By Matt Johnson

Matt has pastored in various positions over eleven years, nine years in MN and two years in MO. He currently serves as an Elder at Woodland Family Church in WI. The Lord has graciously blessed him with a bride of 19 years. Together, he and his wife have four wonderful children. God’s grace and peace have been his supply through the dark valley of forced termination from the pastorate to times of still waters. Over the years, many have come alongside him and strengthened him through comfort and encouragement, and he aims to pass along the comfort and encouragement he has received to others both here and through his blog, which can be found at pulpitpress.org.

    Forced Termination and a Faithful Friend

    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Forced termination from the pastorate. What is it? For me, it was like a bad car accident. Please allow me to describe the scene.

    The Scene of the Accident

    The skid marks on the highway led to the point of impact; it was a head-on collision. These skid marks are short in length. There was only a split second to pump the brakes as the unavoidable realization hit me: we would crash. Will I ever forget that awful crunching sound and the hard, jarring sensation that sent shock waves to my soul? Instantly, hot gases explode into airbags. Smoke pours out from the vehicles. Fluids drench the highway. Shattered glass and plastic litter a scene of mangled, unrecognizable metal.

    Inside the car, my head was ringing. Everything was blurry. My face burned from the airbag. Massive disorientation. I sat there dazed. I was unsure what was still attached to my body or what was broken. Then I remembered my family. Frantically, I tried to turn my head to see how they fared, but I was crushed inside the vehicle. I couldn’t move. I wasn’t sure if I should move. I was entombed. Faintly, I heard a cry from somewhere in the car. Then I blacked out.

    I slipped in and out of consciousness on the ride to the hospital. I can still hear the wail of the siren. There was a blinding light in that ambulance. I remember the jostling and creaking noises of beeping equipment. This can’t be happening to me! How did I get here? I tried hard to remember all the details, but it was a struggle, and then I blacked out, again.

    Finally, no more siren! Faces are peering at me from behind masks.

    Someone is shouting my name. “Matthew, Matthew, can you hear me…stay with us…” Pain was shooting through my body. For the last time, I blacked out. It would be two years before I would wake up from this coma. Three years of rehab would follow that.

    Yes, for me, forced termination was like a bad car accident. It pictures the trauma I suffered mentally, emotionally, and spiritually on January 5th, 2019. I would never be the same again.

    Life Before the Accident

    Before my forced termination, I had served in various pastoral roles for over eleven years. In nine of those years, I served as a full-time assistant pastor in the church I grew up in. For two of those eleven years, I served in a second church, one year as an associate pastor and one year as the lead pastor.

    I considered myself a decent “driver” with a good “driving record.” In fact, my pastoral road trip was going so well that I often thought about how blessed I was to be on this journey. I would lay in bed on a Sunday night, exhausted from preaching three sermons, but equally content and fulfilled.

    Forced Termination

    But that all changed in a split second. As I was driving down the road of life and ministry, enjoying the pastoral scenery, the devil was up ahead in the next car I was about to pass. As we approached, everything seemed normal until the last second. The devil’s car swerved straight into my lane. I was in shock; horror gripped my being as I realized there was nothing I could do but brace for the impact. Will I survive?

    For me, this looked like a simple text message. “Will you be around the study this morning?” I replied, “Yes.” I was finishing up sermon preparations for Sunday. It was a beautiful Saturday morning; I was actually ahead on my sermons. I would preach once that evening and three times the next day, or so I thought. Half an hour after that text, five influential men walked into my study, representing the majority vote in the church. By the looks on their faces, I could tell this was not a “Let’s pray for you” moment. The devil swerved into my lane at the last minute. All I could do was brace for impact. I did not see this coming.

    That late morning and early afternoon was the most challenging day I have ever lived through. It was the head-on collision I discussed earlier, unfolding in slow motion. The accusations against me, the betrayal of the one that I had considered a father in the faith, and the raw evil that manipulated those men in such a frightful fashion was the sound of crushing metal; it was a shock wave that permeated my soul; it was the hot gases of the airbags exploding in my face. Finally, when the vehicles came to rest, you would not have recognized them, and you would have never dreamed it happened in God’s church. The carnage was terrifying to look upon.

