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There is a sense in which a pastor can survive church ministry only if he learns how to manage depression.

In 1984, Dr. Archibald Hart published his classic book Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.  (There are 26 used copies on Amazon as of this writing.)  I devoured the book … memorizing many of its lines … because at the time, I was depressed at least some of the time every week.

In 2001, I took Dr. Hart’s class “The Pastor’s Personal Life” for my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.  It was the best class I’ve ever taken, and he was the best teacher I’ve ever had.

Dr. Hart believes that whenever a person … or a pastor … is depressed, that person won’t improve until they discover their core loss.

They need to answer the question, “Why am I really depressed?”

When a pastor is forced out of office, he nearly always undergoes depression, but because his thinking is cloudy, he may not understand for many months why he’s depressed … thus delaying his healing.

Let me share with you eight possible reasons why a forced-out pastor almost always undergoes depression:

First, pastors instinctively feel that the way they were treated was wrong.

The sinful, rebellious, irrational behavior that many of us in ministry have experienced at the hands of church leaders is not in Scripture … doesn’t line up with what we’ve preached … goes against how we live … and is completely foreign to our thinking.  We would never treat another Christian … much less a pastor … the way we’ve been treated.

Much of the time, board members don’t know what they’re doing when they dismiss a pastor, choosing to “fire” the pastor like they would fire an employee in a small business.  Jesus’ prayer from the cross fits here: “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Sometimes only one board member opposes a pastor … for personal reasons … and he convinces the others to take “official” action … never revealing his true agenda.  If the board was firing a staff member, they’d consult with the pastor, and it would be a team decision, but when the board fires the pastor, the board doesn’t consult with him, and they can make a mess of things.

Second, even though many pastors experience forced termination (28% is the last stat I’ve seen), the topic is still hush-hush in the Christian community. 

It’s not openly discussed.  When it is, most Christians naively blame the pastor for his departure because they are ignorant of the facts.  Pastors are blamed at the denominational level for political reasons (so the district guy keeps church revenue flowing into district coffers) and they’re blamed inside their former church because those who pushed out the pastor have convinced themselves they did right.

The wider Christian community is far more driven by politics than Scripture or spirituality.  The same spirit that caused the Sanhedrin to approve Jesus’ execution (it’s advantageous for one man to die to spare the nation) is alive and well in our denominations.  The leaders know what’s going on out there, but they aren’t doing anything about it because it’s not politically advantageous.

So many of us – and I include myself – feel abandoned by the wider body.  Our loyalty to the denomination was not reciprocated.

Third, if we’re over 55 and undergo termination, we instinctively know that our pastoral career is over. 

We’re done.  Few churches will hire an older pastor.  It’s wrong, but ageism is alive and well in the Christian community.  As Neil Diamond sang 46 years ago, our time as a pastor is often “done too soon.”  We always envisioned retiring on our own terms, but power-hungry laymen decided to retire us long before we were ready.

Some churches … usually small ones … will hire an older pastor.  There was a church 90 minutes away that I contacted many years ago.  It was a church of 60 people.  Kim and I drove there one day, but the valley where it was located looked like the back side of the moon.  There was nothing there!  Depression City.  No wonder they couldn’t find a pastor!  Those churches will always be available, but they pay very little, and the congregation’s dysfunctionality negates even the best pay package.

Pastors believe something that isn’t true: “If I’m loyal to my denomination/district, when I really need them, they’ll be there for me.”  But they won’t be.  It’s this finality, in my view, that causes much of our depression.  We’re still waiting for the district/ denominational guys on white horses to come and rectify our situation.  But they aren’t coming.  They never come.  They’re company men who are unwilling to take risks.  That’s why they were hired in the first place.

Fourth, for a pastor, our whole lives are centered upon our churches. 

We are fully committed to our congregations.  One guy I read called this syndrome a “total institutional mindset.”  The church supplies our income … our friendships … and our self-esteem.  When we put everything into our church, and then its leaders spit us out, it feels like a massive betrayal.  It’s like getting a “Dear John” note from your wife when you’ve been the best husband you could be.  The church can be a cruel bride.

My wife once told me that she felt I gave too much to my last church.  Maybe I did.  Maybe I wasn’t distant enough.  Maybe I cared too much.  But I think this is true of most pastors.  I think of U2’s song “With or Without You”: “And you give yourself away, and you give yourself away, and you give, and you give, and you give yourself away …”  That’s the life of a pastor.  The call of God upon our lives translates to giving ourselves away.

So when you’ve given all you can to a church, and they turn around and kick you in the teeth … it takes a long time to recover from that blow.  It takes a minimum of 1-3 years to heal from a forced termination, and I think the more a pastor loved a particular church, the longer it takes him to heal.

Fifth, the church is the place where most of a pastor’s friends congregated every weekend.

I had few friends outside my last church, but I had dozens of friends inside that church.  When I resigned, I lost most of those friends overnight.  Most never spoke with me or contacted me again.  I still grieve their loss.

Not only were my friends in that church, but so was my support system.  And then BOOM … it was gone overnight.

Pastors are somebodies inside their churches.  Everybody wants to be their friend, so pastors don’t have to work too hard to make friends.  They’re just there.  But when a pastor is forced to leave a church, those friends disappear.  And it can be hard for a pastor to make friends outside of church because nearly all his friends over the years have come from inside the church.  You lose your pastoral identity.  I’m no longer Pastor Jim – a somebody inside a church – but just “Jim” – a nobody outside the church.

Sixth, by their very nature, pastors are tender, sensitive individuals. 

77% of all pastors are feelers on the Myers-Briggs temperament test.  Even though I’m a thinker on that test, I feel things very deeply.  Most pastors do.  That empathy makes us great pastors but not always great leaders.  Sometimes we’re more concerned about one lost sheep than the entire flock.  So when we go through a horrible experience like forced termination, we feel it so deeply – and take it so personally – that it makes recovery very difficult.

So when we’re “fired” or pushed out … we take it hard.  We forget that Jonathan Edwards … Billy Graham … and a host of other great pastors have walked this road before us.  We aren’t better men than they were, so their suffering can give us some perspective.

By the way, I highly recommend two chapters in Charles Spurgeon’s classic Lectures to My Students: one called “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” which is on depression in ministry; the other called “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear,” which is on handling criticism in ministry.  I’ve loved that book for 40 years – there has never been anything like it – and it can be purchased dirt cheap as an e-book on Amazon.  The chapter on depression has always lifted my spirits!  (Dr. Hart even recommended it in class.)

Seventh, Christian churches have not devised fair processes for handling complaints inside churches concerning pastors. 

