By Daniel Darling
I distinctly remember the day. It was a summertime and my wife was out of town with our children, visiting her best friend who mourned the recent loss of her young husband.
I was engaged in an incredibly discouraging phone call. A longtime pastor, who had been incredibly influential in my life, had suddenly and inexplicably turned on me.
He privately—and publicly—shamed me and called into question my ministry.
You shouldn’t be a pastor. I don’t know why I recommended you for this church. If I were you, I’d get out of the ministry.
The disagreement arose over a relatively minor issue. This wasn’t over orthodoxy or moral or financial failings. It was a simple as me doing church one way and them doing it another.
If I named the issue that upset my former friend, you would literally not be able to contain your laughter.
I was young, new in my ministry. I still doubted my calling. And to hear those who had raised me, coached me, and ordained me now trash me privately and publicly was deflating. I seriously thought of quitting.
I called Bill Swanger, a friend who had once served as the interim at the church I pastored at that time. We’d grown close in the last few months and his wisdom had helped guide me as a new leader.
Through tears, I explained to Bill what had happened.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this moment changed my ministry forever. Here’s how he helped me.
Bill was gentle. He knew I was upset and he knew I was fragile. So he simply listened on the phone. As I look back at that day, almost 10 years ago, I think of all the ways he could have interjected with strategy, from decades of ministry.
But he just listened to me.
When Bill finally did speak, he just said to me, “Dan, I’ve heard what you’ve had to say. I know the people who are accusing you and I am here to tell you that you are right and they are wrong.”
For a successful pastor in his 70s to prop me up like that was a game changer. He helped bring my confidence back. If Bill, who was godly and faithful and experienced, had my back, I could go on.
Bill urged me to spend some time in prayer and in the Word, and then to get with the elders of my church and talk it through. He cautioned me against reacting out of anger and hurt—to guard my emotions and my words.
“Dan, you’ll be tempted to fire off an angry email. Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.” His advice saved me future trouble and helped me to biblically respond to adversity. He also urged me to get some rest.
After we talked for a while, Bill warned me against bitterness.
“You are a pastor of a church,” he said. “There are people who rely on your pastoral care. This is an opportunity for you to model both courage and forgiveness.”
He was right. As hard as this moment was, Sunday was coming and I had people who needed to be shepherded. I needed time to process what happened, but I couldn’t let anger engulf me in such a way that it consumed my ministry. I really believe this advice set me on a healthy trajectory.
Though I wouldn’t want to live through that experience again, I now harbor less anger toward those who hurt me.
Bill also knew I was lonely since my wife and children out of town, so he invited me to his nearby home for dinner.
This seems so simple, but I distinctly remember sitting on his back porch, enjoying a meal with him and his wife, allowing their fellowship to refresh me and rebuild my spirits.
It was a powerful message to me that though I’d been rejected by one group of people, I was being welcomed by another.
Bill didn’t just invite me to dinner that one time. He stayed in my life for many years. We frequently went to breakfast and coffee together.
He became a father figure and a ministry mentor. He poured out wisdom from his decades of ministry. He let me know, by his constant presence, that I could do this and God would see me through.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to be by Bill’s bedside when he was breathing his last breaths. I said goodbye to him before he went to be with Jesus. The last words he said to me were: “Dan, I am so proud of you. God is doing great things through you.”
He affirmed me, even as he lay dying.
It’s not hyperbole to say Bill Swanger saved my ministry. I shudder to think of where I’d be had he not the gentle grace to comfort a young, inexperienced, out-of-his-depth pastor.
He didn’t have to concern himself with my welfare, but he did. This motivates me to try to be this kind of mentor to those around me who need similar encouragement, to affirm the gifts and ministry of younger leaders.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.