My name is Joshua Ramsey, but everyone calls me Josh. I had been the pastor of the small, rural Longwood Community Church for a little over eight months when it all began. It was the end of November, and I was working on my Advent and Christmas messages. It wasn’t going well.
I’ve been in ministry for over ten years. For the first time, parts of the Christmas story weren't making sense to me. I believed everything Luke and Matthew wrote, but there had to be more. Growing up, I thought that the Christmas story was simple—just like Matthew and Luke made it sound. But this year, I discovered that it was anything but simple.
But, nothing in my life was simple anymore—not even preparing a Christmas message for a congregation of seventy-five people. My life was a mess.
* * *
Taylor and I had been at the fast-growing Gateway Church on the west side of Reading for five years, and the congregation adored us. We were the perfect couple. At least that's what they thought, and quite frankly, so did I. No one, including me, had a clue that there was a problem.
It was late October 2018, October 28th to be exact, when Taylor knocked on my office door. Beasley was lying next to my chair, and when he heard the knock, his head popped up. He got up, shook, and rounded the desk to see whoever was there. Taylor walked in, closed the door, and moved to the ultra-modern couch. Everything at Gateway was new and shiny.
I was always excited to see my beautiful wife and considered myself the luckiest guy on earth. I couldn’t imagine what she ever saw in me, but I never questioned it. Every day I just thanked God for giving me a woman like Taylor. Everyone loved Taylor.
Imagine my shock when she spoke even before sitting, “Josh, I want a divorce.”
Those were the last words I ever expected to hear.
“There isn’t anyone else. I can't take it anymore, and I want out. I’ve contacted a lawyer.”
I was speechless and sat there stunned. I never saw it coming. I stared at Taylor. For her, it must have seemed like an eternity as she waited for my reaction that didn't come. She wanted me to say something, but I sat staring at her. It looked like I was without emotion, but I was paralyzed.
She waited for a reaction that didn’t come, “Do you realize how much courage it took for me to come to you? Say something!”
I finally spoke. “What do you want me to say? Do you want me to say I’m shocked? Because, yeah, I am!” I paused, “Why did you wait until now? Whatever it is, we can work it out.”
“Whatever it is? You see? You don’t even know, do you? You don’t even know we have a problem! You are so caught up in this church, doing what you think is God’s work that you don’t have time for me.”
“But if you’d come to me—”
“There wasn’t any point in coming to you. You’d have told me to make an appointment.”
“That’s not fair, Taylor. You knew this job was demanding when we accepted the call. We were called to serve God, and that’s important.”
“You believe that you were called here to serve God, but I wasn’t. I never accepted the call, but I supported you because that’s what a wife does. She supports her husband. I wanted to be a good wife. I wanted a family, too. Five years, and we haven’t had a baby! I wonder which of us was too busy? Here’s a clue. It isn’t me.
“I know you are passionate about what you do. You always have been. But this church owns you! I get no satisfaction from leaving you, but I’ve been miserable for the last two years with you. You aren't the man I married.”
“What about us?”
“Josh, there is no us. Don’t you get it? There hasn’t been for a long time. That’s the problem. I’m moving back in with my parents. And you can keep that stupid dog of yours!”
I saw Beasley lift his head and look at her. He knew there was something wrong.
* * *
A few days later, Taylor moved out. Of course the rumors flew, but Taylor left me, so the church leaders were sympathetic to their hurting pastor.
Nearly every day I called Taylor, but she wouldn’t answer her cell phone. After a week, she blocked my number. It was clear that my marriage was over, and I’d lost the most important person in my life. For days, Beasley looked around the house for her, but she wasn’t there. He’d look at me like he wanted an explanation. But all I could say was, “She’s not here.”
When people called to see how I was doing, I’d hide the pain and loneliness. It was near Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the inner core of leadership turned to focus on other things, and things began to return to normal. I was dying inside, but I hid it—it was Christmas.
