks, that hope can be hard to come by. In situations like this it can be hard to even dare to hope. Can you relate?
In the midst of World War II much of the world was in a bitter time of conflict and suffering. It was in the middle of such hopelessness that Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, gave what would become one of the most famous speeches ever delivered. In it he said,
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
I know I find it difficult to find this kind of resolve in times of testimony. I am guessing I am not alone in this. The heros of the Bible are not strangers to that feeling as well. In Lamentations the great prophet Jeremiah laments the awful suffering of Isreal. What resonates with me about this passage is that the author does not deny the difficult times. How often we feel less spiritual for wanting to admit things are not going well, and will believe covering up the bad times will make us look more spiritual. This, assuradly, is a lie of the enemy that diverts us from the intimacy and transformation of our souls and character that result from drawing close to God in our suffering.
When all seems lost, you can know two things: this is not the end and your inheritance is in the Lord. You do not need faith strong enough to last until the end of your journey. You just need faith for today. God’s mercies “begin afresh each morning.” They “never cease.”
Orson Wells once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” If you are not at the happy part, then you are probably not at the ending yet. Keep going.
Have you ever felt the pressure to minimalize your pain to be more spiritual? Why do you think that is?
Is it less spiritual to admit that you are in a difficult situation or have experienced loss in the past even though you prayed for a different outcome? Do things not working out mean you have less faith than someone else?
Lamentations 3:20 (NLT) says, “I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss.” What does this tell you about the spirituality of suffering and grieving?
Why should we glory in our sufferings according to Romans 5:3-5?
Can you recall a time when you experienced God’s faithfulness even when you seem to be at the end of your rope?
How do you know when you need to believe again? It may not be evident at first. You might be like me. I enjoy working hard and giving my all to serve in ministry. Also, considering a different path includes a measure of risk. You could lose all you have worked for if you take the wrong path. Can you imagine what the Israelites must have thought when Moses first introduced the idea of leaving everything in Egypt behind for the uncomfortable unknown that waited for them in the wild, wild, wilderness?
I picture their initial response went something like this: “We are almost finished with the pyramids! I have a house here by the Nile. Have you seen the leeks and onions in my garden? Where will we live out in the wilderness anyway? I’ll keep making bricks. I may not be free, but at least I am safe and secure.”
That was me for a long time. I was unaware of how much I needed to hit the reset button in my spiritual life. I made excuses for my frustration and disappointment for far too long. I do not want you to experience what I did.
Sometimes external factors can bring about a need to believe again. Maybe you experienced a toxic leader that has caused you to give up on church or have encountered unpassable valleys in the form of a shocking disappointment that resulted in you doubting God’s faithfulness.
Everyone faces obstacles once they choose to leave their “Egypt.” When God called the Israelites out of Egypt, they came to the Red Sea. This land barrier caused them to be stuck in between a freedom they had never known and returning to their life of slavery. Your Red Sea is whatever is preventing you from stepping out of your comfort zone and following your heart into the uncomfortable yet satisfying life God promises. That is where real faith and your authentic-self begin.
“Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”
But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea[a] for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
What is your connectioin to church? Has it changed over the years? Is there such a thing as too involved in church? For a long time, my entire life revolved around my connection to my local church. Then, at the age of 30, when I appeared to be successfully leading in ministry, I gave up all that I had worked so hard to achieve to explore life on the other side of my religious comfort zone. The lessons I learned during that time are guiding me today, and will also be helpful to you.
As a kid, I grew up on, and sometimes under, the pews of churches. Once I had a driver’s license, I was at church more than anyone in our family – like, more than everyone else combined.
Eventually, after working at the church part-time in high school and college, volunteering 20 hours a week or more, I was rewarded with a full-time staff position in the youth ministry. I threw myself into my role with abandon. This all came with a price tag I was unaware of at the time. Seven years later, everything appeared fine on the outside, but I was burned out exhausted, and depressed. What went wrong?
Knowing you need to make a change might be clear. I have had countless conversations with people who were once eager beavers of faith that have ended up burned out, hurt, and confused. Others may be unaware of how much you need to make a change. Either way, I want to encourage you to believe again. To believe again means to discover a fresh perspective on the Christian faith, find hope in difficult times, and learn to trust God one day at a time.
