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Archive for the ‘Conflict with Church Board’ Category

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

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

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

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

There is a better way.

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

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

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

The church needs outside intervention instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Each group uses threats and demands against the other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are five reasons to seek outside help:

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

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

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

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

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

Let me share my story along this line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much did he cost?

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

What did he do?

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

*He met with the church staff and interviewed them.

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

*He later met with both my wife and me.

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

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

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

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

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

And he did it all in five days.

Who should a church hire as an interventionist?

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

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

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

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

Here are some ideas about hiring an interventionist:

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

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

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

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

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

Two additional ideas:

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

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

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

That incident completely changed my outlook on attorneys.

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

Is it possible that your church needs an outside interventionist?

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In the following article, I use myself as an example of a pastor who had many advantages, yet still suffered burnout.  Could this article describe you or someone you know?

While reviewing some computer files recently, I stumbled upon a note I wrote to myself in July 2005 … and I was startled.

Four years later, right before a major conflict broke out in my church, I went to a Christian counselor, who tested me and revealed that I was “severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

What startled me about that file from 2005 is that I had all the symptoms of burnout four years before.

At the time I wrote the note to myself, I had many advantages:

I had a great family (still do) … had a regular quiet time … exercised regularly and vigorously … lived in a place some might consider paradise, just off the San Francisco Bay … engaged in several fulfilling hobbies … finished the course work for my D.Min degree … enjoyed time off that past year to Europe, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. … and was coordinating the final stages of the construction of a new worship center.

The board chairman … the person I respected most in that fellowship … always supported me and told me, “You are a home run for this church.”

God had placed me in a church setting that seemed optimal given my training, experience, temperament, and giftedness.

And yet, I wrote to myself in 2005, after 32 years in church work, that I was unsure if I wanted to stay in ministry.

Here are my actual words:

*I am tired of all the “church crap” that I have to endure: people leaving over trivial issues, sniping remarks – without being able to “fight back” at all.

*I am hurt by people I love criticizing me with unkind and unjust statements, either to my face or behind my back.

*I am already overwhelmed with all the pastoral duties I have, which will only get worse when we grow in size – and we aren’t staffed for an outpouring!

*I love Jesus and the church and ministry but no longer love church ministry.

*I have a board that wants me to manage the staff better but won’t give me the power to fire anyone.

*I make less money than my son and far less than a new pastor would cost the church.

*Rather than spending 70% of my time in the area of my giftedness, I spend about 30% in the area of my giftedness and 70% in areas that frustrate me.

Then I wrote out a list of my current symptoms:

“My thinking is slow … my eyes hurt continually … I feel kind of numb … I’m kind of detached … I don’t feel very spiritual … I don’t seem to appreciate anything God does through me … I don’t want to be visible, but invisible … I can’t seem to remember names … I want to be home at night and not work a 50-hour week.”

And four years later, I felt exactly the same way … and it led to my exit from ministry.

Why was I feeling that way?

*Our office manager … the best I’ve ever worked with … had just moved away, leaving me with an interim office manager and thus a fresh pile of work.

*I had been dealing with a family for months where both husband and wife had affairs and the husband had twice tried to commit suicide … thankfully, failing both times.

*I had spent hours preparing a Father’s Day message … one of the best I ever wrote … which was widely criticized by two younger dads.

*The project manager for our new building – along with his wife – were continually sniping at me about our upgraded services.

*I had received a critical note from a long-time, trusted friend whom”I don’t believe I can trust anymore.”

*We’d had three deaths … one right after the other … with more looming ahead.

What was really happening?

I was dealing with the two issues that I struggled with most in ministry: management of my energy and my emotions.

Let me differentiate between them:

Energy management: I wanted to work a regular work week when I could predict when I’d have time for rest and relaxation.  It didn’t matter how long my “on” button was operating as long as I knew when I could switch it off.

My wife and I run a preschool in our house, and when 5:30 pm comes around, we’re done for the evening, and even though we both work weekends, we don’t have to.

But in church ministry, you’re never, ever done.  For example:

*the pastor has to work every Sunday, so he doesn’t get weekends off.

*he may not go out on Saturday night so he can be fresh for Sunday.

*he has to work several evenings a week because that’s when people are available.

