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Culture

The God of Second Chances

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October 8th, 2009

 

It happened during my tenth year in full-time youth ministry. I was serving a growing, dynamic ministry at a great church in Northern California. Over a period of time I’d fostered a “special friendship” with a young woman in my youth ministry. On an emotional level I developed an attachment I justified as “unique…like a special sister…a friend I could influence and disciple.” I began to spend extra time with her. I looked forward to seeing her and being with her. I spent time teaching her guitar and speaking with her on the phone.

At one point my senior pastor took me aside and shared that a family in the church was concerned with what they sensed was a spark between this girl and me. I was stunned. I thought I’d been managing the situation well enough. Because I believed I wasn’t going to do anything “really wrong,” and because I wanted to protect the friendship and my own image, I played off the concerns as no big deal. I told him what I thought he wanted to hear. I told him what I needed to say to come out looking good.

I had lied.

But now my wife was sensing the vibe between me and this young woman and told me several times how uncomfortable our friendship made her. I debated it. I explained it away. I said what I needed to say to calm her down.

Again, lies.

Then, when a couple of notes I’d written to this young woman—in which I coached her how to carefully manage our friendship and to act cautiously because “people might not understand”—were discovered. I was caught in my deceit and in the emotional game I was playing.

When the confrontation came I was crushed to despair. My senior pastor was devastated. My wife was more deeply hurt than I could have ever imagined. I wept. I fell into a deep dark hole. I didn’t know if I’d ever come out.

After all the hiding and self-protecting and playing the charade, I’d finally been caught. Now I had to face the truth.

Even though I’d never touched this young woman nor would I say that I was in love with her, I’d broken the very special and sacred trust of emotional fidelity and honesty that are part of the marriage vow. I had broken the sacred trust of honesty and integrity that’s given to any professional—and so much more to a minister. I confused and disappointed the many students and families who loved me, trusted me, and supported me. I broke the heart of God with my foolish games. I fell on my knees in repentance for my sins.

And so began two of the most difficult years of my life. Not surprisingly, I was fired and asked to immediately discontinue any contact with my church or its members. No opportunity was given to publicly confess to them. That was extremely difficult to handle.

I was assigned to my denomination’s Discipline and Restoration Committee. This group of pastors and leaders directed me to discontinue any kind of ministry. That meant no teaching, no counseling, no youth work. My wife and I were directed to receive professional counseling.

At first I tried to hide. I wouldn’t go to a restaurant or a store in our town. I changed vehicles, because many knew me and recognized the truck I’d been driving around town for five years. For a couple of months I couldn’t even pull myself together enough to try attending church anywhere.

Then one day driving with my family, my wife was expressing her grief and pain, and I nearly lost it.

I parked our vehicle and started walking down a street in an unfamiliar town. I didn’t think I’d be coming back. It was the only time in my life I was truly tempted to end my life—or just disappear.

As I walked it off and my senses returned, God’s love and call in my life was clear and unmistakable: “I discipline the ones I love…and I love you. I punish everyone I accept as a son…and you are my son. Do not lose heart when I rebuke you. This discipline is not pleasant now, but painful. Later on it will produce good things once you have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12).

Little by little I ran into people who knew me. Whether at a gas station, a grocery store, or in someone’s living room, I wept and shared my confession. In every single case I was shown love and mercy and forgiveness. Through friends, family members—and especially through my wife—the love and grace of Jesus was showered on me. At the very time I was experiencing shame and brokenness in a way I never had before, I was feeling the amazing unconditional love and forgiveness of God in a way I never had before. I found a job working as a carpenter for a small construction company with a few other Christians on the crew. Then a small group of Christian men I’d met in town contacted me and invited me to participate in an accountability group focused on Scripture memory and prayer. It took me a month before I could even bring myself to face these men, but eventually I joined them. They became a lifeline to me and put flesh and blood on the verse, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

In that year following my firing, my wife and I worked through about 35 sessions with a Christian counselor. We spent two weeks at Marble Retreat Center in Colorado, a ministry dedicated to counseling full-time ministry professionals in times of crisis. These sources of direction and positive accountability were incredibly impacting. I learned about my ego and insecurities. I learned about my temptation to present myself in the best light, even at the expense of truth. The counseling provided a base for my wife and I to rebuild the trust and emotional fidelity that I had so severely damaged.

