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Archive for December, 2016

While reading the Christmas story again last week, I was struck by a phrase in Matthew 1:19.  After Mary was discovered to be pregnant – presumably with another man’s child – Joseph her fiancee had several choices to make.

Because he was “a righteous man” – a man who thoroughly kept the Mosaic law – he intended to break off their betrothal because she had been sexually unfaithful to him.  According to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Joseph had every right to not only “divorce” Mary but also to insist that she be stoned in order to “purge the evil from Israel.”  Scripture seems to indicate that most men in Joseph’s situation would have had Mary executed.

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was guided by a different spirit.  The ex-taxman writes that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” so he decided to “divorce her quietly.”

He did not want to expose her to public disgrace.  How unlike our culture.  How unlike our media.  And sadly, how unlike Christ’s church.

I’ve been reading Gayle Haggard’s book Why I Stayed recentlyAs you may recall, Ted Haggard was the pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs – a mega church of 14,000 – as well as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.  Some unflattering news surfaced about him a few years ago, and Pastor Haggard resigned from both his positions.  Many women – even Christian women – would have left Mr. Haggard at that point, and would have been biblically justified in doing so.  But Gayle chose to stick it out with her husband, thus the title of the book.

The story of her relationship with Ted makes for fascinating reading, but I was far more interested in the latter half of the book.  Gayle describes the way that prominent Christian leaders, the church’s governing board, and their friends treated them during this time, and although she maintains a gracious, non-vindictive spirit throughout, the same cannot be said for the believers involved.

The Haggards – including Gayle, who was innocent of wrongdoing – were treated in a humiliating way by the church they founded in the basement of their home.  Within a week of their departure, all traces of their ministry at the church had been purged.  People who knew them were interviewed so as to find more “dirt” on them.  Both believers and non-believers were able to say anything about them they liked but the Haggards were not permitted to reply.  They were even told they had to leave the state of Colorado which meant that their children had to leave behind their friends and schooling.

No matter what they did, it was eventually misinterpreted.  No matter what they said, it was flagrantly disregarded.

Pastors are fond of preaching on the fact that God can use anyone, even a liar like Abraham, a murderer like Moses, an adulterer like David, and a hothead like Peter.  But let that same pastor fall into sin and he will be tarred, feathered, and blogged about ad infinitum, often by people who are his own teammates.

Phil Keaggy, who has long been my favorite Christian male artist, co-wrote a song with Sheila Walsh called “It Could’ve Been Me.”  The song always makes me think and can bring me to tears.  (The song is found on the CD Way Back Home and is available on iTunes if you’re interested.)  After describing the fall of a Christian leader, Keaggy’s powerful chorus nails each one of us to the wall:

But it could’ve been me,

I could’ve been the one to lose my grip and fall.

It could’ve been me

The one who’s always standing tall.

For unless you hold me tightly, Lord,

And I can hold on too,

Then tomorrow in the news

It could be me, it could be me.

Just four chapters after Matthew 1, the grown-up Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  When Mary “fell” – which is what Joseph thought until the angel enlightened him – Joseph chose mercy over vindictiveness.  Mary’s pregnancy undoubtedly caused her to lose her local reputation as a virtuous woman.  It might even have ended her chances of ever marrying anyone.

But although we now know the back story, neither Joseph nor the folks in Nazareth did at the time.  A modern love story would probably tell us that Joseph married Mary anyway, but as a keeper of the law, he couldn’t bring himself to do that … until God told Joseph that Mary was not only his soul mate but also the mother of the promised Messiah.

When pastors are forcibly terminated from their churches, they suffer many losses: their jobs, their income, their houses (in some cases), their careers (potentially), their marriages (sometimes) and most of their church friends.  And though they’re almost always innocent, their family members suffer those same losses.

But just like Mary and Ted Haggard, they also lose their reputations, whether the charges made against them are valid or not.

I find it ironic that pastors, who are conduits of God’s grace to scores of sinners throughout their ministries, cannot find that same grace when someone accuses them of wrongdoing.

May I urge you, not only at this Christmas season, but in every season of life, to be gracious toward every sinner who comes into your life, whether it’s a woman pregnant out of wedlock or a pastor who has been forced to leave his church because our Lord Jesus Christ suffered public disgrace that we might become recipients of His grace.

That’s why II Corinthians 8:9 is my favorite Christmas verse: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

May God give us the ability to treat wounded Christian leaders with the same grace that Christ has shown us … because only grace can lead us home.

