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Archive for May, 2013

I’m slowly reading through the Psalms in Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase The Message, and I’ve been increasingly blessed by what I’ve been reading.

This morning, I read Psalm 77, where Asaph speaks in the first 6 verses:

I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might,

I yell at the top of my lungs.  He listens.

I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;

my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.

When friends said, “Everything will turn out all right,”

I didn’t believe a word they said.

I remember God – and shake my head.

I bow my head – then wring my hands.

I’m awake all night – not a wink of sleep;

I can’t even say what’s bothering me.

I go over the days one by one,

I ponder the years gone by.

I strum my lute all through the night,

wondering how to get my life together.

Do these words from Asaph resonate with you?

Asaph is comfortable enough in God’s presence to “yell at the top of my lungs.”  The psalmist doesn’t contort himself into adopting a sanctimonious tone.  He just tells God how he feels … and in this case, loudly.

He also states that “my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.”

I don’t know what Asaph was going through, but it was like an arrow pierced his heart.  He bled out a bit … but his wound refused to get better.

I know so many Christians – even people I admire – who have wounds that won’t heal: tortured memories … incessant regrets … bodily frailties … psychological plagues … emotional scars.

In Asaph’s case, his wound wasn’t private – it was public.  Everyone who knew Asaph knew about his wound.

When Asaph’s well-meaning friends tried to encourage him, Asaph couldn’t adopt their viewpoint.  Only he knew his pain.

And when he thought of God, Asaph could only shake his head and wring his hands.

Even though Asaph had petitioned God for relief, the Lord remained silent and inactive.

One of the worst nights of my life happened when I was a sophomore in high school.  My insect collection was due the following day, but I didn’t have it done.  I stayed up all night wondering what I was going to do.

I hated biology.

In my case, I knew why I was up all night.  In Asaph’s case, he couldn’t even say what was troubling him.

He reviewed his life – looking for clues as to why he was so miserable – but he received no answers.

So he turned to music.  In his case, he played the lute.

In my case, I play my iPod … sometimes listening to hymns all night.

But I love the last line of this text, where Asaph admits that he’s “wondering how to get my life together.”

Let me make three quick observations about this text:

First, God loves it when His people are honest.

If God didn’t like honesty, He would have made sure that Asaph’s little song was never published in Scripture.

But Asaph isn’t the only honest psalmist.  What about King David in Psalm 31?

Be kind to me, God –

I’m in deep, deep trouble again.

I’ve cried my eyes out;

I feel hollow inside.

My life leaks away, groan by groan;

my years fade out in sighs.

My troubles have worn me out,

turned my bones to powder.

To my enemies I’m a monster,

I’m ridiculed by the neighbors.

My friends are horrified;

they cross the street to avoid me.

They want to blot me from memory,

forget me like a corpse in the grave,

discard me like a broken dish in the trash.

The street-talk gossip has me

“criminally insane”!

Behind locked doors they plot

how to ruin me for good.

There’s no attempt on David’s part to be super-spiritual, or self-righteous … he just tells God, “I’m hollow, worn out, forsaken, ridiculed – and some people want to destroy me.”

How do these two prayers – and there are scores of sections like these in the Psalms – match up with your prayers as far as honesty?

Second, honesty draws us closer to God.

I grew weary of rote prayers as a kid.  My family had a 12-word rote prayer that we sometimes uttered around the dinner table:

“Thank you Father for this food in Jesus’ name we pray Amen.”

Memorized and careless statements aren’t going to draw us any closer to God.  Instead, He wants to know how we really feel.

Twelve days after our first date, I took Kim for a drive to the beach.  That night, we both shared things with each other that we had never shared with anyone else.

Up until that night, I had always tried to impress girls with my cleverness, or humor, or sports ability.

But Kim wasn’t impressed by those things … so I dropped the pretense and felt safe enough to share who I really was with her.

The honesty we started to display that night has bound us together for nearly 40 years.

God wants us to act in the same way toward Him.  The more honest we are with Him, the closer we’ll feel to Him.

And that often starts with being more candid and expressive with God in our prayers.

