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Archive for the ‘Church Conflict’ Category

If you lie to me once, you’ve sinned.

If you lie to me twice, you’re a liar.

You’ve established a pattern.

It’s difficult to confront liars because they usually cover their past lies with new ones.

I once worked with a church staff member who seemed to enjoy lying.

Several people came to me and said, “So-and-So lied to me.”  They were very upset and wanted me to do something about his fibs.

I tried talking to this leader to see if I could discern any untruths coming from his mouth, but he was really good at covering things up.

So I decided to take my time and see if I could catch the leader in a lie myself.

One day a few weeks later, someone who worked with this person requested a private meeting with me.  They shared information that, if true, could only result in the dismissal of this staff member.

I took two full days to investigate some of the charges the informant made … and the most serious ones turned out to be accurate.

If I brought verbal charges to this staffer, I knew what what happen: he would just deny … or explain away … the charges … just like he did with everything else.

I needed air-tight evidence that he had lied before I could confront him.

Fortunately, I was able to get that evidence in the form of an email from a key person in a Christian organization.

I called the staffer into my office … asked him some questions … asked him if he stood by his answers … and then handed him the email contradicting what he had just told me.

He lied twice to my face … and it was tragic watching him try and explain away his falsehoods.

He left the church soon afterward.

One family in particular drew close to this staff member, and when he left, I suspected they were upset with me.

And sure enough, a few years later, they were in on the attack to force me to leave.

I can only imagine the lies he told about me on his way out the door.

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When a church conflict becomes a contest, some churchgoers start lying.

On occasion, a pastor will float a lie or two about his enemies, but most of the time, people lie about the pastor instead.

In fact, when some people want to force out their pastor, they will lie about him indiscriminately as a way of getting others to join their cause.

And by the time the pastor finds out that people are lying about him, critical mass has been reached, and so many people believe the lies that the pastor has to resign.

This is what happened in my case seven-and-a-half years ago.  There were so many lies going around about me that (a) I didn’t know where they came from, (b) I didn’t know what was being said, and (c) I didn’t know how to counter the lies.

In a very real sense, I was lied right out of the church.

Because Jesus didn’t do anything wrong, the only way His enemies could destroy Him was to lie about Him.

And because many pastors try and lead godly lives, the only way their enemies can destroy them is to lie about them.

*The lies must sound plausible or people will quickly discount them.

*The lies must be plentiful in case the pastor is able to debunk one or two of them successfully.

*The lies originate from those who hate the pastor and want revenge against him … otherwise they would sit down with the pastor in love and speak to him directly.

*The lies leak out from unlikely sources at inopportune times.

*The lies multiply once the pastor leaves the church to prevent any future influence he might have.

Several months after we left our last church, my wife and I went to lunch with a woman who had been very kind to us.

She told me that rumors were swirling around that I had had an affair and that my wife had had an affair as well.

At first, my wife and I both laughed.  She’s the only woman I’ve ever kissed, and I’m the only man she’s ever kissed.

Besides that, my wife worked on the staff with me, and we drove to and from work together in the same car … the only car we had.

And we worked right across the hall from each other.

So we both knew the affair talk was balderdash … but evidently there were some who believed it … and others who were perpetuating it.

This information greatly saddened me, but it was also an indication that Satan – “a liar and the father of lies” – had established a firm foothold in that congregation.

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People lie because it works.  And when they’re caught, they’re often able to lie their way out of trouble.

I accept the fact that there are liars inside local churches today.

But I pray they aren’t on church staffs … or on church boards … or in church pulpits … or any other places of influence … because lies destroy people, families, and congregations.

I once knew an associate pastor who worked for a pastor I knew quite well.

This staff member wanted to get rid of someone in the church he didn’t like … so he lied about him.

When the pastor found out that his associate had lied, he called him into his office … verified all the facts … and then told the associate, “You know what to do.”

The associate instantly resigned.

That’s how we used to handle church leaders who lied.

How should we handle them today?

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Pastor Henry felt all alone.

Along with his wife and two sons, Henry had just received an invitation to become the next pastor of Grace Church, a thousand miles from his last ministry.

Henry and his wife Mary surveyed the congregation when they initially visited the church but couldn’t seem to find anyone they might want as personal friends.

But one morning during his first week, Henry received a call from Bret, a longtime member who told Henry he’d come by the church at 11:30 to take his new pastor out to lunch.

Exhausted from the move, Henry was glad that someone was taking the initiative to get to know him.

Bret took Henry to an expensive restaurant, telling his pastor all about the community, the church … and the previous pastor.

In fact, Bret told Henry a lot about the previous pastor.  Pastor Mark was a good preacher who led the church through a time of unparalleled growth.  This information made Henry feel insecure.  How could he hope to compare favorably with a predecessor he didn’t know and might never meet?

But Bret didn’t just recite the previous pastor’s virtues.  Bret also slammed Pastor Mark’s leadership in many aspects of ministry, and told Henry that Mark was pushed out of office due to his shortcomings.

Henry felt better as he realized that Pastor Mark wasn’t perfect, but had his own issues.

And then Bret told Henry, “You know, I’m so glad you’re here.  You’re just what this church needs at this time.  And whatever you need, I’ll be glad to help.”

As Bret drove Henry back to the church, the new pastor felt a bond developing with his new friend.  “Finally, somebody believes in me” he thought.

Over the next several months, Bret and his wife Hope invited Henry and Mary to their home for dinner.  The two couples quickly hit it off and became best friends.  They went to movies together, ate in each other’s homes, and saw each other nearly every week.

Six months later, when it came time to suggest names for elders, Henry recommended that Bret be considered.  The others on the nominating team remained strangely silent, not saying yes or no.  Henry backed off.  Two others were selected instead.

For the next several years, the two families got along famously … and everybody at church knew it.

One Tuesday night, Hope called Henry and asked him to come over right away.  When Henry arrived, he found Bret in a foul mood.  According to Hope, Bret had been drinking and had verbally and physically abused his wife.

Henry did not like what he was hearing.

An hour before the next meeting of the official board, Henry met with Jeff, the board chairman, and asked Jeff what he knew about Bret and Hope.

