When I was interviewing for my first associate pastor role, the senior pastor said something to my wife and me that I would soon learn was almost a mantra: “If you come to Cold Springs Church, you will experience spiritual warfare.” Strangely, I had not heard anything of the sort at any time in what was then a dozen seminary courses; nor did I hear it in the rest of my courses.
My school required four one-unit “Mentored Field Ministry” courses, which met every two weeks and usually involved discussion of ministry case-studies submitted by the students. Each case grew out of a real situation the student or their church had faced. As best as I can recall, almost all the scenarios we discussed focused on some sort of decision that was needed…usually about a moral issue: deacons using medical marijuana, pastor’s daughters in sexual relationships, a youth pastor caught texting while driving. We also had one about whether the American flag should be displayed in a church sanctuary, which had been strangely divisive for the church involved but left most of the students and the professor wondering why it was even an issue!
Those case studies may have satisfied the requirements of the assignment, which was to identify an issue and suggest a course of action in the matter at hand. What they did not do, however, was come anywhere close to the issues that faced my church during the five years I served in that associate pastor role. (Okay, I confess: the flag issue was at my church. I still scratch my head in bewilderment when I think about it!) I still describe Cold Springs Church as one of the healthiest churches I have been a part of. And that, I think, is why my senior pastor warned me to expect spiritual warfare. If all we had to worry about was where to put a flag, then it was a good week. But what we dealt with in that five year period want far beyond flags…and none of it was talked about it any of my pastoral ministry classes.
I had lived more than forty-five years without being personally touched by suicide; in a span of less than three years, our church was faced with three. One of those was a 19-year-old young woman who, from all appearances, had everything going for her, including a strong faith in Jesus. But when she walked away from counseling appointment one summer afternoon, her disappearance sparked a massive community response, fears of human trafficking, and a twelve-week search before her body was found. Many eyes in our church and the community were opened to the desperate and difficult lives of people struggling with mental health issues. But those issues weren’t discussed in the pastoral ministry classes at school, only the counseling courses.
During a meeting one afternoon, my senior pastor received a text from his son that a middle school principal had been shot—possibly a member of our church. We rushed to the nearest school, where our friend met us and said that the shooting had taken place at another school. For the next several hours, David and I assisted in any way we could as anxious parents gathered in a parking lot, scared young students were bused to the local fairgrounds, and anxious teachers tried desperately to control their own emotions even as they tried to keep the children occupied for the afternoon. Over the next few days, staff and volunteers from our church cared for the school teachers, administrators, children, and parents in any way we could—from providing lunch for the staff during counseling and debrief sessions to quiet conversations with still-scared parents and children when they returned to school several days later. I never had a seminary class on the ministry of presence, but that became a hallmark of those years at Cold Springs.
The same day the body of the young woman was found after that three-month search, a 15-year-old high school freshman died from an overdose of a relatively new drug cocktail. The school was sent reeling. The young woman was a graduate of the same school and in a small community, it didn’t take long to discover that most of the students and faculty had known one of the two at some point, and three or four teachers had had both students at one time or another. A few weeks later I was volunteering with a program at the school intended to help students grow by better understanding the stories of the people around them. One part of the program had 500 students, teachers, and volunteers in the gym responding to questions about difficulties they had faced. With no talking except from the program leader, the response was simply to step quietly forward if you had faced the situation, or to remain where you were if you hadn’t (or did not want to respond). The situations presented ranged from the mundane (“step forward if you did not eat breakfast before school this morning”) to the difficult (“step forward if someone close to you was murdered”) to the heart wrenching (“step forward if you were present when they died”); they ran the gamut from homelessness and poverty to abuse and suicide. By the end of the 45-minute exercise, there were few dry eyes and we had all seen someone we know reveal trauma we had never suspected. But the last question added a profound punctuation mark: “step forward if at any time previously this afternoon you have stepped forward.” As I looked around the gym I saw only one person stand fast; 499 out of 500 had experienced some level of deep trauma during their lifetime. And 400 of those were not even adults. Yet no seminary class had adequately prepared me to step into the life of even one of these scarred and broken young people.
I didn’t hear much about spiritual warfare when I was growing up. When I did, it usually came from missionaries telling exciting stories about praying down tribal witch doctors in Africa or an unexpected storm threatening a showing of the Jesus Film in South America. Occasionally, church disputes and power struggles were chalked up to spiritual warfare. But during my five years at Cold Springs Church, I began to realize just how potent—and prevalent—spiritual warfare really is. Satan attacks the church through the lies that lead 60-year-old men and 19-year-old women—both devoted Christ-followers— to end their own lives. He attacks through the evil act of a much-loved school custodian who guns down a middle-school principal in the heat of the moment. He attacks through the countless traumas that shatter and scar every one of us—you, me, that 15-year-old high school student and the 11-year-old rape victim and the holocaust survivor.
There are courses in many seminaries that address some of these real-life ministry situations. Most, though, are probably not required in your typical pastoral ministry course list; you will need to choose intentionally to seek them out and add them as electives. The thing is, unless you’re preparing to be a counseling pastor, you are probably not likely to do that, preferring instead to take another class in hermeneutics, advanced Greek, preaching, or leadership. Let me be brutally honest, though: knowing how to exegete the Revelation, conjugate an aorist imperative, craft a Christocentric sermon from Genesis, or run an effective church board won’t help when you sit with the mother of a girl who has ended her life or a child who just watched his principal die. You will never be truly prepared for those conversations, No lectures, text books, or case studies will be adequate to the task. But you owe it to yourself and your church to do what you can to prepare.
“For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
About the author: Randy Ehle graduated in 2014 from Western Seminary in Portland and Sacramento, just before concluding his first associate pastorate at Cold Springs Church in Placerville, CA. Prior to pastoring, Randy spent four years in the Air Force and fifteen years in the financial industry, and survived a three-year stint on a divided church board, He is no stranger to trauma; in addition to the experiences in this article, he lost a brother to cancer when both were teenagers, nearly lost a son due to complications from a ruptured appendix, and has walked with his extended family through his sister-in-law’s 20-month fight with brain cancer—a fight that just recently ended with her homegoing to be with her Savior. Follow Randy on Twitter @randehle or check out his own blog, The Rushed Contemplative, at www.randehle.com.