Finally, honesty attracts others to our faith.

Although Asaph laments his life in Psalm 77, he still refers to “my God” and “my Lord.”

He still held onto his relationship with God even though his life felt like crap.

There are millions of people in our culture who have rejected the Christian faith and do all they can to avoid church.

I have often wondered if what we’re missing in our worship is the authenticity found in the Psalms.

If you know me at all, you know how much I love music.

And the more honest the song, the better I like it, which is why I love songwriters like Dylan, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, and Bono.  (Ever listened to the lyrics to U2’s “Acrobat?”  That’s a whole blog right there.)

But most of the Christian music that I own isn’t very honest.  I get the impression that the songwriter is writing what he or she feels they’re supposed to write rather than what they’d like to write … if their record company would let them.

Since the Psalms were the hymnbook of Israel, can you imagine singing the words of Psalm 77 or Psalm 31 in a worship service as Israel did?

In most churches, I look around and notice less than half the people singing.

Could it be that the words don’t reflect the way they feel inside?

I realize that in many of the Psalms, the songwriter may view life negatively at the beginning of the psalm and later view life – and God – more positively later in the psalm.

But I usually don’t see this pattern reflected in worship lyrics.

Maybe if our music was more authentic, we’d feel closer to God … and attract more people.

Because while people want answers to their questions about life, they want something else even more:

They just want someone to listen to them.

And God loves to listen to authentic praying and singing.

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Today is the 72nd birthday of America’s greatest living songwriter, Bob Dylan.

One of the measures of Dylan’s brilliance is that many of his greatest songs (like “Up to Me,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Foot of Pride,” and the incredible “Cross the Green Mountain”) never appeared on any of his official albums.  In fact, I enjoy listening to his unreleased music from The Bootleg Series (1991) or Tell Tale Signs (2008) as much or more than his released songs.  (I’m blessed that both my wife and my daughter-in-law like Dylan’s music.)

In 1963, two boxers met for a match at Dodger Stadium: World Featherweight champion Davey Moore and challenger Sugar Ramos, who knocked Moore out in the tenth round and won by a technical knockout.

After the fight, Moore spoke with reporters, complained of headaches, fell unconscious, was taken to the hospital, and died four days later of brain damage.

Later that year, a young Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Who Killed Davey Moore?”  If you’ve never heard it before, it will definitely make you think.  You’ll find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvLFOCMbHHE

Who was responsible for Moore’s death?  The referee?  The crowd?  The manager?  Gamblers?  Boxing writers?  Ramos?

Each verse of the song is a protest from each of the above six parties … and each verse ends with these words:

“It wasn’t me that made him fall, no, you can’t blame me at all.”

The implication of Dylan’s song is that somebody played a part in Moore’s death.  Dylan doesn’t just indict Ramos … he indicts everybody who had the opportunity to stop the carnage, but didn’t.

Dylan even quotes Ramos as saying, “Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill,’ it was destiny, it was God’s will.”

In other words, let’s blame God for everything!

In the same vein, when a pastor is forced to leave a church, who is responsible for his departure?

After a pastor’s last Sunday, when churchgoers stop their whispering and start speaking more forthrightly, they often blame the pastor completely.  Examples:

“He didn’t seem happy here.  He should have left three years ago.”

“He never should have come here in the first place.  He was the wrong man for the job.”

“He was too well educated for this congregation.  He never spoke on our level.”

And on and on and on …

Maybe every pastor who leaves a church prematurely is 100% to blame … but somehow, I doubt it.

After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Sanhedrin called a secret emergency meeting.  In typical fashion, they overreacted to Jesus’ miracle and misinterpreted its meaning.  John 11:47-48 reports their discussion:

“What are we accomplishing?  Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

Then Caiaphas, the high priest that year, suggested a solution: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

Caiaphas nominated Jesus to be Judah’s scapegoat … to blame the Roman-Jewish troubles completely on Him … and then none of the Sanhedrin would have to claim responsibility for any of their nation’s current problems.

