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Last year, I planned to present some seminars on church conflict.  I decided to visit some area churches and drop off some promotional literature about the seminars.

Someone I respected had spoken highly of a particular church, so I stopped there first.  Walking into the church office, I introduced myself and mentioned that I would be offering some seminars on conflict.

The office manager blurted out, “We’ve hired Such-and-Such an organization for a year to work on the conflict we’re having with our leaders.”

She didn’t know anything about me, and yet she readily confessed that her church was enduring major conflict!

And nearly every major conflict revolves around the pastor in some fashion … and many times, the solution to the conflict seems obvious:

“Let’s get rid of the pastor.”

The latest figure that I’ve seen is that 28% of all pastors have endured a forced exit at some time in their ministry … and the numbers seem to be increasing because most denominations and churches are doing absolutely nothing about the problem.  Call it the Christian version of Survival of the Fittest.

Why do pastoral terminations continue to increase?  Let me offer five possible reasons:

First, pastors and churches are in denial about this issue. 

When they’re called to a church, few pastors think to themselves, “I could face termination here.”

When church leaders initially call a pastor, almost nobody says, “If things don’t work out, let’s can him.”

And yet several years later, a faction may very well coalesce to force the pastor to quit … and nearly everybody in the congregation is shocked.

Pastors and Christian leaders need to say to themselves: “Because forced exits are a reality in today’s Christian community, we need to work hard at staying current with our relationships because an involuntary dismissal could happen here.”

But for some reason, that’s not how we think.

Second, pastors have received little formal training in conflict resolution.

I remember the first big conflict I experienced as a rookie pastor.  The board chairman asked for my help in dealing with a specific issue.  I brought it to the board.  We studied it for three hours and then developed an action plan.

When I began to carry out the plan, the entire board caved on me, and then demanded that I apologize for carrying out the plan.  I refused because we had agreed on it together.

I was a PK … had been in church ministry for nearly ten years …  had taken a class on conflict management in seminary … and yet I didn’t know how to handle or interpret the behavior of those board members.

During that time, a friend came to visit me, and I had developed a case of hives because I was afraid the board was going to dismiss me as they had the previous pastor.

I believe that every student in seminary who is studying for church ministry should be required to take a class in conflict management … and maintain at least two mentors who understand church conflict while they’re in ministry.

Because when pastors are skilled in handling conflict, they sleep better … lengthen their careers … and preserve their congregations.

Third, pastors rarely speak on biblical conflict management.

Last year, I gave a sermon on conflict resolution based on Matthew 18:15-18, and when I was done, a veteran Christian in her mid-80s said to me, “In all my years of going to church, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a sermon on that subject.”

For years, this woman attended a church where her pastor was internationally known.

Maybe he did address conflict at times during his sermons, and maybe she just forgot or wasn’t present on those occasions … but maybe she was telling the truth, too.

When I was a pastor, I did a brief series on unity/conflict management at the same time every year.  The one year I didn’t do it … thinking, “We’re okay right now” … conflict broke out soon afterward.

When Paul wrote his letters to the churches at Rome and Corinth and Ephesus and Thessalonica, those letters weren’t intended for church leaders alone, but were intended to be read to entire congregations.  Paul wanted everyone in those churches to work through their differences with love and understanding.

In the same way, pastors both need to teach on church conflict from Scripture and arrange for specialized training for their staff and leaders.

Because if and when the pastor is under attack, some people will resort to the law of the jungle.

Fourth, churchgoers need a mental picture of what a church looks like after a termination.

When I was in fourth grade, I saw newsreels of Hitler speaking … Nazi torchlight parades … and the remains of Jewish victims in concentration camps.

Those images had a profound impact on me.  They caused me to read more about Hitler’s rise to power and to become aware of the devastation that results when evil is tolerated rather than defeated.

My book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict is an attempt at letting believers know how quickly a conflict can erupt in a church … and how destructive such conflicts are for everyone involved.

My prayer is that believers will say, “I don’t want my pastor’s career and reputation destroyed.  I don’t want precious believers to leave this church wounded.  I don’t want to compromise my church’s witness in this community for years.  With God’s help, I will do everything in my power to prevent and resolve any conflicts in a truthful and loving manner.”

Sometimes I toy with the idea of making a film about pastoral termination that starts with congregational devastation … and then works backward to see how it all began.

(Anybody want to work on this with me … or finance it?)

