Justin Davis: My First Affair Was with the Church

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Justin Davis: My First Affair Was with the Church

by Melissa Riddle Chalos
“It’s sad that pastors feel the most alone.” —Justin Davis

“There is nothing God can’t work through with a broken spirit.” —Trisha Davis
In April, Exponential Network and Ed Stetzer released a survey revealing that one of the greatest needs among church planters is emotional support, especially in their marriages. Justin and Trisha Davis know that reality all too well.

In 2005, three years into a growing church plant in Indianapolis, Justin had an affair with a woman on his staff who happened to be Trisha’s best friend. Although the church plant had launched under the watchful eye of two local, contributing churches and Justin met with accountability partners weekly, his fall was inevitable, he says, because his first mistress was the church herself.

The Davises lost everything. But after two months of marital resuscitation and four years of spiritual and emotional healing and restoration, they returned to ministry at Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tenn., where Justin serves as a campus pastor. Today, they are not only committed to prioritizing their marriage over their ministry, but also to helping other church planters, leaders, and their spouses with troubled marriages through RefineUs.org, the ministry the Davises launched in 2009. The couple just finished their first book, Destroying Ordinary: From Marriage As Usual to the Marriage You’ve Dreamed Of, scheduled to release next year. Here, they talk openly about their experience and how it changed their lives and has become the foundation for their ministry.

Justin, when you look back over your ministry before the affair, did the expectation of growing a large church contribute to the fall?

Justin: When Trisha and I married, we had this vision to change the world for Christ. It was never our intention to move 15 times in an effort to fulfill that vision, but we felt called, and every time, it was in pursuit of my dreams of becoming an important youth pastor. I had this ambition to have a big ministry, along with the understanding that the size of your ministry and how much influence you have in the greater church is related to the success you can have in your local ministry. Those things really pre-empted my development as a person, as a Christian.

When we moved from Kokomo, Ind., to Nashville, Tenn., 10 years ago, I was excited to go to the next place because it was bigger, better and would give me a larger platform, but Trisha was devastated because she’d just invested her whole heart there. Then shortly after we arrived in Nashville, we left in 2002 to plant the church in Indianapolis.

Trisha: And that was the hardest place to be because the ministry we’d been at prior was the longest we’d been anywhere (three-and-a-half years). I was really well connected with our students and my small group of girls. I was very involved with the worship team, and it was the first time that, from the senior pastor on down, I felt they saw my gifts.

Justin: That’s the difference: Trisha is an investor in people. I was a user of people. I leveraged people; I didn’t invest in them. We’d move from these ministries, and she’d have very deep heartfelt relationship with so many people, but people to me were a commodity, a means to an end to get to a place. I didn’t feel that way in the moment, but looking back on how I treated them and the dysfunction in my own heart gave me the perspective to know that. I was just using them to help me accomplish what I wanted to in ministry.

Trisha: The moves were a loss of investment. Before social media, before Facebook, we moved, and we lost connections.

Justin: That whole issue [pursuing my dreams of importance, Trisha connecting and then being uprooted] was grinding against us for 10 years.

Justin Davis: My First Affair Was with the Church

by Melissa Riddle Chalos

Many church planting leaders are saying we need to start at the beginning with assessment. Looking back at the assessment process, were there blind spots, land mines the process missed?

Justin: When we moved from Nashville to Indianapolis in 2002 to plant the church, that was the first move since the first one right out of college that we were both on the same page, felt like God had laid it on both our hearts. We were living out a biblical story. We felt like we wanted to do it right, get a church going.

Trisha: Even with all the dysfunction we’d experienced in ministry up to that point, we felt it had been worth it because now we were starting fresh, with Genesis…starting with a small group of nine people, and within three years, there were 700. There was a lot of opportunity to continue with that excitement and purity at each step, but at some point it became, in [Justin’s] mind, “Look at what I’ve built…I’ve got to keep this machine going.”

