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Archive for the ‘Conflict with the Pastor’ Category

I’m still a bit upset over something that happened to me yesterday.

Bear with me.

Several weeks ago, my wife and I vacated the house we’ve rented for the past four years and moved into a house that we bought four miles away.

Before we cleaned up the rental, I spoke on the phone with the property manager about what she expected as far as cleanliness.

A few days later, after we cleaned the house thoroughly (I’m a former custodian and my wife is a former maid), I did a walk through with that same property manager.

There were things I was concerned about that she shrugged off, telling me, “That’s the owner’s responsibility.”

Then she told me, “If you just clean these blinds (at the back of the living room), I will recommend to the owner that you receive your full deposit back.”

It took me several hours, but I cleaned those blinds as well as possible, and reported it to her in an email.

I’ve been checking the mail every day for the past week or so, but so far, that deposit check from my former owner hasn’t arrived.

Yesterday, the owner sent me an email along with a copy of a bill for $300 for a cleaning service.  The property manager wanted some areas cleaned that she never mentioned to me – areas I would have done myself – and now we’re out $300 after spending at least $800 on fixing and cleaning that property.

What bothers me most isn’t that we’re out the money.  What bothers me most is that the property manager lied to me … the second time she’s done that.

Several months ago, she called me on a Saturday morning and told me she was going to be bringing some potential renters to the house that morning.

There was only one problem: I was in Arizona and my wife was in the Bay Area.

When I told her this was the first I’d heard about it, she blurted out that I had agreed to the appointment, which wasn’t true.  (I knew we were both going to be gone ahead of time.)  I had to call the owner and report the conversation so that the property manager couldn’t accuse me of lying to them.

But I’m pretty sure I know what would have happened had I confronted the property manager about her second lie.  She would have said something like:

“I don’t remember saying that.”

“That’s not the kind of thing I would have said.”

“I can’t dictate who gets their deposit back.”

“You must have misinterpreted what I said.”

And on and on and on …

If you lie to me once, you sinned.

If you lie to me twice, you’re a liar.

You’ve established a pattern.

It’s difficult to confront liars because they usually cover their past lies with new ones.

_______________

I once worked with a church staff member who seemed to enjoy lying.

Several people came to me and said, “So-and-So lied to me.”  They were very upset and wanted me to do something about his fibs.

I tried talking to this leader to see if I could discern any untruths coming from his mouth, but he was really good at covering things up.

So I decided to take my time and see if I could catch the leader in a lie myself.

One day a few weeks later, someone who worked with this person requested a private meeting with me.  They shared information that, if true, could only result in the dismissal of this staff member.

I took two full days to investigate some of the charges the informant made … and the most serious ones turned out to be accurate.

If I brought verbal charges to this staffer, I knew what what happen: he would just deny … or explain away … the charges … just like he did with everything else.

I needed air-tight evidence that he had lied before I could confront him.

Fortunately, I was able to get that evidence in the form of an email from a key person in a Christian organization.

I called the staffer into my office … asked him some questions … asked him if he stood by his answers … and then handed him the email contradicting what he had just told me.

He lied twice to my face … and it was tragic watching him try and explain away his falsehoods.

He left the church soon afterward.

One family in particular drew close to this staff member, and when he left, I suspected they were upset with me.

And sure enough, a few years later, they were in on the attack to force me to leave.

I can only imagine the lies he told about me on his way out the door.

_______________

When a church conflict becomes a contest, some churchgoers start lying.

On occasion, a pastor will float a lie or two about his enemies, but most of the time, people lie about the pastor instead.

In fact, when some people want to force out their pastor, they will lie about him indiscriminately as a way of getting others to join their cause.

And by the time the pastor finds out that people are lying about him, critical mass has been reached, and so many people believe the lies that the pastor has to resign.

This is what happened in my case seven-and-a-half years ago.  There were so many lies going around about me that (a) I didn’t know where they came from, (b) I didn’t know what was being said, and (c) I didn’t know how to counter the lies.

In a very real sense, I was lied right out of the church.