Eventually we got involved in a good church where we were assigned to a pastor who had some responsibility to watch our progress and communicate to the Discipline and Restoration Committee. Inch by inch, step by step, we fulfilled the requirements set before us. Just a little over a year after being dismissed from my job, we sat with the committee and reviewed the steps taken and progress made. The committee unanimously resolved to reinstate me to the denomination and once again make me eligible to serve in a pastoral role.

Although my life had been reordered so dramatically, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to jump back into the life of a pastor. I’d learned to enjoy my wife and children in new ways. I became emotionally attached to them—not to a youth ministry. I’d learned to love my new life, and I didn’t want to lose what I’d gained. Over the months that followed, God prepared my heart (and construction work convinced my body) that in God’s time I could again consider the possibility of serving in the church. I decided that the call of God upon my life had weathered and survived a critical testing—and it was time to take what I’d learned and put it on the line.

A church within a hundred miles of my previous church contacted me. It needed a youth pastor. I couldn’t imagine coming before a new church with my story—and a church so near to my previous one, where surely people would communicate back and forth. But the pastor took a unique interest in me. He prayed with me, encouraged me, and led me through the most unusual candidating experience.

He went to my former town and my former pastor and conducted a detailed follow-up to clarify the details of my experiences there. He prepared a thick file to present all the facts. He stood before the church and said, “With most candidates, the file is thin…we don’t really know what we’re getting into. With Carlo, it’s all up front. We can see his strengths and we can see his weaknesses. And we can see his heart.”

Through times of tearfully sharing our testimony with this new church and a very gracious reception by many, God gave us a sense that whether or not we got the job, he was allowing the process as a part of our continued healing. Eventually, Pastor Gene challenged the members to get out of their seats to “kneel and pray and ask God for the opportunity to play the part of God in restoring the Walths and providing a second chance.”We’ve been at Sunrise for nearly 10 years now in a most incredibly blessed time of ministry. We pray so much more over this ministry. We delegate much, much more. I rarely work on my day off, and I do take my vacation time.

My marriage and family life have been blessed as well—with the kind of blessing that could’ve only been realized through the lessons of hard times.

I’ll never forget the night I first told my daughters (age 5 and 7 at that time) that “Daddy had made some big mistakes and that we wouldn’t be able to go back to our church anymore.” They were sad, but when I told them that from then on, every night would be a family night, they jumped up and danced around me waving their arms and crying “Yeah!” In a very dark time, God touched me with the unique perspective of my kids.There was a point when I thought that if people knew where I was coming from, I’d never be able to serve in a church again. But the fact that my testimony has been completely up front has made a very large, positive difference in my life and ministry.

My testimony of weakness and failure—and of God’s redeeming and restoring work in me—has probably become the most powerful tool God uses to influence others around me. Jesus said, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Therefore, I speak gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power will rest on me.”

I’ve shared my testimony with my children all through the years. It’s provided a bond of honesty and intimacy and grace between us that carries us through the times when any of us make mistakes. Now that my two oldest children are both teens in my high school program, I can’t begin to explain the incredible peace that comes with hiding no secrets.

In my ministry to youths, my testimony has become a key connecting point especially with the high school guys, the interns, and the adult staff I mentor. It shoves me off the pedestal and keeps me on common ground. It opens trust and builds a base for dealing with issues that are highly confidential.

In these days of living out my second chance, God has multiplied my efforts with my family and with my work in ministry in truly miraculous ways. “I’ve been shown mercy so that in me, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example…” (1 Timothy 1:16).

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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