Justin: The reality was we did an assessment. We did what was called a “parachute drop.” When we moved to Indianapolis, we didn’t know anyone. Over the next couple of months, we partnered with two other megachurches in the area, and they adopted us and provided us with resources and people. And part of that was we had to go through an assessment, to make sure we were qualified, that our marriage was in good shape.

Trisha: Which was hard because I was [pregnant] and so sick and so tired. I wasn’t 100 percent engaged in the process.

Justin: Most church planters have these blind spots, but they’re not really blind. They know they’re there. There’s just not an environment within the church planting movement that’s safe enough to be really honest about your life. That was me. There are safe struggles to confess—me saying, “Trisha and I are really having trouble communicating,” is a lot more acceptable than, “I’m really struggling with lust after a staff member.” Those are two different things, as far as safety goes.

Rather than having confidence in the fact that this network of people helping us with this church plant were for us, it felt like they were dangling a carrot in front of us saying, “If you jump through all the hoops and prove yourself worthy enough, here’s $160,000, and you can have it to plant your church.”

You never want to show chinks in the armor because you know you won’t get funding or you’ll get fired. The expectation—our church grew so fast, at 18 months old, we had a capital campaign to raise $1million to buy land, so then the stakes went up even higher. As a church planter, you’re constantly feeling ill equipped anyway. I remember Trisha asking me, “What are you going to do today?” And I said, “I don’t know. There’s no agenda. I’ve never done this before.”

Honestly, what’s appealing is the complete lack of accountability.

Trisha: There’s the seduction to church planting leadership. You really are selling yourself to sell the vision of God. People want to be elders [in the church] because they buy in to the vision [the church planter is] selling them. It almost creates an elusive person in their hearts and minds. Who you really are is almost too crushing for them to handle.

When things got really bad, I completely had a meltdown with one of our elders and his wife, on a Sunday morning in the hallway, and they sincerely listened to me. But their response was, “You’re overreacting,” which translated to me that they thought I was crazy. Nothing was done about it. Four weeks later, we were separated.

Justin Davis: My First Affair Was with the Church

by Melissa Riddle Chalos

Did you have any accountability postlaunch?

Justin: Well, yes. I had accountability. I had a church planting coach I met with every Tuesday morning. I had an elder I met with every Wednesday morning for accountability. But accountability is useless; it’s just a Christian term we’ve come up with to make ourselves sound more spiritual than we really are because we offer accountability but not real transparency.

If I’m not transparent with you, if I don’t let you into the dark parts of my heart, we can meet every day as accountability partners, and we’ll both feel good about it because it’s the Christian thing to do. As long as I’m withholding truth, I’m not placing myself under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and I’m not allowing God to work in the areas of my life that I’ve withheld from Him and from everyone else.

That was one of the most painful things for my accountability partners. [They said,] “We got together with you every week for two years! Why didn’t you say anything? Why weren’t you honest with us?”

But I felt like, if I share this with him, I’ll get fired, I’ll lose everything. And in the process of not sharing it, I lost everything.

If you had been honest, would anything have been different?

Justin: I’d have lost the church anyway, but the collateral damage wouldn’t have been so great. I still lost my job, but the loss of the marriage that we had and the friendships we had that to this day have wounds in them—all because I wasn’t completely honest.

Trisha: We’ve come to recognize that people want to focus on the affair, but the affair was a symptom of much greater issues. I definitely had my own junk. I didn’t cause the affair, but our dysfunction fed into each other.

Could anything have been improved on the assessment end that could’ve revealed these issues earlier?

Justin: We’re talking to a couple of organizations about that very thing. Our passion as a couple is to help create a safe place in that qualification process. What if there was a safe place to say things like, “We look good on the outside, but our marriage is dying on the inside,” or “We haven’t been intimate in seven months,” or “We fight like cats and dogs, but we put on a good front when we come to church on Sunday”—the stuff you never want to show.

