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I have a theory about pastors, one that I’ve devised by listening to stories from pastors and church leaders, as well as by reflecting upon my own ministry.

Here’s the theory: I believe that churchgoers and church leaders – especially leaders – want a pastor who is largely predictable.

Because when a pastor is unpredictable, that results in heightened anxiety, and conflict surrounding the pastor may soon surface.

There may even be calls for his dismissal.

Let me give you an example.

Pastor Michael came to Hope Community Church four years ago.  He’s known for his solid character, family, and Bible teaching.

There is nothing about Michael that is spectacular, and the church knew that when they called him.

They called a solid senior pastor, not a spectacular one.

It’s kind of an unspoken contract.

But Michael has been enduring some physical and financial stresses recently, and at a recent staff meeting, Michael swore at the associate pastor in front of the rest of the staff and threatened to fire him if he didn’t change his attitude.

Predictable Michael has now become unpredictable.

Realizing what he had done was wrong – and might quickly spread throughout the church – Michael immediately apologized to the staff, and especially to the associate pastor.

In fact, after the staff meeting, Michael and the associate left the church campus and met privately at a nearby coffee shop.

Michael’s outburst will get around the church.  It won’t reach the ears of even half the people, but some will start looking for signs that Michael isn’t always the solid guy he seems to be.

And for Michael, his unplanned verbal explosion could be the beginning of the end of his ministry at Hope Church.

Many Christians know that Paul lays out the qualifications for spiritual leaders in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9.

Most Bible teachers believe that Paul’s overarching qualification for spiritual leadership is that a man needs to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) or “blameless” (Titus 1:6,7).  Paul then expands upon what he means by those terms.

But in my mind, Paul is also saying that spiritual leaders need to be predictable in their character.

There was a man in my first church (I’ll call him Nathan) who was on the church board, and I was always anxious around him because of his temper.

He could explode at any time for any reason.

At a midweek Bible study, he once disagreed with something I said, yelled at me, stood up, left the room and slammed the door behind him.

Another time, he stood up in a public meeting and reamed out a woman, the wife of a fellow leader.

Nathan was anything but predictable … and that carried over to his home life as well, because just a few months after I came to the church, Nathan’s wife announced that she was divorcing him … and I had to ask him to step down from the board.

It was his second divorce.

Who was going to approach Nathan for counseling or prayer?  He was too volatile.

And what’s sad is that for much of his life, Nathan had been a pastor.

Paul told Timothy that an overseer must be “temperate, self-controlled … not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome …”

Yet I have never believed that the qualifications Paul mentions refers to a person’s past history.

Who hasn’t been out of control on occasion?  Who hasn’t been less than gentle?  Who hasn’t loved money a little too much?

But I do believe these qualities refer to a person’s present character, which means that God wants spiritual leaders to be consistent, dependable, yes, and predictable.

Let me make five quick observations about pastors and predictability:

First, the way a pastor acts, speaks, and responds during his first few years sets the template for the rest of his ministry.

If the pastor responds to criticism with a calm spirit his first few years, people will expect that same spirit for the remainder of his tenure.

If the pastor responds to emails within an hour of receiving them, people will expect that practice will continue.

If the pastor works hard his first few years, people will expect that same work ethic.

I became a youth pastor at age nineteen.  My pastor … who later became my father-in-law … told me that if I worked hard my first year at the church, no one would ever question how hard I worked again.

He was right.

People want a pastor whose responses they can predict.  They will be more likely to listen to his sermons … follow his leadership … and ask for his counsel if they know what kind of person they’re dealing with upfront.

Second, even though churchgoers may prefer a predictable pastor, it’s wise for a pastor to be unpredictable at times.

In my last church, I carefully scripted my sermons because I had a few critics who were ready to pounce on anything I said that deviated from their norm.

After several critics eventually left the church, I felt more freedom to be myself, and on occasion, I would engage in an unplanned rant … and those little rants were often the best part of the sermon.

As Presbyterian pastor Stephen Brown used to say, “When in doubt … say it.”  It was his belief that the ideas that popped into a pastor’s head during the sermon would be the ones the congregation remembered best.

They can also get you into trouble … believe me, I know … but at least you’re being interesting.

In other words, even though people prefer a predictable pastor, the pastor shouldn’t allow himself to be put in a box or he’ll never be able to lead the church forward.

Third, only a pastor’s character need be predictable.

Those verses in 1 Timothy and Titus refer to a leader’s inner being.

They don’t say anything about a pastor’s appearance … education … leadership style … or sermons.

Sometime after my daughter Sarah was born, I started growing a beard.  It was the fashion in the early 1980s, and even though I’m usually years behind the trends, it was as simple as not shaving.

One Sunday, a woman stopped me after the service and asked me, “You’re not growing a beard, are you?”

Because my appearance was becoming unpredictable … thus making her anxious … she felt she had a right to vote on the matter.

And yet, several years later, when I shaved off that beard, Sarah cried and cried.  She only knew her dad with a beard!  (Sarah stuck a photo of me and her on Facebook for Father’s Day … and there was that beard again.)

As pastors grow spiritually … as they take continuing education … as they read more extensively … as they take risks as leaders … and as they change the structure of their sermons … they will become less predictable, and cause some people anxiety.

What’s important is to acknowledge any changes and explain them to the congregation so that calm believers can help the nervous ones to cope.

Fourth, when a pastor’s character becomes less predictable, he may be headed for termination.

When people think they know who a pastor is deep inside … and he acts in ways that throw them off balance … some may call for his removal.

One of America’s best-known pastors once bought a second house in a resort community.  He had a steady income from his writings and probably felt it was a good investment.

But when some people in the church heard about that home, they turned on him, and he began to receive an increasing amount of criticism.

Although I’m not aware that anyone called for his dismissal, the criticism was a factor in his leaving the church after a long and successful tenure.

