Jim Burgen, lead pastor at Lafayette’s Flatirons Community Church, is back from his six-month  sabbatical.
Jim Burgen, lead pastor at Lafayette’s Flatirons Community Church, is back from his six-month sabbatical.
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Jim Burgen, the lead pastor of the 11th-largest congregation in the United States, says he is “not healthy yet” after being forced by his church elders to take a six-month sabbatical.

But he is ready to return.

From the stage of Lafayette’s Flatirons Community Church on Dec. 14, his right arm still in a sling in the wake of a recent shoulder replacement surgery, Burgen delivered a passionate message to church members.

He repeatedly choked back tears as he recounted his time away, spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” alone, “thinking and praying and crying and arguing with God,” and working with a counselor and fellow pastors around the country to understand how and why “the wheels came off” in his ministry.

“They put me on sabbatical to get healthy. And I’ll be honest, I gotta tell ya, I’m not. I’m not healthy yet,” Burgen told the rapt congregation. A moment later, he staked a claim to at least being “healthier … I think that’s all any of us can really claim, right? Is anybody fixed?”

Anyone who has passing familiarity with the nondenominational/evangelical Flatirons — its 2019 membership set at 16,703 in U.S. churches rankings by Outreach magazine — knows the fact of every man and woman being “broken” at their core is the frayed thread in the the fabric that unites its members.

Ben Foote, the teaching pastor who helped anchor the six-campus church during Burgen’s forced absence, reaffirmed that he, himself, still qualifies, while reintroducing Burgen to the congregation in what he termed “a special moment in the history of our church family.”

“I barely have any of my stuff together. I’m a broken person.” Foote said, “But at the same time, I’ve handed my brokenness to Jesus and he’s fixing me.”

As church members regard one another, and the personal baggage they have brought to within its four walls, Foote said, “We genuinely don’t believe you’re too far gone. And so we’re not going to give up on you. Because that’s what we believe that Jesus says to us.”

They didn’t give up on Burgen, whose 10-year tenure as lead pastor has seen phenomenal growth at a time when Americans’ church affiliation continues to decline. The most recent telephone survey data from the Pew Research Center conducted in 2018 and 2019 shows American adults describing themselves as Christians down 12% over the past decade.

Foote said that in “an overwhelming majority” of situations such as Burgen’s, the lead pastor “never comes back.”

But Burgen,a 57-year-old resident of Erie, who also enjoys frequently taking refuge at his family’s cabin near Allenspark, is, indeed, back.

‘No moral failure’

“It was always articulated to me that, ‘We want you to take some time away to get healthy so that you can come back.’ That was always the plan,” Burgen said during an interview Thursday at Flatirons’ administrative offices across South Boulder Road from its 162,000-square-foot flagship campus where a Walmart and Albertsons grocery once stood. “There was never a threat. There was never an ultimatum.”

Pastors’ forced departures from their communities are often precipitated by a whiff — or more — of scandal, be it a marital indiscretion or perhaps financial mismanagement.

In addressing Flatirons members on his first night back, Burgen said, “I got lost by my own sinful choices, and by the consequences of some other people’s sins, that fell on me and it came out sideways and it landed on other people.”

Asked several days later the nature of those “sinful choices,” Burgen said, “There’s no moral failure. There’s no financial failure. There’s nothing like that.”

And later in the interview, he said, “Affairs, nope, don’t have one. Embezzlement or mismanaged money, nope, don’t have it. You know, addiction, don’t have it. I’m not saying I‘m not capable. All people are capable.”

Instead, Burgen said, his trouble stemmed from isolating himself and adapting the management style of “an angry dictator.” He became known, he’d discovered, as “Buzzsaw” — those who crossed him could be left feeling like they’d been through one.

Fatigue and exhaustion came up repeatedly, as he talked about what forced him to take an extended breather.

Burgen’s sabbatical started with all the hallmarks of an intervention. After delivering his message at services on Memorial Day weekend, he retreated with wife Robin to their cabin in the mountains. First came an email on Memorial Day night with the results of a staff survey about various church issues. A half hour later came an email summoning him back down to Lafayette for a meeting early the next morning.

“I’m like, OK, and then I showed up in this room Tuesday morning, and it was empty and then they (church elders) all filed in with envelopes in their hands, and that was at 7 a.m. And at 8 a.m., I was on sabbatical,” he recalled. “I have seen the TV show. That’s how it happens, right?”

‘Leaders go first’

There are many lessons Burgen said he has learned, through a circle of church elders with whom he met during his sabbatical, other church leaders around the country and Denver-area clinical psychologist/sabbatical coach, Dr. Harvey Powers.

One lesson he learned, Burgen said, “There’s a difference in leadership, when you say. ‘Hey, I want to take that hill,’ and you look behind you everybody’s running after you. And it’s another thing when you say ‘I want to take that hill,’ and you’re behind them, with a whip going, ‘We’re taking that hill’…. I’d rather lead from the front, as a leader. Leaders go first, right?”

Where is Burgen leading Flatirons now?