*he may have a designated day off, but that can easily be interrupted, especially when important parishioners end up in the hospital … or die.

It’s not the number of hours that wore me down.  I often work 50+ hours a week right now but the work is enjoyable and appreciated.

No, it was the start-stop-start nature of the work that got to me.  I’d been doing it for years, but suddenly I couldn’t handle it anymore.

Maybe this is because I’m more introverted than extroverted, and introverts need time by themselves to recharge their energy.

After a long day of work, when I came home for dinner, I wanted to stay home and recharge for the next day, but I often had to go back out for a meeting… and I began to resent it.

I did good work.  I was always prepared.  God used me in many ways.  Our church grew steadily … and was the largest Protestant church in our city for years.

But for me … as with many pastors … the way I managed my energy was a key as to whether I felt like a success or a failure.

Emotional management: As a pastor, whenever I felt anger, pain, frustration, depression, anxiety, despair, or fear, I wasn’t always sure what to do with those feelings … especially if they overwhelmed me.

This is how I usually handled my feelings:

*I told the Lord how I felt.

But most of the time, He listened but didn’t respond.  (Wish the Lord gave hugs.)

*I told my wife how I felt … as we drove to and from church (she served on the staff) … when we went out to lunch or dinner … or when we walked or drove around together.

And she was usually very helpful, but sometimes she didn’t know what to do or say anymore.  I can be an emotional enigma.

*I told a Christian counselor friend periodically, and his counsel was always beneficial.  We’d go out to lunch and talk, and he could quickly name my issue and tell me how to handle things … and he was usually right.  But he was more than an hour away, so I could consult with him once or twice annually, but I couldn’t lean on him.

*I told some good friends who lived far away, and they were good listeners, but I always felt like I was bothering them.

Years before, I had received help from:

*A pastor friend.  We met for breakfast every week, and our friendship helped both of us cope with ministry pressures.  But in my last church, I reached out to several pastors, yet never found one that I clicked with.

*A small group of pastors.  I had formed such a group years before, and it lasted several years, but everyone had scattered, and I lacked the energy to start another group.

*Friends within the church, like a staff member, a board member, or a layman with whom I resonated … but most of my emotional issues involved people in that church, and I felt it was unethical to share how I truly felt about those they knew … and possibly liked.

As I’ve said many times, when a pastor is stressed out, he’s having physical issues, but when he’s burned out, he’s experiencing emotional issues.

And the body recovers much faster than the emotions do.

Let me conclude by sharing five lessons for pastors on managing energy and emotions:

First, a pastor can’t work for a church board and then tell them his problems.

By their very nature, boards are designed to maintain and advance the mission and vision of the church.  They are far more interested in a pastor’s performance than his dysfunctions.

They will pay attention to the pastor if he’s physically injured or needs an operation, but most of the time, they won’t show much concern about the pastor’s energy level or emotional management.

Years before, at another church, I once shared some deep feelings with the church board, and they just stared at me, as if to say, “We all have our problems, Jim.  Work it out yourself.”  That single incident … rightly or wrongly … affected me the rest of my ministry life.  I wasn’t willing to take the same risk after that.

Second, sometimes events converge that the pastor can’t control, but he has to do them anyway.

When a pastor is leading his church well, it usually takes everything out of him.  At the most, he can add one more project … temporarily.

But I added two: a Doctor of Ministry degree, and the construction of a new worship center … and I couldn’t delegate either one.

During the first six months of 2005, I attended my last D.Min class … had to write a paper for the class … started my final project, which ended up being 225 pages … and had to oversee the last few months of the worship center construction.

I had to finish my degree … which was a job requirement … by early 2007, and the worship center was dedicated in October 2005.  Both projects had deadlines, and I couldn’t renegotiate either one of them.

I was expected to complete them both, so I pushed ahead … and paid for it later.

Third, try and keep ministry from invading your time off.

When I first came to my last church, I proposed a sabbatical policy to the board, and they accepted it.  After six years of ministry, I was supposed to have three to six months off.

My sabbatical was due at the very time the worship center was going to be dedicated.  I couldn’t be gone during that period … or for months afterward … so I proposed that my sabbatical be delayed one year, which is what happened.

Then I made a big mistake.  I should have taken three months off, but since the church had never given the pastor a sabbatical before, I told the board, “I’ll just take six weeks off now, and more time in another six years.”

