Archive for December, 2010

It’s quite a challenge to be a youth pastor in any era, but it was particularly difficult in the late 1970’s.  I served in a church that was about ten miles from Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, and many of our people were drawn to the verse-by-verse teaching of Pastor Chuck Smith as well as the praise choruses emanating from that body.  (Contemporary Christian music originated at Calvary.)  Some people would attend the Sunday morning service at our church but then sneak over to Calvary for the evening service – and then they would come back to our church and want it to be like Calvary, which it was never going to be.

Our church had a piano, an organ, and a choir (with robes), but Calvary had guitars at several of their evening services during the week and rock bands at their Saturday night concerts.  It wasn’t long before that influence crept into our youth group, a development I welcomed.  We sang a lot of praise songs – with acoustic guitar accompaniment – but that was as far as we could go.

Until one day, a young man in the church decided to put on a youth musical written by John Fischer.  The musical required drums.

One Saturday afternoon, before or after practice (I forget), as the youth were banging on drums and other instruments in the worship center, two retired men walked into the sanctuary and threw everyone out.  These men especially expressed their disdain for drums.  (Hadn’t they read Psalm 150?  Guess not.)

I liked these men personally and always counted them as friends and supporters.  But without warning, they assigned themselves the unofficial role of church police.

Suddenly, they were wreaking havoc everywhere they went.  They would drive by the church at different hours of the day.  If the pastor’s car was missing from its customary space, they assumed he was at home napping or watching television.  If my car was missing, they assumed I was out goofing around someplace.  The pastor preferred being away from the church building because he liked to visit people in hospitals and their homes.  Because I was attending seminary in the mornings, I didn’t arrive at the church until 10:30 am, but even then, my ministry wasn’t confined to the church campus.

Before long, the church police began making all kinds of wild accusations, mostly against the pastor.  They believed that because they didn’t see his car parked outside his office all the time, he wasn’t working hard enough for them.  They successfully began to find allies who agreed with them.  A man walked up to me after a Sunday evening service and told me that if the pastor didn’t start working harder, ten percent of the church was going to leave.

I loved my pastor and tried to do everything I could to defend him against the attacks that were building against him.  I went to the governing board and pleaded with them to stand behind their pastor, but they chose to do nothing.  Frustrated, I then took a friend with me and we visited the most powerful layman in the church, but only because we knew he supported the pastor whole-heartedly.  As we recounted the onslaughts against our pastor, we tried to protect the identity of the troublemakers, but this wise man told us, “Gentlemen, when Paul talked about those who caused him trouble in his ministry, he used names.  Who are these people you’re talking about?”  Reluctantly, we told him.

As far as I could tell, no action was ever taken against the Destructive Duo.

Then one day, when the pastor was on vacation, I received a phone call.  One of the two “church policemen” dropped dead of a heart attack.  He was in the process of moving to another state when he collapsed and immediately expired.  Since I was the only other pastor on staff, I went to this man’s home to console his shocked widow.  His funeral was held a few days later, and I’ll never forget it, because our pastor had to come home from vacation to conduct the service – and he wasn’t very happy about it.

After that pastor retired, another pastor came to the church.  After a short while, he was tired of the antics of the second retired guy who complained about everything.  After several warnings, this pastor told the complainer to leave the church campus and never come back.  It didn’t matter that his wife was a sweet woman, or that they had friends in the church, or that they had been there longer than the pastor.  The pastor had had enough, and since nobody was willing to take any action concerning the griper, he took matters into his own hands – and it worked.  The church was able to get on with its mission because an internal dissenter had left.

Hear me loud and clear: when people cause trouble in a church – whether they are charter members or have many friends or are politically connected – they need to be informally or officially confronted and warned to stop their complaining, because complaining has a way of growing into church cancer.  If they won’t stop, then there are at least four possible scenarios:

First, their complaints spread while more people take up their cause.  This is a recipe for a church splinter, split, or coup.  Believe me, you do not want this to happen.

Second, their complaints spread and eventually focus on the pastor, who becomes the scapegoat for all that is wrong in the church.  These kinds of complaints can easily lead to the pastor’s forced exit and throw the church into chaos.

Third, the official leaders of the church gain some God-given courage and confront the complainers, telling them that they have three choices: (a) come to a board meeting and lay all your complaints out there, (b) then stop the complaining altogether and let the board handle matters, or (c) leave the church without taking anyone with you.  Unfortunately, many boards back down at this point because some of the complainers are their friends, and after all, they reason, it’s easier to get a new pastor than it is new friends.

Finally, God strikes somebody dead.  “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26).

