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Today is the anniversary of a day that changed my life forever.

Nine years ago this morning, after returning from a mission trip overseas, I entered the office of the church I served as pastor for an 8:00 am meeting with the official board.  We were supposed to discuss our plans for the next year’s budget.

Instead, the board announced that they had terminated our most valuable staff member: my wife.  Their sole charge against her was that she had overspent her missions and outreach budgets by a wide margin.

But she wasn’t their eventual target.  I was.  The board didn’t have enough evidence against me that they could take to the congregation for a dismissal vote, so they went after her instead, assuming I’d resign if she did.

I’ve recounted the story of the fifty-day conflict that ensued in my book Church Coup (which may be the most detailed and complete account of a pastoral termination ever written).  I revisit the story in this blog every October 24.  As one of my advisors told me, “You never want to forget what it felt like to go through that awful experience.”

The purpose of telling my story is for pastors, board members, and churchgoers to learn what to do and what not to do during a conflict with the pastor.  I am not telling my story to garner sympathy or to gain followers.  By relating my experiences, I still hope to teach.

So let me share some snapshots of what I experienced over the seven weeks of the conflict.  Many stories are outtakes from my book while some are based on information I received after the book was published in the spring of 2013.

After more than 35 years in church ministry … I still can’t believe the following events happened to me … but they did.

_______________

The board told me that they would give my wife a choice: she could resign or be fired.  They said they felt so strongly about their decision that they were all willing to resign, the implication being that if she didn’t resign, they would.

And the following week, because she didn’t resign, they did.  (To this day, I wonder who advised them to try that tactic.)

If she resigned, that would take the pressure off them … and that was her initial reaction: to just quit.

But when she thought more clearly, she didn’t believe she had done anything wrong … and she was positive she had not overspent the amount the board claimed.

So she didn’t quit immediately, as the board hoped she would.  We both decided to wait and see if we could discover the truth behind their decision first.

Kim’s dad (a former pastor and Christian university professor) told her, “If you didn’t do anything wrong, don’t quit.”  A Christian counselor who had advised us for years told me, “If she resigns, that would be a lie.  Make it a battle.”

We didn’t want to make it a battle, but the board had not made enough of a compelling case for my wife to say, “You’re right, I messed up, I will resign.”  We needed more information.

In my wildest dreams, I never thought the church board would take such drastic action.

But they did.

_______________

For years, my wife worked for a pace setting company in Silicon Valley, and she sometimes had to fire employees … but always by the book.  She was upset with the board because they had not followed any kind of protocol.  She kept telling me that her rights had been violated.

Several months ago, my wife visited that company again, and briefly told her story to the organization’s founder and president, who agreed that my wife had every right to sue the church/board for wrongful termination.

On the one hand, Paul commands Christians not to sue other Christians in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.  I get that.

On the other hand, too many Christian organizations … especially churches … do violate the rights of staff members and pastors when they terminate them … and they do deserve to be sued.

But the separation of church and state usually protects such churches.

I wish some churches would be sued successfully … if only to teach church leaders to use biblical procedures … and due process … when they’re thinking about terminating pastors and staff members in the future.

Because if those same leaders were treated in a similar fashion at their workplaces, they would probably sue the pants off their companies.

_______________

On the night after the board met with me, they convened a meeting of the church staff to announce my wife’s termination.  Not only did the board add several more charges to their list, but such a meeting was probably illegal.

An advisor who later became my mentor told me that in our state, if my wife had been in a secular company, she could have sued them for four to six million dollars for telling her co-workers why they had fired her.

Five nights later, when my wife finally met with two board members at my request … so they could tell her to her face why they had terminated her … she told them that she could sue them for the way they had handled things.  This wasn’t merely an emotional outburst … this was based on the careful way she fired employees for years at that Silicon Valley company.

A former board member from that church told me emphatically over a period of years that the board violated the church constitution and bylaws when they terminated my wife.  The governing documents clearly stated that staff members could only be fired upon recommendation of the senior pastor to the official board.  When the church voted to approve those documents, my wife was already a staff member.

One night, while walking along the Bay on a very dark night, I ran into another former board member who told me it was going around that my wife and I were planning on suing the church.  It wasn’t true … we weren’t planning on suing anybody … but many churchgoers believe the first thing they hear without confirmation.

The church board totally bungled the way they handled things, and when my wife called them on it, we became the bad guys … and had to be destroyed.

All too often, this is the way Christians handle their conflicts.  We’re godly … they’re ungodly.

_______________

When my predecessor retired and left the church in December 2000, he and his wife moved to another state.  But they eventually moved back to California … and settled in the very city my wife and I have made our home the past six years.

My predecessor became the president of a parachurch group, and that group’s founder also lived in our city at the time.  The founder told me that several years before 2009, while they were playing golf, my predecessor told him that he was going to return to the church I was pastoring.  The founder told him, “No, you can’t do that!”  But my predecessor seemed determined.

This information tells me that the plot to get rid of me went back months … if not years … before the board acted against my wife.  As a megachurch pastor who knew my predecessor told me eleven days after the conflict surfaced, “You have no idea how much you have been undermined.”

That same pastor told me that he had heard my predecessor make the exact same charges against my wife using the exact same terms that the board used.  To what extent did my predecessor formulate or refine the charges against her?

Because my predecessor had been in ministry for years, his counsel seemed legitimate to the board.  They most likely trusted him without questioning his motives or strategies.

But in the process, the previous pastor clearly violated pastoral ethics … which the board undoubtedly knew nothing about.

A year after I left, guess who returned to the church to preach at the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services?

That’s right … my predecessor … who had his fingers in the church board, the church staff, and the congregation for many years.

God rest his soul.

_______________

I’ve never given a moment’s thought to returning to my former church.  I served there ten-and-a-half years, resigned, and left it for good.  How wrong would it be for me to interfere in the church’s governance so many years after leaving?

Why did my predecessor even want to return?  My guess is that his Fan Club were telling him that things at the church were really bad and that only he could save the church.

In fact, several years before the conflict surfaced, I heard a report attributed to my predecessor that our church was losing attendees … when the opposite was true … and I informed the church board of the rumor without naming its source.

But we had grown steadily and were the largest Protestant church in our city.  We had a positive reputation for miles around.  We had built a new worship center.  My wife and I had both been keynote speakers at the area Sunday School Convention.  In our community, where a church of 150 stood out, we were like a megachurch.  A Navy chaplain once told me that when he was stationed near India, and knew he was going to move to our community, someone recommended that he attend our church.

Why did things seem so bad to a tiny group of people?  Because they didn’t have positions of power … and that was intentional on my part.  They were not behind our mission and vision.  They were not behind me as their pastor … and I knew it.  They were able to serve … just not in positions of influence.

But they thought that because they were founding members, they deserved preferential treatment.

One time, my predecessor visited the campus and told me that a woman from our church was calling him constantly to complain about me.  I figured as much.  While I was pleasant around her, I couldn’t let her be a leader because I didn’t trust her.

And I felt the same way about some of my predecessor’s other fans.

When people once held power in a church, but no longer do so, they will sometimes do anything to get that power back … even if they have to violate half the New Testament to do it.

_______________

One woman did her best to disguise her opposition to me, and I had to interact with her on a regular basis.  After a while, pastors develop a sixth sense about such people.

After the board and associate pastor resigned, I called two public meetings of the congregation to announce their decisions.  During one of the meetings, a friend went into the women’s restroom and this woman was crying because, she said, she was afraid they weren’t going to get rid of me.

After we left, this woman openly bragged about how she and some others in the church worked the plot that sent us packing.

I could never plot against a pastor.  I’d leave the church first.

God calls a pastor to lead and teach.  He doesn’t call anyone to force out an innocent pastor.  So why is it so easy for many Christians to join a coup against the person that God called?

If you have a good answer, I’d like to hear it.

_______________

The primary charge against my wife concerned finances.  I continue to maintain that the numbers that were verbally announced to me at the board meeting had been massaged.

For example:

*My wife had committed funds to some vendors for our annual Fall Fun Fest on Halloween … but we hadn’t yet held the event to recoup any of our expenses.

*As I mentioned in my book, several thousand dollars were mistakenly sent overseas … and undoubtedly counted against her mission budget … when she had nothing to do with that decision.

*When my wife was putting together a team for a mission trip to Eastern Europe, we had to buy the plane tickets in advance … and one person backed out.  We tried, but weren’t able to recoup the funds for one leg of his journey.

*When our mission team flew to Moldova, we brought along extra suitcases filled with items for poor people and the vulnerable children … but even though we were told in advance by an airline executive that we wouldn’t have to pay extra for each leg of our journey, we were overcharged for the suitcases anyway.

My wife or I could have explained these decisions had we been given the opportunity … but no one on the board asked us or the bookkeeper anything about these expenses.

The budgets of two unrelated ministries were thousands of dollars in the red … but to my knowledge, no one ever addressed those deficits with the leaders that managed those budgets.

No, my wife … our most effective staff member … was singled out for special mistreatment.

In the spring of 2009, I went to the board and asked for funds to visit two churches in Southern California to learn about their multi-venue services.  The board approved those funds … and then they were charged to the worship budget without the leader’s knowledge or consent … sending his pristine budget into chaos.

Were other unrelated expenses charged to my wife’s budgets without her consent or knowledge?

When I finally asked for the board’s accounting, I received something incoherent from the bookkeeper.  When my wife asked to see the board’s numbers, they did not give them to her.

When my wife finally met with the bookkeeper a month after the conflict surfaced … and the board members had all quit … the numbers told a completely different story.  When a nine-person investigative team examined matters a month after that, they concluded that “there was no evidence of wrongdoing” on our part.

Was the financial charge against my wife a bluff to prompt us both to resign?

_______________

Someone made a public charge that I mismanaged church finances.  That was an outright lie.

What’s ironic is that even after the conflict erupted … and even after I left the church … I was still a central person concerning church finances.

*When the board refinanced the loan for the worship center, I had to sign the document.  If the credit union had known the board’s plans, they might not have approved the refinancing.  When companies make loans to organizations, they want to know in advance that the leadership is going to remain stable.

I wonder what the board told them about their pastor’s long-term prospects?

*During the conflict, the church bookkeeper stopped by my house once or twice a week so I could sign checks, which I’d do on top of her car on the street.

*Months after I had left the church, I was still the key person concerning the church’s credit cards.  The bookkeeper was still contacting me, asking me to call the company and give them directions.

If I had really mismanaged funds, would I have been able to do any of those things?