Trisha: And as the church grows, it’s knowing what questions to ask. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s wise. And I think that’s the biggest missing part of the church planting world, recognizing and addressing, “What are the pieces of your story?” And understanding the pieces of his story—what fills him up, what drains the life out of him, how he’s wired. And asking the same questions to the spouse and even asking some of those questions to their children.

Justin: I don’t think it’s a question thing; I think it’s a relationship thing. It’s more of a “Hey, we believe in you and your wife, and we’re willing to invest money in that belief and in what God has laid on your heart. But we believe in you enough to give you permission to be honest. We’re not going to judge you, and if you have baggage or issues that you need to deal with, it doesn’t disqualify you yet. We’re going to get you help.”

Developing that relationship with a husband and wife would help immensely. We all need someone we can be honest with because they don’t have that person in their church, which is sad. It’s sad that pastors feel the most alone.

Is that what you’re hearing now that you’re sharing your story?

Trisha: Yes, these spouses feel they’re on a journey with their spouses in this ministry, but as the church grows, you slowly get pushed out the door; you’re not needed anymore. There’s always adapting that has to take place, but no one is speaking to that. And that’s where loneliness and a huge sense of guilt comes in. You feel guilty for wanting the attention of your husband, guilty for getting upset when he’s not home because he’s ministering to so and so, guilty for wanting to have family time but being told, “This is part of the sacrifice of being in ministry.” So there’s a mental war going on.

Justin: And when you have a wife living out of guilt, she’s never able to give the best parts of her heart to her husband because there’s always that perception that “I’m just not good enough.” It’s a cycle.

Trisha: It’s a spouse thing, not just wives. Truth is there’s no part-time ministry. My best friend’s husband felt the same way, like he came second to his wife’s ministry at our church.

In our situation, we had a man (Justin) and a woman (my best friend) who were burning it at both ends at the church, and they understood each other’s world because they were in it, and their spouses weren’t. And their spouses were already feeling like they’re not providing what they should at home. It was a recipe for disaster.

Church planting accelerates that. The ingredients seem to come together faster. When you start out with 30 and go to 300, there’s just so much change, so much pressure, and that pastor, or that staff person, that spouse gets lost in it and never knows if it’s possible to speak truth.

Do you believe it’s possible to lead and grow a church and still remain healthy?

Justin: When we came back into ministry, it didn’t feel like it did before, didn’t have that sense of euphoria like it had before. So we started going to counseling. The counselor told Trisha: “You’ve basically re-engaged with the other mistress.”

When the affair happened, there were really two mistresses in my life—the woman I had the affair with and the church. Two things I was giving my attention and adoration to that should be reserved for Trisha. And even when the other woman was out of the picture, the church was back in the picture.

Trisha: After all we’d been through, I really thought we were going back to the promised land when we decided to move to Nashville to minister at Cross Point. But when we got here, we realized ministry is just as messy here as anywhere, and it was overwhelming to me. I wasn’t frustrated with Justin or Cross Point. I was frustrated with God.

Justin: It is possible to grow a ministry and have healthy boundaries, but the pastor has to set those. The only reason I had boundaries is because I felt like I had to with Trisha. I felt that at some level, she was holding me back—her wanting me home, her calling me four times a day. Everyone sees the affair, the moral failure, but there are these little incremental losses that begin to accumulate along the way, and before you know it, what started out as a small distance grows to an insurmountable one. That’s how church leaders justify their choices. Because they’ve been so disconnected from their spouses for so long, it doesn’t seem wrong anymore in their minds.

What has to happen for the church not to be a pastor’s mistress, when ministry is almost designed for that?

Justin: Ministry is not intended to be a machine. And that’s not what’s in most ministers’ hearts. But there’s a business aspect to it, and most of us are wired to accomplish things.

But think about what is celebrated. People celebrate success. They don’t celebrate character development. They don’t sit around going, “Oh my gosh, Justin, you’re so patient. I love how you’ve developed patience over the past year.” They say, “Wow, you’ve grown your campus to over a thousand people in the past year, that’s awesome! Keep it up!”

