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Archive for the ‘Conflict with Church Antagonists’ Category

Several years ago, a pastor of a medium-sized church called to tell me that he had been fired.

He told me there was no warning involved, that he was not offered any severance pay, and that he had no idea how to support his family financially.

The pastor said that he wasn’t guilty of any major offense.  He thought the church was going well, but evidently some in leadership didn’t think so.

And I wondered, as I always do, “How could the official board of that church treat their pastor that way?”

Or to put it another way, “What kind of person would fire their pastor without any reason and proceed to cut off his finances as well?”

I couldn’t do that.  Could you?

Based on my experiences in various churches, let me share five traits of a board member who could easily fire their pastor:

First, the board member has a job where he makes unilateral decisions.

Maybe he owns his own company.  Maybe he is an attorney or a doctor with great community influence.  Maybe he’s been given carte blanche in his job to hire or fire personnel.

It’s easy for such a person to take off their “spiritual leader” hat at church and replace it with their “corporate decision maker” hat instead.

I’m not saying that every strong, independent leader in the marketplace is like this, but all too many are, and they are often the ones at the forefront of the pastor’s ouster.

But I can’t even imagine having this kind of mindset.

My wife and I run a small business together.  If I think we should do something different, I run it by her first.  Sometimes she agrees, sometimes she doesn’t.

I won’t proceed without her blessing.  I am not the fount of all wisdom!

But a board member who can easily fire a pastor believes that he is the fount of all wisdom … or that he should be calling the shots at church rather than the pastor, the staff, or the congregation.

If such a person is able to force out the pastor, he or she will become the undisputed leader of the church, even if it’s just behind the scenes.

And that’s what they want.

Second, the board member thinks he knows more than the pastor does about the church’s direction.

If the pastor thinks the church should reach young couples, this board member thinks the church should reach young people instead.

If the pastor thinks the church should be more outreach-oriented, this board member thinks the church should focus more on its own members.

If the pastor thinks the church should take some God-ordained risks, this board member thinks the church should play it safe and only do what’s in the budget.

If this board member senses that he has more influence than the pastor, he may very well plot to remove the pastor from office.

But if he senses he doesn’t have the clout, he’ll either hang around and sabotage the pastor’s leadership, or he’ll leave the church and take as many with him as possible.

But I can’t even imagine sabotaging a church’s direction … especially if it’s the result of months of prayer and planning.

If my pastor wasn’t good at the “vision thing,” I would do my best to help him devise a process where many people could have input on the church’s future.

But I would want his voice to be prominent, because the pastor casts vision from the pulpit, and even the most powerful board member can’t do that.

Third, the board member has secret allies on the board, in the staff, or with a powerful faction.

Most board members who fire their pastor are reasonably sure that they have “enough” support from prominent individuals in their church.

They usually have one or two sidekicks on the board.  These people are relatively quiet but gain power by supporting their vocal colleague.

They also have their fingers in the church staff, receiving a steady flow of information from the office manager, a youth pastor, the worship leader, or an associate pastor.

Every pastor needs allies, especially when conflict surfaces.  I was always strengthened when a board member told me, “Jim, I have your back on this one.”

But I can’t imagine collecting allies so we could push out the pastor together.

It usually takes at least a year of complaining … undermining … resisting … and plotting for a board member to gain sufficient allies to force out their pastor.

Think of all that negative energy!  Couldn’t it be better used for instruction or outreach?

But all that matters to such a board member is power.

Fourth, the board member pays scant attention to biblical teaching on conflict resolution.

More than three decades ago, I was discussing a controversial passage in Paul’s epistles with a board member.

This board member … whom I inherited … told me, “Whenever I come upon a passage like that, I just turn the page.”

Maybe it’s no wonder that he later became the worst antagonist I’ve ever had in any church.

This man had an agenda: to turn our California church into the Swedish church from Wisconsin that he loved so much.

If I went along with his agenda, he would support me.  If I didn’t, he would oppose me.

I didn’t go along with his agenda.  I couldn’t.

Sadly, I could never appeal to him on the basis of Scripture.  The Word of God didn’t govern his life … only his feelings and preferences did.