When a pastor mismanages funds at church, it’s often because his own financial house is in disarray … but our personal finances were and are pristine.

It’s so easy to throw general charges around without being specific and without doing it to the face of the accused.

_______________

When the composition of a church board changes, it can throw the entire congregation off-balance.

For years, I had worked with three men on the board who were all older than me.  We had been through a lot together.  I trusted them, and their actions indicated that they trusted me.

One moved away about six months before the conflict surfaced.  He was the person who always had my back.  The other two termed out but stayed in the church.

Had even one of those men still been on the board, the coup never would have taken place.  They would either have stopped it or exposed it.

In the end, the new board in 2009 was composed entirely of people younger than me.  They lacked the experience and maturity of the older men … one of whom had experienced a church split years before in another church and would never have tolerated the tactics used by my opponents.

Someone on the board ended up leading the coup.  I always knew his identity.  May God forgive him for all the lives he harmed in his attempt at personal payback.

_______________

The board never attempted anything resembling restoration.  It was all about punishment.  As Charles Chandler from the Ministering to Ministers Foundation told me, the board members were personalizing matters.

As a Christian counselor asked me, “Where’s the redemption in all this?”

There wasn’t any pathway to redemption.  Coups don’t involve restoration.  They can be bloody or bloodless, but they are always about one thing.

Getting rid of the leader at all costs.

If you can show me where in the New Testament we find such behavior commended, I’d be grateful.

I’ve been searching for years … and I still can’t find it.

_______________

Wherever you find deceit and destruction, you find Satan.  Jesus called him “the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning” in John 8:44.

Based on some of the stories I’ve heard, I don’t believe Satan is centrally involved in every church conflict.  Some believe that he is.  I don’t.

I look for deceit and destruction.  Someone in ministry suggested adding “doubt” to the calculus as well.

There was definitely deceit in our conflict.  There were a lot of falsehoods going around: exaggeration, character assassination, misrepresentation, false allegations … it was all there.

And there was a lot of destruction as well.  Satan’s aim in most church conflicts is to destroy the pastor’s well being … reputation … and career … but ultimately, to destroy the church itself.

Although I was not personally destroyed, my effectiveness for future ministry was.  I don’t claim to know if that was the aim of anyone in the church.  Maybe so, maybe not.

But I do know this: Satan gained a foothold in the lives of too many of God’s people in that church.  Hatred and two-faced hypocrisy are not from God.

_______________

Most pastors who are forced out of a church are never exonerated.  Their reputations are ruined, at least inside their former church.

But I was exonerated … twice.

The first time, a consultant the transition team and I hired during the conflict issued a report that the board had acted “extremely and destructively” and that my wife and I had been abused.

The second time, an investigative team of nine people from inside the church claimed that “there was no evidence of wrongdoing” on our part.

But some people could not allow those verdicts to stand.

When I left the church in December 2009, I was told that 95% of the church supported me.  A year later, I was told that support was down to 20%.

I don’t know the truth of either percentage.  But I do know that throughout 2010, there was a whispering campaign inside my former church to pin the blame for the entire conflict on me.

When an interim pastor (a friend of my predecessor’s) came to the church several months later, he convened a meeting of the old and new boards, and made everyone who knew the truth about the conflict promise that they wouldn’t discuss it with anyone.  So when people attacked my reputation, those leaders were told not to counteract any lies and to remain silent.

But what about the people who were spreading falsehoods inside the church?  Why didn’t anyone warn them to stop destroying the reputation of their previous pastor?

Because unity is based on truth … not lies … such diversions do nothing to heal people’s souls.

Even though I urged people to stay, scores of people eventually left the church and either changed churches … changed faiths … or sat at home for years because nobody had the guts to tell the church the truth about what happened.

Just another Christian cover up.  Business as usual.

_______________

One day, I met with the rookie district minister to share my side of the conflict.  He listened politely and later helped reveal the part my predecessor played in the coup.

Several years later, when I was in New Hampshire, the DM called me out of the blue one Sunday morning to tell me that “I respect you and admire you.”

While that was nice, there was evidence to the contrary, so I didn’t know what to think.

But I had once served in the same church as an executive from that same denomination, and when he heard about the conflict … not from me … he told a friend, “[The church] owes Jim an apology.”

While I would welcome any kind of apology, nobody has ever apologized to me for their role in forcing me out of office.

Because if I’m innocent, they’re wrong … and I’ve learned that many, if not most, Christians hate to admit when they’re wrong.

_______________

This is the last blog article I plan to write on what happened to me in 2009 unless there is some major future development.

The accusations against Judge Kavanaugh brought back a truckload of hurtful memories because the same tactics used against him were used against us.

My wife and I live in Southern California and are content with our lives.

We live about an hour from our son, his wife, and our three grandsons.  I wouldn’t trade being near them for anything in this world.

Our daughter – who was so strong for her dad and mom during the conflict – still lives in the Bay Area and leads a fruitful life.  We love her dearly.

God gave me a ministry to pastors and board members who are going through conflict, and I’m grateful for all the people I’ve been able to help.

Just last year, I advised a pastor from the East Coast who was able to beat back his own church’s coup attempt.  He stayed … and his opponents left.

I pray that happens more often.

I’ve written 596 blogs over the past eight years.  I plan to write four more and then take a break … maybe a long one.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

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The recent revelations about Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago have resulted in a renewed call for pastors to be more accountable for their professional and personal behavior.

There are cons and pros to this idea.

On the con side, pastors are usually independent individuals who resist being micromanaged by others.  It’s part of the appeal of ministry.

And if there are attempts from inside a church to micromanage a pastor, it’s likely that pastor will update his resume and begin looking for another position … quickly.

But I believe it’s reasonable for a pastor to be accountable to the official board and the congregation as a whole, and that this accountability should last for a pastor’s entire tenure in a church.

Here are five areas a pastor needs to be accountable for:

First, the pastor needs to be accountable for his time.

The first pastor I worked for was my future father-in-law, and he told me that if a pastor works hard his first year, nobody will question his work ethic after that.

Looking back, the only counsel I would give a young pastor is this: during your first year, show up to every church meeting and event you possibly can.  Be seen.  Let your people know who you are.

After a while, they will start telling you, “Slow down.  Go home.”

During my second pastorate, I worked a lot of hours.  The board chairman just happened to live in a house on the other side of the fence from the church parking lot so he could tell when I was at church.

One night, he called me on the phone and said, “I see your car.  Go home to your family.”

My guess is that story got around.

During my first ten years as a pastor, I kept meticulous records of the hours I worked … and I can’t recall anyone challenging me on my work ethic.

It does happen, however.  I know a pastor who worked less than twenty hours a week, and he was fired by the congregation, largely for being lazy.

But I don’t think that’s true for most pastors.

If a board wanted to make a big deal about the amount of time I worked as a pastor, I would say, “I will let you see my hours as long as you agree to pay me overtime for every hour over forty that I work.”

Or maybe I wouldn’t … but I’d sure want to say that!

Most pastors work hard.  I tried to work a fifty-hour week, and many pastors do more than that.

Just a side comment: should a pastor and church staff be paid for working on Sunday mornings?

I know some say, “We aren’t going to count our work on Sundays as hours.  Our people volunteer their time, and so will we.”

But I think that’s unfair.  Most pastors and staff members are paid not only to show up on Sundays, but to do their best work then.  You mean a pastor should preach his sermon for free?

I always told my staff members to count Sunday mornings as hours, and I’d do it again.  The workman is worthy of his/her hire.

Second, the pastor needs to be accountable for managing church funds.

I believe a pastor should keep a safe distance between himself and church money.  Don’t count the offering … don’t let people give you checks or cash … and don’t throw big parties and charge it all to the elders discretionary fund.

I usually had minimal dealings with church finances:

*I was given a ministry expense account and managed those funds precisely.

*I had input on the disbursement of benevolent funds.

*I signed checks … along with the bookkeeper … and occasionally pulled out a check if I thought the expenditure was foolish.

*I obtained church credit cards for key staff members so they didn’t have to use money out of their own pocket and wait weeks for reimbursements.

If someone tried to give me their offering, I’d lead them to a slot outside the church office that led directly to a safe.

There are two areas above all that will ruin a pastor’s ministry: sex and financial mismanagement.

I also believe that a pastor needs to let his church know that he is at least a tither.  It’s not a violation of Matthew 6:1-4 to let people know that you practice what you preach.  Whenever I preached on giving, I brought along my checkbook, and told the congregation that if anyone wanted to know how much I gave to the church, I’d be glad to show them.

Only one person ever took me up on it … my son Ryan!

The way a pastor manages his personal finances is usually a tip-off on how he manages church finances.

So to what degree should the official board or a group in the church know about the pastor’s personal financial life … especially any indebtedness?

Third, the pastor needs to be accountable for the church’s mission and vision.

The mission is why your church exists.  It’s something you work toward but can never obtain.

The vision specifies where you want your church to be within a certain period of time … say five years.  The vision always emerges from the mission.

Put succinctly, the pastor should be held accountable for this simple three-word question:

What’s the plan?

In my last church, I was blessed to know a woman who did missions and visions for secular companies.  She facilitated our process expertly.

I chose around ten people to be members of a Vision Task Force.

One Sunday, we ended the service early and gave everyone in the congregation a five question, open-ended survey.   The surveys were then distributed to members of the task force who read them and summarized their batch in writing.

We then held a meeting … summarized all the input from the congregation in writing … and assigned several people to create mission and vision statements based on congregational input.

We eventually nailed down our statements … had them approved by the official board … presented them to the congregation … and they went on all our publications.

And everyone had input.

That was the easy part.

After that, I had my marching orders, and needed to be held accountable for how well we were fulfilling those statements.

Sadly, in the end, my wife and I stayed true to those statements, while newer leaders ignored them and tried to take the church in a different direction.

That’s why we eventually left that congregation.

When a church drifts … or declines … it’s often because the pastor has stopped promoting the mission and vision.

In that case, he either needs to get with the program … or the church needs a new pastor.

Fourth, the pastor needs to be accountable for church staff.

Don Cousins was Bill Hybels’ right-hand man for the first eighteen years of Willow Creek Church’s existence.  Twenty-five years ago, he was hired to be a consultant for our new church in Silicon Valley.

One day, we were talking about church staff, and Cousins asked me, “So Jim, are you a self-starter and a responsible person who does things without being told?”

I told him, “Yes.  That’s definitely who I am.”

Cousins replied, “But Jim, not everybody is that way.”