I wrote this devotional to help you on that journey. Let’s get started.
What does Paul mean in Romans 12:2 when he said to renew your mind?
Why is it imperative to believe again in light of Romans 12:2?
Where do you think your need to believe again comes from? Is it because you are burned out, zealous but frustrated in some ways, going through a difficult time that raises doubts, have questions about grace, or have been hurt by someone claiming to speak or act on behalf of God?
*What you are about to read is a chapter from my new book, Believe Again: Finding Faith After Losing Religion. Before coming to ARC in 2014 I spent two years working in the secular world after leaving my position as the youth and young adult pastor at my church. It was a rude awakening, and this story about my first day delivering pizza is a great example of that. It is also is a lesson in how to connect with people outside of your church bubble and finding your identity in Christ alone.
A Rough Start
I have never heard more foul language at any other point in my life than I did in the one month I spent delivering pizza. This would also be true if I was just counting what I heard from the only Christian that worked at the restaurant.
I pulled up to the Pizza Hut on Highway 44 in Prairieville to start my glorious new career as a pizza delivery mogul. I was on time. My uniform was freshly ironed and starched. I was displaying the same excellence I had learned as a pastor. I walked into work at 10:30 am and found three people ready to introduce me to the pizza biz. My manager was a tall, lanky guy named Earl. He had an unshaven face and a hat pulled down low on his head. The other delivery driver was a young girl who appeared 20 but talked and acted like a 13-year-old. Then there was another guy. He was short, stocky, and looked angry. He went about his tasks like a swirling bee. He buzzed around waiting to sting. He moved too fast for me to catch his name.
Before the restaurant opened, my manager said he had to run to the bank. He would be back in a couple of minutes. Surprisingly, a customer came in before he came back. She wanted to pay cash for her order. The only problem was Earl was not back with the money.
The angry bee buzzed. “Where is Earl?”
Then he began to scream, “Where the [bleep] is Earl!”
The buzzing continued as he paced around the store in a panic. “It doesn’t take this long to go to the bank and come back!”
What I am giving you is only a rough translation of what he actually said. The colorful language expressed included 10 or more profanities for every other word used.
“He left me in charge, but I can’t do anything without any money!” *too many profanities to include.
How can I describe this to you?
A Crash Course in Celine Dion
If you can imagine music playing over the foul language, and then pausing only to hear the words that were not profanity, you could make it through an entire Celine Dion song for every intelligible sentence this guy got out. In fact, let’s see what that would sound like.
“I can’t (For all those times you stood by me…) believe this (For all the truth that you made me see…)!”
“Earl is a (For all the joy you brought to my life…)!”
“I can’t (For all the wrong that you made right…) take this (For every dream you made come true)!”
“I (For all the love I found in you…) QUIT (I’ll be forever thankful!”
“Tell that stupid (Baby you’re the one that held me up and never let me fall) that I” (You’re the one who saw me through)
“QUIT (Through it all…)!”
And with that, he slammed the door and walked out. The angry bee quit before I even got his name!
The young girl who was second in command began to fall apart. As much as I didn’t understand my previous coworker’s outburst, hers was at least reasonable. She continued my crash course in overdubbed Celine Dion censorship.
“I can’t believe this! I can’t believe this!” (You were my strength when I was weak…)
“What am I going to do?” (You were my voice when I couldn’t speak…)
“The manager is gone, Tom just quit (so that was his name… nice knowing you Tom!), I am just a delivery driver, and you… YOU KNOW NOTHING!”
The last part she said while pointing directly at me. She slammed a pizza pan down. I begin to hear more Celine Dion from the back of the kitchen. (You were my eyes when I couldn’t see. You saw the best there was in me.)[i]
It was 11:05 am. The manager had disappeared. My immediate supervisor just quit. The only other employee in the store was having a nervous breakdown, and I hadn’t even got my nametag yet. I had been transplanted to another world. I was not in Christendom anymore. I was in the “real world.” I better get used to hearing love songs and words that would make a sailor blush.
