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Archive for September, 2015

As I consult with leaders from various churches, I often hear the following question asked:

Since our church has been shrinking numerically for a long time, what can we do to turn things around?

And there’s usually a corollary that goes along with it:

If we dismiss our pastor, will that single action turn around our church?

I explored this issue several months ago in this blog entry:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2015/07/22/when-should-the-pastor-of-a-church-in-steep-decline-leave/

After I wrote the article, I kicked out the following question to my ministry mentor, who seems to know everybody worth knowing in the Christian community:

At what point should the pastor of a church that’s steadily shrinking voluntarily resign or be involuntarily terminated?

I received responses from six top Christian leaders.  These men are consultants, professors, authors, conference speakers, and former denominational leaders.

Here’s a composite of what they wrote … and they copied each other for maximum interaction:

First, a declining church should invite a consultant/interventionist to do a full assessment. 

One expert wrote, “After the assessment, the pathway forward should be clear.”

In one ministry, I invited one of these six men to do a day of workshops on a Saturday just a few months after I became pastor.  We had 43 leaders attend that day, and we made many major decisions soon afterwards that positively impacted our church for years to come.

A consultant can be expensive, but if the pastor and church leaders are willing to consider what he has to say, the consultant can save the church hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars down the road.  It’s usually misplaced pride that keeps a pastor … and a church … from consulting with a seasoned consultant.

Second, the pastor of a steadily declining church may need to consider leaving voluntarily.

Another expert wrote, “If a pastor comes to the point where he doesn’t know what else he can try that he hasn’t tried already, he should start working his networks for a move – thus giving someone else the chance at guiding the church forward.”

Someone else suggested, “I’ve known about several pastors who voluntarily left a church after an assessment.  At that point, they knew they could not lead the church through the needed steps to produce a turnaround.”

Third, two factors are essential for a church to turn around.

Another expert observed, “Two things are necessary for a turnaround: a willing congregation and a skilled pastor (in most cases I’ve seen both elements lacking).”

The same expert than offered this crucial point: “If the assessment reveals that the congregation shares responsibility for the problem, then it is pointless to think about the pastor’s resignation.  They’ll simply bring in another pastor who will eventually fail.”

Fourth, it takes enormous time and energy for a pastor to turn around a church.

One leader wrote, “If the pastor cannot provide the physical and emotional energy that will be needed to execute a turnaround plan, he should resign.  This inability may be due to health challenges, family problems, or an unwillingness to make the 5 to 7 year commitment required to turn the church around.”

Let me add that by God’s grace, the Lord used me to turn around two churches, but I spent so much energy turning around the first church that I have no idea how I was able to turn around the second one.  Years ago, I read where George Barna said that a pastor can realistically only turn around one church in his lifetime.  I would agree with his assessment.

Fifth, many pastors lack the ability to turn around a church and might need to leave.

Someone noted, “If the pastor is ‘uncoachable’ (many of them are!), incapable of mastering the skills required to lead a successful turnaround, or unwilling to do his job then he should resign or be terminated…. If the pastor is hanging on because this is his last church and he’s padding his retirement, he should be cut loose sooner rather than later.”

Sixth, the pastor of a church that’s been in decline for years probably isn’t the person to turn the church around.

One expert commented, “My predecessor … says that if change hasn’t taken place in five years, change won’t happen.”

Another leader wrote, “The pastor who has been part of a declining church for an extended period, say more than five years, is not the one to lead it out of the death spiral.  And the longer the stay, the less likelihood of success.”

Still another expert observed, “One of the problems is what’s called a coefficient of familiarity, i.e., the longer a leader leads any organization the less impactful his voice is.”

Echoing that last statement, someone else wrote, “In one church I pastored for 14 years, they no longer heard what I had to say.  The church did turn around, but I could lead it no further.”

Finally, the pastor of church that’s been in decline a short while needs to have a clear vision for the church to turn around.

One commentator … a professor and author of a truckload of books on church matters … said, “One of the big questions is does the pastor have hope (vision) for the church’s future.  After 10-12 years of unsuccessful effort, most pastors have lost hope and usually find they can’t restore hope even if they stay longer.”

I trust that these comments from noted church experts have provided insight to you.

What are your thoughts on the future of a pastor whose church is in steady decline?

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A pastor I don’t know recently posted something on Facebook that caught my attention.

With the heading, “Pray for Your Pastor,” a large photo cited 9 statistics about pastors.

The first statistic stated: “97% of pastors have been betrayed, falsely accused or hurt by their trusted friends.”

Some people … I presume laymen, not pastors … disputed these statistics in their comments, implying that these numbers are exaggerated or even made up.

Let’s look at the stat I quoted above once more:

97% of pastors have been betrayed, falsely accused or hurt by their trusted friends.

We can argue about whether the number is 97% or 63% or less than 50%, but I can tell you from personal experience … and from talking to many other pastors … that statistics like these are more than accurate.