Let’s say that a pastor has some financial difficulties in the first year of his ministry.  If he has financial difficulties in his fifth and ninth years as well, it won’t be a shock to key leaders because he’s already set a pattern.

But if his finances have been pristine for eight years, and he gets into financial trouble in his ninth year, some leaders may be shocked … and disappointed … and begin talking about getting a new pastor.

Finally, our Savior could be jarringly unpredictable.

Jesus was anything but predictable. While His character was God-honoring, His methodology, language, and style were always changing.

For example, if you read the Gospels with fresh eyes, you won’t be able to guess what Jesus says or does in any given situation.

Mark Galli wrote a book a few years ago called Jesus Mean and Wild.  I thought it was a great book and that it explodes many of the inaccurate ways we view Jesus today.

Jesus never healed people with the same methods.  One time, He would speak a word, and a sick person would be made well.  Another time, He would touch someone and they’d be whole.

Jesus’ words weren’t predictable, either.  He said the most memorable things … easy to recall … yet His pithy sayings were full of meaning.  Love your enemies?  No man can serve two masters?  Don’t cast your pearls before swine?

While Jesus’ unpredictability makes for fascinating reading, few Christians today would want Him as their pastor!

They’d rather have someone they can control.

But I believe that pastors need to have characters that are predictable but ministries that are unpredictable.

Just like Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several years ago, a pastor of a medium-sized church called to tell me that he had been fired.

He told me there was no warning involved, that he was not offered any severance pay, and that he had no idea how to support his family financially.

The pastor said that he wasn’t guilty of any major offense.  He thought the church was going well, but evidently some in leadership didn’t think so.

And I wondered, as I always do, “How could the official board of that church treat their pastor that way?”

Or to put it another way, “What kind of person would fire their pastor without any reason and proceed to cut off his finances as well?”

I couldn’t do that.  Could you?

Based on my experiences in various churches, let me share five traits of a board member who could easily fire their pastor:

First, the board member has a job where he makes unilateral decisions.

Maybe he owns his own company.  Maybe he is an attorney or a doctor with great community influence.  Maybe he’s been given carte blanche in his job to hire or fire personnel.

It’s easy for such a person to take off their “spiritual leader” hat at church and replace it with their “corporate decision maker” hat instead.

I’m not saying that every strong, independent leader in the marketplace is like this, but all too many are, and they are often the ones at the forefront of the pastor’s ouster.

But I can’t even imagine having this kind of mindset.

My wife and I run a small business together.  If I think we should do something different, I run it by her first.  Sometimes she agrees, sometimes she doesn’t.

I won’t proceed without her blessing.  I am not the fount of all wisdom!

But a board member who can easily fire a pastor believes that he is the fount of all wisdom … or that he should be calling the shots at church rather than the pastor, the staff, or the congregation.

If such a person is able to force out the pastor, he or she will become the undisputed leader of the church, even if it’s just behind the scenes.

And that’s what they want.

Second, the board member thinks he knows more than the pastor does about the church’s direction.

If the pastor thinks the church should reach young couples, this board member thinks the church should reach young people instead.

If the pastor thinks the church should be more outreach-oriented, this board member thinks the church should focus more on its own members.

If the pastor thinks the church should take some God-ordained risks, this board member thinks the church should play it safe and only do what’s in the budget.

If this board member senses that he has more influence than the pastor, he may very well plot to remove the pastor from office.

But if he senses he doesn’t have the clout, he’ll either hang around and sabotage the pastor’s leadership, or he’ll leave the church and take as many with him as possible.

But I can’t even imagine sabotaging a church’s direction … especially if it’s the result of months of prayer and planning.

If my pastor wasn’t good at the “vision thing,” I would do my best to help him devise a process where many people could have input on the church’s future.

But I would want his voice to be prominent, because the pastor casts vision from the pulpit, and even the most powerful board member can’t do that.

Third, the board member has secret allies on the board, in the staff, or with a powerful faction.

Most board members who fire their pastor are reasonably sure that they have “enough” support from prominent individuals in their church.

They usually have one or two sidekicks on the board.  These people are relatively quiet but gain power by supporting their vocal colleague.

They also have their fingers in the church staff, receiving a steady flow of information from the office manager, a youth pastor, the worship leader, or an associate pastor.

Every pastor needs allies, especially when conflict surfaces.  I was always strengthened when a board member told me, “Jim, I have your back on this one.”

But I can’t imagine collecting allies so we could push out the pastor together.

It usually takes at least a year of complaining … undermining … resisting … and plotting for a board member to gain sufficient allies to force out their pastor.

Think of all that negative energy!  Couldn’t it be better used for instruction or outreach?

But all that matters to such a board member is power.

Fourth, the board member pays scant attention to biblical teaching on conflict resolution.

More than three decades ago, I was discussing a controversial passage in Paul’s epistles with a board member.

This board member … whom I inherited … told me, “Whenever I come upon a passage like that, I just turn the page.”

Maybe it’s no wonder that he later became the worst antagonist I’ve ever had in any church.

This man had an agenda: to turn our California church into the Swedish church from Wisconsin that he loved so much.

If I went along with his agenda, he would support me.  If I didn’t, he would oppose me.

I didn’t go along with his agenda.  I couldn’t.

Sadly, I could never appeal to him on the basis of Scripture.  The Word of God didn’t govern his life … only his feelings and preferences did.

I remember discussing this man and his wife with a prominent Christian leader who visited our church one Sunday.  This leader – an expert in spiritual warfare – told me to get this couple out of the church and off the rolls as quickly as possible.

They eventually did leave, but took 25% of the church with them in the process.

But I can’t imagine being a spiritual leader in a church and yet ignoring the written Word of God concerning conflict!  I have no idea how the previous pastor let this guy on the board, but when he did, he sowed seeds of destruction that lasted for years.