Because Jesus didn’t do anything wrong, the only way His enemies could destroy Him was to lie about Him.

And because many pastors try and lead godly lives, the only way their enemies can destroy them is to lie about them.

*The lies must sound plausible or people will quickly discount them.

*The lies must be plentiful in case the pastor is able to debunk one or two of them successfully.

*The lies originate from those who hate the pastor and want revenge against him … otherwise they would sit down with the pastor in love and speak to him directly.

*The lies leak out from unlikely sources at inopportune times.

*The lies multiply once the pastor leaves the church to prevent any future influence he might have.

Several months after we left our last church, my wife and I went to lunch with a woman who had been very kind to us.

She told me that rumors were swirling around that I had had an affair and that my wife had had an affair as well.

At first, my wife and I both laughed.  She’s the only woman I’ve ever kissed, and I’m the only man she’s ever kissed.

Besides that, my wife worked on the staff with me, and we drove to and from work together in the same car … the only car we had.

And we worked right across the hall from each other.

So we both knew the affair talk was balderdash … but evidently there were some who believed it … and others who were perpetuating it.

This information greatly saddened me, but it was also an indication that Satan – “a liar and the father of lies” – had established a firm foothold in that congregation.

_______________

When I found out that the property manager had lied to me, I wrote my former owner and told her what the property manager had originally told me.

It didn’t help.

As a former renter, I represented the past.  As their property manager who brought them income, she represented the present and future.

Guess who they were going to believe?

People lie because it works.  And when they’re caught, they’re often able to lie their way out of trouble.

I accept the fact that there are liars inside local churches today.

But I pray they aren’t on church staffs … or on church boards … or in church pulpits … or any other places of influence … because lies destroy people, families, and congregations.

I once knew an associate pastor who worked for a pastor I knew quite well.

This staff member wanted to get rid of someone in the church he didn’t like … so he lied about him.

When the pastor found out that his associate had lied, he called him into his office … verified all the facts … and then told the associate, “You know what to do.”

The associate instantly resigned.

That’s how we used to handle church leaders who lied.

How should we handle them today?

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I was given a letter this week from a parent whose child attends a local elementary school.

In just seven lines, the letter states that the school’s rookie principal “has decided to pursue a professional growth opportunity outside our district and will not be returning to [the school] for the remainder of the year.  We wish him well in his new endeavor.”

Without meaning to do so, the above paragraph speaks volumes … and provides insights into how the departure of a pastor might be handled as well.

The first thing that strikes me is that the principal left at least four weeks before the last day of school, which is June 9.  What does this tell us?

It tells us that either he wanted out – badly – or that he was pressured to leave by a person or group inside/outside the school.

My guess is the latter.

Maybe he didn’t receive high marks from the school’s teachers … or district administrators … in his latest job performance review.

Maybe he didn’t do something he was asked to do … or he did something he wasn’t supposed to do.

Maybe he just wasn’t cut out to work with kids, parents, teachers, or bureaucrats.

Or maybe he did something very, very wrong.

Did the school district pay the principal not to work for the last four weeks of the school year?

I don’t know.

But leaving before the school year concludes?

Teachers don’t do that.  Students don’t do that.  And principals don’t do that, either.

Most pastors don’t have long-term contracts, meaning they’re on a perpetual one-day contract instead.

But there are times during the year when a pastor’s tenure is up for review, especially during budget time.

If the pastor’s salary is cut, that sends a message.  If he doesn’t receive even a cost-of-living raise, that sends a message.

In churchland, maybe an apt comparison would be a pastor who resigns right before Easter or Christmas.  Since most pastors enjoy those times of year, the pastor who leaves before a major Christian holiday was probably pushed out the door.

I know what I’m talking about.  I resigned my position as pastor in my last church two weeks before Christmas … but I’d much rather have waited until after Christmas.

Makes for a tough holiday.

The second thing that strikes me is that the principal will be working “outside our district” in the future.  What does this tell us?