It’s all black or white thinking: either the pastor stays or he leaves.  The board doesn’t think in terms of other solutions, like bringing in a mediator/consultant, or giving a pastor a sabbatical/time off, or talking to the pastor honestly about an issue in his life/ministry.  Pastors may assume that board members possess these skills – or that they will acquire them while they’re on the board – but they’re usually clueless.  I can’t emphasize this enough.

As I’ve written many times in my blog, I probably needed to leave my last church when I did.  I was clinically burned out, and had little left to give.  But the way I was treated was wrong – especially the lying.  I was accused of a host of charges that weren’t true because nobody ever brought them to my attention.  My reputation outside of my last church is excellent.  My reputation inside that church changed overnight.

Even though church bylaws were clear about how to handle problems with the pastor, the board chose to ignore the bylaws.  I’ve learned how frequently this happens in the Christian world.  When people become emotional, they easily bypass procedures and then create a rationale why they don’t apply.  They don’t want to resolve the issues; they want to win and defeat their detractors.  Many former pastors become depressed about this kind of thing because they were never presented any kind of forum where they could tell their side of the story. WE HAVE TO CHANGE THIS INSIDE THE WIDER CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY.

I’m grateful for the work Dennis Maynard has done in this area.  (He wrote the book When Sheep Attack.)  He says that whenever a pastor is forced to leave a church, that church can’t heal, and subsequently grow, until the people are told the truth as to why their previous pastor left.  I agree with him 100%, but it rarely happens because it isn’t politically expedient.

Finally, there isn’t any opportunity to reconcile with those who hurt us. 

For us, our dismissal was personal, but the church board will claim it was just business (although it is personal in all too many cases.)

Pastors are trained to engage in reconciliation, and when they’re dismissed, it’s a confession by the board that reconciliation isn’t an option.  This inability to reconcile doesn’t seem to bother board members but lingers on in the memories and souls of pastors who just want to know, “What did I do wrong?”  And the answer is almost always, “You did nothing wrong.  You may even have been dismissed because you were such a godly, holy man that the other board members felt uncomfortable in your presence.”

Just remember that Jesus never reconciled with Judas … or Pilate … or Caiaphas … or the Sanhedrin … or any of the people who put Him on the cross.  He died to make reconciliation possible, but without repentance, reconciliation – or bilateral forgiveness – cannot occur.

_______________

I believe that after a forced exit, a pastor has to accept the following truisms in order to fully heal:

*I was treated wrongly … but I forgive my opponents.

*I will endeavor to speak openly about my experience whenever appropriate.

*I accept that if I’m over 55, my pastoral career is probably over … but I will be open to other ministry opportunities.

*I will center my life upon the Lord and my family, not a local church.

*I will seek out friendships wherever I can … not just in my church.

*I will remain tender but toughen up where I can.

*I will speak up for a fair and just process anytime I hear that a pastor is undergoing turmoil.

*I will accept the fact that those who pushed me out of the pastorate will never seek or be open to reconciliation.

What are your thoughts about what I’ve written?

Uncomfortable at Church

Many years ago, a church that I served as pastor held an Italian-themed outreach event on our campus one gorgeous Saturday evening.

Because we had a lagoon behind our property, my wife obtained a gondola and we offered our guests rides while someone serenaded them.

After one gondola ride, I greeted a woman I didn’t know and learned that she was from the Czech Republic.

As we walked toward the back entrance to our multipurpose room, she suddenly stopped and refused to go further.  When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she was afraid of entering the church building.

We weren’t going to enter the worship center … merely a larger room used by various groups … but she became so petrified she would not advance a step further.

Many people in our culture won’t set foot on a church campus for a variety of reasons.  Some have terrible memories from childhood.  Others can’t forget the way a family member was mistreated.  Still others are possessed by hostility toward God or pastors or churches as a whole.

But sometimes, people have a negative reaction because a church long ago made them feel so uncomfortable … or anxious … or excluded … or afraid … that they don’t want to feel that way again.

My wife and I attended a church in our area recently for the second time, but sadly, it will be the last time because that church … like thousands in our country … simply wasn’t ready for anyone new to show up.

The only way for any church to grow is by reaching newcomers … and you can only attract and keep them when you make them feel comfortable enough to stick around.

Let me share with you five things that many churches do to keep people from returning … and this is only a brief list:

First, they let the church phone go unanswered.

I was once speaking with a pastor in his office when the phone rang.  When I asked him, “Shouldn’t you get that?”, he said, “No, the church answering machine will get it.”

But if a church wants to reach people for Christ, they need to treat every call as precious.  You never know who’s on the other line.

I once read a story about a Christian leader who called many churches in his community before Christmas.  In more than half the cases, nobody picked up the telephone.

We had a rule in our last church: during office hours, we will personally answer every call that comes in.  When the office manager needed to use the restroom, she would first ask me or another staff member to answer the phone until she returned.  If the entire staff was going out to lunch, the office manager would arrange to have a volunteer answer the phone during her absence.

There are many people who will call a church once.  If nobody answers, they figure nobody cares … or they will call the next church on their list … and it won’t be yours.

What if it’s a potential leader … a large donor … or that prized volunteer you so desperately need?

Second, they fail to greet every guest personally.

Years ago, the late Howard Hendricks – speaker, author, and professor at Dallas Seminary – said that whenever he visited a new church, he played a little game.

He tried to enter the worship center without anyone greeting him.

Over the years, I’ve tried playing the same game, and so far, I’m winning.

A while back, I visited a church that meets on Sunday mornings at the local community college.  I walked past two booths without anyone greeting me, and then I walked straight into the auditorium while a greeter kept his back to me while talking to someone he knew.

After I sat down, an older woman told me that I was sitting in her friend’s seat, and that she always sat next to her friend, the implication being that I was doing something wrong by coming to her church.

So I left and never went back.

The greeters in a church are crucial.  Most people receive a warm feeling when someone says hi to them.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited Saddleback Church in Orange County where Rick Warren is pastor.  They were meeting at Trabuco High School in the early 1990s.  As my wife and I walked toward the gymnasium, we were instantly greeted by a couple of younger people who communicated, “We are so glad you’re here.”  Their greeting took a lot of our initial anxiety away.

Then we were greeted when we entered the gymnasium.

Greeters don’t corner newcomers and ask if they can teach the fifth grade class.  They just stick out their hand, say hi, and welcome you to their church.

I believe that greeters are so important in a church that they should be trained on a regular basis … and it’s so vital that the pastor may need to do the training himself.

Third, they fail to keep their promises.

I am one of those people who take their promises seriously.  I try and underpromise and overdeliver.

But some churches do the opposite in their advertising: they overpromise and underdeliver.  And when that happens, many people will stay away.

