I was genuinely angry, I will not deny that. An unfocused, unkind, aim-in-a-general-direction-and-fire kind of rage only exacerbated by the fact that I was, ironically, preparing a worship service and feeling the pressure of an ever-encroaching deadline, a hurried disgorging of a few sentences, indignation, and hastily reconstructed summary of the past. I’d spit whatever words I had quickly onto the screen – no agonizing over sentences for me; there wasn’t time anyway – then back to putting the finishing touches on the Sunday service, programing the multi-media presentation, rendering this week’s video, rehearsing sermon delivery, and so on. Hindsight being what it is, I wish I could have a do-over – but that isn’t how it works, is it? I crossed a line, I was wrong. No excuses.

But, yes, I was angry – not in the same way as in the past. Several years ago, during the nascent years of planting a church I struggled with anger in the way, I suspect, that mobs get angry: angry about all the things I didn’t have and (I was sure) I would never have.

Nine years ago when the effort began, my daughter graduated and moved out, and the plan was to live off of my wife’s income during the first five-year phase. Urban church planting is a completely different endeavor than church planting in America’s suburbs. Importuned by everything from street marketers to the homeless, city dwellers are conditioned towards a natural defensiveness. The more friendly a stranger is to you in public, the more closely you should mind your wallet. Breaking through that congenital cynicism requires time and sacrifice. So I committed to forgo any income that might come from Sunday collection plates in favor of establishing a certain level of credibility for the ministry. We wanted it to be clear from the beginning, we wouldn’t be a burden to anyone. We encouraged people to give solely from a desire to honor God, not from sympathy or guilt.

And then it happened. My wife, who had had a good paying job when we launched the endeavor, suddenly found herself unemployed when the housing bubble burst, forcing her to work for a temp agency. Undaunted, we decided to honor our initial commitment to the church and trust God for our daily bread. We had no health insurance, and there were times when that scared me to death – as I had contracted pneumonia three times in two years. It was a period when a sudden pain in the jaw requiring a root canal would hit the financial picture (such as it was) like a freight train. Total destruction. It would mean groveling. Beg the nice dentist in the filthy-looking office on the ground floor of a housing project in Lennox to accept payment on the installment plan.

Car commercials made me angry, as I no longer owned a car and, I was quite sure at the time, never would. We managed to buy a diminutive 800 square foot house just before the-biggest-recession-since-the-great-depression hit. But within months we were underwater with the loan and unable to pay the mortgage. The monthly payment was a concept so beyond imagining as to be laughable. A year went by without paying a single dime to the lender, so ridiculously in arrears that on the rare occasion I went to bed without back pain, I’d would sometimes lie there praying in terror, my heart pounding in my ears, trying desperately to not think of the unthinkable: that at any time, either lender or government could take everything, everything away. That “everything” amounted only to somewhere between nine and ten hundred dollars on a good week was a cold comfort.

In an interesting turn of events, we have managed to keep our home and are no longer underwater. The non-Christian would explain this mystery by pointing to a combination of chaos in the financial sector, a slow-moving government, and a wife who is an expert in all things financial. But I know, looking back, it was the faithful commitment to honor God with a tithe – even in our desperation – that kept a roof over our head. But let me underscore, at the time, I was severely distressed by the notion that the improbable run of events keeping us in our home could turn at any moment.

So, I was afraid. At times, very afraid; every day and every night and every time I bothered to think about these things – which was a lot, because that’s the way a responsible person from Indiana who doesn’t have a drug habit was supposed to think about things: realistically. Frightened people sometimes become angry people – even Christians. Facing “reality” after a lifetime of serving the church offered no rewards that I could see. Only failure. No solution presented itself. I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward.

I had put my faith in God, I had risked everything to expand His kingdom, I had followed the advice of experts – like everybody tells you to, right? And yet there I was, broke, frightened, a church plant that was on life support and in a deep financial hole I knew I would never climb out of.

And I would, at times, get angry about that. Very angry.

I’m sure that many middle-aged, pastors and ministers could describe this mid-life crisis in similarly apocalyptic terms. And any “epiphany” I have had is, at the end of the day, already the subject of thousands of not very good blogs.

But looking back at those hurried, humbled days, hauling sound equipment back and forth from storage, sitting in my garage/office printing church bulletins, tirelessly serving my congregation in whatever way I could, a Coke always within arm’s reach struggling to keep the faith, what was I angry about? God hadn’t promised me anything except today’s bread – and He had kept that promise. Through it all, the church continued to accrue new members, my family kept a roof overhead, clothes on our backs, and we never went hungry. At some point, I had to, like the prophet Jeremiah, exchange my notions of success for God’s expectation of faithfulness. That, I now realize, was all I should have ever wanted and, undoubtedly, more than I deserved.

Am I still angry today? Sometimes.

I am not angry with those who have ever wronged me over the years – whatever their sins – they are certainly no worse characters than I’d been.

I certainly wasn’t ever angry with any of the people who worked with me, nor the members of my congregation. It was they, afterall – all of them, the faithful and unfaithful alike – who’d employed me, trusted me, and kept me in ministry all these years.

Okay, I am genuinely angry at Joel Osteen. Not angry at him personally, mind you – but at him in principle.  He, predictably, symbolized everything I thought wrong – which is to say, incomprehensible to me – about the Brave New World of celebrity pastors, as he was not even one of “us.” He assumed the leadership of his church and the role of pastor-teacher with limited biblical training and no experience as a minister, having dropped out of Oral Roberts University after just one semester. Hearing that title applied to just anyone standing at a podium was particularly angering. It burned. (Still does a little.) Because now we have a generation of ministers who meticulously manufacture personas, and cater to lowest-common-denominator theology. They avoid or deny difficult biblical truths  – all for the purpose of attracting more public, selling more books, and developing the brand. Self-promotion and being good on camera, giving good interviews – these skills seem almost as important as being able to coherently articulate a sound being used by a system.

Anyway, shortly after I began the church that changed my life, I was angriest – like a lot of pastors and ministers of my middling abilities – at those who insist that the size of the crowd is the only measure of success and the only thing that matters. That has changed. I have changed.

About them, I’m not angry anymore.

By Terry Sweany

Terry Sweany has served as senior minister of Playa Christian Church since 2006. His education includes a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 38 years and have a daughter and granddaughter.

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