Archive for the ‘Church Health and Conflict’ Category

“Tell me your story.”

Whenever a pastor under attack contacts me – whether he wants a listening ear, an analysis of his current situation, or some counsel – I encourage him to let me know what he’s going through.

Even though I’ve heard scores of such stories – and have my own to tell – I always learn something that allows me to help someone else down the road.

Years ago, Chris Creech – author of the recent book Toxic Church – heard similar stories from pastors, but he didn’t necessarily want to hear them.

Creech was a new missionary, trying to meet with pastors in hopes that the pastor would persuade church leaders to financially support his plan to teach at a seminary in Singapore.  He had also been a pastor and a church planter for nearly 30 years.

Creech opens his book and all the information below is taken from its first chapter – by recounting a time when he met with a pastor named Bill and his wife Pat to ask for financial support … but the pastor needed emotional support from Creech instead.  Why?

Two elders had just met with that pastor and accused him of saying something that he had never said.  Creech recounts:

“They then asked Bill to offer his resignation.  They promised that if he refused to resign, they would make certain that he was fired.  They refused to listen to Bill’s explanations.  They had determined that Pastor Bill had to go!”

Creech continues:

“Bill was absolutely shocked.  The church was growing.  They had just completed a major building project.  The treasury was doing quite well.  They were even considering a new missionary (me).  How could they ask for his resignation on the basis of charges from nameless individuals and an attack from a person whose words were completely fraudulent?”

Creech then shares the dilemma that the pastor and his wife had:

“Should they fight the charges?  Would anyone believe them?  Would anyone care?  What would happen to Bill’s career if he left suddenly without a plausible explanation?  What church would consider him if he left without a place to go?  What would happen if they stayed to fight the charges and then were forced to leave?  Was there anyone who could help them with the struggle that was before them?”

After leaving the pastor and driving away, Creech was disturbed but wasn’t sure why.  Then it came to him:

“I was troubled because Pastor Bill’s experiences mirrored my own when I was serving a troubled church.  I too had been wounded, and I still felt the pain of being attacked.  When I listened to the lament of my new friends, Bill and Pat, I was reliving the horror that had been a part of my life.”

As Creech continued to meet with pastors and seek financial support, his experience with Bill and Pat was repeated “over a dozen times.”

*One pastor said a member of his church had died because of the attacks against him.

*Another pastor’s child committed suicide after a church member waged “a relentless war against him and his family.”

*Pastors endured serious physical ailments related to their attacks.

*Pastors had been falsely accused of “adultery, doctrinal impurity, or some other ethical or moral misconduct.”

*Staff members often colluded with the pastor’s primary accuser.

One Sunday morning, Creech was preaching, and during the early part of the service “the sanctuary had emptied of many members of the congregation, including the pastor … after the worship, the pastor told me that he had been meeting with the church’s board during the worship service.  He had been fired …”

Can you believe that?  He was fired during the worship service!

And then Creech writes:

“We have now been on the mission field for many years.  All of the struggling pastors I met during our support raising days have been forced to leave their churches with the exception of two.  These two are surviving, but barely…. Three of our supporting churches have closed their doors since we began our ministry in Southeast Asia.  Struggles between pastors and churches were a significant part of the closing of two of these churches.”

Creech’s book – and I’m not done reading it yet, but I highly recommend it so far – dramatizes what is clearly becoming a serious problem in many of our churches.

Let me make four observations based on what I’ve shared from Creech’s book:

First, the problem of pastoral termination is too widespread to be completely the fault of pastors.

Yes, a few pastors are arrogant and narcissistic … a few others are controlling and manipulative … and a few more are just plain incompetent.

But there can’t be that many bad pastors in Christian churches.

Pastors are chosen by God … trained by seminaries … ordained by churches … and called to congregations.  They are highly specialized professionals.

The root cause lies elsewhere.

Second, various church leaders – especially members of the official board – are acting independently of boards in other congregations.

I’m not aware of any blogs, newsletters, or books that encourage church boards on how to push out their pastors.  In other words, this phenomenon is not organized … on earth, anyway.

I see two issues at work when pastors are terminated:

*The church board is unable to think biblically, rationally, and creatively when someone – often another board member, staff member, or key church leader – makes a serious accusation against the pastor.

Board members don’t ask themselves, “What process does the Bible prescribe in this situation?”  They don’t ask, “Why don’t we individually think and pray about this accusation before we take action?”  They don’t ask, “If this accusation turns out to be true, how can we deal with the pastor without pressing for his resignation first?”

Instead, someone blurts out, “I think the pastor needs to go” … another board member chimes in, “I agree!” … and the flame becomes a firestorm.

*The enemy slips into the inner circle of the church undetected.

And he uses the same entry point nearly every time: a church leader who is angry with the pastor over a personal and perceived injustice.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:26-27 that when we let the sun go down on our anger – when we let it fester and grow into bitterness – we give the devil a foothold into our lives and churches.

Just once, when a board member complains about his pastor, I’d love to hear another board member tell him, “It sounds like you have something personal against the pastor.  Why don’t you meet with him and work it out?”

Just once.

Third, church leaders move to power too quickly when love would be far more effective.

When Chris Creech told the story of Pastor Bill’s meeting with the two elders, the elders never tried to use love as a methodology.

Love would have said to Pastor Bill, “We’ve just heard someone make a serious accusation against you.  We’d like to set up a meeting between the two of you.  Our prayer is that this issue can be resolved quickly and peacefully and that you can continue to enjoy a productive ministry here.”

Instead, power said, “We don’t care if this accusation against you is true or not.  In fact, it’s such a serious charge that as far as we’re concerned, you’re through around here!  Pack your bags, pastor, or we’ll pack them for you!”

