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Hitting the Wall and Finishing Well with Pastor David Johnson

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Retired Pastor David Johnson joins Ray to talk about what it means to move on after nearly four decades in the same role, untying life’s knots, learning to let go, and finding hope when your time is unexpectedly shortened.
 
Bio:
David Johnson has served as Senior Pastor at Church of the Open Door in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the last 38 years. He is the author of two books, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and Joy Comes in the Mourning,  and is presently the Founder and Executive Director of Things that Remain.
 
Quotes:
“To be full of faith is to be full of hope.”
“It’s ok to be human.”
 
Key Takeaways:
1. Can you be healthy AND successful?
2. Sales don’t allow you to ignore inefficiencies.
3. What’s really driving your inability to stop?
4. Learn healthy rhythms of work and rest.
 
Full transcript:
 
Ray: Well hello everyone. This is Ray Hilbert. I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith. This is the program where we address and we talk about the intersection of faith, life, leadership and business. It is the place where we get the opportunity to travel the country and talk with the most amazing Christ followers who are serving Jesus in the marketplace. Where we hear their struggles, we hear their challenges, we hear their victories in Christ. And so we are here to be an encouragement to you as a Christ follower in leadership. I am in the beautiful twin cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul in Minnesota. And before I introduce our guest, I just want to set the stage for this conversation today.
 
Have you ever hit the wall? Have you ever just got to the point where you didn’t know where to turn? Have you ever asked yourself, what is this all for? Why am I building all this? What’s going on here Lord? Have you ever faced a major transition in your life, in your leadership, in your business and your organization and you just didn’t know what was next? Okay, so if I don’t have your attention yet, have you ever been told you only have a short amount of time to complete what God has called you to do on this earth? If any of those questions are intriguing to you, grab a pen, grab a notepad, buckle up because you are going to be blessed on today’s episode.
 
Folks, I’m speaking with David Johnson. For 38 years, he was the senior pastor at the Church Of The Open Door in Minneapolis, and just recently stepped away and was being called into a new chapter of life forming a ministry called Things That Remain. And yet God is really challenging him in a new way that even he didn’t expect. Dave and his wife Bonnie live in Minneapolis, but we’re going to discover and learn he’s from Chicago. He’s a Cubs fan and a Bears fan. So let’s get that out on the table right now. David Johnson, welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
 
David: Thanks Ray. It’s great to be here. Really appreciate it.
 
Ray: Well, I’m really excited about this conversation. I’m going to say very little because I know God’s going to use you in a lot of ways. Before we get into kind of the crux and the meat of the story here today, why don’t you just give us a little bit of background. We’ve learned you grew up in Chicago, but you’ve been here in Minneapolis for almost 40 years. Just give us a foundation of your early life.
 
David: Okay. Yeah, yeah. I grew up in Chicago. As you said, Cubs fan is a very important part of the story. I don’t know why. My dad was a pastor, so the context for me, I’ve kind of grown up in church. Went through a season in my younger years where I was, I think I’m the most unlikely pastor that exists because they hated church and all that kind of stuff. But maybe that’s just a fairly normal journey. Went to Bethel University up here in Minnesota. I think that was probably the connection that got me located here physically. But then I went after the university at Bethel, I went to Trinity seminary in the Chicago area. Pastored small church there. And after being there about five years, this church called Open Door contacted me. They had a group of about 160 people and took that call to Open Door. And in 1980 at 27 years of age, oh my goodness. It’s like, yeah, anyway, you had no business at 27, yeah, listen to me, I don’t know a thing.
 
But God was really gracious there and I really had a vision for a church that didn’t pretend that we were being honest about our stuff and the stuff that we often try to hide. And God really did something, particularly those early years, kind of changing the culture at Open Door. And yeah, there wasn’t a plan to be there for 38 years. I am a stayer. That’s kind of in my DNA. My dad had two churches in his life, so that was something I always valued. But it’s almost like you kind of look back and go, “How did that happen?” I was telling you before when we just met that I’ve pastored a small church and I’ve pastored a large church and other things in between. It was all the same church. You just have all these iterations and there’s this big … At Open Door, there’s kind of a story. There’s been a journey and you can even mark certain things where we changed our theology and we expanded our thinking and it’s kind of fun to reflect on that.
 