Finally, the board member desires relief from personal anxiety.

Two years ago, I attended a conference on church conflict with author and prominent church conflict consultant Peter Steinke.

Steinke said that whenever the official board is dissatisfied with their pastor or his performance, they should create a plan and give their pastor twelve to fifteen months to improve.

That sounds fair and reasonable, doesn’t it?  If the pastor senses after a few months that he’s not doing what the board wants, he can start searching for another position.

And if the pastor does improve … crisis averted.

But the board member who finds it easy to fire his pastor doesn’t want to wait twelve to fifteen months to see improvement.

He’s already convinced himself that the pastor will never improve … so the pastor needs to go … now!

What drives him?

His own personal anxiety.

This board member has already made up his mind.  He knows what is best for the church.  He knows the pastor has to go.

So he can’t wait for the pastor to get his act together.  The pastor must leave!

But I can’t imagine having that kind of attitude about a called spiritual leader who loves and preaches the Word of God.

If anybody can change, wouldn’t it be a godly man?

Most pastors are notoriously patient with board members and staffers.  Sometimes I knew that a staff member wasn’t working out but I’d speak with them and monitor their performance for months before I’d take any drastic action.

Shouldn’t a board be patient with their pastor as well?

_______________

What’s the value of thinking about the board member who can easily fire a pastor?

First, no pastor should allow such a person on the board in the first place. 

For some people, being on a board is a frustrating experience because they believe they already know the direction the church should take.

They don’t want to discuss matters in a collegial fashion.  That just allows others to exercise veto power over their ideas.

Over the years, I vetoed the names of many individuals who were entertained as board members.

Even then, I should have exercised that veto more often.

Second, if the pastor detects that such a person is presently on the board, he needs to watch his back … or pray that person off the board.

I have never known a church leader who, once they started attacking their pastor verbally, turned around later on and supported him.

I’m sure it’s happened somewhere.  But once a leader goes public with their feelings about their pastor, they rarely change their mind.

Finally, if you sense that such a person is currently on your church board, alert your pastor and monitor that person while they’re on the church campus.

While a church should not turn into a surveillance state, sometimes God’s people can best protect their pastor by watching and listening to potential antagonists.

These people usually give away how they feel about their pastor by where they sit during worship … who they sit with … who they talk to before and after church … where those conversations are held … and how they respond to the pastor when he’s preaching.

The apostle Paul tells the congregation in Rome, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.  For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.  By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Romans 16:17-18).

We need far fewer naive people in local churches today.

If you lie to me once, you’ve sinned.

If you lie to me twice, you’re a liar.

You’ve established a pattern.

It’s difficult to confront liars because they usually cover their past lies with new ones.

I once worked with a church staff member who seemed to enjoy lying.

Several people came to me and said, “So-and-So lied to me.”  They were very upset and wanted me to do something about his fibs.

I tried talking to this leader to see if I could discern any untruths coming from his mouth, but he was really good at covering things up.

So I decided to take my time and see if I could catch the leader in a lie myself.

One day a few weeks later, someone who worked with this person requested a private meeting with me.  They shared information that, if true, could only result in the dismissal of this staff member.

I took two full days to investigate some of the charges the informant made … and the most serious ones turned out to be accurate.

If I brought verbal charges to this staffer, I knew what what happen: he would just deny … or explain away … the charges … just like he did with everything else.

I needed air-tight evidence that he had lied before I could confront him.

Fortunately, I was able to get that evidence in the form of an email from a key person in a Christian organization.

I called the staffer into my office … asked him some questions … asked him if he stood by his answers … and then handed him the email contradicting what he had just told me.

He lied twice to my face … and it was tragic watching him try and explain away his falsehoods.

He left the church soon afterward.

One family in particular drew close to this staff member, and when he left, I suspected they were upset with me.

And sure enough, a few years later, they were in on the attack to force me to leave.

I can only imagine the lies he told about me on his way out the door.

_______________

When a church conflict becomes a contest, some churchgoers start lying.

On occasion, a pastor will float a lie or two about his enemies, but most of the time, people lie about the pastor instead.

In fact, when some people want to force out their pastor, they will lie about him indiscriminately as a way of getting others to join their cause.

And by the time the pastor finds out that people are lying about him, critical mass has been reached, and so many people believe the lies that the pastor has to resign.

This is what happened in my case seven-and-a-half years ago.  There were so many lies going around about me that (a) I didn’t know where they came from, (b) I didn’t know what was being said, and (c) I didn’t know how to counter the lies.

In a very real sense, I was lied right out of the church.

Because Jesus didn’t do anything wrong, the only way His enemies could destroy Him was to lie about Him.

And because many pastors try and lead godly lives, the only way their enemies can destroy them is to lie about them.

*The lies must sound plausible or people will quickly discount them.

*The lies must be plentiful in case the pastor is able to debunk one or two of them successfully.

*The lies originate from those who hate the pastor and want revenge against him … otherwise they would sit down with the pastor in love and speak to him directly.

*The lies leak out from unlikely sources at inopportune times.

*The lies multiply once the pastor leaves the church to prevent any future influence he might have.

Several months after we left our last church, my wife and I went to lunch with a woman who had been very kind to us.

She told me that rumors were swirling around that I had had an affair and that my wife had had an affair as well.

At first, my wife and I both laughed.  She’s the only woman I’ve ever kissed, and I’m the only man she’s ever kissed.

Besides that, my wife worked on the staff with me, and we drove to and from work together in the same car … the only car we had.

And we worked right across the hall from each other.

So we both knew the affair talk was balderdash … but evidently there were some who believed it … and others who were perpetuating it.

This information greatly saddened me, but it was also an indication that Satan – “a liar and the father of lies” – had established a firm foothold in that congregation.