I didn’t have any trouble being accountable to the church board or the congregation for my ministry, but I sometimes had trouble holding staff members accountable for their ministries.

What’s tough is that when a pastor is doing his ministry … like preaching … he can’t see or hear what the children’s director or the youth pastor is doing on Sundays.

A pastor has to rely on three main sources for that information:

*what the staff member says about his/her own ministry

*what other staff members say

*what the parents/youth/members say about that staff member

When I took his leadership class at Fuller Seminary, Leith Anderson told our class, “It’s important to take your time to choose the right staff members because if you don’t, it takes at least a year to get rid of them and then you have to pay them to go away.”

I had mixed success with office managers … better success with children’s directors … and not as much success with youth directors.

I brought a written report to every board meeting, and in that report, I wrote down whatever I felt the board needed to know about those staffers.

While I was accountable to the board, the staff was accountable to me.

I met with staff members as individuals every week … held a weekly staff meeting that I took very seriously … and always intervened if I was concerned someone was going off course.

I tried to manage … not micromanage … but roughly half the time, staffers just didn’t work out … and I usually blamed myself for their failures.

As long as the pastor keeps the board informed on how things are going with a wayward staff member, he probably won’t be blamed if things don’t work out.

But if there was a major problem with a staffer, I not only told the board about it, I asked for their wisdom … or else I was going to be held completely accountable for a staff member’s misconduct.

Finally, the pastor needs to be accountable for getting along with people.

As an introvert, it sometimes takes me a while to warm up socially, but once I get going, I’m hard to turn off, as my wife can attest.

I’ve always done well one-on-one with people, like with hospital visits or counseling.  And I do pretty well in groups, especially when I’m in charge.

And I usually did a good job with people who were a bit different, probably because I felt a lot of empathy for them.

But I didn’t have much time for those who were arrogant or who used intimidation to get their way.

And I resisted people who tried to use worldly wisdom to do ministry.

Every pastor has to deal with not only difficult people, but also people who disagree with him because they think they know more than he does about ministry … and those are usually the people whose complaints reach the official board.

It’s easy to hold a pastor accountable for how he treats most people.  You can watch him on a Sunday morning or at a social event and draw lots of conclusions about his interpersonal skills.

But what about those times when the pastor is alone with an individual and that person claims that the pastor mistreated them?

How do you hold a pastor accountable for those occasions?

_______________

The cry arising out of Willow Creek is that the elders should have held Hybels better accountable for his interactions with various women.

This is a really tough topic, and I don’t pretend to have answers for every concern.

Let me make three quick observations:

First, the primary person to hold a male pastor accountable is his wife.

If a pastor is flirting with women at church … or treating some women better than others … or singling someone out for special attention … most people won’t notice.

But the pastor’s wife … if she’s around … surely will … and she needs to let her husband know how she feels about it!

A pastor sometimes meets with women – alone (like in counseling) or in groups – and his wife isn’t around to observe his interactions.

In such cases, the pastor’s wife has to rely upon her husband’s faithfulness, or the observations of others.

One time, I asked two pastor friends of mine if a woman had ever come on to them.  Both said no, which was my experience as well … and my guess is that it’s the experience of the great majority of pastors today.

But sadly, there are many stories to the contrary … and too many pastors who have come on to women as well.

Second, the church board needs to respond quickly to any complaints about the way their pastor treats women.

My sense is that the elders at Willow did this when there were rumors about Hybels having an affair in 2014.  Maybe their investigation wasn’t as thorough as it needed to be, and maybe Hybels resisted being completely accountable in certain areas.

But the impression I’ve received from the accounts I’ve read is that the elders moved swiftly to deal with the issues they knew about at the time.

The official board has to do this or the pastor could be crushed by the rumor mill.

But … if a governing board delves too closely into the life of their pastor – especially in a megachurch – that pastor may either threaten to resign or start looking for a new ministry.

Sometimes a board can start investigating a pastor concerning one issue and find other issues that concern them … even if the pastor is innocent.  From the pastor’s perspective, why put up with it?

Too much scrutiny is also an indication that the board doesn’t trust the pastor … and if it continues, the pastor may choose to throw in the towel … which leaves the entire ministry in the hands of people who aren’t ready for that level of leadership.

Accountability?  Yes.  Micromanaging?  No.

Finally, a pastor should never abuse the trust God puts in him.

When Potiphar’s wife enticed Joseph to sleep with her, Joseph said in Genesis 39:9, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”

Joseph was single … Potiphar’s wife was married … but Joseph felt that if he succumbed to her charms, his greatest sin would be against God … even though he also mentioned sinning against Potiphar.

Both God and Potiphar trusted Joseph with Potiphar’s household and his wife.  Joseph resolved to honor that trust forever.

Every pastor should do the same … but some strike out instead.

My wife and I once visited a megachurch three times.  The third time we went, we walked out in the middle of the service.  Something there was seriously wrong.

It later came to light that the pastor was counseling a woman to leave her husband and to be with him.  I have a copy of the lawsuit the couple filed against the pastor, and his behavior – if true – was about as depraved as a pastor can get.

It later came out that some people knew about the pastor’s behavior but didn’t do anything to stop it.

The Lord trusted that pastor with a large church … full of many women … and he abused that trust with at least one.

And if there was one, could there have been others?

“How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”

_______________

Next time, I’m going to talk about various ways that a pastor can be accountable to the official board and to the congregation.

 

 

 

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One of the most common complaints that church leaders have about their pastor is this one:

“He acts like a dictator.”

This complaint usually states that the pastor:

*spends money without authorization

*makes major decisions unilaterally

*withholds valuable information from key leaders

*verbally abuses staff members

*threatens people who try to confront him

*doesn’t listen to people’s concerns or complaints

*becomes angry easily

All too many pastors want to run the church their way … and they will take down anyone who tries to oppose them.

The difference between leaders and dictators:

*Leadership requires collaboration.  A pastor who is a good leader has to make presentations for various projects to the church board, staff, and other key leaders to seek their approval.

But a pastor who is a dictator bypasses that collaboration and makes major decisions unilaterally … and then expects key leaders to support him fully.

*Leadership requires ownership.  In my last church, we built a new worship center, a project that eventually cost about two million dollars.  The building team worked on the plans.  The church board handled the financing.  The staff gave their input at every turn.  We asked the architect to stand before our congregation and present his plans … allowed people to ask questions … and then held a meeting where people shared their input.  We later listed every word people said on the church website which let everyone know we took congregational input seriously.

We needed broad ownership in decision making so that we could have broad ownership when we asked people to give toward the building.

But a pastor-dictator will bypass as many of those steps as possible.  He and a few of his buddies inside the church will do most of the work … and then expect people to buy in with their finances … and things usually won’t go very well.

*Leadership requires patience.  I once heard a prominent pastor say that it takes four years to make a major change in a church.  A good leader will devise a process where he charts a clear course … people’s complaints are heard … their objections are answered … and change is not rushed.

But a pastor-dictator is always in a hurry.  He doesn’t want to give the complainers any kind of forum because they might waylay his plans.  He doesn’t want to devote any time to answering objections because he’s thought things through and that should be good enough for everyone else.  The dictator thinks it’s his church far more than it’s the people’s church.

*Leadership requires love.  I once knew a pastor who took a ministry class in seminary.  The professor told his students you have to “love the sheep” and then “lead the sheep.”  My friend approached the professor after class and said, “That was really great … you have to lead the sheep then love the sheep.”  The professor said, “No, you have to love the sheep and then lead the sheep.”  Big difference!

The pastor who is a true leader loves his people and then leads them.  He motivates them by recommending ministries that are in their best interests.

But the dictator doesn’t even lead his people.  He manipulates the congregation into doing what are in his own best interests.  He bulldozes them … threatens them … and sends out the signals, “I alone know what is good for this church.”

To quote Paul Simon, such an attitude “sure don’t feel like love.”

*Leadership requires humility.  The leader’s attitude is, “I believe this is the direction God wants us to go as a church.  I’ll need your help along the way.”

But the dictator equates his own wishes, words, and plans with the will of God … and to question him is to doubt the Lord Himself.

If you’ve read my words …

What can you do about a pastor who is a dictator?

First, realize that most pastors who have adopted a dictatorial leadership style are rarely going to change. 

Such pastors have enjoyed at least some success with their style which is why they keep using it.  But whether it’s a personality flaw, or a narcissistic bent, or a defense mechanism, most dictators never change.

You can plead with them to become more collaborative … threaten to leave the church … or send them for counseling … but it won’t do any good.

I have never known a dictatorial pastor to alter his modus operandi.  Have you?

Now if a pastor has exercised a collaborative style, and temporarily becomes dictatorial, that’s different.  Sometimes a pastor senses that unless he pushes a project hard, nothing’s going to happen.  I had to do that at times, but if people called me on it, I backed off and tried to reset matters.

In this article, I’m talking about pastors who have demonstrated unilateral dominance from Day One.

Second, realize that dictators will keep going until someone tries to stop them.

Once a dictator has momentum, that person will continue to use their domineering style because they’re getting results.

And if nobody ever calls them on their tactics, they’ll just keep using them.

The only way to stop a dictator is to stage some kind of an intervention.  Let them know that what they are doing is counterproductive to the leadership and the congregation.

Much of the time, church leaders will tell me, “He’s a dictator, but boy, is he a great Bible teacher!  He really knows the Word!  Our people love his teaching!”

But sometimes, good teachers make lousy leaders.  Many Bible teachers would rather spend all their time researching, writing, and delivering messages than doing anything to improve their leadership skills.

If so, let the pastor teach … and get someone else on board to lead the church.

Third, realize that dictators sow the seeds of their own destruction.

Once you’ve woken up to the fact that your pastor is a dictator, know that a Day of Reckoning is bound to occur … and maybe soon.  Godly, gifted, intelligent people rebel inwardly against dictator-pastors … and if they conclude that things won’t change, they’ll quietly head for the exits.

Here is what will happen:

*your best leaders will leave the church first

*key ministries will be curtailed due to a lack of volunteers

*staff members will be laid off due to lack of funds

*those remaining will be the passive takers, not the active givers

*the dictator-pastor will then jump ship as soon as he can

This may not sound kind, but it’s better to take out the dictator before the death spiral occurs than to do nothing and watch your church slowly die.

Finally, the only way to deal with a dictator is to defeat them.

That means you’re going to have to fight them for control of the church.

And if you do engage them, I guarantee it’s going to get nasty … and bloody … and people are going to get hurt … including you and your family.