So we have to change what we celebrate and give more attention to celebrating what matters. It’s not as sexy, not as noticeable. You’re not going to have a main speaker at Catalyst who is there because he’s so humble. No, he’s there because he’s dynamic, outrageous, and because his churches are exploding. When we constantly shine lights on those people, we’re going to continue to have church planters constantly aspiring to be those types of people.

Trisha: One of the church planting heads we spoke with said, “The story we’re telling is that success is numbers, but we need to start telling a different story.” If your church stays at 200, does that mean you’re not successful? A smaller church might feel safer for a broken family to not feel overwhelmed.

Justin: Most church planters are more concerned with their fame than with their health. That used to be me. I knew that working 80 hours a week wasn’t healthy, but I knew it would help me get the job done. My first mistress was the church.

The question now is “What is most healthy?” We do that in our physical sense, exercise, watching what we eat. But we take the relationship we’ve been given, the one that’s supposed to be second only to Christ—our marriage—and we think we can “cheat” it with time and attention and it will magically be OK. That’s why we’ve geared our ministry toward church planters. We want to help them avoid some of the same pitfalls that we’ve experienced.

What’s different about being in ministry where you are, at Cross Point, and being in a church plant ministry? The Bellevue campus is an offshoot, but it does have a lot of commonalities with a new church plant. So why is this palatable?

Justin: You just talked me into planting another church. Thank you! (laughing) Well, there is a support system in place. But the biggest difference is that Cross Point already has a vision. I didn’t have to initiate or sell the vision. I just had to join in with it. As a church planter, you have to create momentum, but here, I get to ride other people’s momentum a little bit, as well as contribute to it.

Trisha: Where is our counselor when we need him? Cross Point elders asked us hard questions, and not just questions to benefit the church, but questions to benefit us. There are people on our elder board who have experienced their own brokenness, who have a genuine desire to see us succeed as a family even before seeing Justin succeed as a pastor.

Would you consider church planting again?

Justin: At this point, the way that I’m wired, the way I’m designed, I don’t know that I have the emotional capacity to do that. You have to sacrifice yourself, and honestly, I don’t know that it’s worth it to me. I would definitely have to be audibly called by God and He would have to visit Trisha in a dream and write it in the sky and have a donkey speak it to her as well.

How has this changed your perspective on people in the pew? Has it changed how you do church?

Justin: From a personal standpoint, not even as a pastor, it’s made me appreciate grace so much more, taught me not to have a judgmental spirit toward anyone.

I remember, when Trisha and I were separated (after the affair), we’d go to church and were literally hanging on to every word the pastor said because we needed it so desperately. So when I’m speaking on a Sunday now, I know there are people there for whom this is their last chance. They’ve given God or their marriage or maybe even their life one more Sunday, and then it could be over. I’m more keenly aware of this fact.

What used to matter to me was the production, the lighting, the sound, the transitions. Being out of ministry for four years, being desperate for God, I didn’t need a lighting cue, I didn’t need a production. I just needed the Gospel. It doesn’t have to be perfect for God to show up.

Also, for us collectively, we’ve gone ahead and given people permission to be broken, to speak hard truth, to be vulnerable, and to not have it all together.

Trisha: I think people listen with a more attentive ear because we’ve experienced it. And we’re still experiencing it. People want to package our story with a pretty bow around it, but it will be a struggle till the day we’re in heaven—parts of our story that are not redeemed—and it’s hard. The core of God who created us to be, our healing and redemption are in His hands. There are consequences to our actions. What is broken will always be broken, but there is always hope. There is nothing God can’t work through with a broken spirit.

At the end of the day, we’re still married today because we’re both broken. Had I not chosen that, we wouldn’t be married.

And that’s the hardest thing, in the church planting world, when we prepare our church planters, they have to own their brokenness. Part of it is innocence, not even being aware of their own childhood wounds. And part of it is pride, not wanting to risk the opportunity. But they have to choose to lean into the truth, to what’s being asked of them, to own it and move forward from that place.

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