_______________

People lie because it works.  And when they’re caught, they’re often able to lie their way out of trouble.

I accept the fact that there are liars inside local churches today.

But I pray they aren’t on church staffs … or on church boards … or in church pulpits … or any other places of influence … because lies destroy people, families, and congregations.

I once knew an associate pastor who worked for a pastor I knew quite well.

This staff member wanted to get rid of someone in the church he didn’t like … so he lied about him.

When the pastor found out that his associate had lied, he called him into his office … verified all the facts … and then told the associate, “You know what to do.”

The associate instantly resigned.

That’s how we used to handle church leaders who lied.

How should we handle them today?

I was given a letter this week from a parent whose child attends a local elementary school.

In just seven lines, the letter states that the school’s rookie principal “has decided to pursue a professional growth opportunity outside our district and will not be returning to [the school] for the remainder of the year.  We wish him well in his new endeavor.”

Without meaning to do so, the above paragraph speaks volumes … and provides insights into how the departure of a pastor might be handled as well.

The first thing that strikes me is that the principal left at least four weeks before the last day of school, which is June 9.  What does this tell us?

It tells us that either he wanted out – badly – or that he was pressured to leave by a person or group inside/outside the school.

My guess is the latter.

Maybe he didn’t receive high marks from the school’s teachers … or district administrators … in his latest job performance review.

Maybe he didn’t do something he was asked to do … or he did something he wasn’t supposed to do.

Maybe he just wasn’t cut out to work with kids, parents, teachers, or bureaucrats.

Or maybe he did something very, very wrong.

Did the school district pay the principal not to work for the last four weeks of the school year?

I don’t know.

But leaving before the school year concludes?

Teachers don’t do that.  Students don’t do that.  And principals don’t do that, either.

Most pastors don’t have long-term contracts, meaning they’re on a perpetual one-day contract instead.

But there are times during the year when a pastor’s tenure is up for review, especially during budget time.

If the pastor’s salary is cut, that sends a message.  If he doesn’t receive even a cost-of-living raise, that sends a message.

In churchland, maybe an apt comparison would be a pastor who resigns right before Easter or Christmas.  Since most pastors enjoy those times of year, the pastor who leaves before a major Christian holiday was probably pushed out the door.

I know what I’m talking about.  I resigned my position as pastor in my last church two weeks before Christmas … but I’d much rather have waited until after Christmas.

Makes for a tough holiday.

The second thing that strikes me is that the principal will be working “outside our district” in the future.  What does this tell us?

It tells us that either he didn’t want to work in the district anymore, or that he wasn’t offered the chance to transfer to another school inside the district.

If he chose to move out of the area for some reason, wouldn’t it have been prudent to mention that as the reason for his departure?  Announcing that a leader is moving away often covers a multitude of sins.

So my sense is that the principal didn’t want to work in the district … or that the district didn’t want him working for them.

Maybe there’s a similarity between a pastor who serves in a church that’s in a particular denomination.

A recurring theme that I hear from pastors who were forced out of their positions is that either their district minister didn’t help them when they were in trouble or that their DM was applauding their ouster.

In my case, I chose to leave the district and the denomination for good.  I discovered years before that denominations are political organizations – far more than spiritual entities – and that when a pastor needs help, the last place he should go is to anyone inside the denomination.

In fact, since leaving my last ministry seven-and-a-half years ago, I don’t think I’ve visited even one church connected with that denomination.

This is a common response that pastors have toward leaders who could have helped, but chose their own self-preservation instead.

Maybe it’s why the majority of terminated pastors jump denominations when they’re looking for another position.

The third thing that strikes me is that the personnel director chose to announce the principal’s departure in a letter.

And the letter wasn’t mailed to parents … it went home with their children.

That’s like sending home a letter about a pastor’s resignation with children who attend Sunday School.

I’m not sure how this kind of thing is normally handled in the public school system.

Should a letter have been sent to parents’ homes?

That would take a lot of time, effort, and finances.

Should an announcement have been made to parents at a school assembly?

That would dampen the mood, wouldn’t it?

Should the school have sent an email to all the parents instead?

Maybe they did.

There isn’t a perfect way to announce the departure of any leader … especially a pastor.

Normally, a pastor’s resignation is announced from the pulpit when the congregation is gathered together.

If the pastor is leaving on good terms, he may read that letter himself.

If the pastor is being pushed out, he’s usually not permitted to interact with the church anymore, so someone else – often the board chairman – announces the pastor’s departure the following Sunday.

When I left a church in the late 1990s, I read my own letter.  I wanted everyone to hear the news (a) at the same time, (b) from me personally, and (c) to hear how emotional it was for me to leave.

The principal may have read his letter to teachers or the PTA, I don’t know.

But as a pastor, I would want everyone in the church to receive a copy of my letter to avoid misinterpretation.

That means I’d either arrange to have a copy of my resignation sent to every home in the church – either through snail mail or email – or I’d have it posted on the church website for a brief period of time.

I’d want people to hear why I left – and the tone of my letter – from me directly, not from those who didn’t like me or might distort what I really said.

To me, the optimal way to handle a resignation is for the pastor to:

*write a positive letter

*read it to the church board

*read it to the congregation

*hang around to answer questions, if the board permits

*distribute that letter as widely as possible

That’s the healthy way, isn’t it?

But there’s one thing left …

The last thing that strikes me is that the school’s letter does not mention who to contact if the parents have any questions or concerns.

The address, phone number, and fax number of the school are at the top of the letter, and the personnel director signed her name.

In addition, the parents are told that “[So-and-So] will be on staff five days a week to serve students and staff” and that “[So-and-So] will be at [the school] three days a week to provide support.”

But if a parent is unhappy with the principal’s quick exit, or wants to know more, who are they supposed to contact?