It tells us that either he didn’t want to work in the district anymore, or that he wasn’t offered the chance to transfer to another school inside the district.

If he chose to move out of the area for some reason, wouldn’t it have been prudent to mention that as the reason for his departure?  Announcing that a leader is moving away often covers a multitude of sins.

So my sense is that the principal didn’t want to work in the district … or that the district didn’t want him working for them.

Maybe there’s a similarity between a pastor who serves in a church that’s in a particular denomination.

A recurring theme that I hear from pastors who were forced out of their positions is that either their district minister didn’t help them when they were in trouble or that their DM was applauding their ouster.

In my case, I chose to leave the district and the denomination for good.  I discovered years before that denominations are political organizations – far more than spiritual entities – and that when a pastor needs help, the last place he should go is to anyone inside the denomination.

In fact, since leaving my last ministry seven-and-a-half years ago, I don’t think I’ve visited even one church connected with that denomination.

This is a common response that pastors have toward leaders who could have helped, but chose their own self-preservation instead.

Maybe it’s why the majority of terminated pastors jump denominations when they’re looking for another position.

The third thing that strikes me is that the personnel director chose to announce the principal’s departure in a letter.

And the letter wasn’t mailed to parents … it went home with their children.

That’s like sending home a letter about a pastor’s resignation with children who attend Sunday School.

I’m not sure how this kind of thing is normally handled in the public school system.

Should a letter have been sent to parents’ homes?

That would take a lot of time, effort, and finances.

Should an announcement have been made to parents at a school assembly?

That would dampen the mood, wouldn’t it?

Should the school have sent an email to all the parents instead?

Maybe they did.

There isn’t a perfect way to announce the departure of any leader … especially a pastor.

Normally, a pastor’s resignation is announced from the pulpit when the congregation is gathered together.

If the pastor is leaving on good terms, he may read that letter himself.

If the pastor is being pushed out, he’s usually not permitted to interact with the church anymore, so someone else – often the board chairman – announces the pastor’s departure the following Sunday.

When I left a church in the late 1990s, I read my own letter.  I wanted everyone to hear the news (a) at the same time, (b) from me personally, and (c) to hear how emotional it was for me to leave.

The principal may have read his letter to teachers or the PTA, I don’t know.

But as a pastor, I would want everyone in the church to receive a copy of my letter to avoid misinterpretation.

That means I’d either arrange to have a copy of my resignation sent to every home in the church – either through snail mail or email – or I’d have it posted on the church website for a brief period of time.

I’d want people to hear why I left – and the tone of my letter – from me directly, not from those who didn’t like me or might distort what I really said.

To me, the optimal way to handle a resignation is for the pastor to:

*write a positive letter

*read it to the church board

*read it to the congregation

*hang around to answer questions, if the board permits

*distribute that letter as widely as possible

That’s the healthy way, isn’t it?

But there’s one thing left …

The last thing that strikes me is that the school’s letter does not mention who to contact if the parents have any questions or concerns.

The address, phone number, and fax number of the school are at the top of the letter, and the personnel director signed her name.

In addition, the parents are told that “[So-and-So] will be on staff five days a week to serve students and staff” and that “[So-and-So] will be at [the school] three days a week to provide support.”

But if a parent is unhappy with the principal’s quick exit, or wants to know more, who are they supposed to contact?

By not explicitly saying anything, the veiled message is, “This situation is history.  Forget about it and move on.”

Having seen the principal interacting with students – and having interacted with him myself on several occasions – my sense was that the job was a bit too big for him.  Just an impression.

In other words, because the principal wasn’t wildly popular, or didn’t have a lot of meaningful relationships, or didn’t have any notable achievements, most parents likely will accept his departure rather than protest it.

They won’t care why he left … just that he left.

How different a school is from a church!

In a church, the person announcing a pastor’s resignation – usually the board chairman – better be ready for a deluge of questions mixed with anger.

Students rarely attend a particular public school because of the principal.

But most people do attend a specific local church because of the pastor!

And when that pastor leaves – voluntarily or otherwise – many people are going to be upset and want to know more about his exodus.