I felt myself slipping deeper into the depression of all the “what-ifs” and the “if-onlys.” It was my fault she was gone, and I knew it.
Friends invited me to their home for Thanksgiving dinner, but I didn’t go. Without Taylor, I felt like a fifth wheel. Everything would be about “poor Josh,” and I'd only feel worse knowing the truth.
* * *
Christmas was always a joyous time of year for me growing up. I’m the kid who never grew up. I love Christmas. Maybe Christmas would help. But that wasn’t to be the case.
Christmas decorations didn’t put themselves up. Taylor did the decorating. I didn’t even know where they were stored and didn't even have the desire to put up a Christmas tree without her. Why should I bother? It was only me.
Christmas at Westgate wasn’t the same without Taylor. Watching husbands and wives and families celebrating the Advent season further depressed me.
I needed to get away.
* * *
It was a frigid February morning when I opened the front door and entered my denomination’s Conference office in Lancaster. I had resigned but was still the pastor of Westgate Church. Westgate was rapidly approaching megachurch size, with nearly 5,000 in attendance each week.
“Josh, come in. I was taken aback by your email. Sit down. How about coffee?”
“Yes, please. Just cream.”
Alan Peters, the Conference Minister, picked up the phone, “Doug, two coffees, please. One with cream.”
He pulled out a file. “Why did you resign? I don't understand. Everyone loves what’s happened at Westgate over the last five years. You're loved there, and you have great leadership teams. So what happened?”
“Alan, I didn’t tell you, or anyone, the whole story. When Taylor left, everyone thought she walked out on me. To my knowledge, she has never bad-mouthed me to anyone—not even our church friends. It’s like she took the blame for the split.”
Alan cocked his head at my statement and said, “Well, she did leave you, didn't she?”
I answered, “Everyone assumed it was all her, and honestly, I've never said anything to the contrary.”
“Well, wasn’t that the way it was?” asked Alan.
“If you mean did she walk out of our marriage of ten years, then the answer is, yes, she left me. But as they say, there are always two sides to every story, and this one has another side.
“I was already feeling guilty and lousy about myself, and then after Christmas, the grumblers started grumbling. ‘This is a Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church, and our pastor is getting divorced. That isn’t right. The Bible says divorce is a sin.’ And they went on and on talking to anyone who’d listen.
“I could see a church split coming if I didn’t do something. So I sent in my resignation effective at the end of this month.”
“But you had cause and grounds to stand up for yourself. You should have come to me. You were the injured party!”
“Was I, Alan? Was I? We were both to blame, but I was more to blame. When Westgate opened up, it was a great opportunity, as you know. But looking back, I should never have accepted the call to this church. I went there for all the wrong reasons.
“When I saw Westgate Church open, I had drool running from the corners of my mouth. It was a vibrant, growing church—every pastor’s dream. Well, mine anyway. I saw everything I could do to build a great church for God. Do you hear me, Alan? It was all about me. I see that now. I never asked God what he wanted. I had all the answers. I was going to build a megachurch!
“For several years, I put everyone and everything ahead of Taylor. I worked for fifteen to sixteen hours a day. I missed meals, broke dinner plans, movie dates, and even planned time together. Did you know I canceled a vacation to Mexico to put out a fire that could ruin everything? Alan, I was in love with the idea of building a great church instead of the idea of being in love with my wife.
“I could have explained all this to the Elders and then resigned, but I think that might have made it worse. So I resigned with the excuse that I couldn’t concentrate, needed a break, and a change of environment. They suggested a sabbatical, but Alan, I can't go back there.”
Alan took a deep breath. “Josh, let me pray for you and let’s see where it takes us.
“Father, we are indeed flawed creatures. You even had to knock Paul off his horse to get his attention. It appears that you have Josh’s attention now. Lord, Taylor is a significant loss in his life, and we pray for the restoration of their marriage. Your Word tells us you chastise us for our good, and sometimes, it hurts. But it also says you chastise those you love. Right now, it would seem Josh is wandering in a forest of guilt and can’t find the path leading to redemption. I pray you give him hope for a new beginning. Show him the path back to you. And reveal to him your plan for his life. Amen.”