When the pastor finally resigns, the average churchgoer will hear, “The pastor said something so offensive to someone that he was forced to quit.”

But the reality is that those two elders – possibly without the knowledge of the others – were the real culprits in the pastor’s departure.

In my own case six years ago, the board never tried love.  They went straight to power.  Mass casualties resulted.

Finally, we need strong, determined, principled Christians to stand up to those who bully pastors – even if the bullies are on the church board.

The problem, of course, is that the bullies do most of their plotting behind closed doors.

But inevitably, the plot leaks into the congregation, and some people hear about it.

If I was one of those individuals, I would:

*find out who was on the church board

*ask around to find out which board member was most approachable

*ask to speak with him/her as soon as possible

*ask if the pastor is under fire

*and then ask, “What process are you using to insure that the pastor is treated biblically and justly?”

When there is no predetermined process, the pastor is being evaluated by church politics instead.

Predetermined processes heal pastors and congregations.

Church politics destroy everybody and everything.

I encourage you to obtain and read the book Toxic Church by Chris Creech.  The Kindle edition on Amazon is still selling for only $4.97.

Read Toxic Church … and both you and your congregation can become much healthier.








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A woman my wife and I knew once called our house and angrily complained about her husband.  In her mind, he had done some unspeakable things.  She concluded her tirade with the words, “I am going to divorce him.”

She got on the phone and called many others.  When some contacted us, they all said, “She wants to divorce him, and we told her that we agree with her.”

But I told my wife, “We’ve only heard one side of the story.  We haven’t heard his side yet.  Maybe the husband is totally guilty of the charges made against him.  But maybe his wife is guilty of some misbehavior as well.  Let’s not take her side or his side.  Let’s remain on the side of the marriage.”

When we hear that someone we know and trust has done something wrong, we tend to become emotionally reactive.

We adopt the view of the person sharing the news with us … believe the news we hear completely … and thus prove ourselves to be foolish.

God’s Word encourages us never to believe the first thing we hear about a person.

Moses speaks to the judges in Israel in Deuteronomy 1:16-17:

“Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien.  Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike.”

Proverbs 18:17 adds:

The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.

Imagine that you attend the trial of a murder suspect.  The prosecution takes three days to present its case, after which the judge vacates his bench, the press doesn’t show up anymore, and the defense is not allowed to present or cross-examine witnesses.

What would we call that?

A miscarriage of justice … if not a downright perversion.

But in thousands of churches, when people first hear a nasty rumor about their pastor, they not only tend to believe it … they pass the rumor on to others.

And every time someone passes on the rumor without first checking to see if its true, they put another nail in their pastor’s reputation and career.

I had a conversation with someone recently about her former pastor.  This man taught a theology class I took in college and led a large church for many years.

But this pastor was driven out of his church, and I never heard exactly why.  So I asked the woman, “What did the pastor do wrong?”

Since this woman hadn’t attended the church in years, she told me what a friend from the church once told her, but the evidence seemed purely circumstantial to me.

Maybe the pastor was guilty of a serious offense … but based on what little I heard, maybe he wasn’t.

Many years later, a new pastor came to the church, and wanting to lead the church with a clean bill of health, he brought that former pastor back and, on behalf of the church, apologized to him for the way he was driven away.

What a wise and healing thing to do!  It’s done all too rarely these days.

If you hear an unflattering rumor about your pastor, I encourage you to do the following:

First, never believe the first thing you hear.

The initial reports are likely to contain inaccuracies.  For example, when there’s a mass shooting in our culture, how many times do we hear the number of victims revised upward but later downward?  All the time.  The same principle is true in churches.

Second, ask your informant where they got their information.

If it’s from a former disgruntled staff member, or a rebellious board member, or a chronic complainer, suspend your judgment until you know more.  And if your informant received their information from an unreliable source, remain skeptical.

Third, contact the pastor directly and ask him about the rumor.

The quicker you go to the primary source, the better-informed you’ll be.  If you don’t know the pastor, or you’re afraid to approach him, ask someone from his family or someone who knows him well.  But don’t short-circuit this step.

Several decades ago, I knew a young couple who were engaged to be married.  The woman didn’t tell her fiancée that she was pregnant until her seventh month, and he was devastated.  I went to see him, but everything I said was later twisted.  For example, I told him that I wanted him to stay in the church, but a report came back that I told him that I didn’t want him in the church, which was entirely false.

But I wonder how many people heard that rumor and instantly believed it?

Fourth, contact several wise individuals in your church and ask them how to interpret the rumors.

Every church has godly men and women who have witnessed everything under the sun in church life.  Ask them if they’ve heard the rumor.  If they haven’t, share what you know.  They may choose to conduct a small investigation and then let you know what they’ve learned.

Fifth, wait until you know the facts before deciding to support the pastor or leave the church. 

When conflict is present in churches, people become anxious.  They want to know what’s going on and seek a quick resolution to the problem.  They don’t like matters to remain open-ended; they want closure.

So some people will choose to believe the rumors right away and then demand the pastor’s resignation, but such action is usually premature until the rumors have been investigated.

Several months ago, I read about a church where the pastor was accused of some serious charges.  The pastor chose not to resign but to let the charges be investigated.  Several months later, he was completely exonerated of all charges.

Wouldn’t you have looked foolish if you had prematurely called for his resignation?

The apostle Paul made matters very clear in 1 Timothy 5:19.  Paul told his protégé Timothy:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder [includes pastors] unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.

There must be witnesses.  There must be facts.  There must be an investigation.

Rumors alone should never convict a pastor of wrongdoing.