Merry Christmas!

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I wrote this article six years ago.  It was among the first ones that I published.  It’s still relevant today.

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From time-to-time, I receive emails from churchgoers whose pastors resigned suddenly.  These concerned individuals want to know what, if anything, they can do about their pastor’s unexpected departure.

Someone wrote me recently asking that very question.  This is how I responded (with some slight modifications):

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Thank you for writing.  I’m sorry for what happened to your pastor.  It’s happening a lot these days.

I’m going to suggest some things you can do that are perfectly within your rights as a longtime church attendee.  More than anything, YOU WANT TO DETERMINE IF THE PASTOR RESIGNED VOLUNTARILY OR IF HE WAS FORCED TO RESIGN.

*Contact the pastor and/or his wife directly.  Ask them what happened.  Write down what they say for accuracy.  If the pastor signed a severance agreement, he may not be able to discuss anything until the agreement expires.  If he didn’t receive a severance agreement, he should be able to speak freely, although some pastors believe they’re being divisive if they say anything about their departure.  (I don’t hold that particular viewpoint.)

*Find a copy of your church’s governing documents: the constitution and bylaws.  Find the section on removing a pastor from office.  (Some churches don’t have any governing documents, while others don’t have a section on removing a pastor.)  Familiarize yourself with the key sections of those documents.

*Contact a member of the governing board of your church, whether they’re called elders, deacons, trustees, the church council, or something else.

*Ask the member you know best, “Which process did the board use that led to our pastor’s resignation?”  It’s not time to ask about any charges that might have led to the pastor’s exit.  Just focus on the process.

*Tell the board member you’ve contacted – or the entire board in writing – that you would like a written copy of the process that the board used to deal with the pastor.  My guess is that most boards won’t have one in writing, but you’re doing them a favor by asking them for it anyway.  They will be forced to think through the steps they used to secure the pastor’s departure.  Since board members are usually voted into office by the congregation, the board needs to account to the congregation for how they treated the pastor.  (And in congregationally-run churches, the pastor is voted on by the church as well.)

*If the board resists, don’t threaten or make demands.  Just tell them that you’d prefer not to take things further.  You just want a copy of the process.  If they can’t or won’t produce it, then they may be hiding something.

A couple I know well told me that the board in their previous church forced out their pastor.  Soon afterwards, due to feedback from the congregation, a board member stood up at the end of a Sunday service and told the body that the board wasn’t going to talk about why the pastor left and so people needed to stop talking about it.

My friends left that church soon afterwards … and I would have done the same thing.

A church board doesn’t need to tell their congregation everything about why their pastor left, but they do need to tell them enough.  Most parishioners love and trust their pastor, and if he suddenly leaves, the board needs to be as forthcoming as possible to keep people’s trust.  The quickest way to lose it is for them to say nothing.

This is why I recommend asking the board for a copy of the process they used.  It doesn’t ask them to violate any matter that is strictly confidential.  It just asks them to recite the steps they used.  However, if they won’t reveal the process, or you sense they operated by the law of the jungle instead, your board members may be trying to cover up their role in you’re pastor’s departure.

*Compare the process they used to (a) the governing documents; (b) Scripture; and (c) labor law in your state.  There are many articles on my blog that deal with the scriptural way to correct or remove a pastor.

*If a bully was involved in pushing out the pastor, and the board felt pressured by the bully, he/she won’t show up on the written process.  But even if that’s the case, the board is still responsible for their decisions and actions.

*Ask around discreetly.  Find people in the church’s inner circle who know what happened.  Contact them directly.  Ask them why the pastor resigned.  Make sure their information comes from a reliable source.

*Ask questions of the right people, but refrain from offering your own opinions.  If anyone wants to know what you’re doing, just say you’re trying to learn what happened.  Assume that when you offer your opinion, you will be quoted and whatever you say will get back to the board.  While no one can stop you from asking questions, they can and should stop you from forming a faction or making outrageous statements.

Sometimes a pastor may appear to be godly and gracious in public, but is nasty and mean in private.  Sometimes the board will ask such a pastor to change his behavior but he will refuse.  Sometimes a pastor resigns because he’s had an affair, or because he’s a tyrant.  It’s hard to know who a pastor really is when parishioners only see and hear from him for an hour or two every week.

The church board may act independently of the congregation, or they may have received complaints against the pastor from certain key members.  Board members can become incredibly anxious when important leaders or longtime friends threaten to leave the church unless the pastor is sacked.

