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Several days ago, a friend sent me a link to a story concerning Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Right now, it may be the biggest story in the Christian community.

For many years, Willow Creek was the largest church in the United States, and is now sixth-largest.

If you haven’t yet read the story, here’s a link to the Christianity Today website:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/march/bill-hybels-misconduct-willow-creek-john-nancy-ortberg.html

The story also hit the pages of the Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-willow-creek-pastor-20171220-story.html

In a nutshell, the story states that Hybels – one of the most influential Christian leaders of his generation – has been accused by several women of “a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct.”

To my knowledge, no one claims today that Hybels engaged in sexual intercourse with them.  Several years ago, one woman confided in a top Willow Creek leader that Hybels had a “prolonged consensual affair” with her lasting more than a decade, but she has since written a full retraction, confessing that she “wanted to tear [Bill] and Willow down and get it out of my system.”

But several other women have accused Hybels of “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.”

Charges first surfaced in April 2014, and Hybels has undergone two separate investigations since that time: an initial investigation by the elders of his church, and a second investigation by Jeffrey Fowler, an outside, independent investigator.

Hybels is due to retire in six months, and has already named a successor as lead pastor and another person as teaching pastor.

I have read everything I could about this story, including the Christianity Today story above, the Chicago Tribune story, and the written and video statements from Pam Orr, the elder chair at Willow, and Hybels himself.  You can find them here:

https://www.willowcreek.org/en/willow-creek-response-to-local-media

I’ve also read comments from the above stories, as well as many comments on Facebook and Twitter.

For many years, I was an advocate of Willow Creek’s approach to church ministry:

*I attended four conferences at the church between 1990 and 2006.

*I pastored a seeker-driven church in Silicon Valley for many years.  During my tenure there, our church sent twenty-two leaders to Willow Creek for training.

*My last three churches were all members of the Willow Creek Association.

*Although I met Bill Hybels once, he would not remember me.

However … I’ve never been enamored with everything Willow does, and have sometimes found myself perplexed or even upset about some of their policies.

But Willow Creek has always been known for its authenticity and transparency, and it’s the single trait I most admire about the church.

I believe that both Hybels and Willow’s elders have handled this situation in as transparent a fashion as possible.  In both investigations, Hybels was asked to turn over his personal technology devices (which were forensically examined), his emails (many of which were automatically deleted from Willow’s server), personal financial records, personal church records, his calendar, and travel records.

How many pastors could survive such scrutiny?

Some pastors would have resigned before any investigation started so their life wouldn’t be exposed.  Still other pastors might have confessed their wrongdoing before an investigation demonstrated their guilt.

But Hybels endured two thorough investigations, and according to Willow’s elders, did not lead or influence either one.

And let me say … as someone who was once investigated for several days … each day feels like a month.

Jeffrey Fowler, the outside investigator, told the Chicago Tribune: “After looking at thousands of documents, after interviewing 29 people, and doing as much as I possibly could, I concluded that there was no basis for believing that Pastor Hybels had engaged in a pattern and practice of misconduct, and to the extent any specific incident had been raised with me, I concluded that his actions in those instances were not inappropriate.”

But this has not satisfied some of Willow’s former staff members.

The names that keep being mentioned are John and Nancy Ortberg and Jim and Leanne Mellado.  Assuming they are the two couples mentioned in the discussions about Hybels, I’ll just call them The Group.

But John Ortberg is the most prominent leader of the “opposition.”

John Ortberg was a teaching pastor at Willow for many years.  He is presently the lead pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I’ve heard Ortberg speak at a church he pastored in Diamond Bar, California nearly thirty years ago and again at Willow in 1994.  I also had lunch with Ortberg’s predecessor fifteen years ago, so I have some familiarity with his ministry.

When the woman mentioned above claimed that she had an affair with Hybels, the Willow Creek Association Board voted not to conduct an investigation.  Nancy Ortberg and several other Christian leaders resigned from the board in protest … which was their right.

But once they resigned … in my view … they forfeited their right to have any further input into the Hybels situation.

The Ortbergs were no longer Willow employees nor church members.  They may have kept some personal ties, but they officially severed ties with the church.  And as a founding staff member from Willow once taught me, “The way you leave is the way you’ll be remembered.”

When the elders decided to investigate Hybels internally, The Group evidently relinquished control of the situation.

But then Hybels was exonerated, not once, but twice.

But The Group did not agree with the process used … and presumably not the conclusions reached.

In fact, according to Bill Hybels:

“Unfortunately, it has become clear that when the woman retracted her story, the group of former staff members who brought the original allegation then began to reach out to women who are or who have been a part of Willow, asking if any of them have ever had an uncomfortable interaction with me. Without mentioning the woman’s full retraction, they told women that I had an inappropriate relationship that Willow’s Elders had covered up, and they invited the women to share any negative experiences of their own.”

They have now escalated their attacks against Willow’s elders and Hybels himself, to the point that Hybels is convinced they are colluding to destroy his reputation.  Hybels told the Chicago Tribune:

“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified.  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.”

Hybels then told his congregation: “The lies you read about in the Tribune article are the tools this group is using to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact.  Many of these alleged incidents purportedly took place more than [20] years ago. The fact that they have been dredged up now and assembled in a calculated way demonstrates the determination of this group to do as much damage as they possibly can.”

I’m trying to get my head around why a leader like John Ortberg … who was Hybels’ ministry colleague and friend … would do something like this.

The following questions are based purely on speculation:

*Did he and Bill fall out personally when they were both at Willow?  Hybels evidently is not an easy man to work for.

*Did Ortberg secretly hope that he would be named Hybels’ successor?

*Does he view himself as the leader of a rival movement to Willow Creek?

*Has he become a public supporter of the #MeToo Movement, especially inside Christian churches?

*Does he know something from his time at Willow about the way the board protects Hybels regardless of any mistakes he’s made?

*Does Ortberg believe he is the best person possible to represent some of Hybels’ accusers?

*Does he really want Hybels to be exposed so he can repent and be restored?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and Ortberg may not know the answers, either.  He was recently quoted as saying, “This information came to us in a way that was unlooked for, unwanted, and it put us in a terrible situation.”

But a more likely possibility is that when Ortberg took his initial public stand against the elders and Hybels himself, he has tried ever since to show that he’s right and the leaders at Willow are wrong.

In other words, this conflict has degraded into winners and losers.

And if Hybels is declared innocent of all charges, that makes The Group look foolish, if not bad … causing some people to wonder if they’re guilty of fostering division and slander.

At this point, I’d like to share my own story briefly.

Like Hybels, I am now nearing the age of retirement.  I dreamed of retiring while still a pastor.

But in December 2009, I resigned from my pastoral tenure of 10 1/2 years at a Bay Area church because I was lied right out of the church.

I wrote a book called Church Coup if you’re interested in my story.  And I spent a lot of time in the book detailing the steps that lead a pastor to resign under duress.

My predecessor was involved in the coup.  After going into retirement for nine years, he wanted to return to the church … but first had to push me out.

He worked with the board, the associate pastor, and others to get rid of me … and their plot worked.

After I left, a nine-person team investigated the charges against me and concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Another pastor succeeded me.  I have never spoken with him nor met him.

But I could never, ever do anything to undermine that pastor.

Why not?

*When I left the church, I left it for good.  I have never returned for any kind of service or event … and I have no plans to do so.

*The church chose its own board members without my input.  They govern the church.  I have no say in what goes on there, and it would be unethical if I did.

*If the church mistreated someone … and many of my friends eventually left in tears or in anger … I might be able to advise them on what to do, but I would never think to advise the board … nor would they want my input.

Let me state this clearly:

It is unethical for a pastor or staff member to interfere with the governance of any church they once served.

God did not appoint John Ortberg to be the elder chair or one of the elders at Willow Creek Community Church.

God appointed him to serve as pastor of a church in the Bay Area instead.  That’s where his authority lies.

He may have some moral or spiritual authority in the wider Christian community, but he has zero authority where he is not welcome.

And his ideas and counsel are not wanted by Willow’s elders.

The most breathtaking part of this entire story are the demands that The Group made to the elders at Willow.  This is from the WC website:

“The two couples made specific demands outlining how they wanted the investigation to unfold and the control that they wanted to have—demands that our Elders deemed unreasonable and unbiblical. These demands included the following:

  • These couples (non–Willow members) would approve the choice of the investigator.
  • The investigation would run the full course of Bill’s adulthood (from 18 years old and ongoing).
  • These couples would be able to choose the witnesses who were interviewed, and all people interviewed would have full indemnification.
  • The investigation reports would all be public regardless of the outcome.
  • These couples would insist that there be a public admission of anything that they (not the investigator or the Elders) deemed inappropriate.”