Only I never got that far.

I went to Europe with my daughter Sarah for the first leg of my sabbatical, but while I was there, the reader for my project kept emailing me about various corrections.  One time, I spent an hour using a computer at a library in Blackpool, England, working on those corrections while my daughter waited and waited for her dad.

I could never fully hit the “off” switch anywhere.

Fourth, every pastor needs a group from within the church that he can trust.

The church board can’t do this, and neither can the staff.  (If a conflict erupts, the pastor’s humanity can and will be used against him.)

Maybe the best way to do this is for the pastor to handpick several older, wiser saints … meet with them on a regular basis for prayer, counsel, and emotional support … and ask them to intervene for him with the board should the need arise.

Of all the things that bothered me, the one I wanted to change most was my job description.  Administration sapped my energy … leadership took much from me … but studying and teaching pumped me up.

But when I tried to make changes in my job description, they weren’t accepted.  Should I have been more forceful?

I once heard Chuck Swindoll say that if a pastor is out too many nights, the church won’t be able to keep him.  He’s right.

Finally, if a pastor burns out, the church should bear at least some responsibility for his recovery.

If I’m carrying a 100-pound box, and it falls and breaks my foot, my employer will pay my salary through workman’s comp until I’m well enough to return.

Why?  Because my injury happened on the job.

Ministry burnout happens on the job.  Yes, pastors are sometimes responsible for pushing too hard and failing to care for themselves, but much of the time, the pastor drops the box because he’s expected to carry too many loads.

When the pastor enters the burnout stage … and that requires a professional diagnosis … the board should work through a plan to help him recover … even if that takes extra time and money … and even if he eventually leaves the church.

But I never told my board about my burnout.  I couldn’t.  I remain convinced they would have asked for my resignation immediately.

And this is why so many pastors are either stressed out or burned out and don’t feel they can tell their boards … or anybody else in the church.

They’re afraid they will be quickly terminated.

It’s interesting to me, however, that God did not treat Moses that way.

While reading through the Book of Numbers, I’ve been noticing how many times Moses tells the Lord that leading Israel is just too much for him.

For example, in Numbers 11:11-15, Moses tells the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant?  What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?  … I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.  If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now … and do not let me face my own ruin.”

The Lord didn’t tell Moses, “Suck it up, Moses.  You need to have a longer quiet time.”

No, the Lord told Moses to gather seventy elders who could help him share the load.  The Lord recognized that Moses needed help emotionally and quickly moved to assist him.

The question that haunts me is this one:

If I took care of myself … and I did … and if I had a successful ministry … and I did … and if I had many advantages that other pastors don’t have … and I did … and yet I still burned out, why did that happen?

What is it about the nature of church ministry that causes so many pastors to fry emotionally?

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There is a sense in which a pastor can survive church ministry only if he learns how to manage depression.

In 1984, Dr. Archibald Hart published his classic book Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.  (There are 26 used copies on Amazon as of this writing.)  I devoured the book … memorizing many of its lines … because at the time, I was depressed at least some of the time every week.

In 2001, I took Dr. Hart’s class “The Pastor’s Personal Life” for my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.  It was the best class I’ve ever taken, and he was the best teacher I’ve ever had.

Dr. Hart believes that whenever a person … or a pastor … is depressed, that person won’t improve until they discover their core loss.

They need to answer the question, “Why am I really depressed?”

When a pastor is forced out of office, he nearly always undergoes depression, but because his thinking is cloudy, he may not understand for many months why he’s depressed … thus delaying his healing.

Let me share with you eight possible reasons why a forced-out pastor almost always undergoes depression:

First, pastors instinctively feel that the way they were treated was wrong.

The sinful, rebellious, irrational behavior that many of us in ministry have experienced at the hands of church leaders is not in Scripture … doesn’t line up with what we’ve preached … goes against how we live … and is completely foreign to our thinking.  We would never treat another Christian … much less a pastor … the way we’ve been treated.

Much of the time, board members don’t know what they’re doing when they dismiss a pastor, choosing to “fire” the pastor like they would fire an employee in a small business.  Jesus’ prayer from the cross fits here: “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Sometimes only one board member opposes a pastor … for personal reasons … and he convinces the others to take “official” action … never revealing his true agenda.  If the board was firing a staff member, they’d consult with the pastor, and it would be a team decision, but when the board fires the pastor, the board doesn’t consult with him, and they can make a mess of things.