For several years, the church has been mulling plans for what executive pastor Paul Brunner said is an 80-acre property sitting at the southeast corner of the Interstate 25 and Erie Parkway in Broomfield. At one point it was discussed as a potential fourth campus and home to a future school. While church expansion has mushroomed to now include six campuses — including a weekly service at the Department of Corrections Limon Correctional Facility — plans for the Broomfield property have not advanced past the speculative stage.

“We had several possibilities for that, a campus site, to a school site. and all of that is on hold right now. so there is no plan,” Burgen said, although he said he is just plunging back into church affairs. “I am just wading in right now, so that’s not high on my agenda, right? There is not an active plan, I know that.”

But the bigger concept for Flatirons’ future, he said, points toward less focus on concrete and more on connectivity.

“Would we like to see Flatirons expand its influence for the kingdom through the Denver area and beyond? Absolutely,” Burgen said. “But we’re trying to learn new things and new ways. What we’re trying to pay attention to is, the days of a church as physical butts in seats is over. People engage in all kinds of ways.”

He said Flatirons services are watched online by nearly as many people who sit in its pews, from Lafayette to Golden to Denver, Aurora and Longmont.

“And now we’re trying to figure, OK, if that’s the way the world is going, how do we give them online what they used to be able to get in a face-to-face interaction? And we don’t have that completely figured out, so we’re learners of that and trying to look at different paradigms of that,” Burgen said.

More campuses might be in the church’s future, he added, “But I think that’s finite thinking, when you think about how the whole world could be available to you through technology. So we’re not limited to campuses. And we’re not limited to technology. I think it might be a combination of both. We’re playing catch-up with that. I’d rather be on the forefront of cutting new territory.”

Burgen said he learned during his sabbatical that Shawn Johnson, lead pastor of Red Rocks Church, with campuses in the Denver area, Texas, and Belgium — and the 14th largest congregation in the country — stepped down for his own sabbatical around Labor Day. Learning of Johnson’s need to take time away from his ministry, Burgen said he realized that in Johnson, he had a brother, rather than a competitor.

“This summer, Shawn and I both kind of fell down, and looked at each other and said, you know, we could probably do this better. So, he carries a weight that only I understand, and I carry a weight that only he understands.

“And I really regret … I wonder if we wouldn’t have got so tired and exhausted if we had actually reached out to each other years ago.”

A Red Rocks official said Johnson would not be responding to any media inquiries until returning from his own sabbatical in the new year.

Rebuild in progress

Broomfield resident Laura Barnes said she has been a member of the church “off and on” since the beginning, and consistently since 2016. Barnes, who said “Jim wouldn’t know me” and has never had a conversation with the pastor, was in the congregation the night of his return.

“What I was hoping for and looking for was humility on Jim’s part and he definitely brought that to the altar for all of us to see,” Barnes said. “I wish him the absolute best, and God’s greatest blessings for him and his family — whether he remains our pastor or not.”

A significant takeaway for Barnes, she said, “is when he said ‘I have never felt more loved in my life by the elders and my family through this whole sabbatical.’ That spoke volumes to me, for the leadership of our church, that he didn’t get tossed to the side. He was loved all the way through it.”

While Burgen spent a lot of time during his sabbatical working to tear down the barriers he had unwittingly built between himself and those he is pledged to lead, he also devoted countless hours to building another wall — this one, with his own hands. It was a dry stack wall, built without mortar, inspired by walls he’d seen on a trip to Scotland, where walls still stand that are more than a thousand years old.

“I had a stone mason come up (to the home near Allenspark) and give me some pointers,” Burgen said.  And he said, ‘Jim, being a stone mason is kind of a series of constant adjustments.’ That kind of became a metaphor for a lot of things. So is marriage. So is leadership. Just when you think you have it, you have to change it just a little bit.”

His manual labor was in tune with the theme for his sabbatical on which he and Powers settled: slow is fast.

“That was the good thing about building that wall out there,” Burgen said of the wall with 6,000 rocks he laid by hand.

“I had to go to one part of my property, pick ‘em up, put them on the cart, drive them down, unload ‘em, then pick out the right one and put it on the wall and adjust it. You cannot do that fast. Because the altitude is 8,200 feet and I’m 57, and my lungs would explode.”

After living the first half of his life on overdrive, Burgen knows he can’t “warrior up” and roar through the back end of it the same way.

He thinks about the walls still standing in Scotland, the wall he has built in Colorado, and the legacy he is fashioning for himself.

“What am I building that is going to be here long after I’m gone?” he asked himself. “The number one thing is a family. The number two thing is a church. That will be here after I’m gone. Am I building something that, as soon as I am out of the picture, the wind blows it down? Or am I going to build something that lasts, that flexes, that can be repaired. Because those walls over in Scotland, there are parts of them where part has been knocked down, but someone comes along and says ‘It’s not a loss. We can rebuild that part.’”

The rebuild for Burgen is ongoing.

He has faith that his own struggles can light the flame of hope in others. After his message on his first return to Flatirons on Dec. 14, he said a woman came up to him to say that she had been planning to kill herself — but after hearing him that evening, she was stepping back from that precipice.

“I probably wouldn’t have volunteered for it, but I’m really thankful this sabbatical happened — on the back end,” he said. “As everybody was trying to figure out, like, what do I have to offer? … Usually, what you have to offer comes out of walking through a painful time.”