One of the constant themes of this blog is that the people of the church – not just the pastors and the governing board – have the power to stop troublemakers dead in their tracks.  Complainers are only permitted to operate because the people of the church listen to their gripes or look the other way even when they are aware that divisive actions are happening all around them.

If you attend a church and know that certain people are engaged in divisive activities, what could you do about it?  I’d love to hear your responses.

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My family enjoyed Christmas dinner with my brother-in-law’s family this past weekend, and we played a game around the table that proved to be oodles of fun.  Someone called it “telephone pictionary.”

We were each given small notepads and asked to write down a Christmas phrase like “figgy pudding” or “Santa Claus is coming to town.”  Then we passed our notepads to the next person who had to draw a picture of the phrase on the next page.  When that person was done drawing, they passed the notepad to the next person who examined the crude drawing, flipped the page, and tried to write down the original phrase.  Then we passed our notepads along, alternating between creating a drawing and coming up with a phrase.  When all fourteen of us finally received our original notepads back, it was quite amusing to hear how a phrase like “silent night” ended up becoming “dead potato” within just a few minutes.

The same phenomenon happens in churches all the time.  And unfortunately, the greatest victims of distorted communication are pastors and their families.

Years ago, I served as the pastor of a church that chose to write a new constitution and set of by-laws.  Four people served with me on the “constitution team” and we had some fascinating discussions about how our church should operate.  When we completed our draft, I preached on every major section of the document and invited questions and comments after each message.  (This was done at a Sunday evening service.  Remember those?)  The team recorded the best suggestions and included them in the final document before the congregation voted on it.  The whole process was transparent and participative.

I specifically asked that the following phrase be included: “This constitution will be null and void after five years.”  I took the phrase from a suggestion made by Ted Engstrom, one of the leading Christian management experts.  The purpose of the phrase was to ensure that the church’s governing documents would constantly be reviewed and revised.

However, a group in the church held a meeting around this time and invited a secular attorney to join them.  When the attorney was told about the “null and void” phrase in the proposed constitution, he concluded that I didn’t want the church to have any constitution after five years so that I could become the constitution and take over the church!  Sadly, this is what some people chose to believe even though they never asked me about it.

More recently, in the midst of a major conflict, a former attendee began telling people that “They finally caught him!”  (The “him” was me.)  Evidently she believed that I was guilty of some horrible sin in previous churches (even though she had never attended any of them) and that I was using the same modus operandi.  But I had no idea what she was talking about, although I’m sure there were souls who were willing to supply that information.  In some people’s eyes, my ecclesiastical crimes – although still unspecified – merited the worst possible punishment.  But, to be honest, being lied about is punishment enough.

Not long after this accusation surfaced, I ate separate meals with three different former board chairmen, none of whom evidently knew that they were breaking bread with someone who had committed unspeakable felonies when we had served the Lord together!

I have heard terrible things about many Christian leaders over the years.  While the charges are occasionally dead-on, more times than not they are completely twisted.

Charles Spurgeon, whose sermons were often harshly reviewed in the London papers of his time, encouraged the pastors of his college with regular talks on ministerial life.  In his classic book Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon’s chapter “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear” is the single greatest counsel on handling criticism I have ever read.  Spurgeon writes:

“In the case of false reports against yourself, for the most part use the deaf ear.  Unfortunately liars are not yet extinct, and … you may be accused of crimes which your soul abhors.  Be not staggered thereby, for this trial has befallen the very best of men, and even your Lord did not escape the envenomed tongue of falsehood.  In almost all cases it is the wisest course to let such things die a natural death.  A great lie, if unnoticed, is like a big fish out of water, it dashes and plunges and beats itself to death in a short time.  To answer it is to supply it with its element, and help it to a longer life.  Falsehoods usually carry their own refutation somewhere about them, and sting themselves to death.  Some lies especially have a peculiar smell, which betrays their rottenness to every honest nose.  If you are disturbed by them the object of their invention is partly answered, but your silent endurance disappoints malice and gives you a partial victory, which God in his care of you will soon turn into a complete deliverance.  Your blameless life will be your best defense, and those who have seen it will not allow you to be condemned so readily as your slanderers expect.  Only abstain from fighting your own battles, and in nine cases out of ten your accusers will gain nothing by their malevolence but chagrin for themselves and contempt for others.”

While Spurgeon notes exceptions to the above rule, his counsel is timeless.

They lied about David.  They lied about Job.  They lied about Jesus.  They lied about Paul.  And if you are doing anything worthwhile for the Lord, “they” (meaning Satan and his minions) will lie about you, too.  While I don’t like to be lied about (no one does), haven’t we all – knowingly or unknowingly – spread lies about others at times?

