Twenty-five years ago, I found myself in one of the most precarious positions I’ve ever faced as a pastor.
The church I served in Silicon Valley had been struggling, and I became convinced that we needed to start over: a new church, with a new name, in a new location, with a new ministry.
This vision meant that we had to sell our church property and find a new place to meet … almost simultaneously.
After receiving congregational approval, we sold the property outright to The Salvation Army (some people must drop more than coins into those Christmas kettles) and after looking at more than thirty buildings, our leaders found a temporary place to meet … but we needed a conditional use permit first.
When we went to the planning commission, they turned us down on a 4-2 vote.
We were stunned.
Now we had to appeal to the City Council … I had to lead the effort … and I had never done anything like that before.
I pulled out all the stops. I called everyone and anyone who might be able to help. I even called the city manager of a prominent city nearby and picked his brain on how to proceed.
Then it came time to prepare packets for Council members and contact them individually.
I met with the mayor in his office.
After our presentation to the Council, we won a unanimous 7-0 vote. It was one of the great moments of my life!
The elders of that church and I had a lot to learn after our defeat before the planning commission … and after we did our homework, God blessed us with a favorable decision.
But when a church board is having trouble with their pastor … and if they’re thinking about forcing him to leave … the last thing many boards do is ask outsiders for counsel.
Why don’t boards ask for counsel?
*Some board members think, “We have to keep everything confidential. We don’t want anyone to know what’s happening between us and the pastor.” They may be concerned about their own reputations … that they won’t be perceived as competent managers or peaceful believers.
*Others boards think, “We don’t need any outside counsel. Just look at the composition of this board: a CEO, an attorney, a salesman, two small business owners, a school principal, and an accountant. We’re all professionals. We know what to do with wayward employees.”
*Still others think, “I suppose we could contact an outside consultant, but we know more about our church and our pastor than that person ever will.”
*The pastor probably knows who could be contacted for counsel, but the board won’t be inclined to consult with his network.
*And because of the nature of the conflict, the board can’t ask the pastor for help … even though he might be able to help them more than anybody else.
There are several problems with this kind of thinking among board members:
*For starters, a church is not strictly a business. While it shouldn’t be run like a bad business, the purpose of a church isn’t to make money or reward investors, but to transform people’s lives spiritually. Just because board members have experience in the “real world” doesn’t mean they understand the unique dynamics inside a congregation.
*Many people in a church view their congregation more as a family than a business. Their relationships … including their relationship with the pastor … are on their frontal lobes far more than the church’s budget or buildings. Most people will view a board-pastor clash negatively … no matter how the board frames it … because it will disrupt that “family feeling.”
*Although pastoral terminations are an increasingly common occurrence in the Christian community, the great majority of churchgoers … including board members … have never experienced the aftermath of a termination before. They may feel that they can control the narrative and keep everyone in the church united, but they are woefully unprepared for the unpredictable events that happen after the pastor leaves.
For example, I was once thinking about firing a staff member, so I consulted with an experienced pastor. He told me, “Well, after you let this person go, you’ll have three tough months, and then things will revert to normal.” But when a board dismisses a pastor, they might experience three tough years … or their church may never recover.
*Outside experts may not know much about “our church” and “our pastor,” but those who have studied even two or three terminations know infinitely more than those who have never experienced even one.
Those who contact me most often are pastors under fire … pastors who have just been terminated … and board members who are having trouble with their pastor – including those who may be thinking about forcing him to resign.
While asking questions about each situation, I am constantly amazed at how many church boards think they know what they’re doing even though they’re only consulting with themselves.
Allow me to share my experience from six-and-a-half years ago.
The conflict I experienced in my last church surfaced in October 2009. At that time:
*I had been a pastor for 35 1/2 years … 10 1/2 years in that same church.
*I had a longtime interest and passion in church conflict and pastoral termination.
*I had watched three of the pastors I served under as a staff member suffer attacks. One resigned under fire, while another was voted out of office.
*I had an extensive library on conflict and termination which I knew well … and that library grew significantly when I wrote my doctoral project.
*I had a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Seminary with an emphasis on church conflict.
And yet, in the week following the surfacing of the conflict, I contacted 17 Christian leaders, asking for their counsel … including seminary professors, church consultants, megachurch pastors, and former board chairmen.
Why did I do that?
*I needed to know what was really going on. I thought I knew, but I wasn’t completely sure.
*I was too close to the situation to see things objectively. I needed the advice of people who could see both the conflict and my situation dispassionately.