I beg you: resolve before God that if you ever hear an unflattering rumor about your pastor … or any pastor … that you will heed the words of James 1:19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry …

Isn’t this the way you’d like to be treated by others?

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There are occasional verses in Scripture that I don’t fully understand.

And two of those verses are found in Matthew 5:23-24 in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus says:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Jesus seems to be saying, “If you’re in the act of worshiping God, and suddenly recall that a fellow believer is angry with you, suspend your worship, seek out your friend, make things right, and return to worship renewed.”

These two verses seemed simple to live out … until I became a pastor.  And then I ran into all kinds of scenarios where I tried to live out these verses but wasn’t sure how to apply them.

Some examples:

*How about when a pastor stands up to preach?

Some Sunday mornings, I would walk up to the stage … look out over the congregation … see several people who didn’t like me … and wonder, “Should I keep on preaching, or stop everything and find out why those people hate me?”

I kept on preaching … but did I violate Matthew 5:23-24 in the process?

*How about when people leave the church without telling you as pastor?

One time, a family had stopped coming on Sundays for several weeks, and someone told me they had left the church.  So I drove over to their house and knocked on their door, and the man of the house appeared.  When I asked if I could speak with him and his wife, he refused because his wife didn’t want to talk to me.  Although she later returned to the church for a brief time, the family ultimately left for good … and they never did tell me what I had done wrong.

I tried to apply Matthew 5:23-24 in that situation … so why didn’t it work?

*How about when someone continually asks if you are angry with them?

Years ago, a staff member came to me every few weeks and asked me, “Are you upset with me?  Have I done something to offend you?”  I wondered, “Am I giving off accidental signals that he’s displeased me?  Or is he just an overly-sensitive individual?”  Although he was trying to live out Matthew 5:23-24, in my view, he went way overboard.

Let’s reverse this situation.  How would you feel if your pastor came to you every few weeks and asked, “Have I done something to offend you?  Please tell me what I’ve done so I can make things right between us!”  Would you start to run every time he got near you?

*How about when someone comes to you and says, “So-and-So is really angry with you?”

This scenario happens to every pastor.  Whether they’re meddling or just want everybody to get along, some churchgoers seem to ferret out offenses that the pastor has committed against others … then come to the pastor to report the bad news.

If a pastor has preached his heart out at two services on Sunday morning, and a Christian ferret comes to him after the service and says, “There are four individuals in this congregation who are really upset with you, pastor,” should the pastor spend the rest of his Sunday contacting these people to make things right with them?

But most of the time, when I have approached people who were reportedly incensed at me, they denied that they felt that way at all … and sometimes, I felt like an idiot.

Is that a valid application of Matthew 5:23-24?

*How about when a pastor makes a decision that negatively impacts many people in the church?

I once attended a leadership conference at a prominent megachurch.  A well-known pastor told us that he once tried to impose a major change on his church, but because he didn’t handle things wisely, many people were either upset with him or stopped coming altogether.  In the spirit of Matthew 5:23-24, this pastor visited every home that he could identify where people were upset with him, and he apologized for his behavior personally.

While I have great admiration for any pastor who would humble himself like that, I also wonder if that was the best way to handle that situation.

I am not trying to evade what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:23-24, but I am trying to understand His words so that pastors know when to apply them … and when not to do so.

What do you think Jesus was saying in those two verses?

I’ll have more to say on this topic next time.

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One Sunday morning many months ago, I received a phone call from a layman who attended a church in another state.  He had read the following blog article discussing whether pastors should preach on controversial issues and he wanted to talk.


He told me how distressed he was that his pastor didn’t preach on anything controversial and wondered what, if anything, could be done about this problem.

We proceeded to have an impassioned discussion about the reluctance of most pastors to talk about the moral and social issues of our day.

Since the decision to affirm gay marriage in all fifty states by the Supreme Court in late June, I’ve been wondering why so many evangelical pastors have been reluctant to say much … if anything … about this issue.

Weeks ago, I wrote my mentor and asked him if he knew anyone I could speak with about why so few pastors talk about anything controversial anymore.

He directed me to a veteran pastor and former Christian university professor.  When we had lunch several days ago, I shared with him some reasons why I felt pastors were silent, and he told me, “You have an article right there.”

So … why don’t most pastors preach on controversial issues?

Let me give you six primary reasons:

First, most pastors are feelers rather than thinkers.

As I mentioned in my book Church Coup, Dr. Charles Chandler from the Ministering to Ministers Foundation states that on the Myers-Briggs test, 77% of all pastors are feelers, while only 23% are thinkers.

This does not mean that feeling pastors don’t think, nor that thinking pastors don’t feel.

But this statistic indicates that nearly four out of every five pastors are governed more by their feelings than their reasoning.  I would think this applies not only to their leadership and shepherding duties, but also to their preaching.

Here is an example of a scenario that I faced all the time when I was preparing a sermon:

Let’s say that I’m scheduled to preach on the eighth commandment this Sunday, “You shall not steal.”

As I’m preparing my message, I remember that a man in the church was caught embezzling funds at his work … an “investor” cheated another man in the church out of several thousand dollars … and a high school kid was arrested for shoplifting.

While I certainly don’t want to preach at those individuals … and given the announced topic, they might not show up that Sunday anyway … do I pull my verbal punches because I might say something that causes them pain?

My guess is that the “feeler” pastor will pull his punches.  The “thinker” pastor will prepare and preach as if those guilty of theft won’t even show up.

I’m more of a thinker than a feeler … more prophetic than personal … and even though the faces of the “thieves” would flash before my mind during sermon preparation, those faces wouldn’t stop me from saying what I believed God wanted me to say.

But those faces would affect the “feeler” pastor.

