Picture this scenario inside a church:
Pastor Mike has served as senior pastor of Mercy Church for 12 years. During that time, the church has doubled in size and donations.
By any measure, Mike’s tenure at Mercy has been a success.
But due to the increased flow of guests, Pastor Mike has told the governing board that the church either needs to (a) add a third service, or (b) make additional room in the worship center … which might mean knocking out the side walls and expanding the seating.
For some reason … and Mike doesn’t know why … the board seems resistant to both ideas. In fact, at the last board meeting, Mike sensed that the attitude of several board members was, “We aren’t going to get behind your suggestions no matter what. We’re drawing a line.”
It depressed Pastor Mike to think that Mercy wouldn’t want to reach more people for Jesus … but he wondered if there were some church leaders who simply didn’t want to follow his leadership anymore.
Over the next few months, Mike learned that his instincts were correct. Along with three board members, two staff members had also become resistant to Mike’s leadership.
Then one day, Pastor Mike discovered that those board members and staffers were holding secret meetings.
Mike began to have anxiety attacks … which led to panic attacks … which scared him so much that he began to withdraw from all but essential church meetings and activities.
But now he had given additional ammunition to the Gang of Five. In their eyes, not only was Mike pushing too hard to reach new people, he was also acting in an aloof manner.
So they moved in for the kill.
At the next meeting of the governing board, the chairman presented Mike with a letter, claiming that he was distancing himself from people … resisting the board’s leadership … and was no longer qualified to be the church’s pastor.
Then followed the coup de grace … Mike was asked for his resignation.
After negotiating a severance package, Mike quit … with nowhere to go.
Over the following year, Mike cut off all contact with 95% of the people from Mercy Church. It was very painful for him … he didn’t want to do it … but he realized that for his own sanity and wellbeing, he had to.
Taking this step felt counter to all that he believed, but he felt he had no choice. Mike couldn’t bear to see Facebook stories involving church families getting together … featuring photos of those who pushed him out.
So here are the steps Mike took to stop contact:
*Mike reviewed his friends on Facebook and unfriended everybody from the church except those who had explicitly told/showed him they wanted to stay friends.
*Mike reviewed his contacts on LinkedIn and Twitter and did the same.
*Mike cut off all contact with anyone in Christian ministry who seemed to take the side of his detractors, including denominational leaders, parachurch leaders, and pastor friends.
*Mike tossed all email addresses and phone numbers of anyone and everyone who did not stand with him during his conflict at Mercy.
Do Mike’s actions seem extreme?
Some would say, “Absolutely. Pastor Mike should be building bridges to repair relationships rather than putting up barricades to end them.”
But in many ways, I am just like Pastor Mike. When I left my last church ministry nearly 6 1/2 years ago, I had to face some cold-hearted realities, even though they flew in the face of what I believe about Christian unity and relationships.
I had to cut myself off from most of the people in my last church … including ministry friends.
Let me share with you four reasons why I did this:
First, I cut off contact with most church attendees because I was never going to see them again.
The relationship we had was pastor-parishioner. That was it.
And when I resigned, that relationship was over forever.
I was no longer responsible for their spiritual welfare, and they were no longer responsible for listening to me … supporting me … or praying for me.
May as well acknowledge it and let everybody move on.
I’ve never told this story before, but nearly three months after my departure, I had to return to my previous church to move more than twenty boxes of files I had left behind.
When I walked through the worship center balcony upstairs, I saw the daughter of a woman who had just turned 100 years old below. This woman had been one of my biggest supporters for years, and I always assumed I would conduct her memorial service.
But it wasn’t to be. The daughter was present because her mother had just died … and someone else … who didn’t know her … would be conducting the service instead.
No longer marrying or burying people that you love is one of the many prices a forced-out pastor has to pay after he leaves a church … and one he must accept to get better.
I also didn’t want to hear about what was going on in the church … good or bad … and that was the basis of most of my church friendships.
So I had to cut people off.
Second, I cut off contact with some church leaders because they had planned my demise.