Years ago, I read Steven Covey’s classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Some of the phrases in that book have become part of our culture (like “seek first to understand, then to be understood”).  But one of the best phrases in that book is just five words long: “Defend those who are absent.”  As conflict expert Speed Leas says, we tend to exaggerate when we talk about someone who isn’t around to defend themselves.  But when that person is in our presence, it’s surprising how carefully we phrase our words.

Resolve that you will never intentionally lie about anyone, especially Christian leaders.  If you hear what you suspect might be a lie going around about someone, contact them directly and ask if it’s true.  Isn’t that what you would want that person to do for you?

Proverbs 6:19 links “a false witness who pours out lies” with “a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”  Deception and division go together.  Liars destroy reputations and separate friends.  Resolve to tell the truth in every situation, especially when it comes to Christian leaders.

Because when we spread lies about another person, we are doing the devil’s work for him.

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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!

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What were you attracted to as a teenager?  Sports?  Some cute guy or girl?  A cool car?  An athlete or rock star?

I was attracted to church business meetings.

I know that sounds really strange, but let me tell you why I was drawn to those meetings.

The church I attended had a business meeting periodically on a Wednesday night after prayer meeting.  While my peers played in the parking lot or went home to watch TV, I sat in the back of the worship center and watched “mature” Christian men and women act like kids.  Arguments usually broke out.  Tempers almost always flared.  It was quite entertaining at times, especially since I knew so many of the players.  On one famous occasion, after disagreeing vehemently with someone, the church secretary stomped down the center aisle, opened her office door, and slammed it – hard.  That was the last time anybody saw her at that church for years.

There was something inherently destructive about those meetings – and yet they were exciting.  If you were a church member, you were expected to attend.  As the years went on, I moved closer to the front of the auditorium so I could be in the middle of the action.

When I became the pastor of a small church in Northern California, our church had business meetings once per month after the Wednesday night service.  We voted on nearly everything.  Those meetings made me nervous because the unexpected usually happened.

When our church later merged with a sister church five miles away, I became the pastor of that new body.  Soon afterwards, at another infamous business meeting, a board member yelled across the room at the wife of another board member.  It was embarrassing for everybody.

I began to ask myself, “What is it about these meetings that brings out the worst in everybody?  Why do people’s personalities flip when they come to these meetings?  Why do we even have these nefarious meetings in the first place?”

The meetings seemed to be patterned more after the American town hall model than anything we find in the New Testament.

So I began talking to pastor friends, and in the fourth year of my ministry, I hit upon an approach that minimized the conflict in those meetings.  Here’s what we did:

*We changed the terminology.  A “business” meeting sounded like it was only about money.  We replaced that term with “congregational” meeting instead, a term that many churches use.  It said who should attend (the congregation) and the ultimate process used (congregational voting).

*We decided to hold an informational meeting one week before every congregational meeting.  We introduced every issue at the informational meeting that would be decided upon at the congregational meeting: potential board members, budgets, and any other pertinent matters.  And we let non-members attend the informational meeting (after all, they served and gave offerings, too) although only members voted at the congregational meeting.  For a biblical example of holding two meetings to make decisions, look again at Acts 6:1-6.

*We never used Robert’s Rules of Order at the informational meetings.  Different leaders of the church, including me, made presentations to the congregation.  Then at the congregational meeting the following week, we used Robert’s Rules exclusively for voting.  Since hardly anyone in the church knew the rules that were originally created in 1876, those who did ended up controlling the meetings.  So we just eliminated the confusion and encouraged people to talk in an orderly fashion.

*We presented simple etiquette before each meeting, such as, “Use the microphone if you want to say something” or “Feel free to be open and honest but don’t say anything you may later regret.”  While participants had strong opinions – and we wanted to hear them – the way the leaders handled matters up-front usually kept everyone at peace.

*People relaxed at the informational meetings because they didn’t have to vote that day.  They had time during the next seven days to think and pray and talk to others first.  And if conflict broke out at the informational meetings – and it rarely did – church leaders had an entire week to listen to people’s concerns and answer their questions before any vote took place – and if need be, the meeting could be cancelled before anything ominous happened.  By the way, I believe that church leaders should always know the outcome of any churchwide vote in advance, and this system allows leaders to do just that.

*When we met at the congregational meeting to make a decision, we always voted by written ballot.  We never accepted motions where someone called for a voice vote and said, “I move we make it unanimous.”  If God’s people are to vote their conscience, they need to be able to vote “no” as well as “yes” – and most people are uncomfortable voting “no” if they are in the minority.  These meetings typically lasted only ten minutes and were held on Sundays after worship.