Ray: So what led, tell us about the process, what led you to come to the point of saying, “After 38 years it might be time to move on.” Tell us a little bit about that journey.
 
David: It’s multilayered. It wasn’t just one thing. I think for a few years now, I actually felt like God was speaking to me about five years ago when we actually thought we had to unstaff the next person. And I felt like I was kind of living in the story of Abraham where God was calling him to a land he didn’t know. And I was kind of in my wrestling and journaling with God and all that kind of stuff. I’m going, “Okay, what does that mean?” And way down deep, I’d had a passion and a desire to work with pastors. And so the land I didn’t know would be to leave Open Door and develop something where I could invest in the lives of pastors. Because being one myself for that period of time and having my fair share of bumps and bruises along the way and scars to prove it kind of thing, hitting a wall in a significant way 12 years into the ministry, I just, I know them.
 
I mean I know you don’t have to tell me about your life because I kind of know what it’s like to live in that little bubble. And I just had this desire to help in some way. But that all shifted. The guy we thought was going to be the guy, God really did call him a different direction and he started his own church and that’s all great. And we’re very good friends. I love the guy like crazy, but it shifted what I was going to do. I’m saying all that to say I was 66 years old. I knew I still had a lot of juice. And so part of the decision was not hard and fast, but we could just see this coming. I’ve wanted to be able to do this thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time with pastors while I still have some juice.
 
Ray: Well, one of the things that I have experienced in my years of working with Christ followers who are entrepreneurs, CEOs, business leaders is sometimes it’s almost like the dog that comes off the porch and catches the car, right? Like, what do I do? I’ve been up here barking, I’ve been chasing and I finally catch the car. And that happens a lot in business and in leadership is all these things I’ve strived for, I’ve been working for, okay, I’ve got it now. Now what? You had that experience, right? I mean, you had this point where you, even from the church world perspective, you had a growing, thriving substantially sized church, but something wasn’t right inside for you. Would you tell us a little bit about that?
 
David: Yeah, I’d love to because it actually is still marked our life, my life and my wife’s. When we first came 160 people, it was a fairly traditional church. The first five years were extremely difficult. First I was really young. And I think in a good way I didn’t know what I was doing, so I was really open to be teachable. But the first five years were hard. Easiest way to explain that was that the leadership weren’t on the same page. So it took five years to kind of work through that. Five years in, I just looked around and wow, something’s happened here because all the elders, the leaders with me all had the same heart. We were moving in the same direction. I’m making it probably sound more simple than it is.
 
And I’m sure there’s parallels to this in business, but we were on the same page and it exploded. So all of a sudden we have too many people for this building that seated about 300 people. And we rented a school and which is weird. Usually you start your church in school and then you get a building and … but yeah, it grew really quickly, explosively. The ministry DNA was really about disenfranchised people. The testimony we heard most was, I feel born again. Having grown up in church, I mean I’ve heard the gospel my whole life, but it didn’t always sound like good news. I remember being yelled at, “You need to share your faith. You need to share the gospel.” And like, okay, why are you yelling at me to go the good news?
 
And I’m 12 years old. And I’m not a theologian, but I know about good news. Like the Cubs win, you can’t shut me up. It made me wonder if this good news that they’re yelling at us to tell everybody about wasn’t that good. Well, I have discovered its good news and the grace of God. There was something even in the season of where we were as a culture, I don’t know, that this message of God’s grace just connected with people in a pretty significant way. Being honest about whatever is in your life, quit pretending. It was fascinating. This really affected our DNA. Blessed are those who mourn. The word mourning, there’s Pentheus. It doesn’t mean walk around being sad. Blessed are the bummed, mourning is an actual Greek word that means to externally express what’s internally going on.
 