If the church board says little or nothing, some people will assume that the board pushed out the pastor and is covering their tracks.

If the church board tells the congregation everything, they’ll stir up emotions that can cripple their church for months … or years.

So I believe strongly that whenever a pastor leaves a church, the board needs to say as much as they can rather than as little as they can.

This helps the congregation transfer their trust from their ex-pastor to the present board.

But if the board says little or nothing, they will lose the trust of key leaders and opinion makers, who will either leave the church or turn on the board.

There may be some short-term pain involved by providing more context … and some people may leave the church … but it’s better to be up front than to have the truth leak out later … which it surely will … when it’s much harder to control matters.

The board also needs to tell the congregation, “If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us directly.”  Then the board needs to give the congregation their email addresses … and individual board members need to answer every email they receive as soon as possible.

If I wanted to, I could ask some parents I know to find out the real reason why the principal left.  With a little snooping around, I could probably uncover the truth.

But I’m on the fringe.  I don’t have any kids or grandkids in that school.

People on the fringe of a church usually don’t care much why a pastor left … but the closer a person is to the inner circle, the more they feel they deserve to know the truth.

And with pastoral abuse and bullying – as well as forced terminations – on the rise, many churchgoers will assume the board was at fault if they don’t tell the church enough.

I once read that the best person in the secular world to compare to a local church pastor is a public school principal.

In fact, it’s a rule-of-thumb that the salary of a school principal can be used as a gauge for the amount a pastor should be paid in a community.

Maybe a school bureaucrat can get away with sending home a letter about the principal’s departure.

But a church board can’t try the same tactic without generating a gigantic train wreck.

The more that’s said … and the more honestly it’s said … the better it is for everyone.

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Pastor Henry felt all alone.

Along with his wife and two sons, Henry had just received an invitation to become the next pastor of Grace Church, a thousand miles from his last ministry.

Henry and his wife Mary surveyed the congregation when they initially visited the church but couldn’t seem to find anyone they might want as personal friends.

But one morning during his first week, Henry received a call from Bret, a longtime member who told Henry he’d come by the church at 11:30 to take his new pastor out to lunch.

Exhausted from the move, Henry was glad that someone was taking the initiative to get to know him.

Bret took Henry to an expensive restaurant, telling his pastor all about the community, the church … and the previous pastor.

In fact, Bret told Henry a lot about the previous pastor.  Pastor Mark was a good preacher who led the church through a time of unparalleled growth.  This information made Henry feel insecure.  How could he hope to compare favorably with a predecessor he didn’t know and might never meet?

But Bret didn’t just recite the previous pastor’s virtues.  Bret also slammed Pastor Mark’s leadership in many aspects of ministry, and told Henry that Mark was pushed out of office due to his shortcomings.

Henry felt better as he realized that Pastor Mark wasn’t perfect, but had his own issues.

And then Bret told Henry, “You know, I’m so glad you’re here.  You’re just what this church needs at this time.  And whatever you need, I’ll be glad to help.”

As Bret drove Henry back to the church, the new pastor felt a bond developing with his new friend.  “Finally, somebody believes in me” he thought.

Over the next several months, Bret and his wife Hope invited Henry and Mary to their home for dinner.  The two couples quickly hit it off and became best friends.  They went to movies together, ate in each other’s homes, and saw each other nearly every week.

Six months later, when it came time to suggest names for elders, Henry recommended that Bret be considered.  The others on the nominating team remained strangely silent, not saying yes or no.  Henry backed off.  Two others were selected instead.

For the next several years, the two families got along famously … and everybody at church knew it.

One Tuesday night, Hope called Henry and asked him to come over right away.  When Henry arrived, he found Bret in a foul mood.  According to Hope, Bret had been drinking and had verbally and physically abused his wife.

Henry did not like what he was hearing.

An hour before the next meeting of the official board, Henry met with Jeff, the board chairman, and asked Jeff what he knew about Bret and Hope.

