Archive for September, 2014

I sensed God calling me into pastoral ministry at age 19.

There was nothing else I wanted to do with my life except study, preach, and love God’s people.

And back in the mid-1970s, there was far more expected of a pastor than there is today.

Pastors attended or taught an adult Sunday School class … preached at Sunday morning worship … preached at Sunday evening worship … and taught a midweek Bible study … on top of all their other duties.

The consensus back then was that if God called you to church ministry, He called you for life … and if you tried to leave the pastorate, you’d be severely criticized.

One time, a colleague left church ministry to do something else, and my district minister scowled and muttered, “God calls a pastor for life.”

But a set of alarming statistics about pastors are screaming at God’s people right now.  Let me share just two of them with you.

The first statistic comes from Gary Pinion’s book Crushed: The Perilous Side of Ministry and makes me want to weep.  He writes:

“Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.  Ninety percent of pastors said their seminary or Bible school training did only a fair to poor job preparing them for ministry.”

When I became a solo pastor in 1981, I hit a crisis 18 months into my ministry that made me feel like quitting.  But God had called me to pastoral ministry, and I was determined to fulfill my calling.

But evidently many rookie staff and pastors are leaving ministry far sooner than they ever expected.

The second statistic is one I read for the first time last week.  It’s from J. R. Briggs’ book Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure:

“For every 20 pastors who go into ministry only one retires from the ministry.”

In other words, only 5% of all pastors will begin and end their career in a local church.

Who is to blame for this situation?  The pastors themselves?  Church boards?  Congregations?  Denominations?  All of the above?

Let me share three prescriptions for this sad state-of-affairs:

First, Christian leaders need to put together formal training and support groups for pastors’ wives.

My wife Kim didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife.  She wanted to be a missionary.  But because she loved me, she was willing to set aside her own dream.

And when I became a pastor, she threw herself into church ministry as a volunteer.

Kim bought a host of books on how to be a pastor’s wife because there weren’t any mentors nearby.  (She eventually junked them all and said, “I’m just going to be myself.”)

When I was stressed at church, I would come home and share my concerns with my wife, but who did she have to share her stresses with?

Many men end up leaving pastoral ministry because their wives are tired of sharing their husbands with an institutional mistress, and because they cannot endure how often dysfunctional church life invades their home.

Every pastor’s wife wants to know that she and their children are more important than the church, and if push comes to shove, that her husband will choose his family over the church.

But if the pastor chooses the church over his wife, she may (a) quit going to church, (b) threaten divorce, or (c) find someone else.

I believe that many men are leaving church ministry because their wives are extremely unhappy about what ministry is doing to their family.

How can we rectify this?

Second, pastors need better training on preventing, managing, and resolving conflict.

Why are pastors leaving church ministry?  In their book Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry, Hoge and Wenger write that conflict is first on the list:

“… ministers are experiencing a lack of support and support systems, especially when they are coping with conflicts.  They are well aware that parish ministry is fraught with conflict, and they expect to deal with a host of different opinions, ideas, and ways of doing things in their congregations.  But what they are not prepared for is the lack of support they find when they come under serious attack by congregational factions or families or are falsely accused of misconduct.  Some have felt betrayed by a church hierarchy that seems to show favoritism or ignore destructive behavior by other ministers or officials.”

The seminary that I graduated from does not offer core courses on congregational conflict, yet if the statistics are accurate, the great majority of its graduates will leave church ministry due to their inability to handle conflict.

And because pastors haven’t been trained in conflict management, they are unable to train their board members, staff members, leaders, or congregations as well.

So when conflict breaks out in a church – as it always will – neither the pastor nor the leaders have been trained on how to handle matters biblically … which may result in the pastor’s expulsion and the church’s devastation.

I recently asked a top church conflict expert what is being done to prevent major conflicts in churches.  He told me that he just launched a program along this line.  Good for him … but he’s rare.

I believe that most pastors think they know how to handle conflict … until they are personally attacked or falsely accused … and then they fall apart.  They don’t realize that nearly every conflict in a church ultimately involves the pastor.

Until Christian churches recognize and address this issue, we’re going to lose more and more pastors.

How can we rectify this?

Finally, churches need to do all they can to prevent pastoral burnout.

Pastors are experiencing burnout at a rapid rate.  Burnout is not first a physical or spiritual issue, but is primarily an emotional problem.