To paraphrase Dylan’s song: “Who Killed Jesus Christ?”  We can identify many possible culprits:

*The traitor among the Twelve.

*The politician Pilate who let the mob have their way.

*Every person in the crowd who cried out for Jesus’ death … and every person who failed to call for His release.

*The Roman soldiers who arrested Jesus in Gethsemane.

*The disciples who deserted their Master when He needed them the most.

*The Sanhedrin which violated its own rules because they hated Jesus so much.

*The devil who was pulling strings behind the scenes … as the film The Passion of the Christ so clearly delineates.

So who is to blame when a pastor leaves?

Let’s admit that there are times when a pastor’s personal misconduct disqualifies him from church ministry.  Maybe the pastor was discovered to be a persistent gambler … or an unrepentant womanizer … or a hopeless drug addict.  According to Alan Klaas, personal pastoral misconduct accounts for 7% of all forced terminations.

I would hope that even if a pastor was guilty of immoral behavior, those around him would still try and restore him spiritually and even vocationally rather than try and destroy him.

But Klaas says that 45% of the time, a minority faction causes a pastor to leave involuntarily.  Notice: it’s 6 1/2 times more likely that a small group of vocal churchgoers pushes out a pastor than that their pastor sinned his way out of the church.

In a typical case of forced termination, the following parties may share some responsibility for the pastor’s ouster:

*The chairman who sided with his board buddies rather than back his pastor.

*The staff member who rebelled against his pastor’s directives and aligned himself with board members.

*Churchgoers who knew the identities of plotting members but never passed on that information to their pastor.

*The district minister who took the side of disgruntled members rather than a pastor called by God.

*Regular attendees who loudly criticized everything their pastor said and did rather than quietly leave the church.

*Christians who blamed every church problem on the pastor rather than defending him or supporting him.

Who pushed the pastor out?

Maybe the board chairman helped … as did a staff member … along with various churchgoers … and the district minister … and chronic critics … and some ordinary members.

This is by far the most common scenario … much more likely than blaming the pastor for everything.

Bob Dylan was right.  When Davey Moore died, there was plenty of shared responsibility to go around.

And when most pastors leave a church unwillingly, it’s rarely their fault completely.  (When the church did well, was he alone entitled to all the accolades?)

Rather than taking the political perspective of the Sanhedrin (which tried to blame everything on one person), let’s adopt the more mature viewpoint of that 22-year-old folksinger from Minnesota (who held multiple parties responsible for a tragedy) and ask:

“How did I contribute to the pastor’s departure … and how can I make things right?”

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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Have you ever taken a spiritual gifts inventory to discover which gifts God has given you?

Twenty-some years ago, I took the inventory that came with the Network material created by Willow Creek Church.

My primary gift?  Teaching.

My second gift?  Prophecy.

When I took the class “Discovering Your Ministry Identity” at Fuller for the Doctor of Ministry degree, my spiritual gifts inventory produced exactly the same results.

While I’ve always tried to use my teaching gift in love, that prophecy gift makes me seem outspoken, stubborn, and almost obnoxious at times.

I understand that when women feel strong emotions, they usually feel them from the top of their head to the tips of their toes.

That’s how I feel when I see wrongdoing in Jesus’ church.

It doesn’t matter if nobody is listening (or reading), or if I don’t use politically correct terms, or if I need to take a swipe at the behavior of Christian leaders on occasion … I have to speak out.

In fact, I’m not being true to either God or my giftedness if I remain silent.

That’s why I care so much about the involuntary termination of innocent pastors.  In fact, more of us need to speak up and say, “This is wrong and has got to stop.”

Enter Kent Crockett’s book Pastor Abusers: When Sheep Attack Their Shepherd.

While much of Crockett’s book overlaps with my book Church Coup, I love his fresh approach to the subject.

Let me share a few more quotes from his book:

“The devil is unmistakably the instigator of secret plots.  Nowhere in the Bible do we read about God calling for His people to meet secretly and plot the ousting [of] a pastor.  Instead, every instance in the New Testament of plots and secret meetings pertains to ungodly religious leaders who attacked God’s Son and His followers.”