When my wife reviewed the story the other night, she asked me this question: “Who do the Ortbergs think they are?”

Hybels has been thoroughly investigated twice.  He has been exonerated both times.  Why would Willow’s elders then turn over an investigation to people who seem to want Hybels’ scalp?

The elders of Willow have spoken unanimously.  And they have shared their conclusion as to what’s really going on:

“This small group of former staff members has articulated outright to several people that they believe Bill does not deserve to finish his ministry tenure at Willow well, despite the thorough and conscientious investigative process that has cleared his name. It has become clear to us that they have decided to spread this sentiment through rumors and now through the media. They aggressively shopped the story to multiple media outlets. These actions fail to live up to biblical standards, and they have caused much pain for many people. We have deep sadness over the broken relationships with people we have respected and people we love. We are grieved for Bill and his family. After 42 years of faithfully pastoring you and me, our congregation, and after his family giving sacrificially, this has been painful beyond words for them.”

I’m sure there are people who do not like or agree with their verdict, but it’s time to accept it and for everyone to go home and focus on their own ministries.

From my vantage point … and I could be reading matters wrong … it looks like The Group … which includes Ortberg … is doing everything they can to get Hybels fired.

Let Bill Hybels serve out his last six months in peace.

If Hybels has been lying, the Lord will deal with him … either in this life, or the next life.

If the elders engaged in a cover-up, let God deal with them as well.

God is the Ultimate Judge.  He will right any wrongs.

In fact, God only uses imperfect people, including pastors, elders, staff members, and investigators.

And the longer this controversy goes on, the wider and deeper the breach will become in the body of Christ.

As Paul asked the Corinthians:

Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be cheated?  Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.  I Corinthians 6:7-8

For the sake of the gospel and the advancement of Christ’s church … please, let it go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When I was a pastor, a friend once approached me at a planning meeting and informed me, “Jill (who wasn’t a team member) is mad at you.”

My initial response was not, “Why is she mad at me?”

It was, “How many people has she told?”

Looking away, my friend used both fingers to count, and then replied, “Ten.”

At that point, I asked, “What did I do to upset her?”

My friend replied, “You didn’t say hi to her one Sunday.”

How was I supposed to respond to such a complaint?

I know some pastors who would have said, “Thank you, friend, for bringing this situation to my attention.  I will contact Jill as soon as possible and try and straighten this whole thing out.”

But I had learned a different … and far healthier … way to handle matters.

If Jill was upset with me, the onus was on her to contact me.  Isn’t that what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:15?

“If your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

My response?

“Please tell Jill that if she’s really upset with me, she needs to tell me personally.  Otherwise, I will assume this isn’t an issue she really cares about.”

Jill never did contact me about that issue.

One of the characteristics of an unhealthy family is that family members fail to speak directly with the spouse or parent or child or sibling they’re upset with.

Instead, they share their feelings with other family members, but never with the object of their discontent.

A common scenario is that Brother Bill tells his Mother Mary that he’s upset with Sister Susie, but Bill never tells Susie directly.

And in many families, as soon as Bill leaves the house, Mary tells Susie what Bill told her.

But that kind of behavior doesn’t just happen in families … it also happens in churches … especially during major conflicts.

Nearly eight-and-a-half years ago, I called a meeting of our entire congregation to announce the resignations of the official church board as well as the associate pastor.

I didn’t want to make those announcements, but somebody had to do it, and as senior pastor, I was the logical choice.

Because the board members and associate pastor had resigned, their viewpoints and opinions should not have carried much, if any, weight with the congregation.

By resigning, they had forfeited their right to speak.  As church conflict expert Speed Leas observes:

“It is understandable that someone who is hurt, not helped, or bored by what is going on in a congregation may choose to leave it.  Indeed, it is understandable that one might choose to leave as a protest, hoping to influence the future policy or staffing.  However, it is not appropriate that once having abandoned the responsibility of running and paying for a church’s ministry, one should have equal weight in telling those who are maintaining it how to run it.  The right to confront an organization’s leadership comes with being responsible for its future.  Therefore, it is important to consider members’ current commitment when they advise what should be done in the future or complain about what has happened in the past.”

But there was someone in the church who had spoken with individuals from the former board as well as the ex-associate.

In my book Church Coup, I called him George.

George decided to stand up in the meeting and speak for the board members and the associate pastor.

In fact, he recited a litany of charges against me, charges he claimed came directly from the mouths of those seven former leaders.

But George’s behavior raised all kinds of problems:

Did the board members give George permission to speak for them?  How would the church know?

Did the associate give George permission to speak for him as well?

How accurately was George conveying their “charges?”  He wasn’t reading a letter from any of them but was rattling accusations off the top of his head.

If people needed evidence or clarification, how well could George represent those leaders?

There’s a word for George’s actions.  He was engaging in hearsay.

No one could verify the validity of George’s charges because he was speaking for people who were absent.

What if the board members or associate had lied to George?

What if George had misinterpreted what they were telling him?

And what if I wanted to respond to those charges?  How could George continue to speak for them?

And was George aware that this was the first time I had ever heard most of those complaints?

Speed Leas comments:

“It is difficult to be in contact with partners who have left the scene.  Sometimes people just drop out; they stop attending or participating in any church functions.  But other times they stay at home and participate by telephone.  Other people then come to the meetings bearing the grievances of dissatisfied persons who are not present to convey their views accurately and responsibly.  This kind of behavior is difficult and annoying to deal with.  Anonymous or relayed communications stay at the point where they began. . . . One bishop I know insists that the participants at conflict meetings only speak for themselves.  He strongly encourages them to make ‘I think,’ or ‘I believe,’ or ‘I know’ statements rather than remarks such as ‘Some people have said’ or ‘A lot of people are upset’ or ‘I am speaking for those who have spoken to me and are afraid to speak out.'”

The more anxious families become, the more they slide into dysfunction.

And the more stressed church families become, the more dysfunctionality becomes the norm.

When a conflict is about something unrelated to the pastor, he can present biblical ground rules for communication and encourage all parties to practice them.

But when the pastor becomes the target of a conflict, he cannot publicly advise the church on how to handle matters.

For a church to survive a public assault on their pastor, the congregation needs one or more godly, sensible individuals to stand up assertively to define what healthy and unhealthy behavior looks like.

Is there anyone like that in your church right now?

Let me encourage you.

If you’re upset with another brother or sister in Christ … even if they’re a leader … you have five options:

*Let it go.

*Tell the Lord alone.

*End the relationship.

*Leave the church.

*Speak with the person directly.

It’s okay to consult with a wise believer provided they can be trusted … but even after such a consultation, you’re still left with only five choices.

And if you’re asked to represent others in public, gently defer … or you’ll be caught in a triangle between two parties.

In Luke 12:13, someone came to Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus responded, “Okay.  Just give me your address and I’ll go speak with him right now.”

No, Jesus didn’t do that!

Instead, He asked this question:

“Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”

Even Jesus stayed out of family squabbles and relational triangles.

If the Son of God was unwilling to speak for others, we should follow His example.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John MacArthur is a famous Bible teacher, pastor, and author.

And he sometimes intimidates me because he seems to be perpetually godly rather than human … and I have a hard time relating to people like that.

Yet MacArthur has certainly played a large part in my spiritual development.

When I was fourteen years of age, I went to Hume Lake Christian Camp for the first time.  John MacArthur was our guest speaker that week.

The first night, he shared about a car accident he once had that changed his life … and he did it with great humor … but his story really got my attention.

Later that week, MacArthur challenged us to read our Bibles every day, and I took his counsel to heart, rededicating my life to Jesus Christ.

When I entered Talbot Seminary (now School of Theology) in 1975, I was well aware of Talbot’s two most famous graduates: MacArthur and Josh McDowell.

MacArthur spoke in chapel one day on the glory of God.  Afterward, my friend Dave and I talked about what made MacArthur such an effective communicator.

To me, it was his authority … his certainty … that he believed what he was telling us with every fiber of his being.