Second, even though many pastors experience forced termination (28% is the last stat I’ve seen), the topic is still hush-hush in the Christian community. 

It’s not openly discussed.  When it is, most Christians naively blame the pastor for his departure because they are ignorant of the facts.  Pastors are blamed at the denominational level for political reasons (so the district guy keeps church revenue flowing into district coffers) and they’re blamed inside their former church because those who pushed out the pastor have convinced themselves they did right.

The wider Christian community is far more driven by politics than Scripture or spirituality.  The same spirit that caused the Sanhedrin to approve Jesus’ execution (it’s advantageous for one man to die to spare the nation) is alive and well in our denominations.  The leaders know what’s going on out there, but they aren’t doing anything about it because it’s not politically advantageous.

So many of us – and I include myself – feel abandoned by the wider body.  Our loyalty to the denomination was not reciprocated.

Third, if we’re over 55 and undergo termination, we instinctively know that our pastoral career is over. 

We’re done.  Few churches will hire an older pastor.  It’s wrong, but ageism is alive and well in the Christian community.  As Neil Diamond sang 46 years ago, our time as a pastor is often “done too soon.”  We always envisioned retiring on our own terms, but power-hungry laymen decided to retire us long before we were ready.

Some churches … usually small ones … will hire an older pastor.  There was a church 90 minutes away that I contacted many years ago.  It was a church of 60 people.  Kim and I drove there one day, but the valley where it was located looked like the back side of the moon.  There was nothing there!  Depression City.  No wonder they couldn’t find a pastor!  Those churches will always be available, but they pay very little, and the congregation’s dysfunctionality negates even the best pay package.

Pastors believe something that isn’t true: “If I’m loyal to my denomination/district, when I really need them, they’ll be there for me.”  But they won’t be.  It’s this finality, in my view, that causes much of our depression.  We’re still waiting for the district/ denominational guys on white horses to come and rectify our situation.  But they aren’t coming.  They never come.  They’re company men who are unwilling to take risks.  That’s why they were hired in the first place.

Fourth, for a pastor, our whole lives are centered upon our churches. 

We are fully committed to our congregations.  One guy I read called this syndrome a “total institutional mindset.”  The church supplies our income … our friendships … and our self-esteem.  When we put everything into our church, and then its leaders spit us out, it feels like a massive betrayal.  It’s like getting a “Dear John” note from your wife when you’ve been the best husband you could be.  The church can be a cruel bride.

My wife once told me that she felt I gave too much to my last church.  Maybe I did.  Maybe I wasn’t distant enough.  Maybe I cared too much.  But I think this is true of most pastors.  I think of U2’s song “With or Without You”: “And you give yourself away, and you give yourself away, and you give, and you give, and you give yourself away …”  That’s the life of a pastor.  The call of God upon our lives translates to giving ourselves away.

So when you’ve given all you can to a church, and they turn around and kick you in the teeth … it takes a long time to recover from that blow.  It takes a minimum of 1-3 years to heal from a forced termination, and I think the more a pastor loved a particular church, the longer it takes him to heal.

Fifth, the church is the place where most of a pastor’s friends congregated every weekend.

I had few friends outside my last church, but I had dozens of friends inside that church.  When I resigned, I lost most of those friends overnight.  Most never spoke with me or contacted me again.  I still grieve their loss.

Not only were my friends in that church, but so was my support system.  And then BOOM … it was gone overnight.

Pastors are somebodies inside their churches.  Everybody wants to be their friend, so pastors don’t have to work too hard to make friends.  They’re just there.  But when a pastor is forced to leave a church, those friends disappear.  And it can be hard for a pastor to make friends outside of church because nearly all his friends over the years have come from inside the church.  You lose your pastoral identity.  I’m no longer Pastor Jim – a somebody inside a church – but just “Jim” – a nobody outside the church.

Sixth, by their very nature, pastors are tender, sensitive individuals. 

