By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
CHATTANOOGA — In April, Wayne Loveless had made up his mind that he was going to announce on the following Sunday that he was resigning as pastor after 18 years of ministry at Standifer Gap Baptist Church in Chattanooga.
He had already informed his elders/deacons. But first he made a phone call to his friend and director of missions for Hamilton County Baptist Association, Dennis Culbreth, and set up a meeting for lunch.
Culbreth thought it was just to “visit” but when he walked into the restaurant, “I could tell by looking at his countenance that he was under some stress.”
Loveless, who is bivocational, acknowledged that he did not call Culbreth to discuss the matter or to seek advice. His mind was made up. “I called him out of respect for our friendship, not because he was the director of missions.”
After talking with Loveless and determining that the church’s elders were not asking him to leave, Culbreth suggested that Loveless take some time away from the church. “I volunteered to preach for him for four weeks,” he said, adding that he felt the pastor needed time off before he made such a life-changing decision.
“Wayne was a burned out pastor who needed help,” Culbreth said.
Preaching for him for four weeks was a way to assist him, he continued “It was a labor of love. I had fun,” he said.
The members of Standifer Gap were agreeable to the plan. “The church was concerned about Wayne. They love him and wanted to help him,” Culbreth said, noting that the church kept Loveless on salary during his time off.
Loveless said he followed Culbreth’s advice related to his pastoral duties for the first two weeks other than his personal devotional time. He did not even attend church for two weeks.
It was a break that Loveless and his wife, Sandy, desperately needed. Loveless rarely took time away from the pulpit during his 18 years at the church. They would take a vacation, but it would begin after preaching on Sunday and he would return in time to preach the following Sunday, he recalled. “I felt guilty when I missed a Sunday.”
Looking back, Loveless knows he was weary and that led to his discouragement.
Culbreth agreed. “Wayne had not had a break since COVID-19 hit two years ago. In addition, his church had been heavily damaged by a tornado in early 2020, right after the pandemic began,” he said. The church’s leaders did not realize how all those things wore Wayne down, Culbreth added.
During his four weeks at Standifer Gap, Culbreth met with the elders and helped them realize that they needed to help their pastor.
Loveless agreed. “I tried to hide it. Pastors think we have to wear a cape. I did everything I could do to hide my discouragement,” he admitted.
Still, Loveless admitted that up to the third week of his time off, he was still determined to resign. He even called one of the elders to instruct him to tell Culbreth that he did not have to fulfill his fourth week. Loveless planned to return that week and announce his resignation.
By that time, Loveless had begun to listen to the church’s services on Facebook. He recalled that as he listened to Culbreth’s third sermon about ministry and serving the Lord, “it was like a light bulb went on. I knew the Lord was not finished with me.”
Loveless now knows that it is okay to seek help, and he is the first to admit that he had a pride issue that kept him from telling anyone what was going on in his life at the time of his deep discouragement.
He is glad that he called Culbreth even though it was more of an information matter than seeking help. “If I had resigned and then called Dennis, I would not have talked about my struggles.”
He is convinced that had Culbreth not intervened and “did what he did, or if it had only been two weeks, he would have resigned. “There is no question that I would have quit.”
Culbreth noted that if Loveless had resigned after the four weeks, “I would have respected that. I did not want him to make a decision based on discouragement and pure exhaustion.”
After being back at Standifer Gap for several weeks, Loveless feels “rejuvenated,” and he said he thinks his experience has made him a better pastor and the church has responded to the coaching from Culbreth. “I think the experience got their attention. They have been more sensitive to my needs.”
As he looks to the future, Loveless knows he needs to take time off so he does not return to where he was (at the point of leaving the ministry).
Both Loveless and Culbreth hope other pastors going through similar situations will seek help before it is too late. “Most pastors don’t realize they are not alone. They have others they can talk to. When we get discouraged, we need to seek help,” Culbreth said.
Loveless agreed. If there are other pastors going through similar situations, “I pray that God will send a ‘Dennis’ into their life. They need to get the opportunity to get away … and spend time with the Lord and get their batteries recharged.” B&R