Finally, Christians seem ignorant of the fact that Satan wants to destroy pastors so he can destroy churches.

After Jesus was arrested, all of His disciples fled.  When the shepherd was struck, the sheep scattered.

Satan thought he had won a victory … but he was wrong.  But the disciples didn’t regather on their own.

When did they regather?  Only after Jesus was resurrected and reassumed His rightful place as their leader.

I believe in spiritual warfare.  I have not only experienced it … I have felt it.

When I made mistakes … as every pastor does … I should have been lovingly confronted and given the opportunity to explain and/or be restored.

Instead, there was open abuse … defamation … and slander.

That’s not how God operates, is it?

Remember: the devil specializes in deception and destruction.  Those are the telltale signs that he is at work either in our lives or inside the life of our congregation.

I could add many other reasons why the forced termination of pastors is on the increase, but these are the five that readily came to mind.

What are some of the reasons why you believe pastoral exits are increasing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is possible to read the New Testament dozens of times and yet miss the clear meaning of certain verses.

For years, I missed these two:

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.”

These words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 sound like they come from the Old Testament: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”

What is God’s temple in this context?

God’s temple is a local church.  (The terms “you yourselves” and “you” in verse 16 are both plural.)

What’s Paul saying?

That anyone … believer or unbeliever … who destroys a local church will be destroyed by God Himself.  (Sounds like a guarantee, doesn’t it?)

Wow.

God’s Spirit lives among His people.  God’s church is sacred.

Therefore, if an individual or a group destroys a local church, God promises to destroy them.

How many times can you recall hearing anyone preach this text?

I’m not aware that I’ve ever heard any preacher or teacher highlight or explain these verses … but they are there all the same.

What’s the most common way of destroying a congregation?

That’s easy: attack the pastor until he’s forced to resign.  Gary Pinion writes in his book Crushed: The Perilous Side of Ministry:

“Spiritual leaders are prime targets in these last days.  The Bible tells us that if you strike a shepherd, the sheep will scatter.  Entire congregations can be wiped out with a single blow to one shepherd.  For this reason they are the number one public enemy on Satan’s hit list…. Corresponding with this gigantic loss of shepherds, new studies are also providing growing evidence of a great loss of churches.  A study in Exit Interviews by Hendricks shows the appalling results of the loss of ministers: there are now 53,000 people leaving churches weekly who are not coming back.  George Barna’s research sadly declares that we are losing one percent of our churches in America every year, as godly warriors depart from the battle arena.  As shepherds leave, sheep leave.”

Pinion then quotes a woman whose congregational experienced major conflict:

“The conflict resulted in the pastor being forced to leave.  Because of this decision, the people who supported the pastor left the church.  The church attendance was reduced to half, relationships were severed, weekly income was drastically cut, and various ministries in the church were forced to disband.  The church became known in the community as a place of power struggles, fighting and discontent.  I could go on and on.”

The latest statistic I’ve run across is that 4,000 churches close down every year in the United States.

Let’s acknowledge that a small percentage of pastors may contribute to the destruction of a church through domination, intimidation, manipulation, or retribution.  Some pastors have behaved so badly that they have almost singlehandedly wiped out a church they’ve pastored.

But the great majority of the time, churches are destroyed by lay powerbrokers who want to limit their pastor’s authority so they can expand their own influence and that of their friends.

If I disagreed with something my pastor was doing or saying, I would make an appointment and speak to him lovingly and directly.

If he didn’t agree with me, I would either stay and support him or leave the church … without taking anybody with me.  (Division in a church begins when people pass on their personal complaints to others.)

Based on the entire tenor of the New Testament … and specifically 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 … I would never want to do anything to destroy a church that Jesus is building in a particular community.

But if I found out that I had contributed to a church’s destruction, I would repent immediately … or else be wondering constantly when God was going to take me out.

These verses don’t specify how God chooses to destroy a church destroyer.  His wrath could be exhibited in this life (primarily for a believer) or in the next life (possibly for an unbeliever).

But however God decides to deal with someone, He has an infinite number of punishments at His disposal.

If you’re a lay leader in a church … maybe a board member, or a deacon, or a ministry team leader … I beg you: be very, very careful how you treat and speak of your pastor.

Pastors are not infallible.  They make mistakes.  And when they mess up, they need to be graciously and truthfully confronted.

But you should always aim for their restoration and redemption, never their punishment and destruction.