Toward the end of my last ministry, I was told by a Christian counselor … after extensive testing … “You’re severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

At the time, I castigated myself for letting things get to that point.  I was angry for allowing burnout to pursue and tackle me.

I had a daily quiet time with the Lord.  I exercised vigorously five or six times a week.  I went on regular dates with my wife and took all my vacation time.

But in my case, I burned out because:

*I did not know how to work with business-oriented board members.

*I felt that my ministry was being evaluated solely by the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash.

*I tried to lead a building campaign and earn a Doctor of Ministry degree … simultaneously.

*I was the sole caregiver for my wife for many weeks when she had medical procedures and surgeries … and I tried to work at the same time.

*I could sense that my ministry was being undermined, but I tried to ignore it and remain above it all.  Mistake!

I don’t believe that burnout happens to pastors because they work too many hours.

I believe that pastors burn out because of the intensity of ministry … going from crisis to crisis … and because pastors don’t believe they’re allowed to make any mistakes.

Pastors who burn out must share some of the responsibility for their condition, but the truth is that churches tend to stand by and watch their pastors burn out without offering any kind of intervention.

During my last pastorate, right before my burnout diagnosis, it was obvious that I wasn’t myself.  I lost my drive and energy … began to isolate myself from people … and became uncharacteristically irritable.

I longed for one leader to ask me, “Jim, you don’t seem like yourself.  Is everything all right?  How can we pray for you and assist you?”

Is that an unreasonable desire?

But that kind of compassion and understanding never came.  I felt like the church was content to squeeze every last drop of energy from me before casting me onto the scrap heap.

I tried to talk to several leaders, but they offered zero assistance.  They could not relate to what I was going through.  (I’m not trying to blame anyone … just share how I felt.)

What could I have done differently?  To this day, I don’t know.

Thousands of pastors will quit church ministry in the next year because of burnout.  The problem is not just personal … it’s also institutional.

Pastors are breaking down not only because of their own internal expectations, but because they tend to absorb the expectations of everyone in the church … and that’s just lunacy.

How can we rectify this?

I wanted to be in church ministry until retirement age, but I only made it 36 years.  At first, I felt that I had failed, until I looked around and realized that 36 years wasn’t too bad.

Caring for pastors’ wives … providing better conflict training … and encouraging churches to do what they can to prevent pastoral burnout.

Those three prescriptions will go a long way toward helping pastors stay in ministry much longer.








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Pastor John came to Calvary Church fifteen years ago.

The ministry went very well.  Unbelievers become believers.  Believers became devoted disciples.  The church built a new worship center and positively impacted its community for Jesus.

Then one day, Pastor John came to a board meeting where the chairman announced, “We’ve decided to make a change.  We want you to resign.  If you sign this agreement, we’ll give you three months of severance pay.  If you don’t sign, you’ll be fired and get nothing.  Your choice.”

Stunned and frightened, Pastor John signed.

Five years later, Pastor John still doesn’t feel right about what happened.

He never heard from the board why they felt he should be removed from office.  While he’s heard rumors, he doesn’t know the truth … and it bothers him … a lot.

On top of that, John’s relationships with each of the board members ended that night.  He never saw or heard from them again.

If the board had told John what he’d done wrong, John could have admitted his errors, asked for forgiveness, and reconciled with every person around that table.

Even now, John would like to reconcile with them, but he senses it’s too late.

Why do terminated pastors and the boards that dismissed them rarely reconcile?

First, many Christians view the pastor-board relationship as an employee-employer relationship.

Let’s say there’s a small business owner named Brad on the board.  Brad hires a young man from the church named Ralph to help him part-time.

But after a few weeks, Brad doesn’t feel that Ralph is working out, so Brad fires him.

When Ralph sees Brad at church, he avoids him because he feels that Brad doesn’t like or respect him.  And after a few months of dodging, Ralph leaves the church.

Brad doesn’t feel the need to chase after Ralph.  He hired him … fired him … and that’s business.

In the same way, many church boards conclude, “We’re not removing our pastor because we don’t like him personally.  We’re removing him because he’s not doing the job.  That’s business.”

But in this case, the pastor believed he was doing the job, and since nobody on the board ever spoke to him about his performance, he has the right to wonder if his dismissal was personal.

And if it was, he wants the opportunity to make things right.

Second, decision-making groups almost never admit they make mistakes.

When church boards make a unanimous decision … even when it’s wrong … they’re going to defend their decision until Jesus returns.

