Over the course of many months, I’ve posted a few excerpts on the blog from my new book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict.
Since the book has now been published, I thought I’d post a few more excerpts. The following is from the book’s introduction (with the formatting altered).
Did you know that hundreds of pastors are forced to leave their churches every month?
Christians rightly lament the persecution of believers worldwide, but they are being terrorized by secular authorities or religious extremists. But in far too many cases, pastors and their families are being mistreated in local assemblies by their spiritual brothers and sisters – and the toll keeps escalating.
If a group in a church attacks their pastor and he is forced to resign, the consequences are tragic for everyone involved. The pastor may leave church ministry for good. That church’s reputation will be sullied. Some believers will flee their church. Friendships will end. Outreach will stop cold. And the evil one will dance. I’ve seen it all my life.
When I was a boy, my father felt pressured to resign as pastor from a church he founded, even though he was innocent of any major offense. He died twenty months later at age thirty-eight, leaving behind a homemaker wife who didn’t drive, two sons (ages thirteen and ten), and a five-year-old daughter who has only vague recollections of the father she lost.
During the ensuing years, the pastors of the churches I attended were subjected to similar pressures. In my early teens, one pastor abruptly resigned in the middle of a church meeting. My next pastor was forced to resign after five years of ministry. In my second staff position, the pastor was voted out of office in another contentious public meeting. And in my next staff position, the pastor was verbally threatened until he lost the will to serve.
When I became a rookie pastor, I learned that my predecessor had been forced from office after just one year of ministry. When our church merged with a sister church two years later, the other church’s pastor was forced to leave. Five years after the merger, a disgruntled churchgoer formed an alliance with a faction inside that church and pressured me to resign – but the board stood by me and that group left to form their own church nearby.
The next decade went so well that I hoped that I’d finally outlasted any ecclesiastical opponents. And after becoming the pastor of an impactful church entering the millennium, I entered the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary and wrote my dissertation on dealing with church antagonists using a biblical model informed by family systems theory. After studying how powerbrokers operate in a church, I thought I had finally come to a place where peace and understanding reigned. But sadly, I was mistaken.
In the autumn of 2009, after my wife and I returned from a mission trip to Eastern Europe, our church’s governing leaders stunned us by making drastic decisions. Seven weeks later, I resigned as pastor because too many people believed a litany of false allegations. We were not guilty of heresies, immoralities, illegalities, or any major offenses. While we both had made minor mistakes in our ministries, we were treated like we had committed ecclesiastical felonies.
As I have related our story to family, friends, and colleagues, I have learned how frequently this kind of situation is replicated in local churches. While there are unique features to our story, the template for forcing pastors from their positions has remained the same for decades, if not centuries. Forced exits have become so common in American churches that Rediger writes:
“Abuse of pastors by congregations and the breakdown of pastors due to inadequate support are now tragic realities. This worst-case scenario for the church, one that is increasing in epidemic proportions, is not a misinterpretation by a few discontented clergy. Rather, it is a phenomenon that is verified by both research and experience.”[i]
Guy Greenfield, who was forced out of his position as pastor in his early sixties, comments:
“This problem is a growing phenomenon. Numerous publications of observations and research indicate that it is in fact a major problem approaching crisis proportions. Talk to any group of ministers, and you will hear stories of tragedy and heartache. In recent years I have interviewed a considerable number of former ministers, now in secular work, and nearly everyone I talked with told me a similar story that resulted in forced termination. Many of them are now cynical, bitter, angry, and discouraged. Most tell me they will never return to a full-time paid church position. Their wounds continue to be painful.”[ii]
While pastors have always faced the possibility of forced termination, the problem has been growing steadily worse, which is why wounded pastors are flocking to specialized ministries that offer professional assessments, intensive counseling, and peaceful retreats.
For the past three years, my wife and I have been living hundreds of miles from the church we once joyfully served. We’ve asked ourselves, “How did we get here? Why did we lose so many friends so quickly? What did we do to contribute to our exile?” What’s ironic is that I possess a good-sized library on managing and resolving church conflict, and I think I understand the field fairly well. Yet part of me continues to engage in self-reproach because I didn’t see the conflict coming – and neither did our church family. The whole experience still seems surreal.
I’ll share the other half of the introduction next time. If you’d like to purchase the book, you can obtain a signed copy from my website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org or you can spend a little less and secure the paperback or e-book at Amazon’s website at http://www.amazon.com/Church-Coup-Jim-Meyer/dp/1624199321/ref=dp_wl_cart1?ie=UTF8&colid=EWNKS64TGXCT&coliid=IN8XJYN9467QW
[i] G. Lloyd Rediger, Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations under Attack (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 1.
[ii] Guy Greenfield, The Wounded Minister: Healing from and Preventing Personal Attacks (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 15.