After a few moments, Alan then asked, “Have you tried to talk with her?”
I told him, “I called once a week, but she wouldn’t take my calls. I called her mother’s phone until I knew she was getting really irritated. It was then I knew it was pointless, so I stopped calling in January.”
“What about you? You’ve resigned. You’ve got less than thirty days in the parsonage. It looks like your options are pretty limited. What are your thoughts on what you’re going to do?”
“I guess I haven’t given it much thought. I was a glazer in high school and college, so I think I could do glass work. You know, the big sheets of plate glass? Storefronts and stuff like that.”
“So you are thinking about leaving the ministry?”
“Yes, I’ve given it a lot of serious thought. My whole ministry at Westgate was based on a lie. It was about me, not about building the Kingdom of God. I’m not sure God can use me after the way I used him!”
Alan said, “Let me remind you again about the Apostle Paul. He was doing God’s work, too. At least Paul thought he was, but it sure wasn’t what God wanted him to do. I’m pretty sure Paul would have said he was building the Kingdom. After watching Stephen die from stoning, Paul climbed on his horse to go to Damascus. He’s riding along, laughing, talking, and saying, ‘life is good.’ Out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning. He never saw it coming. The horse reared. He fell off. He banged his head on a big rock. Blind. Life is no longer good.
“Do you see where I’m going, or do I have to rewrite the story with Paul’s wife leaving him? When we are out of God’s will, we fail.
“Josh, I have a feeling God’s not through with you yet. He got your attention. You messed up, but we all do. In Hebrews 11, all but one were very flawed human beings. Today we might call some of them misfits. They made poor decisions and screwed up. Some messed up big time. But they had hearts God could use, he knew it, and he had a plan for their lives.
“Now you’re thinking about trying to run away from God. I can guarantee that doesn’t work out well. As a pastor to pastors, I’ve seen men who’ve been hurt badly in the church. I’ve seen others who did something stupid, and it bit them. But if God has a call on your life, he’s not going to let you run. He loves you too much. God just wants to get your attention. You didn’t have a horse to fall off of as Paul did, so he used Taylor.
“I think he’s got your attention. He just doesn’t have all of you.” Alan paused to let it sink in.
“So, what’s your suggestion?”
“I’ve got a small church I was going to close. I’d like you to go there. It will be a place you can heal, wrestle with God, and figure life out. I don’t expect you’ll accomplish much there. But it will give you the time you need and provide them with a pastor for eighteen more months.
“These are authentic people. What you see is what you get. Don’t get me wrong. They are good people who care about their church and each other. I can assure you there won’t be any temptation to build a megachurch. Give me eighteen months.”
“Where is it?”
“Longwood. Longwood Community Church. It’s a small congregation of maybe seventy-five adults, with a nice old, well-kept historic building. It’s not out in the middle of nowhere, but if you climb a step ladder, you can see nowhere from the third rung. I won’t lie, Josh, it’s in the boonies. It’s all rolling farmland out there. Willing to hear more?”
I nodded. I had nothing to lose by listening. It wasn't like I had anywhere else to go.
“Josh, the little village of Longwood is in a rural area. There's not much there. The county is made up of farmers, retired farmers, and some of their extended families. The church is what we refer to as a dying country church, but the Pennsylvania Dutch members would say, “you daresn't say that in our presence.” He smiled at his use of a Pennsylvania Dutch phrase.
“Back in the 1940s, it was a thriving country church with a membership of two hundred. Several older members still remember how it was back then.
“By 2017, the church could barely pay the bills and could no longer provide a living wage for a pastor. Longwood hasn’t had a full-time pastor in four years, and there is no prospect of it ever happening anytime soon.
“We've provided them with a list of retired pastors who preach on Sunday, but they've never been able to find one willing to serve the church, even on an interim basis. They don't know they are six months away from us shutting their doors.”