    My head was ringing as I left my study for the last time that Saturday evening. Everything was blurry. My face burned from the airbags. Massive disorientation had overtaken me. I was unsure of even who I was. My pastorate was over. How can that be if I am a pastor? Then I remembered my family. As I walked across the parking lot to the parsonage, my mind raced frantically on how and what to tell them. How could I tell them that we were no longer welcome in our church, that I was no longer their pastor? That moment was surreal as though my life flashed before me. As I told my family what happened, I heard a cry from somewhere in the car, and I blacked out. That night, we were entombed in what had been our happy little parsonage.

    Finally, the paramedics arrived on the scene in the form of some friends from out of state and some of the church members who left the church immediately upon hearing of my forced termination. We had ten days to leave the parsonage, or the severance would get docked by the day. The chaos and packing that ensued was that ambulance ride to the hospital. Every day was filled with the wailing of the siren and beeping medical equipment—how did we get here? The ride in that ambulance seemed to find every bump in the road imaginable. Oh the exhaustion of that time, but we got there! We were out in nine days. For the first time in my life, we were homeless.

    The next time I came to, we were staying in a dorm meant to house college students. Pastor friends and family were reaching out to me, trying to encourage me. Matthew, Matthew, can you hear us? Stay with us! Every one of them meant well, but the pain shooting through my soul was so intense I simply could not process their attempt to help bandage together the countless pieces of my shattered life. All these faces behind the mask—it was all more than I could process. I was exhausted. I was in pain. This time, I didn’t black out; I slowly slipped away into a coma. I wouldn’t come out of it for two years. I was now on life support.

    For me, forced termination was like a bad car accident. It pictures the trauma I suffered mentally, emotionally, and spiritually on January 5th, 2019. I would never be the same again.

    Where Am I Now?

    Where am I today, almost five and a half years later? I serve as an Elder in a small but sweet rural church in northwest Wisconsin. Our family is intact. Our children love God. And there is a growing warmth to shepherd and preach once again. I am home from the hospital, as it were. I go to “rehab” as needed. I have exercises I do every day to help me get my strength and mobility back, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually speaking, that is.

    If the Matthew of today could go back five and a half years to the Matthew that was forcibly terminated and visit him in the hospital, what would he say?

    What Would I Say?

    First, I would tell him I know how badly he hurts and that he doesn’t have to explain anything or pretend to be someone he’s not when he’s around me. I have been where he is, and I have cried his tears. I have ached in my soul as he now aches. I have been scared like he is scared. And that gut punch of betrayal knocked the wind out of me like it has knocked the wind out of him. I would let him know I am not here to tell him what to do or how he should feel. I am there to help him take deep breaths and get from one hour to the next. I would sit by his bed and quietly watch the medical monitors that he is hooked up to and pray silently with him, one beep at a time.

    Did somebody do this for me? Yes, somebody did. I had a very dear friend sit with me. This friend’s name is Jesus. I would tell this Matthew of five and half years ago that my friend is his friend, too. And that my friend and I are there to comfort him, to help him, to love him.

    Second, I wouldn’t say anything else for now. In time, at the right time, there will be time to tell him many more things that will help him over the next five and a half years.

    You Have a Sympathizing Friend!

    Dear reader, I don’t know who you are, where you are at in your walk of faith, or what your journey is through pain. Today, I would like to tell you that you have a friend, a friend who knows what it is like to walk in your shoes through however dark the valley may be. He will sit with you by your bedside, watching your monitors, one beep at a time. His name is Jesus.

    Jesus has suffered pain like what you are suffering. He understands what it feels like to be on the brunt end of evil. He understands those feelings of betrayal and abandonment. He knows the crushing load on your heart. Yes, He can truly sympathize with you. The version of you five and half years from now would tell you the same thing. He is your friend. He is here to help you breathe. He will give you grace for the next hour. He will not leave you nor forsake you.

    We will see much more of Him in time to come, but for now, He is your sympathizing friend. He is right there, He cares, and there is hope!

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