Sometimes the pastor hasn’t been getting along with a staff member or a key leader and he’s pushed toward the exit as people choose sides.  Many years ago, I attended a church where the pastor fired a popular staff member and soon afterwards, the pastor himself was forced to quit.  In cases like these, the board doesn’t want to talk about the issues because they don’t want to reveal the names of those who weren’t getting along with the pastor.

Keep a written record of the questions you ask and the answers you receive.  It is not divisive to try and find out what happened.  It is divisive to form a faction, use it as a power base, and begin to issue threats and ultimatums.  You should be allowed to have your say but not your way.

Once you’ve absorbed what I’ve written, feel free to respond or ask questions.  I hope I’ve been helpful!

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Which two areas in a local church have the greatest potential to catapult a pastor out of ministry?

According to church conflict expert Dr. Peter Steinke, those two areas are money and sex.

When I first became a pastor, I was unprepared for the value placed on money in the local church.  In fact, I can’t recall even one word being devoted to the topic in seminary.

But the quickest way for a pastor to be pushed out the door is for him to mess up – even in a small way – on church finances.

Let me share with you seven brief thoughts I’ve learned about pastors and church finances:

First, the pastor’s personal finances need to be in pristine order.

A pastor needs to watch his spending and his indebtedness very carefully.

Although they shouldn’t, some people watch the kind of car the pastor drives and the kind of house in which he lives … and if they think he’s being excessive, they will rip into him behind his back.

One famous pastor bought a cabin in the mountains with income unrelated to his church ministry, but a vocal minority howled about it, and it became a factor in his eventual departure.

I remember hearing another time about a pastor who had a gambling problem.  As I recall, he finally gambled away his house … and soon afterwards, his career.

My wife and I have lived by a budget for most of our married life.  We both have set allowances every month, and we can spend those funds however we like, but each of us is accountable to the other for every other expenditure.

I check my bank accounts online nearly every day and balance my checkbook at the same time.  At any given moment, I know exactly how much money we have and how much we have to spend.

Because when it comes to personal finances, I hate being surprised.

In 36 years of ministry, I can’t recall a single time that anyone criticized me in the area of personal finances.  I’m sure some did, but their comments never got around to me.

But realize this: people assume that church funds are managed the way the pastor manages his own funds.

This area is crucial because of the next lesson:

Second, the pastor must give generously to his local church.

By generously, I mean at least a tithe, and preferably beyond a tithe.

I don’t know if he still does this, but for years, whenever he preached on giving, Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church would invite people up to the front after his message so they could view his checkbook and see how much he gave to the church.

Following his example, I did this for years, but my son Ryan was the only person who ever took me up on it!

If a pastor isn’t giving at least a tithe to his church, he can’t speak with integrity on the subject, and that will come through in his preaching.

The day after the conflict broke in my last church seven years ago, I preached on the story of the widow’s mite from Mark 12:41-44.  I was so rattled that I forgot my tithe check at home.  Between services, I drove home, wrote my usual check, returned to the church, and dropped the check in the offering … then shared that story during the second service.

I don’t believe that if a pastor tithes, his church will automatically do well financially, but I do believe that if a pastor doesn’t tithe, his church won’t do well financially.

And there are always a few people in the church who know the truth about the pastor’s giving, especially the money counters and the financial secretary.  During anxious times within the congregation, if even one financial person tells someone else about the pastor’s giving patterns … well, let your imagination run wild!

Third, the pastor should never handle people’s donations: period.

In my last ministry, people would sometimes come up to me after the service – especially people on the worship team – and tell me, “Hey, Jim, I wasn’t able to put my donation in the offering today.  Will you take care of this for me?”

I always told each person the same thing, “No, I don’t handle money, but let’s go together and you can put your donation in the drop safe.”

We had a slot carved out of the wall next to the church office where people could insert their donations.  They went down a chute and instantly fell into a safe.

I treated other people’s money like poison.  I didn’t want anything to do with it.

In that way, it would be difficult to accuse me of stealing someone’s donation, whether by cash or by check.

Years before, at another church, someone once slipped fifty dollars in cash under my door.  Whoever put the money there didn’t identify themselves or the purpose of their gift.

When I mentioned it to the finance team leader, I thought he’d hand me the money.  Instead, he immediately deposited it in the offering … and his actions protected my financial reputation.

Fourth, the pastor needs to make sure that people’s donations are protected by safeguards.

I once knew a married couple who scooped up the Sunday offerings, took them home, counted them together, and then deposited the funds in the bank the following day.