For this reason, if you’re in a church with a dictator as pastor, it’s preferable that you and your family quietly look for another church.

But if you’re determined to stay, you’re going to have to deal with your pastor … and there are ways to do this that are consistent with Scripture and the Christian faith.

If I was a board member, and I felt that the pastor had to go to save the church, I’d take the following steps:

*Call a special meeting of the official board away from the church campus.

*Express your concern about the way the pastor has been operating.  Share real-life examples.

*Go around the room and let each board member share how they feel about the pastor.  If the pastor has strong support, and you can’t convince them of your position, mentally make plans to leave the church.  YOU CAN’T DEAL WITH A DICTATORIAL PASTOR UNLESS YOU HAVE FULL BOARD SUPPORT.  If you do have full board support, then:

*Take time to pray and read Scripture together.  Ask God for His guidance … and for courage.  Confronting a dictatorial pastor will be among the hardest things you will ever do.

*Consult your church’s governing documents.  Hopefully there’s a section that lays out how to hire and fire a pastor.  If not, obtain the governing documents from three other churches that are governed like yours and summarize their process in a few steps.  Then write out what you believe are the best practices for terminating a pastor and adopt them as a board.

*Do not make a laundry list of all the pastor’s shortcomings.  That’s destructive.  Instead, focus on the one or two areas that concern you the most … no more than two.  (People can’t change in multiple areas of their lives.)  Come up with several examples under each area of concern.  You’re going to share these concerns with the pastor.

For example: “Pastor, whenever we ask you to give a report of your activities at the monthly board meeting, you just say, ‘Everything’s fine.’  But we need much more information than that!  We’d like you to bring a one or two page written report to every board meeting so we know specifically what you are doing.”

That’s a reasonable request.  (I brought a written report for years to every board meeting.)  But the dictator usually resists such accountability.

*Prayerfully ask two people to meet with the pastor to express the board’s concerns.  If possible, the chairman should be one of those people.  (Otherwise, the pastor will wonder, “Does the chairman know about and agree with this confrontation?”)

*Ask the pastor to meet the two board members at a neutral location, like a restaurant, rather than in the pastor’s study or someone’s home.  While you want privacy, it’s harder to make a scene in public.

*Give the pastor a choice.  Tell him, “We love you and we’re happy for you to remain our pastor, but we need to see the following changes in your life and ministry or else we will take further action.”  Then share with him how you want him to behave in the future.  If he becomes angry, wait until he calms down.  If he storms off, you’ll have to meet with him again.  Tell him that if he leaves the meeting and contacts his supporters, you will recommend to the board that he be dismissed immediately.

*The pastor has four options at this point:

First, he can act like you’ve never met and continue operating as usual.

Second, he can contact his supporters, tell them about the meeting, and thereby institute an all-our war within your congregation.  YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED FOR THIS POSSIBILITY.

Third, he can agree to make the changes you’ve suggested … in which case the board has the right to monitor his progress.

Finally, he may outwardly comply with the board’s wishes while starting to search for a new job.

I can’t give you a flow chart for what might happen under each option, but these kinds of situations can become unpredictable fast!

Let me share with you the single best way of dealing with a dictator-pastor.

Don’t hire one in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When a pastor is forced to leave his congregation, who is to blame?

Some inside a church will instantly proclaim, “The pastor is completely responsible for his demise.  He is 100% at fault.”

Others will insist, “The pastor isn’t to blame for his departure.  It was that spineless board … that heartless faction … or even the devil himself that caused this mess!”

The truth usually lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

In my book Church Coup, I quoted church conflict expert Speed Leas, who wrote about a research project along this line:

“While we could find some situations that were primarily the congregation’s ‘fault’ … and we could find some that were primarily the pastor’s ‘fault’ … these occurrences were rare.  Most of the time we found a mixture of congregational and pastoral causes that defied unraveling as to who ‘started it.’  Asking the question ‘Whose fault is it?’ in the church seemed to tangle people up … more than it helped … in our research into 127 ‘involuntary terminations’ or firings, we found the need to find fault to be one of the most characteristic and least helpful dimensions of the conflict … it is almost never the case that one party is exclusively in the wrong.”

This issue has been rattling around in my head for years, so let me mention five common scenarios involving a pastor’s departure … along with a general assessment of responsibility in each case:

First, if a pastor is guilty of a major offense, he is fully responsible for his own departure.

If a pastor is guilty of heresy, he should be fired and removed from office.

I read about a pastor many years ago who began teaching universalism, the belief that everyone – even Satan – will eventually be saved and go to heaven.

Since universalism perverts the gospel (if everyone can be saved, why did Jesus die?), the church was justified in removing that pastor from office, although he caused untold damage in the process.

If a pastor is guilty of sexual immorality, he should be removed from office as well.

I heard about a pastor who had an affair with a woman in his church for twenty years.  Twenty years!

How could he preach from the Holy Bible … serve Holy Communion … and even relate to the Holy Spirit while engaging in such conduct?

When the church board finally discovered the pastor’s misconduct, they took steps to remove him from office quickly.

Some experts believe these are the only two offenses that should merit a pastor’s forced termination, but I’d like to add a third: criminal behavior.

If a pastor has physically abused his wife … engaged in fraudulent financial behavior … assaulted people violently … or embezzled funds from his church … how can he stay as pastor?

He can’t.

When information about the pastor’s excessive misconduct comes to the attention of the church board, they should still:

*meet with the pastor

*ask him for his side of the story

*deliberate together prayerfully

*ask him to repent, if they discern he’s guilty

*aim for his restoration, not his destruction, if they remove him from office

But even if the board doesn’t handle the pastor’s departure perfectly, the pastor who is guilty of one of The Big Three has cooked his own goose.

However, this doesn’t mean that God is done with such individuals forever.

Second, if a church board has warned a pastor about a problem, and he’s failed to change his behavior within a reasonable time, the pastor is usually responsible for his own demise.

This scenario makes some assumptions … that the church board has:

*identified an area of the pastor’s life or ministry that needs changing

*spoken to the pastor directly and seriously about their concerns

*given the pastor enough time to turn things around

*monitored the pastor’s progress through the use of markers

*told the pastor what will happen if he doesn’t comply with their directives

Let’s say a pastor makes occasional insulting comments on Facebook to people from his church.  And let’s say that five people he has insulted are hopping mad and threaten to leave the church if the pastor’s behavior continues.

Once the church board approaches the pastor about this matter, he should do all he can to comply with their wishes, even if he doesn’t agree with each example they cite.

The pastor might choose to eliminate his Facebook page altogether … or write a message on Facebook apologizing for his behavior … or resolve to only write positive comments from now on … or at least refrain from saying anything that could be negatively interpreted.

But if the pastor continues to make insulting comments after being warned against it, then the pastor is to blame if the board reluctantly asks for his resignation.

There are church boards that work the steps I’ve listed above, but most boards don’t operate in such a clear manner.  They become anxious about the pastor’s behavior … handle things reactively rather than proactively … finally meet together in secret to discuss the issues … and only speak with the pastor directly when things have spun out of control.

And by then, it’s usually too late.

But if the board does everything right, and the pastor doesn’t change after a reasonable amount of time … he shouldn’t be surprise if he’s asked to pack his bags.

Third, if it becomes obvious that the pastor isn’t a good match for the church or the community, the blame for the pastor’s departure should be shared equally.

That is, the board should assume some of the blame, and the pastor should assume some of the blame.

Thirty years ago, I put out some resumes and had several phone interviews with search teams.

One was in Bay City, Michigan.  Another was in Rochester, New York.

The search team in Michigan liked me, but they asked me this question: “How would you feel about living so far away from your family in the West?”

Up to that time, all I cared about was leaving the church I was pastoring.  But they made me think about something I hadn’t really considered … and they were right.

Had I gone to Bay City, that church would have become our family, and neither my wife nor I would have seen our own parents or siblings very often.

If the board hadn’t asked me that question, and I had gone to Bay City, and it didn’t work out, they would be partially to blame.

But if I had gone there, and it didn’t work out, I’d share the blame as well.

I once heard about a pastor who was called from the South to a large church in Northern California.  His teenage daughter was forced to leave her boyfriend behind.

The girl became so depressed and distraught that the pastor resigned and returned to the South after less than a month in California.

It’s easy to say, “The pastor was totally at fault.  He never should have left the South.”  But it’s possible the search team didn’t look at the situation as carefully as they should have.

Mismatches usually reveal themselves pretty quickly.  It’s best if both the pastor and the search team admit, “We thought this would work out, but we can’t see it happening.  We’ll both take responsibility for this situation and not blame the other party.”

Fourth, if the board is happy with their pastor’s ministry, but the pastor is under attack, and the board fails to support him adequately, and the pastor resigns, the board is more at fault than the pastor.

Let’s say that Pastor Warren has been at Mercy Fellowship for six years.  And let’s say that Mercy’s attendance and giving have both doubled during that time.

And let’s say that ninety percent of the congregation loves Pastor Warren and that they are solidly behind his ministry … including the elders.

But one day, five people from an internal faction ask to meet with two of the elders.  They claim that Pastor Warren hasn’t been attending denominational meetings … that the church isn’t giving enough to the denomination … and that if things don’t change quickly, thirty people will leave the church.

So the two elders share this conversation with the other elders, and they speak with Pastor Warren at their next regular meeting.

Pastor Warren responds, “That’s right, I don’t attend denominational meetings.  I went to some my first several years here, but I found them to be a waste of time.  I’ve shared my stance with the elders before.  And we don’t give much money to the denomination because frankly, all we’re doing is propping up a bureaucracy run by a good old boys network.  I’d rather we invest in more productive ministries.”

The elders now have a choice.  They can back their pastor, or they can back the faction, but if they don’t back their pastor, he may choose to resign … and that will hurt the church far more than if the faction left.

I once knew a pastor who grew a megachurch.  One day, he fired a staff member.  The board hired him back.  The pastor resigned.

Pastors aren’t infallible.  Sometimes they get things wrong.  But the board needs to know that if they fail to support their pastor publicly, the pastor might choose to resign instead … and that will leave the board in charge of the church until they call a new pastor.

Finally, if a board fires a pastor without warning or explanation, the fault lies almost exclusively with the board.

Pastors aren’t mind readers.  They assume that things are going well unless somebody says, “We’re concerned about this particular issue.”

And a pastor should feel that wayYou can’t minister effectively if you’re walking around all day asking, “I wonder who’s mad at me?  I wonder if I’ve done something wrong?”