*We encouraged a thorough discussion of the issues.  I’m a firm believer that churches should have few secrets.  While pastors cannot ethically discuss what people say in counseling sessions, and church leaders should never share confidences that ruin the reputations of others, I wanted us to be open about everything else.  Even salaries?  I took a class from Leith Anderson where he said that if a person at his church really wanted to know the salary of a pastor or staff member, that person had to first sit through a one-hour presentation so the numbers could be shared in context – and only then would they be given the amount.  I can live with that.

*This system worked beautifully for 24 years of ministry.  During that time, the churches I served as pastor went through some great adventures, like selling our property, relocating, and building a new worship center.  The leaders made well thought-out presentations and asked God’s people if they had questions and concerns, and sometimes people had plenty of input.  The leaders stayed as long as necessary – and no one called for the question, tabled a motion, or recommended we be dismissed to end the proceedings.  Non-anxious leaders tend to produce a non-anxious church body.

If you’re in a church where the public meetings produce conflict rather than harmony, I suggest you implement the above process into your church’s life.  While too many meetings can be a waste of time, it’s better to have two meetings and enjoy peace than it is to jam everything into one meeting and leave people anxious, confused, and upset.

1 meeting for discussion + 1 meeting for decisions = an informed, calm, and united church family

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Last month, our country held its mid-term elections.  Imagine that you went into the voting booth having no idea who was running for office until you got there.  (If I still lived in California, I’d exclaim, “Oh, no, Jerry Brown is running again?”)  Many of us become familiar with those who are running for major offices, although we still don’t know anything about more than half the names on the ballot.  But how wise would it be for officials to unveil the names of political candidates only on the day of voting?

And yet that’s how thousands of churches choose leaders every year.

When I was in my late teens, I was asked one year to count ballots for the annual business meeting at my church.  95 people cast their ballots for elder, and one man received 20 “no” votes.  Because the candidates only needed to receive a simple majority, he was still elected to office, but shortly afterward, he resigned due to sexual misconduct.  I wonder how many of those 20 people knew something about this man’s life that the rest of us didn’t?  Maybe if some of those people had known ahead of time that his name was being considered for elder, they could have shared what they knew with the pastor or church staff and his name could have been quietly withdrawn.

For years, I attended public church meetings (whether they were called “business” meetings or “congregational” meetings) in which candidates/issues were presented to the church and then the church was expected to take a vote immediately.  This process often raised the anxiety level for people because some of them simply were not ready to make a quick decision.  They wanted time to think, pray, and talk to others before casting their vote.  When they were not given that opportunity, they sometimes claimed they were being “railroaded.”

That’s why I like the process of selecting elders that our church has.  Last Sunday, three potential elders came and stood on the  stage with their wives.  The pastor briefly introduced each person and then referred to their biographies, which were made available on an insert in the program.  Then the pastor said that we had a month to give feedback about these men and we were told how to do that.  Only after the one-month feedback time would these men become elders.

Those who know me know that I am very deliberate when it comes to decision-making.  The more crucial the issue, the longer it takes me to decide, but once I do, I don’t look back.  Whether it’s voting for the President of the United States or an elder in my local church, I take my vote very seriously.  And from the time a candidate’s name is introduced to me, I need time to think, to pray, and if need be, to speak with others.

When a church introduces candidates in a public meeting, and then expects God’s people to vote immediately on those individuals for office, people are denied the ability to think.  They are denied the ability to pray.  They are denied the ability to speak with others.  In a word, they are being manipulated.  Some people may vote “no” on some of the candidates just because they inherently sense this even if they can’t put it into words.  They feel violated.

Why do churches do this?  Sometimes it’s because the leaders figure that people will only come out to one meeting, if that, so that have to take all their votes at once.  Sometimes it’s because the leaders don’t know who is running for office until right before the meeting!  But usually, it’s because of anxiety.  The leaders just want to get the “voting thing” over with.

But if believers aren’t allowed to think, pray, and talk with others, why vote at all?  Then the members end up becoming “sheeple,” just doing whatever their leaders tell them to do.

Is there a better way to handle such meetings?  I believe there is.  That will be the topic of my next blog.

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

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I grew up in a pastor’s home and viewed it as being normal.  While my family was at church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night – in addition to cleaning up the facility most Saturdays – I liked my life.  Even though I was a PK, I had a great childhood.  Church was home.

Until I was nine years old.  One Sunday night, after the evening service, my parents put me and my younger brother and sister to bed.  Shortly afterward, the phone rang, and my parents scooped us out of bed and took us to the home of the head deacon.  We three kids were placed in the room adjacent to the living room.  My brother and sister fell asleep quickly, but I could hear what was being said through the wall.  As I lay there in the dark, I heard the leaders of our church – some of whom taught me Sunday School – verbally crucify my father.