Because if one person admits they were wrong, that makes everybody else on the board wrong as well … and nobody wants to indict their colleagues.

However, I do believe that individual board members may later regret their decision to terminate a pastor … or the way they chose to dismiss him.

A friend once told me that his father – a church board member – voted to terminate his pastor … and that his decision haunted his dad for the rest of his life.

My guess is that there are thousands of current and former board members who regret their decision to force out their pastor … but it’s rare for them to do anything about it.

A megachurch pastor once told me that four staff members tried to force him from office.  When their plot failed, they all resigned.

The pastor didn’t hear from any of those staff members for years.

Then one day … seven years later, as I recall … the pastor received a letter of apology in the mail from one of the staffers.

Sadly, that’s probably the best that can be expected.

Third, the composition of church boards changes all the time.

Steve, Dave, Bill, Ron, and Doug were all members of the board that pushed out Pastor John.

But the following year, Steve and Dave went off the board, and two new members took their place.

The next year, Bill moved away, and someone took his place as well.

So after five years, it’s possible that the board members that dismissed Pastor John either aren’t board members any more, or that they all live in different locales.

Because they’re no longer an entity … even if the Holy Spirit convicted each of them of sin … how could they reconvene to make things right?

They would no longer be authorized to speak for the church … just for themselves.

This wouldn’t prevent Doug, for example, from contacting Pastor John and saying, “I was wrong to remove you from office.  Please forgive me.”

But how could Doug admit that he did wrong without indicting his fellow board members?

When Pastor Guy Greenfield wrote letters to those who tried to destroy his ministry, not one person … including any of the board members … contacted him to apologize for the way they drove him out of their church.  (He recounts this story in his book The Wounded Minister.)  He reached out for reconciliation, but nobody was interested.

This was the case as well for J. R. Briggs in his new book Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure.  When he tried to reconcile with the elders who had hastened his departure two years before, nobody was interested in admitting they had made any errors.  In fact:

Fourth, the positions of many board members harden over time.

In the case of Pastor Briggs, he just wanted to leave and start a new church … and was ordered not to do so by the elders.

(This is absolutely ridiculous.  Once Pastor Briggs had left, he was free in the Lord to start a church anywhere he liked.  The board could have negotiated any concerns they had with Pastor Briggs’ plan instead of forbidding him to plant a church … which he went out and did anyway because once he resigned, those elders no longer had any authority over him.)

In fact, one of the pastors told Pastor Briggs “that leaving the church and starting ours was sinful – and that God would, as a result, continue to limit my small ministry, possibly for decades into the future.  He said my ministry and our church were illegitimate and dishonoring to God.”  (That’s the scarcity theory in action.)

Pastor Briggs hoped that after two years, the position taken by church leaders would have softened.  Instead, their position seems to have hardened.

We all have what’s called “the self-justifying bias.”  This means, “If I say it, it’s right.  If I do it, it’s right.  If I decide it, it’s right.”

But there are objective standards of right and wrong when it comes to pastoral termination found in:

*The New Testament, especially Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Timothy 5:19-21.

*The church’s governing documents … the constitution and bylaws.

*Federal and state laws as they apply to firing an employee … as well as offenses like slander, libel, and the violation of privacy.

As long as board members continue to remain friendly with one another, the chances are near zero that any of them will ever admit they did anything wrong.

If anybody tries to point out any errors they made, they would simply close ranks and defend the group’s decision to the hilt.

Finally, nobody wants errors long covered up to be exposed.

Someday, I would love to do a research project by interviewing church board members who were involved in terminating their pastor.

My guess is that in most cases, the board violated one, two, or all of the objective standards for termination mentioned above.

If that’s the case, how likely is it that anybody from that board would want to reexamine how they handled the termination process?

They wouldn’t.

Their attitude would be, “That happened a long time ago.  Let’s all move on and let God sort it out.”

Of course, that sentiment wouldn’t work in the business world, but it seems to work wonders in the Christian community.

When an ex-pastor believes that the church board violated him in the way they terminated him, all he can do is forgive the board unilaterally.

Nobody will make any arrangements for reconciliation years later because nobody wants to admit that they did anything wrong … or anything worthy of forgiveness.

It’s all too uncomfortable.


Jesus and Peter split before the cross, but reconciled after the cross.

Paul and Barnabas split over John Mark, but reconciled later.

Christians sometimes don’t get along and split up.  It’s regrettable, but it happens.

But shouldn’t they at least desire to reconcile … especially if they are Christian leaders?