While reading through the Psalms in The Message, I came upon Psalm 64 this morning.  David writes about his enemies:

They keep lists of the traps

they’re secretly set.

They say to each other,

“No one can catch us,

no one can detect our perfect crime.”

The Detective detects the mystery

in the dark of the cellar heart.

My friend Charles Chandler, executive director of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, taught me that when leaders or churchgoers plot to force out their pastor, they will insist on strict confidentiality from the pastor when they inform him of their plans … and that the pastor does not have to comply with their wishes.  As Crockett states, “Satan loves to plot evil schemes under the dark veil of secrecy against God’s messengers …. It’s just too easy for these thugs to concoct stories or exaggerate incidents to discredit the pastor’s ministry and ruin his reputation.”

This paragraph made me both angry and sorrowful:

“The abusers will often approach your friends, trying to persuade them to come over to their side.  They’ll misrepresent the situation, distort the facts, and say, ‘Let us tell you our side of the story.’  If your friend is gullible or has a weak backbone, he or she will cave in to their exploitation, instead of standing up for what’s right.  It’s worth repeating – never underestimate the incredible power of a slanderer to alter people’s thinking.”

I believe that slander is the number one weapon in Satan’s arsenal against pastors.  When half-truths, innuendos, and exaggerations are piled one on top of another, too many Christians choose to believe the “charges” rather than ask, “How do you know these charges are true?” or ask, “What kind of biblical process has been used to uncover this information?”

And the first thing anyone who hears such charges should do is contact the pastor immediately and ask him whether the charges are true.

In his chapter “The Silent Majority,” Crockett laments churchgoers who passively allow their pastor to take a beating without coming to his defense:

“Your supporters understand these antagonists are determined to run you off, and they prefer to stay out of the line of fire when it happens.  When the faction begins persecuting you, the depth of your supporters’ spiritual walk will determine which position they’ll take and which side they’ll choose.”

There are friends from my last ministry who have told me how sorry they are that they did not speak up for me when I was being publicly accused of wrongdoing.  I have never blamed them for remaining silent because it’s rare for Christians to publicly support their pastor when he’s under attack.  But I do believe them when they say that they will never let this happen again.

Unfortunately, too many believers are fooled by the following tactic.  Pastor Mike Johnston stated that he and his wife were friends with a woman for 25 years … and that she pledged loyalty to them … but then:

“I failed to take into account the slander factor, which is the exponential power a phantom allegation proclaimed through an alliance of troublemakers.  These particular pastor abusers banded together and fed her misinformation, which she never challenged.  Since the accusers kept repeating their lies, it convinced her that they must be telling the truth.  Without asking me to respond to their charges, she swallowed the bait, reneged on her promise, and joined their team.  After three months of unreturned phone calls, it became painfully evident our lifelong friend wanted nothing more to do with us.”

Guess what?  The enemy used the same tactic on Jesus, Stephen, and Paul.

I once had a teacher at Biola named Mr. Ebeling.  He was quite a character, but he used to utter the same phrase over and over:

“If Christians would just read their Bibles!”

The enemy’s strategy against pastors is clearly delineated in Scripture … but when he springs his trap, many people take his side and drive out their pastor.

Let’s put a stop to this evil once and for all!

Are you with me?

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’m currently reading a book by Kent Crockett called Pastor Abusers: When Sheep Attack Their Shepherd.  Crockett is currently on the staff of a church in Alabama.

In his first chapter, titled “The Secret Church Scandal,” the author writes:

“The secret church scandal we’re talking about is the persecution of the pastor by mean-spirited people within the church, who are the ‘pastor abusers.’  They’re planted in nearly every congregation.  Many are even running the church.  They may be deacons, disloyal staff members, or members of the congregation who are determined to destroy the pastor through personal attacks, slander, and criticism.  Outwardly they may look respectable, but inwardly their hearts are wicked, and their mission is to bring down their spiritual leader.”

I must confess, I cannot understand why professing Christians would ever do such a thing.