Jeff was reluctant to say anything.  After all, everybody knew that the two families were tight.

But Henry insisted, and Jeff finally said, “Bret has a drinking problem, and he refuses to get help for it.  Bret wants to be on the church board, but we can’t let him because, in Paul’s words, he is ‘given to drunkenness,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘quarrelsome.'”

Henry suddenly felt very foolish.

Jeff went on, “Pastor, I don’t know how to say this right, but your relationship with Bret and Hope is causing some people in this church to question your judgment.”

After the board meeting, Henry went home and told Mary what Jeff had said.  Mary and Hope had become very close, but Hope had never shared with Mary anything about Bret’s drinking … or any other weaknesses they had.

Several weeks after visiting Bret’s house, Henry started noticing that Bret and Hope were no longer attending services.  Henry thought about contacting Bret, but he knew such a conversation would drain him of much-needed energy to run the church.

A couple months later, chairman Jeff called Henry and told him that a campaign was underway to remove Henry from office.  When Henry asked Jeff who was behind the campaign, he was told, “Bret and his wife Hope.”

Henry’s heart sank.

As a longtime member, Bret had developed friendships with many people in the church over the years, and he had a good idea who he could influence to join his “throw out the pastor” team.

Henry decided to ask Jeff a question that he had never asked before: “When Pastor Mark was forced to leave this church, who was most responsible for his departure?”

Without hesitation, Jeff answered, “Bret and Hope.”

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Insecure pastors … and there are thousands of them around … often compare themselves to other pastors … especially their predecessors.

A wise pastor quietly gets to know the previous pastor so he can (a) form his own opinions about his personality and ministry; (b) learn about that pastor’s influence and tenure firsthand; and (c) tap into that pastor’s wisdom concerning key junctures in that church’s past.

A foolish pastor rejoices when the previous pastor is denigrated, thinking it makes him look good by comparison.

But the same person who criticizes the previous pastor will eventually criticize the current one.

And the same person who supported the previous pastor will eventually support the current one as well.

Many years ago, I learned the wisdom of Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

Pastors need to choose their church friends carefully, or the friends they latch onto early in their ministry make turn to bite them later on.

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I once met a man (I’ll call him Peter) who had served as the senior pastor of a church I had known my entire life.  That church’s first pastor lived two houses down from my house, and I went to school … and later church … with his children.

My uncle, aunt, and cousins had attended that church as well.

Years later, I made many friends in that church.

And eventually, I was called to be on their staff.

While Peter and I were talking, I shared with him some conflicts that occurred during my time in that church … conflicts that became so embedded in that church’s culture that they later affected Peter’s ministry.

I could tell that Peter had an enlightened understanding of what happened to him in that church.

Why don’t more new pastors contact their predecessors and gain that wisdom and understanding up front?

Could it be because of people like Bret and Hope?

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Many years ago, I attended a Taylor-Johnson Temperamental Analysis seminar with Christian author, counselor, and professor H. Norman Wright.

Wright, who taught at Talbot where I went to seminary, shared great insights into human behavior during that seminar … and I’ve never forgotten them.

The Taylor-Johnson test indicates how an individual scores regarding nine personality traits.

When my wife and I had premarital counseling, for example, our counselor pointed out that while Kim scored high in social interaction, I scored low … meaning that she might want to attend social events that I’d prefer to skip.  (And that conclusion has proven correct over nearly 42 years of marriage.)

The test also measures traits like lighthearted/depressive, dominant/submissive, and self-disciplined/impulsive.

But Norm Wright told seminar participants that out of all the traits, the most important one was called objective/subjective.

The objective/subjective trait measures how a person interprets life events.  Do they see what’s happening around them accurately or inaccurately?

It’s my considered opinion that when it comes to church conflict … especially conflicts that involve the lead pastor … that several key individuals … on the official board, on the staff, or in a faction … grossly misinterpret the pastor’s behaviors and motives.

Let me give you an example.

In my second pastorate, I found an old box of hymnals in a back room of the church gymnasium.  They weren’t the current hymnals we were using, nor the previous generation of hymnbooks, but the generation before that.

Nobody wanted them … not even the local rescue mission.

I thought to myself, “I’m going to make a unilateral decision and toss these hymnbooks.”  So I threw them in the church dumpster and buried them deep.

But the following Saturday, at a workday, my all-time greatest antagonist somehow found those hymnbooks.  (I should have thrown them out at home.)

His conclusion?

I wasn’t throwing out old hymnbooks … I was throwing out the old hymns!

And that’s what he started spreading around the church … which angered some of the seniors, who loved those old hymns.  (I do, too.)

Whenever a pastor is accused of wrongdoing but is innocent of the charges, there are usually several people who misinterpret what the pastor said or did.

And based on their faulty thinking, they conclude that the pastor has to go.

But the truth is that such people think emotionally rather than logically.  They substitute feelings for facts, are driven by fear and anxiety, and read their own past traumas into the current situation.

Let me share with you some scenarios where a pastor’s actions or words can be misinterpreted by his opponents:

*Sometimes a pastor makes a statement during a sermon … his opponents interpret that statement in the worst possible light … and before night falls, that misinterpretation has spread to many others.

*Sometimes a pastor announces a change that’s going to be implemented at the church … his opponents hear the opposite of what he intended … and resistance begins to form.

*Sometimes a pastor’s car isn’t in its usual spot at church … his opponents conclude that he’s not working … and the charge begins to circulate that he’s lazy.

*Sometimes a pastor buys a new car or takes a nice vacation … his opponents conclude that he’s making too much money … and before long, he’s charged with being materialistic rather than spiritual.

*Sometimes a pastor is seen talking with the same woman on several occasions … his opponents begin to gossip … and before long, they’re insinuating that he’s having an affair.

This is why every church needs several people on the board and staff who are both fair-minded and, in the words of Jesus, “Judge with righteous judgment.”

Let me offer several ways a pastor can combat these highly subjective people:

*Keep them out of leadership … and watch how prospective leaders handle themselves when they hear bad news.