My wife and daughter and I recently visited a church on Christmas Day that advertised their service from 10:00 am to 10:45 am.  We had visited several years before and didn’t return, but thought we’d give them another chance.

We didn’t get out at 10:45, though … we got out at 11:15.

Another time, my wife and I visited a church near our home and she signed up for a women’s Bible study, leaving her name and number.

She’s still waiting for a call.

Someone gave me a gift card to Kohl’s for Christmas, and I received a 15% off card in the mail.  The checker at Kohl’s honored both cards, and I left a satisfied customer.

Church leaders need to make sure they honor their promises as well.

Fourth, they fail to use visuals during the Sunday service.

A church I admire has an annual emphasis on doing things for their community over several weeks.  To celebrate what they did, they showed a video recapping the highlights of the previous few weeks.

It was quick … celebratory … and effective.

Even though I wasn’t there to witness what happened, the video made me wish I had been there.

I am a firm believer that churches need to use visuals as much as possible.  Most churches nowadays have large screens to project the lyrics of praise songs.  They need to do more than that, however:

*Put the announcements on the screen while they’re being made.  Some people respond better to what they see than what they hear.

*Celebrate every major victory with either photos or a video.  It will make people feel that they were present at the event.

*The pastor should use photos when he speaks.  When I was a pastor, I took hundreds of digital photos everywhere I went.  Most of them went unused, but when I told a story, I’d often say to myself, “Hey, I have a photo of that.”  And I knew how to find it quickly.  In fact, I had a private rule to use at least seven photos during every sermon.

*Use video when it’s appropriate.  When I saw a concert at the Hollywood Bowl last fall, the performer used video.  When I attend a major league baseball game, they use video.  If you attend a business presentation, they use video.

For years, I’ve felt that whenever a pastor refers to a scene in a movie, he should show that scene during his sermon.  It has more of an impact than if he tries to describe it.

There’s a famous church in London called Holy Trinity Brompton.  They meet in an old Anglican Cathedral down the street from Harrods.  I’ve visited the church three times.  What do they do in that old building?  They use photos and video.

Why don’t more churches use visuals?  I don’t think the reason is theological.  I tend to think it’s due to laziness.

We use microphones so people can hear.  We need to use visuals so people can see.

Finally, they fail to plan the service wisely.

When I go to a play, I receive a program telling me the names of the actors as well as the scenes.

But when I visit most churches nowadays, I don’t know what’s going on.

On Christmas Day, the congregation sang six stanzas of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” even though the song officially has only three.  Then at the end of the service, we sang all six stanzas again, and I thought to myself, “Somebody didn’t plan this well.”

I like an order of service.  I like to know who did the announcements … who read the Scripture … and who gave the message.

But many churches have dispensed with that information altogether, and to be honest, it makes me anxious.

My wife and I attended a service a while back that met in a middle school.  The pastor spoke for a solid hour without notes, but his message was, in my view, much too long.

If a sermon is good, I don’t want it to end.  If a sermon isn’t good, I want to escape.  When it isn’t all that good, and the pastor goes on and on, I feel like a prisoner in church.

It’s fine to be spontaneous in the Spirit.  Just let us know the general structure of the service … or guests may not return.

_______________

I pastored four churches.  Two were under 100 … one was over 200 … and one was over 400.

I became a more effective pastor when I decided to ruthlessly evaluate how each church was doing and create a plan for becoming more outreach-oriented.

Most pastors focus on what’s happening on the stage … especially the worship music and the sermon.

But sometimes the impact of a church is determined more by little things like answering the phone promptly … greeting every guest warmly … keeping promises effectively … using visuals in the service regularly … and planning the service wisely.

What are some areas that make you feel uncomfortable at church?

Disgraced or Graced?

While reading the Christmas story again last week, I was struck by a phrase in Matthew 1:19.  After Mary was discovered to be pregnant – presumably with another man’s child – Joseph her fiancee had several choices to make.

Because he was “a righteous man” – a man who thoroughly kept the Mosaic law – he intended to break off their betrothal because she had been sexually unfaithful to him.  According to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Joseph had every right to not only “divorce” Mary but also to insist that she be stoned in order to “purge the evil from Israel.”  Scripture seems to indicate that most men in Joseph’s situation would have had Mary executed.

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was guided by a different spirit.  The ex-taxman writes that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” so he decided to “divorce her quietly.”

He did not want to expose her to public disgrace.  How unlike our culture.  How unlike our media.  And sadly, how unlike Christ’s church.

I’ve been reading Gayle Haggard’s book Why I Stayed recentlyAs you may recall, Ted Haggard was the pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs – a mega church of 14,000 – as well as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.  Some unflattering news surfaced about him a few years ago, and Pastor Haggard resigned from both his positions.  Many women – even Christian women – would have left Mr. Haggard at that point, and would have been biblically justified in doing so.  But Gayle chose to stick it out with her husband, thus the title of the book.

The story of her relationship with Ted makes for fascinating reading, but I was far more interested in the latter half of the book.  Gayle describes the way that prominent Christian leaders, the church’s governing board, and their friends treated them during this time, and although she maintains a gracious, non-vindictive spirit throughout, the same cannot be said for the believers involved.

The Haggards – including Gayle, who was innocent of wrongdoing – were treated in a humiliating way by the church they founded in the basement of their home.  Within a week of their departure, all traces of their ministry at the church had been purged.  People who knew them were interviewed so as to find more “dirt” on them.  Both believers and non-believers were able to say anything about them they liked but the Haggards were not permitted to reply.  They were even told they had to leave the state of Colorado which meant that their children had to leave behind their friends and schooling.

No matter what they did, it was eventually misinterpreted.  No matter what they said, it was flagrantly disregarded.

Pastors are fond of preaching on the fact that God can use anyone, even a liar like Abraham, a murderer like Moses, an adulterer like David, and a hothead like Peter.  But let that same pastor fall into sin and he will be tarred, feathered, and blogged about ad infinitum, often by people who are his own teammates.

Phil Keaggy, who has long been my favorite Christian male artist, co-wrote a song with Sheila Walsh called “It Could’ve Been Me.”  The song always makes me think and can bring me to tears.  (The song is found on the CD Way Back Home and is available on iTunes if you’re interested.)  After describing the fall of a Christian leader, Keaggy’s powerful chorus nails each one of us to the wall:

But it could’ve been me,

I could’ve been the one to lose my grip and fall.

It could’ve been me

The one who’s always standing tall.

For unless you hold me tightly, Lord,

And I can hold on too,

Then tomorrow in the news

It could be me, it could be me.

Just four chapters after Matthew 1, the grown-up Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  When Mary “fell” – which is what Joseph thought until the angel enlightened him – Joseph chose mercy over vindictiveness.  Mary’s pregnancy undoubtedly caused her to lose her local reputation as a virtuous woman.  It might even have ended her chances of ever marrying anyone.