My dad probably should have resigned at that point, but he had founded the church.  It was his life.  He hung on for two more years before he finally resigned.  Twenty months later, he was dead at the age of thirty-eight.

Without its founding pastor, the church lasted for several more years but eventually disbanded.  It’s a good thing my father wasn’t alive to hear the news.  It would have killed him.

There is a part of me that wants to go back in time and help my dad manage that conflict in a different fashion.  Would he still be alive today if he had?  I’m not sure, but I do know this: there are thousands of pastors every year in our country who undergo similar experiences.  The best statistics available indicate that at least 1,200 pastors in America are forced to leave their churches every month.

What happens to them?  A high percentage of them never pastor a church again.  Many of their wives and children stop going to church, some for good.  (One pastor friend told me that after such an experience, his wife didn’t attend church for four years.)  Because pastors have engaged in specialized training and earned degrees that fit them only for church ministry, the great majority of pastors are  not qualified for secular jobs.  But because they feel they’ve been rejected by their previous church, the now ex-pastor struggles with self-confidence, depression, forgiveness, and an inability to trust people – especially Christian leaders.

Thankfully, over the past two decades, ministries have popped up all over the United States that seek to assist wounded pastors.  Some ministries specialize in counseling.  Others have retreat centers where a pastor and his wife can relax, read, and pray, as well as seek counseling.  Still others specialize in church conflict.  An organization composed of clergy caregivers called CareGivers Forum meets annually.  My wife Kim and I attended the latest conference in Wisconsin and were gratified to meet about sixty people who believe that God has given them a special calling in this particular area.  But unless the church of Christ wants to kick gifted pastors to the curb, we need many more ministries for pastors all over the United States.

I recently made a list of all the pastors I know who have been forced to leave their churches.  Besides my father, that list includes my father-in-law, my financial planner, a pastor at my daughter’s church, a pastor at my current church, a pastor friend who went to college with me (and who wrote an article in a major journal about his termination), a church consultant friend, a professor from college, and several ministry mentors, just to name a few.  In fact, according to an article in Leadership Journal from the 1990’s, 23% of all pastors have undergone the pain of a forced exit.

And you can add my name to the list, too.

After being forced to leave a church I pastored for nine years only a year ago, my wife and I were able to attend a retreat the following month in the southeast designed to help the victims of forced termination begin the process of healing.  We thoroughly enjoyed the skills we gained, the encouragement we received, the new perspectives we learned, and the hope injection we received that week.

Because that retreat was so meaningful, Kim and I want to offer retreats for pastors and their wives in the Southern-California/Phoenix area beginning this spring.  Because we believe that God can do a deep and lasting work in the lives of hurting pastors, we are calling our ministry “Restoring Kingdom Builders.”

If you know a pastor or a staff member who has recently experienced the pain of forced termination, please ask him or her to contact me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org.  We welcome pastors from all Christian denominations.

Please pray that God will richly bless this new venture.  Thank you!

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Have you ever patronized a business and become friends with someone who works there?  Then one day, you stop by to see your friend but he or she is no longer there.  They have vanished into thin air.  You don’t know where they went, or why they’ve gone, or how they’re doing.  And when you ask questions of people who should know, they become evasive and don’t reveal anything helpful.

When I lived in Silicon Valley, I received medical care at a clinic just ten minutes from my house.  Two doctors at that facility were very helpful to me: a physician specializing in internal medicine and an allergist.  Within a month, I received separate letters about each doctor, stating that he was ill and would no longer be practicing medicine.  I later learned from a nurse I knew that both men died of their illnesses but I never learned any details.  I just know that I felt their loss deeply.

Something similar happened to me when I first became a pastor.  I attended monthly district meetings with pastors from our denomination, and sometimes I noticed that a pastoral colleague missed several meetings in a row.  When I asked the district minister what happened to him, I was told that the pastor in question had resigned from his position.  While that was usually sufficient information for most of the pastors, I always wanted to know why the pastor had resigned.  In every single case, the pastor was blamed for his departure.  It was never the fault of the governing board, or a disgruntled staff member, or a faction in the church.  No, it was always the fault of the pastor.  That was the talking points answer to the question, “What happened to Pastor So-and-So?”

Then I would call that particular pastor and discover that there was another side to the situation, one that few people would have learned about because they had already bought the talking points.  The pastor would tell me about a powerful individual in the church who had been undermining him (and wearing him down) for months, or about a staff member who had aligned himself with the board against the pastor, or about a group of less than ten people who demanded that the pastor leave the church.  In fact, on occasion the pastor’s critics would align themselves with the district minister without the pastor’s knowledge.  While the pastor sensed that something was wrong in the church, he didn’t think matters were that serious until he was forced to choose between resignation or termination.  After the pastor left the church, he was blamed for whatever problems the church had.