77% of all pastors are feelers on the Myers-Briggs temperament test.  Even though I’m a thinker on that test, I feel things very deeply.  Most pastors do.  That empathy makes us great pastors but not always great leaders.  Sometimes we’re more concerned about one lost sheep than the entire flock.  So when we go through a horrible experience like forced termination, we feel it so deeply – and take it so personally – that it makes recovery very difficult.

So when we’re “fired” or pushed out … we take it hard.  We forget that Jonathan Edwards … Billy Graham … and a host of other great pastors have walked this road before us.  We aren’t better men than they were, so their suffering can give us some perspective.

By the way, I highly recommend two chapters in Charles Spurgeon’s classic Lectures to My Students: one called “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” which is on depression in ministry; the other called “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear,” which is on handling criticism in ministry.  I’ve loved that book for 40 years – there has never been anything like it – and it can be purchased dirt cheap as an e-book on Amazon.  The chapter on depression has always lifted my spirits!  (Dr. Hart even recommended it in class.)

Seventh, Christian churches have not devised fair processes for handling complaints inside churches concerning pastors. 

It’s all black or white thinking: either the pastor stays or he leaves.  The board doesn’t think in terms of other solutions, like bringing in a mediator/consultant, or giving a pastor a sabbatical/time off, or talking to the pastor honestly about an issue in his life/ministry.  Pastors may assume that board members possess these skills – or that they will acquire them while they’re on the board – but they’re usually clueless.  I can’t emphasize this enough.

As I’ve written many times in my blog, I probably needed to leave my last church when I did.  I was clinically burned out, and had little left to give.  But the way I was treated was wrong – especially the lying.  I was accused of a host of charges that weren’t true because nobody ever brought them to my attention.  My reputation outside of my last church is excellent.  My reputation inside that church changed overnight.

Even though church bylaws were clear about how to handle problems with the pastor, the board chose to ignore the bylaws.  I’ve learned how frequently this happens in the Christian world.  When people become emotional, they easily bypass procedures and then create a rationale why they don’t apply.  They don’t want to resolve the issues; they want to win and defeat their detractors.  Many former pastors become depressed about this kind of thing because they were never presented any kind of forum where they could tell their side of the story. WE HAVE TO CHANGE THIS INSIDE THE WIDER CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY.

I’m grateful for the work Dennis Maynard has done in this area.  (He wrote the book When Sheep Attack.)  He says that whenever a pastor is forced to leave a church, that church can’t heal, and subsequently grow, until the people are told the truth as to why their previous pastor left.  I agree with him 100%, but it rarely happens because it isn’t politically expedient.

Finally, there isn’t any opportunity to reconcile with those who hurt us. 

For us, our dismissal was personal, but the church board will claim it was just business (although it is personal in all too many cases.)

Pastors are trained to engage in reconciliation, and when they’re dismissed, it’s a confession by the board that reconciliation isn’t an option.  This inability to reconcile doesn’t seem to bother board members but lingers on in the memories and souls of pastors who just want to know, “What did I do wrong?”  And the answer is almost always, “You did nothing wrong.  You may even have been dismissed because you were such a godly, holy man that the other board members felt uncomfortable in your presence.”

Just remember that Jesus never reconciled with Judas … or Pilate … or Caiaphas … or the Sanhedrin … or any of the people who put Him on the cross.  He died to make reconciliation possible, but without repentance, reconciliation – or bilateral forgiveness – cannot occur.

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I believe that after a forced exit, a pastor has to accept the following truisms in order to fully heal:

*I was treated wrongly … but I forgive my opponents.

*I will endeavor to speak openly about my experience whenever appropriate.

*I accept that if I’m over 55, my pastoral career is probably over … but I will be open to other ministry opportunities.

*I will center my life upon the Lord and my family, not a local church.

*I will seek out friendships wherever I can … not just in my church.

*I will remain tender but toughen up where I can.

*I will speak up for a fair and just process anytime I hear that a pastor is undergoing turmoil.

*I will accept the fact that those who pushed me out of the pastorate will never seek or be open to reconciliation.

What are your thoughts about what I’ve written?

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From time-to-time, I receive emails from churchgoers whose pastors resigned suddenly.  These concerned individuals want to know what, if anything, they can do about their pastor’s unexpected departure.

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes, he lied just for fun.

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

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

Welcome to the world of the “Christian” sociopath.