Remember Paul’s phrase: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

That’s exactly how God intended for it to sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that being a pastor may be “the single most stressful and frustrating working profession?”

That’s the conclusion of Dr. Richard J. Krejcir from his study of 1,050 pastors at two pastor’s conferences back in 2005 and 2006.

(You can find the study, titled What is Going on with the Pastors in America? at http://www.truespirituality.org.  If you can find a more recent study, please send it to me.)

Here are some of Dr. Krejcir’s discoveries:

*90% of pastors stated they are frequently fatigued and worn out (not necessarily “burned out”) on a weekly and even daily basis.

*89% of the pastors surveyed considered leaving the ministry at one time.  57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go – including secular work.

*77% of the pastors surveyed felt they did not have a good marriage.

*71% of pastors stated they were burned out and that they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

*38% of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.

*Only 23% said they felt happy and content on a regular basis with who they are in Christ, in their church, and in their home.

Dr. Krejcir’s findings are also supported by the following research which he distilled from The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:

*1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.

*80% of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.

*80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave within the first five years.

*70% of pastors constantly fight depression.

*70% of pastors do not have close personal friends with whom they can confide.

*50% of pastor’s marriages will end in divorce.

*50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could.

*Most statistics say that 60% to 80% of those who enter the ministry will not still be in it ten years later, and only a fraction will stay in it as a lifetime career.

Krejcir concludes:

“The results of the survey are that pastors face more conflict, more anger, and more expectations than ever before.  At the same time, they work long hours and have little pay, little reward, and produce their own dysfunctional families because of their absence.”

I’m going to write more about these statistics next week, but I’m wondering:

Which of these statistics most impact you … and why?

I recently read an article about a Christian leader that broke my heart … and I can’t get it out of my mind.

This leader was a long-time executive director of a major Christian organization.  He committed suicide as police were investigating a serious charge against him.

I’ve admired the work that his organization has done for a long time.  My prayer is that this tragedy doesn’t affect the crucial work they’re doing all over the world.

While reading this article, I thought about the many Christian leaders that I’ve known or respected who were discovered to be all too human and fallible.

Professors at Christian schools.  Missionaries.  Prominent pastors.  Christian vocalists and musicians.  Parachurch leaders.  Evangelists.  Associate pastors.  Televangelists.

Some preached against divorce … and eventually went through their own divorce.

Others railed against adultery … only to be seduced themselves.

Some preached a prosperity gospel … and later lost everything.

And some have behaved in ways that we … and even they … cannot fathom.

Back in the late 1980s, when there was a rash of scandals involving Christian leaders, we were told that leaders needed to demonstrate greater accountability, and that this single step would halt most of the scandals.

Maybe so … but I have a different take on this.

I believe there is a direct correlation between doing ministry and personal pain.

The more committed you are to ministering to others, the more pain you will experience in your own life.

If you doubt me, read 2 Corinthians.   In 1 Corinthians, Paul tries to address various issues at Corinth and restrains himself when it comes to expressing his own emotions.

But in 2 Corinthians, Paul lets it all hang out, and at times it’s difficult to read.  Just a few examples:

1:8: “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.”

2:4: “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.”

4:8-9: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

7:5: “For when we came to Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn – conflicts on the outside, fears within.”

11:23-25: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received frm the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea.”

And then there’s this one:

11:28-29: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.  Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?  Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”

Notice that?  Besides all the physical pain that Paul endured for Christ, he also felt emotional and spiritual pain because he cared so much for others.

When I entered church ministry, I was told in general terms that I would suffer.  I plowed ahead anyway.

What I wasn’t told … and most of us aren’t … is that there are times when the pain becomes so great that it becomes unbearable.  After a while, the hurts of others gets to you, and you don’t know what to do with all that pain.

Some Christian leaders secretly turn to alcohol and drugs … some to illicit sex … some to overspending … and some become depressed.

When you’re expected to be “on fire” for the Lord all the time … and experiencing victory after victory … it’s hard to admit to anyone … much less yourself … that you’re hurting.

You’d like to lean on your wife, but she has her own pain to deal with, and she’s already tired of hearing about yours.

You’d like to talk with a counselor, but you don’t know who to trust, and you suspect that counseling will uncover more of your own buried pain.

You’d like to tell your board, but you’re afraid they’ll condemn you or fire you, so you stay silent.

You want to tell somebody about your pain, but you can’t find anyone who’s safe enough to trust.

And so you stuff it … and the pain starts turning into anxiety, anger, and depression.

