In my last post, I discussed a problem that seems to be increasingly prevalent in our day: staff members forming alliances with board members or other staff against their pastor.
This kind of behavior is one of the reasons why pastors are being forced to resign from their positions at the rate of 1,300 every month.
Of course, we can find an example of this inside Jesus’ inner circle when Judas collaborated with the Jewish authorities to tell them where Jesus was hiding out the night before He died.
Betraying an innocent man is an evil action, whether it’s Judas flipping on the Messiah or a staff member turning on his pastor.
Theologians have wrestled for centuries about Judas’ motives for turning in Jesus. Was it purely for the thirty pieces of silver he received? Was it because Jesus disappointed Judas in some fashion, like not being the political leader he wanted Him to be? Was it because of Satan’s gradual influence in Judas’ life?
We may never know for sure this side of heaven. However, let me share with you four reasons why staff members – most often, associate pastors – flip on their supervisor, the senior pastor – and I’m assuming here that the senior pastor is innocent of any major wrongdoing.
First, the associate pastor wants to be a lead pastor. I wanted to be a pastor when I was nineteen years old, but I knew I’d have to finish college, complete seminary, and be ordained before that would happen. I was a youth pastor in three churches before ordination, and because none of those churches had associates, I was the top staff member in the church behind the pastor in each situation. While it was no secret that I wanted to become a pastor, I knew that I had to undergo a process before that would ever occur – and I had a lot to learn. There was no way I could hurry the process along. Since I believed that God had called me to preach, it was a matter of waiting for God’s timing.
It never occurred to me to conspire with some board members to “take out” the pastor so that I could become the senior pastor – and no one ever suggested it to me.
However, this scenario is happening more and more in churches, and when it does, my guess is that most people never discover what really happened. All they know is that the lead pastor resigned and that the board announced that the associate would assume the pastor’s duties – either as an interim or as a pastoral candidate. Most people never discover that the associate and some board members engineered the whole thing.
A variation on this is that the staff member resigns and starts a new church a short distance away from his former church. The core group for the new church is almost exclusively composed of friends from the ministry he just left. This kind of church plant creates pain for all parties that lasts for years.
Second, the associate chooses to rebel against the lead pastor. Senior pastors all have different management styles. Of the five I served under, only one was directive, while the others let me run my own ministry. The only pastor who really gave me direct orders was the first one – and I did my best to do what he said.
As a pastor, I tried to hire staff members who were self-starters and who could do their job better than I could. While I gave them general direction, I rarely gave them orders – and when I did, they usually didn’t like it.
Here’s my theory: when a pastor hires a staff member, he often does a “sales job” to convince that person to come aboard. Sometimes the sales job continues for a few months as the pastor acclimates the associate to the ministry.
But when the pastor has to correct the associate for any reason, he becomes upset and thinks that the lead pastor has turned on him. Looking back over my ministry, I have found that this was often the key moment in our relationship. In my mind, I was just trying to make their ministry better, but in their mind, I was criticizing them needlessly.
When I was in eighth grade, I had a math teacher named Mr. Heymers. Even though he was young in age and short in stature, he started the year using a firm tone and letting us know in precise terms what he expected from us. Most of us were scared of Mr. Heymers at first, but as the year progressed, he loosened up a lot. He became the best math teacher I ever had.
When I supervised staff, I may have started a bit too loose, so when I eventually had to get firm about something, some staff members couldn’t handle it – and they went in search of allies.
By the way, I believe that if a staff member is given a direct order by the senior pastor (provided he’s not asking him or her to sin), and the staff member refuses to carry out the senior pastor’s directive, the staff member is guilty of insubordination and subject to dismissal. While I never fired a staff member for this reason, in several cases, maybe I should have.
Third, the associate has an immature spouse. Which of the following associate pastors has the best chance for success?
Associate A is married to a woman who never wanted to be a pastor’s wife. She has a high opinion of her husband and an even higher opinion of herself. She constantly tells her husband things like, “You’re a better preacher than the lead pastor. You’re a better leader. You work harder than he does. You should receive more recognition. You should be paid more.” And when her husband comes home and says he had a disagreement with the senior pastor, she becomes angry and complains about the pastor to family and friends – most of whom take her side.
Associate B is married to a woman who believes she was called to be a pastor’s wife. While she believes her husband is a gifted man, she constantly encourages him to work with the senior pastor in collaboration, not competition. She tells him often, “Our pastor is a good preacher, and I thank God for him. You’re a good preacher too, although you’re both different. You’re a wonderful leader as well, although you still have some issues to work on. While I wish you made more money, our day will come.” And when her husband tells her about a disagreement that he had with the lead pastor, she tries to get him to see his supervisor’s viewpoint as well as understanding his.
The first associate is far more susceptible to flipping on the senior pastor because of an entitlement mentality. The second associate can look forward to a long career in ministry because he’s waiting for God to elevate him.
Fourth, the associate starts collaborating with a board or staff member. If an associate has problems with the senior pastor – and I’ve been in this position myself – he has four options: (a) prayerfully submit to the pastor’s wishes, (b) discuss the situation directly with the pastor, (c) seek counsel from someone outside the church (like a counselor, a pastoral colleague, or a seminary professor), or (d) leave that ministry. If the associate doesn’t feel he can speak directly with the pastor (or has tried but become frustrated), he may look around the church for sympathetic ears and “triangle” someone into their situation. This is where division starts.
Once the associate finds this person, then (a) he stops working on his relationship with the senior pastor, and (b) his new collaborator carries his burden for him. In fact, the collaborator may very well pass on the associate’s complaints to other board or staff members – and over time, a consensus may form: the senior pastor has to go.
The lead pastor’s offense? “He hurt and upset the associate pastor – whom many of us love very much.”
Let me share two possible solutions for this perennial problem:
First, if the associate cannot support the senior pastor anymore, he should resign as soon as possible. Don’t stay in the church and undermine the pastor, forcing him to leave – the associate should leave quietly. It is not up to the senior pastor to adjust to the staff – it is up to the staff to adjust to the senior pastor.
Second, the associate pastor may choose to admit his mistakes to both God and the senior pastor and renegotiate their relationship. This is possible only if the associate hasn’t already complained to others inside the church about the lead pastor. A humble, teachable spirit works wonders.
What are your thoughts on this issue?