Second, most pastors lack the time or motivation to properly research a controversial issue.

I once heard that one of America’s great Bible teachers spent only 6 to 8 hours preparing each sermon.

Rick Warren promised the people of Saddleback in their early days that he would spend a minimum of 15 hours per week in sermon preparation.

We were taught in seminary that a pastor should spend 20 minutes in preparation for every minute in the pulpit.  That’s a minimum of 12 hours of preparation for a typical 35-minute message.  (Some homiletics professors say that a pastor should spend one hour in preparation for each minute in the pulpit, but that seems hopelessly unrealistic to me.)

In my case, I spent an average of 15 hours on every sermon I preached.

But 4 issues each required more than 20 hours of study: abortion, atheism, evolution, and gay marriage.

I studied my brains out for those messages because I needed to:

*know what I was talking about.

*familiarize myself with the various views.

*think through and refine my own position.

*present my material in a biblical and interesting manner.

*address any objections and questions that people might have after the message.

On those rare occasions when I scheduled a sermon on a major issue, I tried to clear my calendar ahead of time so I could devote my best thinking to that message.

Most pastors just won’t … or can’t … do that.

Third, most pastors would rather address spiritual topics than cultural ones.

Last year, I visited a megachurch close to my house.

The pastor was preaching through Ephesians and came to chapter 5, verse 18, which says:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

The first thing the pastor said was, “Now I’m not going to talk about alcohol.”

Alarms started going off in my brain.  I might even have said, “What?????” out loud.

If you’re a pastor, you have to talk about alcohol in this verse because Paul’s whole point contrasts alcohol with the Spirit’s filling.  Alcohol is a depressant … the Spirit is a stimulant.  Alcohol abuse leads to wastefulness … the Spirit leads to productivity … and so on.

I sensed this pastor was comfortable talking about the Spirit, but uncomfortable talking about alcohol.

But the passage clearly says “don’t get drunk” … not “you can’t ever drink anything.”

When the pastor came to the end of the chapter … where Paul compares the union of Jesus and His church to a marriage between a husband and wife … the pastor punted on the whole issue of gay marriage as well.

This is pietism, pure and simple … the spiritual view that all that matters in my life is my relationship with God and my relationships with God’s people.

But what about what’s happening out in the culture?

Many years ago, I gave a message on a culturally sensitive issue, and a man at my church … who was an electrician … thanked me profusely for that talk.  He said that now he could speak intelligently with his fellow electricians about that issue.

To me, that’s a major part of what Ephesians 4:12 means by “to prepare [equip] God’s people for works of service” … and I don’t think that service only applies to the four walls of the local church.

In fact, when a believer tries to share his faith in the marketplace, it’s common for an unbeliever to bring up the existence of God … the authority of Scripture … and the latest cultural issue.

If God’s people know how to answer people intelligently (1 Peter 3:15), they’ll be better evangelists.

Fourth, many pastors are afraid they will turn off potential converts by discussing hot topics.

Several years ago, I attended an Easter service where the pastor … who was preaching on Christ’s resurrection … twice criticized the practice of abortion.

That seemed odd to me … especially since there’s nothing in any of those resurrection texts about killing a fetus.

My concern was, “Of all Sundays in the year when you want to focus on Christ alone, this is the one!”  His comments turned me off … and, in the words of Neil Diamond, “I’m a believer.”

I once knew a veteran pastor who espoused this “drop in” technique.  He believed in discussing a hot issue for just a sentence or two … and then moving on to the main issue.

But for me, I’d rather devote an entire message to a controversial issue and “make a case” for the biblical/Christian position.

I would never just spring such a topic on a congregation.  Instead, I’d announce it ahead of time, so that those who didn’t want to hear that message could plan not to attend.

Back in the early 1990s, when I was relearning how to preach, I noticed that Bill Hybels … pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, the nation’s largest church at the time … never shied away from anything controversial.

In fact, he did a series called “Our Modern Moral Trifecta,” bringing separate messages on abortion, racism, and homosexuality.

Hybels is primarily an evangelist … by his own admission … but wow, did he ever hit those topics hard … and his church was reaching unbelievers in droves!

I believe that every area of a Christian’s life should be lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ: your home life … your work life … your financial life … your citizenship … your sex life … your leisure time … your church participation … everything.

If that’s true, then shouldn’t a pastor be willing to preach about anything and everything as well?

As my friend Dr. Donald Shoemaker says, “Preaching that avoids what is timely is unworthy preaching.”

Fifth, many pastors are afraid they will hurt or offend people in their congregations.

Here’s how this thinking goes:

“I don’t want to preach that homosexual behavior is wrong because I’m sure there are some gay people in my congregation and I don’t want to condemn their behavior and turn them off to Christ.”

“I don’t want to preach against adultery because I know people in this church who have had affairs and talking about the issue will only bring them pain.”

My first reaction to this kind of explanation is, “Then why didn’t you become a therapist instead of a preacher?”

I recently heard a Jewish commentator on the radio chastise evangelical pastors for not talking about anything controversial, and I thought to myself, “Christians leaders are farming out these issues to Bill O’Reilly … Rush Limbaugh … Sean Hannity … and Michael Medved because we refuse to address them.”

I believe a pastor has to do two things with any controversial issue that is clearly mentioned in Scripture:

*He has to say, “This is where the Bible comes down on this issue.  Let me tell you what this means … why God said this … and how doing this will help you in your life.”

I believe it’s helpful for unbelievers to hear a pastor talk about sanctification … how to lead a holy life … so he or she knows what God expects of them if they do come to faith in Christ.

Paul loved to preach the gospel … as he did in Romans 1-11 … but then he talked about how to live a Christian life in chapters 12-16.