By not explicitly saying anything, the veiled message is, “This situation is history.  Forget about it and move on.”

Having seen the principal interacting with students – and having interacted with him myself on several occasions – my sense was that the job was a bit too big for him.  Just an impression.

In other words, because the principal wasn’t wildly popular, or didn’t have a lot of meaningful relationships, or didn’t have any notable achievements, most parents likely will accept his departure rather than protest it.

They won’t care why he left … just that he left.

How different a school is from a church!

In a church, the person announcing a pastor’s resignation – usually the board chairman – better be ready for a deluge of questions mixed with anger.

Students rarely attend a particular public school because of the principal.

But most people do attend a specific local church because of the pastor!

And when that pastor leaves – voluntarily or otherwise – many people are going to be upset and want to know more about his exodus.

If the church board says little or nothing, some people will assume that the board pushed out the pastor and is covering their tracks.

If the church board tells the congregation everything, they’ll stir up emotions that can cripple their church for months … or years.

So I believe strongly that whenever a pastor leaves a church, the board needs to say as much as they can rather than as little as they can.

This helps the congregation transfer their trust from their ex-pastor to the present board.

But if the board says little or nothing, they will lose the trust of key leaders and opinion makers, who will either leave the church or turn on the board.

There may be some short-term pain involved by providing more context … and some people may leave the church … but it’s better to be up front than to have the truth leak out later … which it surely will … when it’s much harder to control matters.

The board also needs to tell the congregation, “If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us directly.”  Then the board needs to give the congregation their email addresses … and individual board members need to answer every email they receive as soon as possible.

If I wanted to, I could ask some parents I know to find out the real reason why the principal left.  With a little snooping around, I could probably uncover the truth.

But I’m on the fringe.  I don’t have any kids or grandkids in that school.

People on the fringe of a church usually don’t care much why a pastor left … but the closer a person is to the inner circle, the more they feel they deserve to know the truth.

And with pastoral abuse and bullying – as well as forced terminations – on the rise, many churchgoers will assume the board was at fault if they don’t tell the church enough.

I once read that the best person in the secular world to compare to a local church pastor is a public school principal.

In fact, it’s a rule-of-thumb that the salary of a school principal can be used as a gauge for the amount a pastor should be paid in a community.

Maybe a school bureaucrat can get away with sending home a letter about the principal’s departure.

But a church board can’t try the same tactic without generating a gigantic train wreck.

The more that’s said … and the more honestly it’s said … the better it is for everyone.

Probably the worst ministry nightmare that a pastor can experience is to be either fired or forced to resign.

You lose so much: your position … your income … your reputation … most of your church friends … your sense of self-worth … and more than you ever feared.

Having been through this experience more than seven years ago, I’d like to share some events that helped me to heal.  Maybe my situation can help someone who wonders, “Will I ever get better?”

Each of the following events contributed in some way to my healing:

First, I chose to leave the area where the church was located.

My wife and I loved our house so much!

It took us thirty seconds to walk to the shores of the San Francisco Bay.  When I looked to the right, I saw the Oakland Coliseum where the A’s play.  When I looked to the left, I saw AT&T Park where the Giants play.

I saw the Bay Bridge … and the San Francisco skyline … nearly every day.

Bay Farm Photos Dec. 14-16, 2009 086

There was a bench on a small bluff facing the water.  Sometimes I would sit there and study for sermons while the wind blew the water crazy at high tide.  (Although it’s at low tide in the next photo.)

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Bay Farm Photos Dec. 14-16, 2009 093

The entire seven years we lived in that house, I knew that in a moment, it could all be gone.  That knowledge gave me a profound sense of gratitude for every day we lived in that beautiful place.

But when I was attacked by a small but vocal group within the church, I could not envision staying, much as we loved where we lived.  My wife suffered greatly, and we were constantly on guard that we would run into our antagonists and melt down emotionally.

We had to go.

Seeing the church … and the community … in the rear view mirror was necessary for survival.  We didn’t have kids in school, and though the economy was leaking, we chose to sell our house in a short sale (neighborhood comps were dreadful at the time) rather than stay or rent it out.

Had we stayed in that community, our healing would have been stalled.

But many pastors lack the funds to move away, or they stay because their kids are entrenched in schools, and I believe this delays their ability to heal.  The sooner a forced-out pastor can leave a community, the better.

Why stay where you’re not wanted?

Second, I only stayed in contact with churchgoers who were truly my friends.

If I even suspected someone of colluding against me, I unfriended them on Facebook.  And in almost every case, my instincts were right.

I remember a man who invited me to attend some sporting events with him.  We enjoyed our times together, and before I moved away, he told me that he had contact with a leader who was instrumental in pushing me out.  This man called that leader “nasty.”

But several months later, when I attempted to converse with him online, my sports friend had turned on me.

Why stay in contact anymore?  He had chosen sides.  It would have taken several hours of meetings to bring him around, and I was nearly 800 miles away.

Unfriend.

I need more rather than fewer friends, but when someone clearly stands against you, you’re not really unfriending them.  You’re just accepting the truth … and that’s healing.

Third, I spent a lot of time reading the Psalms.

David knew how it felt to be attacked as a leader.  He also knew how to articulate and universalize his pain.

For months, I only read authors who understood that same pain.

I was depressed.  I didn’t feel like praising the Lord.  I didn’t want to evangelize the world.  I didn’t want to become a church member or use my spiritual gifts.

But I found great comfort in the ancient wisdom of Israel’s Psalter.

Because I found it difficult to pray, I sometimes let David do the praying for me.

I also sensed God’s touch when I read 2 Corinthians.  Paul defends his apostolic ministry throughout the entire book, and lets us know that sharing our raw emotions is sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do.

I needed to know that I was not alone, that I was suffering as many other saints had done in time past.

And that insight helped a great deal.

Fourth, I found a church home.

