Archive for November, 2018

I recently watched a TV show where a little girl found her single mother right after she had been murdered.  The case went unsolved for years.

Ten years later, that girl had become a young woman, but she still wanted to know … indeed, had to know … who killed her mother and why.

The show explored this idea: Is it better just to accept a tragedy and move on?  Or can a person only move on when they know who and what caused the tragedy?

One of the great tragedies in Christian circles is the high number of pastors who are forced out of their churches every month.

It’s safe to say that at least 1,500 pastors leave their positions every thirty days … hundreds of them due to forced termination.

In a minority of cases, the pastor did or said something to accelerate his exit, such as embezzling funds … committing sexual immorality … using a controlling, dictatorial style … or engaging in a moral or criminal felony.

But in the vast majority of cases, a faction inside the church conspires to target their pastor by plotting together, manufacturing charges, circumventing procedures, and then forcing his resignation.

After a pastor has undergone such a painful experience, how much time and effort should he invest in finding out who wanted him out, and why?


There is no easy answer to this question.  Maybe this story can shed some light on the options.

Three decades ago, I had a pastor friend who was forced out of his church after nine years.  A faction in the church falsely accused his teenage daughter of doing something wrong.  The faction insisted the girl apologize in front of the entire church, and the pastor resigned to protect her.

As was my custom, I called him immediately and listened to his story.

I asked him one day, “How many pastors from our district have contacted you?”  (There were 85 churches in our district.)  He told me, “You’re the only one.”

A year after he left, we met for lunch.  He knew the name of the person most responsible for his departure … someone well-connected inside the denomination … but he did not know why he was targeted.

I gave him a book on forced termination … one of the few available in the 1980s … and after reading it, my friend told me, “Now I know why they got rid of me.”

After that, I lost contact with him.

Years later, I opened up the San Francisco Chronicle one morning and there was a front page story about my friend.  He had left the pastorate behind and pioneered a new approach to ministering to patients with HIV.

I was proud of him … not only for overcoming the pain from his past, but for directing his energies toward helping others.


Let me draw four lessons from my friend’s story:

First, most pastors have a good idea of the key players involved in their departure.

The pastor usually knows the board members … staffers … key leaders … and regular churchgoers who don’t like him.

The pastor may not know how their spouses or children are involved … nor the exact number of people who want to see him gone.

But most pastors know the identities of most of the individuals who are out to get him.  (And if he doesn’t, his wife surely knows.)

In my friend’s case, he told me the name of the man who was most behind his departure.  I have always remembered it.

In some cases, that’s all the pastor needs to know.  In other cases, the pastor needs to know more … a lot more.


When I was forced out of my position as senior pastor nine years ago, I knew the board members were involved, and within two weeks, I discovered that the associate pastor and the previous pastor also played a part in my professional execution.

Over time, friends inside the church informed me of specific individuals who either joined the plot or applauded my departure.

I needed to know the names of those people so I could unfriend them on Facebook … purge them from my mailing list … or avoid them if and when I returned to the city where the church was located.

As it was, I still made some mistakes in trusting people I shouldn’t have trusted.

Some pastors might say, “Since I can never know the names of everyone who was against me, I’ll just cut off all contact with everyone from that church.”

But I chose not to do that.  I had developed friendships over my 10 1/2 year tenure that I wanted to keep, so I maintained a small level of contact with specific individuals.

The most supportive group turned out to be the people who had once attended the church but had moved away before the fireworks began.  Most didn’t even want to know who pushed me out or why.

In fact, my wife was contacted by one of those individuals this past week, and he asked her to become a key leader in a new missions organization.

But I think it’s important that a pastor identify the individuals most responsible for pushing him out of ministry … not to reconcile (almost nobody who conspires to get rid of a pastor wants reconciliation) but to avoid them socially … forgive them unilaterally … and relinquish them into the hands of a just God.

Second, most pastors don’t know the real reasons for their departure.

In the case of my pastor friend, I suspect that some in the church thought he was too rigid in his convictions.  He was very outspoken about his likes and dislikes, and even made me wince one time when he visited our church and criticized the Christmas tree in the back!

But I suspect that his unwillingness to play games may have been a contributing factor in his departure.  My friend made his decisions on the basis of righteousness, not politics or denominational priorities.

In many cases, the real reason why a faction goes after a pastor is that they just don’t like him.  He’s not “our kind of guy.”

But another reason why the faction doesn’t like their pastor is that they can’t control him.

After reading the book I gave him, my friend thought he knew why the faction targeted him … and maybe he was right.

But a lot of pastors never find out … and I think they should.

What if you keep repeating the same mistakes in church after church?