Four years ago, my wife and I finally visited Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California, where MacArthur pastors.  I wrote a blog article about our visit which you can read here:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2013/11/25/visiting-john-macarthur/

Several nights ago, this thought kept running through my mind: “I wonder if John MacArthur has any hobbies?”

While searching the internet, I ran across an interview MacArthur gave on his Grace to You radio program in 2004.  If the interview was designed to humanize MacArthur, it certainly succeeded.  The interview can be found here:

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-33/John-MacArthurs-Life-Testimony

MacArthur shared again about the car accident that changed his life … about how he and his wife got together (even though she was engaged to someone else) … about another car accident that nearly took his wife’s life … and how Dr. Feinberg at Talbot reamed MacArthur out for missing the point of a passage when he preached during chapel.

And then the interviewer asked MacArthur this question:

What was the most difficult thing for you as a young pastor?

JOHN: The most difficult thing that ever happens to me, whether it’s when I’m young or old, is disloyalty at the level of leadership. Not because I deserve loyalty, but because disloyalty is so destructive. The hardest thing you’ll ever deal with is false accusation…people who say things about you that aren’t true and undermine people’s trust and confidence and this goes on in my case all the time all over the place. Not so much at Grace Church, anymore. Our people are very loyal. All the critics I’ve outlived. What are they going to bring up that they haven’t brought up in the past, you know. But even beyond Grace Church, there are all kinds of accusations and criticisms that aren’t related to reality made against me. That’s very hard to deal with because I don’t want to be viewed by anybody as unfaithful to the Lord, unfaithful to His Word as an unfaithful Christian. But I think it’s particularly painful at the level of intimacy when you pour your life in investment spiritually into men around you that serve with you and they generate a mutiny against you. That is very hard to deal with…very hard.

That happened to you…

JOHN: Oh, it’s happened several times. Yeah, it’s happened several times. And it’s a shock. You know, your own familiar friend has lifted up his heel against you, the one with whom you broke bread, you know, like the Scripture says about Judas. And I’m loyal. I think the only way to get loyalty is to give loyalty. If somebody in church comes to me and criticized another staff member, they don’t find me a very good listener. I will rise to the defense of all those that are in my care and serve alongside me. People don’t do that because they know they’re not going to get anywhere with me. And I expect in giving that loyalty to receive that back because disloyalty is so harmful to the unity of the church. So that’s always been the hardest thing to deal with. To criticize me personally, is not disloyal. To undermine me and criticize me publicly, behind my back, that’s disloyal.

Let me make four observations about what MacArthur says:

First, no pastor is exempt from leadership betrayal.

If someone asked me, “Can you think of a pastor who has never experienced staff or board disloyalty?”, my guess would have been John MacArthur.

But MacArthur admits … quite candidly … that some men around him generated “a mutiny” against him “several times.”

King David, Israel’s greatest king, knew all about such disloyalty.  He writes in Psalm 41:5-9:

My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die and his name perish?”

Whenever one comes to see me, he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander; then he goes out and spreads it abroad.

All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me, saying, “A vile disease has beset him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.”

Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.

Of course, referring to Judas, Jesus quoted Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 about their own relationship.

And in 2 Timothy 4:10, 14, Paul mentions two men who betrayed him:

… Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me …

Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm … he strongly opposed our message …

If David, Jesus, and Paul all experienced betrayal, then it can happen to anybody … including John MacArthur.

I’m just glad he felt free to admit it.

Second, it’s beyond painful to support leaders fully and receive betrayal instead.

MacArthur confessed:

“But I think it’s particularly painful at the level of intimacy when you pour your life in investment spiritually into men around you that serve with you and they generate a mutiny against you. That is very hard to deal with…very hard.”

My wife and I attended one of America’s largest churches for nearly two years when we lived in Phoenix, Arizona a few years ago.

Three times within six months, I heard the church’s senior pastor talk about a staff rebellion that had occurred nearly fifteen years before.

He was still hurting over what had happened.  Years later, he still couldn’t believe those four staff members would try and push him out as pastor.

I left my last ministry eight years ago.  At one point, we had a staff of eleven people, some full-time, some part-time.

I went to bat for those staff members continually, getting them more money … more vacation time … and even giving part-timers paid vacations.

One staff member made a mistake on his taxes that cost him thousands of dollars, so I went to the board and they covered his mistake financially.

Another staff member literally worked in a closet when I came, so I made sure she came out of the closet and had her own office work space.

How was my loyalty repaid?

Some staff collaborated with my predecessor and I was forced out of office.

MacArthur survived his mutinies.  I did not.

But either way, it’s something you never forget.

Third, loyal pastors cannot understand disloyal leaders.

In the interview, MacArthur said:

“And I’m loyal. I think the only way to get loyalty is to give loyalty. If somebody in church comes to me and criticized another staff member, they don’t find me a very good listener. I will rise to the defense of all those that are in my care and serve alongside me. People don’t do that because they know they’re not going to get anywhere with me.”

Not every pastor is loyal to his staff and board.  I’ve heard some sad stories to that effect.

But the best pastors demonstrate loyalty and expect it in return.  And when the leaders around the pastor collaborate to criticize or take out the pastor, the pastor can’t get his head around it.

I served under five pastors.  In each case, I was the top staff member.

And in each case, I was completely loyal to my pastor.

Did that mean I agreed with everything the pastor said or did?  Absolutely not.

But I wanted each pastor to know that even if everyone in the church turned against him, I would still stand by his side.

So when staff members … and in my last church, board members as well … turned on me, I could not emotionally understand what they were doing.

I still can’t … because it’s something I could never do.

But sometimes I wonder, “Why was it so easy for them to be disloyal?”

Fourth, nothing hurts a pastor more than false accusations.

John MacArthur said:

“The hardest thing you’ll ever deal with is false accusation…people who say things about you that aren’t true and undermine people’s trust and confidence and this goes on in my case all the time all over the place. Not so much at Grace Church, anymore. Our people are very loyal. All the critics I’ve outlived. What are they going to bring up that they haven’t brought up in the past, you know. But even beyond Grace Church, there are all kinds of accusations and criticisms that aren’t related to reality made against me. That’s very hard to deal with because I don’t want to be viewed by anybody as unfaithful to the Lord, unfaithful to His Word as an unfaithful Christian.”

I don’t know what kind of accusations have been made against MacArthur during his long and successful ministry career.

His critics seem to single out his critical tone or his lack of graciousness whenever he deals with controversial issues … and he doesn’t shy away from anything.

In my younger days in ministry, I felt that MacArthur was a bit harsh at times.

But as I’ve gotten older, I thank God for him because he’s one of the few prominent Christian leaders who haven’t compromised or wavered on biblical truth.

What amazes me about the interview with MacArthur is that even though some leaders tried to overthrow him … and that’s the definition of a mutiny … he never quit.  He forged ahead.

You can do that more easily in your thirties, forties and early fifties.  But when a church’s leaders come after you when you’re in your late fifties or early sixties, it’s a different story entirely.

When you’re younger, if you’re “lied” out of your church, you can eventually find another church.  But when you’re older, those same churches won’t even consider you due to your age.

In my last church, I was accused of all kinds of things … especially after I resigned.

But the leaders were cowardly.  Whatever was being said, nobody said it to my face.

To this day, there are probably people who think that I had an affair … that I didn’t really preach the Bible … that I spent so much money that I left the church in massive debt … that I let my wife (who was on staff) do whatever she wanted … that I mistreated staff members … that I wasn’t approachable … and on and on.

When I first heard untrue claims against me, I wanted to defend myself publicly.

But I quickly realized it was futile.  I could not stop the tidal wave of hatred that was washing over the entire congregation.

There was no fair and just forum where I could respond to my critics.

So I just surrendered.

This kind of mistreatment has a name: “mobbing.”

In a church setting, certain leaders bury the pastor with false charges trying to force his departure.

They don’t want justice.  They want revenge.

I’m glad that John MacArthur is still pastoring Grace Community Church nearly fifty years after he began.

How has he done it?

Those who survive in ministry are those who follow Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:21-23:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

And that’s what both Jesus and John MacArthur have done over the years: entrust themselves to Him who judges justly.

May we learn from their example.

 

 

 

 

 

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When I was taking classes at Fuller Seminary for my doctoral degree, I went out early some mornings and ran around various parts of Pasadena.

One morning, I ran across the bridge over the Interstate 210 Freeway and jogged into the parking lot of one of Southern California’s most prestigious churches.

The door to the worship center was open, so I looked inside.  It was huge!