So if you’re sad but you look happy, you’re not mourning. And I just grew up in a church system and this is what touched the nerve because I think a lot of people did, where we never talked about what was really going on. We had this external vineyard that looked as good as we could possibly look. And when people were given permission to get out here, if it was sadness or lust or anger, get out here what’s in here. You keep it inside, you get to keep it. It isn’t going to go away and it will grow. And so the message of grace was not sometimes in fact, people in our church, in my church even, there were times you could tell that they were taking … the grace was so amazing and God’s love was so unconditional that obedience didn’t matter.
 
No. Grace is not the mattress at the bottom of the cliff, that if you jump off a cliff and do some stupid thing, you’re not going to get hurt. If you have adultery, is there grace for that? Absolutely. But you might lose your wife. And if you rob a bank, there’s a grace for that. Absolutely. But you’re going to jail like that. But what the grace message did for people and many people at the time was say, “I don’t have to be afraid of what’s really in there.” So if I am angry, I’m not going to pretend I’m not. I’m not going to blow up on you, but I’m going to talk about this thing and ask God to come into that. And that just had a … there was something catalytic in those earlier days. And we were, and I mean, I felt like we had more people every week.
 
We went through this season where we even would go I think it’s only being limited by how big the room is. I mean, that may sound arrogant, but there was that season, but it was in that season. Lots of really good things were happening, lot of notoriety, a lot of attention. Anybody from the outside looking in would go, “Wow, they’re doing great.” But that’s when I realized, ah, we’re not all doing that great. One of the stories I tell about that. It was a Christmas right around this time, and I had taken a week off after Christmas just to kind of chill in on Thursday, my wife comes to me and says, “Dave, you’re on vacation. Why are you so crabby?”
 
And the first thing that dawned on me was, you’re right. I am. I’m crabby. What is this? And then, so I just kind of backed up and got with God a bit. And what dawned on me was when I took a few days off, it was like I slowed down enough to actually feel how much I hated my life. That I was living so out of control, but as long as I kept going a hundred miles an hour, you almost don’t notice it. But then I stopped and I went, “Something’s really wrong.” And one of the things that I noticed the most, that kind of bubbled to the top was this anger thing. In that season, I kind of did hit the wall. I emotionally unraveled. The thought of getting back up in the pulpit, I came to a point where it terrified me, which is bizarre.
 
I mean, that’s not good thing if you’re a preacher because you got to preach Sunday. And if that terrifies you, then something’s up. It’s a little flag. It is a little flag. And so we had some wonderful elders and they were very kind to me and said, “Dave, we want you back. We’d like Dave to come back. So get out of here for a while.” And so I had a three month sabbatical, they called it a sabbatical, but it was actually the sabbatical from hell. Another story. But I got into counseling for the first time on this sabbatical. And the presenting issue was that I was angry. And what I was angry about was I had come to believe that you could not be the senior pastor of a mega church and a healthy person. You had to pick. In other words, if I’m going to be healthy and tend to my soul and find rhythms that are healthy for my family, for myself, create the kind of space I need to even be with God, and remember, I’m not just a soldier, I’m a son because I was in soldier mode all the time.
 
If I’m going to be healthy, well then I’m going to … the success we’re experiencing, that’s going to flag in some way. I got to stay at that. But if we’re going to be successful and keep this thing going and maybe even growing, I’m not going to be a healthy person. I’m going to be internally a mess. And I was angry about that. I mean I was like, the therapist the first day you go, what’s your issue? I’m pissed. I’m really pissed.
 
Ray: Yeah. Nobody told me this.
 
David: No yeah. Right, right, right. Well, and even organizationally, it wasn’t just me. Some of the growth happened so quickly and we were very unprepared for it. So all of the incompetencies that as an organization that we thought we could ignore because the bottom line was really good. I mean, the people were coming, the seats were filled. All those things we thought we could ignore administratively, organizationally, spiritually, healthy rhythms, came and kind of bit as in a butt and said, “No, you can’t ignore this stuff.” So it was, I had my own kind of a personal meltdown emotionally, but there was a real sense that no, this is ours as well. And when I came back, it was kind of a, from the sabbatical, kind of it’s time for all of us to grow up as a church spiritually, organizationally, in a lot of different ways.
 