Maybe the film Murder on the Orient Express can help us understand the “why question” better.  (I’ve seen three versions of the story on film, and each one is captivating.)

The famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express train when a snow storm blocks the train’s progress.  During the night, a shadowy passenger is stabbed to death.

Who killed him … and why?

In the end, Poirot discovers that nine different people put a knife into the passenger’s body … each for a different reason.

That’s often what happens when a pastor is forced from office.  The plotters may circulate various public reasons why the pastor has to go, but they don’t share those reasons with others because it might make them look petty or unspiritual.

For example, I remain convinced that hatred and personal revenge are behind more terminations than we could ever imagine, but no self-respecting believer is going to admit those sins.

So there are public, group reasons for eliminating the pastor … and a host of more private, individualistic reasons.

In my case, there were four main parties:

*the church board

*the associate pastor

*a faction of disgruntled churchgoers … including some charter members

*my predecessor and his Fan Club

I might also add a fifth group, composed of a few former staffers and people who had left the church.

I believe that each party had a different motive for taking me out.  The associate pastor’s complaints were not those of my predecessor, and his complaints were different than those of the board.

It’s always amazed me … you can have a church of a thousand people, but if two people don’t like their pastor, they will inevitably find each other.

But disgruntled leaders find each other much more quickly.

Third, most leaders never tell their pastor why they think he should leave.

As I wrote above, my pastor friend did not know the real reason why some people wanted him to leave the church.

Why not?

Because church leaders – specifically the church board – never told him to his face.

They wimped out.

This is a huge problem in our churches.

When people are upset with their pastor, they don’t tell him anything directly.

They tell their friends instead.

As some churchgoers pool their complaints, they get organized … hold secret meetings … create a list of charges against their pastor … and rope in sympathetic board members or staff members.

The pastor is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced … usually without his knowledge.

And then one day, the board chairman tells the pastor that he has a choice: resign with a small severance package or be fired without any severance at all.

And all the while, no one has the guts to tell the pastor what he was doing wrong or how he could correct his behavior.

Maybe it’s just human nature for people to criticize an authority figure secretively, but it’s cowardly for people to create charges against their pastor without ever telling him what they’re unhappy about.

After all, pastors can’t read minds … so how can they change their behavior if they don’t know what they’re doing wrong?


Over the years, I had to fire several staff members.  I hated doing it, and viewed it as a failure on my part, believing that I didn’t hire them wisely or manage them effectively.

I hired one staff member, and a few weeks later, he disappeared for two weeks without telling me a thing.  When he returned, we sat down for a chat, and he told me he had every right to go on vacation without my approval or knowledge.

After I fired him, a leader asked me, “What took you so long?”

But when I fired someone, they knew exactly why I let them go.  They may not have agreed with me, but they didn’t have to guess why they were no longer employed.

In my case, the official board never formally sat down with me and expressed any concerns about my character or my ministry to my face.

They told my predecessor.

They told the associate pastor.

They told their wives.

They told their friends.

They told key leaders.

They just never told me.

And when the board fired my wife, they never spoke with her, either … telling me to go home and tell her that she had been terminated.  (I told them that two of them needed to meet with her, and later that week, they did.  But shouldn’t they have done that on their own?)

My wife and I just finished watching the fourth season of Line of Duty … a superb police procedural show from Great Britain about a police unit dedicated to rooting out corruption among law enforcement officers.

When the AC-12 unit has compiled enough evidence, they call in the officer in question, present him or her with all their evidence … and let the person respond after each piece of evidence is presented (including surveillance photos).

That’s the way it should be in our churches … but most of the time, things aren’t done that way.

The pastor’s detractors take shortcuts instead … ignoring their church’s governing documents, avoiding Scripture, and working around labor law.

The single biggest mistake the board made with both my wife and me is that they did not bring their concerns to us personally.

We could easily have rebutted most of them … and if we were wrong, we would have admitted it and asked for forgiveness.

But when you start with a desired outcome, you’ll circumvent a fair and just process … every time.

And by doing so, you violate the rights of the accused to alleviate your own anxiety.

Finally, most pastors wish they could reconcile with their accusers.

A new pastor succeeded my pastor friend in the late 1980s.  I shared several meals with him.

I don’t remember the details, but the new pastor invited my friend back to the church.  Some in the church apologized for the way they had treated my friend, and asked for his forgiveness, which included the major power broker.

This only happened because the new pastor discerned that unless he dealt with the church’s past, they might not have much of a future.

I was reminded this past week of another situation where a megachurch pastor was accused of having an affair with a woman in his church based on circumstantial evidence.  (This pastor taught a theology class I had in college and was considered a great communicator.)

When a new pastor came to that church – and he was someone I had heard preach – he eventually invited the pastor back and the church reconciled with him.

