Archive for September, 2012

You’re not getting along with a co-worker.

Or a family member.

Or a classmate at school.

Or a neighbor with a barking dog.

At first, you try to smile and be nice and find a pathway to commonality, but your efforts fail … and your problems with the co-worker … family member … classmate … or neighbor just get worse.

What do people do when they try to get along with someone but can’t pull it off?

Too often … they triangle another person into their dispute.

They take their anxiety and look for a third party … and then dump their issues onto that person … hoping the third party will resolve matters for them.


*A wife is not getting along with her husband, so she seeks out a third party … her mother, a friend, her pastor, a counselor … whom she hopes will solve the conflict for her.

*A mother is tearing her hair out over the behavior of her teenage daughter … so mom waits her until her husband comes home from work and then hands the problem over to him.

*An employee is going berserk trying to work with his immediate supervisor who is constantly bullying him … so he goes to human resources to learn about his options.

*A small faction in a church is upset with their pastor … so they telephone the district minister to complain about him.

It feels natural to “triangle” a party you’re not getting along with … if you’re three years old and your older brother Johnny is trying to glue your Luke Skywalker action figure to your best outfit.  (“Mom!  Help me!  Johnny’s doing it again!”)

But as you mature, you’re supposed to be able to handle most conflicts with others yourself.

If you consult with someone on how to handle a conflict, that isn’t necessarily triangling … as long as you’re just seeking advice on how to handle a relational problem person.

But it is triangling when you want the other person to take the problem away from you and solve it.

In Luke 12:13, a man came up to Jesus and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

This man and his brother were not in agreement about their inheritance, so this man asked Jesus to solve the problem for him.

He didn’t ask Jesus for advice or for options … he asked Jesus to tell his brother to split the family money with him.

Jesus refused to take the bait, replying, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”  While everyone knew that Jesus was a wise man, He did not have jurisdiction in the field of family finance, so he declined the man’s demand.

In other words, Jesus chose not to form a triangle against the second brother by siding with the first.

Churches are breeding grounds for triangles, and the person who gets “triangled” the most is the pastor.


A woman in the church is upset with her pastor for not asking her to be a deaconess.  She doesn’t want to talk to her pastor directly, so she complains to her friends about him … adding a lot of colorful details about other times that he’s angered her.

There are two basic ways her friends can reply.

First, her friends can tell her, “We’ll pray for you, but we cannot do anything about your problem with the pastor.  You need to set up an appointment and go talk to him yourself.  We’re staying out of it.”

In other words, this woman’s friends refuse to solve the problem for her by forming a triangle against the pastor.  They put the responsibility for reconciliation back onto her shoulders.

Second, her friends can tell her, “You know, we’re upset with the pastor, too.  In fact, do you know what he said to me a few weeks ago?”  And then everyone can pool their gripes against the pastor.

Suddenly, the gripe poolers have formed an alliance … with the pastor as their enemy.

This is how church division starts.  People carry the offenses of others as if those offenses are their own.

It often starts with one person who is upset with the pastor about a personal offense who never tells the pastor how they feel.  Then they attempt to gain allies so that others carry their offenses for them.

Today’s lesson on church conflict is simple: STAY OUT OF TRIANGLES!

If somebody tries to consult with you about a problem they’re having with someone at church, it’s okay to share advice with them but don’t even hint to solve the problem for them.

The monkey needs to stay on their back because it’s their problem.

Don’t say, “I’ll try talking to him for you.”

Don’t say, “I’ll go to the board and get their advice.”

Don’t say, “Tell me more!”

However you say it … whatever you say … communicate loud and clear:


I’ll write more about triangles next time.

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If it wasn’t for congregational feedback, we might not possess one of the most valuable books in the entire Bible.

When he wrote 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul was responding to a series of questions posed by the church in Corinth about issues such as marriage and divorce, whether singles should marry, food sacrificed to idols, whether preachers should be paid, freedom in Christ, spiritual gifts, and resurrection.