I remember discussing this man and his wife with a prominent Christian leader who visited our church one Sunday.  This leader – an expert in spiritual warfare – told me to get this couple out of the church and off the rolls as quickly as possible.

They eventually did leave, but took 25% of the church with them in the process.

But I can’t imagine being a spiritual leader in a church and yet ignoring the written Word of God concerning conflict!  I have no idea how the previous pastor let this guy on the board, but when he did, he sowed seeds of destruction that lasted for years.

Finally, the board member desires relief from personal anxiety.

Two years ago, I attended a conference on church conflict with author and prominent church conflict consultant Peter Steinke.

Steinke said that whenever the official board is dissatisfied with their pastor or his performance, they should create a plan and give their pastor twelve to fifteen months to improve.

That sounds fair and reasonable, doesn’t it?  If the pastor senses after a few months that he’s not doing what the board wants, he can start searching for another position.

And if the pastor does improve … crisis averted.

But the board member who finds it easy to fire his pastor doesn’t want to wait twelve to fifteen months to see improvement.

He’s already convinced himself that the pastor will never improve … so the pastor needs to go … now!

What drives him?

His own personal anxiety.

This board member has already made up his mind.  He knows what is best for the church.  He knows the pastor has to go.

So he can’t wait for the pastor to get his act together.  The pastor must leave!

But I can’t imagine having that kind of attitude about a called spiritual leader who loves and preaches the Word of God.

If anybody can change, wouldn’t it be a godly man?

Most pastors are notoriously patient with board members and staffers.  Sometimes I knew that a staff member wasn’t working out but I’d speak with them and monitor their performance for months before I’d take any drastic action.

Shouldn’t a board be patient with their pastor as well?

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What’s the value of thinking about the board member who can easily fire a pastor?

First, no pastor should allow such a person on the board in the first place. 

For some people, being on a board is a frustrating experience because they believe they already know the direction the church should take.

They don’t want to discuss matters in a collegial fashion.  That just allows others to exercise veto power over their ideas.

Over the years, I vetoed the names of many individuals who were entertained as board members.

Even then, I should have exercised that veto more often.

Second, if the pastor detects that such a person is presently on the board, he needs to watch his back … or pray that person off the board.

I have never known a church leader who, once they started attacking their pastor verbally, turned around later on and supported him.

I’m sure it’s happened somewhere.  But once a leader goes public with their feelings about their pastor, they rarely change their mind.

Finally, if you sense that such a person is currently on your church board, alert your pastor and monitor that person while they’re on the church campus.

While a church should not turn into a surveillance state, sometimes God’s people can best protect their pastor by watching and listening to potential antagonists.

These people usually give away how they feel about their pastor by where they sit during worship … who they sit with … who they talk to before and after church … where those conversations are held … and how they respond to the pastor when he’s preaching.

The apostle Paul tells the congregation in Rome, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.  For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.  By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Romans 16:17-18).

We need far fewer naive people in local churches 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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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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From time-to-time, I receive emails from churchgoers whose pastors resigned suddenly.  These concerned individuals want to know what, if anything, they can do about their pastor’s unexpected departure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I once served with a church leader who struggled to tell the truth.

In the words of children, I could have told him, “You lie like a fly.”

He lied about his credentials.  He lied to cover up wrongdoing.

And sometimes, he lied just for fun.

Two of his fellow leaders approached me separately about his lack of truth telling.  They knew he was lying and didn’t want to work with him anymore.

But by then, lying for him was a way of life.

Welcome to the world of the “Christian” sociopath.

According to Dr. W. Brad Johnson and his son Dr. William L. Johnson in their book The Pastor’s Guide to Psychological Disorders and Treatments, a person with anti-social personality disorder – or sociopathy – has the following characteristics:

*This person seems charming and likeable initially, making a favorable impression.

*This person is soon found to be, in the words of the Johnsons, “manipulative, deceitful, and willing to do almost anything to achieve their own ends.”

*This person proves to be irresponsible, unreliable, and impulsive.

*This person is sometimes vengeful about perceived injustices.