But a common scenario I hear from pastors is, “I thought everything in my ministry was going fine.  And then the board called me into a meeting after the morning worship service and they fired me.”

A board that would do that is composed of cowards.

If a church board is upset with their pastor, they have a responsibility to:

*schedule a meeting with him

*tell him to his face what their concerns are

*allow the pastor to offer feedback

*create a plan with the pastor’s input

*revisit the plan at reasonable intervals

How much time should the pastor be given?

Church conflict expert Peter Steinke says twelve to fifteen months.  If there hasn’t been sufficient improvement by then, the board has every right to remove the pastor.

The beauty of this approach is that the pastor can decide whether or not he wants to stay.  If he thinks the board has been unfair … or that he can’t change … or that he doesn’t need to change … then he has time to search for another ministry.

But most boards don’t do this.  They fail to tell the pastor their concerns directly … speak only among themselves … blame the pastor for not changing … work themselves into a high state of anxiety … and then fire the pastor abruptly.

And when a board fires an innocent pastor (that is, he’s not guilty of any major offense) suddenly, they’ve now bought their church two to five years of misery … or a gradual death spiral.

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I believe there are times when a pastor needs to be removed from office.

But even when that becomes necessary, the pastor still should be treated with dignity, compassion, fairness, and grace … not abuse, insensitivity, injustice, and revenge.

The pastor and his family should also be given a generous severance package so they can transition financially into their next season of life.  Church boards that fire their pastors with little or no severance are denying the faith they claim to believe.

And the church board should tell the congregation as much as they can … not as little as possible … about why the pastor left if they want to reestablish trust.

Can you think of any other common scenarios that I missed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I once had a conversation with a pastor who had been asked to leave his church by the official board.

His attitude was, “Okay, I’ll resign.”

And according to him, he and his wife then quietly left the church.

The way he told the story, he didn’t ask for any severance … didn’t feel any anger … didn’t tell anyone what happened … and didn’t need any time to recover.

Personally, I think he was either lying to me or greatly exaggerated how well he handled his departure.

Because most pastors who are forced out of their churches don’t recover quickly.  According to my friend and mentor Charles Chandler, founder of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, it takes the average pastor one to three years to heal from a forced termination.

And in some cases, I believe it can take longer than that.

In my last blog, I wrote about the first three stages that a pastor goes through after being forced to leave a ministry:

Stage 1: Shock

Stage 2: Searching

Stage 3: Panic

Let me share the final three stages with you:

Stage 4: Forgiveness

I’ve heard pastors tell me their stories but try and excuse or explain the behavior of the official board or an antagonistic faction.

If the board wasn’t at fault … if they did everything right … then the pastor should feel little to no anger, and he probably doesn’t have to forgive anyone.

But if the board violated Scripture … and possibly the church’s constitution/bylaws … and lied about the pastor’s offenses … and demonstrated callousness rather than compassion … and offered little to no severance … then the pastor rightfully feels angry, and he will have to forgive his opponents before he can truly recover.

Some boards know that the way they’re treating their pastor is wrong, but they do it anyway.  These are usually boards that are run by bullies and people who are powerful/wealthy in the church or community.  The bullies have sociopathic or narcissistic tendencies and force others to do their bidding.

These boards must be forgiven.

Other boards … maybe most … think that the way they’re treating their pastor is right, but if they asked him … and probably the majority of their congregation … they’d say, “You’re handling matters horribly.”

These boards must be forgiven as well.

Surveying those who crucified Him, Jesus prayed in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus was treated horribly.  He didn’t do anything wrong but was crucified on trumped-up charges.

Yet from His perspective, Jesus granted His enemies unilateral forgiveness.  He forgave them for their sins against the Father and the Son.  He chose not to hang onto personal anger and bitterness.

But He did not offer His enemies bilateral forgiveness … or reconciliation … from the cross.  That offer would come later.

Now here’s the problem with pastors who have undergone termination: what the pastor really wants … and needs … is reconciliation … but it isn’t possible.

He has to settle for unilateral forgiveness instead.

Let me share how this works from my own story.

The board at my former church may have been upset with me over a few issues, but for months, they did not bring them to my attention, nor did they ask me to repent.

Instead, at our final meeting, they brought up an incident where I had already asked for their forgiveness and changed my behavior.

Then they mentioned a second supposed offense which I deny to this day.

In neither case did they allow me to respond to their charges.  They engaged in a scripted monologue that made them feel better but made me feel angry.  The climate in the meeting was, “We’re right, Jim, but you’re wrong.”

It’s hard to defend yourself when it’s six against one.

Yet eight days after our final meeting, all six board members resigned together.

Based upon their resignation letter, they never wanted to see or hear from me again.  In fact, if you read their letter, you would conclude that they hated me … which is how I interpreted what they wrote.

Then a week later, at two public congregational meetings, someone stood up and rattled off a list of charges against me which the board had never shared to my face.  In fact, it was the first time I had heard of all but one charge.

According to the church consultant present at those meetings, I suffered abuse and slander.  He later wrote that the board had acted “extremely and destructively.”

Those six board members chose not to interact with me anymore.  To this day, not one of them has ever tried contacting me for any reason.  Any personal relationships we had were destroyed when our working relationship was severed.

The board is no longer an entity.  I doubt if they have annual reunions.  If I wanted to reconcile with them, what would that look like?

I read a book once about a pastor who tried to do just that.  A year after he left his previous church, he called the board together and tried to reconcile with them.

But they were even more angry and adamant about the pastor than they had been the year before!  Their hearts had hardened toward him, not softened.

I have never heard of a pastor who was able to reconcile with a board or a faction that pushed him out of office.  Maybe it’s happened … I’m just unaware of it.

Individuals from the board or a faction might desire reconciliation, but most of the time, they’d have to initiate contact with the pastor.

I can count on one hand the number of churches that I’ve heard about that brought back a pastor and admitted they sinned against him when they ran him out of town.

But in most of these situations, the board members who sent him packing are no longer on the board … and they probably wouldn’t agree with the church’s decision anyway.

The problem with reconciliation between a pastor and the board that terminated him is that they would have to rehash the story again … both sides would probably end up taking the same stances they took in the past … and the pastor would be hurt all over again.

In my case, I was not guilty of any major offense.  I tried to work with the board, but our value systems were just too different.  One or both of us needed to leave.

Since reconciliation isn’t possible, granting unilateral forgiveness is the only thing a terminated pastor can do.

The timing of genuine forgiveness depends upon two factors: the severity of the injustice and the sensitivity of the pastor.

In my case, it took me six months before I could forgive those who ended my pastoral career.

Why did it take so long?

I wasn’t ready.

This means going to the Lord alone or with family … confessing any sins that the Lord leads you to confess … and then asking the Lord to forgive those who sinned against you, just as Jesus did in Luke 23:34.

If you can pray once and let things go, great.  In my case, I’ve had to forgive some people multiple times as I’ve heard about new offenses they committed against me.

But if you don’t forgive those who hurt you, you will not be able to recover from your termination.

Forgiveness is essential.

When you’re ready, give the Lord your anger … let it go … and ask Him to right any wrongs.

And then trust Him to do just that.

If you want additional help, let me recommend the books on forgiveness by David Augsburger and Lewis Smedes.  Augusburger is more biblical and deeper … Smedes is more practical and shares great stories.

Stage 5: Distancing

What do I mean by distancing?

After you have formally forgiven everyone who attacked and hurt you, you have to put some distance between you and (a) your former congregation as an entity, and (b) nearly everyone in that congregation.

Let me share a mistake I made along this line.

When my wife and I left our last church in December 2009, we not only had to move everything in our house, we both had offices at church as well.

We put everything in two moving pods … including at least two hundred boxes of my books … but we still had to leave some items behind … and we moved nearly 800 miles away.

I left three large filing cabinets full of files in the church office, and wasn’t able to return for them for three months.

When I returned, it took 21 Banker Boxes for all those files.

But it was extremely painful to return to the church.  The interim pastor had set up camp in my former office of ten years … I could see him through the large window … and the church was planning to do a memorial service for a woman who had been one of my biggest supporters … but now I wouldn’t be conducting that service.

One night on that trip, I drove by the church in the rain … and it was the last time I ever saw the sign and the building.

I’ve returned to the city where we lived and worked several times, but I refuse to drive by the church.

It’s just too painful.

On several occasions, I met with friends from the church, but they wanted to talk about the real reasons why I was pushed out … and that was hard as well.

On one of those trips, I invited a good friend out to breakfast, but he never asked me one question about how I was doing, and talked about how much he liked the new pastor instead (even though his family left the church soon afterward).

The last time I visited the city was six years ago, and I promised myself I would never go back.

That’s what I mean by distancing.

To recover, you need to distance yourself:

*from seeing the church campus again.  If you have to remember what it looked like, find some old photos.

*from spending any time with anyone who isn’t 100% your friend.  Eight years later, I probably have 15-20 friends left from my former church … and that’s mostly on Facebook.

*from any of your detractors.  There were people who claimed to be my friends when I left the church who flipped on me a few months or years afterward.  Their disloyalty was so painful that I started pulling away from anyone I couldn’t fully trust.

*from hearing how the church is currently doing.  If you don’t have contact with people who are at the church, you won’t have to hear how things are going.  Most of the time, a church that pushes out their pastor will suffer as far as attendance, giving, volunteers, and morale for the next two to five years.  I have no idea how my previous church is doing in any detail.  I took my hands off the church years ago … and that’s the best gift I can give any successor.

*from the area where the church is located, if possible.  Visit restaurants and stores in the area, and you’re bound to see someone you don’t want to see.

When I was in college, I worked two years for McDonald’s in Anaheim.  While I’ve driven past it a few times since I moved out of Orange County in 1981, I haven’t stopped there for a burger or tried to see if anyone I knew in the early 1970s still works there.

They’ve moved on … as have I.  McDonald’s no longer defines me.

That’s how pastors have to view their former churches.

Finally, there’s:

Stage 6: Perspective

You can’t have perspective on a forced termination until you’ve forgiven those who have hurt you and have put distance between you and your former church so you know they can’t hurt you again.

As long as you’re stressed, depressed, or in pain about your termination, your thinking about what happened to you will be skewed.

And it takes time to gain that perspective … sometimes a lot of time.

While self-reflection in this area is a good thing, you’ll gain far more perspective … and much more quickly … if you ask others for assistance.