*Ask several believers with good judgment to report to the pastor any baseless charges that are going around the congregation.

*Keep the board chairman and key staffers informed of any false accusations that may be floating around.

*Devise a biblical process for handling charges against the pastor … have the board approve the process … and have the pastor preach on that process initially and refer to it periodically.

*When the pastor is under attack, he needs to vow that he will not resign unless a biblical process is used to test the charges against him.

I have discovered in my own life and ministry that when it comes to others, I’m very objective and demonstrate good judgment.

But when it comes to the way I view myself, I can plunge into subjectivity rather quickly.

Because pastors can become highly subjective at times … especially when they’re under attack … they need to surround themselves with objective leaders.

Especially when they decide to throw out the old hymnbooks.

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When a husband and wife aren’t getting along … and they can’t seem to resolve their issues … they may seek out a third party: a counselor.

When an employee feels she’s been wronged by her employer … and she’s tried but can’t resolve the issues inside her company … she may seek redress from a third party: a judge.

But when people in a church are in conflict and they aren’t able to resolve matters, what do they do?

They usually choose up sides … exonerate themselves … demonize their opponents … put their heads down … and attempt to bulldoze their way to victory … even if it splits their church wide open.

There is a better way.

Church conflict expert Speed Leas, in his brilliant manual Moving Your Church Through Conflict, believes there are five levels of conflict in a local church.

Leas says that conflict at levels one through three can be resolved by God’s people within their local church.

But when a conflict escalates to levels four and five, the conflict cannot be resolved inside the church.  It’s gone too far.

The church needs outside intervention instead.

But in my experience, the great majority of Christians resist that idea.

Years ago, I served as pastor of a church where we were being cheated by a building contractor.  He was billing us for his work … we’d pay him … but then rather than pay his sub-contractors, he’d divert the funds to other projects he had.

The sub-contractors were naturally upset that they weren’t being paid and came to us for the money … but we’d already paid the contractor.

We held a board meeting, and it was a bit tense because I wanted us to go to an attorney, while someone else felt it would be a waste of time.

I understand the sentiment: “Look, this is our problem, so we need to be the ones to solve it.  All we’ll do is make the attorneys richer.”

But sometimes, the biggest barrier to resolving a conflict is our pride.  We just don’t want to admit that someone else knows how to handle matters better than we do.

According to Leas, a conflict at Level Four has the following characteristics:

*Each group stops talking with the other, even when they’re in the same room.

*Each group is convinced that the other party “won’t change.”

*Each group no longer wants to win … they want to hurt the other side.

*Each group takes on an air of self-righteousness: “We’re right … they’re wrong.”

*Each group uses threats and demands against the other.

*Each group takes the stance: “Either he/they leave(s) or we will.”

When a conflict reaches Level Five, one side wants to destroy their opponents.

At Level Four, a faction may want their pastor to leave.

At Level Five, they want his position … his health … his family … and his career decimated.

I have been on the receiving end of both Level Four and Level Five conflict, and in both cases, the opposing group left the church.  In the first case, the conflict died down.  In the second case, the conflict got worse.

If a church is having a conflict, the chances are great that the pastor has become involved somehow.  Either he’s perceived as “the problem” or he hasn’t yet “fixed the problem.”  And the anxiety around the church becomes so great that people begin to wonder, “If our pastor is this incompetent or this useless, why should he stay?”

So when a conflict hits Level Four … or if it quickly leapfrogs to Level Five … the church board needs to seek outside intervention as soon as possible.

Here are five reasons to seek outside help:

First, the current church leadership has been unable to resolve the conflict at Levels One, Two, or Three where it’s much more manageable.  If they can’t manage things at the lower levels, they’ll never be able to manage matters at the highest levels.  They need an outsider.

Second, many church leaders have either been in their church for many years, or their present church is the only one they’ve ever known.  They’re so immersed in their present church culture that they don’t know how pastors and boards in other churches handle conflict … but an outside interventionist almost assuredly does.  He will help them broaden their thinking.

Third, pastors and church leaders can become so anxious and stressed about a conflict that they think they’re going crazy.  They become so irrational that all they want to do is get the conflict over with.  An outside interventionist comes in with a clean slate … no emotional investment … and a neutral approach that seeks the good of the church as a whole, not just the pastor, board, or a vocal faction.

Fourth, pastors and church leaders usually lose control of the process when a conflict erupts in their congregation.  An outside interventionist can remind everyone of what Scripture says, what the church constitution/bylaws say, and what secular law says about how Christians are to treat one another.  The interventionist can set ground rules for behavior and remind people when they have crossed the line.

Finally, the interventionist can teach the leaders … and by extension, the congregation … new skills, processes, and resources for managing conflict in the future.

Let me share my story along this line.

Seven-and-a-half years ago, I found myself in the worst conflict of my 36-year ministry career.  I didn’t know which Christian leaders to contact, so I contacted everyone I knew outside my denomination.

The name of a Christian leader popped into my head … someone who had once commended me on an article I wrote in a Christian magazine … so I looked him up online and made a phone appointment with him.

He had been a pastor … a district executive … and a denominational president.  Later on, I found out he was considered to be the best-networked evangelical leader in Southern California.

We had a two-hour conversation.  He gave me more valuable counsel over the phone that day than the other sixteen leaders I contacted combined.

He later became my mentor … and my friend … giving me hours of his valuable time, and advising me at key times when I needed to make a major decision.

My conversation with that leader was free.  He recommended I speak with the head of the consulting firm that he worked for, so a few hours later, I did.

After about a 45-minute conversation, the consulting head told me, “Jim, we need to get someone to your church as soon as possible.”

The next day, our church had been assigned a top Christian leader.  The following weekend, he dropped everything to fly to our area and help facilitate the conflict.

How much did he cost?

Think $5,000 to $10,000.  The better the interventionist, the more they cost.  If someone says they’ll do it for free, they’re probably not very good.

What did he do?

*He met with me and heard my side of things.

*He met with the church staff and interviewed them.

*He met with a group of church leaders and helped formulate strategy for two congregational meetings.

*He later met with both my wife and me.