The manager did eventually come back. The extra 15 minutes it took to swing by the local Circle K for a pack of cigarettes cost him more than he bargained. A third of his workforce on that shift had quit. Tom was a good worker, though. He was eventually allowed to return despite his abrupt departure.
The Pizza Biz
Even though we spoke different languages, Tom and I would become friends. His goal was to teach me what he called “the pizza biz.” He did a lot more than that. Tom helped me learn how to be a daily witness to someone who doesn’t understand Christian-ese or care about church titles and positions. I wonder what song he imagined playing when I first began to talk to him?
There is a bit of irony involved with me working as a delivery driver. My dad worked for Pizza Hut as an area manager when I was growing up. He got his start in the fast-food business as a teenager. He was forced to drop out of high school and start working to leave an abusive home. He was an intelligent, dedicated employee, and quickly became a turnaround expert for the restaurant he worked for. The franchise owner took him under his wing and trained him to oversee several stores. This would lead to him overseeing many Pizza Huts in south-central Louisiana.
I have many memories of free pizza and going to Pizza Huts all over Louisiana with my dad. Sometimes we would get there early to open the store. Then my dad would go over the numbers with the manager. I would explore the store while my dad worked in the office. Sometimes I would watch the raw dough turn in a huge steel bowl. Other times he would take me to pop into a store in the middle of the day. I never got tired of the pizza buffet or spending time with my dad. I began to take pride that my dad was the boss. When I went with him, I would find a broom or mop and try to help clean the store. I probably created more of a mess than I did clean anything.
On one visit to a store, I waited for my dad by the takeout counter. I watched as an employee cut a pizza with a giant crescent-shaped knife. He rocked it across the pizza in a seesaw motion. He was working so fast he cut the pizza slices very unevenly. It upset me that the pizza cook didn’t seem to care. I immediately ran to tell my dad. After hearing my report, my dad stopped what he was doing and asked the poor guy to open the box. The worker showed him his mistake. My dad responded by saying, “Even my son can tell you’re not doing it right! Come on! Let’s get it right!” I’m sure that guy wanted to throw that pizza right in my face after I tattled on him. I underestimated my dad’s attention to detail and commitment to excellence. These are the same attributes that caused him to be successful and made his stores run like machines. It is also the reason he lived in a constant state of stress.
That level of precision was not always present in the store where I worked. My manager tried to make his store the best. I have a lot of respect for how he worked with his employees, but he seemed to be swimming against the stream.
There were days when none of the other drivers came to work. They didn’t call or anything. They just chose to stay home that day. I was the one guy who came to work but had to deal with the fallout of their decisions. The lack of drivers meant the orders would get backed up. Customers took their frustrations out on me when I arrived with their pizza extremely late. I got chewed out, no tip, and could probably expect an angry comment on the customer satisfaction survey. This experience gave me a new perspective for those working in service. You never know the load someone else is carrying.
The delivery drivers also all shared dishwashing duties. If I was the only driver, then there was no one taking care of the dishes while I was out. When I would return from a delivery, there would be a mountain of dishes waiting for me. The workload would get very far behind. The pots and pans would fill all three sinks and also be stacked on the floor. This would cause me to have to stay after hours to clean up. I picked up everyone else’s slack but ended up with tiny tips and getting home after the rest of my family was already in bed. Whoever heard of working overtime for less pay? Doing the right thing didn’t bring an immediate reward.
Those were long nights washing dishes in the back of a pizza kitchen. I just kept telling myself this was temporary. I tried to keep the same pride in my work I thought my dad would want to see. I wanted to honor God with my work. Several times I thought of walking out of the store and not looking back. “Cool guys don’t look at explosions” as they walk away. We could have made it on credit cards during those weeks. I really didn’t have to do this. Secretly though, there was a part of me that wanted to see if I had what it takes to survive in this environment. Could I overcome the mounds of dishes and the torrential onslaught of negativity poured on me by coworkers?
It wasn’t all bad. Sometimes people surprised me. They would answer the door smiling and ready to tip. Then their faces would change once they got a good look at me. I would be asked to wait a moment. They would disappear momentarily only to come back with even more money. People don’t deliver pizza because they are passionate about warm bread and cheese. It’s something they have to do to get by. While driving back and forth through the streets of Galvez and southeast Prairieville, I made a decision. I would always make sure I tipped my delivery driver better than what I thought he or she deserved. You never know what they had to do to get to your front door.