We can’t do one or the other: we need to do both.

*A pastor also has to say, “If you’ve crossed the line on this issue, and you’ve confessed your sin to God, He will forgive you … each and every time.  But you may also have to repent by changing your behavior.  We’re here to help, and here’s the help we provide.”

If a pastor just rips on people who have violated God’s Word, I agree … that’s counterproductive and harmful preaching.

A pastor also needs to tell people how to be liberated from their sins … and if you do that, you can preach on anything.

Finally, many pastors don’t believe that a sermon is the best place to address issues of controversy.

This was the view of the late Robert Schuller.  For years, he taught that controversial issues should be addressed in a classroom setting so there could be adequate discussion of all sides.

It’s interesting to me that Blll Hybels’ mentor was Schuller … but that Hybels deviated from Schuller’s practice on this.

It’s also interesting to me that the only time I ever heard Schuller preach in person at the Crystal Cathedral … in February 2000 … he preached on “You shall not commit adultery” … and he hit a grand slam with that message.  In fact, it’s probably the best sermon I’ve ever heard on that topic.

So even Schuller … the non-controversial television evangelist … couldn’t always shirk the tough issues!

Here are five brief ways that pastors can wisely address controversial issues in their churches:

*Preach on the ones you feel strongly about.  I’ve preached on abortion once in 36 years of preaching.  While I abhor the practice, it’s not something that has touched my life personally.  But once I preached on the issue, my position became the position of my church, and if anyone asked where we stood, either I or the other leaders could tell them.

*Invite guest speakers to address specific issues.  When I pastored in the San Francisco Bay Area, I invited Dr. Philip Johnson from the University of California at Berkeley to speak on a Sunday.  His specialty was law and logic, which he used to decimate macroevolution in many of his books.  Or if a pastor doesn’t feel comfortable addressing abortion, he could invite a speaker from the local Christian pregnancy center to address his congregation.

*Allow for people to ask you questions in public after you preach.  This was the regular practice of Dr. R. T. Kendall from Westminster Chapel in London.  When he was done preaching, he arranged for microphones to be set up in the aisles, and people would come and make comments or ask questions after the sermon.  I love this approach and wanted to incorporate it in my last ministry, but we could never work out the logistics.  But I think people would learn a lot more from a post-sermon dialogue than they would from an exclusively pastoral monologue.

*Create a small group devoted to discussing hot topics.  I once led a group where we discussed a different issue every week from a biblical viewpoint.   It could be capital punishment one week … Arminianism and Calvinism the next week … and gun control the following week.  I led the discussion, but let group members select the topics.  This kind of group isn’t for everybody, but it provides a much-needed outlet for people who want to delve into issues with more depth.

*The pastor teaches a midweek class on various issues every summer.  For years, I taught a class on Tuesday nights during the summer on hot topics.  The class was usually well-attended … people got to make comments and ask questions … and I even divided people up into smaller groups for more focused discussion.  If there’s a Bible school or seminary professor in your church who could do this instead of the pastor, that’s fine … but I think it’s important to offer these kinds of classes on a regular basis.

I realize this article has been a bit long, but I wanted to deliver my soul on this topic.  Thanks so much for reading!

What are your thoughts on this subject?

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My wife and I once lived in an apartment located directly behind a prominent church in our community.  My theology professor from seminary attended there, as did several friends.

One weekend, I had a Sunday off from my own church, so my wife and I decided to visit the church behind our place – and I’ve never forgotten what happened.

The service began with the pastor standing up to announce a change in church scheduling.  He sounded hesitant … defensive … and even scared … and his announcement went on for twenty minutes.

I was so shocked by how long his announcement went that I can’t remember anything else about that service.

So it didn’t surprise me when I later learned that church was undergoing severe conflict … and that the pastor’s days were numbered.

When a church is experiencing major conflict:

*everyone can feel the tension.  More than any service I’ve ever attended, you could cut the tension that morning with a knife.  I never found out what the exact issues were.  Maybe it was the pastor’s lack of leadership … or his remoteness … or the fact that he wanted to superimpose the culture of his previous church on this one.  Whatever it was, we could feel there was trouble afoot.

*people just want relief.  Most churchgoers don’t like conflict and just want it to vanish, and they’ll do almost anything to gain relief … even to the point of doing unchristian things.

*the pastor will usually be blamed … either for starting the conflict … allowing it to continue … or not resolving issues quickly.  I don’t know what role that pastor had in making that announcement … whether it was his idea or whether it came from the church board … but he became identified with the scheduling issue in many people’s minds.

*outreach will be affected.  Nobody greeted my wife and me as we entered the worship center … and nobody greeted us as we exited, either.  I remember telling my wife, “The people in this congregation feel relationally and emotionally cold.”  Even though we lived behind the church, we never returned.

By contrast, here’s what Acts 9:31 says about the progress of the early church:

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace.  It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord. 

This is one of five summary statements about the early church in the Book of Acts.  It’s such a positive and joyful observation that when I preached through Acts many years ago, I devoted an entire sermon to this single verse.

And what is most remarkable is that the church of Jesus Christ was at peace in three different locales: Judea,  Galilee, and Samaria.  That’s like a district minister saying, “We have one hundred churches in our territory, and every one of them is relationally healthy.”  Happens rarely, if ever.

How can a church enjoy such a time of peace?

*The church must unite around Christ’s Great Commission.  A church’s priority has to be community and global outreach: “making disciples of all nations.”  Nothing unites a church more than focusing on Jesus’ final words to His disciples in Matthew 28:19-20.  When a church focuses on efficiency … finances … fellowship … social justice … or some other agenda rather than outreach … that church has started to die.  It’s no accident that this church “grew in numbers” … and those people didn’t come from other churches!  They were all new converts.