If Christian leaders refuse to reconcile, what hope is there for reconciliation among Christian workers … divorced Christians … estranged parents/children … and believing friends?

What are your thoughts about this issue?










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I’m reading a new book by J. R. Briggs called Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure and enjoying the author’s insights on matters like shame, loneliness, wounds, and recovery for pastors in church ministry.

The author tells his own story of (perceived) ministry failure, and it’s worth recounting for a moment.

After graduating from a Christian college, J. R. and his wife moved to Colorado Springs – the evangelical Vatican, he calls it – and eventually was hired to pastor a group of young adults at the second largest church in the city.  Not only did J. R. see numerical growth under his leadership … he had also written three books before he turned 28.

Several years later, a senior pastor named Gary from a megachurch in the Philadelphia area asked J. R. if he might have an interest in starting an alternative service for younger adults like he was doing in Colorado Springs.  Pastor Gary told J. R. that he was planning on retiring in a few years and was looking to groom a younger pastor to replace him.

So J. R. and his wife Megan left Colorado and moved to Philadelphia.  J. R.’s ministry in the church of 3,000 members went very well.  He received opportunities to preach on occasion, and did so well that some on the staff called him “Golden Boy.”

But J. R. and his wife came to believe that God did not want him to become the senior pastor of a megachurch.

Several months later, Pastor Gary and the elders engaged in a “messy struggle.”  J. R. writes, “After twenty years of ministry he left, causing confusion, anger and hurt within the congregation.”

J. R. was invited to attend the next elder meeting, and in the process, he told the elders that “I knew that Gary was grooming me to become his successor, but I was not interested in taking the position.”

But the elders claimed they knew nothing about this succession plan … and said that if it were up to church leaders, they never would have hired J. R. at all.

That knowledge pushed J. R. and his wife “over the edge.”  Megan stopped attending services.

Because they didn’t feel they fit with the vision of the church, J. R. felt that God was releasing him to leave and plant a church in the Philadelphia area.  He approached the elders who disagreed and said “that we were not to do this and that it would be sin to pursue church planting in the region.”

J. R. adds, “Accusations, misunderstandings, threats and ultimatums were made, further solidifying and affirming the fact that we could not stay.”  The elders then told J. R. that if he planted a church in the region, they would terminate his employment within the week.

J. R. and his wife still believed that God wanted them to plant a church in the Philadelphia area.

The senior leaders then declared publicly that J. R. was leading a church split even though he just wanted to leave quietly without stealing any sheep.

Two years to the day after he was hired, J. R. and his wife left their church home for good.  J. R. and his wife lost a dream … trust in church leadership … local friends … their home (which they were forced to sell) … his salary … and financial security.

He writes, “My soul was bludgeoned, dumped in the back alley and left in the dark.”

While raising support and assembling a core group, J. R. and his wife received anonymous hate mail from people at his former church for over a year … including non-anonymous letters from one elder’s wife.


Two years after he left, J. R. believed that he was healthy enough to reach out and try and reconcile with the former leaders of the church.  He wanted to talk through what happened … and the elders accepted his invitation.

J. R. asked if each party could share how they truly felt.  He writes:

“The anger had not been tempered.  One of the pastors told me that leaving the church and starting ours was sinful – and that God would, as a result, continue to limit my small ministry, possibly for decades into the future.  He said my ministry and our church were illegitimate and dishonoring to God.”


After all the hurt J. R. and his wife had endured in that church, how wise was it for him to call a meeting and attempt reconciliation with that church’s former leaders?

I’m going to address this particular issue in my next blog post, but I’d like to ask you to think about the answer to this one question … maybe this weekend:

Why is it nearly impossible for former pastors and church boards to reconcile either personally or professionally?

Here is that next post:



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Someone recently sent me a notice stating that a church volunteer who worked with youth had been arrested for having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a minor.

The person who sent me the notice knows both the church and the volunteer and said that a key staff member had been warned about this particular volunteer but chose to take no action.

Every church deals with potential intruders that violate healthy boundaries.  In his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke lists the following common boundary violations in churches:

*accusing someone without reasonable cause or without initially talking to the accused

*disregarding guidelines, policies, and procedures

*humiliating people publicly or privately

*using verbal pressure to intimidate

*holding others hostage by threats or demands

*enlisting others to attend secret meetings

*labeling others with emotionally-packed words

*speaking on behalf of others, as if they know what the other is thinking

*telling different accounts or sharing different information, depending upon the hearers

*attaching fear to issues to control others

These behavioral “viruses” are constantly trying to invade congregations, which is why every church needs a strong immune system.

