Five years ago today, October 24, 2009, I attended a board meeting at the church I had served as pastor for ten-and-a-half years. The meeting began with a surprising and shocking announcement.
Within fifty days, the senior pastor (me), associate pastor, outreach director (my wife), youth director, and all six board members resigned. Many others eventually left the church – some quitting church altogether – all stemming from the announcement made at that meeting.
When something triggers my memory, I mentally and emotionally relive that day.
Although I was not guilty of any impeachable offense – and my conscience has been clear on that for five years – that meeting ended up catapulting me out of a thirty-six-year pastoral career.
Because I want to prevent other pastors, church leaders, and congregations from experiencing something similar, I wrote a book about that fifty-day struggle called Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict, published by Xulon in early 2013.
With the benefit of time, formal training, personal study, and conversations with Christian leaders, I’d like to share five cautions for Christians to observe when their pastor is under attack:
Caution One: if you have a personal grievance with your pastor, follow Scripture before you do anything else.
If you’re upset with your pastor personally, don’t tell your friends, pool grievances with others, or seek to have the pastor removed from office.
Instead, follow Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
In this case, your pastor is your brother.
Personal conflicts with a pastor sometimes spread to the entire congregation because Jesus’ followers fail to obey His directives.
At my wife’s preschool, she tells children who are fighting, “Use your words.” She has them sit down at a green table and discuss their differences between themselves. She tells me that so far, in every single case, the children have successfully worked matters out. They share feelings, say “I’m sorry,” and walk away with matters resolved.
Can Christians learn from preschoolers?
If you do speak with your pastor about a personal grievance, and you’re not satisfied with his response, you can follow Jesus’ steps in Matthew 18:16-17 and 1 Timothy 5:19-21.
But most people who have a personal grievance with a pastor never speak with him directly. Instead, they share their feelings with others – which is how Satan starts firestorms in churches.
Please: if you won’t discuss your grievance with your pastor personally, then let it go … or leave your church.
But above all: follow Scripture.
Caution Two: you don’t know the real story until you’ve heard the whole story.
I watched the news several days ago about the shootings at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. Some of the initial reports (there were two shooters, one shooter was a member of al Qaeda) proved not to be true. We’ll learn more about what happened with each passing day.
When a pastor is under fire, the initial accounts you hear may not be true. If you believe and distribute those reports without solid evidence, you may be responsible for spreading rumors that will hurt people and damage your congregation’s soul.
The only way to know the whole story is to:
*wait for an official investigation
*hear all sides of the issue
*discount anyone who intends to hurt or punish the pastor
During a conflict, it’s tempting to adopt the viewpoint of your friends so you’ll fit in. After all, if you disagree too strongly with their views, they might freeze you out from their inner circle.
But if you jump on the “kick out the pastor” bandwagon, you may later be viewed with suspicion as someone who overreacts. It’s far better to wait for the truth to come out – and that may take months.
Fifteen days after our conflict surfaced, I sat in two meetings of the congregation (totaling three-and-a-half hours) and did not say a word in my own defense. I suppose many people assumed that I was guilty of the charges because I did not respond to them.
But the consultant who was present that Sunday had advised me not to say anything in the meetings, and I promised him I wouldn’t. If I had spoken up, I could have exposed the entire plot and decimated my critics, but I didn’t. In fact, I never said one word in any public church meetings in my own defense.
And then I waited more than three years to tell my story in writing.
I wonder … how many people waited for the whole story to come out before hardening their opinions?
Caution Three: insist that church leaders use love first, and only use power when love doesn’t work.
My only secular work experience was at McDonalds, where I worked two (long) years as a teenager.
When the management at McDonald’s wanted the crew to do something, they used threats.
If we stole food, they promised to fire us. If we stole money, they said they’d prosecute us.
The managers at McDonald’s used power to keep their employees in line, but love wasn’t part of their modus operandi.
However, when I began serving in church ministry, leaders used love to keep staff members in line. When I messed up, someone spoke to me directly. They aimed for restoration. They forgave me when I admitted mistakes. They would only resort to power if their attempts at love failed … and with me, love always worked.
As a pastor, I served with church boards for twenty-five years, and whenever we had a disagreement, or a board member was unhappy with me, someone would speak to me in love. We’d discuss matters, resolve the issue, and move on. Since love worked, power wasn’t necessary.
But in my last ministry, I ran into a board that began to use power first. They made decisions outside meetings, and then announced them inside meetings without my input or approval. This had never happened to me before.
I believe that a pastor and a church board should work together. If the pastor wants to make major changes, he needs to run them through the board first. If the board wants to make major changes, they need to run them by the pastor first.
But toward the end of my tenure, that didn’t happen. When board members were unhappy with me, no one sat down and spoke with me in love.