And when you finally do something stupid … or take your own life … people wonder why you didn’t reach out for help.

Maybe you should have reached out … or maybe you just didn’t know where to go for help.

I’ve visited a lot of churches over the past 4 1/2 years … probably 50-60.

And in the course of listening to many preachers, I’ve come to this conclusion: I wouldn’t dare share a personal problem with most of them.  Know why?

Because they don’t dare share their humanity with us.

When I hear a pastor tell a story on himself … or admit that he struggles with certain issues … or needs the gospel just as much as I do, I’m drawn to him.  I feel safe with him.

But when I don’t hear any humanity coming from the pulpit … when the pastor says “you” and not “we” … when he yells and condemns and intimates, “I have it all together” – I don’t feel safe … and I’m sure I’m not alone.

The ethos of much of the Christian world seems to be, “Even though you aren’t perfect, you better act like you are, so you can keep your job and your reputation.”

But Christian leaders aren’t perfect.  Every one is messed up in some way.  They all have their issues, wounds, and struggles … just like you do … and just like Paul did.

One of America’s greatest pastors has always been transparent about what God is doing in his life.  I once heard him tell a group of pastors that he was in therapy for some “junk from his past” and that he and his wife were in marriage counseling for some issues they were struggling with.

When asked how he could be so open about his life, this pastor said, “It takes too much energy to hide who you are.”

Those revelations might deflate many Christians, but they were liberating for me.  My attitude was, “If God can use him with all his problems, then God can use me as well.”

And I operated by this corollary: if that pastor can share his issues in appropriate ways to appropriate groups, then maybe I can do the same thing.

Which is the more inspiring statement?

“Christians have no right to be depressed, and I have never been depressed because I know Jesus.”

Or …

“I have been depressed in my life, but by God’s grace … and with the help of other Christians … He has brought me through depression and made me stronger.”

Personally, I resonate with the second statement because it’s true of me.  28 years ago, I was severely depressed to the point I wasn’t operating normally.

My wife found a qualified Christian counselor and I saw him for four months.  After our time together, I never became that low again … and I’ve been through some pretty horrendous times in life and in ministry.

Because I want the painful times in my life to be redemptive, I’ve openly shared my long-ago struggle with depression both while preaching and in writing.  (Did you know that 48 of the Psalms … roughly 1/3 … deal with depression?  Maybe God is a lot more open about it than we are.)

But I do know this: we’re all weak and vulnerable at times.  Because of the pain in our lives, we’re all tempted to do stupid stuff.

And all of us – including Christian leaders – need safe people we can talk with and safe places we can go if we’re to experience healing and continue in ministry.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul quoted Jesus as saying that His “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Not in strength … in weakness.

Act like you’re strong all the time, and you may eventually succumb to weakness.

Admit that you’re weak, and just might be on the road to becoming strong.

Winston Churchill is one of my few heroes.

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When Time named their Person of the Century in 1999, they gave the award to Albert Einstein, truly a great man in a century dominated by scientists.

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But without Churchill, we might be living under a Nazi flag.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting some Churchill sites, including Blenheim Palace (his birthplace and boyhood home) in England, the nearby churchyard in Bladon (his final resting place), and the underground Cabinet War Rooms in London, from where he coordinated the British fight against Hitler’s Germany.

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Right now, I’m reading William Manchester’s second volume on Churchill entitled The Last Lion: Alone 1932-1940, and I’m continually drawing parallels between the way Sir Winston viewed the Nazis and the way churches deal with antagonists.

The First World War was horrendous, resulting in 885,138 combat deaths for England and 2,050,897 deaths for Germany – not counting wounded soldiers.  When the Allied Powers drew up the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, they threw the book at Germany, demanding financial reparations totaling $442 billion in today’s currency (Germany made their last payment on October 4, 2010), forcing them to disarm, and making them take full responsibility for the war.

While the German leaders at the time tried to cooperate, Hitler and his cronies began their slow rise to power.  Hitler telegraphed much of what he did – through his autobiography Mein Kampf, his speeches, and various interviews.

After he became Chancellor of the Reich in 1933, Hitler charmed diplomats from countries like England, assuring them that he was rebuilding the German military only for defensive purposes.  Still gun-shy 15 years after the end of World War 1, the nations of Europe – and their leaders – chose to believe him.

All the while, Hitler was training young men to be soldiers, cranking out munitions at a non-stop pace, and putting together a top-flight air force, the Luftwaffe.