*The church must be led by authentic leaders.  These leaders … composed of pastors, staff members, and board members … must give priority to the Great Commission in their own lives.  Whenever a church isn’t growing, it’s usually attributable to two things: the pastor isn’t preaching the Great Commission … and the pastor and leaders aren’t living it out.  When they are, they’ll have so many stories to tell that their passion will become contagious throughout the congregation.

*The leaders must fear God more than their critics.  I love the last phrase of Acts 9:31: “living in the fear of the Lord.”  The leaders always did what God wanted them to do.  They did what was right, even when they were criticized by state or religious officials.  Jesus was their Head … not any government or ruler … and they were His body.  I see some Christian churches caving to cultural pressures right now, and when they do, they usually shrink in numbers.  The early church didn’t live in fear of the culture … they lived in fear of their God.

*The congregation must be empowered by God’s Spirit.  When I was a rookie staff member, I sometimes engaged in ministry in my own strength … and things almost never worked.  I learned the hard way that to be effective, I had to be filled with God’s Spirit, asking God for His power and relying upon Him for any results.  When we give ourselves completely to the Lord, we sense His smile, and we’re “encouraged by the Holy Spirit” as a byproduct.

*The believers quickly resolved their conflicts with each other.  They did not let the sun go down while they were still angry with somebody (Ephesians 4:26).  They learned to talk with anyone who had hurt them … before they went to bed … so they could live and serve in harmony.  They knew that only a church at peace can grow in numbers … and they wanted as many people to come to Christ as possible.

I once had the privilege of leading a church like this, and for several years, it was the closest thing to heaven on earth that I have ever experienced.

Is your church enjoying a time of peace?

If not, what can you do to bring greater peace to your congregation?

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It is the nature of a pastor to want everyone in a congregation to like him.

And when a pastor discovers that some people don’t like him, that revelation can be painful … especially if they eventually leave the church.

But sometimes those who don’t like the pastor choose to stay … and want him gone instead.

The pastor’s detractors start pooling their grievances against him … meeting secretly … and plotting their strategy to make him unemployed.

When he’s under attack, it’s natural for a pastor to focus on those who stand against him.  After all, the knowledge that some people think you shouldn’t pastor their church is devastating.

But a healthier approach is for the pastor to ask himself, “How many allies do I still have in this church?”

The more allies … and the stronger their support … the better chance the pastor has of surviving any attacks against him.

Let me share with you seven kinds of allies that every pastor needs to survive internal attacks:

The first ally is God Himself.

If a pastor believes that he is innocent of wrongdoing before God … no matter what his opponents claim … then he may confidently count the Lord God among his allies.

I read Psalm 56 during my quiet time today.  David begins:

“Be merciful to me, O God, for men hotly pursue me; all day long they press their attack.  My slanderers pursue me all day long; many are attacking me in their pride.  When I am afraid, I will trust in you.  In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid.  What can mortal man do to me?”

David believed strongly that God was 100% behind him.  From his perspective, the Lord wasn’t on the side of his enemies; he was on David’s side.  After all, God had called David to lead Israel, hadn’t He?

When a pastor is under attack, he needs to remind himself, “God called me to lead and shepherd this church.  He did not call my detractors.  Therefore, I will assume that God is on my side.”

A pastor can have no greater ally than God Himself.

Paul asks in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  This rings true in the spiritual realm.

Yet inside a congregation, a pastor may sense that God fully supports him … and yet get bounced by people who aren’t listening to God.

So the pastor needs human allies as well … the more, the better.

The second ally is the pastor’s wife.

If a pastor’s wife doesn’t respect him, or doesn’t believe he should be in ministry, or wants nothing to do with the local church, her feelings will impact her husband’s ability to pastor.

In such cases, it would be better for a pastor to leave ministry and work on his marriage than to stay in the church and eventually lose both his marriage and his ministry.

But if a pastor’s wife is solidly behind him … if she tells her husband, “I support you no matter what anyone else thinks” … if she listens to his fears and takes care of his needs and prays with him when he’s under attack … then that pastor can truly count his wife among his allies.

Before we met 42 years ago, my wife wanted to be a missionary.  I felt called to be a pastor.

Because of her love for me, she was willing to submerge her dreams and serve at my side throughout my 35+ years of church ministry.

On those rare occasions when I was attacked, she stood solidly beside me.

I cannot imagine a better human ally.

The third ally is the church’s governing documents.

Whenever a group inside a church chooses to attack their pastor, they often fail to consult their church’s constitution and bylaws.

Those governing documents were adopted when church leaders were calm and thinking clearly.  And they usually specify how the congregation is to behave when people have become reactive and irrational toward their pastor.

When pastors contact me and tell me they’re under attack, I ask them, “What do your governing documents say about how to remove a pastor?”

Sadly, in too many cases, the church doesn’t have any governing documents … and it’s too late to create them when a group wants the pastor’s scalp.

The governing documents are really a legal and organizational ally.  And if they do specify how a pastor is to be removed from office … and the pastor’s detractors ignore them … then they need to be told … possibly by a board or staff member … that their efforts will not be recognized unless they conform to church protocol.

No church should ever abide by the law of the jungle.

Since most groups opposing a pastor thrive in the dark but wilt in the light, just informing them that they’re violating “church law” can be enough for them to stop … or at least adjust their strategy.

The fourth ally is the official church board.

If the Lord, the pastor’s wife, and the church’s governing documents are all on the pastor’s side, then everything comes down to where the official board stands regarding the pastor’s future.

Whether they’re called elders, deacons, trustees, the church council, the board of directors, or something else, the official board … usually voted in by the congregation … can make or break a pastor’s position.