And so that was … I mean, it’s interesting to talk about it because it was a horrible experience. But it was still rich. I mean, it’s still effected the DNA because we did, we kind of took a time out. I remember I preached this when I came back. I said, “We’re like an ocean line in the middle of the ocean.” And we knew where we were going, vision, direction. Well, we just got hit by three torpedoes and I can name them. One was adultery in the staff, there were some very disillusioning things. And so when you get hit with three torpedoes, you’re not, I don’t care where we’re going. Are we going to survive? We have some holes to patch. And so we just, it was really difficult. Wonderful. Because I’m saying this now and it was so many years ago, but I’m kind of proud of us.
 
Ray: Yeah. You got through it.
 
David: That we kind of, yeah. And then we paused. We said, “Okay, wait, wait, wait, let’s slow this thing down.”
 
Ray: Well, as I’m listening to that, there’s the passage in scripture that talks about that, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” And quite often in business sales or profits also covers a multitude of sins. You just really gave us the analogy that in ministry, the people showing up and the fruit and the excitement and the stories and the testimonies, that was like the sales. Those are the ROIs within the ministry. Right? And yet you knew there were some fundamental underlying things that were not right that needed to be changed. And so your company may be doing great, your profits may be strong, your sales may be through the roof.
 
But what we’re hearing is it’s important to take a step back and make sure that the underlying foundational principles of developing your people, serving them, loving them, that’s what you need to be paying attention to as a leader right now. So you hit the wall, but you got in counseling, you found out what you were angry about. You have this great thriving organization in ministry. And yet, I love what you said here. And I wrote this down that I was wrestling with it. I couldn’t be, at least I thought I couldn’t be both a successful pastor and a healthy person. I had to pick. What did you pick?
 
David: As best I knew how, health. I remember, I mean I get all teary about it because I would go, “I want to love my wife. I want to know my wife. I want to know my kids.” What’s weird is that you can want all that stuff. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want that stuff. But I didn’t at the time have the skills or even the encouragement for someone to talk to me about Sabbath, about rhythms of work and rest. And mostly from me though, and I bet this does apply to business guys out there. Listen, eventually I had to face down, okay Dave, what’s really driving this? Your inability to stop, to attend to the condition of your soul, to attend to give really good energy to the things you actually do care the most about. And that’s an incredibly important journey.
 
I don’t know if I began that journey when everybody does, but I was about 39 years old. So that’s your midlife place where you start going wait, wait, wait, wait kind of thing. And the language we have around it now as the false self. The ways I’m doing things and driving, and it’s not just because okay as a pastor it’s because I love God. Well I do love God, but that’s not always why I’m going out of control, crazy busy, can’t say no. I need you to like me. Maybe there’s something in my identity that is somehow being wrapped up in how this thing is doing and man, I’m just telling you. Yeah, I don’t know if that word false self connects for people. But when I talk to pastors and leaders, I like to unpack what we mean by that.
 
And then the horror of what if your church hired your false self, the performing not the real you. I’m sure if you’re out there, you’re really hearing this, you’re getting nervous as I say this because those are scary things. I’ve tasted this when I was in high school. I was playing football and my two sisters were brilliant. They got straight A’s. They were musicians. I was not brilliant and I couldn’t play but I could hit. So football was perfect for me. But I remember as a junior in high school it dawning on me because I’m just going crazy. I’m working out till I puke. I’m going blah blah blah. Why am I doing this? Well it was the love of the game. I did love the game, but it was an identity quest. I was terrified of not being a starter. Terrified. Like I’m going to work harder than you. I’m dah dah dah. Why? Because I love the game. No, this was an identity quest. And that goes into business, that goes into ministry. And so just facing some of that stuff down was really good and hard work.
 
It’s one of the things I talked to you earlier about the center formation that we have at our church and it’s a two year thing. And one of the major retreats is talking about what are those false self strategies that we have? And I just think at some point some of those things you’re going to have to be wrestled down and stuff like that.
 