I recommend:

*talking with several pastor friends.  My pastor friends let me know that my departure did not change our friendship.  That was their greatest gift to me.  I also had meetings with a lot of prominent pastors, most of whom told me about the conflicts that they went through.  Wounded pastors bond quickly and easily.

*talking with a church consultant or conflict expert.  If you want to know what really happened in your situation, these are the guys you want to speak with.  If I can help you in any way, please email me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org  I love to hear new stories about pastoral termination … and I know I can help.

*talking with one or two Christian counselors.  I visited two counselors … both women … and both came highly recommended.  (My wife saw them both as well.)  Both had been in ministry so they understood the dynamics.  Most pastors don’t see a counselor after a forced termination, and that’s a huge mistake.  If a pastor doesn’t see a counselor, he will tend to bleed emotionally all over his wife and children, and after a while, they may not be able to take it anymore.  The right counselor will listen to your story without judgment or condemnation … point out flaws in your thinking … help you discern healthy and unhealthy responses to your termination … and help you move forward.  Make sure you see a Christian counselor who understands people in ministry!  They will also understand spiritual warfare.

*talking with several of your supporters from the church … especially if they know the back story.  Because I wrote a book about what happened to me, I spent hours emailing and calling people who knew what was said and done after I left.  For example, two weeks after our departure, the new board chairman told the congregation that an investigation was done and “there was no evidence of any wrongdoing” on our part.  I would never have known that unless several people told me it had occurred.

I had invested 35 years in pastoral ministry, but my final year was horrible.  The church was landlocked, so I didn’t see any hope for growth, and the board was obsessed with money, even though we had plenty of funds for ministry.

After two bad board meetings in a row, I visited a counselor, who tested me and told me, “You’re severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

But I was so committed to ministry … to my church … and to my career that I would never have resigned voluntarily.

Looking back now, I see that the Lord in His mercy removed me from office.  Things at the church were going to get worse with that board … not better … and more conflict was going to be the result.

As I’m fond of saying, I didn’t retire … the Lord retired me.

People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you miss church ministry?”  And I always tell them the same thing, “No, I don’t.  Thirty-five years was enough.”

My wife and I run in a preschool in our house.  It took us nearly four years before we settled on our new career, but it’s gone very well, and we’re nearly always full.

We have nights and weekends free … can go to church with our son’s family and our three grandsons … and lead quiet but fulfilling lives.

I resonate with the words of Joseph, who told his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”

When you focus more on God’s wise and good plan than the hurt and the pain caused by your detractors, you’re well on your way to recovering from your ecclesiastical nightmare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my case, I had to pray this prayer on multiple occasions because the board that wanted me gone thought they were clever in the way they handled matters but bungled them so badly I toyed with the idea of calling my book Bungled instead of Church Coup.

 

 

 

 

 

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While sweeping the kitchen floor yesterday, it came to me that I’ve been in a really good place emotionally for the past several years.

After serving as a pastor for 36 years, I was forced out of my last congregation in the fall of 2009.  Of the scores of stories I’ve heard about pastors being terminated since my departure, mine still ranks among the top three worst stories I’ve ever heard.

Despite ten-and-a-half years of successful ministry, my wife and I were abused … slandered … hated … and shunned, especially during our last few weeks at the church and in the months following.

And yet today, I feel completely healed, to the point that I don’t think about those events much anymore.

What kind of stages does a terminated pastor go through to experience recovery?

Let me offer six stages … three today, three next week … and these ideas are mine alone:

Stage 1: Shock

As recounted in my book Church Coup, my fifty-day conflict began on a Saturday morning with a regularly scheduled board meeting.  The board and I were supposed to finalize the church budget for 2010 … only the board made an announcement ultimately designed to push me out of my position.

I was shocked that:

*the board had been plotting while I was overseas.

*two board members who had been supporters were involved.

*the board didn’t hear my side of the story before making drastic decisions.

*they thought they could lead the church better than I could.

*they acted like they knew what they were doing when they really didn’t.

My disbelief continued when I asked the board for documentation of the offenses they claimed had been committed … but they never produced anything coherent.

I thought I knew the six members of the board pretty well, but I was dismayed to discover I didn’t.

And I was especially shocked because I didn’t see the conflict coming.

But most of all, I found it hard to believe that Christian leaders would treat their pastor of more than a decade in such an unjust fashion.

What do I mean by “unjust?”

A pastor is treated unjustly when church leaders violate Scripture … the church’s governing documents … and labor law in their attempts to force him out of office … and when they do it all with a cold, calloused attitude lacking in compassion.

When I talk with pastors who have been forced to leave their churches, they resonate best with that last statement: that they would be treated so unjustly by professing Christians.

The shock lingers on … for months … sometimes years.

The more sensitive you are, the longer it lasts.

You never forget the moment you’re told that someone you loved suddenly died.

And you never forget the exact time a board member tells you, “Your tenure as the pastor of this church is over.”

Stage 2: Searching

After the shock wore off a little, I had two primary questions I needed answers to:

*Who was in on this plot?

*What are they saying that I did wrong?

I wanted to know the “who” before I discovered the “what” because most of the time, the “who” determines the “what.”

For example, if you told two women, “Jim did this … can you believe it?”, one woman might say, “That’s terrible!” and the other woman might say, “That’s nothing!”

It’s often how people interpret the information they’re given that determines whether they oppose or support their pastor.

So who wanted me gone?

I pretty much knew the answer to that question:

*people who wanted our church to have closer denominational ties.

*a handful of individuals I wouldn’t let into church leadership because they didn’t meet the biblical qualifications.

*people who had close ties with my predecessor and longed for his return, even though he had officially retired nine years beforehand.

*a small contingent who didn’t think my wife should be a staff member, even though she made the church go.  (I maintain to this day that some women were jealous of her success and hated her because of it.)

*people who didn’t like the church’s longstanding outreach orientation and wanted to pare down the church so they could better control it.

In a few cases, some people fit all five categories.

Some people weren’t comfortable with the church’s size anymore because they became small fish in a larger pond.  They felt more significant years before … and wanted to feel that way again.

What did they say I did wrong?

There are two sets of answers to this question … what they said while I was still at the church and what they said after I left.

While I was still at the church, the main issue was that my wife was on the church staff … and seemed to have too much influence.

And after that infamous board meeting I mentioned above, I was accused of deviating from the way the board wanted the conflict handled.

What did they want?

My wife’s resignation, followed by my own.  (And I’m convinced the board would not have offered me any kind of reasonable separation package.)

But neither one of us was going to leave voluntarily until the board made their case to our faces.

Two board members met with my wife … at my request … but they failed to convince her to resign.

And they never accused me of doing anything wrong to my face … only behind my back.

Months after I left, I was told that a small group in the church wanted to remove me from office, but they knew they couldn’t win the required vote so they decided to attack my wife instead.

That’s valuable information to have.  It’s hard enough for a pastor to leave a church under pressure … but if you don’t know why you were pushed out, you’ll spend months … if not years … blaming yourself when you don’t know the truth.

And then after I left, I was accused of all kinds of wrongdoing.  You name it, I supposedly did it.

For example, several people of influence claimed that when we built our new worship center, we should have paid for the whole thing in cash.

That would have been nice, but that wasn’t the position of the church board at the time.

Even though we raised more than half the funds, the church voted unanimously to take out a reasonable mortgage for the remaining balance.

And when I was pastor, we had plenty of people and plenty of income to pay that mortgage.

The company that loaned the church the money wanted to make sure that I had no plans to leave the church … that I was going to stay and keep the church stable.

I gave my word that I would stay … but after I was forced out, attendance and giving eventually went down … and from what I understand, the church had some challenges paying that monthly mortgage.

And some claimed that was 100% my fault.

But to this day, nobody has ever convinced me that I did anything worthy of leaving.

If anything, people’s false accusations were designed to make themselves feel better, even though they railroaded an innocent pastor.

Faultless?  No.  Flawed?  Yes.

But guilty?  No.

This stage … trying to figure out who opposed you and why … is so painful that many pastors never work through it.

It’s like being married for years to someone, and then they want you to leave the house … without any explanation.

For me, I wanted to know the truth, painful as it might be, so that I could heal.

Stage 3: Panic

There are two primary kinds of panic after a pastor has been terminated:

*Emotional panic

*Economic panic

Emotionally, you feel rejected.  Months or years before, the congregation voted you into office, and people were glad you came.

But now some … or many … are equally glad you’re gone.

When a pastor is pushed out of a church, there is usually betrayal involved … and nothing hurts more than that.

Someone you worked with … someone you trusted … someone you socialized with and prayed with … suddenly switched sides and joined forces with those who wanted to take you out … and you didn’t know when or why they flipped.

It could be the board chairman … the associate pastor … the church treasurer … or the head of men’s ministry.

Eleven of His disciples stuck with Jesus in the Garden.  Only Judas switched sides.

But how that must have devastated Jesus!

When I was a kid, I betrayed a friend, and couldn’t believe what I had done.  From that moment on, I determined that if someone was really my friend, I would stay loyal to them no matter what … and that included the five lead pastors I served under.

So to this day, I can’t understand why betrayal came so easily to some adults.

Why did they have to hold secret meetings?  Why didn’t they speak with me face to face?

Economically, a pastor depends upon the donations from people inside his church … and when he’s forced out of office, those donations disappear.

If a pastor is given enough severance … a minimum of six months … then he can methodically put together a plan to rebuild his life.

But if he’s only given three months … or less … the combination of emotional rejection and economic deprivation can cause him unbearable stress.

If the pastor has sufficient savings … if his wife has a job with a solid income … if he has skills that he can quickly use in the marketplace … his panic will lessen.

But most pastors are living paycheck to paycheck, and if they’re given a token severance … or none at all … they feel as if they’re in real trouble.

Why do terminated pastors feel such panic?

Because they trained and studied for years … went through the ordination process … sacrificed financially … gave their all to their congregation, trusting that they would care for their pastor … and then found themselves kicked to the curb.

My wife and I now run a business where we invoice our clients every month.  We provide a service, and they pay us for that service.  And when our clients fall behind on their payments, we remind them of their obligations.

But to have your income depend completely upon donations, as I did for 36 years … it takes great faith to believe that God will take care of you through His people.

And when it all turns south, it can cause even the best of pastors to become alarmed.

I will share the next three stages next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Back in the 1990s, I read a little sidebar in Leadership Journal written by Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  I recounted this story often over the ensuing years.

Hybels wrote that he briefly visited the church campus for a rehearsal one week night.  The next morning, he received a note in his box from a church groundskeeper.  The note said, “Bill, when you visited last night, you parked in an area that’s off limits to everyone.  Just wanted you to know.”