There were British citizens inside Germany who knew exactly what Hitler was doing.  But when they sent their data to the Foreign Office in London, they chose to ignore the facts, convincing themselves that Hitler’s military buildup had no relevance for England.

But Churchill knew better.

While still a member of the House of Commons, Churchill had been banished from any top leadership posts in His Majesty’s Government.  Whenever he rose to speak in the House, his views were ridiculed because he was relegated to being a Backbencher.

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But Churchill had a friend who lived near his Chartwell home who consistently delivered hard data about the Fuhrer’s real intentions.  Churchill had to be careful with the information because if he shared too much in public, politicians and journalists would demand to know where he obtained it.

Let me share with you four parallels between how England viewed Hitler and how many churches view conflict:

First, most people are conflict-avoiders.  The British did not wish to fight any country so soon after the Great War, a conflict that the United States entered late in the game.  And even when Hitler conquered Poland and bombed London, our country publicly remained isolationist.  (We didn’t officially enter World War 2 until Pearl Harbor.)

Most of us act the same way.  If there is a conflict in our family, we avoid it as long as we can.  If there is a shouting match between politicians on television, we turn the channel.  And if there is conflict at church, we look the other way or deny that it’s happening.  After all, we reason, it’s not my fight.

The truth is, even if it is our fight, we’ll do almost anything not to fight – and that emboldens certain people.

Second, there are usually signs that conflict is brewing.  The increasing number of German soldiers and munitions – along with the expelling of Jews – was a clear indication that something ominous was about to occur on the Continent.  Conflict almost never erupts without warning.  Those whose eyes are open can usually connect the dots.

During the message time at our church yesterday, we saw a video interview of a father and mother.  Their son had been acting strangely but they had no idea what was wrong.  As it turned out, he was on drugs, eventually taking both ecstasy and heroin.  The signs of drug usage were there, but this couple – who prided themselves on having a harmonious, loving family – refused to admit that their son could be involved with any mind-altering substances.

Denial in the face of evil can lead to destruction, not life.

Something similar happens in church life.  We don’t want to believe that the pastor is immersed with pride, or the youth pastor is getting too close to that Jr. High girl, or that board member has destructive intentions.  While the warning signs are there, we don’t act on them.

If the problem is within your authority, deal with it as soon as possible, using Matthew 18:15-20 as a guide.  If the problem lies within someone else’s purview, inform them quickly.  If you see something that concerns you, speak up and take action!  Delay leads to defeat, not victory.

Third, call evil for what it is.  The first time I heard about Adolph Hitler was when I was five years old.  (Hitler had committed suicide only fifteen years earlier.)  The atrocities he committed were still fresh on everyone’s mind, bolstered by The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by journalist William L. Shirer in 1959 (the longest book I’ve ever read besides The Bible).

When I entered fourth grade, our class saw a lot of newsreels of Hitler.  We saw him making speeches.  We saw the torchlight parades in Nuremberg.  We saw the Nazis burning books (at what is now a peaceful little park in East Berlin, shown in the photo below) and the Jews being fed into ovens.  We saw images of evil that never left my innocent little brain.

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And much to the credit of my teachers, we learned how Hitler came to power, fooled his own people, and disguised his true intentions to the world.

In other words, we learned how to detect evil before it openly surfaced.

Please hear me: evil isn’t confined to dictators.  You will find evil in churches, too.  And not just evil actions; people can be evil.

How can you tell who they are?

They never admit they do anything wrong.  They blame all problems on other people.  They disguise their real intentions and lie about others – especially leaders.

Their ultimate goal?  The destruction of church leaders so THEY can be in control and call the shots.

Scott Peck wrote about such people in his book People of the Lie.  It’s a chilling read.  Lloyd Rediger has also written about such people in his book Clergy Killers.

Hitler was evil.  Sadly, a handful of church people are evil, too.  I hope no one like that is in your church, but evil people have been known to infiltrate churches.

I’ve met a few.  Have you?

Finally, Christians have to be willing to fight evil.  Whenever Hitler bombed London, businessmen and families headed for shelter, especially in the depths of the British subway system known as the Tube.  They ran from evil.

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But the British war planes couldn’t hide in the Tube.  It was their job to take on evil – and they did so nobly.  We might not be living in a free country if the British hadn’t confronted Nazi evil in their own backyard.