Ray: Well, what I’m hearing here is we have to learn how to let go. And I’d like to kind of go down that path for just a couple of minutes here and that you talked about you got this thriving church and now God’s calling you in a different direction, next chapter, right? And you had to let go of that. Why is it so difficult for us to let go of things and why is that so critical as leaders for us to find the next thing that God has for us to let go of where we’ve been and what we have done.
 
David: I think it’s a mixture of things why it’s so hard to let go. I think however formed or mature we think we are and however good we think we’ve gotten at letting go of things that we need to let go of to move forward. I would joke with people and the staff at our church regularly by saying things, I thought I let go of this or that. And a lot of times it’s control for me anyway. I think I’m pretty, internally I’m pretty chill about letting go of that and giving space, particularly if you’re in a transition, you want to create space for other people to come into that space because you’re going to be transitioning out. And the only way I can tell that I haven’t let go because I can still do the verbiage around it, is that I have white in my … why are my knuckles white? Because I’m evidently hanging onto this thing because when it’s not going the way I thought it should go, there’s all sorts of unhealthy emotions that come with it.
 
But Ron Rolheiser, author of a book called Sacred Fire describes the reality that we’re all going to become an old fool. And it’s pertinent for me I’m 66 years old. And at 66, I am aware of some limitations that I didn’t have when I was 26 physically. There are things, there’s a diminishment and we’re all going that way. We’re all going to become old fools, inevitable. We have no say in that at all. What we do have a say in is the kind of old fool we might become. You can become a better fool, you can become a pathetic fool. I like that one. The pathetic fool is the guy or girl who is 66 years old and in an attempt to reclaim what they kind of used to have, they buy the red sports car, they divorce their wife at 66 and marry a 46 year old.
 
But you know the type. You know the type that can’t let go. Everybody around them wants to get out of here but they can’t. They just can’t let it go. That’s the pathetic fool. But the one that worried me because that didn’t pull on me. I mean I could tell when I was doing it and I’m not saying it never did, but that didn’t pull on me. The one that scared me was the bitter fool because that’s another … You can begin to get in touch with your limitations and the pathetic fool denies them, okay, and tries to rediscover his youth or hers. The bitter fool acknowledges I can’t be, I never pissed. I’m just … and you’ve already heard me talk about anger stuff. So that’s where I would go.
 
In fact, big part of my story in terms of how I think about this was several years ago, we had a guy named Dallas Willard at our church and he was with another guy who was nationally known, kind of like Dallas, but he was speaking on the kingdom of God. And just anecdotally in his talk, he said, “Of all the most gifted men and women I’ve ever been with in ministry, none have finished well, none.” While I was going out to lunch with him. And so we sat down, I said, “Todd, I know you’re a preacher so you exaggerate, but you said none.” And immediately also you think as in the church context, you’re thinking moral failure or something like that. And I said, “Was it that?” And he said, “Well, we had our share of that, but it wasn’t just moral failure.” He said, “What I saw that frightened me was at the end of the day, they were bitter and disappointed and angry and cynical.” And I said, “Cynical? I thought that was a spiritual gift and I have it. It’s my prime.”
 
Anyway. I kind of thought, I told him, I said, “Cynicism. If you’re not cynical, a little cynical, you’re not paying attention.” But that was a big, that was a wake up thing. This is long after I even hit the wall because that’s cynical thing is a luxury again you can’t afford. And it was just a major wake up call but also made me curious about … and this is all it does tie in with this letting go thing because I will go, okay. The apostle Paul for instance in 2 Timothy, which is the last epistle he wrote, which means he’s really is about to die. There were a number of his epistles that you could even tell in his writing he thought it was going to die, but he didn’t. Well this is where he is going to die pretty soon. And he says this kind of famous verse about finishing well, “I’ve run the race, I’ve kept the faith and finished the course …” da da da da.
 
And I’ve heard lots of sermons on that and the way I’ve individualized finishing well that way run the race is that you’re at the top of your game. Nostrils are flaring, you got it all going. But rarely did I hear anybody read the next couple of verses, which is where Paul says, “No one was with me. No one defended me.” He was incredibly alone. A good portion of the church in that day was struggling, didn’t accept his apostleship. So we quote Paul, at least I do as if he were Jesus, and no, it’s the Bible. Well, they weren’t doing that when Paul was alive. So here he is with no external trappings of what any of us would call success. But he was full of faith. And by faith I don’t mean orthodoxy. I mean I think he was Orthodox.
 