This practice was a carryover from the previous administration, and when I found out about it, I quickly put a stop to it.

Another time, a law enforcement officer in our congregation told me that after the offerings were taken in each service, a woman took the proceeds, walked several hundred feet by herself, and then locked the money away until after the service.  He told me, “It’s dangerous for her to carry those funds by herself.  What if someone knows her route, hits her on the head, and steals the money?”

I didn’t think about things like that because I was preaching when she made her walk, but his comment spurred me to make sure that she was accompanied by at least one other person … preferably a strong man.

We eventually devised a system that started with donations … ended with the bookkeeper writing checks … and covered everything in between.

For example, we always made sure to have three people counting money.  If one person counts the offerings, they might be tempted to embezzle funds.  Even two people working in concert could engage in embezzling.  But when there are three money counters, embezzlement almost never occurs.

Fifth, the pastor must communicate that the church budget is a servant, not a master.

Let’s say that you have a family budget, and that you have a category marked “household repairs.”  You just fixed your garbage disposal for $200 so you have little money left for other problems.

But then your refrigerator begins to leak water, and after calling out a friend, he tells you, “Your refrigerator is shot.  You need another one.”

Since the “household repairs” category has been depleted, are you going to wait months to buy a refrigerator?

No, you’ll move heaven and earth to buy one right away, regardless of the budget category.  Your family NEEDS a refrigerator.

Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with a handful of board/finance people who act like the church budget is a master.  If a category becomes depleted, they’ll say, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t have funds for that item until next year’s budget.”

Church budgets should be as flexible as possible.  Yes, God’s people need to learn to live within their means, and yes, some items and repairs can wait, but there are times when a church will limp along unless it replaces the copier or fixes that leaky toilet in the men’s room.

One of the great things about not being a pastor is that I don’t have to consult the bean counters anymore.

Sixth, the pastor needs to realize that money flows toward the most effective ministries.

In my last ministry, my wife was our church’s outreach director for nearly nine years, and she knew how to get things done.

One Saturday night early in her tenure, we had a big feast on the lawn outside the worship center.  The place was packed, we had gondola rides on the lagoon adjoining our property, and the mayor and his wife even stopped by for a visit.

My wife’s vision and passion to reach people became contagious.  One couple in particular began donating large amounts of money directly to her ministry through the offering.

Some on the board were very upset about this development.  They wanted to ask the couple to give to the general fund instead.

While I understood their viewpoint, I pointed out that if the couple was told where to give the funds, they might stop giving altogether.

During our entire time in that church, funds flowed easily toward the outreach and missions ministries because that was the primary area that God was blessing.

But there were other ministries that weren’t as well funded … mostly because nobody was very excited about them.

I still believe this basic principle: money flows toward the ministries … and churches … that God is blessing.

Finally, the pastor needs to monitor the financial systems privately but stay away from the money publicly.

If there’s a breach in the financial systems of a church, the pastor may very well be blamed, even if he had nothing directly to do with a violation.

For that reason, the pastor needs to make sure that his church does everything in the financial realm properly, because if he doesn’t, it may be his head that rolls.

About ten years ago, a prominent megachurch here in Southern California suspended the senior pastor because of financial irregularities involving a staff member.  The pastor knew nothing about the staff member’s sloppiness, yet the pastor was scapegoated and eventually forced to resign.

I believe that a pastor’s involvement … at least in a small or medium-sized church … extends even to who the money counters are.  Whenever my last ministry needed a new money counter, I would make a list of potential volunteers.  We needed someone who was committed to the ministry … had a lifestyle of integrity … and who would keep their mouth shut about who gave how much.

Those people aren’t always easy to find, but they are worth waiting for.

At home, I’m hands on with the money: budgeting … keeping records … transferring funds … paying bills online … the works.

But even though I could handle the funds directly inside a church, it’s crucial that I delegate those duties to others who are optimally qualified or else I will be viewed as a control freak.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, I was pastoring a new church in Silicon Valley.  We had the location, the staff, and the ministry for growth, but in that resistant environment, the ministry was not growing as fast as I wanted … and that included the finances … which made me anxious and even fearful at times.

One night, during our midweek worship time, the Lord spoke to me in an audible voice … the only time I ever remember this happening.

His word was just for me.  The Lord said, “You take care of the ministry, and I will take care of the money.”

And He did.

The Lord wants all of His shepherds to know that taking care of the money is a huge part of taking care of the ministry.

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