My wife and I moved to Arizona after we left our last church, and we visited a new church nearly every Sunday for six months.

We ended up at Christ’s Church of the Valley – or CCV – which became one of the largest churches in the US while we were there.

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I always thought that megachurches were cold and impersonal, but I didn’t find CCV that way at all.  It’s the closest to a perfect church that I’ve ever seen.

The church was outreach-oriented.  They served their community well.  During playoff season, they broadcast NFL games outside on monitors after services so men could stay at church while watching football.  They served breakfast before services, pizza after services.  They even gave guests a free meal.

I tried to use my gifts to serve there, but I found out the hard way there’s only one teacher in most churches these days – the lead pastor.

But I looked forward to every service, and found the people at the church both joyful and grounded.

One of the hardest things about moving from Arizona back to California was leaving CCV.

Although I believe that a forced-out pastor needs to attend church, I found serving problematic.  Most churches don’t welcome ex-pastors with open arms.

But attending a good, solid church helped me heal.

Fifth, I forgave those who attacked me. 

It took a few months to do this.  If someone had told me, “You have to forgave those who hurt you right now,” I would have replied, “I am simply not ready.”

I’m always amazed at those who claim that they instantly forgave the murderer who killed their husband or child.  The words sound good, and play well in the media, but three months later, do they still feel the same way?

There were people who joined the “Crucify him!” mob that I didn’t need to forgive.  I didn’t hold them responsible for what happened to me.

But three Christian leaders in particular knew exactly what they were doing: a former pastor, a staff member, and a board member.

I forgave them all a few months after I left my last position … but then I would hear new revelations of their collusion, and have to forgive them all over again.

I don’t think forgiveness is always an event.  Sometimes it’s a process.

In all honesty, I wish those well who plotted against me, and I don’t hope they die of the plague or rot in a prison somewhere.

The Lord will take care of things.  He always does.

But I wish that someone wise and fair could have set up a process for real reconciliation.

When I forgive someone from a distance, that’s unilateral forgiveness.

When I forgive someone to their face – and we become friends again – that’s bilateral forgiveness, or reconciliation.

That’s the kind I long for, but I’ve given up hope it’s ever going to happen.

Maybe accepting that fact is just as essential for ultimate healing.

Sixth, I largely blocked out my previous ministry whenever I did any teaching.

For many years, I’ve led workshops on church conflict at the Christian Leaders Training Association Convention in Pasadena, California.

I’m excited whenever I lead workshops because I’m doing what I believe God has called me to do.

But those conventions only last for a couple of days.

Five years ago, I became the interim pastor of a wonderful church in New Hampshire, and most of my time there, I reveled in the history of the area and formed friendships that I enjoy to this day.

And during that time, the pain of my previous ministry was largely forgotten.

It’s very healing to preach or teach others.  You’re focused on the present, not the past, and you can use your former experiences to enrich your hearers.

But because those opportunities aren’t common, I now teach the best way I know how.

I write.

Seventh, I could tell I was healing when I didn’t want to tell my story anymore.

For a few years after leaving my last church, whenever I met someone, I wanted to tell them, “I used to be a pastor, but I no longer am.  Since I don’t want you to think I left ministry due to a major offense, here’s why I did leave.”

Then I’d launch into my story … even when I didn’t mean to.

Several months after our departure, my wife and I attended an Amy Grant concert nearly 250 miles from our house.  Amy is my wife’s favorite artist.

We waited after the concert to meet her … there were only three of us … and when Amy signed a photo for me, I told her that I used to be a pastor, but I wasn’t one anymore …

Amy Grant Concert - Trip to Alameda March 2-7, 2010 090

Why in the world did I do that?

I can’t remember the exact date, but when I started telling people “I’m a retired pastor” and that my wife and I work together in our own business … that was a day of great healing.

If anybody wants to talk about what happened at my last church, I’m always willing, and I don’t feel much … if any … pain in doing so.

But I’d rather talk about something else.

A very good sign.

Finally, I felt the greatest sense of healing when my wife and I finally made enough money to pay our own expenses.

It took me 25 years to make a decent wage in church ministry.  My family did without so many things … as my wife often reminds me.

Early in my first church, I drove a car worth $200 and had large holes in the bottom of my dress shoes.

In our last ministry, we finally made enough to save money and take some trips overseas … things my best friends do routinely.

Before I left my last ministry, I negotiated a separation package with the new church board, and those funds carried us for many months.

My wife then got a job with a charter school, but we had to withdraw funds from my retirement account to supplement our needs … funds that disappeared all too quickly.

For the past several years, the Lord has blessed us with our own business – one that we run from our house – and we just purchased a new home … more than seven years after losing the last one.

The day I went into a store and paid for food based on what we earned in the present rather than what we had accumulated in the past was a day of great liberation.

That’s why I tell pastors, “The day you can pay your bills from a new job is the day your healing really begins.”

I hope sharing my experiences have been helpful.

What else helps former pastors to heal?

Pastor Henry felt all alone.

Along with his wife and two sons, Henry had just received an invitation to become the next pastor of Grace Church, a thousand miles from his last ministry.

Henry and his wife Mary surveyed the congregation when they initially visited the church but couldn’t seem to find anyone they might want as personal friends.

But one morning during his first week, Henry received a call from Bret, a longtime member who told Henry he’d come by the church at 11:30 to take his new pastor out to lunch.

Exhausted from the move, Henry was glad that someone was taking the initiative to get to know him.

Bret took Henry to an expensive restaurant, telling his pastor all about the community, the church … and the previous pastor.

In fact, Bret told Henry a lot about the previous pastor.  Pastor Mark was a good preacher who led the church through a time of unparalleled growth.  This information made Henry feel insecure.  How could he hope to compare favorably with a predecessor he didn’t know and might never meet?

