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.
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.