How to Have the Courage to Change with Brandi Wilson

How to Have the Courage to Change with Brandi Wilson

Today we're joined by Brandi Wilson, an author, coach, and speaker who is passionate about walking alongside single moms and divorced women as they navigate parenting and life. Her entire world changed when her marriage of 20 years ended, and she walked through the pain of becoming a single parent in a very public way. She knows exactly what so many of you are facing.

When you go through a traumatic experience, like losing a spouse to death or divorce, everything changes your circumstances, your home, your kids, your faith—everything changes. But so many of us get stuck in wanting to stay the same. We want to hold on tight to as much as we can instead of just moving forward and flowing with the change. We're going to talk about walking through the pain of change, how to deal with it and how we can move forward in healthy ways.

Brandi, please share an overview of what your life was like before your divorce.

I married my college sweetheart. We started dating when we were 18 years old. Dated for three years. Then we were married in 1996 and started a church right outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. And we'd been there for five years when we felt called to come to Nashville. We moved to Nashville in 2001. And in 2002 started a church called Crosspoint Church. It felt like home to me. It was a huge church, but I think because of the way I'm wired, I'm super relational and I'm one of those people who can go into a big church and let it feel small. We started a church in 2002 and we were there for 14 years. Life was great. We had three children, three sons.

I loved serving as the lead pastor's wife at Crosspoint. I loved being part of the staff. I would show up on Tuesdays and do staff lunch and then do some nonprofit work on the side. I would stay in an office just to be able to be with the staff. Those were the families that I had babies with at the same time. I ran a mom's ministry there. I was super involved. I had the staff in my house on Friday nights for dinner and celebrated holidays with them. I was ingrained in the community that was Crosspoint. It was one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation.

Fast forward to 2016. Your husband, who was the pastor, walked away from the church and your family. What happened then?

Yes, in September 2016, my husband resigned very suddenly, and my life publicly fell apart.  I think we all know that when your life publicly falls apart, it's been falling apart behind the scenes for a while. However, I never would've foreseen the fallout that came with the resignation. It happened very quickly. I went from being surrounded by thousands of people every weekend to only talking to three or four people on a regular basis. My life as I knew it ended. It was like overnight everything changed. I didn't foresee it coming and had no idea what was next. I think it's so overwhelming because in seasons like that you have more questions than you have answers.

With the feeling so public, going out to even Kroger to pick up groceries is something that I did not find joy in doing. I remember soon after, probably within the first two weeks, going to Kroger to get groceries, I had on a hoodie and I put the hood up because I did not want anyone to approach me, even though they would've probably been kind. There would've been some questions attached to it. I didn't have any answers for people. I was trying to figure things out as well. The responsibility I felt to my children and then to myself and trying to make sure I was handling the situation as best as I possibly could was huge, but then the people with the church and the people in regard to staff felt a huge responsibility there just because I knew the disappointment I was feeling, then they were feeling that as well. I remember one night spiraling because Crosspoint had hired this couple who had just moved from out of state to Nashville, and as they moved, they also had twins. They had these twins that were just six to eight weeks old. I remember lying in bed one night thinking, what if things don't work out and the church has to close and then they're unemployed and they just had twins?  And feeling the domino effect of being married to the person who had chosen to walk away and how it was going to impact these people that I wasn't responsible for, but because I loved that community, I felt responsible too.

When your husband resigned from the church, did he leave you at the same time?

At the time of my husband’s resignation, we had been doing an in-house separation for six months. He moved out about six weeks before he resigned. I believed at that time that separation was hopefully going to help in the restoration of our marriage. It obviously did not, but I did not want the separation. But we had a therapist who had recommended that it was very unfair to be separated in the house and it was terrible so that's why we agreed and moved toward a separation.

Everything was coming at me at once and it was really difficult to walk through. I'm thinking about listing all the emotions I felt, and it would probably be easier to list the ones I didn't feel.  From fear to total heartbreak, my anxiety was through the roof. I would take my kids to school, and I would come home and pull into the garage, lower the garage door, and go to the second floor of the house so that if anyone were to knock on my door, they didn't think I was at home because I did not want to talk to anyone.

You have a book that's just come out. What gave you the courage to go back to all this pain?  

I get to talk to a lot of women who are walking through similar paths, and it is so heartbreaking to me when I'm talking to them and I know what they're walking through. I know what they're feeling, I know the fear that they're facing and one of the first questions they ask when I'm talking to them is, “Am I going to be okay?” That's followed by “Will my kids be okay?” I got to the point of saying, “You're going to be better than okay.” It doesn't feel like it right now, but you will be better than okay. I wanted that message to be broader. One of my big goals is how can I redefine our family without it feeling like something's missing.

I wanted to help people know that they could still create a family unit that provides the loyalty and support and love that we want when we think about family. It took me a while to get the courage to do it, and it's not because I didn't think the message was important, it's because I wanted to be very aware that I was writing out of my scars and not my wounds. I wanted to be the person who could show that this book is not about why my marriage ended. This book is about what God chose to do in me when I chose to begin again. I wanted to make sure that I had dealt with a lot of the hurt and the pain and the devastation in order to help encourage others that they could continue to go, to keep going when it's tough.