But although we now know the back story, neither Joseph nor the folks in Nazareth did at the time.  A modern love story would probably tell us that Joseph married Mary anyway, but as a keeper of the law, he couldn’t bring himself to do that … until God told Joseph that Mary was not only his soul mate but also the mother of the promised Messiah.

When pastors are forcibly terminated from their churches, they suffer many losses: their jobs, their income, their houses (in some cases), their careers (potentially), their marriages (sometimes) and most of their church friends.  And though they’re almost always innocent, their family members suffer those same losses.

But just like Mary and Ted Haggard, they also lose their reputations, whether the charges made against them are valid or not.

I find it ironic that pastors, who are conduits of God’s grace to scores of sinners throughout their ministries, cannot find that same grace when someone accuses them of wrongdoing.

May I urge you, not only at this Christmas season, but in every season of life, to be gracious toward every sinner who comes into your life, whether it’s a woman pregnant out of wedlock or a pastor who has been forced to leave his church because our Lord Jesus Christ suffered public disgrace that we might become recipients of His grace.

That’s why II Corinthians 8:9 is my favorite Christmas verse: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

May God give us the ability to treat wounded Christian leaders with the same grace that Christ has shown us … because only grace can lead us home.

Merry Christmas!

_______________

I wrote this article six years ago.  It was among the first ones that I published.  It’s still relevant today.

Why Did My Pastor Leave?

From time-to-time, I receive emails from churchgoers whose pastors resigned suddenly.  These concerned individuals want to know what, if anything, they can do about their pastor’s unexpected departure.

Someone wrote me recently asking that very question.  This is how I responded (with some slight modifications):

_______________

Thank you for writing.  I’m sorry for what happened to your pastor.  It’s happening a lot these days.

I’m going to suggest some things you can do that are perfectly within your rights as a longtime church attendee.  More than anything, YOU WANT TO DETERMINE IF THE PASTOR RESIGNED VOLUNTARILY OR IF HE WAS FORCED TO RESIGN.

*Contact the pastor and/or his wife directly.  Ask them what happened.  Write down what they say for accuracy.  If the pastor signed a severance agreement, he may not be able to discuss anything until the agreement expires.  If he didn’t receive a severance agreement, he should be able to speak freely, although some pastors believe they’re being divisive if they say anything about their departure.  (I don’t hold that particular viewpoint.)

*Find a copy of your church’s governing documents: the constitution and bylaws.  Find the section on removing a pastor from office.  (Some churches don’t have any governing documents, while others don’t have a section on removing a pastor.)  Familiarize yourself with the key sections of those documents.

*Contact a member of the governing board of your church, whether they’re called elders, deacons, trustees, the church council, or something else.

*Ask the member you know best, “Which process did the board use that led to our pastor’s resignation?”  It’s not time to ask about any charges that might have led to the pastor’s exit.  Just focus on the process.

*Tell the board member you’ve contacted – or the entire board in writing – that you would like a written copy of the process that the board used to deal with the pastor.  My guess is that most boards won’t have one in writing, but you’re doing them a favor by asking them for it anyway.  They will be forced to think through the steps they used to secure the pastor’s departure.  Since board members are usually voted into office by the congregation, the board needs to account to the congregation for how they treated the pastor.  (And in congregationally-run churches, the pastor is voted on by the church as well.)

*If the board resists, don’t threaten or make demands.  Just tell them that you’d prefer not to take things further.  You just want a copy of the process.  If they can’t or won’t produce it, then they may be hiding something.

A couple I know well told me that the board in their previous church forced out their pastor.  Soon afterwards, due to feedback from the congregation, a board member stood up at the end of a Sunday service and told the body that the board wasn’t going to talk about why the pastor left and so people needed to stop talking about it.

My friends left that church soon afterwards … and I would have done the same thing.

A church board doesn’t need to tell their congregation everything about why their pastor left, but they do need to tell them enough.  Most parishioners love and trust their pastor, and if he suddenly leaves, the board needs to be as forthcoming as possible to keep people’s trust.  The quickest way to lose it is for them to say nothing.

This is why I recommend asking the board for a copy of the process they used.  It doesn’t ask them to violate any matter that is strictly confidential.  It just asks them to recite the steps they used.  However, if they won’t reveal the process, or you sense they operated by the law of the jungle instead, your board members may be trying to cover up their role in you’re pastor’s departure.

*Compare the process they used to (a) the governing documents; (b) Scripture; and (c) labor law in your state.  There are many articles on my blog that deal with the scriptural way to correct or remove a pastor.

*If a bully was involved in pushing out the pastor, and the board felt pressured by the bully, he/she won’t show up on the written process.  But even if that’s the case, the board is still responsible for their decisions and actions.

*Ask around discreetly.  Find people in the church’s inner circle who know what happened.  Contact them directly.  Ask them why the pastor resigned.  Make sure their information comes from a reliable source.

*Ask questions of the right people, but refrain from offering your own opinions.  If anyone wants to know what you’re doing, just say you’re trying to learn what happened.  Assume that when you offer your opinion, you will be quoted and whatever you say will get back to the board.  While no one can stop you from asking questions, they can and should stop you from forming a faction or making outrageous statements.

Sometimes a pastor may appear to be godly and gracious in public, but is nasty and mean in private.  Sometimes the board will ask such a pastor to change his behavior but he will refuse.  Sometimes a pastor resigns because he’s had an affair, or because he’s a tyrant.  It’s hard to know who a pastor really is when parishioners only see and hear from him for an hour or two every week.

The church board may act independently of the congregation, or they may have received complaints against the pastor from certain key members.  Board members can become incredibly anxious when important leaders or longtime friends threaten to leave the church unless the pastor is sacked.

Sometimes the pastor hasn’t been getting along with a staff member or a key leader and he’s pushed toward the exit as people choose sides.  Many years ago, I attended a church where the pastor fired a popular staff member and soon afterwards, the pastor himself was forced to quit.  In cases like these, the board doesn’t want to talk about the issues because they don’t want to reveal the names of those who weren’t getting along with the pastor.

Keep a written record of the questions you ask and the answers you receive.  It is not divisive to try and find out what happened.  It is divisive to form a faction, use it as a power base, and begin to issue threats and ultimatums.  You should be allowed to have your say but not your way.

Once you’ve absorbed what I’ve written, feel free to respond or ask questions.  I hope I’ve been helpful!

Which two areas in a local church have the greatest potential to catapult a pastor out of ministry?

According to church conflict expert Dr. Peter Steinke, those two areas are money and sex.