Steinke writes:

“Everyone’s body is equipped with proof of identity – that is, cells in our body have the same chemical combinations.  It’s as if they wear identical costumes.  Viruses also have a distinct chemical costume.  The immune system keeps cells that are bona fide residents separate from illegal aliens.  In immunology terminology, the immune system learns to distinguish ‘self’ from ‘nonself.’  Once an intruder is spotted, the immune system compares it against the rogues’ gallery of known pathogens.  If tipped off by resemblances, the immune system arrests and eliminates the intruder.  Sorting out self from nonself, the immune system says: ‘Red blood cells, good guys.  Skin cells, part of us.  Okay.  Virus … no good.  Toe.  Keep.'”

Steinke says that just as we find intruders in the human body, so we find intruders in churches:

“Lacking self-regulation, these individuals may act where they have no authority, say things that have no ground in truth, complain to everyone else except those who can do something about the situation, or place themselves in a position to control the nomination process.”

Steinke then compares the body’s immune system to immune systems in churches.  Usually the immune system is composed of a few key leaders who:

*serve as sentinels and provide the frontline of defense.

*sense when something is out of balance or troubling.

*see things firsthand and possess knowledge not widely known.

*realize that if something isn’t done, the church could pay a heavy price.

*constitute the “first responders” and sometimes must work hard for others to believe them.

After 36 years in church ministry, I’ve discovered that a congregation’s immune system may reside inside:

*the pastor.

This is especially true when a church is small.

During my first nine years as a pastor, when the church body was invaded by a violator, I was usually the one who initially addressed the issue and sought the help of other leaders.  While I didn’t like dealing with invaders, I knew what could happen if someone in authority failed to act as an immune system.

Most pastors cannot function as an immune system by themselves, but they may be the only ones who can point out the violations and the dangers of not acting.

*the official church board.

Most churches are as healthy as their boards.

In one church I pastored, the chairman and I made joint decisions on how to handle intrusions, and the church stayed healthy for years.

In another church I pastored, the chairman didn’t work with me.  One time, we had an inappropriate intrusion into our body, and I asked the chairman to write a letter and deal with the issue.  The letter he wrote was so incoherent that it wasn’t sent … and the body quickly became ill.

*a staff member.

I know a megachurch where a single staff member serves as the immune system for the entire staff.  He stays in touch with everyone … investigates any charges against staff members … and has earned the authority to make decisions regarding staff.  Not surprisingly, he’s been the pastor’s right-hand man for years.

*an individual of great wisdom and stature.

If someone had asked me during my last pastorate where the church’s immune system was located, I would have said, “The church board.”  And for much of my time there, that’s where the immune system was located.

But it took me a long time to realize that one individual in particular (a former board member I’ll call Robert) really activated the immune system.

One time, I was having trouble with a staff member who was resisting making changes we had both agreed upon.  The staff member was engaged in passive-aggressive behavior and modeling resistance.  It looked like an invasion of the body was imminent.

I called upon Robert, and we worked together to bring the body back to health.  But I couldn’t have done it alone … and he probably could have done it by himself!

But when Robert and his wife moved away, he took the church’s immune system with him, and the body was ripe for invasion.

It’s not any fun being a key part of a church’s immune system.  Dealing with invasions of the body is a behind the scenes, thankless task.

But every healthy church has a healthy immune system, usually composed of several individuals.

Who composes the immune system in your church?




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Most churchgoers have no idea what really goes on behind-the-scenes at the average church.  What really happens in meetings of the board and staff?  How many decisions are really made on the basis of Scripture and prayer?  How do the key leaders really behave when they’re immersed in a crisis?

When I first joined a church staff – and later when I became a pastor – I was horrified at how many decisions in a church were made on the basis of politics, pure and simple.  I was shocked because I thought Christian leaders would make spiritual decisions rather than political ones.  While I have been in churches where the leaders truly “walked the walk” in every situation, I have also been in churches where the leaders seem to forget they’re in a church.

The best illustration in the Bible of politics in action occurs when the Sanhedrin sent Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.  Let me share with you five political strategies that Pilate used that I have seen used in local churches:

First, politicians succumb to outside pressure.  When Jesus was first brought before Pilate, the Jewish leaders accused Him of “subverting our nation.  He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2).  In other words, Jesus was accused of trying to overthrow Rome.  But after Pilate initially questioned Jesus, he told His accusers, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4).  And yet, when Jesus’ countrymen continued to accuse Him of stirring up the people, Pilate lost his nerve and backed down.