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

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

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

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

*This person is sometimes vengeful about perceived injustices.

*This person has superficial and short-lived relationships.

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

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

The Johnsons then make the following statements:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think long and hard about that statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound like any church scenarios you might be familiar with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third, sociopaths are twice as lethal as narcissists.

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

Dr. Stout writes:

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

She then writes:

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

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

Am I scaring you yet?

Finally, sociopaths almost never change.

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

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

But they are experts at blaming others for their messes.

Inside the church, a sociopath tends to:

*hide in the darkness and avoid the light.

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

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

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

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

*avoid any pathway of forgiveness and reconciliation.

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

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

And that means two things:

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

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

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

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

I get that.

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

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

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

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

How did it all turn out?

My guess is that they left quite a mess behind.

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

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

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

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

Talk about an “October surprise!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, there’s the spirit of resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

And every vote involving the building was unanimous.

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

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

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

But they didn’t … they went underground instead.

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

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

Especially from the church board.

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

And their resistance started wearing me down.

Second, there’s the spirit of bitterness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until she started complaining again.

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

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

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

Third, there’s the spirit of hypocrisy.

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

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

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

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

Let’s call them Bo and Jo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course, they know best.

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

Fourth, there’s the spirit of cowardice.

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

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

This is especially true when it comes to pastors.

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

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

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

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

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

His career was destroyed over a lie.

Christians become cowards when:

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

*members allow false accusations about their pastor to spread.

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

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

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

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

Fifth, there’s the spirit of gullibility.

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

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

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

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

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

*the original source of the rumor.

*who is spreading the rumor.

*who they’ve been talking with.

*how solid their information is.

*the views of different staff and board members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t the conquerors write the history?

Sixth, there’s the spirit of blindness.

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

They just can’t see their own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, there’s the spirit of destruction.

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

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

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

Or we might say … deception leading to destruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s something you never forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

After 36 years, my church ministry career was over.

_______________

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

Hint: it’s not the second group.

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Not long ago, I heard about a church that held a members only meeting.  The leaders said that several members had engaged in serious sinful practices and had been placed under discipline in hopes that they would repent and eventually rejoin the fellowship.

The wayward members were named and their sins were specified.  But the leaders also took pains to delineate the process they had used in each case to try and win back their brothers and sisters.

The process they used was based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17, which begins:

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” 

Sadly, since there wasn’t any repentance from the disciplined members, the leaders were engaging in Jesus’ last step: “tell it to the church.”

I was shocked when I heard about this meeting, not because the leaders did anything wrong, but because they did everything right.

In a nutshell, they handled matters spiritually … not politically.

But too often in our day, when a church board is upset with their pastor, they approach matters politically rather than spiritually … and in the process, devastate the pastor, his family, the congregation … and the leaders themselves.

Let me give you an example:

Chris has been the lead pastor of Harmony Church for seven years.  The church has grown under his leadership and become one of the most effective churches in their community.

In October, a group of fifteen people ask for a meeting with Martin, Harmony’s board chairman.  They agree to meet at the home of Carl, the group’s leader.

The Group of Fifteen recites a list of things they don’t like about Pastor Chris, including:

*the way he dresses when he preaches.

*occasional references to his favorite sports teams.

*the kind of car he drives.

*the haircut his fourth grade son sports.

*the fact that his wife doesn’t work outside the home, which all the women in the Group do.

And on and on and on …

Martin tries defending Pastor Chris several times, but finally, Carl throws down an ultimatum:

“Martin, we’re telling you right now: either Pastor Chris goes, or we go, and if we go, we’re going to form a new church nearby and take as many people as we can with us.”

Martin looks around at the fifteen people in Carl’s living room and feels sick inside.  The chairman feels that the ministry is going well … that Pastor Chris has been a solid leader and preacher … and that the Group is overreacting.

But he doesn’t tell them that.  Instead, Martin says, “Let me speak with the other board members and I’ll get back to you.”

Martin quickly decides to call a meeting of the nine-member board without Pastor Chris’ knowledge.  When Martin reveals the conversation he had with the Group, he’s disheartened to hear that four board members agree with Carl’s complaints … and add some of their own.

As the board talks into the night, Martin feels increasingly helpless.  He doesn’t want to fight.  He just wants peace.  But the more adamantly the four board members make their case against Chris, the more Martin senses that several other board members are now wilting.