But Bret didn’t just recite the previous pastor’s virtues.  Bret also slammed Pastor Mark’s leadership in many aspects of ministry, and told Henry that Mark was pushed out of office due to his shortcomings.

Henry felt better as he realized that Pastor Mark wasn’t perfect, but had his own issues.

And then Bret told Henry, “You know, I’m so glad you’re here.  You’re just what this church needs at this time.  And whatever you need, I’ll be glad to help.”

As Bret drove Henry back to the church, the new pastor felt a bond developing with his new friend.  “Finally, somebody believes in me” he thought.

Over the next several months, Bret and his wife Hope invited Henry and Mary to their home for dinner.  The two couples quickly hit it off and became best friends.  They went to movies together, ate in each other’s homes, and saw each other nearly every week.

Six months later, when it came time to suggest names for elders, Henry recommended that Bret be considered.  The others on the nominating team remained strangely silent, not saying yes or no.  Henry backed off.  Two others were selected instead.

For the next several years, the two families got along famously … and everybody at church knew it.

One Tuesday night, Hope called Henry and asked him to come over right away.  When Henry arrived, he found Bret in a foul mood.  According to Hope, Bret had been drinking and had verbally and physically abused his wife.

Henry did not like what he was hearing.

An hour before the next meeting of the official board, Henry met with Jeff, the board chairman, and asked Jeff what he knew about Bret and Hope.

Jeff was reluctant to say anything.  After all, everybody knew that the two families were tight.

But Henry insisted, and Jeff finally said, “Bret has a drinking problem, and he refuses to get help for it.  Bret wants to be on the church board, but we can’t let him because, in Paul’s words, he is ‘given to drunkenness,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘quarrelsome.'”

Henry suddenly felt very foolish.

Jeff went on, “Pastor, I don’t know how to say this right, but your relationship with Bret and Hope is causing some people in this church to question your judgment.”

After the board meeting, Henry went home and told Mary what Jeff had said.  Mary and Hope had become very close, but Hope had never shared with Mary anything about Bret’s drinking … or any other weaknesses they had.

Several weeks after visiting Bret’s house, Henry started noticing that Bret and Hope were no longer attending services.  Henry thought about contacting Bret, but he knew such a conversation would drain him of much-needed energy to run the church.

A couple months later, chairman Jeff called Henry and told him that a campaign was underway to remove Henry from office.  When Henry asked Jeff who was behind the campaign, he was told, “Bret and his wife Hope.”

Henry’s heart sank.

As a longtime member, Bret had developed friendships with many people in the church over the years, and he had a good idea who he could influence to join his “throw out the pastor” team.

Henry decided to ask Jeff a question that he had never asked before: “When Pastor Mark was forced to leave this church, who was most responsible for his departure?”

Without hesitation, Jeff answered, “Bret and Hope.”

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Insecure pastors … and there are thousands of them around … often compare themselves to other pastors … especially their predecessors.

A wise pastor quietly gets to know the previous pastor so he can (a) form his own opinions about his personality and ministry; (b) learn about that pastor’s influence and tenure firsthand; and (c) tap into that pastor’s wisdom concerning key junctures in that church’s past.

A foolish pastor rejoices when the previous pastor is denigrated, thinking it makes him look good by comparison.

But the same person who criticizes the previous pastor will eventually criticize the current one.

And the same person who supported the previous pastor will eventually support the current one as well.

Many years ago, I learned the wisdom of Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

Pastors need to choose their church friends carefully, or the friends they latch onto early in their ministry make turn to bite them later on.

_______________

I once met a man (I’ll call him Peter) who had served as the senior pastor of a church I had known my entire life.  That church’s first pastor lived two houses down from my house, and I went to school … and later church … with his children.

My uncle, aunt, and cousins had attended that church as well.

Years later, I made many friends in that church.

And eventually, I was called to be on their staff.

While Peter and I were talking, I shared with him some conflicts that occurred during my time in that church … conflicts that became so embedded in that church’s culture that they later affected Peter’s ministry.

I could tell that Peter had an enlightened understanding of what happened to him in that church.

Why don’t more new pastors contact their predecessors and gain that wisdom and understanding up front?

Could it be because of people like Bret and Hope?

When a pastor or staff member leaves a church under duress, they usually discover – weeks or months later – that most churchgoers from their former congregation seem to have forgotten that the leader ever existed.

More than 90% of the congregation never contacts the leader again – not via phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, or any other means of communication.

The leader is left wondering, “What happened to all my friends and colleagues?  Why aren’t they reaching out to see how I’m doing?  Did I mean so little to them?”

I felt this way when I left my last position as senior pastor 7 1/2 years ago.  Thankfully, there were a few churchgoers who kept in contact with me, but I never heard from most of them again.

After devoting myself completely to that church for more than a decade, it hurt to think that so many people – whom I considered good friends – would abandon me so quickly.

But maybe there are good reasons why God’s people don’t contact their former leaders again.

Here are seven possibilities:

First, most of us gradually forget about people – even friends – that we no longer see.

Mrs. Coleman was the first great teacher I ever had.  She taught me in third grade.  After that year, I never saw her again.

Darryl was my youth pastor in my late teens.  He helped me love and know Scripture.  He moved to Colorado, then to Texas.  I haven’t seen him in 40 years.

My father-in-law mentored me in church ministry for decades.  I last saw him five years ago.

I know a handful of people who seem to stay in contact with everyone they’ve ever known, but most of us aren’t that way.  People come and go in our lives.

That’s just the way life is.

I’m appreciative of the influence that Mrs. Coleman, Darryl, and my father-in-law had in my life.  I think of them fondly.  But since we are no longer in proximity to one another, we’ve all moved on.  (And I think Mrs. Coleman died a long time ago.)

It’s just something we have to accept.