How I wish that would happen every time an innocent pastor is forced to leave a church!  But I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard of this being done.

If the church board had just talked to me honestly before making drastic decisions, we could have worked things out.  I might have taken time off, or looked for another ministry, or renegotiated my job description, or shuffled the staff around.

But they never talked to me directly, talking to others instead.  They triangled their pastor by siding with his opponents.

Reconciliation only works when both parties care more about winning over the other party than winning at all costs.


Since the board never discussed their concerns with me directly, I had to use alternate methods to find out the real story.

And if I didn’t find out, I would be forced to guess for the rest of my life why I was pushed out … and such speculation often ends in torture and misery.

So I discreetly talked to people inside and outside the church.  I wrote down everything that seemed relevant.

I consulted with:

*church friends

*staff members

*former board members

*influential people inside the church

*church consultants

*seminary professors

*Christian counselors

*a Christian conciliation expert

*other pastors

To this day, I believe that I made minor mistakes in my ministry … the same kind everyone makes … but that I did not commit any major offense against the Lord, the church, or anyone else.

I had to put the puzzle pieces together to:

*accurately assess responsibility

*avoid making similar mistakes in the future

*try and eliminate the cloud over my last ministry

*help my wife to heal

*see if I had any future in Christ’s church

*be able to sleep at night


Could my pastor friend have succeeded in his hospital ministry if his former church had never called him back for a time of reconciliation?


But what a blessing it was for him to return to his former church, listen to the apologies of those who tried to harm him, and grant forgiveness to the entire church body.

As some people write on Twitter, “More of this please!”

Yes, Lord … more of this … please.


















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The first time I interviewed to become the pastor of a church, I met a church crank.

He remained a thorn in my side for years.  Know anyone like that?

The deacons of a small church in Sunnyvale, California, received and reviewed my resume, and one Sunday night, the chairman called and asked me if I could preach at their church the following Sunday.

I said yes.

So my wife and I flew to San Jose and were picked up by the chairman, who drove us to the elementary school where the church met.

Inside a brown classroom, I met four deacons … all of them at least sixty years of age.  The chairman was 74.  The others were all over 60.

And I was just 27.

A deacon I’ll call Warren stood out because of his booming voice and his burly appearance … and as I would soon find out, he had quite a temper.

The sermon went well the following day … the people loved us … I preached a candidating sermon the following Sunday … and the church voted to issue me a call, which I accepted.

Little did I know it, but over the next few years, I would have many off balance encounters with Warren, even though his wife … twenty years his junior … was a delightful person.

For years, Warren had been a pastor in a small coastal town in Northern California.  He once told me that tapes of his sermons were circulating around the world.

But Warren wasn’t in church ministry anymore because he had been divorced.  I never learned the circumstances.

Every Sunday morning at our church, Warren made announcements before everyone went to Sunday School.  But one Sunday, Warren acted and spoke bizarrely … and I noticed his wife wasn’t with him.

When I got home from church, I called her … and she told me she was divorcing Warren … and shared with me some startling information.

When it became evident that Warren’s wife was serious about divorcing him, I couldn’t let him remain a deacon.  While I didn’t know why his first marriage had fallen apart, his second marriage was crumbling right before our eyes.

I spoke with the other deacons, and they reluctantly agreed with me: Warren had to step down from the board.

That was one of the hardest meetings of my life.  Warren was more than twice my age.  He had been a pastor for years.  And now I had to go to his house and tell him that he needed to step down from the board where he served with his friends.

To his credit, Warren seemed to understand.

But six months later, his deacon friends lobbied for me to reinstate him, telling me that he had “suffered enough.”

Although I didn’t want to, I reluctantly permitted Warren to return as a deacon … and lived to regret it.

Over the next few years, Warren did the following things:

*One Wednesday night, I taught on the resurrection of Jesus, and stated that it couldn’t be proven scientifically, which is true.  Warren stood up and yelled loudly, “Then we’re all wasting our time here!”  And he opened a heavy classroom door and slammed it … hard … and then left the school.  We all sat there in shock.  When we spoke later, he confessed that I was too good a theologian to make a reckless statement.

*Another time, I was reading a book on discipleship by British theologian David Watson, and included a quote from the book in a newsletter article.  Warren called me at home and lit into me about my use of that quote.  I had to calm him down before explaining what I meant.

*When our church rewrote our doctrinal statement, I included a section about the death and resurrection of Christ.  Warren angrily confronted me after a service because I had left out Christ’s burial!  (I left out the appearances as well … but only for brevity.)