Why was he blamed?  The pastor had left the spiritual community and was no longer around to defend himself.  Some people inside the church exaggerated the number and severity of offenses he had committed and many of those who didn’t know any better believed them.  The leaders who remained in the church were able to spin myths about the pastor that were untrue, but since no one ever checked with the pastor, they assumed the myths were true.  But without realizing it, these people collaborated in trying to destroy the reputation – and any future ministry – of that pastor.

Scapegoating is still alive and well today in churches.  Whenever things go wrong, some choose to blame everything on the pastor.  Let’s blame him for the decline in attendance and offerings.  Let’s blame him for “not feeding me” spiritually.  Let’s blame him for that time he didn’t make the decision I wanted him to make.  Let’s blame him for everything that’s wrong with the church and everything that’s wrong with my spiritual life.

And then, of course, I won’t have to take any responsibility– nor will any of my friends – for anything that goes wrong.  We can just blame the pastor.

Do you see any parallels to what happened to Jesus in The Gospels?  The Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to get rid of Jesus.  They dispersed their talking points, accusing Jesus of blasphemy and desecrating the temple and sedition against Rome.  In fact, those talking points surfaced the night of Jesus’ arrest and the morning of His trial before Pilate.  No one took any responsibility for what happened to Jesus – not Pilate, not the religious leaders, and not the mob that called for Jesus’ execution.  Jesus was scapegoated for everything even though He hadn’t done anything wrong – especially anything worthy of death.  But when some people saw Jesus on the cross, they assumed that He had committed capital crimes because otherwise why would He be up there?  They didn’t know the back story – that humanly speaking, Jesus had been framed on trumped-up charges.

Unlike Jesus, pastors mess up, and sometimes mess up badly.  I’ve made my share of mistakes in ministry, and sometimes those errors haunt me long after I thought they’d disappeared from my mind.  But as important as pastors are – Paul calls them gifts from the risen Christ to His churches in Ephesians 4:11 – they should never be blamed for everything that goes wrong in a congregation or in a believer’s life.  We need to take responsibility for our part when things go wrong as well.

Because when pastors are unfairly scapegoated, Jesus is wounded again.

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When pastors reach a certain stage in their ministries – especially if they’ve been in the same church for many years – it’s easy for them to conclude that they are immune from experiencing a forced exit.  If a pastor survives five years of ministry in the same place, he assumes that most of his critics have left and that those who remain are willing to follow his leadership.  So it comes as a surprise to pastors when they have been in a church for more than five years and yet still have to battle for control of a congregation.

I attended a prominent Christian college, and during my junior year, I took a class in The Gospel of John.  While the class met too early for my taste, the instructor – who was teaching his first class – proved to be a master teacher.  (Had all my teachers been as clear and interesting as he was, I would have emerged from college with straight “A’s.”)  The following year, I invited this instructor to lead a winter retreat for our high school and college students, and his insights into Scripture produced changed lives, including the life of my best friend, who eventually became an influential pastor himself.

Years later, this instructor became the pastor of a well-known mega-church, and it didn’t surprise me one bit.  While attending a seminary near his church for a doctoral program, I jogged over to the church one morning and walked into the worship center.  It was one of the most massive church auditoriums I have ever seen.  I could just imagine my former teacher mesmerizing and motivating the thousands of attendees with his careful and practical expositional skills.

The pastor had a large vision for reaching even more people for Christ.  This meant updating the church’s music, spending more money on the worship services, and recruiting more gifted volunteers and employees.  But the pastor ended up resigning under pressure instead.  According to the local newspaper, a small group of the old guard disagreed with the pastor’s agenda for the church.  The group believed that their seniority in the church entitled them to be consulted about any future plans and when they weren’t, they created havoc behind-the-scenes.  When the pastor resigned, he cited “personal character attacks” and “disrespect for his leadership” from a vocal minority in the church as reasons why he departed.  He had been the senior pastor of that church for fourteen years!

I went through a similar situation a year ago.  I believed that God was calling our church to reach a younger demographic in our spiritually-resistant community.  Rather than make sweeping changes, I wanted to add a third service and transition to a multi-venue format while keeping the two existing worship services largely intact.  This new vision would have required edgier music, additional gifted personnel, and generous funding, but even though most of the staff and the worship planning team were behind it, the governing board was not.  It wasn’t long before I left the church as well.