Based on my own experience, I can understand why believers might:

*disagree with their pastor’s teaching.

*find him to be arrogant or obnoxious.

*become bored with his preaching or stories.

*choose to leave their church for another.

But how can a believer who has the Holy Spirit living inside of him or her ever try and destroy or bring down a pastor called by God?

Crockett continues:

“Pastor abuse is the scandal that no one is talking about.  The mistreatment of clergy is as horrifying as it is secretive, and the casualties are reaching epidemic proportions.  Over 19,000 pastors get out of the ministry every year.  When the sermon ends on Sunday, over 350 pastors will be gone before the next Sunday service begins.”

These statements are similar to ones that I made in my recent book Church Coup … and no, I did not consult Crockett’s book before I wrote mine.  But it’s amazing how many nearly-identical statements we both made.

What happens after a pastor under fire leaves?  Crockett continues:

“Meanwhile, the revolving door at the church makes another turn.  As the fired pastor makes his exit, the old guard looks to find another pastor who will meet all of their expectations, and history repeats itself with a new victim.  Just like the abusive husband beats his next wife, the abusive church will mistreat its next pastor.”

How can a church prevent this revolving door syndrome?  Both Crockett and I agree that the perpetrators must be given a choice: repent of your sinful actions or leave the fellowship.  Yet Crockett writes:

“Because few churches exercise church discipline, pastor abusers are rarely held accountable for their actions.  This emboldens them to keep attacking God’s shepherds, knowing that no one will challenge their despicable behavior.  Eventually someone must take a stand against the abusers and hold them accountable, or their attacks will never end.  Church discipline is essential is we’re ever going to solve the pastor abuser problem.”

There are times when I feel like I’m talking to myself about this issue, but as soon as I get together with other believers – whether they’re family members or old friends – they’ll immediately start telling me about a conflict that devastated their church years ago, or one they’re going through right now, or one they sense is coming.

Then they’ll tell me about a pastor or staff member who left church ministry … and about family members who have quit going to church altogether … and sometimes they’ll admit that they’ve quit going to church as well.

How can Christians remain silent about this issue?

If we want Christ’s kingdom to expand … if we want our churches to grow … if we believe that Christians should attend and stay in local congregations … then shouldn’t we do all we can to prevent pastors and Christians from leaving the church altogether?

I’m willing to speak up … how about you?

I’ll write more about Kent Crockett’s book Pastor Abusers next time.

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’ve been thinking a lot lately about a term … but I don’t know how it made its way into my head.

The term is “institutional truth.”  (If you can find a clear definition of the term, please send it to me.)

This term provides a partial explanation as to why some churches end up treating their pastors – and sometimes other employees – so poorly.

To illustrate this idea properly, let me share with you a story that happened more than two decades ago to a pastor I once knew.  (I will use aliases throughout this story.)

Pastor John and his wife were called to Trinity Church, a church that had been declining for some time.  Through John’s preaching and personal charisma, Trinity began to grow at a rapid rate.  In fact, news of Trinity’s growth spread to the church where I was serving, which was several hours away.

One summer, I was attending a Christian conference back east, and when I picked up my rental car, I saw Pastor John and his wife at another rental counter … but all the cars had been rented.  I immediately introduced myself to them and offered to drive them to the conference.

During the two-hour drive to conference headquarters, we became fast friends.

While driving, I casually mentioned my interest in pastoral termination and church conflict.  John and his wife seemed intrigued by some of the ideas that I shared with them.

We saw each other several other times during the conference, and I sensed I had developed an ongoing friendship with this couple.

Not long afterwards, I heard rumblings that all was not well at John’s church.  Some of the pioneers were beginning to complain loudly that they didn’t like John or the way he did things, even though both attendance and giving had significantly improved.  These complaints begin making their way to other churches … including the one that I served as pastor.

One day, I visited our district office, and a secretary told me all about the conflict from her perspective.  Her view was that Pastor John was causing trouble in that church … which she used to attend.  The evidence?

Her friends were upset.

Back at my church, a board member named Harry had a different take on the conflict.  He was good friends with Don – a board member from the “troubled” church – and Don fully supported his pastor.