*One Sunday night, our church held a business meeting, and Warren thought a certain woman had just criticized him publicly.  He stood up and yelled at the entire congregation when he was really upset with her.  Later that week, I had to tell him that if he didn’t apologize to the entire congregation the following Sunday night, he couldn’t be on the board anymore.  He apologized … sort of.

*The former deacon chairman was also the song leader on Sunday mornings and evenings.  He became angry with me over a petty issue and asked to come to a board meeting to complain about me.  He brought along a witness: Warren.  (The next day, the song leader left the church, but Warren stayed.)

*Although Warren eventually stopped being a board member, he did teach a Sunday School class for seniors.  One Sunday morning, I was sitting in the church office and could hear Warren teaching through the wall.  He was ripping things our church was doing … things I had full board approval to do … but Warren didn’t like them, and let his fellow seniors know what he really thought.

*Before I knew it, that seniors class began making demands … and their primary demand was that I should no longer be the pastor.  The board at that time all stood behind me, and the seniors left the church and started a new church in a school a mile away … with Warren as their pastor.  (He wasn’t their pastor for long, and the church disbanded within a year.)

But what Warren really wanted to do was return to some form of paid ministry, either as a pastor or a missionary.  He applied to many Christian organizations, but they all turned him down.  He married for the third time, but those two divorces, which he had to disclose on any application, killed his chances for employment.

Since he was out of options in the larger Christian community, I wonder if he wanted to take me out … hoping that somehow, people would turn to him as pastor.

Warren wasn’t necessarily a church bully, but he was a church crank.

And church cranks have the following characteristics, among others:

*They become known for their incessant, uncontrollable complaining.

*They become irritated over issues that don’t bother anyone else.

*They view themselves as leaders while few others do.  (Who wants to follow a crank?  You’ll just have more crankiness.)

*They have no idea how they sound or look to others.

*They make people anxious and even afraid.

*They sometimes make complaints that become contagious.

*They don’t intend to undermine their pastor but end up harming him anyway.

*They apologize enough to maintain their standing in the church.

Without doubt, Warren was a church crank.

What should pastors do with church cranks?

Let me share four ideas:

First, pastors should let cranks know how to register complaints.

Charles Spurgeon used to tell the cranks in his church to write down their complaints so he could better deal with them.  Of course, nobody wanted to do that!

Over the years, I devised a simple policy about complaints:

*If your complaint is about the pastor personally, then speak to him personally before you do anything else.

*If your complaint involves church policy, then speak to anyone who makes policy … usually members of the official board.

A pastor can’t command cranks not to complain, but pastors can insist that a crank’s complaints be directed to the right person.

And if the crank won’t follow the complaint policy, then he or she must be confronted and disciplined … or the crank may someday try and take out the pastor.

Second, pastors should encourage mature churchgoers to confront cranks about their behavior.

When I was in my late twenties, I was correcting a church leader twice my age … and it wasn’t easy or natural for me.

I needed church leaders and Warren’s friends to sit down and speak with him about his behavior … but either they were too afraid of him or they were afraid a confrontation might end their friendship with him.

So it fell to me as the pastor by default.

My father-in-law told me many times, “Jim, if there is any confrontation that needs to happen in your church, you’re going to have to do it.  Laymen won’t confront laymen.”

But they might … if their pastor asked them to do so.

When an older man keeps making a fool of himself inside his congregation, it may be because nobody had the courage to confront him earlier in his life.

But by the time a crank is in his sixties, how much he is really going to change?

Third, pastors need to watch their backs when cranks are around.

Because Warren usually came to me personally whenever he was upset about something, I never suspected that he would go underground and try to take me out as pastor.

But in the end, that’s exactly what he did.

Pastors can give cranks some attention, but you can’t give them too much because they’ll just want more … and because they’ll drain a pastor of energy.

Since a pastor can’t be omnipresent on a church campus, I should have asked a board member to monitor Warren’s behavior on Sundays.

We could have confronted him proactively from a position of strength rather than defending ourselves against him from a position of weakness.

Finally, church cranks usually leave a mixed legacy.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about Warren recently, but while I can easily remember tough encounters with him, I can only recall a couple of times where we really got along.

I tried spending time with Warren.  One time, I visited the elementary school classroom where he served as teacher.  Another time, we drove to Mount Hermon together for a men’s retreat.

But I never knew when he would explode for no reason at all.

When Warren died, I was not asked to conduct his funeral, and I’m glad I wasn’t asked.  I don’t know what I would have said!

Maybe he said some encouraging words to me at times.  Maybe he told me that he was praying for me.  Maybe he told me, “That was a great sermon” after I preached.  Maybe he put his arm around me and said, “Jim, I’m so glad you’re our pastor.”

Maybe he did all those things … and more.

It’s just that I don’t have any recollection that he ever did.




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