After closing in prayer, Martin asks the board members to keep everything confidential and to meet again the following Saturday morning at a restaurant outside of town.

When Saturday rolls around, Martin discovers that the four board members who oppose Chris have successfully persuaded two more members to join their cause.  Only Martin and two other members support their pastor … and even then, their support seems tepid.

Several hours later, the board has agreed to ask Pastor Chris for his resignation and to give him a three-month severance package.  Because most board members don’t want to go on record against Chris, they ask that Martin and Jeff – the most outspoken member – deliver the bad news.  In the name of unity, Martin reluctantly agrees.

The following Monday night, Martin and Jeff meet with their pastor in his study.  They tell him:

*there are people in the church who are against you.

*some board members think your time at the church is up.

*the board is asking for your resignation.

*you will be given a three-month severance package if you resign tonight.

*if you don’t resign tonight, we will fire you without any severance.

Chris is both angry and devastated.  He feels betrayed.  He didn’t see this ambush coming.

He asks the two men, “Will you give me 48 hours to think and pray about this?”

They answer, “No.  Our proposal is final.  Take it or leave it.”

Not knowing how to support his family financially without any severance, Chris takes the deal, and promises his written resignation the following morning.

Having operated politically to force out Chris, the board continues to handle matters politically to cover up their involvement in Chris’ resignation.

Over the next three months:

*Attendance plunges nearly 50% while giving shrinks by 40%.

*The best people in the church leave while the malcontents remain.

*Parts of the children’s ministry and youth group are shut down due to lack of volunteers.

*Pastor Chris and his family move to another state and move in with Chris’ brother.  Chris takes a job as an overnight custodian to support his family.  His wife becomes suicidal.  His children vow they will never attend church again anywhere.

*The district minister intervenes and tries to get Burt – his oldest friend – a job as interim pastor.

*Watching the fallout, three of the board members and nine of the Fifteen leave the church anyway.

*The board becomes so overwhelmed without Pastor Chris’ leadership that they regret forcing him out.

But this sad story never had to happen.

Let me share five mistakes that Martin made because he operated politically rather than spiritually:

First, Martin should have stopped the Grievance Festival at Carl’s house after the first few complaints.  He should have told the Group:

“According to Scripture, a pastor should only be disqualified from ministry if he has committed a major offense without repentance.  Do you have any evidence that Pastor Chris has committed such a major offense?  Has he engaged in heretical teaching … sexual immorality … criminal behavior?”

Since the answer would be a reluctant “No,” Martin should have continued:

“Here’s our policy at Harmony Church.  According to Matthew 18:15, if you have a personal concern with anyone in the body, including the pastor, you need to speak with him directly or let it go.  This covers matters like the way he dresses and the car he drives.  I don’t tell you how to look or what to drive, and we aren’t going to do that to Pastor Chris.”

“Next, if you have a policy concern, you may speak with any board member (because we make policy together), and we will either answer you immediately or bring your concern to the next meeting.  Before I leave, I need assurance that you will do what I ask and not take this any further.  Agreed?”

If I were Martin, I’d go around the room and make sure that each person agreed.  If anyone refused, I’d let them know that I was bringing their name before the board, that Pastor Chris would be in that meeting, and if they caused any trouble, they would be brought before the board for discipline.

But because Martin let the complaining fester, he threw his pastor to the wolves.

Second, Martin should have disagreed with Carl’s assessment of Chris’ ministry on the spot.

The chairman should have said, “While I understand your concerns, Carl, I believe the ministry has been going very well, and that Pastor Chris is the right man at this time in our church’s history.  I support our pastor fully.”

Then he should add, “If you believe that God is leading you to leave the church, then leave quietly.  If you’re just frustrated, then stay and work things out.  If your children were having trouble at school or work, you would probably counsel them to stay and talk things out.  If you’re determined to leave, I won’t stop you, but if you’re determined to make trouble, then I recommend that you all leave … tomorrow.”

But by not speaking up for Pastor Chris, Martin’s silence emboldened the Group, who figured they were starting to turn the chairman their way.  Martin’s reluctance to stand up for Chris also later empowered them to recruit several board members to their line of thinking.

