Jim Harbaugh is a great football coach.
He’s won everywhere he’s gone as a head coach: the University of San Diego, Stanford University, and the San Francisco 49ers.
And he’s not only won, but quickly turned failing programs around, which is why his alma mater, the University of Michigan, hired him immediately after Harbaugh and the 49ers parted ways.
The 49ers have been my favorite National Football League team since 1981 when quarterback Joe Montana connected with Dwight Clark in the end zone for “The Catch” in the last minute of the NFC title game against the favored Dallas Cowboys.
So I’ve followed Jim Harbaugh’s four years in San Francisco pretty closely.
To put it mildly, Harbaugh is a very intense individual … but he’s also a winner. He took the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl after the team experienced years in the football wilderness.
But the team’s owner and key front office personnel decided they wanted to get rid of Harbaugh months before the 2014 season ended, even though he had an additional year left on his contract. (The 49ers finished 8-8.)
The 49ers just hired a new coach: Jim Tomsula, their defensive line coach. The columnists in the Bay Area are not happy about the hire. In their view, Tomsula is NOT Harbaugh … or even close.
In fact, Tim Kawakami, columnist for the Mercury News in San Jose, recently wrote a column in which he makes the following statement:
“What was the 49ers’ plan here? Now it’s clear: Letting go of Harbaugh was the plan. That’s it: Get rid of the guy who gave them all palpitations. Nothing more. There was no other thought put to this beyond dumping their nemesis and for that they planned and plotted and leaked for months and months.”
Kawakami goes on:
“They knew they wanted Harbaugh out. They knew he was popular. They had to go backwards to figure out WHY they would publicly announce he was out.
-Talk about ‘winning with class’;
-Declare that any season ending without a Lombardi Trophy is a failure and a potential fire-able offense;
-Pretend it was a ‘mutual separation’;
-Let it be known that you’re talking to a lot of great candidates;
-Hire Tomsula, the comfortable in-house candidate who basically is the opposite of Harbaugh in all personal ways, especially in dealing with ownership;
-And, most fatefully of all, communicate to all that you don’t think the coach is that important, anyway.”
Does all of this sound familiar?
When a church’s governing leaders or a powerful faction decide they want to push out a pastor, they usually focus all their energies on getting rid of him.
And in turn, they don’t have much of a plan … if any … as to how the church will fare without him.
Getting rid of him is their goal.
What’s their plan beyond that?
I once attended a spring training baseball game with a friend who served with me on a church board for many years. While talking about church leaders that plot to get rid of their pastor, I asked my friend, “Don’t church boards know how much they will destroy their church when they run off their pastor?”
My friend stated matter-of-factly, “They don’t care.”
In these situations, board members give their best energies to making sure the pastor leaves. But when the dust settles, now they have to:
*Hire an interim pastor.
*Form a search team to find a new senior pastor.
*Placate the departing pastor’s supporters.
*Assign other staff/lay leaders to handle the departing pastor’s work load.
*Address the multitude of complaints that will come their way.
In addition, they’ll have to deal with:
*Reduced attendance as the pastor’s supporters leave.
*Cutting back the number of worship services to hide all the empty chairs.
*Decreased giving as donors walk out the door.
*Keeping the staff intact with that decreased giving.
*Preventing the staff that supported the pastor from leaving.
*Plunging morale as the church gradually enters an entropy phase.
*Answering questions from churchgoers such as, “Why did the departing pastor leave?” and “What’s going to happen to our church?” and “When are we going to get a new pastor?”
The temptation is for the board to blame everything on the departing pastor. After all, he’s not around to defend himself.
But when church boards do this … and all too many do … they can ruin a pastor’s reputation and choke his ability to find a new church ministry … forever.
I’m not arguing that every pastor should stay in a church regardless of his behavior. As I’ve said many times, heresy, sexual immorality, and criminal behavior disqualify a pastor from leadership, and it’s a thankless task to sit on a church board that has to clean up such a theological or moral mess.
But much of the time in churches, the pastor is forced out because he’s earned too much authority for the board and/or staff to control.
Tim Kawakami makes this observation in his article on Harbaugh and the 49ers:
“My point is that [the 49ers’ brain trust] set themselves up for this by treating Jim Harbaugh—and his achievements—as cavalierly as they did all last year and for convincing themselves that there would be no ill effects from it. Wrong.”
A far better solution … one that all too few churches try … is to hire a consultant … or a conflict manager … or a mediator … anyone both the pastor and board can trust … who will help them learn how to work together more favorably.
Rather than forcing out the pastor and sending the church into a descending spiral, wouldn’t it be better for everyone concerned if the board at least tried to bridge their differences with their pastor first?
The future of many pastors and churches is at stake.