There is nothing in church ministry that hurts a pastor more than being betrayed or falsely accused by those who once supported you and counted you as a friend.

I have some theories as to why people turn on a pastor, and I’ve shared some of them over the years in this blog.

For example, some people believe that they are so special that they have earned 24/7 access to the pastor.

They believe when they email him, he should email them right back.  When they call the pastor, he should return their call quickly.  When they want to see him, he should drop everything to assist them.

But when the pastor doesn’t contact them as soon as they expect, they become anxious that their relationship status has changed, and they may slowly start to turn against him … or speak negatively about him to others.  They take the pastor’s slow replies personally.

But I’m more interested in how a pastor should respond when he’s been treated unfairly.

While reading through 1 Corinthians 4 a few days ago, I came upon three little phrases that describe how Paul handled himself when he was under attack.  These phrases are found in verses 12 and 13:

When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.

We might use the acronym BEAK to summarize these responses: bless, endure, and answer kindly.  (Or BAKE if you prefer: bless, answer kindly, endure.)

Under normal circumstances in church ministry, it’s relatively easy to carry out BEAK.

When attendance is increasing … when the baptistry is full … when ministries are thriving … when giving exceeds the budget … when people are singing the pastor’s praises … it’s not that hard to bless, endure, and answer kindly, even when some people forcefully disagree with you.

But when you’re under attack … when people threaten to leave the church en masse … when you’re feeling intense pressure … when your wife is severely wounded … when a petition is passed around calling for your removal … when you don’t know who to trust anymore … it’s extremely difficult for the pastor to bless, endure, and answer kindly.

During the current presidential nomination process in our country, there are candidates who have been engaging in ad hominem attacks against rivals from within their own party.

They insult their fellow candidates … bash them on Twitter … throw temper tantrums … threaten journalists who ask them hard questions … and only speak with those who “treat them fairly.”

Shouldn’t we expect more from someone who wants to become the Leader of the Free World?

By the same token, we should expect more from our pastors … but they should never react like some presidential candidates … although I have seen it done.

Months ago, someone sent me a video of a church service where a pastor verbally berated someone by name who was sitting in the pews.  That pastor’s action could only be termed abusive.  (The pastor called him out for irregular church attendance and for failing to serve faithfully.)

But pastors should never stand in the pulpit and insult their detractors … or smash them on social media … or engage in personal attacks.

Instead, pastors have to learn how to bless, endure, and answer kindly … even when they don’t feel like it.

Why?

Because responding with BEAK lessens tensions and stops the cycle of action/reaction that causes conflicts to escalate.

How can a pastor learn to BEAK their opponents?

*Be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit.  Let Him control your life and speech.

*Practice the art of BEAK with your wife … children … neighbors … relatives … board members … staffers … and church crazies.  When you’ve gained success with some parties, you’re more likely to be successful with your detractors.

*Ask your wife to monitor you and tell you when you’ve messed up.

*Pray for your detractors and let God deal with them.

*Expand your list of responses when people wrong you.

*Admit when you’ve erred and make things right as soon as possible.

Yesterday morning, I was sitting in my car waiting to pick up someone.  My vehicle was parked against a curb.  The car in front of me took off, so I started my car and decided to move up a space.  As I started forward, another car tried to swing into that empty space.

My face demonstrated surprise, and I visibly held out my hand as if to say to the driver, “Go ahead.  Take that space.”  But when I emerged from my car, the driver rolled down his window and asked me, “Over a parking space?”

After I picked up the person I was waiting for, I sought out that man and told him, “You know, I didn’t see you when I started forward.”  He told me, “And I didn’t know anybody was in your car.”  We shook hands … twice … and laughed about what happened.

That situation was providential … because I need the practice.

I Peter 2:23 has always been a favorite of mine.  Peter refers to the innocence of Jesus and then describes how He responded to unfair treatment:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

God asks of His servants that we emulate both the apostle and our Savior by blessing, enduring, and answering kindly anyone … including believers … who seeks to mistreat us.

It’s not easy … and definitely unnatural … but it is necessary if we want to defuse and resolve conflicts.

How well are you carrying out these instructions?

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If you ever want to wound a pastor for years, fire him unexpectedly.

Here’s a common scenario:

The official church board feels anxious.  Things at church feel unstable.

*Maybe the attendance and giving are going south.

*Maybe some key individuals are threatening to leave.

*Maybe a staff member has met with a board member and shared some behind-the-scenes information about the pastor.

*Maybe one or two board members have been gunning for the pastor for years.

*Maybe the board feels like the church needs a different pastor.

Whatever their reasoning, one day board members congregate … deliberate … and decide together that their pastor must go.

They usually choose one of two times to tell him their decision: right after a Sunday service or during a specially-called meeting … either in the “board room” at church or in the pastor’s study.

Why blindside the pastor?

*There is closure.  That’s it.  There’s no more discussion … no more negotiating … no more sleepless nights for board members.