Instead of lashing out at him, Hybels commended his corrector and told his Leadership audience, “I need to be an example, not an exception.”

And for decades, Pastor Bill from Willow has been an example of Christian leadership … until the recent revelations that may indicate inappropriate conduct on his part toward at least seven women.

There’s much we don’t know about what happened between Hybels and the women who have gone public with their concerns.  Maybe more revelations will surface in the coming days.  And I must confess … it’s difficult to analyze this situation from a distance.  But many people I know have been talking about it … with strong reactions on all sides … and I’ve learned a lot by listening to their observations.

I have no inside or additional information … just my own perspective about this situation.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 006(I’m adding a few photos I took from Willow in 2005 to break up this article.)

Let me pose and attempt to answer four questions about the Willow “train wreck”:

First, what do you think about the accounts of impropriety from various women?

At first, like many people, I didn’t want to believe the charges against Hybels.  We don’t have any video of Hybels’ individual encounters with these women, so they initially fall into a “he said, she said” category.  But when seven women share their stories, and patterns emerge from their narratives, the similarities are most likely true.

*The accounts told by various women go back as far as the mid-1980s through at least 2011, so Hybels can’t claim they all happened when he was younger (and didn’t know the boundaries) nor when he was older (and his judgment was worn down).  The accounts spread over nearly three decades seem to indicate a pattern of behavior.

*The accounts are too detailed and concrete to be dismissed as a conspiracy.  What dismays many of us is that the allegations don’t sound like the Hybels that thousands of us respected.  I have a friend whose wife was in Hybels’ youth group and she says he never would have acted like these women claim he did.  Did something change over the years?

*I can’t wrap my head around why Hybels liked to tell select women how attractive or sexy they were, but Willow’s leaders have had a track record of focusing on the outward appearance of their public leaders.

Twenty-five years ago this month, someone who used to attend Willow hired one of Hybels’ former top leaders to serve as a consultant for our new church.  One of the consultant’s recommendations was to keep those who weren’t “in shape” off the stage, especially if they were singing or acting in a drama.  When I unwisely tried to implement this “Willow value,” a good couple immediately left the church, and I alienated one of the elders as well as some others … and I’ve regretted it ever since.

Maureen Girkins, former publisher from Zondervan, says Hybels told her that “she’d be more successful if she tried to be sexier.”  A Christian leader might think that, but to say it aloud?

*Several women mentioned that Hybels told them how unhappy he was at home.  Many of us in ministry know that the pathway to an affair starts with both the pastor and another woman sharing their marital unhappiness with each other.  It’s dangerous territory.  Why did Hybels, of all people, take that risk?

I attended the first International Conference at Willow in June 1994.  Hybels met with a group of pastors one afternoon and told us that he was in counseling for some “junk” from his past and that he and his wife were in counseling as well.  He was very transparent about his problems even though he and Lynne had written their marriage book Fit to be Tied the previous year.

I think it’s safe to say that this ministry couple had ongoing struggles in their relationship, although that’s not uncommon.

*As Christianity Today noted, “Hybels pressured women into spending time alone with him.”  This sounds like more than mentoring.  He comes off as a man who needed a friend, someone who could understand him.  I’m not trying to minimize his actions … just trying to figure out what he was after.  Was he looking for a listening ear or a wifely upgrade?

*Was anyone else disturbed by several accounts of staffers telling various women that they were “Hybels’ type?”  When a Christian leader gets married, shouldn’t his wife be “his type” from that moment on?  If this detail is true, it sounds like something that would happen in middle school, not in one of the nation’s largest churches.

Hybels wrote books with the following titles, among many others: Christians in a Sex-Crazed Culture; Honest to God?; Descending Into Greatness; and Character: Who You Are When No One’s Looking.  Right now, those titles look a bit ironic.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 007

Second, if these accounts sound plausible, why did Hybels vehemently deny them all?

I can only guess.

Bill Hybels is the most transparent and vulnerable pastor that I’ve ever heard.  At the large-group gathering of pastors at the 1994 Conference, someone asked Hybels how he could be so transparent.  His answer?  He said something like, “It takes too much energy to hide things.”  While I enjoyed the creativity of Willow’s services … their core value of “people matter to God” … and the excellence with which they did everything … I was most impressed with the leadership’s authenticity, which sprang from their senior pastor.

So if Hybels was guilty of any of the infractions presented by these women, I would have expected him to confess, “I did say that … I didn’t do that … I may have done that.”

But that’s not what he did.  Instead, he initially issued a blanket denial, both to his congregation (including an online video) and to the Chicago Tribune, where he said:

“I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

Why the initial denials?

*Is is possible there is a “megachurch morality?”  Let me share what happened to me eight years ago.

Seven months after I left my last ministry, I was still pretty raw emotionally.  A friend set up a meeting between me and a megachurch pastor.  We spent an hour in his office together.

At one point, the pastor told me a story … which I have since forgotten … but he then told me, “If you share this story with anybody else, and it gets back to me, I will deny it.”

I didn’t forget that statement.

That’s not the kind of thing a pastor with integrity would say.  He was telling me, “If what I’ve just shared resurfaces, I will tell a lie.”  It just rolled off his tongue like it was no big deal.

Is it possible that some megachurch pastors have a “I will protect my reputation and that of my church” at all costs mentality … even if it means lying?  Is this how they stay in power?

I admit this question is based on one incident … but it makes me wonder.

One of my mentors … a man I respect as much as anyone … recently told me that the entitled and privileged in the evangelical world constitute “one sicko sick system.”  I lack his knowledge of what happens on the inside of a very large church, so I’m unsure what to think.

*Is it possible that Willow had a “buddy culture?”  Jodi Walle was John Ortberg’s executive assistant at Willow for seven years.  She writes in this piece on her website (www.jodiwalle.com), “There was probably a naïve ‘buddy’ culture that didn’t place enough emphasis on male vs female.  It shows that Bill was possibly more relaxed and felt too comfortable with women …”

Yes, some of the accusations might have occurred in the context of a “buddy” culture, and Walle wrote her piece before the April 21 revelations from Christianity Today.  But Zondervan publisher Maureen Girkins certainly wasn’t part of that culture.

But the women must have been equally relaxed with Hybels to run with him alone or to visit his hotel room when summoned.  Yes, he held a degree of power over some of them, but didn’t they think twice about such arrangements?  What was wrong with saying, “I’m not comfortable doing this or being here?”

*If Hybels had admitted publicly to any kind of wrongdoing, how would his confession(s) have been received?

Let’s go back to when Hybels’ accusers first went public.  If Hybels had said at that time, “Look, I didn’t use my best judgment in these situations, and I want to apologize to these women personally, and if necessary, in the presence of the elders.”

What would have happened?

I don’t know.  My hope is that upon hearing Hybels’ confession, each woman would have forgiven him completely, and that would have settled the matter.

But what if Hybels and/or the elders feared that if he admitted any wrongdoing … no matter how small … there would have been calls for his termination or resignation?

If Hybels had admitted some degree of culpability … and it somehow became public … he had no way of knowing what the aftermath of his admission might be.  What if someone refused to forgive him and sought revenge instead?

It’s easy to say, “Well, he shouldn’t think about the consequences.  He should just admit his sin and take his lumps like a man.”

But Hybels wasn’t the pastor of an average church, but the leader of one of America’s most influential churches … one that’s become a movement … with an association of churches … and one that trains thousands of leaders.

In a very real way, Hybels was Willow to tens of thousands of people … but if Hybels went down, Willow and all its ministries would be negatively affected … possibly for years.

None of us can say how those admissions would have been used.  Hybels had to have his eye on his succession plan and planned retirement, and knew that in the present cultural climate, even a private admission on his part about a sensitive issue could go public and put Willow and its Association in jeopardy.

I am not saying that Hybels chose to lie.  And I am not saying that he was even conscious that he had done anything wrong.  (It’s easy to rationalize a host of misbehaviors if you’ve been operating under a “buddy culture.”)

But he and the elders had to know that in this particular area … misconduct toward women … it doesn’t take much for people to coalesce against a common opponent … and for the target of their wrath to become toast.

We all watched the dissolution of Mars Hill Church several years ago.  A church of 14,000 people and its satellite campuses vanished into nothingness seemingly overnight.

Willow may be constructed on a more robust foundation, but in today’s climate … especially with the viciousness of social media … anything is possible.

To Hybels’ credit, he finally made the following statements to his church on the night of his resignation:

“… I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable.  I was blind to this dynamic for far too long.  For that I’m very sorry.”

He continued:

“… I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.  I was, at times, naive about the dynamics those situations created.  I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part.  I commit to never putting myself in similar situations in the future.”

This is a good start.  As the elders listen to the stories of other women, and as Hybels goes through a time of reflection, let’s pray that this conflict can be eventually resolved.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 017

Third, how should Christians view the organized effort to damage Hybels?

More than eight years ago, a small, vocal group inside the church I served wanted to force me out as pastor.  They didn’t have anything on me, so they went after my wife … who was on the staff … instead.  (These events are recounted in my book Church Coup.)

From the moment the accusations against my wife surfaced, I knew that I would end up leaving.

I brought in a church consultant who did some interviews and attended two congregational meetings.  As a former pastor, he knew instinctively what the opposition was trying to accomplish, and spelled it out in his report.  He contained the damage and helped me negotiate an exit package.

But most of my supporters didn’t think matters were all that serious.  Some were trying to figure out how I could stay while addressing the concerns of the opposition.

But my opponents weren’t in a negotiating mood.  They had organized a plan to push me OUT … and the signs were all there.

I don’t know how much opposition Hybels had from within Willow, or whether anybody currently on the staff or elders wanted his scalp.

But I know the signs, and I don’t believe the group effort involving John Ortberg was just after repent/prevent … trying to get Hybels to repent so they could prevent others from being hurt.

In my view, they wanted to damage his reputation as well.

I have a pastor friend who believes that it takes a megachurch pastor like John Ortberg to confront a megachurch pastor like Bill Hybels.  And because I don’t understand “megachurch morality,” my friend may be right.

My friend also believes that Ortberg had nothing to gain by becoming involved in this situation, although I surmised some possibilities in my article from March 28.

But I’m looking for a biblical precedent here, and having a hard time seeing it.  As apostles, Paul and John took on troublemakers inside churches by name, even though they weren’t present in those churches … but does Hybels fit that category?  And has Ortberg been given the authority of an apostle in today’s Christian community?