The senior pastor of that church had taught me when I attended Biola.  He later did a weekend retreat for my youth group.

But several years after I peeked inside that sanctuary, that pastor – an absolute master teacher – was forced out of his position after fourteen years of ministry.

The news made the local newspaper, which quoted an attorney from the congregation.  Although the attorney held no official office, he represented “old money” … and the old money people didn’t like the pastor making changes without their approval.

As I recall, more than 4,000 people attended that church, yet a relative handful of disgruntled individuals were able to push out their pastor.

I have seen statistics that indicate that regardless of church size, it only takes seven to ten people to force a pastor to resign.  Other studies say it takes a mere eight to twelve people.

How can such a small group of people determine a pastor’s future?

I don’t claim divine authority for what I’m about to write, but let me take a shot at answering this question:

First, that small group contains at least one determined bully.

In my second staff position, a mean-spirited man was the chairman of the church council … and his wife was the church secretary … so this man’s wife reported to him everything that was going on in the office.

She didn’t like what the pastor was doing … and her husband didn’t, either.

And since the pastor didn’t do what this couple wanted, they decided they wanted him to leave.

Before long, the chairman convinced the rest of the council that the pastor had to go … and the pastor was voted out of office by the congregation.

This man paid me … the only staff member besides his wife … scant attention.  But when he finally did speak with me … only via telephone … he came off as a dominating and demanding figure.

In fact, he was downright scary.

The others on the council were typical churchgoers: nice, kind, mild-mannered, well-intentioned … but their personalities were no match for the chairman.

If the bully hadn’t been the chairman, he would have hounded whoever else was chairman to do what he wanted … so it was easier just to let him run the council.

The pastor … who also had a strong personality … was the only person in the church to challenge the chairman.

But ultimately, the pastor was voted out of office.

My guess is that embedded within the typical group of seven to twelve individuals is at least one person whose personality is so intimidating that few if any Christians will challenge that person to his/her face.

And yes, the bully can be a woman.

But if a church has two or three leaders who are vocally supportive of the pastor’s ministry, such a bully probably won’t challenge them and may leave the church instead.

Second, the bully takes advantage of the natural niceness of Christians.

Let’s say you’ve been invited by a church leader named Hank to a restaurant after the Sunday service.

When you arrive at the restaurant, you’re surprised to see nine other individuals from the church there with Hank.

Hank begins by saying, “Many people are concerned about the changes our pastor is making at the church right now.  I’ve called this group together to see if we can stop the pastor from making these changes.”

If you don’t question or challenge Hank right then and there, you may never be able to do so.

Many years ago, I met with a group of pastors for lunch.  The talk turned to the leaders of our district.  The consensus among the pastors was that those leaders were making our district the laughingstock of the denomination.

One pastor said, “If you want to, I know how to get rid of the leaders.”

I instantly spoke up and said, “I don’t want anything to do with this.”

That ended the discussion.

And that’s exactly what someone … maybe you … need to say to Hank.

But if you and the others hesitate, Hank will lay out his case against the pastor, and the longer group members remain silent, the harder it will be to stop Hank.

And the more danger your pastor … and your church … will experience.

Years ago, Dr. Archibald Hart taught me that Christians need to learn to be assertive without being aggressive.

We need to learn to share how we really feel without getting angry.

But since many Christians equate being assertive with getting angry, we remain silent when we should speak up … and find ourselves subject to manipulation.

Before Hank’s group gains momentum, somebody needs to stop him.

Would you?

I once heard about a board that decided to take out their pastor.  There was only one problem: the pastor’s biggest supporter was also a board member.

So the board waited until that supporter was out of town and then they voted out the pastor.

I have a folder an inch thick about that situation.  It was nasty.

Third, group members feel they are carrying out a special assignment.

The bully makes people feel they’re important because only a few churchgoers have been invited to the meeting.

But what they don’t see is that the bully chose each person because he’s confident they’ll support and implement his/her agenda.

The bully wants to use the group as a base of operations.  He can’t take out the pastor by himself.  He needs others … even if they say or do very little.

My first few months in my last church ministry, I noticed that someone I’ll call Charlie taught a Sunday School class … and that it was constantly growing.

Charlie openly bragged about how large his class was getting … even to me.  I became concerned that Charlie was going to use his class as an operational base to increase his congregational power.

After doing some investigative work, I learned that was precisely Charlie’s modus operandi in two previous churches … before he openly challenged both pastors.

And I remain convinced that Charlie was going to challenge me because he felt he could control those fifty people.

Most church bullies make each person in their group feel valuable.  They will:

*listen to and agree with their complaints against the pastor.

*invite members’ spouses into the group (even if they aren’t believers).

*mix social events with their plotting.

*make group members feel, “Only we can save this church.”

*pay members more attention than the pastor does.

And most of the time, that’s really what’s happening.  While the pastor may have a congregation of hundreds or thousands, the bully has a congregation of ten or fifteen or perhaps twenty people … and by showering them with attention, he can persuade them to do what they wouldn’t normally do.

I survived an attempt to remove me as pastor thirty years ago.  The bully recruited people who weren’t prominent in the church.

After he pulled the group out of the church, two group members died … and their families asked me to conduct their memorial services.

I assumed that since they joined the bully’s group that they hated me, but they didn’t.  They joined the dissident group because they were made to feel special.

Fourth, the group has to secure at least two top leaders to be taken seriously.

If the bully is a board member or a staff member, then he just needs to secure one other board member or staffer to gain credibility.

People can easily write off one leader who goes on the attack.  It’s much harder to write off two or more leaders.

When two or more leaders begin to criticize the pastor openly, some churchgoers … especially those without much experience in congregations … may quickly choose to believe them because they assume they have inside knowledge others lack.

The bully usually looks for three kinds of allies among the leaders:

*The key player in bringing down the senior/lead pastor may be the associate pastor.

If the associate is not 100% loyal, then taking down the senior pastor may be the way for him to get more money … have more say … or become senior pastor himself.

From all the stories I’ve heard over the past eight years, I’d say the leader most likely to turn on the senior pastor is the associate.

I believe that if it can be proven that the associate was involved in trying to take out an innocent senior pastor, the associate should be banned from church ministry for many years.  Trying to remove your superior is a far worse offense than almost anything an innocent pastor has done.

*The bully sometimes tries to recruit former board members who still attend the church.

These board members may have their own ax to grind against the pastor.

The most frequent complaint they have is that they used to be board members, but after the pastor came … and they termed out … they were not asked to serve again.

In my last ministry, a man had once been chairman of the church board.  When I came to the church, he was no longer on the board … I don’t know why.

When I became senior pastor, I didn’t think this man should be a board member because he missed too many Sunday services.  How could he make informed decisions about the church’s future when he was rarely around?

Besides, his wife had a reputation as a first-class gossip.

But later, this man became a key player in forcing me to leave … and I wasn’t surprised.

If I could do it again, I’d make the same decision. Placing him on the board would have been a political decision, not a spiritual one.

*The bully primarily looks for allies on the church board.

I believe that when at least two board members conspire together to target a pastor for removal, they often get their way.

A church board needs to be 100% behind their pastor.  A board can survive one dissident, but usually not two.

Remember what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:7?  He said:

“Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?”

If the bully is on the church board, he doesn’t need to persuade the entire group to get rid of the pastor … he only needs to convince one or two others.

And if they add a staff member like the associate pastor, who will stop them?

If they sense other board members are with them, they may call a special board meeting, or go into executive session after a regular meeting … and make sure the pastor isn’t invited.

If they sense other board members aren’t with them, they will try to persuade them outside of official meetings.  And when they sense they have enough support, they’ll make their complaints in an official board meeting … and then:

Finally, the group operates in such an aggressive manner that they’re confident they won’t be challenged.

And this is really why such a group gains power out of all proportion to its size.

They use the following tactics:

First, they verbally attack the pastor personally.

The group criticizes his appearance … his car(s) … his house … his manner … his sermon illustrations … anything and everything is fair game.

Some people in a church might think these things, but proper decorum keeps them from saying them aloud.  But the small group out to get the pastor vocalizes their criticisms.

Complaining is contagious.  Hatred is contagious.

As people openly criticize their pastor, others feel emboldened and add their own grievances to the mix.

Most pastors won’t wilt with this tactic … but they will with this one:

Second, they verbally attack the pastor’s family.