*He stayed in constant contact with a transitional leadership group.

*He attended the two public meetings and became so incensed that he stood up after the second meeting and scolded the congregation.

*He did investigative work and uncovered a plot originating outside the church designed to force me out of office.

*He wrote a report and gave one copy to me and one to each of the transitional leaders.

*He told me that I had a future in ministry and made recommendations to the transitional leaders for a realistic severance package.

And he did it all in five days.

Who should a church hire as an interventionist?

I recommend … along with many other Christian leaders … that you don’t seek outside help from your denomination, at least initially.

Most denominational leaders aren’t trained in conflict intervention.  Even though they’ll make a pretense of acting neutral, any decisions they make will most likely be political.

And they usually recommend that the pastor leave the church, even if he is innocent of any and all charges.

If you do use denominational services, only go to them if every other avenue fails.

Here are some ideas about hiring an interventionist:

*Contact Peacemaker Ministries.  They often have trained interventionists and mediators in many communities, including former pastors and attorneys.

*Contact the executive pastor of a megachurch.  It’s nearly impossible to make contact with the lead pastor of a huge church, but you can often contact other staff members, like the executive or an associate pastor.

*Contact the seminary your church knows best, or the one you graduated from.  I was able to speak with a professor from my seminary who had extensive knowledge of church transitions and was able to give me valuable feedback.

*Contact Christian leaders who do this for a living, like Peter Steinke with BridgeBuilder.  I’ve had training directly from Steinke, and he focuses on the process that congregations should use to resolve conflicts rather than resolving matters by himself.

*Contact someone like me … a former pastor who has credentials in conflict management.

Two additional ideas:

First, make sure that you allow representatives from both sides to interview a consultant before he’s hired.  Don’t hire someone and then try and impose that person on the other side.  That will create even more conflict!

Finally, do your best to follow the consultant’s recommendations.  I’m amazed when a church hires a conflict consultant and then completely ignores his report.  How arrogant … or stupid … is that?  This usually happens in situations where either the pastor or the board is faulted in some way by the consultant and those leaders refuse to believe that they might be the problem.

By the way, when my church hired an attorney many years ago, that attorney … and someone else from his firm … not only saved our church … they also helped us settle a lawsuit that was eventually filed against us … and we settled for pennies on the dollar.

That incident completely changed my outlook on attorneys.

And hiring that consultant in 2009 changed my outlook on hiring church outsiders as well.

Is it possible that your church needs an outside interventionist?

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I ran into a little incident outside my bank yesterday that illustrates why some Christians create conflict in their churches.

My wife and I are buying a house, and while it’s a joyful time in some respects, it’s also very stressful.

Suddenly, we have to meet other people’s deadlines: producing bank statements … scanning documents … signing disclosures … scheduling an inspection … paying for an assessment … and figuring out how to turn brown dirt in the front and back yards into something attractive yet low-maintenance.

Yesterday, after several days of waiting, I finally received the go-ahead I needed to complete a financial transaction involving the house.  I promised someone I would send her the money by a certain time in the late afternoon, and I drove to the bank to finish the task with a few minutes to spare.

Only when I got to the bank, the teller … whom I have never met … told me in a “you’re stupid” tone that the deadline for completing the transaction had passed several hours before, and that I would have to come back this morning instead.

I felt the stress level rise quickly inside me.

As calmly as I could, I went to my car … called the woman who expected the funds … apologized to her for not sending them … backed up slowly … and began driving out of the parking lot.

As you leave the bank, there’s a lane on the right just past the building where cars can appear out of nowhere.  I always approach that small intersection cautiously.

And it’s a good thing I did, because a lady (I use that term loosely) came flying around the corner and nearly hit my car.

I froze … and then got out of my vehicle.

The driver pulled into a space in front of the bank, saw me, pointed right at me, and yelled, “MOVE ON!”

I loudly said, “You almost hit me!”

Then she used a creative combination of vulgar terms and yelled again, “MOVE ON!”

I wanted to move on, but I had to make my point, and I was so upset that the words weren’t coming.

Finally, I blurted out, “When you’re driving through a parking lot, SLOW DOWN!”

She used the creative combination again, and then threatened to call the police on me.  I told her, “Go ahead.  I’ll tell them what a bad driver you are.”

I got back in my car and drove away, not feeling real good about the encounter I had just experienced.

As I drove toward home, I thought to myself, “That person (she wasn’t a lady) was driving recklessly, and she’s probably had similar near-misses before … and she’s trained herself to act like a bully when she violates other people’s rights.”

Okay, that bit of psychoanalysis made me feel a tiny bit better.

But then I reflected on my own behavior, and I asked myself, “Why did I feel it necessary to confront that bully in the parking lot?  Why didn’t I just move on?”

Most of the time, I do.  In fact, I’ve trained myself to let most things go on the road.  It’s just not worth it.

But I know why I did it: right now, I am on emotional overload … my stress level is super high … and I lack a measure of self-control.

Now let’s think about some Christians in your church.

Let’s take Frank.  Frank is in his mid-60s.  In the past four months, he has undergone the following experiences:

*He’s been outsized at work and realizes his career is probably over.

*His work problems drove up his blood pressure so he’s now taking medication for that … and the medication has some strong side effects.

*Frank’s wife has recently been having memory problems, and Frank is worried that she might have … you know.

*One of Frank’s daughters recently separated from her husband, and she’s been coming over a lot more … sometimes staying the night.

So when Frank comes to church on Sunday mornings, he longs for an encounter with God.  He comes with a spirit in turmoil.  He hopes to depart with a spirit of peace.

But what happens instead?

*The music is pounding and seems louder than ever before.

*The announcements drag on and on … and several events are coming that Frank would like to attend, but he doesn’t have the money.

*The pastor’s message contains references to current movies that Frank would never see because he believes they’re immoral … but the pastor seems to love them.

*After the service, Frank hears that two of his best friends have left the church because they don’t like the music or the pastor’s preaching.

And Frank suddenly feels very much alone … in his own congregation.

Frank came to church highly anxious, hoping that God and His people would calm him down … but just the opposite happened.