Their feedback to Paul resulted in long, extended answers to questions that encompass the second half of the book.

Congregational feedback can be valuable … as long as it doesn’t become adversarial.

I’ve already saluted a structured, anonymous survey and emailing the pastor as viable feedback options in my last blog.

Let me mention four more.

First, I believe a pastor should stand before a congregation and answer questions at least annually, if not more often.

When a church calls a new pastor, they often have a question and answer session with him.  These times are valuable because they indicate how a pastor relates to the entire congregation … how well he can think on his feet … what kind of vision and ideas he has for a prospective church … and the current mindset of churchgoers.

Why do pastoral candidates go through that kind of a process … and then never stand before the church again?

Some might say, “Such meetings can become divisive.”  And I agree – they can be.

But isn’t it better for a pastor to call such a meeting proactively with the congregation than to have some in the congregation call a meeting about him later on?

Political candidates stand before crowds hundreds of times when they’re running for office.  Once in office, we rightly criticize them if they duck press conferences and town hall meetings.

The feedback generated during such meetings can enlighten and encourage everyone involved.

I realize some pastors aren’t skilled at such meetings … and some members aren’t skilled at speaking in front of groups.

In that case, why not ask churchgoers to write out their questions in advance and then have the pastor answer them the following Sunday?  (Giving him a week to think about his answers.)

However it’s done, I believe this kind of give-and-take needs to be done more often.

By the way, I loved these kinds of meetings, even on those rare occasions when the questioner became angry.  Some big-name pastors hold them on a regular basis.  I’m even aware of a megachurch where a world-renowned pastor holds these meetings periodically.  Keeps leadership accountable.

Second, I believe a pastor can visit various groups in the church for question and answer sessions.

In my second pastorate, I neglected the seniors in the church for a while, and they rebelled, with many of them leaving the church en masse.

Since that painful episode, I have learned that a pastor must touch every major group in a church throughout the year: the kids, the youth, the singles, small groups, seniors … you name it.

This isn’t hard to pull off.  When a pastor is making his annual calendar, he can make sure to schedule quality time … maybe with one group every month … where he can meet with them and take questions.

Early in my pastoral ministry, I met with the deaconesses of my church and tried to give them a vision of what they could become.

They didn’t want to hear such a vision from a man … and they let me know it.

It was the last time I ever invaded a woman’s meeting without being asked to attend.

But on occasion, I was asked to speak to the women of the church … and that’s a great opportunity for feedback … provided the pastor doesn’t tell the deaconesses how to run their operation.

Third, I believe a pastor should solicit questions on occasion about certain issues that touch people’s lives.

If I was preaching topically, I’d end a series maybe once a year by asking people to submit written questions about the issue at hand.

For example, if I was preaching on marriage, I’d let everyone know throughout the series that they could write down questions about marriage on their response card.  Then I’d sort through them all and look for patterns and themes.

Then I’d let those questions provide the outline and frame my message for the last Sunday of the series.

Frontal lobe issues are best for this kind of thing … relationships, personal finances, raising kids, apologetics questions, social issues … even Bible questions.

Years ago, I read that R.T. Kendall, who pastored for many years at Westminster Chapel in London, would take questions from the congregation after he taught.  He arranged for microphones to be set up in the aisles and listeners could ask him anything about the message he just gave.

I love this approach because it’s akin to how Jesus and Paul taught at times … and people usually learn more through dialogue than a prepared monologue.

Besides, it’s much less predictable … and has the potential for both fireworks and fun.

Finally, I believe that churchgoers should set up an appointment to speak with their pastor if they have an idea or a concern.

Most pastors … even in large churches … make provision for seeing people from the congregation at least once.  It may take a few weeks to land an appointment, but they can be landed.  (And if not with the senior/lead pastor, at least with an executive pastor.)

Whenever people made such appointments with me, I was usually nervous ahead of time because I had no idea what they were going to talk about … and sometimes, they came in great anger.

For this reason, I almost always tried to figure out why they were coming to see me … and usually got it wrong.