They attack his wife: she works too much or not at all; she’s too prominent at church or too quiet; she’s nice to some women but not others … and on and on.

They attack the pastor’s children: they’re unruly; they’re arrogant; they’re not at church enough; they’re at church too much … and on and on.

The attacks don’t have to correspond to reality.  And there don’t have to be many attackers.

The pastor doesn’t count how many people are making the criticisms because he’s too busy ministering to his wounded wife and children.

When a group attacks the pastor’s family, he has one foot out the door.

Third, they consult the church’s governing documents on how to remove a pastor. 

If they think they have the required percentage to vote him out of office, they’ll try that.

But most of the time, they just bypass the stated process and try alternative tactics.

Fourth, they pass around a petition to address their grievances.

The petition might call for a meeting so the group can air their complaints.  Or the petition might call for the pastor’s removal by the board or in a public meeting.

But everyone who signs that petition will experience a change in status toward their pastor.

In my last church, my wife served for years with a woman she dearly loved.

As the attacks upon me escalated, someone put together a petition and circulated it.  The petition called for an investigation into matters concerning me.

It was a confusing time for many people.  The woman my wife loved signed the petition.  But when she did, her signature ended her relationship with my wife.

Neither my wife nor I ever saw the petition.  Our supporters undoubtedly did.  And over time, they would tell us, “Those who signed the petition are not your friends.”

When people signed the petition, they were switching allegiances from their pastor to the dissidents.

The group circulating the petition knew that.  Those who signed it did not … at least initially.

Finally, they boldly exaggerate charges against the pastor and try to turn others against him … and they usually succeed.

When the pastor’s family is attacked, he has one foot out the door.

But when his integrity is called into question publicly, he’ll start packing his bags.

The only way a pastor can stay under such circumstances is if key members of the staff and board stand up strongly for him and say publicly, “The charges you’re hearing are not true.  I know the pastor well and he is the man you think he is.”

But once the charges gain momentum, most churches lack any kind of process or forum for the pastor or his supporters to rebut the charges … and the pastor gets buried underneath an avalanche of lies and slander.

And then so many allegations float into the ether that they can’t be rebutted … and people who were once the pastor’s supporters call for his resignation.

And somewhere during the entire “get the pastor” process, the devil and his assistants enter the picture and not only try to destroy the pastor … but the church as well.

_______________

The small group that opposes the pastor keeps pushing … keeps trying to recruit individuals to join their cause … keeps spreading exaggerated charges … and keeps the pressure on to remove the pastor … because they have gone too far to stop.

And they have sold their souls in the process.

The only way to stop that small group is for strong Christians to say … loudly and publicly … “What you are doing is wrong.  We won’t stand for this.  You are not only hurting our pastor and his family … you are severely harming our church.  We have worked too hard for too long to let you do this.  Stop this at once!”

But the reason that small group of seven to twelve people often succeeds is that there aren’t enough strong Christians in our churches to stop them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Over the past six years, I’ve heard many heart-wrenching stories about pastors being attacked by church leaders.

One pastor of a large congregation was fired without warning and without any severance.

Two pastors were falsely accused of stealing money from their churches.  In both situations, their attackers brought in law enforcement.

One man served three churches as pastor … and was forced out of all three.

And I’ve heard about many coup attempts, either by the board or the associate pastor.

Out of all the stories I’ve heard, ours is still among the top three worst conflicts.

(You can read Part 1 of this article by clicking on the green link above the title on the left.)

Once allegations have been made against a pastor, he has to trust whatever process was already in place to allow him a fair hearing, or his position … and maybe his career … are toast.

The length of our conflict was exactly fifty days from the board meeting on October 24, 2009 until our last Sunday on December 13.

When the board met with me in October, they attempted to checkmate my wife and me in various ways.

One avenue they used … and it’s used by most boards that attack their pastor … was to impose a gag order on me in the name of “confidentiality.”

The board tells the pastor that they don’t want him discussing their concerns with anyone else.  That’s how they control you.

The board told me to keep matters private (they never asked me), but I never agreed to any confidentiality because I knew it was a trap.

But the biggest trap of all was the board’s threat to quit.  They said, “We’re all willing to resign over this issue … and we’ll give Kim the choice of being fired or resigning.”

But the strong implication was that if she didn’t resign, they would all resign instead.

Why did the board issue such an ultimatum?

I can only guess.

I don’t know exactly how many pastors, staffers, board members, and churchgoers I’ve worked with over the past six years, but I still haven’t heard any stories about a board that threatened to resign en masse.

In my 36 years of church ministry, I never issued even one ultimatum in a meeting.  It’s a power move.

If I said, “I must get my way, or I’ll quit,” someone might respond, “Then we want your resignation tomorrow morning.”

One pastor friend told me he would have said, “I’ve had enough of this.  You want to resign?  Let’s have your resignations right now.”

Not one of the many boards I served with over 25 years as a solo or senior pastor ever would have pulled such a stunt.

The board’s threat wasn’t spiritual in any way.  They didn’t leave any room for discussion or negotiation.

The board had arrested, judged, and sentenced my wife without meeting with her directly or letting her respond to their charges.

And they never made their case to me.

I was told verbally that my wife had overspent her budgets, and when I asked for a figure, I knew it was way overblown.

The signal that the board wasn’t playing fair is that they didn’t prepare a list of her spending for me.  As the pastor … and a board member … wasn’t I entitled to see it?

The night of October 24, the board met with several staff members, and added two charges to their list.

Five nights later, when two board members met with Kim (at my request) to explain their actions, they added even more charges.

Why wasn’t the overspending charge enough?

If a pastor is caught having illicit sex in a hotel room, that’s all you need to fire him.  You don’t need to say, “And you were rude at a board meeting three months ago” as well.

So why add charges?

When Kim didn’t resign immediately after the board made the overspending charge, they had to add charges to force her to quit.

And that was not only cruel, it was also a form of retribution.

There is no justification for the way the board acted.  They violated the church constitution which clearly stated that the senior pastor had to recommend the termination of any staff member to the board before anyone could be dismissed.

Someone was pushing matters … hard … so Kim would resign of her own accord.

And the expectation was that when she quit, I would quit as well.

_______________

Several years after the coup attempt, I asked someone inside that church, “What are the chances that the board was really after Kim and not me?”

Their reply: “Zero.”

So if the board wanted me to resign, why didn’t they come after me directly?

Because, in my view, they didn’t have anything impeachable they could use against me … not even my minute-long rant … and certainly nothing they could tell the congregation … so they went after my wife instead.

As someone on the inside later told me, they viewed us as a single entity … Jim/Kim, if you will.  (If you nail Kim, you nail Jim.)

Even though we didn’t work together very often, we did … and do … love each other very much … even though I quickly corrected her whenever she stepped out of line … something I did in the car and at home (and with a level of scrutiny no other staff member had to endure)!

Five days after that October 24 meeting, Kim still had not quit.  We both sought outside counsel, and were told, “If Kim doesn’t think she did anything wrong, and she resigns, that would be a lie.  Let the board fire her instead.”

But the board didn’t want to fire her, because they would have endured the wrath of most of the congregation.  They had to make it look like she resigned herself even though they had already “terminated” her.

At this point, I’m going to pull a veil over what happened next to Kim.  Let’s just say that Satan attacked her in a brutal fashion, and that I feared for her very life.  She was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Her suffering was the primary reason I eventually resigned.

After the dust settled, I was able to forgive people for what they did to me, but found it extremely difficult to forgive those who had hurt Kim … not only because she is my wife, but because she was the person who best exemplified our mission.

If the board had only followed Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17 instead of business practices, matters might have turned out much differently.

Because six days after the October 24 meeting … the day before Halloween … the associate pastor resigned.  And the day after Halloween … the entire board resigned.

Looking back, what was the single most difficult matter for you?

It was having people I thought were my friends turn on me without waiting to hear my side of the story.

The associate pastor turned on me … as did the entire board … as did my predecessor.  That’s eight Christian leaders.

And I was told by someone on the inside that I could have survived the board’s departure, but that the associate’s betrayal ultimately did me in.

Their approach wasn’t biblical … spiritual … loving … or redemptive.  In fact, it felt like hatred.

It was devastating to know that false narratives were circulating around the congregation.  Based on my personal character and ministry history, most people had to know they weren’t true.

Every time I saw someone on the campus after that, I wondered, “What do you know?  Are you for me, or against me?”