When I first became a pastor, I was unprepared for the value placed on money in the local church.  In fact, I can’t recall even one word being devoted to the topic in seminary.

But the quickest way for a pastor to be pushed out the door is for him to mess up – even in a small way – on church finances.

Let me share with you seven brief thoughts I’ve learned about pastors and church finances:

First, the pastor’s personal finances need to be in pristine order.

A pastor needs to watch his spending and his indebtedness very carefully.

Although they shouldn’t, some people watch the kind of car the pastor drives and the kind of house in which he lives … and if they think he’s being excessive, they will rip into him behind his back.

One famous pastor bought a cabin in the mountains with income unrelated to his church ministry, but a vocal minority howled about it, and it became a factor in his eventual departure.

I remember hearing another time about a pastor who had a gambling problem.  As I recall, he finally gambled away his house … and soon afterwards, his career.

My wife and I have lived by a budget for most of our married life.  We both have set allowances every month, and we can spend those funds however we like, but each of us is accountable to the other for every other expenditure.

I check my bank accounts online nearly every day and balance my checkbook at the same time.  At any given moment, I know exactly how much money we have and how much we have to spend.

Because when it comes to personal finances, I hate being surprised.

In 36 years of ministry, I can’t recall a single time that anyone criticized me in the area of personal finances.  I’m sure some did, but their comments never got around to me.

But realize this: people assume that church funds are managed the way the pastor manages his own funds.

This area is crucial because of the next lesson:

Second, the pastor must give generously to his local church.

By generously, I mean at least a tithe, and preferably beyond a tithe.

I don’t know if he still does this, but for years, whenever he preached on giving, Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church would invite people up to the front after his message so they could view his checkbook and see how much he gave to the church.

Following his example, I did this for years, but my son Ryan was the only person who ever took me up on it!

If a pastor isn’t giving at least a tithe to his church, he can’t speak with integrity on the subject, and that will come through in his preaching.

The day after the conflict broke in my last church seven years ago, I preached on the story of the widow’s mite from Mark 12:41-44.  I was so rattled that I forgot my tithe check at home.  Between services, I drove home, wrote my usual check, returned to the church, and dropped the check in the offering … then shared that story during the second service.

I don’t believe that if a pastor tithes, his church will automatically do well financially, but I do believe that if a pastor doesn’t tithe, his church won’t do well financially.

And there are always a few people in the church who know the truth about the pastor’s giving, especially the money counters and the financial secretary.  During anxious times within the congregation, if even one financial person tells someone else about the pastor’s giving patterns … well, let your imagination run wild!

Third, the pastor should never handle people’s donations: period.

In my last ministry, people would sometimes come up to me after the service – especially people on the worship team – and tell me, “Hey, Jim, I wasn’t able to put my donation in the offering today.  Will you take care of this for me?”

I always told each person the same thing, “No, I don’t handle money, but let’s go together and you can put your donation in the drop safe.”

We had a slot carved out of the wall next to the church office where people could insert their donations.  They went down a chute and instantly fell into a safe.

I treated other people’s money like poison.  I didn’t want anything to do with it.

In that way, it would be difficult to accuse me of stealing someone’s donation, whether by cash or by check.

Years before, at another church, someone once slipped fifty dollars in cash under my door.  Whoever put the money there didn’t identify themselves or the purpose of their gift.

When I mentioned it to the finance team leader, I thought he’d hand me the money.  Instead, he immediately deposited it in the offering … and his actions protected my financial reputation.

Fourth, the pastor needs to make sure that people’s donations are protected by safeguards.

I once knew a married couple who scooped up the Sunday offerings, took them home, counted them together, and then deposited the funds in the bank the following day.

This practice was a carryover from the previous administration, and when I found out about it, I quickly put a stop to it.

Another time, a law enforcement officer in our congregation told me that after the offerings were taken in each service, a woman took the proceeds, walked several hundred feet by herself, and then locked the money away until after the service.  He told me, “It’s dangerous for her to carry those funds by herself.  What if someone knows her route, hits her on the head, and steals the money?”

I didn’t think about things like that because I was preaching when she made her walk, but his comment spurred me to make sure that she was accompanied by at least one other person … preferably a strong man.

We eventually devised a system that started with donations … ended with the bookkeeper writing checks … and covered everything in between.

For example, we always made sure to have three people counting money.  If one person counts the offerings, they might be tempted to embezzle funds.  Even two people working in concert could engage in embezzling.  But when there are three money counters, embezzlement almost never occurs.

Fifth, the pastor must communicate that the church budget is a servant, not a master.

Let’s say that you have a family budget, and that you have a category marked “household repairs.”  You just fixed your garbage disposal for $200 so you have little money left for other problems.

But then your refrigerator begins to leak water, and after calling out a friend, he tells you, “Your refrigerator is shot.  You need another one.”

Since the “household repairs” category has been depleted, are you going to wait months to buy a refrigerator?

No, you’ll move heaven and earth to buy one right away, regardless of the budget category.  Your family NEEDS a refrigerator.

Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with a handful of board/finance people who act like the church budget is a master.  If a category becomes depleted, they’ll say, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t have funds for that item until next year’s budget.”

Church budgets should be as flexible as possible.  Yes, God’s people need to learn to live within their means, and yes, some items and repairs can wait, but there are times when a church will limp along unless it replaces the copier or fixes that leaky toilet in the men’s room.

One of the great things about not being a pastor is that I don’t have to consult the bean counters anymore.

Sixth, the pastor needs to realize that money flows toward the most effective ministries.

In my last ministry, my wife was our church’s outreach director for nearly nine years, and she knew how to get things done.

One Saturday night early in her tenure, we had a big feast on the lawn outside the worship center.  The place was packed, we had gondola rides on the lagoon adjoining our property, and the mayor and his wife even stopped by for a visit.

My wife’s vision and passion to reach people became contagious.  One couple in particular began donating large amounts of money directly to her ministry through the offering.

Some on the board were very upset about this development.  They wanted to ask the couple to give to the general fund instead.

While I understood their viewpoint, I pointed out that if the couple was told where to give the funds, they might stop giving altogether.

During our entire time in that church, funds flowed easily toward the outreach and missions ministries because that was the primary area that God was blessing.

But there were other ministries that weren’t as well funded … mostly because nobody was very excited about them.

I still believe this basic principle: money flows toward the ministries … and churches … that God is blessing.

Finally, the pastor needs to monitor the financial systems privately but stay away from the money publicly.

If there’s a breach in the financial systems of a church, the pastor may very well be blamed, even if he had nothing directly to do with a violation.

For that reason, the pastor needs to make sure that his church does everything in the financial realm properly, because if he doesn’t, it may be his head that rolls.

