Archive for July, 2011

A friend sent me an article yesterday reporting that Dr. Robert Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, was voted off the church’s board.  He had retired as the church’s pastor five years before.

Christians often have strong opinions about Dr. Schuller.  I have met believers who watched the Hour of Power every week without fail and loved it.  Others have not been as complimentary.

Dr. Schuller once lived across the street from my uncle and aunt when they lived in Garden Grove.  He invited them to help him begin his drive-in church.  They ended up at a different church instead.

When I was a kid, our family took a Sunday off from our own church and visited Garden Grove Community Church, as it was known then.  We all sat in our car and watched the service from the parking lot.  While it was definitely different, it was hard to see what was going on from our car’s back seat.

Years later, when I was in seminary, I read Dr. Schuller’s book Your Church Has Real Possibilities!  The book upset me.  There was little Scripture to back up Schuller’s approach to church growth.  Instead, he married American business principles with church ministry.  I probably wrote more disparaging comments in the margins of that book than any other book I’ve ever read, even though his ministry seemed “successful” at the time.

Eleven years ago, my son lived about a mile from the church, so one Sunday I decided I’d attend a service at the famous Crystal Cathedral.  While I didn’t care for the dueling organs or the TV cameras, Dr. Schuller spoke on “You shall not commit adultery” and absolutely nailed the message.  But when I looked around at the congregation, it was obvious the church was aging without reaching younger people.

Let’s put it this way: several years ago, there were twice as many kids at Vacation Bible School at my former church in the Bay Area than they had at VBS that year at the Crystal Cathedral – their multi-story children’s building notwithstanding.

There are many ways to look at the decline of the Crystal Cathedral: aging leadership, overly optimistic growth projections, too much debt, a watered-down gospel message, an ostentatious property (complete with statues and a cemetery), several unfortunate suicides on church grounds, and an inability to connect with younger people, to name just a few.

But there’s another possibility (no pun intended): Dr. Schuller’s inability to take his hands off the ministry.

Founding pastors have enormous clout in a church.  Their family members form the original core group even before the pastor selects his own.  Everyone who attends the church likes the pastor’s preaching and leadership.  If the average pastor gets two votes on the governing board, the founding pastor gets five.  The power can become intoxicating.

But … when a pastor resigns or retires, he needs to leave that church for good.

For starters, it’s wise for him to leave the community.  If a pastor leaves a church but chooses to live in the area afterwards, his presence will linger like a long, dark shadow over his former church.  And whenever people are disgruntled with their new pastor, they will be tempted to consult with their former pastor.

A friend of mine was the associate pastor in his church.  When the senior pastor stepped down because of a medical condition, my friend was asked to be the senior pastor.  However, the previous pastor remained in the church and the community, gradually undermining my friend’s leadership until he was forced to resign.

People inside the church chose not to follow my friend’s vision for the church because his predecessor failed to support him.  But if the previous pastor had moved away, my friend could have led the church unhindered.

There are exceptions to this practice, of course.  The pastor or a family member might be ill and need to stay in the area for medical treatment.  Or the pastor might have a daughter who wants to complete her senior year of high school before moving.  But even if the former pastor stays in the community …

Next, he should never intervene in that church’s affairs.  My former denomination had a code of ethics for pastors, and those ethics clearly state that once a pastor leaves a church, he is no longer to interfere in the way it’s governed.  If a pastor does intervene, he should be called out on his lack of ethics, but this only works well in hierarchical denominations – and many former pastors know this, which is why some undermine their successors from the cover of darkness.

The pastor, staff, and governing board have been given both the authority and responsibility under God to lead a given local church.  A former pastor – no matter how wise or powerful or popular he is – must relinquish his influence to God.

John the Baptizer said it best while talking about Jesus in John 3:30: “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John was saying, “My ministry is nearly over, while His is just beginning.  It’s time for me to step aside and give someone else the spotlight.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Third, it’s crucial that departing pastors direct complainers back to church leaders.  Let’s say that while I’m writing this article, a friend from a former church calls and wants to tell me about an issue involving the new pastor.  Ethically, I shouldn’t even listen to her concern.  Instead, I need to encourage her to speak directly with her pastor and the church’s governing leaders.

I’m not on campus.  I don’t know all the facts.  Besides, I’ve only heard one side of the story and may never hear the other side.  While I want to help my distressed friend, the best way I can help is to stay out of it and encourage her to resolve matters on her own.  Later on, I wouldn’t want to hear that that pastor was mistreated and wonder if I had something to do with it.