In my first pastorate, the board chairman asked me to take action over a theological issue involving two of his family members.  After I researched the issue, I presented relevant materials to the board in a three-hour meeting, after which we made a unanimous decision.  When I tried to explain our decision to the family members, they threatened to leave the church and demanded a personal apology.  When I asked the board for support, they flipped on me and told me to apologize, but I refused.  I reminded them that we had made a decision together based on Scripture, but that didn’t matter to them.

While politicians wilt when pressured, spiritual leaders stand strong.

Second, politicians avoid the tough calls.  Dr. Luke tells us that when Pilate heard that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent Jesus to see the ruler of Galilee, King Herod, who was visiting the Holy City for Passover.  Pilate hoped that Herod would make a decision about Jesus’ fate that would take the Roman governor off the hook, but Herod merely ridiculed Jesus and sent him back to Pilate.

I once was informed about some inappropriate material on the social networking site of an important person in my church.  I consulted with that person’s supervisor who promised to address the issue, but months later, the objectionable material was still there.

While a politician prefers not to confront a friend, a spiritual leader seeks that person’s repentance and restoration.

Third, politicians scapegoat innocent people.  Which crimes had Jesus committed against Rome?  He hadn’t committed any.  Pilate twice confessed that Jesus was innocent of all the charges hurled His way (Luke 23:4, 14), but instead of exonerating and then releasing Him, Pilate decided to punish Jesus (by beating) before releasing Him.  Why?  This is what His vocal constituents demanded even though Jesus was blameless before the law.  Rather than declaring Jesus completely innocent, Pilate declared Jesus partly innocent.

I know a church where the pastor resigned because a member of his family was accused of a crime they didn’t commit.  No one in that church moved a finger to right the wrong – until the new pastor came.  When he heard the truth, he arranged for the former pastor to return.  In public, those who falsely accused the pastor admitted their error, the church asked his forgiveness for permitting a grave injustice, and the pastor and church experienced a liberating reconciliation that allowed both parties to move on with God’s blessing.

While politicians apportion blame for conflicts indiscriminately, spiritual leaders apportion blame accurately.

Fourth, politicians don’t seek divine wisdom.  With the Sanhedrin breathing down his neck, Pilate did not seek guidance from Scripture, or a prophet, or prayer.  God tried to speak to him through a dream that He gave Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19), but Pilate brushed off the message.  He was used to making unilateral decisions based on Roman interests + common sense, but both of those touchstones failed him at this juncture.  Had he only looked above instead of around … history might have judged him differently.

I have been all too many board meetings where the board members – who have been chosen primarily because of their walk with God – never even consider consulting God when they get stuck on an issue.  They don’t quote Scripture or turn to key passages.  They don’t stop the meeting to consult with the Lord in prayer.  I have even been in meetings where the meeting wasn’t opened with prayer.  It’s like the Lord isn’t even there.  Board members just discuss issues using worldly wisdom but never truly seek the Lord’s mind on anything.

While politicians consult exclusively with their peers or constituents, spiritual leaders initially seek the Lord’s face on everything.

Finally, politicians want to look good.  They care more about their image than their character.  They care more about how they appear to others than how they appear to God.  John makes a profound statement about many of the Jewish leaders who believed in Jesus but would not confess Him openly: “For they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:43).

Stuart Briscoe from Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin is one of my all-time favorite preachers.  I once heard him make this simple but profound observation: “Most people want to feel good and look good.  They don’t want to be good and do good.”

While politicians are primarily concerned with feeling good and looking good so they can be re-elected, spiritual leaders care more about being good and doing good – even if that means they’re one-termers.

If we’re serious about wanting God’s blessing on our churches, if we truly wish to obey God’s Word, if we want to impact our communities for Jesus, if we want to see revival in our time – then we need to stop making decisions in our churches purely on the basis of politics and start making decisions on the basis of righteousness instead.


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You’re in the fast lane on the freeway.

A car going 25 mph faster than you’re going crosses four lanes and cuts in front of you, forcing you to brake suddenly.

You’re rightfully furious.

How should you handle things?

You’re walking around at home without shoes.

You accidentally stub your toe on an immovable bookcase.

You’re in mortal pain.

How should you handle things?