I used my wit and sense of humor to keep things fun at the restaurant. All the employees had to greet every customer simultaneously when they came into the store. No matter what you were doing, you were expected to continue it and yell, “Welcome to Pizza Hut!” I wouldn’t stop there. I always added something to the end that made everyone laugh. I’d say, “Welcome to Pizza Hut,” and then add “where the sauce is the boss, and the crust is hand-tossed!” Or I would say “where the pizza is fresh, and the service is the best!” There were several others and even some we couldn’t share with customers. Earl liked this and had me write them down for when we answered the phones.
Recently, while writing this book, Amy was cooking and said. “This sauce is boss! Wait, where have I heard that before?”
“From Pizza Hut,” I said.
“It is one of the things I made up while working there.”
There was another thing I was always on the lookout for while I worked. I was constantly afraid I would answer the phone, give my name, and someone would recognize me. This fear was the same for delivering to people’s homes. We now lived about 45 minutes from our old house. It was unlikely I would bump into someone I would recognize. But it was still not impossible. While I don’t remember delivering to anyone’s house I knew, that didn’t mean they didn’t know who I was. People came to my former church from all over. There was no way I could keep up with everyone’s name and face.
Eventually, someone I recognized did come to our store. I walked out the backdoor as soon as I saw him. I stayed in the parking lot until he left. I was so mad at God during those few moments. “Why was He letting this happen to me,” I wondered. Then I felt God challenge me. I should value His perspective of me over what others thought. I was so worried that this man may have seen me. I didn’t want him to tell everyone I was delivering pizza. I could picture all the people who once respected me shaking their heads at what a failure I had become.
God continued prodding my heart after I came back in the store. I needed to own my life and decisions. I went outside again. This time it was not to avoid that man. Instead, I called him. When he answered, I apologized for ignoring him. I told him how much I respected him. I wanted him to know he did not deserve for me to behave in that way.
That was humbling. Extremely humbling! As difficult as it was to make that call, it was a significant moment for me. It helped break the pattern of living for other people’s approval. Why had God allowed this to happen to me? Maybe the entire reason I had to work at Pizza Hut was to experience that one moment. It forced me to choose God’s perspective of me as the most important influence of my choices. Either way, there were still many more pizzas to deliver, dishes to wash, and bizarre behavior from my coworkers to keep me busy.
So, I chose to launch my book on the day that Facebook and Instagram went down making it impossible to promote said book. It’s fine. No big deal. Everything is ok.
Let’s put this in perspective. I finished writing the first draft of this book in 2015. I could have published it at any point between then and yesterday. 2,190 days to choose from, and I choose the one day that would not allow me to promote the years of hard work I put into the book. As I said, I aM fINe!
Throughout the day, Amy continued to say, “It will be ok, remember, ‘Believe Again!'” “How about you Believe Again, Amy!” That is what I thought, not what I actually said. I, at least, wanted to live until the end of the day. Amy’s cries for me to relax and that things would be ok fell on deaf ears. I had believed again enough. I wanted to see some results.
The major social media platforms laughing at my attempts to launch a book was not the only thing that was going wrong. Only 4 of my pre-order books arrived. This means I could not ship out the pre-orders before launch day as I promised. Why did Amazon send me 4 random books in a paper bag (I am not kidding about this) instead of all the books I ordered? I have no idea, other than the world must be against me in some way.
Then my website refused to load on my home wifi. The website worked for everyone else not on my wifi, it just did not want to work for me. Everyone else was FINE. I was not. An hour or so on the phone and the website was going. Now to ship out the four books I actually did receive. Nope. The shipping label application decided to stop working. I could not even ship those out.
This was a massive collapse. Literally, every component I needed to launch my book had failed. The thought crossed my mind throughout the day, that this is just what it felt like when I first stepped away from full-time ministry. Nothing I tried work. It seemed everything around me was going wrong. I felt alone and like there was no one I could count on, even God. I was having a chance to apply what I learned during that season of life and shared in my book. But I was failing miserably.