And right now, Frank can’t handle his emotions.  He needs to talk to somebody about how he’s feeling.

He’d like to talk with the pastor, but he hasn’t been there long.  Frank doesn’t know him very well, and he’s afraid he’ll blow his top and end up a sermon illustration someday.

He’d like to express his displeasure to the music director, but doesn’t think it would do any good.

He’d like to talk to his wife, but she’s struggling to remember anybody’s names right now.

So when Frank gets home from church, he calls his friends who just left the church.

His friends rattle off a list of complaints … mainly about the pastor … and then Frank shares his grievances with them.

And before anyone knows it, a campaign to force out the pastor has begun.

Because this is where division begins in a church: when people begin to pool their complaints with one another rather than speaking directly with the person they’re upset with.

I’ve never tried to get rid of a pastor before, and I wouldn’t want to be a part of any campaign that had that as its goal.  I’d leave the church before I tried to push anyone out.

Yes, like the woman in the bank parking lot, some professing Christians are bullies.  They want to run the church their way … or else … and they will use threats and demands (they work well in churches that pride themselves on how loving they are) to intimidate the pastor.

But many churchgoers who end up causing trouble aren’t bullies … or even immature believers … but are ordinary believers who have been undergoing extraordinary stress in their lives.

They bring that stress with them to church, and if something at church adds to their anxiety, they start complaining … usually the first indicator that conflict is about to erupt.

Rather than dealing directly with their behavior, the pastor and/or key leaders might ask such people about their personal, family, and work lives instead:

*How is your husband or wife doing right now?

*How are your children doing?

*How are things at work?  How does that affect your career?

*How are you doing spiritually right now?  Emotionally?  Financially?

*How can we pray for you specifically?

*How can our church family assist you right now?

Many believers who end up creating havoc come to church highly stressed … become even more anxious when church doesn’t alleviate their anxiety … and finally decide to eliminate the source of their “church anxiety” … their pastor.

I don’t excuse it.

I do understand it.

And maybe … just maybe … understanding such anxiety can help church leaders address the concerns of “the anxious among them” in a more caring and compassionate manner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the fall of 2009, my wife and I went on a missions trip to Moldova with three other people.  After spending several days in London to recuperate and see some sights, Kim and I traveled north to Wales, Keswick, Edinburgh, and York before returning home.

trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-061trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-319  trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-512 trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-532

Whenever I look at photos from that trip, this little voice tells me, “The whole time you were away, the church board back home was plotting to end your ministry.”

As I’ve recounted in my book Church Coup, the official board met with me on October 24, 2009 and announced a decision designed to end my tenure at the church I had served effectively and faithfully for 10 1/2 years.

Talk about an “October surprise!”

Forty-three days later, I resigned, and preached my final sermon a week later.

I’ve been through many tough times in ministry, and managed to overcome each situation with God’s help.

But not this time … because the spirit in the church had changed.

When I refer to such a “spirit,” I’m talking about an atmosphere … a climate … a mood that I could feel … though others may not have sensed it.

In fact, one way of looking at that fifty-day conflict is to identify the spirits that drove some to push out their pastor.

As I’ve listened to the stories of many pastors and church leaders since my departure, I’ve learned that these spirits are usually present before a pastor is forced to resign … as well as during any extended conflict.

As I see it, there are at least seven spirits that drive a church coup:

First, there’s the spirit of resistance.

For years, we were the largest Protestant church in our city of 75,000 people … by far … excellent numbers in a city with only three decent Protestant churches at the time.

But an underground resistance movement… fueled by someone outside the church … slowly expanded and reached a crescendo by the fall of 2009.

Most of my time as pastor, both my leadership and preaching were well-received … but near the end of my tenure, things had changed.

Resistance is the feeling a pastor senses that certain leaders and members are no longer following his leadership.

I first started detecting resistance when we started a building program around 2002.  I let the congregation have input on both the architect’s drawings as well as our fundraising plan.

And every vote involving the building was unanimous.

We lost about eight percent of our people during that time, and two individuals in the inner circle tried to sabotage the project.

As a leader, I never forced my ideas on people.  I made proposals, stated my case, asked for input, addressed objections, called for an official decision, and then moved forward.

If various individuals didn’t like my proposals, they had many opportunities to voice their displeasure in public.

But they didn’t … they went underground instead.

By the time 2009 rolled around, I could feel the resistance, especially when I preached.  To quote Phil Collins, there was “something in the air.”

No matter what I did – perform a wedding, conduct a funeral, propose a change – there always seemed to be pushback.

Especially from the church board.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not please them.  They never told me I was doing a good job.  They never tried to encourage me.  I always felt like I was on trial.

And their resistance started wearing me down.

Second, there’s the spirit of bitterness.

Regardless of church size, it only takes seven to ten people to force a pastor out.  If that minority is determined to oust the pastor … and are willing to use the law of the jungle … they often succeed.

Some people were angry with me because I took positions contrary to theirs on matters like baptism … women in ministry … outreach events … worship style … you name it.

A handful shared their disagreements with me and we worked things out.  Most told everyone but me about their anger and pulled others into their web.

For example, as our new worship center neared completion, I created seven principles for the way we were going to run our worship services.  I went to the church board and gained unanimous approval for those principles.

But a woman on the worship team disagreed vehemently.  She began complaining about me to anyone who would listen, to the point that the board chairman had to intervene.

I invited her into my office, listened to her concerns, explained my position, thought we had an understanding, and assumed that was the end of it.

Until she started complaining again.

A few months later … having caused much division … she and her family left the church.  It hurt.  I thought we were friends.

I’m unsure if she ever forgave me.   And when people feel and express bitterness toward their pastor, that bitterness spreads, and eventually wears a pastor down … and can tear a church apart.

And all too often, the bitterness morphs into a vendetta.

Third, there’s the spirit of hypocrisy.

A hypocrite is a play-actor … someone who acts one way in public but another way in private.

While hypocrites act in a spiritual manner outwardly, they are completely different people inside.