Something just doesn’t feel right to me about this.

Several thoughts:

*Division inside a congregation begins when churchgoers pool their grievances against a common opponent … usually the pastor.  I throw my two complaints into the mix … you toss in your four … and pretty soon, we have a list of twenty-four grievances against the pastor … and our twenty-four look twelve times worse than my original two.

Now the pastor is a bad guy who has to go because he committed twenty-four offenses!

In the process, I allow myself to be triangled … to take responsibility for your pain … rather than encouraging you to work things out between you and your offender.

It’s far, far better … and much more biblical … for God’s people to implement Matthew 18:15-17 before they do anything else:

#Go to the pastor privately and directly (Jesus doesn’t exclude Christian leaders from His words) and try and get him to repent.

#If he won’t listen, take one or two more with you and try again.

#If he still won’t listen, tell the entire congregation.  (At this point, the official church board would probably become involved, and try and speak with the pastor themselves.  If he wouldn’t repent, then they could call a meeting of the church.)

Were these steps followed by each of the initial four women?  I’m not saying they weren’t, but it bothers me in any church that people can latch onto a group that opposes a pastor before they’ve tried speaking with him themselves.  It’s all too easy for a person with one grievance to carry the grievances of others … and it expands the sense of injustice … although it does make people feel powerful.

In my case, no one ever implemented Matthew 18 and came to me directly.  The first time I heard any charges were in a public church meeting … but Jesus doesn’t begin by saying, “If your brother sins against you … tell it to the church.”

More than eight years later, I still feel horribly violated by those public charges … and by that power tactic.  So I can understand how angry Hybels felt when someone started calling pastors and Christian leaders and accusing him of impropriety.

But is it possible that either Hybels or the elders … or both … made it difficult for the women to come forward and share their stories?

*In the Christian community, a pastor’s attackers are rarely confronted or disciplined.  In my last ministry, even though their tactics were not loving or godly, my detractors were not corrected or warned by anyone official.  Humanly speaking, they got away with it.  In fact, some were later rewarded and given places of leadership.

Sadly, over the years, I’ve learned that the last place an accused pastor can find “justice” is inside a local church.

In Deuteronomy 19:15-21, if a witness in ancient Israel accused someone of a crime, and the accused was later exonerated, the false witness was to be given the same punishment as the person he/she accused.  But this rarely happens in the Christian community today.  Those who slander leaders are almost never dealt with.  A pastor who is publicly accused of wrongdoing is assumed to be guilty without any kind of a trial.  Thank God the report of Hybels having a ten-year affair was quickly rebutted by Willow’s elders or Hybels could have been forced out by a lie four years ago.

*Why did Hybels’ accusers need John Ortberg’s assistance to confront Hybels?

Both the secular and evangelical presses have melded the offended women and the Ortbergs (and the Mellados) together.

I’d like to separate them out for a moment.

I can understand how the initial four women felt wronged as they heard each other’s stories.  And I can understand how one or two of them might choose to represent their friends and approach Willow’s elders with their concerns.

But why bring in Hybels’ former colleague John Ortberg?  (I just noticed on Amazon that they co-wrote a book together.)  Or did he volunteer to help them?  And it seems all the more odd because neither Hybels nor the elders seemed to respond to Ortberg’s overtures very favorably … especially when he and his group issued their infamous five demands.  (Why did they think the elders would agree to them?  Or were they just posturing?)

The women may have been naive about how these things work, but Ortberg assuredly knew what would happen once the women’s claims against Hybels went public.  He knows how the game is played.

Jodi Walle, Ortberg’s executive assistant I mentioned earlier, wrote an open letter to him on her website.  She asked him:

“How is it that now you are the one to give women a voice?  We have a voice.  It’s our job to use it.  To be current and to go to someone if they have harmed us.  You have nothing to say about any of it.  If anything, you are part of the problem.”

But she could have added, “I know what you are doing, John.  You are pushing hard so that Bill resigns.”

There’s an untold story as to Ortberg’s motives that we may never know … and yes, I’ve read his explanation online.

But Jodi Walle’s open letter to Ortberg paints a different picture of him than some might imagine.  Yet so far, to my knowledge, nobody has addressed Walle’s revelations publicly.

Read it yourself at www.jodiwalle.com

I find the silence very telling.

Hybels alleges … and I have no reason to doubt him … that someone was calling pastors and Christian leaders about him over the past few years, but that kind of whispering campaign … and it was a campaign … was designed to ruin Hybels’ reputation.

And contacting the Chicago Tribune about the allegations was the coup de grace.  Who thought that was a good idea?

But guess what?  The tactic worked.  It usually does … and Ortberg, as an experienced pastor, had to know that.

Paul Simon once wrote and sang a song called, “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love.”

And contacting Christian leaders privately and going to a secular newspaper “sure don’t feel like love” either.

*There are two main ways of getting rid of a pastor when he has not done something clearly impeachable:

First, you gather together multiple charges.

In Hybels’ case, there has been one primary charge: his improper behavior toward women.  There haven’t been accusations (to my knowledge) of mishandling church funds, for example, but there have been various allegations of sexual impropriety.

Second, you gather together multiple accusers … like in the Bill Cosby case.  

And that’s what happened with Hybels as well.

But the better way … and the biblical way … is for each individual to deal with issues as they arise.

However … two women claimed they did confront Hybels about his behavior.  One was Julia Wilkins from the gym (mentioned in the latest Christianity Today article), and the other was Vonda Dyer (who wrote her own story online).  It took great courage for those women to go to Hybels … in his office … and confront him … but in neither case did the women report anything resembling an apology.

Having been a pastor for thirty-six years, I know how difficult it is for people inside a church to confront their pastor about wrongdoing.  I could probably count on two hands the number of people that came to me personally over the years, so they stand out in my mind … and I’m probably a gentler person than Hybels.

When he denied any wrongdoing, it’s hard for me to believe that Hybels couldn’t recall those confrontations … especially since both women could have escalated matters by approaching Willow’s elders instead.

Conflicts in churches could be avoided and resolved if people would just address matters as they occur … and that’s certainly what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-26, and what Paul taught in Ephesians 4:26-27.

The Bible doesn’t give us a specific statute of limitations on confronting those who may have harmed us, but to go back twenty years to complain about a comment the pastor made seems vengeful to me.

There are two surefire ways to destroy a relationship: make a long list of someone’s offenses and recite it back to them … and mention offenses they may have committed that go back many years.

This is the way the world works.  This isn’t supposed to be the way the church works.

I just wonder who is influencing whom.

Willow Creek Conference June 12-15, 2006 172

Finally, how should people handle their complaints against a pastor?

This is my own shorthand formula:

First, overlook citations.  Pastors are human.  They make mistakes.  They wear down.  They get silly sometimes.  They aren’t always at their best.  Not every “offense” is serious.

My wife leaves her shoes all over the house.  Sometimes I trip on them.  I’ve asked her for years to put them away, but her habits haven’t changed.

To get along, I’ve chosen to overlook the shoes.  It’s not that important.  And she’s chosen to overlook some poor habits of mine.

I’m not prepared to say how many of the accusations against Hybels fall into the citation category, but I can think of a few that caused me to say, “Oh, brother.  That’s just piling on.”

They should have been overlooked rather than tossed into the mix.

Second, confront misdemeanors.  When a pastor has hurt someone … and he may not be aware of that fact … the person offended needs to speak with him privately.  Isn’t that what Matthew 18:15 teaches?  The burden is on the one sinned against to initiate reconciliation.

Most offenses that a pastor commits are misdemeanors in nature.  The only way to restore matters is for the offended person to take the initiative and lovingly approach the offender.

I’ve had people confront me about things I’ve said or did that hurt them, and when I did wrong, I apologized and asked for their forgiveness.

But I’ve also had people confront me about things that I didn’t do or say, and I wouldn’t apologize just to make the matter go away.

Many years ago, on Easter Sunday, the church I was serving had just finished the first service.  The worship team met to evaluate that service and make adjustments for the second service.  Out of nowhere, a male vocalist (who had a handicap) accused me of saying something cruel about him.  To his credit, he confronted me right away, but I didn’t say what he thought he heard, nor would I ever have said it.

Yet he demanded that I apologize to him.  But should I have apologized to him if I didn’t say what he thought I did?

Pastors are accused of offenses all the time … a few to their face, most behind their back.  It’s why Paul wrote 1 Timothy 5:19-21.  My guess is that most of the offenses that a pastor is accused of fall into the misdemeanor category … but relatively few people will ever confront the pastor to make things right.

Instead, they sometimes elevate clear misdemeanors to personal felonies.

Third, investigate felonies.  Many years ago, a woman approached me with information about a member of our church staff.  To put it mildly, he was not the person he claimed to be.

I spent two days at home making phone calls and doing research to find out if her allegations were true … and they were.  Then I shared my written documentation with the church board and we created a plan to confront him with two of the allegations.

They were both serious enough to result in termination.

According to Deuteronomy 19:15-21, when a person was accused of a crime in Israel, the judges commissioned and carried out an investigation, then issued their findings.

Sometimes pastors are accused of serious matters, and the official church board has to investigate the charges.

There are three primary areas that should cause church leaders to investigate a pastor’s conduct: heresy, sexual immorality, and criminal behavior.

Sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual intercourse outside marriage all constitute felonies that usually result in the immediate dismissal of a pastor.  By this standard, no one has yet accused Hybels of any ministry felonies.

But … and this is the challenging part … they may feel like felonies to the women involved.  Otherwise, why go public with their accusations?

The elders at Willow launched an internal investigation and then hired an outside investigator to examine the initial charges against Hybels.  One might say that both investigations chose to overlook citations nor cite any felonies.

But it seems obvious now that Hybels committed at least some misdemeanors.  They shouldn’t have been overlooked.

But I believe the moment Hybels’ accusers went public, his ministry at Willow was finished.  That’s the era in which we now live.

_______________

Bill Hybels has a secure place in the history of the Christian church.  He has done enormous good for the kingdom of God, even though many people have questioned or disagreed with his methodologies.

I’d like to recount a well-known verse of Scripture … one that many of us learned as a child:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32

I pray for Bill and Lynne Hybels and wish them well in the future.  And I pray that if Hybels sinned against any of the women who have come forward, that he would admit his wrongdoing and ask for their forgiveness.

And I also pray that the evangelical community, Willow Creek, and Hybels’ accusers can someday forgive him as well.

May this situation cause all of us to examine our own hearts and reexamine the way we deal with those who wrong us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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