But a one-on-one session is really the best way to share feedback with somebody.

You can see their eyes … and their body language … and their facial expressions … and they can see yours as well.

I once read that the average American citizen could see Abraham Lincoln when he was president.

Certainly Jesus did one-on-ones with people like Nicodemus.

Every pastor should welcome this kind of feedback, even if he can’t make everybody happy.

I hope these ideas are helpful.

If a church has structured feedback, churchgoers won’t be as likely to ambush the pastor or staff with their concerns.

Your thoughts?

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Many years ago, I did something really stupid.

(I did something stupid yesterday, too, but let’s ignore that.)

Someone tried to convince me to show a music video during a Sunday service.

I liked the video … and the group that did the video … and the song they sang.

But the first time I saw the video was during the service … and the video just wasn’t appropriate for our congregation at the time.

And I heard about it … and handled the reaction that came my way rather poorly.

When pastors get together, they sometimes share war stories about the complainers and critics inside their churches.

Many times, the pastor doesn’t deserve the critcism he’s receiving … but sometimes, he does.

And many … if not most … pastors haven’t created feedback mechanisms for attendees when they’re unhappy about something.

I once knew an older gentleman who would stop and see me in my office about once a year.  Whenever he stopped in, he had one or two “suggestions” he wanted to share with me.  And they were always good ideas.

But if he didn’t have the courage to approach me directly … and many, many churchgoers are too afraid to speak with their pastor about anything remotely negative … I wouldn’t have benefited from his observations.

What kind of feedback mechanisms can pastors use to solicit congregational feedback?

First, I believe that every pastor should take an open-ended survey of the congregation on an annual basis.

A pastor would ask five or so questions that demand more than a “yes” or “no” answer.  For example:

*Why do you come to this church?

*What do you like best about the church?

*In which specific ways can we improve?

*What can we do to attract more guests?

*If you could wave a wand and get rid of one thing, what would it be?

I’m not suggesting that these are the actual questions to be asked … they’re just samples.  Every pastor needs to devise his own.

But this kind of a process makes the following statements:

*This church isn’t perfect.

*We value your input.

*We believe that you notice things we don’t see.

*We put a premium on constructive feedback.

*We take your ideas seriously.

To really be effective, this kind of survey has to be conducted during a weekend service … maybe at the very end, so people can finish their surveys and then leave.

But if church attendees knew that every year … maybe at the beginning of fall … they would be asked to share some opinions about the church, wouldn’t that be a great place to channel their ideas?

In this case, I think it’s okay to ask people to fill them out anonymously unless the person filling out the survey wants to expand upon their suggestion.  In that case, they can give their name and email/phone.

Second, I believe that churchgoers should feel comfortable emailing their pastor about their feelings and ideas.

I’m more of a visual guy than an auditory one.  Many things that people tell me go in one ear and out the other … as my wife can attest all too well.

If I can read an idea, I’m far more likely to remember it than if I just hear it.

For that reason, I’m not too receptive to people coming up to me after a service and hitting me with a complaint or a suggestion.  I’d prefer they put it in writing so I can understand what they’re trying to say more accurately.

Maybe this is just me, but I’d rather have someone email me their suggestion on a Monday morning than talk to me after a weekend service … and I suspect that many pastors would agree with me.

Whenever people gave me feedback via email, I tried to get back to them within 24 hours … and I always thanked them for contacting me directly … even if I didn’t like what they said.

I’ll share some more feedback mechanisms next time.

Which feedback mechanisms do you believe work in congregations today?

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We said goodbye today to our 17-year-old dog.

Norman Riding Shotgun

I grew up in a home with cats … but we never considered having dogs.  It didn’t help when the German Shepherd next door bit my sister … and besides, I was scared to death of dogs.

And they all seemed to hate me.

But when our family moved to Arizona 14 years ago, our daughter Sarah asked if she could have a dog.  After much soul searching, I finally said yes, and Sarah promptly named him Norman … even though it would take a while for Sarah to find him.