I knew who some of my opponents were.  It was no surprise.  But when long-time friends turn on you … it’s heartbreaking.

After the board resigned together, they should have stuck to their initial narrative.

But they didn’t.  Allegation after allegation leaked out from those leaders as justification for their departures even though they had never discussed those issues with me personally.

Their attitude seemed to be, “That charge isn’t gaining traction.  Let’s try another one.”

The aim of my detractors was to destroy my reputation, and they didn’t seem to care how they did it.

And I had no forum in which to defend myself.

When churchgoers hear accusations against their pastor, but he doesn’t answer the charges, they assume the accusations are true.

And that’s when the pastor loses most of his church friends.

Dennis Murray writes: “Antagonists see themselves as saving the parish from a pastor that could more accurately be labeled a reprobate.  They are equally determined that their fellow parish members and all the folks in the greater community see things their way.  In order to establish bragging rights they try to control the story.  They need to do so by making sure that their target does not have any opportunity for rebuttal.”

When the “fire Kim” plan backfired, the “destroy Jim” plot was put in its place.

And it worked well.

I didn’t get my side out until I published my book more than three years later … and by then, my viewpoint was irrelevant.

If I had to do it over again, I would have written out the allegations I had heard … responded to each one on paper … and then made sure that my supporters distributed them throughout the church after I left.

That might have stopped some of the lies that were circulating about me … but, of course, my detractors would have just created new ones.

One day, I received an anonymous letter in the mail.  It demanded that we both RESIGN.  Kim and I were both scheduled that night to meet with the newly-elected board, and I gave the letter to someone who tried to determine who sent it … although he never did.

Kim met with the new board … they even prayed for her … and I met with them afterwards to announce my resignation.

We both appeared to be stubborn at times in our interactions with top leaders, but our seeming intractability wasn’t personal obstinance.  Instead, we were both completely committed to the church’s outreach mission which had been approved eight years before.

On my last Sunday, I urged the church to keep its outreach orientation.

But as soon as we left, our ministries were dismantled and the church quickly flipped back into maintenance mode.

What lessons have you learned from this experience?

Let me share four lessons as they relate to a church’s mission:

If a church really wants to reach its community, that mission must stay on track at all times.

Kim and I had learned this lesson at our church in Silicon Valley.

The staff, board, and key leaders were completely behind the mission of reaching lost people … on paper and in practice.

That commitment created incredible purpose, synergy, and power … and for that reason, that will always be my favorite church.

But during 2009, the commitment to mission was on paper among the board and associate pastor, but it wasn’t being carried out in practice.

There were people who rallied around us because of the board’s actions.  They were the ones who had made the church grow for years.  They served selflessly and gave generously.

By contrast, most of the board members had little to do with the church’s success, and four of the six did not serve in any extra-board capacity.

After creating great damage, the board and associate ran away.

But Kim and I didn’t run.  We waited until a new board was elected … until an investigation was completed … until we were offered separation packages by the new board … and until we had one last Sunday to say goodbye and offer people closure.

If staff members aren’t on board with a church’s mission, they should resign.

Can you imagine how it felt to have the outreach director fully committed to the mission while the associate pastor wasn’t?

It created friction between them.

The associate knew that he wasn’t in sync with the mission.  He told me near the end of his tenure that he should have resigned a long time before.

Why not fire staff who resist the mission?

I know someone who pastored a megachurch for years.  He fired a staff member, and the board instantly rehired him.  The pastor quickly resigned.

When there is conflict between the pastor and a staff member, boards sometimes stand with the senior pastor, and sometimes stand with staffers … and no one can predict which way they’ll lean.

One of my biggest regrets is that I let the associate pastor wiggle his way onto the church board in a non-voting capacity.

Kim warned me what would happen if I let that occur.  She was right.

When the board attacks the pastor, they attack the mission as well.

Pastors know that it’s difficult to convince a church to be outreach-oriented on paper, much less in practice.

When a church calls a pastor, they are looking for someone who fits their culture and community.

If it’s true that only 15-20% of all churches are growing … and that 80-85% are stagnating or declining … then forcing out a growth pastor can be suicidal for a church’s future.

What are the chances that the church will hire another pastor who has the training and experience to do successful outreach?

The odds aren’t very good.

A congregation can find scores of pastors who will pursue maintenance, but it’s challenging to find someone who understands reaching a community.

And once outreach is killed off, it can take years to resurrect it … so many churches end up wandering in the wilderness instead.

When the mission has been surrendered, the pastor has to leave.

If a church’s leaders want to change the mission, they need to go through the pastor rather than around him.

The board could have told me, “We don’t want to do outreach ministry anymore.  It requires too much risk-taking … it costs too much … and it’s creating too much conflict.  We want to be a church that reaches Christians instead.  That’s how we really feel.”

Had they been that explicit, I would have quietly looked for another ministry and then departed.

I came to the church because I only wanted to pastor an outreach-oriented congregation.  Having spent years spinning my wheels in churches going nowhere, I could never go back.

_______________

As you’ve read my story, please don’t feel sorry for me or for my wife.

The Lord catapulted us out of ministry because He knew that the outreach sentiment among the leaders had changed and that we couldn’t be in a church like that anymore.

As I’ve said on many occasions … we left at the right time … just not in the best way.

Did we make mistakes?

Of course.  Even the best pastors and staffers do.

But to this day, I maintain that we never committed any major offenses, and certainly nothing that merited the mistreatment we received.

In fact, many of the offenses we were later charged with had to do with how we handled the 50-day conflict, not how we handled our ministries.

Why revisit the coup eight years later?

*It’s a way of cleansing my soul.  Pastors who experience a forced termination are afraid to discuss it with anyone, much less write about it.

But I’m here to say, “I understand what you’ve gone through and how you’ve been feeling.  And the more you discuss it, the more quickly you will recover.”

If I can help you or someone you know with a coup attempt or a pastoral attack, please write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org.  I love hearing people’s stories … and I know I can help.

*I want pastors and Christian leaders to read my account … both on this blog, and in my book … and ask, “How would we handle a similar situation?  What would we do differently?  Let’s create or strengthen procedures that are biblical, just, loving, and redemptive.”

I spent hours with the pastor of a megachurch and his wife last year, and they bought copies of my book for their top leaders to read and discuss.  I felt humbled and honored by their actions.

*I want my friends to know why I’m no longer in church ministry.

It takes pastors one to three years to recover from a “sheep attack,” and much of that recovery is emotional.

Three years after leaving my last church, I became interim pastor of a wonderful church in New Hampshire.

After I returned to California, my director wanted to send me to another church back east, but after Kim and I spent four days there, we decided against it.

I spoke with my ministry mentor the day after we returned home.  After I told him what happened over those four days, he said, “Jim, if you and Kim go there, it will permanently damage your souls.”

Our souls were already damaged.

Thank God He specializes in healing damaged souls.

 

 

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“You never need to explain yourself to anyone.  Your true friends don’t require an explanation.  And your enemies won’t believe anything you say.”  Dr. Dennis Murray, Healing For Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack

On October 24, 2009 – eight years ago today – a coup was attempted at the Bay Area church I had pastored for nine years.

The official board consulted with … and likely collaborated with … the church’s founding pastor (my predecessor) to push me out as pastor.

Somewhere along the line, the associate pastor signed onto the coup, along with churchgoers who were loyal to my predecessor.

Even though I wrote my book Church Coup (published in 2013) as a cautionary tale, I revisit the conflict on this blog every October 24 to see if my perspective has broadened and deepened.  (If you’d like a more detailed description of what happens inside a church when a pastor is attacked, my book – which is on Amazon – may be of interest to you.)

I have no desire to convince my detractors that they behaved unwisely or even cruelly, so this article is not aimed at them, but I am including information I’ve never shared before.

This time, I’ve decided to answer eight questions about the conflict, and hope that my responses will provide insight into coup attempts involving other pastors.

We’ll do Part 1 today, and Part 2 in two days.

What was the coup really about?

I believe the coup was really about stopping the church’s mission, which was designed to reach people without Christ.

When I was hired as associate pastor in June 1999, the senior pastor – a friend for years – wanted me to continue his efforts to reach unchurched people.

We served together eighteen months, and then he retired and I became senior pastor.  (The congregation had approved me as senior pastor-elect seven months before.)

Over time, I had earned solid credentials.