About ten years ago, a prominent megachurch here in Southern California suspended the senior pastor because of financial irregularities involving a staff member.  The pastor knew nothing about the staff member’s sloppiness, yet the pastor was scapegoated and eventually forced to resign.

I believe that a pastor’s involvement … at least in a small or medium-sized church … extends even to who the money counters are.  Whenever my last ministry needed a new money counter, I would make a list of potential volunteers.  We needed someone who was committed to the ministry … had a lifestyle of integrity … and who would keep their mouth shut about who gave how much.

Those people aren’t always easy to find, but they are worth waiting for.

At home, I’m hands on with the money: budgeting … keeping records … transferring funds … paying bills online … the works.

But even though I could handle the funds directly inside a church, it’s crucial that I delegate those duties to others who are optimally qualified or else I will be viewed as a control freak.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, I was pastoring a new church in Silicon Valley.  We had the location, the staff, and the ministry for growth, but in that resistant environment, the ministry was not growing as fast as I wanted … and that included the finances … which made me anxious and even fearful at times.

One night, during our midweek worship time, the Lord spoke to me in an audible voice … the only time I ever remember this happening.

His word was just for me.  The Lord said, “You take care of the ministry, and I will take care of the money.”

And He did.

The Lord wants all of His shepherds to know that taking care of the money is a huge part of taking care of the ministry.

Out of all the types of conflict I endured during my 36 years in church ministry, I had more trouble with paid youth leaders than anyone else.

Whether they were called youth ministers … pastors … directors … or student ministry directors, I often struggled in my working relationship with them.

Did I try and micromanage them?

No.  I served three pastors as a youth pastor, and none of them micromanaged me, so I made sure to give them plenty of space to develop their own ministries.

Did I insist they work unreasonable hours?

No.  I expected that they would work a minimal number of hours, but I’ve never been a workaholic, and didn’t expect staff members to outwork me.

Did I yell at them in anger?

No.  I never yelled at any staff member.  There were times I felt like screaming, but by the grace of God, I kept it together.

Did I confront them unreasonably?

No.  Most of the time, if I had a concern or a question about their ministry, I’d walk down the hall and speak with them personally and directly in their office.

I tried to convey several basic expectations whenever I worked with a paid youth leader:

*I expect you to carry out our church’s mission and vision statements.

*I expect you and your adult leaders to attend at least one worship service on Sundays.

*I expect you to be present during office hours … which you set.

*I expect you to be present during staff meetings.

*I expect you to let me know what you’re doing in your ministry.

*I expect you to let me know of any potential problems with youth or their parents.  If you inform me right away about any possible blowback, I will back you to the hilt.

*I expect you to fight for your viewpoint on any area where we disagree, but once I’ve made a decision, I expect that you will abide by it.

Those seem like simple guidelines, don’t they?

Yet I was amazed at how often they were violated.

Most of the time, conflict occurred because the youth leader viewed himself as a pastor equal in authority to the lead pastor.

*The youth leader had his own congregation: the youth group.

*The youth leader had his own staff: adult volunteers.

*The youth leader had his own office and computer.

*The youth leader carried out ministry in specific church rooms.

*The youth leader ran his own budget and planned his own events.

*The youth leader was viewed as “our pastor” by his adult volunteers and young people.

But the youth leader didn’t like having to be accountable to anyone … much less the lead pastor.

I saw this latter point demonstrated over and over again.

*One youth leader went on vacation for two weeks without asking my permission.  He had only been on the job for two months.

*One youth leader told me he no longer believed in our church’s mission/vision.

*One youth leader not only let his adult volunteers skip worship services, but started a home church with them without telling me.

*One youth leader purchased expensive equipment for youth ministry … then kept the equipment at his house.

*One youth leader shared a large room with other ministries, but refused to clean up after using it … even when I asked him to do so repeatedly … upsetting the rest of the staff.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Over time, paid youth leaders created a big headache for me.

On the one hand, everyone expected us to have a thriving youth ministry … especially the parents of middle school and high school parents.

On the other hand, I had to restrain myself from firing several leaders … even though they deserved it … because it takes a long time to find another one.

One time, we had a youth leader whom I really liked.  He was getting ready to graduate from seminary, and I offered him a job after graduation.  The youth group wasn’t big enough to support a full-time person, so I asked him to lead the youth and do some teaching for adults (teaching was his primary spiritual gift), but he refused.

Either he was going to work exclusively with the youth, or he wasn’t going to work at all.

I suspected that he didn’t want to be accountable to me as his supervisor, so I let him walk.

But after he left, boy, did I hear about it!

One parent … with whom I had always gotten along … raked me over the coals in an email, telling me that something was wrong with our church because we couldn’t seem to hold onto youth leaders.

The ensuing search took about a year.  After reviewing nearly 200 resumes, we brought eight different candidates to the church.

Either the youth didn’t think they were cool enough … or they made a bad impression on the staff … or they lacked solid character … or something wasn’t right.

Under pressure, we finally hired someone the kids thought was cool … but one of the adult volunteers came to me a year later and poured out instance after instance of unethical behavior … right at the beginning of the summer.

I took two days to investigate the charges.

Evidence in hand, I confronted the youth leader … who didn’t see anything wrong with anything he had done.  In fact, he later told me that I was the problem.

The youth leader deserved to be fired.  Immediately.  I asked pastor after pastor, “If this person did these things at your church, what would you do?”

Everyone said, “Fire him.”

But that meant that all the events the youth had planned for the summer would be cancelled because we didn’t have anyone else available who could step in.

Against my better judgment, I let him stay … and he ripped me to shreds in private … and a few months later, he finally resigned and left the church.

When I was a pastor, I suffered more sleepless nights over staff issues than anything else … and the majority of those times involved paid youth leaders.

Let me share four conclusions I’ve reached about lead pastors working with paid youth leaders:

First, most young spiritual leaders do not share the values of their pastor/supervisor.

A professor from my seminary told me that since many new students come to the school without a basic sense of morality or ethical behavior, the school puts them through a morality/ethics orientation class when they first arrive.

A Christian counselor told me that our culture is raising a generation of sociopaths who can’t distinguish right from wrong.

I noticed a pattern among several of the youth leaders I supervised: it was okay for them to cut ethical corners as long as they got the job done.

In their world, the ends did indeed justify the means … but not in my world.  (Is it okay for a youth pastor to use four-letter words on youth outings … or to drive well over the speed limit with youth in the car … or to trade equipment bought by the church without anyone’s permission?)

These scenarios raise a key question: should the pastor/supervisor adjust himself to his staff members, or should the staff members adjust themselves to their supervisor?

I stand in the latter camp, but my guess is that most young leaders are in the first camp.

Second, many in the Buster Generation act like they already know everything.