Finally, it’s all too common for pastors to have vendettas against their successors.  Let’s say that I’ve been the pastor of a church for fifteen years.  I’ve grown to love the staff, the leaders, and the people, very, very much.  We did some great things together: increased attendance, baptized new believers, and built a building.  The memories are precious.

But eventually I resign and move out of the area.  And after a while, the church calls a new pastor, someone who doesn’t know me and all the great things I did for the church.  While I’m bewildered as to why the church chose him, I share my opinions with my wife and no one else.

But as time goes on, I begin hearing about some decisions that the new pastor has made, and they baffle me.  When some friends from that church visit me, they tell me how much they despise the changes … and I have a decision to make.

If I agree with my friends at all, I validate their complaints and indirectly embolden them to take action against their pastor.  It’s like I have become their pastor-in-exile – and if they look to me as their pastor, they may want to remove their current pastor from office – and use my words to do it.

Because make no mistake, my opinions still carry enormous weight with some people.

The truth is that some pastors are egomaniacs who always view a former church as their church.  They want to take credit for every good thing that happens at that church even after they’ve left.

They haven’t learned to give all the glory to God.

Let’s return now to Dr. Schuller.  He retired as the senior pastor of Crystal Cathedral at the age of 79 but remained on the church board five more years until he was removed on July 3.

Wouldn’t it have been better for him to leave the church a few years ago – and possibly the entire Orange County area – so that his successor could lead and teach without his gigantic influence?

In fact, Dr. Schuller chose his son to succeed him, and less than three years later, removed him as senior pastor.  Now his daughter leads the church, and a lot of people don’t like the changes she’s made.  The church continues to decline.

While Dr. Schuller did build the church (humanly speaking), the church desperately needs to turn around – and it’s an axiom of leadership that the same leader who built the church cannot turn it around.

Wouldn’t the church benefit without any Schullers but with fresh leadership?

And haven’t attempts to control the church fractured their own family unity?

But here’s the problem: the Schullers can’t take their hands off the ministry.  They seem to view the Crystal Cathedral as their church.  In the process, they’re running it into the ground.

When Dr. Schuller dies, he won’t be able to control the church anymore.  Why not just “die” to the church and walk away right now?

Why not leave it in the capable hands of the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ?

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The following post is meant to be interactive.  Along the way, I have included some questions that I’d like to have you answer for your own benefit.  Compare your responses to what actually happened in the story.  Thanks!

Yesterday I read a true story about a church that faced a terrible situation.  The story comes from church consultant Peter Steinke’s book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  I do not wish for anyone to be upset by this story, so please know ahead of time that the story turns out favorably for all.

Here’s what happened:

A young girl in a church accused her pastor of molestation.  Two leaders, Tom and Diane, met privately with the pastor to notify him of the charge.  By state law, they had to report the charge to a governmental agency.

The pastor shook his head and quietly responded, “I have never touched her.  Never.”

1.  Which option would you recommend for the pastor if you were Tom or Diane?

  • Stay and fight the charge.
  • Take a leave of absence.
  • Resign immediately.
  • Hire an attorney.

Which option did you select?

Tom and Diane recommended that the pastor take a leave of absence.

However, the pastor eventually decided against that option because he felt it indicated guilt.  He told the leaders, “I need to clear my name, but I don’t want to drag the church through this for months.”

Tom and Diane knew they had to inform the congregation of the charge, and when they did, a group of members thought the pastor should resign.  The leaders of the church were warned that most cases like this one are based in fact.

2.  What should the leaders do now?

  • Insist that the pastor stay and fight.
  • Encourage him to take a leave of absence.
  • Recommend that the pastor resign.
  • Let the process play itself out.

Which option did you select?

The leaders decided to let the process of justice go forward and stand behind their pastor until the legal system made the next move.

The leaders also decided that they would meet every week for prayer followed by a sharing time where they would openly discuss what they were thinking.

Tom shared that he believed the pastor was innocent.

Diane wondered how stable the girl was based upon the fact that her parents had gone through a terrible divorce two years earlier but had now jointly hired a lawyer.

Another admitted that she was being pressured by other members to withdraw her support for the pastor.

The pastor told the leaders that he would hold no resentment if anyone felt compelled to withdraw their support from him.

One leader chose to resign.

Marie, another leader, stood solidly behind the pastor because she had been falsely accused of something at her own workplace.

A few anxious leaders turned against the pastor and condemned him.

3.  If you attended those weekly meetings, what would you as a leader do now?

  • Insist the pastor stay and fight.
  • Encourage him to take a leave of absence.
  • Recommend that he resign.
  • Let the justice process run its course.