One night, at a board meeting at Trinity, Pastor John arrived to find the district minister sitting across the table from him.  The district minister had been meeting with Trinity’s board members who all wanted their pastor removed from office.

Someone pushed a letter of termination in front of the pastor’s face.  The letter demanded that Pastor John resign immediately, turn in his keys, clear out his office, and never set foot on the property again.

Pastor John told me later that he stared at the letter for 45 minutes before reluctantly signing it.

However, there is more to the story … because the board waited until Don was away and absent before they staged their coup.

When Don found out what happened – and that the district minister was involved in pushing out his pastor – Don and many of his church friends were extremely upset.  They thought the church was going well!

Over the next several months, I was visited by Pastor John, Don, and Stan, a Trinity member who had moved into our neighborhood.  Stan wanted to find out if there was a connection between the district office and the church office, so he filed a lawsuit to find out the truth.

Oh, my.

I spoke with all the parties involved, trying to understand the conflict better.  (I had no official role except as a pastor interested in resolving the conflict.)

I knew and liked the district minister … and the district’s attorney … and Pastor John … and Don, the board member who didn’t attend that infamous meeting.

I also knew a lot about what happened at that meeting because Don began sending me and his friend Harry official board documents … including the minutes of the meeting where the pastor was terminated.  (And I still have them.)

Both sides had made mistakes, but neither side would admit them … and some information going out about the conflict publicly consisted of outright falsehoods.

I witnessed institutional truth up close and personal, and I did not like what I saw.  Here is what I learned:

First, institutional leaders almost never admit they’ve made any mistakes.  The board at Trinity did wait until Don was absent before removing their pastor … and they did involve the district minister … and they did concoct some deceptive explanations when they made their announcement about the pastor’s departure the following Sunday.

I am not in a position to say that they purposely lied about anything … but I never heard anyone from the district’s side acknowledge that they had committed any errors.

In Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie – a book I’ve read several times – his closing chapter states that government institutions (and he uses the military as an example) never admit that they’ve done anything wrong, even when they’re caught red-handed.  In fact, we’re seeing this principle at work right now in our own government with several scandals that have just been revealed.

Why is this?  Because it is the job of institutional leaders to advance the mission of their organization and defend it at all costs … and if they publicly admit they’ve done something wrong, they’re afraid they’ll lose people’s confidence and (a) donations will take a hit, and (b) they’ll be reprimanded, disciplined, or even removed from office.

But if God is a forgiving God … and His grace covers all our sins … then why can’t Christian leaders admit that they make mistakes?   Doesn’t the gospel apply to leaders as well as non-leaders?

Second, institutional leaders prefer to blame problems on convenient scapegoats.  When Don revealed that the church board had aligned themselves with the district office to push out his pastor, Don became the scapegoat instead.

He was blamed for all kinds of things, and because he held a national office with the denomination, attempts were made to remove him from office.

Most pastors and church leaders lined up behind the district office, which resulted in attempts to discredit Don.

And I got caught in the crossfire, too.

Harry, the board member from my church who was friends with Don, went to the district minister and told him to his face that he never should have been involved in removing his successor.  I told my district minister the same thing, only in a much kinder way.

I wasn’t trying to remove him from office … after all, every leader makes mistakes … but I couldn’t play political games and act like it was all Pastor John’s fault, either.

Pastor John undoubtedly made some errors in judgment as well, especially when he sent a letter to every church in the district insinuating that the district minister was corrupt.  But the district minister was a good man not normally given to playing politics, and I felt that John’s letter went too far.

Third, institutional leaders who do not support their institution 100% are considered subversive.  I could not support the district minister’s actions completely.  Know why?  Because Trinity was the church he had pastored for several decades!

And I believe that it is unethical for a pastor to become involved in removing his successor.

Because I questioned the actions of the district minister, I was branded by some as being disloyal to the district … and some people wrote me off from that moment on.

It’s not that I was disloyal to the district office – it’s that I was more loyal to the truth.