After six months in Phoenix, Sarah and I ventured over to the animal shelter in Glendale one hot July day, and Sarah selected a scrawny, crazy-looking dog named Mac.  When we told the shelter personnel that we wanted Mac, two older women announced that they wanted him as well.  Sarah and I went outside the shelter and prayed, and after drawing straws, we won the rights to Mac … immediately christened Norman instead.

He instantly became a part of our family.

Norman with My Family at Easter

Norman was a peculiar dog, to say the least.  When we first brought him home, he scurried all over the house … like he was insane.  It was evident that he had been abused … but we were determined to love him unconditionally.

Since I worked at home, and everyone else went to school and/or work, Norman and I were left together for much of the week.  He used to lie under my desk while I worked, and I’d carry him down the street when we picked up the mail.

On our first Christmas Eve, we all went to church except Norman, who proceeded to locate the chocolate kisses under the tree and devour many of them before we got home … and yes, I know about dogs and chocolate.  (Nothing happened.)

Norman Dressed for Christmas

Norman loved going to church … turned over and folded his hands when we told him to “pray” … enjoyed popcorn more than his own dog food … barked at me whenever I got close to Kim … and ran on three legs.

And because he couldn’t/wouldn’t walk his last few years, we pushed him around in a stroller whenever we took a walk.  (And received lots of stares.)

Women usually thought he was cute, while men would say, “That’s not a dog.  A rat, maybe, or a possum … but not a dog.”

Kim and Her Buddy

But we didn’t mind.  We didn’t have Norman in our lives so he would win contests, but so we could share love.

I won’t miss the nights when he peed in our bed, but I’ll miss holding him on my lap, petting his little head, and watching the little guy sleep.

When we drove through 14 states several weeks ago, Norman acted like a champion.  He survived an 800-mile drive one day and a few nights in hotels.  He even got to see Niagara Falls.

Norman Visiting Niagara Falls

But several nights ago, it was obvious something was seriously wrong with him.

I secretly hoped that we would wake up one day and Norman would be gone.  Then I wouldn’t have to go to the vet and pay for someone to take him away from us.

But when we took him to the vet this morning, Kim felt it was time to let him go … but I wasn’t ready yet.  My emotions were battling with my brain.

We finally had to ask ourselves: “Are we keeping him alive for our sake, or for his?”

If he just wants to go to sleep, who are we to stand in his way?

Having done this kind of thing once before, part of me preferred just to hand Norman over to the vet and leave … but Kim told me she was going to stay through the whole procedure.

Even though she said I could go, I wanted to support her, so I stayed.

After the “medication” was administered, Norman looked lovingly up at Kim … the person he loved and trusted most … and then he was gone.

Two Wild and Crazy Friends

I’m a better person for owning Norman.  I’m much more patient and compassionate … and I’m not afraid of dogs anymore.

But what I feel best about is that we truly loved Norman to the very end of his life.  We couldn’t have loved him any more than we did.

I’ll get back to blogging about church stuff later this week … but for now, I just want to remember a little 8-pound ball of fur who touched my life deeply.

Rest in peace, my sweet Norman.

And I hope the theologians are wrong and that I get to see you again someday.

Normie and Me

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Someone recently asked me the following question:

“What is the likelihood that a forced termination or major conflict could happen at the same church more than once?  (Let’s say within a 10-15 year span.)  Are there any statistics on that subject?”

Yes, there are.

Leading Edge, a resource for leaders of healthy churches, reported the following statistics in September 2003:

*25% of US pastors have experienced a forced exit at some point in their ministry.

*33% of US churches have had a pastor leave due to a forced exit.

*62% of ousted pastors were serving a church that had forced one or more pastors to leave in the past.

And the most chilling statistic of all:

*10% of US churches have forced three or more pastors to leave in their past and are considered “repeat offenders.”

The driving force behind a pastor’s forced exit is usually a small faction inside the congregation … composed of only 3-4% of the people.