Which option would you select at this point?

The leaders chose the last option once again.

Fourteen weeks later, the charges against the pastor were suddenly dropped.

4.  What should Tom and Diane do now?

  • Verbally berate every person who doubted the pastor’s innocence.
  • Encourage all the doubters to return to the church.
  • Shame those who didn’t stand with the pastor.
  • Just turn the page and move on.

Which option did the leaders select?

They decided to personally contact anyone who doubted the pastor (or the leaders) and welcome them to return to the church – no questions asked.

5.  What did the leaders of this church do that was so unique?

  • They stood behind their pastor whether he was innocent or guilty.
  • They ignored almost everything the congregation told them.
  • They waited for the truth to come out before making a judgment.
  • They took the easy way out.

Which option did you go with?

The third statement best reflects the mindset of this church’s leaders: they chose to let the justice system take its course before deciding the pastor’s future.

According to Steinke, many people facing these conditions become what psychologists call “cognitive misers.”  They instinctively draw either/or conclusions: either the pastor is innocent or he’s guilty.  Either the pastor is good or he is bad.

But the leaders of this church are to be commended for not letting anxiety make their decision for them.  When certain people were calling for the pastor’s resignation – and even staying home from services until he left – the leaders stuck to their original decision and let the legal system do its work.

The pastor’s job, career, and reputation were all saved.

The church’s reputation and future were preserved.

The decision of the leaders was vindicated.

Why?  Because the leaders chose to make their decision based on truth rather than (a) unity, (b) politics, (c) groupthink, or (d) anxiety.

Let me quote Steinke on this issue fully:

“Nowhere in the Bible is tranquillity preferred to truth or harmony to justice.  Certainly reconciliation is the goal of the gospel, yet seldom is reconciliation an immediate result.  If people believe the Holy Spirit is directing the congregation into the truth, wouldn’t this alone encourage Christians who have differing notions to grapple with issues respectfully, lovingly, and responsively?  If potent issues are avoided because they might divide the community, what type of witness is the congregation to the pursuit of truth?”

In other words, the church of Jesus Christ does not crucify its leaders just because someone makes an accusation against them.

Think with me: if unity is more important than truth, then Jesus deserved to be crucified, didn’t He?

The accusations against Jesus caused great distress for Pilate, resulting in turmoil for his wife and animosity between Pilate and the Passover mob.

The Jewish authorities had to resort to loud and vociferous accusations to force Pilate to act.

The women around the cross wept uncontrollably.

The disciples of Jesus all ran off and deserted Him in His hour of need (except John).

Jesus’ countrymen engaged in mocking and taunting while witnessing His execution.

Who caused Pilate, the Jewish authorities, the women, the disciples, and the Jewish people to become angry and upset and depressed?

It was JESUS!  And since He disrupted the unity of His nation, He needed to go, right?

This is the prevailing view among many denominational leaders today.  If a pastor is accused of wrongdoing, and some people in the church become upset, then the pastor is usually advised to resign to preserve church unity, even before people fully know the truth – and even if the pastor is totally innocent.

In fact, there are forces at work in such situations that don’t want the truth to come out.

That is … if unity is more important than truth.

But if the charges against Jesus – blasphemy against the Jewish law and sedition against the Roman law – were false and trumped up, then Jesus should have gone free even if His release caused disunity in Jerusalem.

The point of Steinke’s story is that leaders – including pastors – need to remain calm during turbulent times in a church.  There are always anxious people who push the leaders to overreact to relieve them of their own anxiety.

If Pilate hadn’t overreacted … if the mob hadn’t … if Jesus’ disciples hadn’t … would Jesus still have been crucified?

Divinely speaking: yes.  It was the only way He could pay for our sins.

Humanly speaking: no.  What a travesty of justice!

20 centuries later, Jesus’ followers can do a better job of handling nightmarish accusations against pastors.

Instead of becoming anxious, they can pray for a calm and peaceful spirit.

Instead of making quick decisions, they can make deliberate ones.

Instead of aiming for destruction, they can aim for redemption.

Instead of holding up unity as the church’s primary value, truth should be viewed that way.

If the pastor in this story had been guilty of a crime, then the leaders would have had to agree on a different course of action.  Sadly, these things do happen in our day, even in churches.

But in this case, the leaders stood strong and did not let the anxiety of others – or their own – determine the destiny of their pastor and church.

They opted for truth instead, and the truth will set you – and everyone else – free.

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