It’s painful to face the truth, but when church leaders conspire to get rid of a pastor, they are not just ending their professional relationships with him … they are also ending their personal relationships with him.
By their actions, they are telling their pastor, “We never want to see you or hear from you again. You are dead to us.”
Why keep in contact with people who either hate you or, at the very least, despise you? There’s nothing to work out.
One church leader seemed to stand with me in public, but when he sensed the politics were shifting, he changed his stance … trying to play both sides of the fence.
I heard from him the month after I left … but after that, never again.
He followed me on Twitter, but I figured he was monitoring what I saying, so I cut him off … for good.
Although we had many wonderful memories together, our relationship was finished.
Third, I cut off contact with several pastor friends because they were more loyal to my predecessor than to me.
Years ago, I formed a luncheon group composed of four pastor friends from our denomination plus me. We met every month for lunch … got together every Christmas for dinner … and visited each other’s homes/churches on occasion.
I was especially close to one of the pastors, considering him my best friend … and not just in ministry.
As time went on, two of those friends moved to pastorates in different states. Both went through forced terminations, and I did my best to be there for both of them.
Years later, when I went through my own forced termination, they both called me months later to find out what happened.
(As I wrote in my book Church Coup, my predecessor … who had brought me to the church initially … played a part in forcing me out of office.)
As I shared my story with my friends, it was obvious that our friendships had changed dramatically.
With one friend, when I shared the part my predecessor played, he said something that indicated that my predecessor had already spoken with him … and that my side didn’t matter to him.
I waited several years, but my pastor friends didn’t lift a finger to help me or stay in contact.
In other words, it was obvious that for whatever reason, our friendship was history.
And so one day, I unfriended them both from Facebook and took them off LinkedIn.
That happened three years ago. I’m grateful for the many years I enjoyed their friendship … and maybe living in different states had something to do with it … but I can’t imagine resurrecting those relationships.
So regretfully, rather than waiting for them to take my side or give me some encouragement, I cut them off.
Finally, I cut off contact with anyone who needed a long explanation as to why I left my last church.
For a long time after I was forced out, the injustice of it all was all I could talk about. That obsessive mindset – “God’s people treated me unfairly, and I’d like to tell you about it” – is toxic.
You’re aware that you’re spewing poison, so you limit who you talk to … and for how long … because you don’t want to lose more friends than you already have.
But telling that story repeatedly drains you of the energy you need just to survive. You’re digging your own emotional grave.
Now I feel the opposite. I don’t want to talk about what happened … unless it’s for professional purposes.
God gave me a story, so I’ll refer to it in my blogs … while consulting with Christian leaders … and in any workshops I do on church conflict.
But other than that, I’d rather talk about the presidential race … or the 2016 baseball season … or how fun my grandsons are.
Since I left my last ministry, I’ve wondered if anyone involved in ending my ministry … and career … would ever contact me directly and say, “I’m so sorry for the part I played in your leaving. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?”
The answer would immediately be, “Of course I will forgive you. In fact, you may not be aware of this, but I forgave you a long time ago.”
But not one leader or attendee has ever done that.
I don’t want my health and happiness to be dependent upon waiting for people to repent, so I’ve chosen to remain friends with those who:
*love me outside of my last church experience.
*love me in spite of my last church experience.
*love me and believe that I was unfairly treated.
*love me in spite of the fact that I write about every angle of pastoral termination on a regular basis.
I’m a huge Beatles fan and think often of the lyrics to the bridge of their song “We Can Work It Out”:
“Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend
I have always thought that it’s a crime, so I will ask you once again
Try to see it my way, only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong … ”
When I was a pastor, I tried to be friends with everyone in the church.
It was expected of me.
Now that I’m not a pastor, I can choose who my friends are.
And I can choose who they aren’t.
Before I left my last ministry, I assumed I was friends with many people in the church … including staff members, board members, and key leaders.
But if they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, then I follow Paul’s words in Romans 12:18:
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
But for those who don’t want to live in peace … I sadly but firmly cut them off … without regret or guilt.
And look forward to complete reconciliation around the throne of God.