Can you tell us about the mindset shift that you've had to take on?

In the book I write about the day we were separating and my husband told me that he didn't want to be married anymore and that he never loved me. It was about three or four months into our in-house separation. He was speaking at a church in Vegas and we had a free afternoon and we were sitting by the pool. We were living separate lives at home, but publicly we're still supposedly happily married because of his position. We were sitting by the pool and he just tells me, “I never really loved you. I married you out of guilt and I married you because I knew to be in ministry, it would be easier to be a pastor.” We are sitting at a pool in Vegas where everyone around us is having fun, they're having drinks, they're splashing in the water, and I'm sobbing.

I realize now that at that moment he was saying something in order to relieve his guilt. I think lots of times when we are going through a scenario where someone is causing hurt and pain, and they know that their choices are not healthy choices and they are choosing to hurt somebody in response to that, they say things to relieve their guilt from causing that hurt. They say things, they create narratives that relieve some of the guilt that they're feeling in order for them to move forward in those unhealthy patterns and decisions.

At the moment I didn't see that, but I did quickly with the help of a great therapist start to uncover that a lot of the things that were being said to me did not match what the 20 years of my marriage had looked like. Now with that being said, my marriage had been pretty bumpy because this was not the first time trust had been broken in my marriage. The trust had been broken in my marriage multiple times over 20 years and some of them I was aware of, some of them I was not. I did the quote-unquote right things that you were supposed to do with therapy, all kinds of checking personality assessments and all the things we're supposed to do. I felt like we get to do something really great for God, so there are going to be bumps and this is us figuring it out.

But I did start to realize that there had been happy times in our marriage, and there had been love that existed, and there were three really great children that had come out of it. It did take me years to release the fact that he told me after 20 years of marriage, he had never loved me.  It took years for me to release that. One of the most important things I did in regard to my mindset is as I started moving out on my own and starting all over, there was a negative voice that bounced around in my head. And I was sitting in coaching myself one day. I'd just started my single mom side hustle, which is a coaching business, and I was just struggling with feeling like I was worthy of doing that.

Did I have the knowledge I needed to help people? And I was working with a coach, and he said, tell me some of the negative things that are in your head. And I started repeating them, you're a terrible time manager. Are you sure people enjoy talking to you? Do you have the gifts it takes to make that happen? You're really not a leader. Should you be starting your own thing? And he said, so where do you think those voices come from? I don't think I discovered it in that session, but I'm a huge journaler and I was journaling and I realized that's my ex-husband's voice I hear in my head. I had to do a total mind reset when those negative voices came to stop and say to myself, “Whose voice do I hear in my head?” Let it be God's and replace the negative things that have been said to me with the positive of who God says I am. Because of my relationship with God, I know myself to be. That was a big mind shift for me in order to be able to move forward without being pulled back into the dysfunction and the unhealth of my marriage.

If you could go back to the version of yourself that was sitting at the pool, knowing what you know now about mindset, where would you say start? What would you want to say?

I would tell her that she was not alone, even though she felt so alone at that moment. My best friend lived five minutes from where I was at that pool, and she did not know what was going on. I just felt like I could not share with anyone. I felt so lonely, and I think to remind her she is not alone. I think about the power that God can bring us in our moments of sadness. That weekend continued to spiral downward as you can imagine.  And late that night, I was in our hotel room by myself in the middle of the night and I just laid in bed weeping, saying the name of Jesus over and over.  Because I knew that there was power there. I just needed a little bit of it to get through that night.  

How has your idea of courage changed or evolved, is courage something that we muster up within ourselves or is it a result of a practice of discipline or a gift of discipline?

My idea of courage has changed in the fact that I believed lots of times. I think when we think of courage, we think of the end result. And I think what I've learned is that courage takes one step at a time. Six and a half years ago I would not realize that I would be sitting here talking to you guys about a book I've written about surviving my divorce and coming out stronger. But I think it started with taking one step at a time. So, what is the courageous thing I need to do today? And it's those steps, courageous steps that get us to that big act of courage.

How would you say your view of God has changed?

It has definitely changed a lot and in a lot of different ways, many different ways. I think one of those is the honesty I go to God with now. Even though I know before God knew everything I was feeling in the course of my divorce, I just took it all there because guess what? I didn't have a lot of people to talk to.  So, I took everything there. I took the anger, the frustration, and the disappointment that God wasn't restoring my marriage.

I took all of it to Him. And I think before I would've felt shameful that I was talking to God the way I was, but it created this intimacy that I didn't or hadn't experienced before. I think one of the things I realized that happened when we're talking about parenting, it’s buzzword terminology right now, is attachment. For me, in the course of my divorce, because I was able to take absolutely everything to God, and He was consistent in His presence with me, I was able to develop a secure attachment with my heavenly Father that I hadn't had before.  That became my lifeline.  

I also experienced doubt and anger, asking God, “When are You going to show up?” Because I've been on my face asking you to show up and what I'm asking for hasn't happened.