Let me draw two conclusions from the above stories:

First, pastors must pay a price for spiritual and numerical growth.  I recently heard Andy Stanley say that no one person in a church should stand in the way of a church’s ability to follow Christ’s Great Commission.  And yet when a pastor tries to reach more people, he is often met with resistance, sometimes from staff members, other times from a vocal minority (which has another agenda altogether), and often from the official board.   Sometimes the price paid is that those who are obstructing progress end up leaving the church – and sometimes the price paid is that the pastor ends up being forced to leave as well.  When the pastor has finally gone, people speculate as to why he resigned, wondering if he was guilty of moral failure or poor health or burnout, when the real reason is that the pastor’s agenda for outreach clashed with the agendas of other powerful interests.

Second, every pastor is at risk of a forced exit.  If any pastor is safe from being pressured to leave a church, it’s a founding pastor.  Almost every attendee who comes to such a church comes after the pastor was already there and usually because of the pastor.  But given a determined opposition, almost any pastor can be fired or forced to resign.  A pastor friend once told me that he looked at pastors who went through forced termination as losers – and then it happened to him.  23% of all pastors have been forced out of church ministry at least once.  While a distinct minority of pastors shouldn’t be in any kind of ministry, many great pastors find themselves in the wrong situation with the wrong group at the wrong time and end up losing their positions and even their careers.  While this scenario may be a fact of church life, it brings needless heartache to everyone involved.

Thankfully, the instructor I mentioned at the beginning of the article has become the co-pastor of a church.  The other co-pastor was also the pastor of a mega-church and he, too, was forced out of his position due to false accusations and denominational pressure.  God’s will was assuredly done in permitting both men to leave their churches and band together in their new setting, but the way they were forced out was diabolical.

If you’re in a church where the pastor is under fire, let me ask you one question:

What will you do to make sure that your pastor isn’t unfairly forced from his position?

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I was once the pastor of a church where we were building a new worship center.  The church was located in an extremely unchurched community (less than 5% of the population went to church anywhere) and our leaders believed that God wanted us to reach out to the spiritually lost around us.  Demographic studies showed that the community preferred an intellectual approach to the Christian faith (as opposed to an emotional approach) and that they preferred a presentational worship style (as opposed to a participative style).

Six months before the building was completed, I encouraged the worship team to improve the quality of our Sunday services, including using more video and improving our music while singing fewer songs.  One of the women on the worship team, who had always been a friend and supporter, took issue with my vision for our services.  She wanted the congregation to sing for at least half an hour because this approach was meaningful to her.  She began to lobby for her position to the point where I had to call a meeting with her and our worship leader.  We all listened to each other’s viewpoints and she left the room agreeing that if she had any further problems with me or my policies, she would speak with me personally.

But soon afterwards, she was at it again.  She vehemently complained to the chairman of the board (who was a friend of both of ours) about me and used language that was so full of anger that the chairman believed she was ready to launch a serious conflict.  The chairman reiterated my position to her (the board had already approved it) but she was determined to have her way.  After causing heartache to many people, she ended up leaving the church, an outcome that I did not welcome because I genuinely cared for her.  But I couldn’t let her – or anyone else, for that matter – stand in the way of the ministry that God was calling our church to do.

When a believer in a church is upset with the pastor, how should that person handle their feelings?

According to Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Timothy 5:19-21, if I as a believer sin against you personally, you as a believer have the obligation to come and discuss it with me in private.  Neither Jesus nor Paul mention exclusions for pastors.  As a pastor, I have sinned against people on occasion.  When I’ve been aware of it, I have tried to take the initiative and make things right on my own.  But sometimes I’m unaware that I’ve hurt someone.  In the great majority of those cases, the individual who is hurt never comes to tell me how he or she feels.  In fact, I can count on both hands the number of people who have had the courage to come and tell me that I’ve hurt them over 35+ years of church ministry.  I suspect that most pastors have had similar experiences.

Instead, when the pastor hurts someone – consciously or unconsciously – that person usually tells their social network what the pastor has done rather than tell the pastor himself.  A few years ago, a friend told me that a woman in our church was angry with me.  I asked, “How many people has she told?”  Using his hands to count, he concluded, “Ten.”  Then I asked him, “What did I do wrong this time?”  He said, “You didn’t say hi to her one Sunday.”  I told him, “Go back and tell her to talk to me about it.  If she does, then this is really an important issue for her.  If she doesn’t, then it must not be that crucial.”  Of course, she never came and spoke with me, and over time, she collected a plethora of offenses that I had committed against her and shared them with anyone who would listen.