Pastors can sense those individuals and families who aren’t behind them.  You try and move toward them, and love on them, but sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

There was a couple in that church who had been there since the church started.  No matter what, I just couldn’t seem to connect with them.

Let’s call them Bo and Jo.

I ministered to them when there were deaths in their family.  I intentionally sought them out for conversation after services.  They were cordial but rarely warm.

I knew they were good friends with my predecessor but tried to ignore that connection.  After all, what could I do about it?

Eight days after the conflict started, the entire church board resigned, and a week later, we held two already-scheduled congregational meetings designed to announce the board’s departure.

After 24 years of leading healthy congregational meetings, all hell broke loose that Sunday.  A few members became unglued and publicly sided with the board.

After the second meeting, Bo came up to me and said, “I’m praying for you, brother.”  I looked at him and said, “Are you, Bo?”  (I knew he stood against me.)

A friend later told me that Jo was crying in the ladies room because she was afraid that I wasn’t going to be kicked out as pastor.

Before I resigned, I was informed that Bo and Jo played a crucial role in forcing me out.

Jesus knew who the hypocrites around Him were and called them out.  I sensed who some were but never knew what to do except keep them out of leadership.

If you don’t want me as your pastor, there’s a simple solution: leave the church.

But people like Bo and Jo don’t want to leave.  They want their pastor to leave instead … even if he isn’t guilty of any major offense … because in their minds, it’s their church, not his church.

And, of course, they know best.

And because hypocrites are experts at playing a part, pastors may not know who they are, so they can’t proactively work things out with them.

Fourth, there’s the spirit of cowardice.

When it comes to interpersonal squabbles at church, most Christians are cowards.

If they’re personally offended by someone, they don’t approach the person who hurt them as Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:15 … they complain to their network instead.

This is especially true when it comes to pastors.

Whenever someone had the courage to tell me directly they were upset about something, I always thanked them for speaking with me personally … but it rarely happened … not because I’m scary, but because people find it uncomfortable to confront their pastor.

But sometimes, what people are thinking and feeling about their pastor is based on inaccurate information … and God’s people may not want to hear the truth.

Last year, I heard about a church where someone accused the pastor of stealing a small amount of money.  Instead of speaking with the pastor privately, this individual reported the pastor to the authorities, and then told many others in the church about his accusation.

As the charges bounced around the congregation, some felt emboldened, and added their own personal gripes about the pastor to the mix.

The pastor was driven from office even though the evidence clearly showed he had done nothing wrong.

His career was destroyed over a lie.

Christians become cowards when:

*board members are upset with the pastor but never tell him how they feel.

*members allow false accusations about their pastor to spread.

*everybody is afraid to confront the ringleaders who initially attacked the pastor.

*people who know the truth won’t share it for fear of being vilified.

If God’s people would just grant their pastors the protections Scripture offers them in Deuteronomy 19:15-21, Matthew 18:15-17, and 1 Timothy 5:19-21, we could put an end to the epidemic of pastoral terminations once and for all.

But that will require a spirit of courage that is sadly lacking in most congregations… and it requires working hard to disintegrate the groupthink that grips so many.

Fifth, there’s the spirit of gullibility.

Many years ago, I began an Easter service by announcing that the President of the United States had suddenly resigned.

After hearing gasps all over the room, I exclaimed, “April Fool!”

If I tried that today, someone would check out the news on their smart phone before I ever got to “April Fool.”

But churchgoers who often check out the facts regarding the news rarely check out negative information they hear about their pastor.

If I was a regular churchgoer and I heard a serious rumor about my pastor, I would want to know:

*the original source of the rumor.

*who is spreading the rumor.

*who they’ve been talking with.

*how solid their information is.

*the views of different staff and board members.

If I believe the first thing I hear, then I’m really gullible.  And if I pass on that information without verifying it, I could well be passing on a lie … and destroying both my pastor and my church.

But wise, mature, discerning Christians check out the veracity of what they hear before they do anything else.

Yet in all too many churches, people hear negative information about their pastor … instantly believe it … spread the story to others … and then can’t revise the narrative because it will make them look bad … so they continue to perpetuate half-truths and outright lies.

During our conflict, after board members resigned, they and their wives jumped on their phones and called as many people as possible.  (A friend from out-of-state told us who called her and what was said.  Why call her?)

When I was telling my story to my ministry mentor several years ago – a former pastor and denominational president – this is the point at which he said, “Jim, I am so sorry.”

It’s one thing for people who hate their pastor to spread vicious rumors about him.  It’s another thing for good Christian people to believe them … especially when the pastor has a decade-long track record of integrity.

What hurts more than anything is that most people never bothered to pick up the phone to hear my side of the story.

The week before I resigned, Satan attacked my family in a horrible way.  Few people know the story.  I’ll spare you the details.

During the attack, I received a phone call from a newly-elected board member who told me about the latest charge against me.  He told me the source of the rumor … where that person heard it from … and exactly what they were saying.

Because he called, I was able to snuff out the rumor with facts, which I’m sure he passed on to the other new members.

I could have snuffed out all the rumors if people had just contacted me … and I still can … but by this time, nobody cares.

Don’t the conquerors write the history?

Sixth, there’s the spirit of blindness.

By blindness, I mean that a pastor’s attackers believe they see his faults clearly.

They just can’t see their own.

Let’s modify Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5 a bit:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your pastor’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your pastor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your pastor’s eye.”

Paul’s words in Galatians 6:1 (with one modification) are also appropriate here:

Brothers, if your pastor is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.

God’s Word does not say that you are to watch your pastor’s life and then tell others about every little thing he may have done or said wrong.

No, Scripture says that before you deal with those caught in sin, you should first “watch yourself” to make sure you have a humble, loving approach so you can restore the wayward person.

And if you don’t first “watch yourself,” you aren’t qualified to address anyone’s sin.

Whenever a pastor is pushed out of a church, there are usually a few narcissists and sociopaths involved.  People who have these personality disorders never admit they do anything wrong at home … at work … or on the road.

They bring that same mentality to church, and when they sense their pastor is vulnerable, they move in for the kill … and never feel badly about the part they play.