You’re sitting in a worship service waiting for the pastor to begin preaching.

The pastor announces that a staff member … a close friend of yours … has resigned.

You’re positive she was forced out … and you’re angry.

How should you handle things?

The typical way we humans handle anxiety is to react emotionally.

We swear at the driver who cut us off.

We scream when we stub our toe.

We blurt out, “Noooooooo!” when our friend resigns.

We react automatically … instinctively … reflexively … and immediately.

And often … mindlessly.

God has wired us for self-preservation, so when we feel threatened, or sense that an injustice has been done, we act naturally … and sometimes foolishly.

Several weeks ago, an 18-year-old young man was shot and killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.

Many local residents reacted by protesting and marching … but some … including members of the press … pronounced the policeman guilty even though they have no idea what really happened.

The American justice system does not permit citizens to take justice into their own hands, and for good reason.  Better to let a grand jury hear the evidence and return with a possible indictment several months later.


Because when we’re emotionally reactive, we can’t think straight.  We’re focused on the way we and others feel.  We’re not thinking process … we’re thinking relief.

And reactivity usually leads to greater reactivity … and that’s how wars start.

Several weeks ago, I attended a training session for Bridgebuilder, a church conflict intervention process designed by Dr. Peter Steinke.

During the course of the training, Dr. Steinke made two observations that especially intrigued me.

Observation #1: Steinke said that when a pastor is doing something that bothers or upsets church decision makers, the pastor needs to be confronted and given time to make changes.

(This does not refer to heresy, sexual immorality, or a felony).

How much time?

Steinke says the pastor should be given 12 to 15 months to make changes, and if he hasn’t made them by then, he should be asked to resign.

But in evangelical circles, pastors are often fired outright or asked for their resignation without any kind of formal confrontation and without any corrective process.

Why does this occur so often?

Because the governing leaders … sometimes in collaboration with staff members and/or a faction … can’t tolerate their anxiety.

So they resort to emotional reactivity, and then they’re shocked when the pastor protests his dismissal, or the pastor’s supporters become angry and leave the church en masse.

And when this happens, those same leaders often resort to lying to cover up their mistakes … and to scapegoat the departing pastor.

If the governing leaders of your church want to blow it to smithereens, then force out the pastor without speaking to him directly and without using any kind of deliberate process.

It’s guaranteed: the emotional reactivity of the governing leaders will lead to emotional reactivity in others … and negatively impact your church for years.

Observation #2: Steinke says that when a church is in conflict, he recommends that they engage in a 2-4 month process to work through the issues … which is what Bridgebuilder is all about.

Rather than making instant decisions that will harm many people, it’s crucial that God’s people take time to move from emotional reactivity to rational reflection … as hard as that process may be.

Seventeen years ago, I was pastoring a fantastic church.  Over the previous five years, we had experienced virtually no internal conflict.  If people didn’t like something, they just left.

But we eventually had to move our Sunday service from one location to another five miles away, and in the process, we lost 1/3 of our congregation … and their donations … overnight.

The stress started taking its toll on several leaders who were involved with finances.  A key couple left the church, and soon after, another key couple stayed home one Sunday, which they didn’t normally do.

The uncertainty of our situation made me extremely anxious.  Was our congregation about to unravel?

I confided in a wise Christian leader, and he told me, “Jim, it’s too soon to know what’s going to happen.  You need to let this play out.”

He was right.  The more anxiety I demonstrated, the more anxious I made everybody else.

If you’re experiencing conflict in your church … your workplace … or your home … there are two ways you can manage matters.

You can react instinctively … move quickly … and try and find instant relief.

Or you can respond wisely … devise a deliberate process … and work the process until most people agree upon solutions.

The arrest … trials … passion … and crucifixion of Jesus took less than a total of ten hours.  Those who executed Jesus have been castigated and pilloried for twenty centuries.

If the Jewish and Roman authorities had taken more time, would they be viewed any differently by history?

Think about it.











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How would you like to receive top-notch training from an expert you respect and admire?

That’s what happened to me last week when I flew to Minneapolis and received 14 hours of training in church conflict from veteran congregational consultant Peter Steinke.  He’s the author of several books, including Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, one of my top five favorite books on church conflict.

Steinke has engaged in congregational interventions over 27 years.  He’s been involved with 217 churches/Christian entities encompassing 16 states and 8 denominations.

And from his experiences working with churches, he’s created a process for helping churches in crisis called Bridgebuilder.