Third, Martin should have informed Pastor Chris of the meeting right away.  

But because he failed to inform his pastor about the plot, Martin deprived himself of Chris’ training, wisdom, experience, and resources in handling what was really a coup.

And because Martin kept things to himself, he felt overburdened and anxious.  By the time he met with the board, he just wanted the whole thing to go away.

I once pastored a church where a group of malcontents called a secret meeting to list various complaints against me.  The board chairman not only told me about the meeting, he found out the place and time and showed up for the meeting unannounced.  His presence was so disconcerting that the group cancelled their meeting.

In another church, the chairman called to let me know that an older woman was very angry with me.  He stood up for me and told her how to handle things but wanted me to know there might be trouble on the horizon.

When a board chairman stands up for his pastor, the bond between them grows stronger, and most of the time, with the chairman’s support, the pastor can withstand any coup.  But when the chairman goes silent – or wilts – one can sense the devil sneaking in the church’s back door.

Division has begun.

Fourth, Martin should have researched and presented to the board a process for handling the complaints against Pastor Chris. 

The issue is not, “Should Pastor Chris stay?”  It’s much too soon to even talk about that question.

The issue is instead, “What process will we use to evaluate the complaints against our pastor?”

When the discussion goes right to “should he stay or go?” the approach will be political.

But when the discussion launches into “what process will we use?” the approach will tend to be spiritual.

The political approach to charges against a pastor involves:

*hyper-scrutinizing his life, family, and ministry for petty offenses … then throwing all those offenses at the wall as if to say, “How can such a flawed person lead our church?”

*letting people pile complaint upon complaint without evaluating their veracity.

*allowing people to make charges behind the pastor’s back but not to his face.

*attacking his humanity as if he were pure evil.

*forcing him to quit, and if necessary, destroying his reputation and career.

The spiritual approach to charges against a pastor involves:

*only allowing immediate dismissal for a major offense such as heresy or sexual immorality.

*asking each person who makes a charge, “What evidence do you have that your charge is accurate?”

*letting the pastor meet his accusers and allowing him to respond directly to their complaints (most will never do this).

*reminding people that the pastor is a flawed sinner like everybody else and that he’s a pastor because God called and gifted him … not because he thinks he’s better than others.

*extending a pastor God’s love, mercy, and grace as Galatians 6:1,2 specifies.

Finally, Martin must make sure that both the pastor and his detractors operate out of the spiritual realm.

We expect pastors to operate spiritually.  We expect them to obey Scripture, pray through their decisions, admit when they’re wrong, love people rather than harm them, and seek restoration rather than destruction.

But 95% of the time, a pastor’s detractors operate politically.  They gather together, organize, list complaints, plot, agree on an action plan, and attack, attack, attack.

In other words, a pastor’s detractors use power and control to get the outcome they desire: his departure from their church.

But most pastors aren’t trained to operate politically, so they’re at a disadvantage … and God forbid that the pastor use that same power!

When a pastor is under attack, he can’t lay down the ground rules for the conflict.  He’s so wounded he can barely function.

So the church board – supposedly composed of godly individuals – has to make sure that the conflict is handled spiritually.

This means that the board members must:

*consult their Bibles for wisdom.

*spend time in prayer and listening to God.

*operate by their church’s governing documents.

*slow down rather than speed up the process.

*seek what is best for the congregation, not just their own group.

*do what is right before God rather than being intimidated by who or how many are complaining.

If the board operates politically rather than spiritually, they end up siding with the pastor’s detractors by default.

If the board operates spiritually, they may lose a few people, but they will protect and preserve their congregation …and hopefully, their pastor.

Now here’s the deal: God cannot and will not bless this church … or any church … until it stops operating politically and starts acting spiritually.

And in most cases, the church can’t operate spiritually until those who operated politically admit their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from everyone … including their former pastor.

When I went through a severe church conflict nearly seven years ago, a pastor read me the following verses from James 3:15-18:

Such wisdom does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 

Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

There’s a lot to absorb here, but I have a single question for you:

When there is a conflict in your church, will your board act politically or spiritually?

The answer to that question may very well determine your church’s health and future.

But here’s an even more personal question:

When there is a conflict in your ministry, will you act politically or spiritually?

The answer may very well determine your health and future as well.

 

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