*I needed to know what my next moves should be … and what I shouldn’t do or say.
*I also needed to know what might happen inside the congregation over the next few days. For example, here’s what I wrote in my book Church Coup about a conversation I had with a church consultant who has since became a mentor:
“Wilson said that when the board met with the staff … that was a serious offense in our state. If the board had acted in a similar fashion in a secular organization, the aggrieved person could have sued them for millions of dollars. Wilson also asked if I was pastor of the church founded by Norman, and when I confirmed that I was – and that the communication between us had become sparse – he wrote: ‘Does not surprise me on Norman – and I have a hunch that THEY have dialed him in!’ Wilson predicted that if the board resigned, thirty to fifty people would also leave with them, and those who were in touch with the Holy Spirit (especially those with the gift of showing mercy) would later tell me that they knew something was wrong but couldn’t put their finger on it.”
I then recounted another conversation:
“Later that morning, I had a conversation with someone (I’ll call him Richard) who runs a Christian consulting firm. Richard immediately asked me about the personal and vocational lives of the board members. He believed that what was happening in their private lives had a direct bearing on how they were handling church matters. Richard stated that many boards are struggling with three primary issues in our day: they experience fear because God is not big enough for them; they struggle with stewardship because they believe the church is ‘all about us’ and not a lost world; and they struggle with faith. Satan has figured out how to defeat us by using power as an aphrodisiac. Richard suggested that one way we could seek redress was through arbitration.”
Before a church board tries to force their pastor to quit … or fires him outright … they should consult with the following individuals:
*A labor attorney to make sure they’re “dotting their i’s” and “crossing their “t’s” legally. This should also involve a thorough discussion of any relevant passages on pastor-church conflict in the bylaws.
*A biblical expert … maybe a seminary professor … who can tell them what Scripture does and doesn’t say about terminating a pastor.
*A church consultant who is well-versed in pastoral termination who can (a) help the board decide if the pastor needs to be corrected or fired, and (b) walk the board through how to take action so there is minimal harm done to the pastor, his family, and the congregation.
*Several experienced pastors who either know what it’s like to be under fire or who have undergone termination themselves. Listening to such pastors will give the board increased sensitivity.
What about denominational executives, like a district minister?
Probably 90% of the time, they’ll side with the board instead of the pastor because (a) they just want the conflict to go away, (b) they don’t have a clue how to resolve matters, and (c) they just want to keep the money flowing from the church to district coffers.
What about contacting a former pastor from that church?
Most boards don’t know about the rivalries and jealousies between pastors from the same church. For that reason, I don’t recommend this approach.
What about contacting a board member from a church that already terminated a pastor?
If the termination was just and handled thoughtfully … maybe. But if the termination blew up in the board’s face … why go there?
How about contacting a Christian mediator?
If a board decides to go this route, they need to interview the mediator, and let the pastor interview him as well. The board cannot force a mediator down the pastor’s throat … and vice versa.
What are the benefits of a board seeking outside counsel?
*The board learns better how pastors think. For example, pastors are often thinking “outreach,” while board members are thinking “maintenance.” How tragic to force out a pastor who is just trying to take Christ’s Great Commission seriously.
*The board expands their thinking from “let’s get rid of the pastor” to “we need to keep our church healthy during this process.”
*The board learns about the pitfalls and land mines involved in terminating a pastor.
*The board will hear differing approaches … giving them better options from which to choose.
*The board will learn how their own emotional reactions can blind them to reality.
*The board will learn the importance of giving the pastor a fair and just severance package if they choose termination.
Why don’t boards seek thorough and experienced counsel more often?
*Pride. They don’t think they need any help.
*Consulting with outsiders takes time, and some board members are so anxious that they just want to get things over with.
*The board usually doesn’t have a budget for seeking outside help, but good counsel isn’t cheap. Yet spending $5,000 to $10,000 now may save the church hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years.
*Many boards are too incompetent to know that they aren’t competent.
Where does God factor into all this?
I left this issue until last because, in my view, many boards that struggle with their pastor don’t consult with God and then do His will … they ask God to bless their decisions and then move full speed ahead.
And that’s why God doesn’t bless them when they move to remove their pastor. They never asked God what they should do … they told God what they were going to do instead.
Personally, I think much of the time, the board wants to fire the pastor because they aren’t used to praying for him … they’re just used to complaining about him.
But if they really met and prayed for their pastor, do they expect that anything would change?
And if they don’t pray for him, what does that say about them?