I had been the senior pastor of an outreach-oriented church in Silicon Valley for seven years and had served as teaching pastor of a similar church.  I had also received extensive training from Willow Creek and Saddleback Churches.

My wife had undergone the same kind of training and had served alongside me at the Silicon Valley church.  When it came to outreach-oriented ministry, we both knew what we were doing.

So I wasn’t changing the church’s charter, but clarifying it … expanding it … and furthering it.

Several months after I became pastor, I invited Dr. Gary McIntosh – one of the foremost experts on growing churches in the world – to lead a series of workshops for our leadership team, and 43 people came.  The time with Gary was extremely productive.

We also had a professional facilitator inside the church oversee the creation of our mission and vision statements … starting with congregational input, and ending with board approval.

So I received wide support for our mission during my first few years, which enabled the church to grow numerically in a highly resistant community and to construct a new worship center.

But toward the end of my tenure, the mission was being sabotaged from within.

Who was sabotaging the mission?

We hired an associate pastor in early 2007 who told me before he was hired that he wanted to be in an outreach-oriented church, but after he arrived, he began to resist the mission because it made him too uncomfortable.

We called a husband-wife team as our youth directors a few years before that, but long after they were hired, they confessed that they didn’t believe in the mission, either.

It was difficult serving alongside key leaders who weren’t with us … and their lack of support eventually became obvious.

For years, I received my greatest support from the official board, and our church grew to become the largest Protestant church in our city.

And with that support, I was able to overcome most staff resistance.

But as 2009 approached, we lost three key board members.  All three men were older than me.  All three supported me fully.  And all three constantly had my back.

As we added new board members, every one was younger than me and involved in business.  I naively assumed they were all behind our outreach mission.

On paper, they were.  In practice, they weren’t.

They began viewing the ministry through “maintenance eyes,” not “mission eyes” … and in my view, had a “money comes before ministry” mentality.

But the one person most committed to an outreach-oriented church was my wife Kim.  I could always count on her.

How did the conflict about mission lead to your departure?

I once had a conversation with a pastor friend whose church was growing rapidly.  He told me, “There are many people in this church who are trying to change our direction so we only reach Christians, but I can’t let that happen.  You have to keep the mission of reaching people for Christ front and center or the church will go off track.”  His comment always stuck with me.

For most of my time in that church, both the leaders and the congregation were solidly behind the mission.

But as we got deeper into 2009, my wife and I were continuing to go in an outreach direction, while the associate and the board were going in an opposite direction … without any formal discussion.

Let me share one story to illustrate this polarization.

As the summer of 2009 ended, we had a part-time staff member in charge of small groups.  She did a great job, putting together thirty groups at one point.  But when she moved away, the small group ministry fell to the person originally hired to oversee it: the associate pastor.

Only he had never been in a small group in his life.

Every year, we announced that year’s groups at a small group fair.  The leaders would stand behind tables and present their groups to interested parties.  People would sign up at the tables and write down their phone numbers/email addresses.

In an outreach-oriented church, the leaders contact those who signed up. We reach out to them.

But the associate pastor vehemently believed that those interested should call the leaders instead … and then accused me of “coddling” people when I disagreed.

I wasn’t coddling anybody.  I wanted the maximum number of people in those groups because that’s where real life change happens in a congregation.  And the best way for people to join a group is for someone to invite them.

But the staff member with zero small group experience thought he knew better than the pastor with more than twenty years of small group experience … and that ministry began to collapse.

And that’s how my last year at the church went.  Resistance, sabotage, passive-aggressive behavior … and I could feel it.

And when that kind of climate develops, you’re going to make some mistakes … and every one will be recorded and counted against you.

Just for the record, those who resisted my leadership were all in contact … and later collaboration … with my predecessor.

When did matters finally come to a head?

The year 2008 was the best year our church ever had.  We had 785 people on Easter Sunday … had nine Sundays over 500 people … and enjoyed our highest average Sunday attendance ever … all on a one-acre campus that was nearly invisible from the street.

You might recall that 2009 was a difficult year economically, and after two years of generous giving in our church, we were about five tithing families short of meeting our budget, which caused great anxiety on the board.

Even though Kim had made plans for outreach events and two mission trips, the board set up procedures designed to slow or limit those activities.  Most of the staff were frustrated by the board’s micromanagement, but the board expected me to keep the staff in line.

I wanted to start a third service to reach a younger demographic, and so with board approval, eleven of us – including two board members and two staff members – visited two churches in Southern California to learn how to add that service.

After many months of work, the board turned down my proposal for a third service at a special meeting, and it became evident that we weren’t in sync.

On paper, our church was still outreach-oriented.  In practice, it was starting to flip backwards.

At the next regular board meeting, we started at 6:00 pm and were still going strong by 10:00 pm.

About 10:10 pm, the chairman stated that the church budget was frozen for the rest of the year and that nobody should even ask for more funds.

I was shocked.  Nobody had discussed this with me in advance, but it was clear that the board had colluded together in making this decision.

Trying to be conciliatory, I told the board that I had already announced to the congregation that we were going to produce a special drama for our upcoming anniversary called A Divine Comedy.  We had already obtained the script and were in the process of holding auditions.  The play was going to cost some money, but if we couldn’t find it in the budget, then I told the board, “I’ll ask several people with the gift of giving to donate the funds.”

The chairman responded to my comment by saying, “No.”

What?  The board was telling the pastor that he couldn’t raise money?

I should have calmly asked, “What do you mean, the budget is frozen?  Who made that decision?  When was it made?  Why wasn’t I included?”

Instead, I lost it.

I don’t know how long my rant lasted … maybe a minute? … but I told the board that it wasn’t fun working with them anymore and that the staff didn’t want to take any risks because the board had started micromanaging them. (Managing them had always been my job, not theirs.)

After the meeting, I spent a long time conversing with the chairman.  I felt awful about the way I had reacted … and knew that everything I told him would quickly get back to the others.

I immediately sought out a counselor to find out why I had reacted so badly.  After hearing me and testing me, he concluded, “You are severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

(Why did I burn out?  The construction of the worship center … finishing my doctoral program … and dealing with board and staff resistance all took their toll on me.)

After sharing this story with a pastor friend, he told me, “Jim, you had every right to be angry.”

I told him, “Maybe so, but I got too angry.”

Many pastors lose it in a board meeting on occasion, but in twenty-five years as a pastor, I never had.  In that church, I had a nine-year track record of remaining calm in meetings, but now I had messed up.

I felt like a colossal failure.  I never became angry after that, but I know my rant was used against me.

A more mature board might have met together and said, “Jim seems to be under great stress right now.  He’s meant so much to this church.  Something is troubling him, and we need to find out what it is.  Let’s send two board members to meet with him and see how we can help him overcome his frustration so we can all work together in harmony.”

But that’s not what happened.

In the end, the board never spoke with me about that night again.  They should have.  I was too embarrassed to go to them.  I wanted them to speak with me as a sign of love.

Instead, they did something else.

They waited until we were overseas on a mission trip … and then went after my wife.

Why did they go after your wife?

Kim is an amazing woman … maybe too amazing.

And she does a lot of good … maybe too much good.

The board hired Kim in 2001 as full-time outreach director after a search process produced twenty possible candidates.  Kim was the only person to survive the first round.  She was hired on merit because she knew more about outreach ministry than any other applicant even though others had more formal education.

(One time, we let a major outreach group use our facility for a training meeting.  Kim walked into the room and heard the leader using her material.  They had stolen it from her outright, but that shows how much her approach was valued.)

Kim was the best leader in our entire church.  She had vision … passion … charisma … a great work ethic … and a heart that beat for lost people.  As our mission statement put it, she loved to “share God’s unconditional love.”

In fact, several months before October 24, a board member told Kim, “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to this church.”

She learned people’s names.  She learned about their families and problems.  She recorded what she heard and used that information to help people become assimilated into church life.  She started new ministries … recruiting and training leaders to take them over.  She shared her faith everywhere.

And she did it all with contagious enthusiasm and a smile.

She was the most indispensable person in the entire church … including the pastor.

But she made a few enemies along the way because she believed so strongly in our church’s outreach orientation … and because, in my view, some individuals were jealous of her influence.

On October 24, the board told me they had terminated Kim’s position effective immediately because, they said, she had overspent her budgets.

When I asked how much she had overspent, I was given a number verbally.  I should have asked for written documentation, but I wasn’t thinking clearly.