I think he believed the right thing. But to be full of faith is to be full of hope. I really believe God is what I need most. So that became this goal of mine, if you will. If the church goes up, if the church goes down, if they become … If people are going, “Wow, isn’t that amazing? Or whoa, what are they doing wrong?” If I’m getting my life from that, I will be the bitter fool. So Paul became this fascinating person to me. Not that … I think a lot of times we get what we want and not in a brand new car get what you want way, but when you have certain desires for certain things … I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended sermons by going, “Okay, I’m not going to lay anything on you. Like what you ought to do. What do you want? What do you want? You can talk about intimacy with Jesus.”
 
So that kind of ties back into letting go. Could I let go of what everyone would call external success and find my life in God? And that’s what I preach. And there’s just a journey involved in that. That’s why, how do you let go? And, well, there’s three things you do. And oh boy. Richard Rohr has this phrase that I have loved. He says, “All great spirituality is about letting go.” So letting go of ego, letting go of has to be my way. Letting go of someone else’s, or even my definition of success. When I left Open Door, there’s a process of letting go of being the guy, being senior pastor, letting go of whatever that meant. And see what’s weird is it’s not until you begin to do it.
 
Like when I’m actually in that process, I’ve made the announcement, I’m going to leave. There are ways intellectually that I think I’ve let go. I wouldn’t have made the announcement if I hadn’t let go. But then you start feeling these things in your gut and you go, “I guess I haven’t. I guess I haven’t.” Which isn’t, I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I love the fact that I am around people who help me, who are safe to process with them and be honest about going, “I don’t think I’m letting go very well here.” No you’re not Dave. It’s really hard.
 
Ray: So you covered two of the three. You talked about the bitter fool and the pathetic fool. Tell us about the third type of fool.
 
David: That’s the holy fool.
 
Ray: Okay. Tell us about that.
 
David: Well, without knowing it I got into that because the holy fool is the one who in a really healthy way, and this is like the span of a life, they’re letting go. They’re letting go of the need to be successful. It’s great to be successful. I think we all know what that feels like when that is just this, I’m going to die if I don’t get that. I just, there’s this desperate kind of thing and you’re willing to sacrifice everything to get whatever that is. So there’s these little letting go. So letting go of ego, letting go of what people think. Those are all just things that we do along the way. But ultimately, all the great mystics talk like this. Has an amazing phrase around that where he talks about the fact that we let go. And ultimately, as we’re formed in that capacity too, you actually become more spacious. Talked about second half of life spirituality where first off you’re building your tower and that’s great. All your energy. I mean, I really relate to that.
 
Building your organization, building your business. And at some point archetypally that’s middle age, it’s not always that way for people. But you hit your capacity and some demand to keep going, keep ascending. Others begin this journey into wisdom and it’s a journey of descent, which is so alien in our culture, even church culture. You begin the journey of descent where it’s not me, it’s not, no, no, no, I’m not the point here. And you start, I mean in real practical ways, you start making space for other people. You start looking for other voices that you can get behind in. But ultimately you’re letting go of your church and then you let go, ultimately you let go of your life. And there’s this kind of a dream where the holy fool is one who does that well.
 
Ray: And that’s actually a perfect transition to the last part of our conversation here because the ultimate of letting go of what you just said was you ultimately need to let go of your life. So you left the church on great terms with a plan thinking you had a clear picture of next, building into the next generation of pastors and leaders and founded this organization called Things That Remain. And then recently you got a piece of news that is really and truly causing you to let go. Would you share with that?
 