*This person has superficial and short-lived relationships.

*This person is disloyal, insensitive, and even ruthless.

*This person disregards societal rules and does not believe the rules apply to them.

The Johnsons then make the following statements:

“In the church, pastors should be alert to two major manifestations of this disorder.  The first type of antisocial is the smooth, personable, charming person who manipulates and exploits others subtly – often without detection – for some time.

“The second type is the belligerent, antagonistic, and overtly criminal antisocial type.  This parishioner will have a clear criminal history, arouse fear in others, and be viewed as unpredictable and dangerous.  The difference between the two may be emotional intelligence or social polish.”

We might say that the first person mentioned above is a sociopath with a small “s.”  The second person is a Sociopath with a large “s.”

Churches are pretty good at not tolerating any Sociopaths in their midst … but they aren’t as good at identifying and dealing with the sociopath … or as one expert called this person, the “sociopath lite.”

Back in September 2001 … less than two weeks after 9/11 … I took “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class taught by Dr. Archibald Hart for my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.

During a break, I told Dr. Hart that I was dealing with a church leader (not the person I mentioned above) who had some of the symptoms of a sociopath.  This person kept making the same mistakes over and over again, and when I confronted him about his behavior, he just laughed it off and refused to change.

Dr. Hart shared with me the single best description of a sociopath I’ve ever heard.  He said, “They don’t feel any anxiety before they do wrong and they don’t feel any guilt after they’ve done wrong.”

Think long and hard about that statement.

A great secular book about this issue is Dr. Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door.  (It’s available as a Kindle book on Amazon.)  Dr. Stout claims that 4% of our population – or 1 in every 25 adults – has this condition.  Speaking to the sociopath, she writes:

“When it is expedient, you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees and your clients (or your constituency) in the back, marry for money, tell lethal premeditated lies to people who trust you, attempt to ruin colleagues who are powerful or eloquent, and simply steamroll over groups who are dependent and voiceless.  And all of this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever.”

How does all this relate to church ministry?  Here’s Dr. Stout again:

“Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable.  This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance.  And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do.”

How does the sociopath pull off this kind of internal sabotage?

“You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’ boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.”

These statements from Dr. Stout are all too real among members of my extended family.  A female family member married a man who hid this condition well … until he radically changed right after the wedding, making her life a living hell for months.

The month after I left my last ministry nearly seven years ago, my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat in Tennessee.  The resident psychiatrist was Dr. Ross Campbell, author of many books including the classic How to Really Love Your Child.

Dr. Campbell told us that he had counseled hundreds of pastors and wives who had gone through the pain of a forced termination, and from his experience and research, the individual most responsible for “taking out” a pastor has sociopathic personality traits, someone he termed a “sociopath lite.”

This individual feels powerless in life and senses an opportunity to exercise power in the church.  Since these people have different values from the pastor – and those values are cleverly disguised – this individual uses terroristic tactics like intimidation and manipulation, and the pastor is usually no match for such an individual.

Dr. Campbell observed that it takes a sociopath lite twelve months to break down a pastor and turn people against him.  During this time, the pastor becomes so depressed that he can hardly function.  These individuals make their plans in secret and attack when least expected, usually when a pastor returns from a trip.

Sound like any church scenarios you might be familiar with?

In a nutshell, sociopaths want to win, and will use any methods necessary to get their way.  It shouldn’t surprise us that sociopaths gravitate toward politics where lying, manipulation and winning are usually rewarded.

But sociopaths also like to be near the center of power in a church, and by using their charm or speaking like an authority, they can convince others to follow them rather than their pastor.

Let me draw four conclusions about sociopaths in the local church:

First, most believers are unable to detect any sociopaths in the body.

The anti-social personality floats through a church largely undetected.  They can develop a following as somebody who is cool as well as someone who sounds like an expert in many fields.

It takes a discerning pastor or a psychiatrist/psychologist/counselor to spot a suspected sociopath, and most people lack the training to do that.

We don’t want to label people prematurely because when we assign someone a label, we may unwittingly choose to avoid or destroy them, and that’s not what Christians are about.