What’s amazing to me is that many churches allow such spiritually blind people to be their leaders.

Finally, there’s the spirit of destruction.

There is a spirit behind these seven spirits … and it’s not the Holy Spirit of God.

As Ephesians 2:2 specifies, it’s “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” … Satan.

As I say quite often, Satan has invaded a church when two factors are present: deception and destruction.

Or we might say … deception leading to destruction.

Jesus said in John 8:44 that Satan is “a liar and the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning” … and He was addressing His comments to spiritual leaders.

When a pastor has done something wrong, those in a church controlled by the Holy Spirit will gently and lovingly confront him with the goal of restoring him spiritually and even vocationally.

But under similar circumstances, those influenced by Satan will harshly and hatefully condemn him with the goal of destroying him both personally and professionally.

Instead of identifying Satan’s work in their own lives, such people gleefully detect satanic influence in their pastor.

As Neil Young sang, “I don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them.”

My wife and I could not only sense Satan’s influence during the conflict … we could taste and feel it.

It’s something you never forget.

After the church board resigned, I hired a church consultant … with the assistance of five well-respected congregational leaders.

After interviewing some leaders, and witnessing two horrendous congregational meetings, the consultant wrote a report where he exonerated my wife and me and faulted others.

Then a nine-person team from the church looked into the charges against us and publicly announced that we were not guilty of wrongdoing.

But one year later, the tables had turned, and friends sadly informed me that my reputation inside the church had been decimated.

The verdicts of the consultant and nine-person team no longer mattered.  My opponents had to win.  I had to be destroyed.

The hit job on me was so complete that after I left the church, not one person – including family, friends, or colleagues – felt that I should ever pastor again.

After 36 years, my church ministry career was over.

_______________

Several months after I resigned and moved to another state, I had a conversation with a church consultant from the Midwest.  I kept asking him, “Why did these people … who claimed to be Christians … act the way they did?”  Because I could never act that way toward anyone else, I couldn’t get my head around it.

The consultant told me, “Jim, the opposition to your ministry was probably there for years, but you didn’t see it because people covered it up well.  When you were attacked, their true feelings came spilling out.”

_______________

I’m going to end this article by quoting Galatians 5:19-23:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hated, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Which terms best represent those that try and force out their pastor?

Hint: it’s not the second group.

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While cleaning out some boxes kept in storage yesterday, I ran across a photo taken of me at an event from my last church … and I instantly felt a twinge of pain inside.

Then I started to feel sadness behind my eyes … like I wanted to cry but couldn’t.  That feeling lasted for about half an hour.

I’ve had these feelings for years now, and I don’t like them.  They come upon me at unexpected times, especially when I focus too much on the conflict that propelled me out of church ministry seven years ago.

Even though I’ve written extensively about pastoral termination and church conflict over the past six years – having written nearly 525 articles – I haven’t written much about the feelings that a pastor has after he’s been forced out of office.

While I can’t speak for every pastor who goes through this horrendous experience, maybe it would be helpful to describe what’s healthy … and unhealthy … after a pastor undergoes termination.

So offering up my own experiences as a model, let me share five emotions that I experienced in the aftermath of my departure from ministry in 2009:

First, I was shocked by the viciousness some people demonstrated to get rid of me. 

Some people I served as pastor did everything in their power to destroy my position as pastor as well as my reputation.

And I mean destroy.

There is no way to sugarcoat what they did or said.  These professing Christians intended harm toward me, their pastor.

It was revenge … and personal.

Only I didn’t know then … and don’t know today … what I did or didn’t do to illicit such hatred from them.

That shock lasts a long time.  In many ways, I’m still not over it.

I never preached with a hateful tone nor a hateful manner, so those feelings did not originate with me.  They either came from an internal or external source.  My guess is that they came from someone outside the church who fanned the flames of anger inside the church.

The attitude of these people was not, “We disagree with your views on several subjects,” nor, “We think you’ve lost effectiveness and should go.”

No, their attitude was, “We hate you, Jim, and we want you to leave and never come back.”

These were people who professed to love Jesus, His Word, and His people … so how could they demonstrate such rage against their pastor who had served them faithfully for 10 1/2 years?

I have no idea.

When I was nineteen years old, I became a youth pastor.  One night, after finding out that two of my former Sunday School teachers were involved in sexual immorality, my pastor told me, “Jim, don’t ever be shocked by what Christians do.”

Over the years, I’ve tried not to be.

But sometimes, I still am.  Sometimes, the whole conflict invades my soul without warning, and I shake my head and say to myself, “I could never, ever treat a pastor the way I was treated.”

If I’m shocked at anything today, it’s that not even one person responsible for pushing me out has ever apologized for their actions.

Second, I engaged in a lot of self-reproach.

I have this really unhealthy habit of believing bad things people say about me while ignoring the good things.

It’s not so much a self-esteem issue as it is blaming myself for not being perfect.

So when the church board attacked me privately … and their allies attacked me publicly … I figured that I must be who they said I am: a horrible person and pastor.

Nearly every charge made against me was a partial or complete falsehood, and I knew that at the time, but I still blamed myself for not being everything they wanted in a pastor.

Whenever someone severely criticized me, I used to tell myself, “How arrogant of me to think that I can please all 400 adults in this church.  I can’t, and nobody else can, either.”

That’s a healthy way to view criticism.  But when your critics all align together, and pool their complaints, and fire them off into the ether, it’s natural to think, “They must be right.  I must be a colossal bozo.”

That’s why going to counseling was so important for both me and my wife.  We needed an outside, objective, different perspective.

We saw two counselors: one who practiced a few miles from that church, and another who practiced in another state.

Both told me the same thing: the way you were treated was wrong, and your critics failed to demonstrate any love or redemption, the tip-off that your opponents were not very spiritual.

Let me quote from Dennis Murray in his book Healing For Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack:

“The attack on you is not information about you.  It is information about the handful of ringleaders who organized the battle…. Healing begins by recognizing that you did the right thing.  You were blessed with an incredible ‘manure detector’ that allowed you to see exactly what was happening.  You have been blessed with a perceptive intelligence that allows you to distinguish truth from lies.  Your intuition is highly developed and you were able to separate fact from fiction.”