I believe that the Boomer Generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) were willing to learn from the previous generation (the Builders).

For example, Rick Warren (a Boomer) considered W. A. Criswell (a Builder) to be his father in the faith.

And when I was a youth pastor, I certainly obeyed my Builder pastors and submitted to their authority.

Maybe I’m wrong … or overgeneralizing … but I just haven’t seen the Buster Generation (those born between 1965 and 1983) wanting to learn nearly as much from the Boomers.

In fact, I’ve often said that the Busters act like world history began the day they were born.

I saw this attitude most often during staff meetings.  When a ministry dilemma came up, I’d share with the staff what I’d learned about an issue over the years, including mistakes I’d made.

The other staff members were usually appreciative, but many times, I watched the youth leaders roll their eyes and act like, “I don’t need to hear this from you.”

My kids are both Busters, and they’ve told me, “Dad, not everyone in our generation is like that.”  But sadly, all too many are.

I remember reading an article in a Christian magazine about ten years ago where the children of Boomer parents who attended my university severely criticized the way their parents’ generation did ministry … and these were kids in their early twenties.

Paid youth leaders can bring that same mindset into their relationship with their pastor.

Third, many in the Buster Generation hate the institutional church.

I can’t speak for Millennials here .. just for Busters.

Most of the youth leaders I knew did not like the structure of a local church.

They were happy to collect a salary from their church … while inwardly rebelling against it.

There are things that I don’t like about the institutional church as well.  Sometimes we’ve adopted a business model and superimposed it over the local church … and then tell people they have to support the institution with their attendance, time, and money.

That kind of mentality can drain the life out of a local church.

But I had one youth leader tell me that he didn’t believe in the institutional church anymore and that he was looking at other models instead.

That’s fine with me if you accompany that statement with your resignation … but not if you stay inside the church and undermine what we’re doing … which he did.

This disdain for structure and organization may explain why so many younger people choose missions over local church ministry.

I finally began telling rebellious youth leaders, “Look, if you just want to hang out with the youth, and you want nothing to do with the church as a whole, then take an offering every week among the youth, and whatever they put in will be your salary.  But as long as this church is paying your salary, you need to have some connection with the church as a whole.”

Finally, a church that finds a good youth leader should hold onto him for dear life.

I once asked a veteran youth pastor, “What should I look for in a potential youth person?”

He replied, “They have to love the Lord … and they have to love kids.”

I once knew a man who led the youth ministry at one of Orange County’s top churches.  As I recall, he was there for several decades … well into his fifties.

For a long time, I wondered, “How can the church employ someone that old?”

But he worked hard … he loved the kids … and his character was solid.

I don’t know the average tenure of a youth leader anymore, but it’s probably still less than a year.

Yet I subscribe to the axiom, “It is better to have no one than the wrong person.”

It’s tough being a youth leader.  You have to account to more people than anybody else in the church.

In one church where I worked with youth, I was accountable to the senior pastor … the Christian Education Committee chairman … the committee as a whole … the parents of the youth … and anybody who wanted to take a potshot at me.

With a youth group of 100 kids, I was out every Sunday night … every Wednesday night … most Friday or Saturday nights … and all while I was writing a seminary thesis … finishing work for my degree … trying to pay attention to my wife … and caring for our newborn son.

One December, I was out fifteen straight nights.  In the end, I couldn’t keep the pace, and longed to be a pastor somewhere … anywhere … with much less to do.

In my case, I was using youth ministry as a steppingstone to becoming a senior pastor … and I was very upfront about it.

But if you can find someone called to youth ministry who loves Jesus … loves kids … has a solid character … and willingly submits to one supervisor (usually the lead pastor) … then grab him … keep him happy … and never let him go.

Based on the way I was trained, I don’t know what I could have done differently with the various youth leaders I worked with.

I liked them personally.  I tried to spend time with them.  I listened to them.  I fought for them to be treated well.

And yet in the end, my efforts were never reciprocated … and I was often undermined.

My wife told me, “Jim, you’re too nice, and they’re taking advantage of your niceness.  You need to be tougher with them.”

Maybe she was right.

But I also have reason to believe that I was a father figure to most youth leaders, that they had trouble getting along with their own fathers, and that they projected those troubles onto me.

A former missionary once told me, “We could win the world for Christ if missionaries could just get along.”

A corollary might be, “We could have far healthier and better churches if pastors and their staff members could just get along.”

And in my case, that refers specifically to youth leaders.

Sociopaths in the Church

I once served with a church leader who struggled to tell the truth.

In the words of children, I could have told him, “You lie like a fly.”

He lied about his credentials.  He lied to cover up wrongdoing.

And sometimes, he lied just for fun.

Two of his fellow leaders approached me separately about his lack of truth telling.  They knew he was lying and didn’t want to work with him anymore.

But by then, lying for him was a way of life.

Welcome to the world of the “Christian” sociopath.

According to Dr. W. Brad Johnson and his son Dr. William L. Johnson in their book The Pastor’s Guide to Psychological Disorders and Treatments, a person with anti-social personality disorder – or sociopathy – has the following characteristics:

*This person seems charming and likeable initially, making a favorable impression.

*This person is soon found to be, in the words of the Johnsons, “manipulative, deceitful, and willing to do almost anything to achieve their own ends.”

*This person proves to be irresponsible, unreliable, and impulsive.

*This person is sometimes vengeful about perceived injustices.

*This person has superficial and short-lived relationships.

*This person is disloyal, insensitive, and even ruthless.

*This person disregards societal rules and does not believe the rules apply to them.

The Johnsons then make the following statements:

“In the church, pastors should be alert to two major manifestations of this disorder.  The first type of antisocial is the smooth, personable, charming person who manipulates and exploits others subtly – often without detection – for some time.

“The second type is the belligerent, antagonistic, and overtly criminal antisocial type.  This parishioner will have a clear criminal history, arouse fear in others, and be viewed as unpredictable and dangerous.  The difference between the two may be emotional intelligence or social polish.”

We might say that the first person mentioned above is a sociopath with a small “s.”  The second person is a Sociopath with a large “s.”

Churches are pretty good at not tolerating any Sociopaths in their midst … but they aren’t as good at identifying and dealing with the sociopath … or as one expert called this person, the “sociopath lite.”

Back in September 2001 … less than two weeks after 9/11 … I took “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class taught by Dr. Archibald Hart for my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.

During a break, I told Dr. Hart that I was dealing with a church leader (not the person I mentioned above) who had some of the symptoms of a sociopath.  This person kept making the same mistakes over and over again, and when I confronted him about his behavior, he just laughed it off and refused to change.

Dr. Hart shared with me the single best description of a sociopath I’ve ever heard.  He said, “They don’t feel any anxiety before they do wrong and they don’t feel any guilt after they’ve done wrong.”