*There is control.  The board demonstrates proactivity.  They’ve wiped away the past and set up the future with one fell swoop.

*There is containment.  The pastor probably won’t appeal the decision to the congregation.  The pastor’s supporters probably won’t counterattack.

The ambush approach favors the church board.  They call the shots.  They dismiss the pastor on their terms.

However, the only time I feel the ambush approach is justified is when the pastor has committed a major offense like sexual immorality or criminal activity … sinful behavior that has just come to the board’s attention.

Because most of the time, the ambush approach damages the pastor … his family … the congregation … and the board itself.

*It damages the pastor.  I’ve spoken with pastors who told me, “I was fired after the morning service.  I had absolutely no idea that my job was in jeopardy.  And to this day, I still don’t know what I did wrong.”  Ambushed pastors hurt for months … and sometimes years.

*It damages the pastor’s family.  The pastor’s wife goes from being a somebody to a nobody over night.  She loses many if not most of her church friends.  She loses her ministries … feels unstable … and doesn’t know who she can trust anymore.  And above all, she watches her husband suffer in great sorrow.

The pastor’s kids lose their church friends … some friends at school … and their status in the community.  Sometimes they are so devastated that they don’t want to attend church again.  It’s just too painful.  They feel like they were fired, too.  As a child, when my dad suddenly resigned as pastor, I wondered, “How are we going to have the money to survive?”

*It damages the congregation.  God’s people don’t know why the pastor was dismissed … don’t know who they can talk with … don’t know how to relate to the pastor and his wife anymore … and don’t know what’s happening to their church.  The anxiety from the board is passed on to the congregation as a whole.

*It damages the board.  Firing the pastor dramatically might temporarily relieve collective board anxiety, but when angry people from the church start calling various board members … when members demand that the board explain their position in public … when good people quickly leave the church … when the offerings take a nosedive … when ministries collapse for lack of volunteers … when morale plunges for months … when the board has to make many of the decisions the pastor would normally make … the board will discover that firing a pastor creates as many or more problems than it solves.

Is there a better way to deal with a pastor than the ambush approach?

I believe there is.

Years ago, a friend who was a Christian attorney introduced me to this phrase: “corrective progressive action.”

He told me that when a board isn’t pleased with their pastor, they should engage in CPA.

Someone on the board … maybe the chairman … says this to the pastor:

“Pastor, we love you, and we believe that God called you to our church.  We’ve seen your ministry bear fruit in a number of areas, and for that, we are very grateful.  But we have a concern about a specific area (a) in your life, or (b) in your ministry.”

Board members should then share with the pastor in a kind but truthful way what their concerns are.

The pastor should be allowed at this point to ask questions … to ask for evidence … and to explain his side.

But if the board isn’t satisfied with his response, they have the right to say to him:

“We’d like to see improvement in this area over the next six months.  [It’s very difficult for anyone … much less pastors … to make changes in their lives in a 2-3 month time frame.  Six months is much more realistic.]  We’d like you to stop doing this … start doing this … do this differently … or produce this result.  We will monitor your progress this way … and reevaluate matters in six months.”

Now if I’m a pastor, and I want to stay at that church, I’m going to do all in my power to make the necessary corrections.

But if I don’t want to stay there … especially if I feel that the board is being unfair … the board has now given me a six-month head start to find a new ministry.

Yes, the board might still feel uneasy about the pastor.  Some might even feel that the pastor can’t change and that letting him stay is just delaying the inevitable.

But if the pastor finds another ministry … or resigns voluntarily … the board won’t be blamed for his departure, and they can plan for the church’s future much more successfully.

In addition, the board will have demonstrated the Christian virtues of patience, kindness, peace, and love.

I’m with the family systems experts on this one.  I believe that many board members fire their pastor without warning because they are anxious … and when they do so, they are saying far more about themselves than they are about their pastor.

It’s better for the board to spell out their concerns clearly, but take matters a bit slower … believing that even a pastor can change when prompted by love and God’s Holy Spirit.

 

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The last two Sundays, I’ve attended two different worship services in two different locales.

I loved the first service.  But I almost walked out of the second one.

Two Sundays ago, my wife and I attended a service at our daughter’s medium-sized Bible church in Northern California.

Then last Sunday, I attended the second service at our “home” church in Southern California … a Calvary Chapel.

The worship times at both churches were vastly different.

I have to admit, I struggle through most “worship times” these days … and I especially struggle with many of the lyrics to the praise and worship songs.

Last Sunday, the worship leader told us that his daughter requested the next song we were going to sing … a song called “God’s Great Dance Floor.”

Along with another guy, Martin Smith and Chris Tomlin co-wrote the song.

I love Martin Smith.  I’ve been to a Delirious? concert.  I have all their CDs … and bought the CD God’s Great Dance Floor the day it was released.

I’ve been to a Chris Tomlin concert, too.

So I already like these guys … I just don’t like the song.  It belongs in a concert hall … not a worship service.