Although I still don’t know why my attackers hated me so much, I no longer blame myself for the conflict, and realize that while I made mistakes in ministry, nothing I did justified the way I was treated.

Third, I experienced a normal amount of depression.

Dr. Archibald Hart is the best teacher I’ve ever had.  He taught “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class in Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program.  (And he told me that he would put my book Church Coup on his reading list.)

Dr. Hart believes that whenever you’re depressed, you need to find the core loss, and only then will you start to recover.

My wife and I lost so much after my resignation: my position, my income, my reputation, our house (it was underwater and was sold in a short sale), our church family, our credit rating, and worst of all, most of our friends.

That’s a formula for depression.

When my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat sponsored by The Ministering to Minister’s Foundation the month after our departure, Dr. Charles Chandler and his colleagues stressed the importance of both going to counseling and taking antidepressants to aid in recovery.

Fortunately, my wife and I were both already doing those things.

After we left our last ministry, we moved to another state 750 miles away.  For months, I could either explode in anger or break into tears at the drop of a hat.  I spent weeks just walking around the neighborhood where we lived, wondering how I could ever pastor a church again.

My core loss?  In my view, I had lost my identity as a person … and in a very real sense, was lost both vocationally and personally.

Which means that to go forward, I would have to reinvent myself vocationally.

Here’s what I’ve learned about depression after a forced departure:

*Whenever I returned to the community where my previous church was located, I would become increasingly anxious and afraid.  I can no longer get anywhere near it.  It’s poison to my soul.

*Whenever I took a trip out-of-state, my depression lifted, probably because I felt safe.

*Whenever I’ve talked about my situation in public – like in a workshop for Christian leaders – I feel fine.

*Whenever I write a blog, I rarely feel sad because I’m trying to help others by engaging in something redemptive.

*When I wrote my book Church Coup, and had to look at documents that were created during the conflict, I could feel my intestines tie into knots.  If it’s a difficult book to read, imagine how painful it was to write.  (This is probably why there are very few books written by pastors about their own forced terminations.)

*When I became an interim pastor three years after leaving my last ministry, I felt great most of the time … except when I was drawn into several conflicts.

I’ve been asked if I’m willing to do any more interim work, but right now, the answer is “no.”  Whenever I even imagine myself serving at a church, the pressure behind my eyes builds again, and I start feeling a large degree of anxiety.

For me, healing involves working, and being involved in ministry … just not church ministry.

Fourth, I am completely open about every aspect of the conflict.

Years ago, I determined that I would be a pastor who would express his humanity and describe his feelings if it would be redemptive.  I grew up with pastors who never let us know who they were or what they felt strongly about, and I didn’t want to be like them.

So when the Lord allowed me to go through a 50-day conflict of which I was the focus, I resolved that I was going to make things redemptive by sharing what happened to me so that I could help others.

Many pastors have who been pushed out of their churches don’t want to talk about what happened to them with anyone.  They keep it all inside … for whatever reason.

Maybe they don’t want to relive it.  Maybe they don’t want to dwell on the past.  Maybe they figure they can’t change what happened.

Or maybe it’s all just too painful.

My ministry mentors are leaders like Archibald Hart, Bill Hybels, and Stephen Brown … men who are authentic and transparent about their feelings and failures.

So if someone wants to talk about our conflict, I’m glad to engage.  If someone wants to steer away from the topic, I’ll follow their lead.

Several months ago, I learned that someone who had supported my ministry during the entire time I was at my last church turned against me after I left … and she surely wasn’t the only one.

It hurt me for a moment, but then I figured, “Why should this bother me?  I can’t straighten out everybody.  Besides, the next time we’ll see each other is in heaven, so she can only hurt me if I let her.”

But I felt that sadness behind the eyes again, and had to wait for it to subside.

To write my book, I had to engage in hours of personal ruminating as well as many interpersonal conversations.  My hope was that by writing a complete account of what happened … with commentary from conflict experts … I could put the entire situation behind me.

Writing the book did help a great deal.  I don’t have to revisit any major events mentally because I’ve already recorded them.

I would say this: being open about what happened to me probably wrecked any chance I have of returning to church ministry someday, but it’s made me much more empathetic and effective in helping pastors who have undergone this horrendous experience.

And I think that’s a great trade-off.

Finally, I have felt a strong sense of isolation.

I love Sherlock Holmes, whether it’s Doyle’s original stories, the episodes filmed for Masterpiece Theatre in the 1980s, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s current take on Holmes.

Holmes was a consulting detective which means that people who wanted help with a problem had to seek Holmes out directly.  They came to him … he didn’t go to them.

When I was a pastor, people emailed and called me for help during the week. They made appointments for my counsel.  They sought me before and after services.  As an introvert, I loved it when people came to me for help.

I was a somebody at church.

But when you’re no longer a pastor, you suddenly feel like a nobody at every church you visit.  And God help you if you tell the pastor that you’re an ex-pastor who would like to use his spiritual gifts to make a difference.  Most of the time, you will be perceived as a threat and shunned just for saying that much.

The Christian community simply does not know what to do with its former pastors.

My wife and I live in a desert community.  We have many business clients but no real friends in the area.  We are not only each other’s best friends … we are each other’s only friends.

We do have some family around: 60 miles away … 75 miles away … 330 miles away … and 490 miles away.

And we do have some good friends we see several times a year.

But it’s not the same as when you have church friends that you see several times a week because they live in your community.  We’ve tried going that route, but so far, it hasn’t worked.

In case you’re wondering, I love my life right now.  The Lord retired me early, and I enjoy working with my wife, seeing our grandsons, watching sports, and going to concerts and ballgames.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This Monday marks seven years since the beginning of the conflict that pushed me out of church ministry.  As I do every year, I’ll be writing a special blog about that experience and including some things I’ve never shared before.

If I can help you or a loved one who has undergone a church attack, please let me know.  Either leave a comment on this blog or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org

Sometimes reaching out to someone who understands is the best way to start your recovery.

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