No Christian should go looking for evil in a church.  Churches have enough hyper-critics.  But when evil rears its ugly head, and it’s obvious there are people bent on destroying the pastor or other leaders, evil must be resisted – and defeated.

Evil cannot be appeased.

A few weeks ago, I caught The Two Towers – the second film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy – on television.  At the end of the film, as Frodo is nearly possessed by the ring’s evil, he says, “I can’t do this, Sam.”  In what is probably my favorite speech in any movie, Sam replies:

“I know.  It’s all wrong.  By rights we shouldn’t even be here.  But we are.  It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo.  The ones that really mattered.  Full of darkness and danger, they were.  And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.  Because how could the end be happy?  How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?  But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.  Even darkness must pass.  A new day will come.  And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.  Those were the stories that stayed with you.  That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.  But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.  I know now.  Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going.  Because they were holding on to something.”

Frodo asked wearily, “What are we holding onto, Sam?”

Sam replied, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo … and it’s worth fighting for.”

Churchill would be proud.

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Although I wrote this post several years ago, I thought I’d repeat it and add to it because there is so much evil in the world today.  Thank you for reading!

When I was in my last year of seminary, I had a choice: take 6 units of electives or spend a year writing a thesis.

I chose the thesis.

It took me one semester to research and write a 100-page first draft, and after that, it was just a matter of making corrections.

But I wrote the thesis because I felt strongly about my topic: the public invitation, or as many Christians call it, the altar call.

I spent many years in fundamentalist churches, and at the end of nearly every service, the pastor would invite people who wanted to receive Christ to “come to the altar” (presumably the communion table even though the NT says that Jesus’ cross was the final altar.)

As a child, I just accepted the practice, but when I was old enough to read Scripture myself, I noticed something:

The New Testament does not record even one instance of an altar call.

So I started paying attention to the way my pastors handled their public invitations and comparing them with Scripture.

Why?

Because I sensed they were manipulating people into “making a decision” for Christ.  They were doing more than persuading people to come to Christ … they were pressuring them in an unethical manner.

Here are four pulpit manipulations that I’ve observed after a sermon over the years:

First, the pastor intimates that a person must do something physical to be saved.

How many times have you heard a pastor say, “Everyone Jesus called, He called publicly?”

The assumption behind this statement is, “You can’t become a Christian unless you take some overt action.”

If this statement is true, then Paul and the apostles should have implemented this practice as well.

But Paul writes in Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

To be saved, Paul doesn’t say that an unbeliever has to do anything with his body … just with his mouth (confess “Jesus is Lord”) and with his heart (believe Jesus is alive).

Paul goes on in verse 10: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

We’re saved by what we do with our heart (inward belief) and mouth (outward confession expressed through prayer; see verse 13), not with our body.  (When Jesus talks about confessing Him before men in Matthew 10:32, He’s referring to the mouth, not the body.)

And yet, when Billy Graham ended a message, he always called people to the front and intimated that if they didn’t come forward, they couldn’t be saved.

But then he’d turn to the television camera and say, “And if you’re watching this program at home, you can be saved as well by asking Jesus into your life.”

So if you’re watching Billy in person, you have to walk down near the stage to be saved, but if you’re watching him at home, you can become a Christian just by praying?

Wouldn’t it be more ethical to lead people in a prayer wherever they’re sitting … tell them that Jesus has now saved them … and then ask them to come forward or call/write to receive literature or counseling?

I knew a young woman who had received Christ but didn’t think she was saved because she was too scared to “walk the aisle” at church.  How many others have felt as she did?

You can receive Christ even though you’ve never walked to the front at church … and you can walk to the front and not be saved.

So why do preachers and evangelists still engage in this practice?

Second, the pastor uses the foot-in-the-door technique.

This happened recently at a church I attended.  After the message, the pastor presented the gospel well.

Then he asked those who wanted to receive Christ to raise their hands so he could pray for them.  (“I see that hand … I see that hand.”)

So far, I was right there with the pastor, but I kept hoping, “Pastor, don’t do it … don’t do it.”

But he did.

He asked those who raised their hands to come and stand at the front … without telling them in advance.

Then he asked those who came forward to go into a side room for further counseling.

Why didn’t the pastor tell people how to receive Christ in their seats?  Why did they have to come to the front first?

I don’t really know.  Was this the way he came to Christ?  Was this the way his mentor taught him?

Since the church was having a baptism that afternoon, is it possible the pastor needed more candidates?