Some top-level leaders felt that since I wasn’t vocally supportive of the district minister, that meant I was standing behind Pastor John instead.

And they especially felt that way when Pastor John quoted from a study I had done about pastors leaving our district.

Since I was becoming persona non grata inside our district, I called the President of our denomination and told him what happened from my perspective.

He told me that I hadn’t done anything wrong … and that he was good friends with Pastor John and felt he was being unfairly blamed for things he didn’t do!

This was the point at which I asked myself:

Must I look the other way and remain silent when I see wrongdoing?

Must I tow the party line and cast blame on people that I think have legitimate complaints?

Must I support an institution completely even when I believe its leaders have done something wrong?

Must I view every conflict through institutional eyes …  or am I allowed to view conflicts through biblical eyes?

In my opinion, I was asked – along with many other pastors and church leaders – to believe in institutional truth … which states:

*Those who lead the institution are always right.

*Those who criticize the institution in any way are always wrong.

*Those who fail to protect and advance the institution will be ignored, slandered, or intimidated.

*While it is never permissible for an individual to criticize the institution, it is permissible for the institution to criticize and even destroy its critics.

What do you think of this idea of “institutional truth?”

How have you seen it play out in your church, denomination, or even your company?

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Of making many books there is no end … Ecclesiastes 12:13

Several years ago, a few days after leaving my last pastoral ministry, I spoke on the phone with a Christian attorney who was assisting me with some documentation.

During our conversation, I mentioned to him that I planned to write a book about the events surrounding my departure from the church.

He offered one short phrase in counsel: “Just make sure you tell the truth.”

With my recently-published book Church Coup, I did my best to tell the truth from my perspective.

Let me ask and answer three questions about the writing of the book:

1.  How did people react when you told them you were writing a book?

I received so many different reactions:

*Skepticism.  Most of us have a hard time believing that anyone we know would become a published author, so some people said, “That’s nice” or “Send me a copy when you’re done” – but they weren’t sure I’d ever finish.

However, because anyone can self-publish nowadays, that book can be published … you just have to pay for the privilege.

*Discouragement.  One Christian leader – whom I greatly admire – told me candidly that if I wrote a book on the forced termination of pastors, it wouldn’t sell.

To verify that, a Christian literary agent told me that a major Christian publisher turned down an offer by a bestselling Christian author to write a similar book years ago.  He also told me my book was too long.  (So I cut it from 450 pages to 290.)

*Competitiveness.  I told one Christian leader that I was writing a book … and he proceeded to tell me about a book he had written that sells 5,000 copies every year.

I liked the attitude of another leader better.  When I told him about my book, he told me about a book he had written about an issue in his family … and offered to give me one from the trunk of his car.

*Encouragement.  One Sunday morning at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, my wife and I stopped after the service to chat with Dr. Mark Moore, who had just become the church’s teaching pastor.  When I told Dr. Moore about the book, he asked me to send him a copy when it was finished.  I felt inspired after talking with him.

But the greatest encouragement I’ve received came ten years ago from Dr. Archibald Hart from Fuller Seminary – one of my very few Christian heroes.  (I keep a framed copy of the comments he made on the post-seminar paper I submitted for his class.)  When I wrote in that paper that I felt compelled by God to write, he jotted down, “I’ll be praying that God will not release you from these commitments!”

What’s interesting to me is that many people from my previous church knew that I was writing a book – I announced it repeatedly for months  and even released a few excerpts on this blog – but no one ever asked me not to write anything.

2.  Why did you write on the forced termination of pastors?

*Because I felt compelled by God to write it.  Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:17-18).  I’m not sure what he did there or how he lived, but God used that time to prepare Paul for greater ministry.

In the same way, Church Coup was written almost exclusively in several desert locations.  The Lord gave me time to pray, reflect, and work in relative solitude.  I could not have written any book if I was still pastoring.

*Because I wanted to bring meaning to my father’s death.  There is a sense in which a particular church killed my father, who resigned his position as pastor in June 1965.  He died on February 9, 1967 – more than 46 years ago – after several months of suffering from pancreatic cancer.  He went through such a horrendous conflict in that church for two years that I believe the stress compromised his immune system.