David: Yeah. May 29th I got a diagnosis. It was something that I’d been chasing down for actually a couple of years. The diagnosis was that I had this thing called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Idiopathic meaning there is no known cause, pulmonary is lungs, fibrosis is scarring. And one the lights that went on around that was that my dad died of that. And then a year ago May, my sister died of that. I have another sister who was a few years older who’s on oxygen right now. And so when I was told that I’m going, “Oh boy, oh boy.” I mean it felt very real and it’s progressive. There is no cure. And when the diagnosis first came, there was actually a kind of a relief because I had been feeling cruddy for long time, had gone in a year ago when my sister passed away and we did connect around this.
 
Okay, my dad died of this, Kathy had this. And so I went in and there was nothing. And I had been diagnosed with exercise induced asthma and was given inhalers and nothing worked. So when they said, “This is what you have,” this is going to sound odd. But I actually had a relief. I was ready for them to say it’s nothing. And inside I’m going, “No, it’s not nothing. It’s something.” Well, they told me there’s something. And the truth is there is no cure. It’s a progressive disease. So where I’m at now is what going to be, but then I’ll hit some sort of, you’ll hit a wall and you’ll a bad episode. And generally after diagnose, generally you have two to five years. That’s what I was told. And it takes a while to get your head around that.
 
I was wondering, am I in denial because it didn’t bother me. But little by little I think it began to get inside me and I remember telling my wife, “You know what’s weird about this disease because it’s progressive and there is no cure. What I feel today is as good as it’s going to get.” And I’m going, “Okay. I’ve gone into a few pits around the whole thing, just going, oh man.” And then having to … Like the day it was diagnosed, the week prior to that, a friend of mine from California who I’ve known for years, who’s about my age, and we’ve done some things together ministry wise had come into town and we spent 10 days dreaming and planning about this partnership that we were going to do together. So the thing that we were going to do with pastors. In a year he was going to leave his job and we were going to do this thing for pastors, set up this two year experience and stuff like that.
 
And really exciting and like he brings things that I don’t have and I bring things that he doesn’t have. And we were just talking about, he said to me he said, “Dave, with what I bring and you’d bring and the connections you have. The footprint of what we’ll be able to do, it’s pretty unique.” And so there’s a lot of excitement. But this diagnosis kind of made me step back with my advisory team and my wife. And the question was, do we go full speed ahead or is this a game changer? And partly because of how, not just the diagnosis, but how I actually felt physically. I knew that it was worse now than it was a year ago. So it was one of the really hard things to do is call my buddy Kent and say, “We’re going to do things together, but this big, big thing, we just to need to put a timeout on that.”
 
And so letting, here it is again the letting go. And I’m in the … I’d love to say, “I’ve done that now. I’m doing that …” I just think that stuff is such a process. I think there’s ways in which I’ve let go of certain things and you accept what’s real. But I’m actually in the middle of this.
 
Ray: Thank you for sharing that. And you’ve got the ultimate challenge of letting go that you just described for us. You have hope in that you know where your hope lies. So how could you encourage, what words could you say now to encourage that person who’s listening to this conversation, how did they learn to let go? Whatever it may be, whatever it may be.
 
David: You know, the first thing that came to my mind when you’re saying that was what I would want to say to that person. I want you to know it’s okay to be human. Okay. Let’s say we all agree letting go is what we need to do in a variety of ways to become more expansive, to grow, especially in the second half of life. But in the struggle of learning how to do that, I would want to just say first of all, and maybe I’m saying this to me, it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to be disappointed and even with yourself, don’t go into some big denial about like you’re better than you are or you’re more put together than you are. The other thing I would say, let’s say you’re past that. No, I’m not in denial anymore. I’m a mess and get some help. I just don’t think that most of the knots that get tied in our psyche, in our psychology and what’s driving, I don’t think we can do that by ourself.
 
When I think of good therapists, they untie knots. They’re like, “No, no, I am fixing your problems, but having some …” So I really would encourage the people, business people, men, women, when those kinds of things are puzzling you and behavior maybe that just to get some help. And they’re not going to fix you but good counsel, it’s the kind of person who on ties knots for you. And I’ve experienced that. And I like to think we do that for each other as well in community. And so we desperately need, and this, I don’t know what it’s like in a business world relative to this. I always think there’s some of the same pressure to look that you have the image of success-
 
Ray: Oh, I guarantee it, yeah.
 