Eventually, I was able to figure out the technical difficulties and create the shipping labels. And despite not being able to promote the book’s launch it had reached #520 on Amazon’s Christian book list out of tens of thousands.
So here I am saying I am still growing and re-learning the things I talk about in my book. Tomorrow became today and I am still here hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit. Sometimes winning is not winning. It’s staying in the game when you want to give up. Today I am “winning.” #winning
What is the hardest thing you have ever had to do? For me, it was stepping away from my position in full-time ministry over 9 years ago. I was the youth and young adults pastor at my church, but there was so much more wrapped up in my church role than just a job title. My entire world revolved around the connection I had with my church, and for a long time, I did not think there was anything for me outside of this comfortable church ecosystem.
But how did this come to be?
As a child, my home life was unstable, but my time at church was filled with encouragement and smiles. I survived four divorces growing up. The constant family crises left me feeling insecure and disappointed. On the other hand, going to church gave me the chance to make a difference in the world. It was where I could be told how incredible I was. One place became an increasing source of pain. The other was a wellspring of security, confidence, and recognition.
Creating a False-Self
In my teenage years, I became a leader in the youth group and got a job at the church café. I would continue working there in college and then full-time after graduating until I was 30 years old. People identified me with my church as much as you would pair Starbucks with coffee or Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. Except I am not as trendy as coffee or as good at sticking out my tongue and dunking a basketball as Jordan. Everything of significance to me, including my identity, was inside that church bubble.
It’s a flattering thing to be wanted, but it’s also hypnotic. Serving and working at a church did this for me. I quickly got to a place where I did not want to say no. “What else can I do,” was my attitude. Then one day, I looked up, and I couldn’t say “no” even if I wanted to.
As I grew in what I thought local church ministry should look like, I was also limited in how I could apply those changes to my current role. I thought being faithful and honoring would open up the opportunity to do things differently down the road. Instead, as I received more responsibility, I was expected to keep doing what I had always done the way I had always done it. And why wouldn’t that be the case? It makes sense that this is the way things would be, but it also helps explain why I had to step away from my job if I genuinely wanted to be the leader God wanted me to be.
The Harsh Reality of Changing
I needed the space to change, and I could not continue to be faithful to what I was being asked to do as an employee if I knew, ultimately, I would never do things that way if I had a say in it. But this also meant leaving behind the only viable source of income for my family. Without help finding my next place, I would have to work outside of ministry in a position far below my training if I no longer wanted to work at my church.
What started as a process of just wanting to learn a new way of doing ministry became something much more significant for me. I did not realize how wounded and weary I was or how much I gained my identity from my role in full-time ministry. I did not just need to learn some new tips to build on an already strong foundation. How I viewed myself, God, and those around me required a complete overhaul. I needed to believe again.
In the months after leaving my church job. I began to sell things I could no longer afford. We put a “for sale” sign in our yard. We also sold our luxury car. I am ashamed to say I cried when I parted with my golf clubs. I am not exactly sure what made me tear up after that Craigslist exchange. It could have been I was saying goodbye to the memories I had shared with so many friends while playing golf. It’s possible I was happy for the young guy who was getting a nice Father’s Day present. Maybe it was just my pride.
The Shiny Tin
Long before I began working on a church staff, I started a process of relating to God, church, and others in an unhealthy way. There were patterns of hurt and shame that went unaddressed. Ultimately though, my desire to succeed and my ability to use accomplishments to cover my weaknesses fueled my cycle of religious performance. I do not blame anyone else for the negative things that took place in my life during this time. I know God was the one in control. Also, if at any point I was willing to let go of my position to more fully pursue healing, my wrong perspectives would not have infected so much of my life. If I did not change then, I would be destined to repeat the same mistakes in the future.
In the book, Where the Red Fern Grows, there is an example that illustrates my situation. The central figure in the story is a young boy who wants to train his dogs for hunting. To teach his pets, he needed to catch a raccoon on his own. Knowing raccoons are curious creatures, he places a piece of shiny tin inside a hole in a log. Then he hammers nails inside the hole with enough room for the raccoon to put its hand into the hole, but not enough to remove it with the piece of tin in his hand.