The chorus goes: “I feel alive/I come alive/I am alive on God’s great dance floor”

I’m sure those lyrics are deeply spiritual, but their meaning is lost on me … and I’ve never figured out what “God’s Great Dance Floor” refers to, anyway.

After that song was mercifully over, the worship leader prayed and said, “God, when we’re dancing with you, I know that you’re right there dancing with us.”

What does that mean?

Then we sang a song I’d never heard called “Wildfire”:

“In the furnace of my soul/fan the flame and take control/like a wildfire, wildfire … You’re a wildfire, wildfire”

Really?

I assume the song is referring to the Holy Spirit, but I’m reluctant to call Him a “wildfire.”

Right now in Northern California, wildfires are burning out of control, destroying homes and property … leaving people displaced … harming entire communities … and as of this writing, have killed five people.

Is the Holy Spirit really a wildfire … destroying everything in His path?

I find this to be a disturbing metaphor.

This hits close to home because we have a friend who’s a fireman who sometimes has to fight those wildfires.

Oh, God, forgive me … I’m thinking too much when I’m supposed to be shutting down my mind.

I’m not down on those songs or the people who wrote them.  I just think there are far more appropriate songs we could sing in a worship service.

This reminds me of the following story told by the late Chuck Colson:

“We’d been led through endless repetitions of a meaningless ditty called ‘Draw Me Close to You,’ which has zero theological content and could just as easily be sung in any nightclub. When I thought it was finally and mercifully over, the music leader beamed. ‘Let’s sing that again, shall we?’ he asked. ‘No!’ I shouted, loudly enough to send heads all around me spinning while my wife, Patty, cringed.”

By contrast, the lyrics at my daughter’s church were intelligent … and even elegant.

In fact, they didn’t sound like tossed off little ditties, but were songs of substance … filled with solid theology and meaningful lyrics.

My wife and I both wept during the worship time.  I didn’t want it to stop.

In fact, if the church wasn’t 500 miles away, I’d visit again this next Sunday.

Ten years ago, I attended a seminar on worship music led by one of America’s top worship leaders.

He told us that he submitted a list of songs to the senior pastor (I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are RW) every week for approval … and that the previous week, the pastor had put a big “X” across all the songs and wrote in the ones he wanted to be sung.

Maybe when the pastor is ultimately in charge of the “worship time” … and can veto certain songs or select his own choices … the lyrics will hopefully be more biblical and intelligent.

I’m reminded of Paul’s words on speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:18-19:

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

If, as some believe, Paul is contrasting tongue-speaking in personal devotions with tongue-speaking in a public worship service, he’s at least making this point: the words used in a worship service must be intelligible.

I love the Lord.  I love music.  I love worship times.

But right now, I’m tempted to put a big “X” through the first thirty minutes of the service … and yes, I’m seriously considering looking for a new church home … because I just can’t sing about dance floors and wildfires a second time.

In fact, isn’t biblical worship about far more than just music?

Can’t we have a personal testimony every once in a while … or is God only working in the lives of the worship leader and lead pastor?

Can’t we have an element on occasion that makes us think … like a reading from Max Lucado or J.I. Packer or R.C. Sproul?

Can’t we turn loose some creativity and periodically show a meaningful video produced by people from the church?

Can’t we let one or two people with gifted voices sing a performance song with thought-provoking lyrics?

Why do we always have to sing for 30 minutes before the sermon?

Who made that rule?

I think I know.  Maybe someday I’ll tell you.

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I recently purchased a plastic container of cleaner at my local Lowe’s.  By the time I arrived home, the cleaner had leaked all over the trunk of my car.

So I went back to Lowe’s and asked the woman at customer service, “Who is responsible for the fluid from this cleaner leaking out before I arrived home?  Lowe’s?  Me?  The manufacturer?”

She concluded that the mess was the responsibility of the manufacturer, so I departed with a new container.  But that transaction made me wonder:

When a pastor is forced to leave a church, whose fault is the mess?

Here’s my take on this question:

First, when things are going well at a church, everybody should share the credit.

When a church is growing … when new ministries are being started … when giving is exceeding the annual budget … when people are coming to Christ … almost nobody inside that church will say, “The pastor is 100% responsible for all the good things that are happening.”

Humanly speaking, the board gets some credit.  The staff should receive some kudos.  Key lay leaders … worship personnel … small group leaders … everyone makes a contribution when a church is humming along.

The pastor may be casting the vision … setting the pace … motivating the leadership …  and preaching his heart out … but he’s not completely responsible for the church’s success.

Because ultimately, God should receive the glory.

I remember reading a story years ago about the legendary baseball pitcher Satchel Paige.  Sometimes he would tell his fielders to sit down because he was going to strike out the side.

On those occasions when he was successful, should Paige have received full credit?

He still needed a catcher.  He still needed hitters to knock in runs.  He still needed a manager … and stadium personnel … and fans in the stands … just to be able to stand on the mound.