Jeff was reluctant to say anything.  After all, everybody knew that the two families were tight.

But Henry insisted, and Jeff finally said, “Bret has a drinking problem, and he refuses to get help for it.  Bret wants to be on the church board, but we can’t let him because, in Paul’s words, he is ‘given to drunkenness,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘quarrelsome.'”

Henry suddenly felt very foolish.

Jeff went on, “Pastor, I don’t know how to say this right, but your relationship with Bret and Hope is causing some people in this church to question your judgment.”

After the board meeting, Henry went home and told Mary what Jeff had said.  Mary and Hope had become very close, but Hope had never shared with Mary anything about Bret’s drinking … or any other weaknesses they had.

Several weeks after visiting Bret’s house, Henry started noticing that Bret and Hope were no longer attending services.  Henry thought about contacting Bret, but he knew such a conversation would drain him of much-needed energy to run the church.

A couple months later, chairman Jeff called Henry and told him that a campaign was underway to remove Henry from office.  When Henry asked Jeff who was behind the campaign, he was told, “Bret and his wife Hope.”

Henry’s heart sank.

As a longtime member, Bret had developed friendships with many people in the church over the years, and he had a good idea who he could influence to join his “throw out the pastor” team.

Henry decided to ask Jeff a question that he had never asked before: “When Pastor Mark was forced to leave this church, who was most responsible for his departure?”

Without hesitation, Jeff answered, “Bret and Hope.”

_______________

Insecure pastors … and there are thousands of them around … often compare themselves to other pastors … especially their predecessors.

A wise pastor quietly gets to know the previous pastor so he can (a) form his own opinions about his personality and ministry; (b) learn about that pastor’s influence and tenure firsthand; and (c) tap into that pastor’s wisdom concerning key junctures in that church’s past.

A foolish pastor rejoices when the previous pastor is denigrated, thinking it makes him look good by comparison.

But the same person who criticizes the previous pastor will eventually criticize the current one.

And the same person who supported the previous pastor will eventually support the current one as well.

Many years ago, I learned the wisdom of Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

Pastors need to choose their church friends carefully, or the friends they latch onto early in their ministry make turn to bite them later on.

_______________

I once met a man (I’ll call him Peter) who had served as the senior pastor of a church I had known my entire life.  That church’s first pastor lived two houses down from my house, and I went to school … and later church … with his children.

My uncle, aunt, and cousins had attended that church as well.

Years later, I made many friends in that church.

And eventually, I was called to be on their staff.

While Peter and I were talking, I shared with him some conflicts that occurred during my time in that church … conflicts that became so embedded in that church’s culture that they later affected Peter’s ministry.

I could tell that Peter had an enlightened understanding of what happened to him in that church.

Why don’t more new pastors contact their predecessors and gain that wisdom and understanding up front?

Could it be because of people like Bret and Hope?

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When a pastor or staff member leaves a church under duress, they usually discover – weeks or months later – that most churchgoers from their former congregation seem to have forgotten that the leader ever existed.

More than 90% of the congregation never contacts the leader again – not via phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, or any other means of communication.

The leader is left wondering, “What happened to all my friends and colleagues?  Why aren’t they reaching out to see how I’m doing?  Did I mean so little to them?”

I felt this way when I left my last position as senior pastor 7 1/2 years ago.  Thankfully, there were a few churchgoers who kept in contact with me, but I never heard from most of them again.

After devoting myself completely to that church for more than a decade, it hurt to think that so many people – whom I considered good friends – would abandon me so quickly.

But maybe there are good reasons why God’s people don’t contact their former leaders again.

Here are seven possibilities:

First, most of us gradually forget about people – even friends – that we no longer see.

Mrs. Coleman was the first great teacher I ever had.  She taught me in third grade.  After that year, I never saw her again.

Darryl was my youth pastor in my late teens.  He helped me love and know Scripture.  He moved to Colorado, then to Texas.  I haven’t seen him in 40 years.

My father-in-law mentored me in church ministry for decades.  I last saw him five years ago.