My wife never met her father-in-law.  My kids never met their grandfather.  My sister barely remembers her own dad.  But I will never forget him … and I want what happened to him to help others, which is why Chapter 12 begins with his story.

*Because I’ve cared deeply about the forced termination of pastors for decades.  35 years ago, I served as youth pastor in a church in SoCal that voted their pastor out of office.  Although I was not integrally involved in the conflict, I was lobbied by both sides, and I watched in disbelief as Christians acted like the world they were supposedly trying to convert.

Since then, I’ve collected books on the topic, spent countless hours discussing the problem with pastoral colleagues (and anyone who would listen), and thought long and hard about how pastor-board/congregation impasses should be handled.  In fact, 25 years ago, a Christian attorney and I began writing an article on how these situations could be addressed in an optimal way.  While I still have the article, we never published it.

*Because I did my doctoral work on church antagonism.  I had already read scores of books and articles for my dissertation, so why not build on what I had already done?

*Because I wanted to give meaning to a conflict I experienced firsthand.  With my background and passion for the issue of forced termination, how could I not write about it when I went through the experience myself?  Through the years, God has uniquely prepared me to write about this single issue.  If I died today, at least I’ve left behind something that might help Christian leaders and churches in the future.

I’ve asked myself, “What have I learned by going through this crisis?  How can I help other pastors, governing leaders, and congregations?  How can we handle these tragedies in a more biblical manner?”

3.  What kind of reactions do you hope the book inspires?

Some people have already read the book and shared with me their feelings of anger, sadness, empathy, and horror.  I dare not try and program people’s responses, but my prayer is that readers might sense:

*Humility.  During a conflict, it’s okay to disagree with others.  It’s okay to hold firmly to a position.  But too many people in a conflict quickly demonize those who disagree with them … and that attitude leads to destruction.

Humility means there’s a possibility that I’m wrong … or that I may have exaggerated wrongdoing in others … or that I may have overreacted to protect my image or my feelings.

And more than anything, humility may mean that I need to break from the party line and admit, “I crossed some spiritual and moral lines during this conflict.  Please forgive me.”

I pray that all of us – including me – can say to the Lord, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24).

*Change.  In the book, I try and challenge some of the conventional wisdom about conflicts in churches when it doesn’t square with Scripture.

The old paradigm said that if a few people charged a pastor with wrongdoing – especially members of the church board – then the pastor should automatically resign to keep the church united.

But then I read that Jesus was accused of wrongdoing all the time, but He didn’t resign as Messiah.  And Paul was incessantly criticized by the church in Corinth, but he kept on serving faithfully.

In fact, while reading the Bible, I discovered that Moses, Jesus and Paul constantly responded to their critics and stayed in their positions rather than walking away from God’s call.

Of course, there is a time when a pastor should leave a church – and it’s not always when the pastor wants to go.  But if and when that ever happens, it must be handled in a Christian manner – with grace, truth, humility – and especially redemption.

And when people attempt to push out their pastor, they may not be doing the work of God.

*Wisdom.  I subtitled the book A Cautionary Tale so that the reader can learn from both the wise and foolish decisions that were made during the conflict.  And I quoted multiple times from the best congregational conflict experts possible.  Since there’s little in print on the issue of forced termination, I wanted to make a small contribution to the literature on the subject.

I’ve preached hundreds of sermons, many of them on cassettes that I’ve stuffed into boxes in my garage.  Nobody has ever asked to listen to even one of them.

But maybe through this book, the church of Jesus Christ can make some small headway in combatting this plague of forced termination in our churches.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  Romans 14:19

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Out of the 269 articles I’ve posted on this blog, a few stand out in my mind because they challenge conventional wisdom.  That’s certainly true of this article from nearly two years ago:

(The following post is meant to be interactive.  Along the way, I have included some questions that I’d like you to 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 congregational 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 decisions 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 against Jesus 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 difficult accusations against Christian leaders – especially 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 needed to choose 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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