We take great pains in our culture to insure that babies are born in private, and for good reason.

Then why do so many preachers insist that spiritual infants be born publicly?  Couldn’t this be a barrier to the gospel?

Third, the preacher places undue pressure on unbelievers.

Years ago, I attended a worship service where the pastor told his congregation after his message, “God has told me that someone is going to come forward today.”

So we sang “Just As I Am” … not twice … not 5 times … not 9 times … but 12 times … and nobody came forward.

(I was thinking about going forward just so we could all go home.)

Why all that singing?  Was the repetition of the stanzas supposed to melt someone’s defenses and cause them to walk forward?

I think so.

But again … where do we find this kind of thing in the New Testament?

We don’t.

I believe that the gospel is indeed “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).  If someone preaches the gospel well, why do they need to pressure people to embrace it?

Persuasion?  Yes.

Pressure?  No.

When the Holy Spirit is applying the gospel to the hearts of lost people, He brings people to Christ without using manipulation.

Finally, the altar call minimizes baptism.

When I was a youth pastor, I led a weekend college retreat, and a couple of brothers received Christ.

Both the brothers – along with their sister – wanted to be baptized.

I told my pastor that on a Sunday afternoon, and he said, “Jim, ask them to come forward tonight for baptism when I give the invitation.”

Although I didn’t want to do it, I passed on his wishes to them before the Sunday evening service.

They didn’t understand why they had to go forward.  When I suggested they needed to publicly profess their faith, one of the brothers asked me, “Isn’t that what baptism is for?”

Of course, he was dead on … and they didn’t walk forward that evening.  (To insist that they walk forward against their will would have been unethical.)

But I had the privilege of baptizing those siblings a little while later … the first baptism I ever did.

Why do many preachers insist that people publicly profess their faith in Christ twice …  once when they “walk the aisle” … and again when they get baptized?

Which is the biblical practice?

When I lived in Arizona, my wife and I attended a church that had a baptismal pool outside … and that pool got quite a workout.

They never had an altar call in church … they just kept pointing new converts to that pool as the biblical way to profess their faith in Christ publicly … and it worked beautifully.

_______________

My first pastorate was at a small church in Silicon Valley.  The congregation was composed of refugees from other community churches.  We rented a school cafeteria for services.

Even with a map, few people could find the church.  With one exception, everybody who attended was already a believer.

And yet, church leaders wanted me to give an altar call at every service.  In fact, two leaders came to my house one Saturday night and begged me to do it.

Had I done so, I wouldn’t have lasted long.

When nobody came forward, the leaders would have reasoned, “God isn’t blessing Jim’s preaching.”

So to get results, I would have been forced to resort to manipulation … just to get someone … anyone … including that one unbeliever … to come forward.

A few years later, he did receive Christ … in God’s time and way.

It’s commendable for preachers to want people to come to faith in Christ.  Our preaching should be filled with passion.

But manipulation?

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:2: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.  On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”

Let’s set forth the truth plainly in our preaching … and renounce all deception and distortion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following story is typical of every innocent pastor who has ever experienced the pain of forced termination:

You were spiritually lost.

But by God’s grace, you came to know Jesus … as a child, teenager, or adult.

You read your Bible … attended church … and grew in your faith.

Then one day, you sensed that God was calling you to pastoral ministry.

You sought counsel … told your loved ones … and consulted with your pastor.

You knew that by going into Christian ministry, you weren’t going to make a lot of money … but that was okay, because God would take care of you.

_______________

You applied for and entered a Bible college or Christian university.

You worked hard and graduated several years later.

Then you applied for and entered seminary.

You graduated with a Master’s degree … often a Master of Divinity … which took years to complete … and consumed most of your time.

During seminary, you worked hard to earn money and teach Scripture anywhere you could.

But after graduation, you only wanted to do one thing: preach God’s Word.

_______________

You wanted your call to ministry recognized, so you pursued ordination.

Your pastor and church board voted to ordain you.  Your pastor put you in touch with your district minister, who explained the process to you.

You worked hard at creating a statement of faith … anticipating questions … and preparing your answers.

You met with an ordination council, which grilled you pretty good … then recommended you for ordination.

You kneeled before God and your church family as pastoral colleagues laid their hands on you and prayed.

And you vowed before God that you would follow the Lord and preach the whole counsel of God.

_______________

Along the way, you got married and started a family.  They would go wherever you went.

You sent resumes to open churches, and finally, one showed an interest in you.

