I was certain that God was leading me to start a different kind of church across town. My pastor was certain that God would never lead me to do such a thing. I was devastated that he wouldn’t support me. He was devastated that I would risk hurting the church he pastored. After serving together for 12 years and despite being best friends, our relationship completely severed and we wouldn’t talk to one another for years to come.
Years later we reconciled and I interviewed my “friend again”. (I ask the questions and he provides the answers.) I shared some more of this story in my new book STUCK When You Want to Forgive but Don’t Know How.
Warning: Reconciliation may not be appropriate for you if your offender is abusive and reconciling would cause further injury, if your offender does not want to reconcile, or if your offender is unrepentant. It only takes one person to forgive, but it takes two people to reconcile.
I was not only your Associate Pastor for twelve years, but we were pretty close friends weren’t we?
“We met in 1994 when my family first moved to San Angelo. You were in the Air Force at the time. From the first I was impressed with you. When things began taking shape for me to assume the full leadership of the church, and I began to analyze who I thought would make a great teammate, you were my first, and really, my only choice. You agreed to come and we worked together for at least a year before the full leadership transition took place. As time went on I came to genuinely love you and respect you. While being different people with different personalities and gift sets (for instance, you’re outgoing, I’m a recluse), we seemed to have the same philosophy of ministry and quickly learned to use our differences to forge a strong team. Back in those early days it was you, my wife, and me. We were the team. And I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. As time went by and the church grew and we added more staff, I think our relationship was viewed as special. We traveled quite a bit together, went to Friday night football games together (although you never stayed till the end), and though our families never hung out together much, our ministry experience forged a friendship that went way beyond the office or ministry. As I told you in an early email in this process, I would have taken a bullet for you. I know that ministry peers envied the relationship we had. We enjoyed being around each other. The tough times seemed to make us stronger. I still think you and I were the best ministry team I have ever known.”
The last time we sat in your office, it was clear that our relationship was ending. I remember we both said, “I hate that it’s ending this way.” That was devastating for both of us. For more than three years we didn’t communicate even though we lived in the same town. God moved me to Southern California and moved you to Boston. We agreed to give reconciliation a try. I was afraid of digging back into those painful memories and afraid of creating new ones. What did you dread most about entering this process?
“When we came to an impasse and I said, ‘I think we’re through,’ and you walked out of my office, I felt like my world had suddenly stopped spinning on it axis. But it didn’t stop there. I relived our split every day for years. I couldn’t even think about it without bursting into tears. If anyone who watched it thought there was a winner, they were wrong. The fallout was horrific at the church. People left the church. I lost my leadership integrity even with people who stayed, but viewed me with a suspicious eye for a long time after that. My greatest fear in life became running into you in public. I’m not going to lie; one of the happiest days of my life was the day I heard you had moved to California. That was a smattering of closure for me.
At least the possibility of a chance meeting at Walmart was behind me. Then we moved to Boston. Now we were on opposite sides of the nation. Even better yet! And then I got your email. ‘I don’t even know what reconciliation would look like for us, but would you be willing to make the journey?’ you wrote. I was surprised and scared, but I knew I had to try. If for no other reason, I was willing to take this journey for myself. The physical and emotional toll that unforgiveness and grudge-nursing had taken on me was horrific. So I said yes, if only for the hope of setting myself free. The main thing I dreaded was rehashing everything. I knew that discussing those issues again would be brutal, and it was. But I felt like we labored until those feelings got lighter. It was the first time we had really talked (and listened) in several years.”
You suggested limiting our interactions to email initially (which I think was wise for us). Initially, my heartbeat was so fast I thought it was going to explode as I nervously typed. Was it that emotionally charged for you?