Although many Christians are aware of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, we need to distinguish between personal offenses and policy offenses.  If I personally offend you – whether I’m a pastor or not – then you need to contact me, tell me how you feel, and let me have the opportunity to work things out with you.  Most Christians choose to tell their family and friends instead which just spreads discontent throughout the church.  Sometimes these harbored offenses build up to the point where believers who have been collecting them share them with others, and before long, as believers pool their hurts, the pastor becomes guilty of scores of offenses – and those offended become determined to get rid of the pastor at any cost.

But if a pastor commits a policy offense – that is, he makes decisions about the church’s ministry that attendees don’t like – I don’t believe that Matthew 18 applies.  The pastor hasn’t sinned against anyone personally.  You may feel that he has, but he’s simply making a decision that he believes will advance the ministry.  If you don’t like the decision, you should be able to speak with the pastor or any official church leader (i.e., board member, associate pastor) and let them know how you feel.  They may or may not agree with you, and the policy may or may not change, but at least you’ve gone on record as to how you feel, and that’s the mature way to handle matters.

Of course, if the pastor offends you personally, you may choose to instantly forgive him, and you may also choose to pray that God will help him see the light.  But if you’re upset with your pastor for some reason, please don’t spread the virus of complaining to others.  Either speak with the right person or keep it between you and God.

And if you’re upset with what I’ve written for some reason, you know what to do …

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

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Soon after I was born, my parents took me to their church  in Inglewood, California, and dedicated me to the Lord.  The pastor who presided over my dedication was a man with a large forehead and a contagious grin.  As a kid, I could never understand him when he preached, but for some reason, I liked him.  He seemed … well, jolly.

When our family moved to Anaheim (I was only four), my father pastored several churches, eventually planting a church in Garden Grove.  After he died, I eventually became a youth pastor at a second church – also in Garden Grove – but my first pastor, the one who dedicated me as a child, was called to still another church in Garden Grove, just a couple miles from our home.  (No, none of these churches was The Crystal Cathedral!)  My wife Kim and I attended that church during my first year of seminary and I later became that church’s youth pastor.  I peformed my first wedding and baptism in that church, and I was ordained to the ministry there a few months after graduating from seminary.

One night, a man I knew approached me in the church parking lot after a service and told me that a group in the church was unhappy with the pastor.  When I asked him how large the group was, he told me that his group consisted of ten percent of the church.  As I probed further, the issue seemed to be that the pastor didn’t work hard enough for this group and they were going to make some demands until he complied with their wishes.  Many of the members of that group were retired and were constantly snooping around the church looking for any problems they could find with the ministry.

Although I had never before attended a meeting of the governing board, I asked the chairman if I could come to the next meeting, and he permitted me to do just that.  I told the board that there was a group of dissidents in the church that were threatening the pastor and that they had begun to make his life a living hell.  (The pastor’s wife had already received a nasty anonymous phone call.)  The pastor himself told me that the attacks on him were becoming so vicious that he couldn’t focus to study for sermons.  I asked the board to do something to protect their pastor from this abuse.  They voted 5-2 to do something, but they never did  anything about the problem.  In fact, the pastor himself cast one of the two votes not to take any action against his opponents.  Why not?  Well, years before, in that same church where I was dedicated, the associate pastor had led a rebellion against the pastor and the ensuing conflict was so painful that it altered the pastor’s personality, rendering him almost paralyzed to deal with personal attacks.

After the pastor retired a few years later, he refused to ever do any pastoral work again – no funerals, no weddings, nothing.  The conflicts he had experienced had taken their toll on his body, mind, and heart.  And he was such a tender man, the only man I’ve ever called “Pastor.”  (He is now resting in the arms of Jesus.)

There are thousands of pastors just like the one who dedicated me as a child.  They are committed to Christ.  They use their gifts to touch the lives of others.  They really care about people.  They want to build Christ’s kingdom.  But sometime during that pastor’s tenure, a group inside the church opposes his/her ministry and abuses the pastor – and sometimes his family – continually.  Such pastors are often so worn down by the opposition that they resign from ministry and never lead a congregation again.  They are kicked to the curb, their experience and gifts going forever unused.

That’s why my wife Kim and I are launching a new ministry called Restoring Kingdom Builders.  We have experienced opposition from antagonists firsthand and know exactly how it feels.  We want to provide emergency treatment for pastors and their spouses who go through such tough times through retreats, counseling, consulting, and writing.  We don’t want such pastors to end up bitter and useless to Christ’s kingdom.  We want to love them and direct them toward healing and wholeness.

Look for the official launch of our new ministry in early 2011!  I’ll be revealing more details over the next few weeks.  Please pray that we will honor the Lord in all we do.  Thanks for reading!

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