I did ask for it three days later, but received nothing coherent.  Kim then asked for the documentation again two days later when she met with two board members, but was given nothing.

Was it all a bluff?

The bookkeeper later met with Kim and determined she had overspent her budgets by a negligible amount … light years away from the number I was given at the October 24 meeting.  A nine-person team from inside the church later investigated all charges and concluded there was no evidence that either Kim or I had committed any wrongdoing.

At that October 24 meeting, the board told me to tell Kim that she had a choice: she could resign or be fired.

And then the chairman made a statement I still can’t believe: the board felt so strongly about their decision that they were all willing to resign.

_______________

I’ve answered five questions so far, and will be responding to the final three questions in two days.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In my last blog, I wrote “an open letter to pastor terminators.”

The letter was a composite of stories I’ve heard over the years about the damage that members of the church board have caused pastors and staff members they’ve forced out of office.

One friend wrote me on Facebook and asked, “Would you send it?”

If I thought it would do any good, yes, I would send it.

But the odds are that it wouldn’t.

_______________

It’s been nearly eight years since I left my last church ministry.  Two weeks from today, I’ll be writing my annual article about the church coup I experienced.

Throughout the past eight years, I’ve had this fantasy: that one day, just one of the individuals most responsible for pushing me out would contact me and apologize for their actions.

Sometimes, when I go to the mailbox, I wonder if there will be a letter of confession from one of my opponents inside.

It’s never happened.

Sometimes, when I pick up the phone, I wonder if one of the perpetrators is calling me to say, “Oh, Jim, what we did was so, so wrong.  Can you ever forgive us?”

It’s never happened.

I wrote a book called Church Coup about what happened from my perspective.  I have written hundreds of blogs about the problems of pastoral abuse and termination.

The damage the terminators caused was unfathomable.  I lost my job … income … career … reputation … house … and many, many friends.

A nine-person team investigated the charges against me and concluded that “there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.”

But I was lied right out of the church.  It’s the only way “they” could get rid of me.

I was wronged … severely wronged.

But is anybody ever going to admit their part in the conflict to me?

Almost certainly not.

_______________

So would I send a letter to specific terminators, hoping they would have a “come to Jesus” moment and apologize for their actions?

Pastor Guy Greenfield tried to do just that.  In his excellent book The Wounded Minister: Healing from and Preventing Personal Attacks, Greenfield writes:

“When I was pressured to retire early in my last pastorate by the machinations of a small group of antagonists, I wrote each one a lengthy personal letter describing how I felt about what they did to me, my ministry, my marriage, my family, my health, and my future.  I tried to be honest without being harsh.  I felt they needed to know that they had hurt me deeply.  Not one of them wrote in response, called me, or came by for a visit.  Not one said he was sorry.  Therefore, I had to move on with my life, shattered though it was, and start over somewhere else.”

Greenfield made the first move toward reconciliation.  He followed Jesus’ instructions in Luke 17:3-4:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

In essence, Greenfield rebuked those who hurt him.  They didn’t repent … at least, not to him personally.  Should he then forgive them?

Yes, he should forgive them unilaterally, and he did.  He writes:

“For my own sake, I needed to forgive them even though none said he was sorry.  I tried to do that even though it took me a long time.  I wrote a note to each that I was forgiving him of his mistreatment of me, knowing it would be a process rather than something instantaneous.  I had to do it for myself.  I did not expect reconciliation, but I did need to be free of my resentment.  I did not expect sorrow or repentance from them in order to forgive them.  I made a distinct decision not to seek revenge.  There were several things I  could have done, but I chose not to do any of those vengeful acts.  I could not afford to put my future happiness in the hands of those people who made me so miserable by their abuse of me.”

Greenfield exercised unilateral forgiveness.  He “let go” of his anger, resentment, and desire for revenge.  And that’s all he could do.

Because whenever a pastor or staff member are unjustly terminated, biblical reconciliation … or bilateral forgiveness … as outlined by Jesus in Luke 17:3-4 almost never takes place.

_______________

On a rare occasion, I will hear the perspective of the “other” side … from a board member who tried to get rid of a pastor and later felt badly about it.

A friend once told me that his father was instrumental in pushing out his pastor, and that it haunted him for the rest of his life.

I suspect there are other board members and lay antagonists who later were horrified when they realized that their words or actions had destroyed their pastor.

When my father was pushed out of his last pastorate, a woman whose hurtful words had gone viral cried out in a public meeting, “I never meant for it to come to this.  I crucified the man!”

But those kinds of confessions are all too rare.

_______________

It’s amazing to me.  To become a Christian, a person must confess their sins to the Lord and request His forgiveness, which He always grants.

To remain a Christian, a person must continually confess their sins to the Lord … as 1 John 1:8-10 specifies … and again, the Lord promises He will always forgive.

But when those same professing Christians severely wound the person and position of someone God has called to serve their congregation, they stop looking at any sins they might have committed and only see the sins of their pastor/staffer.

They completely exonerate themselves and just as fully blame the person they’ve driven from office.

In the words of Jesus, they’re focused on the “specks” in their pastor’s life while ignoring the “planks” in their own lives (Matthew 7:3-5).

I have a friend who occasionally holds meetings after a pastor has been forced out.  He gathers together the leaders of the church … places an empty chair at the front of the room (signifying the presence of Jesus) … asks for a period of silence … and then lets the leaders say whatever comes to their mind.

There is often a time of confession as people finally admit to others that they did indeed play a part in getting rid of their pastor … and harming their local body as well.

Maybe, since the deed was done with others, confession can only come in concert with those same people.

_______________

I’ve long since given up hope that anyone who meant to harm me will ever admit it to me.

If they did … since I have already forgiven them unilaterally … I would joyfully forgive them on-the-spot.

But I realize it’s unlikely to happen.

In his wise book Healing for Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack, Dr. Dennis Maynard writes the following:

“Before we can reconcile with another we have to know that they are truly sorry.  We need to hear their words of repentance.  We need to know their contrition is genuine.  To reconcile with those who are not truly contrite is to excuse their offense as though it never occurred…. We are basically giving them permission to hurt us again.  We need to hear the person who hurt us take responsibility for their behavior.”

Maynard then continues:

“Those that target clergy are oblivious to the pain they cause others.  They have actually deceived themselves into believing they have done the right thing.  They are consumed with their public image.”

He then writes something both remarkable and scary:

I have not found a single case of an antagonist seeking to reconcile with the pastor they targeted for destruction.  True repentance would also include trying to undue the damage that their conspiracy of lies brought on their pastor…. Some will rationalize their acts of sin and evil as righteous and justified…. Reconciliation is simply not an option.  To do so would be to fail to hold them accountable for the pain they have caused.  We cannot reconcile with them, but for our soul’s sake we still must forgive them.”

I have a theory that the people who target an innocent pastor for termination have surrendered themselves … at least temporarily … to some sort of dark force.  You can’t be a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led individual and go after your pastor with a vengeance.  Kindly show me one place in the New Testament where God blesses that kind of behavior and I’ll eat my words.

_______________

I now live some 500 miles away from my former church.  I cannot envision ever visiting the church again for any reason, and I have vowed never to visit the city in which the church is located, either.

There is just too much pain involved.

I accept the fact that even successful ministry tenures end.  Casey Stengel won ten pennants in twelve years for the New York Yankees – including five World Championships in a row from 1949-1953 – and even he was forced out after the Yankees lost the World Series in 1960.

But to get rid of a leader, God’s people often throw away their Bibles and engage in satanic shortcuts … adopting the strategy of deception leading to destruction (John 8:44).

Since they can’t force their pastor to resign any other way, they start spreading lies about him.

Lies designed to harm his reputation.  Lies designed to cause others to call for his dismissal.  Lies designed to create pain for him and his family.

And that decision … to get rid of a leader at all costs … is guaranteed to cause the leader … his family … his supporters … and their congregation … immense heartache for many years to come.

_______________

The reason that I wrote this article is to encourage the pastors and staffers who have been forced out to:

*accept that the church of Jesus Christ handles these situations horribly … so you aren’t alone.

*accept what happened to you as being part of God’s overall plan.

*accept that you will never fully reconcile with those who caused you harm.

*accept that you can and should forgive each person who hurt you unilaterally.

*accept that God still loves you and wants the best for you.

So will those who terminated you ever repent for what they did to you?

It’s highly unlikely.

After Judas betrayed Jesus, our Savior let him go.

We need to follow His example.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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