I know a handful of people who seem to stay in contact with everyone they’ve ever known, but most of us aren’t that way.  People come and go in our lives.

That’s just the way life is.

I’m appreciative of the influence that Mrs. Coleman, Darryl, and my father-in-law had in my life.  I think of them fondly.  But since we are no longer in proximity to one another, we’ve all moved on.  (And I think Mrs. Coleman died a long time ago.)

It’s just something we have to accept.

Second, many Christians are used to pastors/staffers coming and going.

The longer a person has attended church, the more transitions they’ve witnessed.

Before I entered my teens, my family attended a church where the senior pastor resigned … the Christian Education director was fired … and the next pastor was forced to resign prematurely.

At the next church I attended, the founding pastor resigned … the youth pastor left … an interim pastor came and went … another youth pastor left … the church called a new pastor … another youth pastor left (me) … an associate was hired … and then he resigned.

If you’re a veteran Christian, you might get worked up about one or two of those departures, but if you make a federal case about each one, you’ll die of a heart attack.

In baseball, there’s an adage that managers are hired to be fired.  Many baseball fans express outrage after a well-loved manager is released, but their anger soon dies down, and fans come to accept things as they are.

The same thing happens in Christian circles.

And after a while, each succeeding departure is just par for the course.

Third, many Christians relate to paid church leaders as short-term friends.

I learned this one the hard way.

At my last church, I became friends with a man roughly my age.  He had been a professional athlete with one of my favorite teams.  We went to several ballgames together and had a great time.

Every Sunday, he’d give me a big smile and come over and shake my hand during the greeting time.  After I preached, he’d hang around and let me know I hit a home run.

Before I moved away, I went to visit him one last time at home.  Several nights later, he sent me an encouraging text.

Two years later, I contacted him, told him I was going to be in the area, and asked him out to breakfast.

It turned out to be one of the most awkward hours of my entire life.

He never asked me one time how I was doing.  Instead, he talked all about his family and the church’s new pastor.  (Shortly afterward, my friend and his family left the church.)

I thought our friendship would last for years, but in the intervening months, it had gradually died.

While it hurt me at the time, looking back, I didn’t nurture that friendship because I didn’t want to hear how the church was doing without me.

I’ve learned that while pastors and staffers view some churchgoers as friends, those same people probably view their leaders not as lasting friends, but as short-termers.

Fourth, some Christians no longer feel responsible for a pastor/staffer who has left.

Their attitude is, “As long as Pastor Joe or Youth Pastor Steve is paid by this church, I am duty bound to support them, pray for them, encourage them, and befriend them.  But if they take off, they are no longer our responsibility.  Now it’s up to their new church or their new boss to watch over them.”

When you’ve given so much of yourself to a congregation, this attitude can seem a little cynical.  But in the long run, it’s probably healthy.

For example, over the course of my 36-year ministry career, I probably had 25 or so staff members serve under my leadership.  Although we were on good terms when we parted, in most cases, I’ve lost contact with them … and they’ve lost contact with me.

When Judas left the Twelve, Jesus still loved Him … He just didn’t feel responsible for him anymore.  I am not comparing departing pastors/staffers to Judas the turncoat, but I am comparing Jesus – the Ultimate Caregiver – to many churchgoers today.

Once a church leader has resigned, the majority of Christians won’t initiate contact anymore.

Fifth, some Christians have bought into negative rumors about the departing leader.

I think it’s despicable to spread half-truths and malicious gossip about a former pastor/staffer after they’ve left a church, but it’s done all the time.

The template goes like this:

“I wonder why So-and-So really resigned?”

“Well, I’ve heard that they mismanaged funds … were having an affair … could no longer recruit volunteers … lost the confidence of the church board … upset other staff members … weren’t working very hard …”

And the list goes on and on.

Here’s the problem: if you think that a former pastor/staffer really did mismanage funds or have an affair, are you going to reach out to them or write them off?

You’re probably going to write them off as some kind of defective Christian leader.