Think long and hard about that statement.

A great secular book about this issue is Dr. Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door.  (It’s available as a Kindle book on Amazon.)  Dr. Stout claims that 4% of our population – or 1 in every 25 adults – has this condition.  Speaking to the sociopath, she writes:

“When it is expedient, you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees and your clients (or your constituency) in the back, marry for money, tell lethal premeditated lies to people who trust you, attempt to ruin colleagues who are powerful or eloquent, and simply steamroll over groups who are dependent and voiceless.  And all of this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever.”

How does all this relate to church ministry?  Here’s Dr. Stout again:

“Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable.  This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance.  And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do.”

How does the sociopath pull off this kind of internal sabotage?

“You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’ boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.”

These statements from Dr. Stout are all too real among members of my extended family.  A female family member married a man who hid this condition well … until he radically changed right after the wedding, making her life a living hell for months.

The month after I left my last ministry nearly seven years ago, my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat in Tennessee.  The resident psychiatrist was Dr. Ross Campbell, author of many books including the classic How to Really Love Your Child.

Dr. Campbell told us that he had counseled hundreds of pastors and wives who had gone through the pain of a forced termination, and from his experience and research, the individual most responsible for “taking out” a pastor has sociopathic personality traits, someone he termed a “sociopath lite.”

This individual feels powerless in life and senses an opportunity to exercise power in the church.  Since these people have different values from the pastor – and those values are cleverly disguised – this individual uses terroristic tactics like intimidation and manipulation, and the pastor is usually no match for such an individual.

Dr. Campbell observed that it takes a sociopath lite twelve months to break down a pastor and turn people against him.  During this time, the pastor becomes so depressed that he can hardly function.  These individuals make their plans in secret and attack when least expected, usually when a pastor returns from a trip.

Sound like any church scenarios you might be familiar with?

In a nutshell, sociopaths want to win, and will use any methods necessary to get their way.  It shouldn’t surprise us that sociopaths gravitate toward politics where lying, manipulation and winning are usually rewarded.

But sociopaths also like to be near the center of power in a church, and by using their charm or speaking like an authority, they can convince others to follow them rather than their pastor.

Let me draw four conclusions about sociopaths in the local church:

First, most believers are unable to detect any sociopaths in the body.

The anti-social personality floats through a church largely undetected.  They can develop a following as somebody who is cool as well as someone who sounds like an expert in many fields.

It takes a discerning pastor or a psychiatrist/psychologist/counselor to spot a suspected sociopath, and most people lack the training to do that.

We don’t want to label people prematurely because when we assign someone a label, we may unwittingly choose to avoid or destroy them, and that’s not what Christians are about.

But the discerning leader can say, “That person seems to have the symptoms of a sociopath, and for that reason, we’re going to monitor them carefully.”

Just realize that only a trained professional can make a definitive diagnosis, but since people with anti-social personality disorder rarely go for counseling, sometimes all that a pastor can do is guess at a preliminary diagnosis.

Second, you can’t allow sociopaths into church leadership.  Period.

If a sociopath joins the church staff, he or she will eventually try and turn the staff against the pastor. Better to fire them and take the heat than let the staff member destroy the staff and later the church.

If a sociopath is elected to the church board, that individual will eventually try and turn the rest of the board against the pastor.

It might take a year or two, but they will lead an attack against the pastor … and manipulate other leaders to do his bidding.

To quote the current Geico commercials, “It’s what you do.”

This is why a pastor needs to have veto power over prospective board members.  The discerning pastor will think to himself, “There is no way in God’s universe that I am going to let that person into this church’s inner circle.”

But if the pastor can’t discern the sociopath lite, or lets him/her into leadership anyway, he’s signing his own death warrant.

Third, sociopaths are twice as lethal as narcissists.

Most narcissists are not sociopaths … but most sociopaths are narcissists.

Dr. Stout writes:

“Narcissism is, in a metaphorical sense, one half of what sociopathy is.  Even clinical narcissists are able to feel most emotions as strongly as anyone else does, from guilt and sadness to desperate love and passion.  The half that is missing is the crucial ability to understand what other people are feeling.  Narcissism is a failure not of conscience but of empathy, which is the capacity to perceive emotions in others and so react to them appropriately.”

She then writes:

“Sociopaths, in contrast, do not care about other people, and so do not miss them when they are alienated or gone, except as one might regret the absence of a useful appliance that one had somehow lost…. where the higher emotions are concerned, sociopaths can ‘know the words but not the music.’  They must learn to appear emotional as you and I would learn a second language, which is to say, by observation, imitation, and practice.”

In other words, sociopaths are morally and spiritually hollow inside.  They lack core convictions.  When they’re out in public, they take their behavioral cues from others because they don’t have an internal sense of morality or appropriateness.

Am I scaring you yet?

Finally, sociopaths almost never change.

Because they lack a conscience, they never sincerely admit that they’ve done anything wrong.

Sociopaths won’t go for counseling because in their minds, they’re fine the way they are.

But they are experts at blaming others for their messes.

Inside the church, a sociopath tends to:

*hide in the darkness and avoid the light.

*blame the pastor for whatever is going wrong in the church.

*serve as the hidden ringleader of the faction determined to oust the pastor.

*go after the pastor not for any spiritual reason, but just because he or she can.

*ignore the church’s governing documents and Scripture in attacking the pastor.

*avoid any pathway of forgiveness and reconciliation.

*engage in retribution for even the smallest of offenses … including going after the pastor for not letting the sociopath become a leader.

When I spoke with Dr. Hart fifteen years ago, he told me the only way to deal with a sociopath inside the church is to marginalize them.

And that means two things:

Once you’ve identified their behavior, make sure to monitor them closely, and never … ever … ever let them become leaders.

Because if you do, you will regret it … and so will many others … because you will not be able to appeal to the sociopath with Christian principles and values.

They have their own value system … and only they know what it is.

There are experts inside the Christian community who prefer not to label people.  They don’t like the idea that we can call someone a “sociopath” because that term infers that the person can’t change … and, these people believe, God can change anyone.

I get that.

These Christian experts prefer to train congregations, leaders, and pastors to be healthy, and in the process, to handle any church sociopaths lovingly but firmly.

The problem is that all too many Christians, churches, and pastors usually give up so much ground to sociopaths that by the time they’re detected and dealt with, they’ve already done enormous damage to the cause of Christ.

Because sociopaths lack a conscience, I believe they bring unrepentant evil right into their church family … and no church can thrive when evil is brazenly present.

Have you ever met anyone you suspected was a sociopath lite inside a church?

How did it all turn out?

My guess is that they left quite a mess behind.

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