But the discerning leader can say, “That person seems to have the symptoms of a sociopath, and for that reason, we’re going to monitor them carefully.”

Just realize that only a trained professional can make a definitive diagnosis, but since people with anti-social personality disorder rarely go for counseling, sometimes all that a pastor can do is guess at a preliminary diagnosis.

Second, you can’t allow sociopaths into church leadership.  Period.

If a sociopath joins the church staff, he or she will eventually try and turn the staff against the pastor. Better to fire them and take the heat than let the staff member destroy the staff and later the church.

If a sociopath is elected to the church board, that individual will eventually try and turn the rest of the board against the pastor.

It might take a year or two, but they will lead an attack against the pastor … and manipulate other leaders to do his bidding.

To quote the current Geico commercials, “It’s what you do.”

This is why a pastor needs to have veto power over prospective board members.  The discerning pastor will think to himself, “There is no way in God’s universe that I am going to let that person into this church’s inner circle.”

But if the pastor can’t discern the sociopath lite, or lets him/her into leadership anyway, he’s signing his own death warrant.

Third, sociopaths are twice as lethal as narcissists.

Most narcissists are not sociopaths … but most sociopaths are narcissists.

Dr. Stout writes:

“Narcissism is, in a metaphorical sense, one half of what sociopathy is.  Even clinical narcissists are able to feel most emotions as strongly as anyone else does, from guilt and sadness to desperate love and passion.  The half that is missing is the crucial ability to understand what other people are feeling.  Narcissism is a failure not of conscience but of empathy, which is the capacity to perceive emotions in others and so react to them appropriately.”

She then writes:

“Sociopaths, in contrast, do not care about other people, and so do not miss them when they are alienated or gone, except as one might regret the absence of a useful appliance that one had somehow lost…. where the higher emotions are concerned, sociopaths can ‘know the words but not the music.’  They must learn to appear emotional as you and I would learn a second language, which is to say, by observation, imitation, and practice.”

In other words, sociopaths are morally and spiritually hollow inside.  They lack core convictions.  When they’re out in public, they take their behavioral cues from others because they don’t have an internal sense of morality or appropriateness.

Am I scaring you yet?

Finally, sociopaths almost never change.

Because they lack a conscience, they never sincerely admit that they’ve done anything wrong.

Sociopaths won’t go for counseling because in their minds, they’re fine the way they are.

But they are experts at blaming others for their messes.

Inside the church, a sociopath tends to:

*hide in the darkness and avoid the light.

*blame the pastor for whatever is going wrong in the church.

*serve as the hidden ringleader of the faction determined to oust the pastor.

*go after the pastor not for any spiritual reason, but just because he or she can.

*ignore the church’s governing documents and Scripture in attacking the pastor.

*avoid any pathway of forgiveness and reconciliation.

*engage in retribution for even the smallest of offenses … including going after the pastor for not letting the sociopath become a leader.

When I spoke with Dr. Hart fifteen years ago, he told me the only way to deal with a sociopath inside the church is to marginalize them.

And that means two things:

Once you’ve identified their behavior, make sure to monitor them closely, and never … ever … ever let them become leaders.

Because if you do, you will regret it … and so will many others … because you will not be able to appeal to the sociopath with Christian principles and values.

They have their own value system … and only they know what it is.

There are experts inside the Christian community who prefer not to label people.  They don’t like the idea that we can call someone a “sociopath” because that term infers that the person can’t change … and, these people believe, God can change anyone.

I get that.

These Christian experts prefer to train congregations, leaders, and pastors to be healthy, and in the process, to handle any church sociopaths lovingly but firmly.

The problem is that all too many Christians, churches, and pastors usually give up so much ground to sociopaths that by the time they’re detected and dealt with, they’ve already done enormous damage to the cause of Christ.

Because sociopaths lack a conscience, I believe they bring unrepentant evil right into their church family … and no church can thrive when evil is brazenly present.

Have you ever met anyone you suspected was a sociopath lite inside a church?

How did it all turn out?

My guess is that they left quite a mess behind.

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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.

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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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