Some observations:

*If the board chairman strongly supports the pastor, that’s a huge advantage.  During my 25 years as a solo or senior pastor, every board chairman fully stood behind me … except the last one.

*If a majority of the board stands behind the pastor … including the chairman … then it will be difficult for the pastor’s detractors to prevail.

*Much of the time, when a group attacks the pastor, they already have one or two allies on the church board … maybe more.  The group is emboldened largely because they have friends in high places.  Those board members often remain quiet about their position until they sense they’re going to prevail … and only then will they make their position known.

*If the entire board stands behind the pastor, then it may not matter who stands against him.

*If the entire board caves on the pastor, then it may not matter who else stands behind him.

Nearly 30 years ago … when I was in my mid-thirties … I was attacked by the Senior’s Sunday School class at my church.  They compiled a list of my faults, met with two board members, and demanded that the board remove me from office.

To a man, the board stood solidly behind me.  And they told me privately that if I resigned, they would all quit as well … thereby turning the church over to the Seniors … who knew absolutely nothing about leading a church.

When the board told the Seniors they supported me, the Seniors all left … when they disappeared, we were free to pursue God’s vision for our church … but it took time.

Judith Viorst once wrote a book called Necessary Losses.  That’s what those Seniors were.

The fifth ally is the church staff.

This includes the church secretary/office manager … the worship/music director … the youth director/pastor … and any associate pastors.

I have known office managers who undermined the pastor … right under his nose … from inside the church office.

I have known worship/music directors who insisted that worship be done their way … even if the pastor disagreed.

I have known youth pastors who openly rebelled against their pastor … and quietly joined his opposition.

I have known associate pastors who wanted their pastor’s job … and were willing to do or say almost anything to get it.

But I have also known staff members who were completely loyal … utterly faithful … and totally supportive of their pastor.

I believe that if a pastor has the support of his entire board and staff, no group in the church can push him out.

Knowing this, most groups that seek to remove a pastor have to find allies on the board and/or staff.

Even if the entire board collapses their support for their pastor, if certain key staff members stand with the pastor, he may be able to survive … but the combination of key board/staff members who don’t support their pastor can be deadly.

Sometimes a pastor knows that a staff member doesn’t fully support his leadership, but the pastor lets that person stay on because they’re doing a good job … or because they’re afraid of the fallout should that person be fired.

Staff support can be tricky.

The sixth ally is key church opinion makers.

This would include former staff members … board members … and church leaders who are still in the church.

And sometimes, this includes people who have moved away but whose opinion others still value.

When I went through my attack five-and-a-half years ago, some of my best allies were two former board members and a former staff member from inside the church.  They worked behind-the-scenes to call for a fair process dealing with particular issues.

I also consulted with two former board chairmen … one from my previous church, another from my current one … and their counsel was invaluable.

If the former board members had stood against me, I might have instantly resigned … but they wanted me to stay.

If the former board chairmen thought I was out of line, I might have quit … but they encouraged me to hang in there.

If a pastor is under attack, and doesn’t have any ecclesiastical allies, that might be a sign he needs to trade a resignation letter for a severance package.

But if he does have prominent church allies … even if they don’t currently hold offices … they can sway a lot of people.

The seventh and final ally is vocal churchgoers.

When a pastor is under attack, and the charges against him float through the congregation, most people don’t know whether they should believe what they’re hearing.

The focus of most people is on whether or not the charges are true.

But a better way is to ask whether a fair and just process is being used with the pastor.

The pastor’s opponents will tell people, “The pastor is guilty of this … we heard him say that … and we don’t like the fact he does this.”

But does the pastor know what’s being said about him?  Does he know who has lined up against him?  And has he been given the opportunity to respond to the charges that are going around?

When a group presses charges against a pastor, they’re hoping that people become reactive and emotional and demand en masse that their pastor leave.

But when others come along and insist on a fair and just process, they’re hoping to calm down people … engage their brains … and determine the truth before demanding anything.

Every church needs a group of fair-minded, spiritual, and vocal members who tell the pastor’s detractors, “We will not let you engage in a lynch mob to dismiss our pastor.  Whether he’s innocent or guilty of your charges, let’s take our time and work through a fair and just process first.”

These people comprise a pastor’s ecclesiastical safety net.

When Elisha and his servant were in Dothan (2 Kings 6), Elisha’s servant got up early and saw “an army with horses and chariots” surrounding the city … and he instantly panicked.

But Elisha remarked, “Don’t be afraid.  Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

When the Lord opened his servant’s eyes, he saw “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” … the armies of the Lord.

Sometimes a church is full of horses and chariots surrounding the pastor, too … a pastor just needs someone to open his eyes.

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The latest statistics I’ve seen state that 28% of all pastors have experienced a forced termination at least once and that 1500 to 1900 pastors resign from church ministry every month … the majority of them being forced out.

When pastors are under attack inside their own church, they become shocked and disoriented.  They often go into hiding … wish they could run away … and sink into depression.

When politicians are under fire, they put out statements … hold press conferences … respond to their critics … and fight back.

But pastors?  More often than not, they tend to wilt, and when their critics sense that the pastor is on the ropes, they continue punching until the pastor is lying on the canvas … out cold … and out of ministry.

Why do most pastors handle conflict so poorly?

First, seminaries aren’t training pastors to expect church conflict.

In my book Church Coup, I recounted a story that happened to me nearly twenty years ago.

One Sunday evening, I spent five hours in the home of a well-known Christian leader who also taught at my seminary … although he wasn’t there when I was a student.