The second largest catalyst is a member of the church’s governing board.

The typical size of the small faction is 7-10 people.

Once a faction or a board forces out their pastor, they know the template and may feel free to use it on the next pastor … and the one after that.

Let’s freely acknowledge that a small percentage of pastors should leave due to heretical teaching, sexual immorality, or a criminal offense.

But in most cases, the pastor hasn’t done anything worthy of banishment.

Presuming that a pastor is innocent of any major offense, how can the people of a church that has experienced this tragedy prevent the forced exit of their next pastor?

First, identify the perpetrators by name.  A congregation needs to know the identities of those who forced their pastor to leave.  If you don’t know who did it, you won’t be able to stop them from doing it again.  This is biblical.  (Paul fingered Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander the coppersmith as troublemakers, while John cast a spotlight on Diotrephes.)

Second, confront the perpetrators for their divisive actions.  Even if a congregation identifies the perpetrators, little has been accomplished if those same people are quickly placed into leadership positions.  See Titus 3:10-11.

Let me say this as emphatically as I know how: it is spiritually and morally wrong for a congregation to place people into leadership who used deception and destruction to force out the previous pastor.

If you doubt me, read the Book of Numbers sometime soon.  Moses and Aaron were frequently criticized by various leaders and factions in Israel … but God always sided with his chosen leaders and always disciplined those who attacked them.

And God never said to the perpetrators, “You know, you guys are right.  Moses shouldn’t be in leadership.  I’ll open up the earth and swallow him up … and let you guys lead Israel instead.”

In fact, in Numbers 16, God opened up the earth and swallowed the 250 people who stood with Moses’ three critics instead.

Third, prayerfully ask the perpetrators to repent for their actions.  However, this rarely happens.

I know a church where four staff members tried to force out their pastor many years ago.  The pastor threatened to expose them … and three of them quickly resigned.  (The perpetrators in such cases fear public exposure more than anything.)

About five years later, one of the four wrote the pastor a letter of apology, admitting that what he had done was wrong.  The other three?  He’s still waiting to hear from them.

I don’t know why this is, but some people demonize their pastor and then believe that they are justified using any and all means to force him to quit.

Such methodology damages more than the pastor, though: it damages a church’s soul.

Finally, realize that pastors are most vulnerable between years four and five.  Most pastors enjoy a honeymoon of a year or two when they first come to a church, especially if they don’t initiate much change.

During year three, the pastor’s critics begin to emerge.

Between years four and five of a pastor’s tenure, the pastor typically announces and promotes a specific agenda for the church’s future.  Because change provokes anxiety, some people will rebel against the pastor’s agenda.

The pastor’s critics will begin to question everything he does and says.  They will talk to others who feel the same way.  If a leader emerges, they will form a faction to take back their church.

If the pastor is a strong individual … and especially if he has board support … he will continue to communicate the direction he believes God wants him to take the church.

And this will force much if not all of the faction to leave the church.

But if the pastor collapses emotionally … or his family wilts under the pressure … or the pastor’s health is affected by the constant criticism … and especially if the board caves on him … then the pastor will choose to resign instead.

And a tiny, vocal faction will privately take credit for getting rid of their minister.

This information is contained in Carl George’s brilliant article called “The Berry Bucket Balance.”

Many years ago, I did a study of pastoral tenure in my district.  I examined the tenures of 60 pastors.

The average tenure of those pastors was 4 1/2 years … midway between years four and five.

This is a time to be hypervigilant … but an attack can come at any time.

A few years ago, I wrote my doctoral project at Fuller Seminary on church antagonism.

During my research, I analyzed five major conflicts that my church at the time had experienced over the years.

I discovered that the church’s culture was one of non-confrontation.  When people acted up … or committed evil … nobody did anything about it.

The perpetrators felt free to attack, criticize, and even destroy people because they knew that nothing would happen to them.

We have to hit this issue head-on or there will be even more repeat offender churches in the future.

Your thoughts?

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