In the same way, when a church is enjoying success, the pastor may be in the center, but he can’t be successful without the office manager … sound team … worship vocalists and musicians … greeters and ushers … nursery and children’s volunteers … and offering counters, to name just a few.

Credit for success should be shared.

Second, when things are going south, it’s usually due to multiple issues.

Let me use the conflict that surfaced during my last pastorate in the fall of 2009 as Exhibit A.

The previous two years, our church had received more financial donations than at any time in our history … and we began that year with a healthy reserve fund.

But the recession was well under way, and it affected our church’s giving … just like it did with every church.

Some Sundays, the offerings were very generous … but other Sundays, they were alarmingly low.

Whose fault was that?

On a personal level, my wife and I continued to give beyond a tithe.  Many others gave what they always did.

But some reduced the amounts they gave, while others stopped giving altogether.

Because I believe a church’s donors have the right to know how their funds are being used, I continued to publish the giving statistics in the bulletin … and would do so again.

In fact, I did my best to let the congregation know exactly where we were at financially throughout that year.  And before I left on an overseas mission trip, I scripted some remarks for the board chairman to make at an all-church meeting … a meeting that was later cancelled.

But our failure to meet the budget created great anxiety for some leaders who had never been through a church financial drought before … and in my view, their anxiety caused some leaders to overreact to a down cycle that almost all churches were undergoing.

In fact, my friend Charles Chandler from the Ministering to Ministers Foundation in Richmond, Virginia told me that many churches were experiencing conflicts due to the recession in 2009.

So there were many issues at our church that year:

*the recession negatively impacted giving

*some key church leaders became highly anxious and reactive

*those same leaders lacked the experience to pull the church through its hard time

*some people reduced their giving or stopped giving at all

*money assumed far more importance than it ever should have received

When opposition to my ministry finally surfaced, the causes were multiple … regardless of what was being said.

Third, when the ship hits strong waves, some seek to throw the captain overboard.

I enjoyed ten wonderful years in that church.  God blessed us in so many ways.  We were the largest Protestant church in our city … had an overall positive image … and engaged in many forms of outreach to the community.

But by the time 2009 was half over, some key leaders had determined that they should serve as a collective captain … and that I should be tossed into the deep.

I was not guilty of any major sin.  No illegalities … no immoralities … no criminalities … no heresies.

But it didn’t matter.  We were having a tough year, and some people concluded that I needed to pay for it.

And I did.

But so did many others … and as I’ve recounted in my book Church Coup, by the time the dust settled, the top ten leaders in the church all vanished.

Rather than throw me overboard, things would have gone much better if some leaders had said to me, “Jim, you’ve had far more experience than we’ve had to get through these crises.  What do you suggest we do to weather the storm?”

But rather than listening to their God-appointed leader, the crew staged a mutiny.

This scenario happens in a plethora of churches today, and I hear many of the stories.

When conditions become abnormal in a church, people look at their pastor and say one of two things: either “Our pastor caused this mess” or “Our pastor needs to clean up this mess.”

And if things don’t revert to normal pretty quickly, some start warming up their pitching arms.

Finally, blaming the pastor entirely for a conflict keeps the church frozen in immaturity.

In my book Church Coup, I wrote two chapters of analysis as to what went wrong in our situation.

One chapter was called, “Mistakes I Made.”  The next one was called, “Mistakes They Made,” referring to the church board.

At the beginning of “Mistakes They Made,” I inserted the following quotation from veteran church conflict expert Speed Leas, who cited a research project that tried to determine who was at fault when a pastor is forced to leave a congregation:

“While we could find some situations that were primarily the congregation’s ‘fault’ … and we could find some that were primarily the pastor’s ‘fault’ … these occurrences were rare.  Most of the time we found a mixture of congregational and pastoral causes that defied unraveling as to who ‘started it.’  Asking the question ‘Whose fault is it?’ in the church seemed to tangle people up … more than it helped … in our research into 127 ‘involuntary terminations’ or firings, we found the need to find fault to be one of the most characteristic and least helpful dimensions of the conflict … it is almost never the case that one party is exclusively in the wrong.”

In my case, an outside church consultant exonerated me, as did a nine-person investigative team from within the church.

But a year later, many people from that church came to believe that I was completely responsible for the entire conflict … a viewpoint that has wounded me over time because it simply isn’t true … and because people must believe a host of lies to come to that conclusion.

Because when a pastor isn’t around to defend himself … and when people don’t hear his version of events … those responsible for the pastor’s departure get to write their own narrative.

I submit that sometimes a pastor does need to leave a church … that his ministry there is over, and that the church needs a fresh start with someone else.

But just as a pastor isn’t totally responsible when a church does well, so too a pastor isn’t completely liable when a church struggles.

In fact, I believe that our tendency to blame others 100% for a conflict is a defense mechanism designed to prevent us from examining our own lives to see what role we may have played in a conflict.

It’s easy to say, “That pastor was bad!  I’m glad he’s gone!  He was ruining our church!”