How have you helped walk your sons through this?

There’s walking with them through not just the divorce and the pain of that but helping them process their perspectives on faith. I could sit here and talk to you for hours about parenting, walking through trauma and tragedy, and how to move forward as a single parent. Parenting is my favorite thing ever. I just love being a mom. One of the things I did as I was totally honest with the kids in the midst of it, and when I say honest, I'm talking about age-appropriate honesty. If they had a question, I would answer it. The other piece is that young kids often attach church and God as the same thing.  

The boys were ages 10, 12, and 14. So for them, church and God were equal. And my kids were super involved at Crosspoint. They all had to serve at a service and attend a service. My oldest son, about a month before my ex-husband resigned, was like, how old do I have to be in order to run the parking team? Church was their life as well. So, man, walking them through that was tough. I definitely chose to be honest; I had a friend who was a therapist at the time, and I said to her, I don't know how to teach my kids to love the church and to love God again.

And she said, well if your kids see you love the church, they're going to love the church. If they see you love God, then that will help them lean in to love God again. So, I really and truly started just zoning in and taking care of myself when it came to church. I continued my own personal practices as far as sitting down and having a quiet time and prayer and all of that stuff. I didn't make them go to church for a long time. If they were with me on Easter, we would hit Mother's Day and then we would hit Christmas. And that was really and truly it. Our neighbors at the time were also pastors and they loved our neighbors. So, when we went to church, we would go to their church because it felt safe.

It was so interesting. Mother's Day, the May after my divorce was final in March, we went to that church and we got in the car and one of my children said, “My favorite thing about Pastor John is that he acts the same way onstage as he does in our front yard.” At that point I was like, whoa, you are understanding the gravity of the situation. I affirmed them when they had those feelings that they were processing like that and I knew they were correct. I affirmed them and didn't have to say anything about the negative. I just affirmed what they were feeling at the moment.

What's your experience been with parenting since your divorce and how do you manage that big change?

Well, I hated it. I still hate it five years later. We do a 30/70 split. I have the kids the majority of the time and still every other weekend when they leave for four nights, I hate it. I want them with me. No one has a child in the hospital and looks into their eyes while they're swaddling them and says, “I can’t wait to have an even numbered of Christmases with you.” That's just not what we do as parents. I actually have a chapter of the book entitled; I cussed a lot because what would happen is my kids go from school on Thursdays to school on Mondays. Every other week, every other weekend, so when school was out in the summertime, and they had to be picked up from my house I would stand at the door and send them out with their bags and then I would close the storm door and close the front door and lock it and I would let it fly. Everything I was feeling and how angry I was and ticked off that I didn't have my kids for the weekend. I'm not a part-time parent, but when you aren't there to do the daily life with them that is painful. I'm not going to say that's something I have learned to enjoy. It's something that still hurts. I don't travel as much now because I've gotten used to it, but in those early days I would try to go see a friend for the weekend to keep myself busy or working or lots of yoga. I wouldn't typically get to try to find a way to feel myself in the midst of feeling so empty.  

What would you say to the single parent that feels like they belong at church and don’t want to go to church anymore?  

It’s so hard to walk in as a single parent with the kids because you feel like you're only surrounded by happy families. One of the things I thought was so interesting is walking into the church with my friend’s daughter who was 14, her daughter was very honest to say, this is when I usually get nervous walking in. And I said, “Oh, why do you get nervous?” And she said, “I feel like everybody's looking at us and they know that my family's not together anymore.” And I just said, “I feel the same thing.” I think the kids feel just as displaced as the parents do. I would tell them, one of the things that surprised me is, I am a megachurch girl and I have settled into a home church, so more of the micro church world. And I would've never thought that that was an option for me. I visited a ton of churches on my own.  And I'm not even going to say I had a bad experience; I just didn't find any place that I felt comfortable.  So, I kept looking and during the pandemic, a pastor in my neighborhood started a church out of his home and I started going and that's been a great fit for me in my current season. So, I would say keep trying. I think we often think that to provide stability for our kids since there's so much change going on, we need to keep everything else the same and I don't know that I believe that. I have a girlfriend who's a parenting guru in Austin, Texas, and she said, you're not going to teach your kids to avoid loss, you're going to teach them how to manage loss.  So, in continuing to try to find a church that was a good fit for me, I'm showing my kids how they can manage the loss of the church that they loved so much. So, I think that's a lesson that spreads far beyond just trying to find a new church for our family. So yeah, keep trying, even if it's something that you never saw as the type of church you’d attend, you might end up somewhere liturgical where you had been at something more contemporary before, but try something outside of your norm.

Look for other people who are going through the same thing within the four walls of the church. Those of us who are all single parents have been able to connect quickly because we know what our story looks like behind the scene. I just met you, Elizabeth. I can pretty much tell you what evenings are like in your home based on what they're like in my home.  And I think we forget that shared connection, that I don't have to know everything about you to know what your life looks like behind the scenes.  So, look for other single parents who are wanting to find the same type of community that you are.

Better Than Okay by Brandi Wilson

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