By Jeff Matas
Seventeen years ago, I sat at my kitchen table writing out a plan for that night’s church board meeting. It was a beautiful July day in the Pacific Northwest. It was one of those days in the Puget Sound that people cherish, bright blue skies and as locals would say, “the mountain was out,” meaning Mount Rainier in all its grandeur was visible. But as I sat at my kitchen table, the day didn’t seem so bright and glorious. I had been at the church less than two years and things were unraveling fast. When God called Carla and me to Washington, heaven opened up and the angels sang. It needed to be that way to get us to move from my home state of Pennsylvania to Seattle. I had been at the same church in Pennsylvania for nine years and had seen God do some incredible things. Lives were changed, community was impacted, it was home. We needed heaven to open up and the angels to sing for us to uproot our family, to say goodbye to dear friends, to leave a church that we loved, and to move across the country to Seattle.
Once we said “yes” to God’s call, heaven retreated from view, the angels stopped singing and all hell broke loose. Here’s the CliffsNotes version:
- Carla was struck by a car while crossing Grant Street in Pittsburgh. I was in Seattle getting a head start leading the church while she and the kids were home waiting for our house to sell. For the next six weeks, I spent half the week in Seattle then flew to Pittsburgh every Monday to be with Carla and my family. We got through it.
- Three months later, we decided to move the family to Seattle. A retired couple in the church graciously invited us to live with them until our PA house sold. We moved in with a pre-teen, teenager, and Carla still recovering from her accident. Everyone under one roof was hard, but we made it work. We got through it.
- There was an unspoken expectation from the board for me to be like the previous pastor and for Carla to be like the previous pastor’s wife. The previous pastor and his wife were old school. She didn’t work outside the house and devoted herself to the church. They were a ministry team. They were at every church dinner, every senior event, every hospital visit. They did everything together. That wasn’t us. We had kids at home. Carla worked a demanding job in downtown Seattle so that we could afford a mortgage. The unspoken expectation was finally communicated that summer through an email from the board chair. His email informed me of a board meeting that took place while I was out of the country on a mission trip. I was the topic of the meeting and the meeting was led by one of my associate pastors. The news crushed me.
No one said ministry is easy. As a pastor, I’d faced difficult times before. I got through it then, I would get through this. We would get through this. We always did. Carla was tough. That’s what I love about her. She is a smart, strong, determined woman. When things got tough in PA, she was a rock. But something was different with Carla this time. She was in a different place due to the aftermath of the accident, a cross-country move from family and friends, our children’s struggles with the move, full-time job demands, unrealistic expectations of church members. She was withdrawing. She was unhappy, in pain, battling depression. A few weeks prior, she stopped attending church. She asked me to resign. I kept telling myself she would get through it. I would be there for her. I would take up the slack with the kids. I’d give her the space she needed. I would be her rock and we would get through it.
So there I was at my dining room table preparing for that night’s board meeting. Carla was upstairs huddled in our bedroom with the door shut. I was planning strategy. I was going to talk to the board about healthy biblical ways to handle conflict. I was going to use this meeting as a teaching moment. Resign? I’m not a quitter. I was certain that God didn’t call me into ministry to fail. He didn’t call me to move my family across the country so that I would cut and run when things got hard. If I was faithful in ministry—if I gave it my all—then wherever God called me, I would go from success to success. What God needed was for me to be faithful as a pastor, to stand by Carla until she got through this, and to do whatever I could for the kids. I could do that. I would do that.
I was so naïve. I was so blind. I was so stupid. I didn’t realize the depth of Carla’s depression. I didn’t know that our marriage was hanging by a thread, that it was teetering on the brink.
I was writing my plan for the meeting when God spoke. He said, “That’s enough.” He said two simple words that saved me. Two words that saved my marriage and my family. I know it was God for several reasons. For one, I would never have quit. I would never have walked away from my calling to that church. I’m not a quitter. Secondly, those words changed my heart. I heard God’s voice, and everything changed. I left my legal pad on the dining room table, went upstairs, took Carla in my arms, told her I loved her and that I was going to resign.
An idol is any good thing that we make the ultimate thing. We can take something good like a career, romantic love, marriage, children, money and possessions, and make it the center of our lives. We look to something other than God for meaning, fulfillment, and identity. We think, if I have this, then my life will be fulfilled, then my life has meaning. If I don’t have it, then I’m a failure, I’m nothing, I’m miserable. Whatever it is, no matter how good it is, an idol cannot bear the weight and expectations that we place on it. An idol will always crumble. It will always disappoint. Only God can give us meaning. Only He can fulfill the deepest longings of our heart.
As pastors, we see it in our churches all the time. We see people center their lives around their careers. We see parents whose lives revolve around their kids’ sports, where their entire lives—their time and money—are spent on travel leagues, coaches, etc. We see it in our people, but can we see it in ourselves? If an idol is any good thing that becomes an ultimate thing, how tempting would it be to have our calling as pastors become the ultimate thing? Our calling can be so seductive. After all, our calling is from God. We love people. We serve people. We are there for people. We bear their burdens. We preach the gospel. We bring leadership. We inspire. We provide vision. We see lives changed and transformed. We see our communities impacted for the good. What we do matters. It has eternal consequence. It’s of ultimate importance. It’s selfless. It’s not about us, it’s not about fame or fortune. Making an idol of ministry is so tempting, it’s so easy, it’s almost natural and inevitable.
I know too many pastors who lost their marriage and their family because their ministry was their everything. I have heard more than one ex-wife of a pastor say to me, “There was no affair, the church was his mistress.” The church was his life. The church got his attention. The church got his love. The church received his very best, we got what was leftover and it wasn’t much. (I apologize for my use of masculine pronouns; the same temptation is there for female pastors.)
If not for the grace and mercy of God, I would have lost everything. I was so blind. I thought I was devoted to God, devoted to my calling as a pastor, devoted to my wife and family. In reality, I was at the precipice of losing it all.
Seventeen years ago, I resigned. I let go of something good that I had made the ultimate thing. Letting go of ministry allowed me to follow God just because I loved Him, not because He called me into ministry, not because I needed Him for success in ministry. I loved Him regardless of whether I would ever step into the pulpit again. I loved Him because He is beautiful and worthy of my devotion. It allowed me to love my wife, to be the husband she deserves. By letting go of ministry, God gave it back to me. He has a way of doing that, so that whatever we surrender comes back to us the way that it should be, the way that it was meant to be.
This week, Carla and I will celebrate thirty-nine years of marriage. Our marriage is beautiful. It is strong, deep and abiding. We are able to celebrate our anniversary because God stopped me from walking off a cliff by speaking two powerful words, “That’s enough.”