I asked this professor why pastors aren’t taught “street smarts” in seminary.  He said that the accreditation committee insisted that core classes be academic in nature (like Hebrew/Greek, hermeneutics, apologetics) and that practical issues like church conflict could only be covered with electives.

I did take a class in church conflict management in seminary … it met very inconveniently in the middle of the afternoon … and there were only eight of us in the class.  As a church staff member, I had just gone through a situation where my senior pastor had been voted out of office and I wanted to learn all I could about how to handle such situations better.

Since my Doctor of Ministry program was focused on church conflict, I also took a class in managing conflict from Dr. David Augsburger – one of the foremost authorities on personal/church conflict in the world – and wrote my final project (dissertation) on dealing with church antagonism using both the New Testament and family systems theory.

But even though I’ve had more formal training than many pastors in conflict management, that doesn’t mean that I’ve always handled the conflicts in my ministry expertly.

I believe that pastors need to supplement any seminary training they’ve received in conflict management by reading insightful books and by attending any conflict training they can find.

Because if and when churchgoers attack, you need to respond instinctively and decisively or you’re toast.

Second, church antagonists don’t fight by the rules.

Whenever there is a conflict in a church – especially one focused on the pastor – there are three primary sources for guidelines:

*There is the Bible … especially the commands, practices, and principles of the New Testament Christians.

*There is the church’s governing documents … the constitution and bylaws … which are often a summary of what the Bible teaches on a particular topic.  (For example, many bylaws use Scripture to summarize how to handle church discipline.)

*There is the law … especially what your state has to say about termination practices and ruining someone’s reputation and livelihood.

Pastors are well-versed in Scripture, and they assume that if they’ve done something to offend or anger another believer, that person will approach the pastor with a desire to make things right as the New Testament prescribes.

But no matter how many times pastors preach on Matthew 18:15-20, most people who are angry with the pastor don’t go and seek him out … often choosing to complain to their friends instead.

And when someone is so upset with the pastor that they want him to leave, they will circumvent Scripture altogether … avoid their church’s governing documents … and bypass the law as well.

Instead, they will attack the pastor using the law of the jungle.  They react emotionally … exaggerate his faults … deny him due process … and judge and sentence him without ever letting him respond to his accusers or their accusations.

We might say that while the pastor knows to handle conflict spiritually, his opponents choose to attack him politically.

There are ways to handle those who use the law of the jungle … and I love sharing them with pastors who are under fire … but when pastors discover that they’re being bludgeoned by lawless believers, they become disheartened and nearly quit from despair.

They ask themselves, “How can professing Christians act like this when they’re so clearly disobeying God?”

But the pastor needs to understand that his adversaries … often as few as 7 to 10 people … aren’t focused on keeping any rules, biblical or not … they’re focused on “mobbing” him until he quits under pressure.

Third, most pastors are sensitive individuals.

My friend Charles Chandler, the president of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, says that 77% of all pastors are feelers, not thinkers, on the Myers-Briggs Temperamental Analysis test.

That’s what makes them good pastors.

They empathize with their people’s hurts and struggles.  They feel joy when a couple gets married … sorrow when a church attendee suddenly dies … and exhilaration when a new believer is baptized.

Many men … and leaders … in our country are insensitive toward the hurting, but a good pastor feels what his people feel.  As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:29, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?  Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”

So when someone attacks a pastor, his first instinct isn’t to defend himself, or to fight back.

Instead, his first instinct is to feel numb … and shocked … and betrayed … and wounded.

I believe that a pastor’s antagonists have studied his personality and can predict how he will respond to their criticism.  They sense that his sensitivity plays into their hands and that he will choose to resign rather than fight them in any manner.

To fight back, the pastor needs to feel some outrage … to realize that an attack on his position is really an attack on the church as a whole.

But being sensitive … and acting nice … isn’t going to help him keep his position.

Finally, most pastors are blindsided by their attackers.

The late Ross Campbell was a Christian psychiatrist and a great man of God.  He wrote the Christian classic How to Really Love Your Child (his book changed my wife’s parenting) along with many other books on child raising.

He also had a heart for hurting pastors, especially those who experienced forced termination, and regularly attended the Wellness Retreats sponsored by the Ministering to Ministers Foundation as a consultant.

Here’s a picture of my wife Kim with Ross:

Trip to Knoxville Jan. 10-17. 2010 134

Ross shared with us the template for forcing out a pastor one evening, and since he had counseled hundreds of pastors and their wives, I wrote down everything he said.

Ross said that most pastors are asked to resign right after they return from having time away.  With the pastor away, the church board feels they can plot without the pastor becoming suspicious, and when he returns from his trip, he’s in a vulnerable state and not yet operating at an optimal level.

I hear this all the time from pastors: “It all happened so fast.  I didn’t see it coming.  I had no time to prepare … and I thought things were going so well.”

And that’s the whole point: when you return from a trip, you’re trapped in an emotional no-man’s land, and you’re in no mood to handle matters confidently.

When I was going through my conflict in the fall of 2009, I received a phone call from a megachurch pastor who knew all about what was happening to me.  He told me that one particular individual had been speaking negatively about me for years and that the whole plot had been in the works for some time.

This pastor encouraged me to fight back.  He told me that five ex-pastors attended his church and were miserable because they couldn’t find a new ministry.

In the end, I chose to resign, but if conditions had been different, I might have fought back.

But not long after our conversation, that megachurch pastor was abruptly forced to resign himself.  As soon as he left, his biography had vanished from the church website.

If you’re a pastor and you’re reading this, I encourage you to do some reading in the area of church conflict with a special emphasis on forced termination.

In fact, I’ll recommend some books on conflict management in my next article.

Doing such reading might sound negative, but believe me, it may just save your job … and your career.

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