It’s much harder to say, “Oh, God, I didn’t behave very well during this conflict, did I?  I never heard the pastor’s side of the conflict … never prayed for him and his family … engaged in some mean-spirited gossip … made some wild guesses as to why he left … and failed to see that I bear some responsibility for joining the mob and hurting one of your called servants.”

Do pastors make mistakes that sometimes lead to their leaving a church?

Yes.

Do board members and staff members also make mistakes that can lead to a pastor’s resignation?

Yes.

Do congregational attendees sometimes overreact and make their own personal contributions to a pastor’s leaving?

Yes.

Then let’s stop blaming the pastor for everything that goes wrong in a church … and everything that goes badly during a conflict … and remember that all of us play a part whenever a pastor is forced to leave a church.

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A woman my wife and I knew once called our house and angrily complained about her husband.  In her mind, he had done some unspeakable things.  She concluded her tirade with the words, “I am going to divorce him.”

She got on the phone and called many others.  When some contacted us, they all said, “She wants to divorce him, and we told her that we agree with her.”

But I told my wife, “We’ve only heard one side of the story.  We haven’t heard his side yet.  Maybe the husband is totally guilty of the charges made against him.  But maybe his wife is guilty of some misbehavior as well.  Let’s not take her side or his side.  Let’s remain on the side of the marriage.”

When we hear that someone we know and trust has done something wrong, we tend to become emotionally reactive.

We adopt the view of the person sharing the news with us … believe the news we hear completely … and thus prove ourselves to be foolish.

God’s Word encourages us never to believe the first thing we hear about a person.

Moses speaks to the judges in Israel in Deuteronomy 1:16-17:

“Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien.  Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike.”

Proverbs 18:17 adds:

The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.

Imagine that you attend the trial of a murder suspect.  The prosecution takes three days to present its case, after which the judge vacates his bench, the press doesn’t show up anymore, and the defense is not allowed to present or cross-examine witnesses.

What would we call that?

A miscarriage of justice … if not a downright perversion.

But in thousands of churches, when people first hear a nasty rumor about their pastor, they not only tend to believe it … they pass the rumor on to others.

And every time someone passes on the rumor without first checking to see if its true, they put another nail in their pastor’s reputation and career.

I had a conversation with someone recently about her former pastor.  This man taught a theology class I took in college and led a large church for many years.

But this pastor was driven out of his church, and I never heard exactly why.  So I asked the woman, “What did the pastor do wrong?”

Since this woman hadn’t attended the church in years, she told me what a friend from the church once told her, but the evidence seemed purely circumstantial to me.

Maybe the pastor was guilty of a serious offense … but based on what little I heard, maybe he wasn’t.

Many years later, a new pastor came to the church, and wanting to lead the church with a clean bill of health, he brought that former pastor back and, on behalf of the church, apologized to him for the way he was driven away.

What a wise and healing thing to do!  It’s done all too rarely these days.

If you hear an unflattering rumor about your pastor, I encourage you to do the following:

First, never believe the first thing you hear.

The initial reports are likely to contain inaccuracies.  For example, when there’s a mass shooting in our culture, how many times do we hear the number of victims revised upward but later downward?  All the time.  The same principle is true in churches.

Second, ask your informant where they got their information.

If it’s from a former disgruntled staff member, or a rebellious board member, or a chronic complainer, suspend your judgment until you know more.  And if your informant received their information from an unreliable source, remain skeptical.

Third, contact the pastor directly and ask him about the rumor.

The quicker you go to the primary source, the better-informed you’ll be.  If you don’t know the pastor, or you’re afraid to approach him, ask someone from his family or someone who knows him well.  But don’t short-circuit this step.

Several decades ago, I knew a young couple who were engaged to be married.  The woman didn’t tell her fiancée that she was pregnant until her seventh month, and he was devastated.  I went to see him, but everything I said was later twisted.  For example, I told him that I wanted him to stay in the church, but a report came back that I told him that I didn’t want him in the church, which was entirely false.

But I wonder how many people heard that rumor and instantly believed it?

Fourth, contact several wise individuals in your church and ask them how to interpret the rumors.

Every church has godly men and women who have witnessed everything under the sun in church life.  Ask them if they’ve heard the rumor.  If they haven’t, share what you know.  They may choose to conduct a small investigation and then let you know what they’ve learned.

Fifth, wait until you know the facts before deciding to support the pastor or leave the church. 

When conflict is present in churches, people become anxious.  They want to know what’s going on and seek a quick resolution to the problem.  They don’t like matters to remain open-ended; they want closure.

So some people will choose to believe the rumors right away and then demand the pastor’s resignation, but such action is usually premature until the rumors have been investigated.

Several months ago, I read about a church where the pastor was accused of some serious charges.  The pastor chose not to resign but to let the charges be investigated.  Several months later, he was completely exonerated of all charges.

Wouldn’t you have looked foolish if you had prematurely called for his resignation?