The boy continues to check the trap every day until eventually, he finds a raccoon stuck. All the little creature had to do to escape was let go of the tin and pull his hand out. But because he wanted to both escape and keep his prize, he remained trapped until the boy killed him. The next day the boy joyfully explains to his grandfather how he caught his first raccoon. Much to his surprise, the grandfather responds by telling him to never set a trap like that again. It simply wasn’t fair. It was un-sportsman.
I was a lot like the stuck raccoon. In His goodness, God was allowing me to choose to either hold on to the things I thought I wanted or let go to find the things in Him I really needed. I didn’t need my position, popularity, or special treatment. What I needed most was time away from working in ministry to become a better minister and, honestly, person. I did not like how judgmental and proud I had become. I was frustrated by the fact my fears kept me from being myself. I wanted to be free to pursue the change I knew I needed.
To let go of that old world would not only mean leaving behind my home, friends, status, identity, church family, and financial security. Making this shift caused me to worry I had brought my family out into a desert with no way out. What I found next was a world much bigger and more welcoming than I could have ever imagined.
I wasn’t your typical teenager or even the average church kid. I was pretty radical about my faith. To avoid distractions, I asked my parents to disconnect the cable in my room. I got rid of my TV completely. Instead of a gaming system for Christmas, I wanted a leather bond NIV Life Application Study Bible. At one point, I took apart my bed and started sleeping on the floor. I didn’t want to be tempted to sleep in and miss praying in the morning before school. I also thought this would be an excellent way to prepare myself in case one day I had to sleep on the ground on the mission field. All of this was done, not out of religious duty, but out of genuine love for God.
In my senior year of high school, I started a Christian club at my Christian School. Which I know sounds silly. Especially since we already had chapels, daily devotionals, and classes that began with prayer. Our unofficial slogan was, “We put the C in B.C.S. (Bethany Christian School).” That kind of lets you know what our perspective was if you weren’t in our club.
I also got special permission to miss school during lunchtime to speak at Christian clubs at other high schools in the area. Even sports were just another opportunity for me to share my faith. After pickup basketball games in my neighborhood, I would hold the ball and make everyone wait to play the next game until after I shared my testimony and gave an altar call. This full itinerary doesn’t include the small groups, prayer meetings, retreats, and leadership gatherings I also attended at church. You are probably starting to see that I was a little Energizer Bunny for Jesus. But how long could I keep this up?
I continued this same zealous routine in college. On my first day on campus, the front page of the school newspaper read, “LSU Ranked #1 Party School.” One of my friends posted this in his room like it was a badge of honor. I saw things differently. University wasn’t a place for me to prepare for a career or make memories. It was a mission field that needed to be conquered (The Seashell Message got me).
Even when my grades suffered, I still made sure I was at church every time the doors were open. I volunteered for our church more than most people work while in college and I still worked full-time. I never stopped to ask myself if something was out of balance. At this point, my family tried to intervene. They asked me to slow down with the church involvement. I just thought they were outsiders who couldn’t understand my passion.
Was Something Wrong?
I missed out on many typical aspects of the college experience because of the time and energy I devoted to my spiritual pursuits. For example, one weekend, a friend of mine and I decided not to eat until we had read the entire New Testament. Another time I had a ticket to LSU’s first football National Championship game in over 40 years but gave it up to go on yet another retreat.
There were benefits to some of this, but it was also very much out of balance. I limited my class load to the bare minimum to be more involved with church activities. I went to youth services and stayed out late in revival meetings many times the night before an exam. This limited class schedule caused me to go into debt even though I was on scholarship because I had to attend an extra year of school to complete my requirements to graduate. These were all sacrifices I was happy to make at the time. “Onward Christian Soldier!”
When a Good Thing Becomes a Bad Thing
After graduating from LSU, I joined the church staff. Working at the church kept my ministry plans moving forward even though I was becoming increasingly exhausted from years of a demanding religious routine. My weekly schedule had enough church meetings to fill most senior pastor’s month. I was doing good things but had the nagging feeling I wasn’t being true to myself. The busyness could only cover up the restlessness in my soul for so long.