I don’t think I’ve told this story before, but several years after I left my last ministry, I was talking with a friend who had left the church (on good terms) before I did.

Eight months after my departure, this friend flew to the new area where my wife and I lived and spent a few days with us.  This friend posted some photos on Facebook of us together … and was instantly unfriended by more than 40 people from our former church.

Why did that happen?  Maybe it has to do with the next possibility:

Sixth, some church leaders either spread negative rumors or fail to correct them.

Imagine that you’re an average interim pastor.  Your ministry as a pastor was never all that successful, but you’ve been called to a church where the previous pastor’s ministry was very effective.

You ask around, “Why did the previous pastor leave?”

If you’re a secure individual, you’ll try and hear all sides.

If you’re insecure – or feel inferior to the previous pastor in some way – you may covertly rejoice in anything negative you hear.

So when people come to the interim and ask, “Do you know why the previous pastor left?”, the insecure interim will respond, “I’ve heard that …”

And after the interim leaves, the next pastor may do the same.

In addition, as rumors circulate among the saints as to why the previous pastor left, even if the interim knows the truth, he will often do nothing to correct them.

Why not?

Because he wants the congregation to forget about the previous pastor altogether so he can look good by comparison.  He wants to loosen the bonds between the previous pastor and the people so he can influence them instead.

Does this stuff really happen in supposedly godly local churches?

Yes … all the time.

And sadly, since this information comes from a “man of God,” many people believe whatever he says … hook, line, and sinker.

Finally, some churchgoers feel rejected when their pastor or a staffer leaves.

When a pastor/staffer leaves a church, some people assume that the leader left of their own free will.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

My guess is that many churchgoers … especially new believers and those on the fringe … don’t know how churches operate, so when they hear that a leader has departed, they assume that the leader wanted to leave … and this makes them feel abandoned at some level.

Although I sensed that I needed to leave my last ministry, I was told that I could have stayed.  Since I chose to leave, is it possible that some churchgoers felt that I had abandoned them?

Of course.

A few years ago, I had breakfast with the president of a seminary overseas and he told me, “We Christians don’t handle transitions very well.  We need to do a better job.”

What’s hard for many of us is that when a church hires us, they act very Christian.  But when they let us go, they almost seem satanic.

I long for the day when God’s people act like Christians whether they’re hiring or firing leaders.

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Many years ago, I attended a Taylor-Johnson Temperamental Analysis seminar with Christian author, counselor, and professor H. Norman Wright.

Wright, who taught at Talbot where I went to seminary, shared great insights into human behavior during that seminar … and I’ve never forgotten them.

The Taylor-Johnson test indicates how an individual scores regarding nine personality traits.

When my wife and I had premarital counseling, for example, our counselor pointed out that while Kim scored high in social interaction, I scored low … meaning that she might want to attend social events that I’d prefer to skip.  (And that conclusion has proven correct over nearly 42 years of marriage.)

The test also measures traits like lighthearted/depressive, dominant/submissive, and self-disciplined/impulsive.

But Norm Wright told seminar participants that out of all the traits, the most important one was called objective/subjective.

The objective/subjective trait measures how a person interprets life events.  Do they see what’s happening around them accurately or inaccurately?

It’s my considered opinion that when it comes to church conflict … especially conflicts that involve the lead pastor … that several key individuals … on the official board, on the staff, or in a faction … grossly misinterpret the pastor’s behaviors and motives.

Let me give you an example.

In my second pastorate, I found an old box of hymnals in a back room of the church gymnasium.  They weren’t the current hymnals we were using, nor the previous generation of hymnbooks, but the generation before that.

Nobody wanted them … not even the local rescue mission.

I thought to myself, “I’m going to make a unilateral decision and toss these hymnbooks.”  So I threw them in the church dumpster and buried them deep.

But the following Saturday, at a workday, my all-time greatest antagonist somehow found those hymnbooks.  (I should have thrown them out at home.)

His conclusion?

I wasn’t throwing out old hymnbooks … I was throwing out the old hymns!

