There was a murder inside our local McDonald’s three weeks ago.
A woman shot and killed a man – allegedly her boyfriend – inside the restaurant.
Whatever he did or didn’t do, he certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered in public.
This is all we know:
My wife was eating at a nearby restaurant with a friend and saw all the commotion as she was leaving.
I worked two years at a McDonald’s in my late teens, so I can imagine how management handled matters after the police let the witnesses leave later that evening.
It’s possible that:
*Employees were instructed not to talk about the incident with any current or future customers.
*The employees who were working that night were traumatized and offered counseling.
*Some employees heard about the incident later and quit on the spot.
*Those who were inside McDonald’s when the killing occurred won’t want to return for a long time. And customers like me might choose not to patronize that particular McDonald’s just because of the nightmarish memory attached to it. (“Wow, somebody actually died right here on this floor.”)
*After the crime scene was thoroughly investigated, all evidence of the murder was scrubbed clean so McDonald’s could open the following morning.
I have a book buried in a box in my storage area called How to Murder a Minister, and although few pastors are ever blown away (I do have a few articles where that has actually happened), many pastors lose their jobs … careers … and reputations when they’re dismissed, even if they did nothing wrong.
There are some disturbing parallels between this incident and the way that many church boards handle matters after they have unjustly forced out their pastor.
Let me reiterate that some pastors deserve to be terminated because they are guilty of a major offense like heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior. But as I’ve written many times, only 7% of the pastors who are terminated are guilty of sinful conduct. 45% of the time, a pastor’s termination is due to a faction in the church.
So what I write below has to do with those situations where a church board either fires a pastor or forces him to resign for political reasons, not for moral or spiritual reasons:
*Presuming that the board does address the pastor’s departure in public, they will mention it once and resolve never to mention it again. Their attitude is, “There’s nothing to see here. Move along.”
That attitude might work for fringe attendees, but the closer to the core people are, the more they want to know “what’s really going on.” And if membership means anything at all, church members should be told a lot more than they usually are.
*There are people in every church who know the board members personally and may have been fed advance or inside information. (Certainly this applies to the spouses of many board members.)
But there are also others who had no knowledge of any problems between the pastor and board, and some may be traumatized by the announcement of the pastor’s departure. This is especially true if the pastor led them to Christ … baptized them … dedicated their children … performed their wedding … conducted a family funeral … or counseled them during a crisis.
Much of the time, the church board doesn’t factor in these people when they railroad their pastor right out of their fellowship.
After their pastor has departed, to whom will these people go when they need prayer … a reassuring word from God … or help with a difficult problem?
Certainly not to anyone on the church board … or anyone on the staff who might have been involved in pushing out their pastor.
Just when they need a pastor the most, these people suddenly find themselves shepherdless.
*When a pastor is forced out, some people immediately withdraw from the congregation because the pastor is the reason they attended that specific church.
And over the coming months … as the board maintains silence about the pastor’s departure … more and more people who loved that pastor will gradually walk away from that church.
Some Sundays, the pastor’s supporters may even watch the church board serve communion … notice that their pastor is absent … and suffer heartache all over again.
*Sunday after Sunday, it will become increasingly difficult for some parishioners to rise, clean up, get in their cars, drive to the church, walk inside, sit down, and feel good because every time they follow that pattern, they’re reminded that the church board “took out” their beloved pastor.
A friend told me about an incident some months after I left our last church. She came to worship … discovered that she was sitting by one of my most vocal detractors (who was never disciplined) … was traumatized once more … and never set foot in that church again.
In fact, there are people from our last church who didn’t attend any church for years because of the ongoing pain after their pastor was removed.
*All evidence of the “crime” has to be cleaned up and thrown away. Minutes of board meetings must be concealed and buried. Board members must pledge strict confidentiality. They will agree together how they’re going to spin things with the congregation.
Potential questioners are identified … strategies for dealing with them are created … and the board convinces itself, “In a couple of months, everyone will forget all about what happened.”
Because it’s not just the future of the congregation that’s at stake … it’s also the reputations of the board members … who must keep a tight lid on the tactics they used to force the pastor to quit.
I realize there is a limited amount of information that a church board can give a congregation when a pastor leaves a church … whether the pastor left voluntarily or under duress.
The best boards don’t want to harm the pastor’s career, and know if they did, they might be sued … even if the lawsuit goes nowhere.
The worst boards don’t care about the pastor’s career, but they do care about their reputations … and their power inside the church … so they usually share virtually nothing and hope that everything just blows away.
But I believe that for a church to heal, the leaders need to tell their congregation as much as they can, not as little as they can.
The problem, of course, is that as long as the very people who pushed out the pastor stay on the board, they don’t want to do or say anything to jeopardize their positions.
If they tell the truth, they’ll have to resign.
If they lie, they might be able to stay … so they lie.
Many boards disseminate information through the grapevine … emphasizing their virtues and the pastor’s flaws … and tell people, “We can’t divulge anything about the pastor’s resignation” in public, but they’ll turn around and slander him in private.
But the board has far better options than stonewalling or deceiving people:
*The board can announce the pastor’s departure inside or at the end of a worship service, and at least everybody will officially hear at the same time that their pastor is gone.
*The board can call a meeting of the congregation and share a bit more information … maybe even taking some questions … although most boards won’t be inclined to let people make comments. (Such people will be labeled “divisive.”)
*The board can meet with people in groups and share additional information in more intimate settings. A friend told me this is how the board handled matters after her pastor resigned, and I very much like this approach as long as the board is both loving and honest.
But if I’m a member of the church, and the board doesn’t deem it appropriate for me to know why the pastor was forced to resign, I’d do the following two things:
First, I’d contact the pastor and see if he feels free to discuss what happened. If he doesn’t want to talk about it … or if he’s signed an agreement saying he won’t discuss it … wait a month or two and try again … and keep trying until you get something concrete. (His wife didn’t sign an agreement, though, and she may be all too happy to tell you what really happened.)
Second, I’d contact one or two board members and ask for two pieces of information: a written description of the process used to terminate the pastor, and the general timeline involved.
The board certainly isn’t violating any law or ethical standard by sharing the process they used to make their decision, but they need to share something or it just may be that (a) one person on the board pressured the others to fire the pastor, and everybody caved, or (b) the board made their decision hastily.
Without knowing the specific charges, the process or the timeline might be all that is needed to determine if the pastor’s termination was just or unjust.
In the case of the woman who committed murder at McDonald’s, she’s currently in jail. There will be a trial down the road. Witnesses will be called … evidence will be presented … charges will be brought … truth will be told … and justice will be served.
But deep inside thousands of Christian churches, nobody is ever held to account for brandishing the weapon of deception … decimating the pastor’s career … destroying his reputation … and terminating his friendships.
That is, nobody is ever held to account in this life.
But Judgment Day is coming in the next life, and for those who have intentionally sought to harm their pastor … in the words of a young Bob Dylan … “I’d hate to be you on that dreadful day.”