I had to learn that a good thing could become a bad thing when it is taken to an extreme. Healing needs to take place when we are producing out of insecurity or a need to be recognized. I did not know it at the time, but I was manifesting all of the symptoms of codependency (see the 5 attributes in this blog). I was a religious addict who was using spiritual activities to mask insecurity and wounds that needed emotional healing. Without being properly addressed, people like me end up hurting themselves and others. I experienced these consequences first-hand in multiple ways. At the time, my identity was more connected to what I did for God instead of who I was in Christ. It was hard to see that I was speeding towards a cliff of religious disappointment.
Right Ladder, Wrong Building
What started as a passionate love relationship with God had become a high-performance machine of religious production. It provided a way for me to be elevated and achieve my goals, but at what cost? I had become proud, critical, and generally spiritually unhealthy. Eventually, I would reach the top of my ladder only to realize I had leaned it against the wrong building.
This experience was like a spiritual carbon monoxide poisoning. I wasn’t aware the air I was breathing was becoming toxic. Perhaps I was too busy to notice my first love had been exchanged for the trap of religious performance. I was naturally driven, which made it even easier for me to fall into this pit. Even though the signs were already warning me as I started my adventure in full-time ministry, it would be another seven years before I changed course.
Time to Believe Again
Eventually, I decided to make a U-turn before running into a brick wall that could have ended in disaster. For me, that looked like stepping away from full-time ministry when it appeared everything was going great. The result was over two years of working in the secular world and attending church as a member instead of a staff member or leader. You may wonder why I would make that kind of change like, but that decision forever changed how I view God, church, and people. It is from those experiences that I wrote the book Believe Again: Finding Faith After Losing Religion.
The book is written much like this blog post. Each chapter is a short essay where I share a story from this incredibly uncomfortable but transformative season of life. Believe Again will be a great help for those who have experienced church hurt or spiritual burnout. If you know someone who has gone through something like this then please order a copy of this book and give it to them. They will laugh, identify with the story, and hopefully find inspiration to begin again in their faith.
It took eight years to write Believe Again: Finding Faith After Losing Religion. You see, I type very slowly. I’m just kidding. It’s because I am not a very good writer. Also, kidding. At least, I hope that’s not true. I have been writing and sharing stories since high school. So, why did it take so long to get this into your hands?
This book shares intimate and often embarrassing moments in my life. Just the process of revealing these details is enough to cause almost anyone to pause and reflect before pressing send. The struggle to believe enough in myself to write this book is the story within the story.
Am I Crazy?
Multiple times, I have had to Believe Again that I could finish this project and that it matters. First, I had to convince myself I was not crazy to write these experiences down. Then, I had to overcome the insecurity of feeling I was not good enough to write publicly. This involved dealing with thoughts like, Who am I to think people would want to read what I write? Is my story even interesting to begin with? After that came the fear of people misunderstanding me and my intentions.
Once I cleared those hurdles, something else began to happen. I grew spiritually, emotionally, and as a writer. Through this, I would review each current draft and think, “I have to change this. I don’t even write or think like this anymore.” During this time, God transformed my perspective on the situations I share in this book. What I thought was important was not. Other parts needed more emphasis than I realized at first. This story is so personal to me. I knew time would have to pass for my perspective to mature. This all led to more rewrites. Many times, I wondered out loud, “Will this ever get to a place where I could say it is finished?”
The Shadows of Fear
My circumstances have told me that I am not a writer every day since I began, well, writing. There has continuously been something else I was always supposed to be or do. But when I closed my eyes at night and opened them again in the morning, I knew something different. I am a writer. The question was, would I pass the test, believe again, and take another step? Or would I hide from what was in my heart? If anything, that is the lesson of this book. Believing again is not a grand gesture. It is a commitment to take one step at a time towards what God has put in your heart. To do this, you also have to have the courage to move away from the shadows where fear allows you to hide.
I hope Believe Again will help you let go of every substitute and find authentic faith. By the time you are finished reading it, I want you to realize that who you are in Christ is more important than where you are in life. This is crucial in our journey to living out an enjoyable, meaningful Christianity.
Believe Again: Finding Faith After Losing Religion will be released on October 4 on Amazon. In the meantime, you can pre-order it at joshroberie.com/shop at a 20% discount. You can find out more about the book and get Believe Again merch at BelieveAgain.net.