Those tactics sent the church into a spiral.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”
No power moves are mentioned in that verse. If someone – like a pastor – is caught in a sin, God’s Word doesn’t say to punish him harshly. It says to “restore him gently.”
I never felt any love. I never sensed any desire for restoration. I never heard the voice of God coming through their pronouncements. Instead, I sensed a desire to get even.
It became personal.
The hatred ended my pastoral career and spread throughout the church. It’s been difficult to recover my heart.
Where was God’s grace?
Several months ago, I attended conflict intervention training with Peter Steinke, who works with mainline churches. Out of eleven people taking the training, I was the only person with a Baptist background. At one point, Steinke asked me, “What’s with the Baptists? They seem to see the pastor as being all good or all bad.”
I don’t have an answer for that.
Caution Four: protect the reputation of your church’s pastor and leaders.
I hear lots of stories of pastors who are pushed out of their churches, usually by the governing board.
These pastors – who have devoted their entire lives to serving Jesus – are petrified that their forced exits will end their pastoral careers.
And humanly speaking, they have good reason to feel that way.
I know a pastor who served his church faithfully for more than twenty years. After he was forced to resign, vicious rumors started flying around the church about him.
Six months later, when a church showed interest in him as a pastoral candidate, they nearly dropped him from consideration because people from the pastor’s former church called the search team in an effort to smear the pastor’s reputation.
To their credit, the church called the pastor anyway … but that’s often not what happens. False accusations – which are often feeling-based rather than fact-based – have a way of making the rounds in the Christian community.
Some churches drop a candidate from consideration if they perceive there’s even a hint of failure in his past. And some forced-out pastors are so devastated by assaults on their character that they assume they’ll never secure another church position.
Pastors are not evil. Sometimes they’re not matched well with a church or community. Sometimes they were effective early in their tenure but can’t take the church to the next level. Sometimes they’re burned out and hanging on for dear life, reluctant to share that information with church leaders because they’re afraid they’ll be instantly dismissed.
But should a pastor be chased out of a church if things aren’t going well?
How do professing Christians harm the reputation of their present or former pastor?
*They attribute false motives to the pastor.
*They naively believe every negative thing they hear about him.
*They disseminate those charges through the telephone and social media.
*They spread rumors and innuendos about the pastor without confirmation.
*They conclude that the pastor is so evil that he needs to leave the church … and maybe ministry altogether.
But these “believers” seem unaware of one basic truth:
When a pastor is attacked from within, the church is attacked as well. And the being behind that attack is always Satan.
Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.”
How does God want believers to act toward their pastors?
“Respect … hold in the highest regard … love … live in peace.”
That’s a far cry from Satan’s strategy: to destroy pastors through deception.
The allegations you spread can ruin a pastor’s life. Do you want that on your resume?
Caution Five: ask God to show you your part in the conflict, and to make things right with anyone you harmed.
Paul wrote to the church at Corinth in 2 Corinthians 12:20: “For I am afraid that when I come … there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.” Those words perfectly describe what happens inside a church when a major conflict breaks out.
But how many people, if any, ever repent for their part in causing quarreling, slander, and disorder?
From all my conversations over the years, I can only recall a handful of times when those who collaborated to force out a pastor later apologized to him:
*Four staff members revolted against a pastor I know. After they all resigned, one staff member sent a letter of apology … seven years later.
*A pastor friend served as an interim at a church where the board had pushed out the pastor. The board chairman stood up in the congregation and confessed his part in the coup. The board later extended the pastor’s severance package.
*One of my college professors served as the pastor of a megachurch for many years. He was eventually forced to resign, but when a new pastor came, he invited the former pastor back and the congregation apologized to him for the way they had mistreated him.
*A pastor recently told me that someone confessed their part in removing him from office … seventeen years after the fact.
Several years ago, I discovered a place online where the names and photos of nearly all my detractors were visible. They were all connected to one individual who had opposed my ministry for years – Grand Central Station for anyone who didn’t like me. Didn’t surprise me one bit.
Not one has ever admitted their part in forcing my departure.
May God forgive them all.
Although I’m retired from church ministry, I am reaching several thousands every month through my blogs. If you enter the words “terminate pastor” into a search engine, mine is usually the top entry on Yahoo’s first page, and I’m on Google’s first page as well. I reach far more people through writing than I ever did through preaching, which is all God’s doing.
I am content to be where God has placed me.
I know very little about what’s happening at my last church. I refuse to do to others what was done to me. I have never spoken with the pastor. I never visit the website. I only have twelve friends on Facebook who still attend the church, and we never discuss church happenings.
Those were good years, for the most part. I wish the church well.
And I pray that church – and your church – will always know God’s peace.