The apostle Paul made matters very clear in 1 Timothy 5:19.  Paul told his protégé Timothy:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder [includes pastors] unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.

There must be witnesses.  There must be facts.  There must be an investigation.

Rumors alone should never convict a pastor of wrongdoing.

I beg you: resolve before God that if you ever hear an unflattering rumor about your pastor … or any pastor … that you will heed the words of James 1:19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry …

Isn’t this the way you’d like to be treated by others?

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I have a friend who is fond of saying, “Getting fired is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

In the long run, his sentiment may very well be true … but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time.

When I was pushed out of my position as senior pastor of an impactful church, I could not see what God was doing.

Six years later, I have a much better … and broader … perspective.

If you are struggling with why God allowed you to undergo the horror of a forced termination … or if you know someone who has endured this experience … maybe the following words can provide some insight and comfort.

Why does God allow pastors to be terminated?

First, the pastor has done something that disqualifies him from church ministry.

Many years ago, I heard about the moral downfall of a nationally known preacher.

This man had been called to lead a megachurch where some family and friends of mine had once attended.

When the news broke, I channel surfed until I found a well-known entertainment program.  One of the show’s reporters interviewed that pastor outside his home.  The pastor told the reporter, “Because of what I did, I have no business being a pastor.”

The host of the program commented, “The minister’s attitude is refreshing.”

I have a friend who served on that church’s staff at the time, and he told me that surveillance cameras confirmed that inappropriate behavior on the pastor’s part had taken place.

Being human, pastors occasionally engage in moral failure.  When they’re caught, they usually repent and resign.

But sometimes pastors are successful at dodging congregational surveillance … but they can never escape the watchful eye of Almighty God.

A pastor can be guilty of sexual immorality … plagiarism … alcoholism … criminal behavior … drug addiction … lying and manipulation … or any number of other offenses against God and His people.

And if a pastor’s spiritual and moral integrity are compromised by his actions … especially if he’s unrepentant … then the best thing for everyone involved is for the pastor to leave … and hopefully, repent and receive God’s forgiveness for his actions.

While pastors do disqualify themselves by engaging in misconduct, this is only true of 7% of all terminated pastors.

Just as Peter denied Jesus three times but was restored to ministry, I believe that God can restore and use a once-disqualified pastor again.

Second, the pastor was leading a spiritually hollow congregation.

No matter how devoted a pastor is to Jesus … or how hard he works … or how much influence he has … some churches are never going to grow or have much impact in their community.

In fact, some churches are filled with professing Christians who have rarely if ever grown spiritually.

Unfortunately, I’ve met my share of these people.

For example, the first church I pastored … in Silicon Valley … never should have gotten off the ground.

The congregation began with 38 members … all refugees from other churches.  They had one thing in common: they wanted to attend a church where they could control the decision making.

The church was financially subsidized by a denomination.  The basic rule-of-thumb is that a church needs to become self-supporting after three years.  If not, those outside funds are usually cut off.

When I arrived, the church had been in existence for five years … all five subsidized by the denomination.

Looking back, there was little spiritual vitality in that church.  The leaders were full of bitterness and legalism.

Two years after my arrival, a sister church invited us to merge with them, and my first church passed out of existence.

That church never should have been started … never should have been subsidized … and was never going to last very long.  In fact, they probably hurt more people than they helped.

I wasn’t terminated from that church … I ended up pastoring the merged church instead … but I can only imagine what it’s like to pastor a spiritually empty church for years.

It’s probably better that the pastor goes first than that he goes down with the ship.

Third, the pastor was delivered before things became much worse.

When I counsel pastors who are under attack … or who have undergone a forced exit … I often quote 2 Peter 2:9 to them.

Speaking of Lot, Peter says, “… the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials …”  Another version states, “… the Lord knows how to deliver the righteous …”

Sometimes when a pastor initially comes to a church, the wind is at his back.

But by the time he leaves, the wind is blowing directly into his face.

When I first came to my last church, I felt the wind at my back.  It seems like every idea I had … every sermon I preached … every ministry I started … had an impact.

But by the time I left, almost none of my ideas had been adopted for months … many of my sermons were falling flat … and the one ministry I wanted to start was soundly rejected.

The wind was blowing in my face … hard … and I could feel it.

Was I the problem?  Possibly.  But to be honest, I didn’t know how to work with some of the church’s newer leaders.  I was oriented toward outreach, while they were oriented toward survival and maintenance.

Looking back, it was inevitable that we would clash.

Had I stayed even another year, I believe my soul might have been severely damaged.  God in His mercy knew exactly when to remove me.

Did I like the way God chose to do it?  No.  But I wholeheartedly agree with His timing.

Months after I left, someone told me that if I visited the church again, I would no longer recognize it.  A friend visited and told me, “The spirit has gone from this place.”

I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.

Fourth, the pastor has been given a more suitable assignment by God.