“My heart was pounding so fast I needed oxygen. The emotion involved in this was almost overwhelming at first. I had two fears: 1) That I wouldn’t be able to communicate what I needed to say; 2) I dreaded reading your responses. I figured one of us would say something that would ignite the whole thing over again. This didn’t start because a couple of immature people got their feelings hurt and had a spat for which neither was willing to say, ‘Sorry.’ This was over real issues that we viewed differently, and then the fallout from it. For three years I thought, ‘I can’t believe he would do that to me,’ and through our communication I discovered that for three years you had been saying, ‘I can’t believe he would do that to me.’ Emotionally charged doesn’t even begin to describe it. I was scared out of my mind.”
We exchanged emails several times a week for a couple of months working through important issues. We didn’t agree on everything, but I feel like we better understood each other’s perspectives and were able to clarify some important details. Would you agree?
“What helped me the most was that early on there were apologies—on both sides. I think it indicated that our hearts were right in trying to heal deep wounds. I knew I had to get to the place that I could apologize, and I was willing to go there, but it helped immensely to know you were there also. I knew early on in this process that we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but I also knew that if I was going to achieve any semblance of peace I had to get to the point that I was OK with that. I knew that neither of us could just say, ‘Oops, sorry,’ and sweep it all under the rug as if nothing had ever happened. We had to discuss some tough issues—the very ones that had divided us in the first place, and we had to get closure on them or this attempt would be a failure.
I thought that if we were going to take a stab at this we would need some pretty defined guidelines and boundaries. I thought we negotiated those well. It would take place via email (I couldn’t have done this via phone. I wasn’t there yet.) We also agreed that we would not allow reading anything into statements. It is impossible to read emotion or intent in an email, so if there were any uncertainties, we would stay at it until we got a clarification. Those happened several times. The other requirement had to be complete honesty. I absolutely agree that we were able to clarify some important details. I think we both saw some statements and decisions that were made in a different light than before. I think we both came to understand several issues differently and gained insight and perspective that had been lost on us in the heat of the moment.” Reconciliation doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on everything.
Here’s some insight from one of your emails to me: “I think there are things about those days that we would still disagree on and about, and I am perfectly OK with that. I have gotten some clarity and perspective through this quite extended exchange we have been having. My vote is that we move on and forward. We are both analytics and I suspect we could debate specific points till the cows come home, but my perspective is that would be pointless and potentially harmful, and I would like for our harmful days to be behind us. I would like for you and me to be able to do something that Paul and Barnabas were evidently unable to do: experience disagreement and hurt, but move past it to a restored friendship. The mutual regrets expressed, apologies offered, and explanations given are enough for me to move past them, and I am ready to do so.”
The reconciliation process has helped me gain a bigger perspective about the past, about you, and about us, and softened my heart toward you. How has the reconciliation process helped you?
“In the same way. Although anything we build from here on out will obviously be built on the foundation of what we had before, I tend to see it more in the context of a new endeavor than a revival. We have common memories (and I think more good than bad), but everything else has changed. We live in different places. Our ministries are different. Our families are at different stages. That is a lot of new material with which to rebuild, with twelve years of great memories and victories thrown in to season it and give it a familiar foundation. At the end of it all, I had to come to the place I was no longer willing to let one disagreement define my relationship with you. As stated, I’m sure we will never see everything about that issue eye-to-eye, but was I willing to let one issue kill the twelve incredible years we spent together in ministry? My answer was no. During those years we were leading the fastest growing church in San Angelo. Every day was a new adventure. We both wear wreathes and scars from those days and I wouldn’t have wanted to have experienced that with anyone else. I wish we had not lost those years.”
We are still rebuilding our friendship, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have you back into my life. To help display our renewed friendship, would you publicly and fully declare yourself a Dallas Cowboys’ fan?
“Nope. That is where I draw the line. That loud thud you heard was me putting my foot down.
Q: What’s the difference between the Dallas Cowboys and a dollar bill?
A: You can still get four quarters out of a dollar bill.”
Mark Riggins is the Community Life Pastor at ENCOUNTER | Bible Fellowship Church in Ventura, CA. His new book STUCK When You Want to Forgive but Don’t Know How is available now on Amazon. Sign-up HERE for a FREE 30-Day Online Forgiveness Devotional. You can follow Mark on his blog: www.markriggins.org.