Second, many Christians are used to pastors/staffers coming and going.

The longer a person has attended church, the more transitions they’ve witnessed.

Before I entered my teens, my family attended a church where the senior pastor resigned … the Christian Education director was fired … and the next pastor was forced to resign prematurely.

At the next church I attended, the founding pastor resigned … the youth pastor left … an interim pastor came and went … another youth pastor left … the church called a new pastor … another youth pastor left (me) … an associate was hired … and then he resigned.

If you’re a veteran Christian, you might get worked up about one or two of those departures, but if you make a federal case about each one, you’ll die of a heart attack.

In baseball, there’s an adage that managers are hired to be fired.  Many baseball fans express outrage after a well-loved manager is released, but their anger soon dies down, and fans come to accept things as they are.

The same thing happens in Christian circles.

And after a while, each succeeding departure is just par for the course.

Third, many Christians relate to paid church leaders as short-term friends.

I learned this one the hard way.

At my last church, I became friends with a man roughly my age.  He had been a professional athlete with one of my favorite teams.  We went to several ballgames together and had a great time.

Every Sunday, he’d give me a big smile and come over and shake my hand during the greeting time.  After I preached, he’d hang around and let me know I hit a home run.

Before I moved away, I went to visit him one last time at home.  Several nights later, he sent me an encouraging text.

Two years later, I contacted him, told him I was going to be in the area, and asked him out to breakfast.

It turned out to be one of the most awkward hours of my entire life.

He never asked me one time how I was doing.  Instead, he talked all about his family and the church’s new pastor.  (Shortly afterward, my friend and his family left the church.)

I thought our friendship would last for years, but in the intervening months, it had gradually died.

While it hurt me at the time, looking back, I didn’t nurture that friendship because I didn’t want to hear how the church was doing without me.

I’ve learned that while pastors and staffers view some churchgoers as friends, those same people probably view their leaders not as lasting friends, but as short-termers.

Fourth, some Christians no longer feel responsible for a pastor/staffer who has left.

Their attitude is, “As long as Pastor Joe or Youth Pastor Steve is paid by this church, I am duty bound to support them, pray for them, encourage them, and befriend them.  But if they take off, they are no longer our responsibility.  Now it’s up to their new church or their new boss to watch over them.”

When you’ve given so much of yourself to a congregation, this attitude can seem a little cynical.  But in the long run, it’s probably healthy.

For example, over the course of my 36-year ministry career, I probably had 25 or so staff members serve under my leadership.  Although we were on good terms when we parted, in most cases, I’ve lost contact with them … and they’ve lost contact with me.

When Judas left the Twelve, Jesus still loved Him … He just didn’t feel responsible for him anymore.  I am not comparing departing pastors/staffers to Judas the turncoat, but I am comparing Jesus – the Ultimate Caregiver – to many churchgoers today.

Once a church leader has resigned, the majority of Christians won’t initiate contact anymore.

Fifth, some Christians have bought into negative rumors about the departing leader.

I think it’s despicable to spread half-truths and malicious gossip about a former pastor/staffer after they’ve left a church, but it’s done all the time.

The template goes like this:

“I wonder why So-and-So really resigned?”

“Well, I’ve heard that they mismanaged funds … were having an affair … could no longer recruit volunteers … lost the confidence of the church board … upset other staff members … weren’t working very hard …”

And the list goes on and on.

Here’s the problem: if you think that a former pastor/staffer really did mismanage funds or have an affair, are you going to reach out to them or write them off?

You’re probably going to write them off as some kind of defective Christian leader.

I don’t think I’ve told this story before, but several years after I left my last ministry, I was talking with a friend who had left the church (on good terms) before I did.

Eight months after my departure, this friend flew to the new area where my wife and I lived and spent a few days with us.  This friend posted some photos on Facebook of us together … and was instantly unfriended by more than 40 people from our former church.

Why did that happen?  Maybe it has to do with the next possibility:

Sixth, some church leaders either spread negative rumors or fail to correct them.

Imagine that you’re an average interim pastor.  Your ministry as a pastor was never all that successful, but you’ve been called to a church where the previous pastor’s ministry was very effective.

You ask around, “Why did the previous pastor leave?”

If you’re a secure individual, you’ll try and hear all sides.

If you’re insecure – or feel inferior to the previous pastor in some way – you may covertly rejoice in anything negative you hear.

So when people come to the interim and ask, “Do you know why the previous pastor left?”, the insecure interim will respond, “I’ve heard that …”

And after the interim leaves, the next pastor may do the same.

In addition, as rumors circulate among the saints as to why the previous pastor left, even if the interim knows the truth, he will often do nothing to correct them.

Why not?

Because he wants the congregation to forget about the previous pastor altogether so he can look good by comparison.  He wants to loosen the bonds between the previous pastor and the people so he can influence them instead.

Does this stuff really happen in supposedly godly local churches?

Yes … all the time.

And sadly, since this information comes from a “man of God,” many people believe whatever he says … hook, line, and sinker.

Finally, some churchgoers feel rejected when their pastor or a staffer leaves.

When a pastor/staffer leaves a church, some people assume that the leader left of their own free will.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

My guess is that many churchgoers … especially new believers and those on the fringe … don’t know how churches operate, so when they hear that a leader has departed, they assume that the leader wanted to leave … and this makes them feel abandoned at some level.

Although I sensed that I needed to leave my last ministry, I was told that I could have stayed.  Since I chose to leave, is it possible that some churchgoers felt that I had abandoned them?

Of course.

A few years ago, I had breakfast with the president of a seminary overseas and he told me, “We Christians don’t handle transitions very well.  We need to do a better job.”

What’s hard for many of us is that when a church hires us, they act very Christian.  But when they let us go, they almost seem satanic.

I long for the day when God’s people act like Christians whether they’re hiring or firing leaders.

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