You flew there … met with the search team … preached several times … answered questions … and went home exhausted but hopeful.

You received a call several days later to return as a candidate.

You preached again … negotiated a salary package … and received a call to be that church’s next pastor.

You made plans to move to that community … hopefully for the rest of your life.

You said goodbye to family and friends … packed up your belongings … and put your life in the hands of people who claimed to love Jesus like you did.

You put your books in your new church office … met the staff and the board … and threw yourself into the work.

You rented an apartment until you could buy your first house … which you finally did.

You spent hours on your messages … met with all the church leaders … visited the sick … counseled the wounded … and worked inhumane hours.

You gave everything you had for God’s people.

You assumed things were going well.  The church was growing … giving was increasing … God’s spirit was moving … and you felt joyful.

You said to yourself, “God has me doing what I was born to do.”

And then one day, it all changed.

_______________

You received a phone call from a church friend who told you that a group of members had been meeting in secret.

They had a long list of complaints against you … complaints you knew nothing about.

You felt devastated … betrayed … and scared.

Suddenly, that group was all you could think about.  You wondered:

Who is in that group?

Why are they upset with me?

What are they going to do to me … and to this church?

The knowledge that people were out to get you negatively impacted you and your ministry.

You suddenly became paranoid … not knowing who wanted to harm you.

You became guarded … not wanting to give the faction any more ammunition.

You sank into depression … couldn’t focus on studying for sermons … and began to experience the symptoms of panic.

_______________

You attended the next board meeting, and quickly discovered that three board members were among the complainers.

They accused you of petty matters that happened months before … matters you couldn’t even recall.

They said that many others in the church agreed with their complaints.

And they gave you a choice: you could either resign or be fired …  and they wanted you to decide right then and there.

If you resigned, they would give you two month’s severance pay.  If you didn’t, you’d receive nothing.

You were stunned … wounded … and paralyzed with fear.

You couldn’t think straight.  You felt like throwing up.

You wanted to vanish.

You had been rejected … forsaken … and tossed aside … but you had no idea why.

_______________

They wanted you to resign, and so you did.

You went home and told your wife, who cried all night long.

You called family members, who could not believe what happened.

You returned to your office at church the next day … packed up your books and belongings … and carted them home.

You turned in your keys and said goodbye to the staff.

You contacted a realtor and put your home on the market.

You perused the want ads to find a job … anything you could do to support your family.

But all you wanted to do was preach the Word of God.

_______________

You sent out resumes to scores of churches, but received few replies.

You made it to the first round with two churches, but they both went in other directions.

Then one day, you discovered what the problem was.  Several people from your previous church were saying things about you that weren’t true.

They accused you of being a dictator … not cooperating with the church board … and insinuated that you had mental problems.

You were shocked beyond belief.  None of it was true … and nobody at the church had ever spoken with you about any of those issues.

But somehow, those charges were circulating around, and you had no forum in which to rebut them.

You felt marked … tainted … stained … and scarred.

You obeyed God’s call to ministry … went to college and seminary … became ordained … sacrificed in so many ways … gave everything you had to God’s people … and got kicked in the teeth for it.

Should you keep trying to find a church to pastor?

Should you settle for a staff position?

Should you start a church instead?

Should you borrow money, go back to school, and start over in some other field?

Or should you accept the fact that your career is now over?

_______________

This story is replicated every month among hundreds of pastors.  I’ve heard from many of them.

And most of all, they want to know what they did wrong … but they never get the real story … and it haunts them day and night.

In her book Crying on Sunday, Elaine Onley writes about her own husband’s forced termination.  She quotes a denominational executive who told her: “Not a week goes by that this does not happen to some pastor.  I mean to a good pastor – not novices, not those of wrong-doing.  It happens to men who are good, kind, faithful men of God.  It breaks my heart.”

I’m doing what I can to make a difference.

I have a doctoral degree with a focus on church conflict.  I’ve written a book … Church Coup … about my own experience.  I write a blog twice a week, usually on church conflict or forced termination.

I’m writing an e-book designed to help church decision makers think through the process of terminating their pastor … participating in a study on forced termination … attending a three-day conflict training course later this month … providing counsel for those who go through this horrendous experience … and praying that God will stop the epidemic of forced terminations in this country.

If I can help you in any way, please comment on this blog or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org

We have to put a stop to this epidemic before Satan ruins more pastors, believers, and churches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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