David: Okay. There you go. Well, in a church that’s huge too. We need to look more spiritual than we are. We need to be. I’m the pastor. So I’m just supposed to be the one who’s telling you how to do it. Well, I don’t know how to do it. Holy moly. Like it’s a matter of life and death to me as a human being that I have people I can be honest with about what’s going on with, to mourn, to get out here what’s actually going on in here. You got to be careful about that and wise because you don’t do that with everybody. But-
 
Ray: Well, I just love that though. You’ve got to give yourself permission to be human and imperfect and broken and transparency and community and all those things.
 
David: Can I say one thing about it? 27 years old when I got to Open Door, remember I said earlier, I go, “Who are you to be …” And what saved me, the picture I got, I still have it. It’s what the apostle Paul in Philippians 2 or 3. It’s that famous place it goes, “That I may know him and the power of resurrection and the fellowship of the sufferings, these were his passions.” And then he says, “Not that I have arrived, I have not arrived. I have not obtained the very things I just said I want, but I press on.” And so at 27 years old, who are you to stand in front of everybody as if you know. No, I have not arrived, but I will. In front of everybody, my job is to grow and part of that is being honest about where I’m not growing and what I haven’t let go of.
 
And as leaders, I think we have to go first. This authenticity stuff, we have to go first. But when we do, I think it has the potential to create a culture where at had Open Door we joke when you, and it’s not a joke but, but when you tell us and you come out here what’s really going on and you tell us the thing you are scared to death to tell anybody because there’s so much shame connected to it, around here your stock goes up, not down because you told the truth. And that’s where healing comes. And that’s where the grace of God can really bring transformation and just seeing it over and over.
 
Ray: So David, we’ve heard about hitting the wall, we’ve heard about transition, we’ve heard about finding out authenticity, letting go and those sorts of things. So as we wind down our conversation, the last question I ask every guest and I call this our 423 question, based out of Proverbs 4:23 where Solomon says, “Above all else, guard your heart for from it flows all of life.” So if you have the chance or as you have a chance to pass along that one piece of advice, the one thing that you want to leave behind for your family, your friends, your loved ones and now to our listeners here at Bottom Line Faith, fill in the blank for us today. Above all else…
 
David: I agree with Solomon, guard your heart. But the way I would say it is the mystics talk about the fact that inside of us is where the life of God is. Jesus when he taught the disciples to pray said, “When you pray, go to your inner room.” It’s not a room in your house. It’s the inner part of you where Christ by his spirit lives. And my word would be learn how to get access to that inside place inside of you where Christ is dwelling. Turn down the volume of your life so that you can hear the voice. And that voice is accessible, it is knowable, and you will find your way.
 
Ray: David Johnson. Wow. Thank you for just sharing your life, your story, and your journey while in vocational ministry for 30 plus almost 40 years. Everything you’ve talked about with us today has been extremely applicable to every Christ follower who’s in leadership and in business. So I thank you for your story and your transparency. And we will be praying as you’ve got this tough road ahead of you.
 
David: Thanks man.
 
Ray: Well folks, another episode of Bottom Line Faith where we have been speaking with David Johnson who has shared with us his amazing story, his amazing journey of four decades in vocational ministry but also about hitting the wall in transition and letting go and is in this major literal battle for his life and he holds his hope in Christ Jesus. And friends, that’s what we’re about here at Bottom Line Faith is giving you those words of encouragement as a Christ follower in leadership, in business and in the marketplace is holding onto that hope that is Jesus Christ, that’s giving you that direction, giving you that purpose.
 
We’re just here to encourage you and we hope today that the conversation with David Johnson has done just that. Well listen, if you are a Christ follower in business and you’re looking for Christian community with other Christ followers in business, please check out our website truthatwork.org. That’s truthatwork.org. Click on the Roundtable tab there and you can learn about the community of Christians in business all across the country that are part of our Roundtable program. Until next time, I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith Ray Hilbert encouraging you to live out your faith every day in the marketplace. God bless. See you next time.

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