Steinke presented case studies … worked his way creatively through a syllabus … and made lots of offhand remarks, many of which I wrote down verbatim.

Here are ten insights concerning church conflict that I found fascinating and that I thought you might benefit from.  They aren’t in any particular order.

Insight #1: “When you replace a music director, you sign your death warrant.”

Why is this?  Because many people become emotionally attached to the staffer who leads them to God’s throne in worship.

And if a pastor or a board tries to force out that person and put someone else in their place, things can become very unpredictable.

Insight #2: “People engage in sabotage when they are losing control.”

How many times have you witnessed this experience?

A board member … staff member … key leader … or opinion maker is unhappy with a decision made by the pastor.  The pastor meets with them … listens to their concerns … explains his position … and concludes the meeting in prayer.

Then that unhappy person immediately goes out and begins to undermine the pastor using threats, demands,  and complaints.


Because the pastor seems to be in control … and the discontented person senses they’re not.

Insight #3: “Getting rid of a pastor won’t solve the [presenting] problem.  The problem is within the system.”

It is common for some people in a church to think, “We’re having problems because of our pastor.  If we get rid of him, this church will be far better off.”

This kind of thinking … borne out of anxiety … is counterproductive.  Many churches have built-in patterns that cause them to go off the tracks.  Those issues must be identified, faced, and resolved.

But if they aren’t, the next pastor … and the next one … and the next … may all be sent packing because the real issues haven’t been addressed.

Insight #4: “Peace is often preferred over justice.”

During a conflict situation, churchgoers just want the conflict to end, even if the pastor … staff members … or others are treated shabbily.

The mature congregation says, “We’re going to aim for justice, so we’re going to devise a process, take some time, and handle this wisely.”

The immature congregation says, “We just want peace, so we’re going to ignore processes, take shortcuts, and get this over with quickly.”

Insight #5: “It’s better for people to leave than go underground.”

When a major conflict surfaces in a church, there are going to be losses in attendance and donations and volunteers, no matter which choices are made.

When people leave the church for good, there is closure for everyone involved, painful though it may be.

But when people start meeting and plotting in secret, they’re prolonging and intensifying the conflict … and there’s going to be some form of implosion.

Insight #6: “The consultant is responsible for the process, not the outcome.”

Steinke says that when prospective congregations ask him about his success rate with interventions, he answers, “100%.”

He believes he’s been successful when he works the process he’s devised, which is his responsibility.

But the outcome of his intervention?  That’s the responsibility of the congregation and its leaders.

For this reason, he doesn’t make recommendations to churches in conflict, but gets them to make their own recommendations.

Insight #7: “The top trigger for conflict is money.”

Steinke says these are the top 7 triggers for conflict in churches: money, sex, pastor’s leadership style, lay leadership style, staff conflict, major traumas/transitions, the change process.

Just my own observation: when money becomes the bottom line in a church, it becomes an idol, and God is relegated to second or seventh or tenth place.

But when God is first, money takes its rightful place.

But when giving goes down … or doesn’t meet budget … some leaders/people become anxious, and instead of turning to God, they try and control the money even more.

The result?


Insight #8: Conflicts in churches increasingly revolve around the change process.

Steinke said that 42 of the last 47 interventions he’s done … nearly 90% … have to do with change.

Many pastors feel that all they have to do is announce a change and it will automatically happen.  Once they’re convinced, they assume others will be as well.

But people need time to process change … ask questions … share feelings … and seek clarification.

When they’re not given those opportunities … conflict results.

Insight #9: During public meetings, there will be no verbal attacking, blaming, or abusing of others tolerated.

During his interventions, Steinke gives church attendees opportunities to speak publicly about how they feel about the conflict.

But they are not allowed to begin their sentences with “You,” but must make “I” statements instead.

If people violate this rule, Steinke reiterates it and expects people to abide by it.

If only we’d had this rule during all those business meetings my churches had over the years …

Insight #10: The consultant focuses on working the process, not on changing others, alleviating their anxiety, or giving them answers.

When Steinke goes into a church situation, he focuses on his role and reactions, not those of others.  He tries to remain a “non-anxious presence.”

Once again, the consultant’s job is not to analyze the church and fix everything, but to work a predetermined process that causes a church’s members to discuss and affect their own outcome.

After attending Bridgebuilder, I am now qualified to offer it to congregations in conflict.  If you know a church that might benefit from this process, please send them my way.

Thank you!









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