I don’t like to demean my former calling, but pastors are a dime a dozen.  There are thousands of pastors all over America … and thousands more who wish they could be pastors.

A pastor may be special to his congregation … and maybe his community … but in the Christian world, pastors aren’t treated with much respect or dignity simply because there are so many of them.

I believe there are times when God surveys all those pastors and says, “I have some assignments that I need to have fulfilled in the days ahead, so I choose you … you … and you to carry them out.  But first, I need to remove you from your present position.”

If God didn’t remove us … and use some pretty forceful means at His disposal … we’d hold onto our pastorates for dear life.

I have met scores of former pastors doing significant kingdom work.

One man was forced out of three churches … and now he does conflict mediation for churches.

Another man was forced out of two churches … and he now trains Christian leaders for short-term assignments all over the world.

Pastors who were once forced out of their churches now lead missionary agencies … serve as hospital chaplains … plant churches … engage in hospice ministry … serve as church planters … do interim pastorates … and even have writing ministries.

And yes, I know pastors who were once pushed out of their churches who have healed enough to become pastors once again.

For my colleagues who have been forced out of a church … maybe God wants you to look forward toward a new assignment rather than ruminating about the injustices of your previous assignment.

But expect for that process to take you some time.

Fifth, the pastor was pushed out because he was burned out.

Back in the mid-1980s, I did a lot of reading about the symptoms and effects of being stressed out and burned out in church ministry.

I especially devoured the book by Dr. Archibald Hart titled Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.

Over the years, I thought I was suffering from burnout on several occasions.  I visited a Christian counselor friend who assured me that I was not experiencing burnout.

But six years ago this summer, I visited a counselor who told me that I was experiencing a severe case of burnout, and that I was primed for a breakdown.

When I asked my wife, “How did burnout creep up on me?”, she said, “Jim, look what you’ve done the past few years here at the church.  You oversaw the construction of a building and you completed your Doctor of Ministry program.”

Just last week, I remembered two statistics that I had long forgotten.

First, I remember hearing that 70% of all pastors leave their churches within one year of completing a building program.

Our entire building program lasted at least four years, and I stayed four years after that.

By contrast, I know a pastor who told me that he left two churches that were in the middle of building programs.

Second, a professor from my seminary told me that 50% of all Doctor of Ministry graduates end up leaving the pastorate so they can pursue other ministry avenues.

I lasted two years after receiving my degree.

I think most pastors do what I did: they minimize all the energy they’re expending when they’re carrying out a task, but it eventually catches up with them.

My last few months as a pastor, I wasn’t myself.  I became detached … irritable … empty … and sad.  In fact, I was near tears almost every day.

I wish someone who knew me had intervened and said, “Hey, Jim, you don’t seem like yourself right now.  Is everything okay?  We love you and want you to be your best.”

For whatever reason, no one did that … until the counselor gave me his diagnosis.

I believe that burned out pastors probably need to leave their ministries so they can recover.  Their churches need more energy from them than they can muster.

But pastors become burned out because they work too hard and care too much, and it seems criminal to me to kick out a pastor in a mean-spirited way because he did his job too well.

So sometimes Jesus says to His weary servants, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).

And He kindly calls His burned out pastors away from church ministry.

Finally, the pastor’s ministry in that church is over.

Several years ago, I visited a large church and was invited to sit next to the chairman of the board during the service.

Over the previous few years, the church had lost half its attendees.

The music was horrible (the full-time worship director led three songs by himself, without a band), the service was disorganized, and everything seemed irrelevant.

When I told the chairman that the pastor seemed to be preaching well, he said, “His last few sermons have been better because he’s retiring in several weeks.”

That pastor led that church for more than 30 years … but his ministry had ended long before he retired.

I wish that every pastor was given the ability to choose when his ministry in a particular church was finished.

The problem is … the pastor is often the last one to know.

And so God in His sovereignty sometimes says to a pastor, “You’re not going to leave here, are you?  You’re so very committed … and I appreciate that more than you could know.  But I can see the way ahead, and you’re not the pastor this church needs anymore.  You’ve done all that I asked you to do … so I’m going to remove you from office … and it’s going to sting.”

And it does sting … for a long time.

I served the Lord in church ministry for 36 years.  I hoped that I would get to retire on my own terms around age 65, but the truth is that God declared my ministry over nearly ten years before I would have stopped.

But I’m glad He did … because right now, I am far happier and fulfilled than I was as a pastor … and I’m still involved in significant ministry.

Jesus trained at least 18 years for a ministry that lasted only three.  In the end, even the Son of God didn’t get to choose when His ministry was over … the Father did … and the Son cried out from the cross, “It is finished.”

I wonder why God doesn’t intervene and stop innocent pastors from being terminated.

In fact, I’ve devoted my life to doing all I can to help pastors and boards part ways (when necessary) in a truthful, loving, and constructive way.

But regardless of how a pastor is let go … even when it’s done cruelly … every pastor can repeat what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”

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