And that’s what he started spreading around the church … which angered some of the seniors, who loved those old hymns.  (I do, too.)

Whenever a pastor is accused of wrongdoing but is innocent of the charges, there are usually several people who misinterpret what the pastor said or did.

And based on their faulty thinking, they conclude that the pastor has to go.

But the truth is that such people think emotionally rather than logically.  They substitute feelings for facts, are driven by fear and anxiety, and read their own past traumas into the current situation.

Let me share with you some scenarios where a pastor’s actions or words can be misinterpreted by his opponents:

*Sometimes a pastor makes a statement during a sermon … his opponents interpret that statement in the worst possible light … and before night falls, that misinterpretation has spread to many others.

*Sometimes a pastor announces a change that’s going to be implemented at the church … his opponents hear the opposite of what he intended … and resistance begins to form.

*Sometimes a pastor’s car isn’t in its usual spot at church … his opponents conclude that he’s not working … and the charge begins to circulate that he’s lazy.

*Sometimes a pastor buys a new car or takes a nice vacation … his opponents conclude that he’s making too much money … and before long, he’s charged with being materialistic rather than spiritual.

*Sometimes a pastor is seen talking with the same woman on several occasions … his opponents begin to gossip … and before long, they’re insinuating that he’s having an affair.

This is why every church needs several people on the board and staff who are both fair-minded and, in the words of Jesus, “Judge with righteous judgment.”

Let me offer several ways a pastor can combat these highly subjective people:

*Keep them out of leadership … and watch how prospective leaders handle themselves when they hear bad news.

*Ask several believers with good judgment to report to the pastor any baseless charges that are going around the congregation.

*Keep the board chairman and key staffers informed of any false accusations that may be floating around.

*Devise a biblical process for handling charges against the pastor … have the board approve the process … and have the pastor preach on that process initially and refer to it periodically.

*When the pastor is under attack, he needs to vow that he will not resign unless a biblical process is used to test the charges against him.

I have discovered in my own life and ministry that when it comes to others, I’m very objective and demonstrate good judgment.

But when it comes to the way I view myself, I can plunge into subjectivity rather quickly.

Because pastors can become highly subjective at times … especially when they’re under attack … they need to surround themselves with objective leaders.

Especially when they decide to throw out the old hymnbooks.

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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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I ran into a little incident outside my bank yesterday that illustrates why some Christians create conflict in their churches.

My wife and I are buying a house, and while it’s a joyful time in some respects, it’s also very stressful.

Suddenly, we have to meet other people’s deadlines: producing bank statements … scanning documents … signing disclosures … scheduling an inspection … paying for an assessment … and figuring out how to turn brown dirt in the front and back yards into something attractive yet low-maintenance.

Yesterday, after several days of waiting, I finally received the go-ahead I needed to complete a financial transaction involving the house.  I promised someone I would send her the money by a certain time in the late afternoon, and I drove to the bank to finish the task with a few minutes to spare.

Only when I got to the bank, the teller … whom I have never met … told me in a “you’re stupid” tone that the deadline for completing the transaction had passed several hours before, and that I would have to come back this morning instead.

I felt the stress level rise quickly inside me.

As calmly as I could, I went to my car … called the woman who expected the funds … apologized to her for not sending them … backed up slowly … and began driving out of the parking lot.

As you leave the bank, there’s a lane on the right just past the building where cars can appear out of nowhere.  I always approach that small intersection cautiously.

And it’s a good thing I did, because a lady (I use that term loosely) came flying around the corner and nearly hit my car.

I froze … and then got out of my vehicle.

The driver pulled into a space in front of the bank, saw me, pointed right at me, and yelled, “MOVE ON!”

I loudly said, “You almost hit me!”

Then she used a creative combination of vulgar terms and yelled again, “MOVE ON!”

I wanted to move on, but I had to make my point, and I was so upset that the words weren’t coming.

Finally, I blurted out, “When you’re driving through a parking lot, SLOW DOWN!”

She used the creative combination again, and then threatened to call the police on me.  I told her, “Go ahead.  I’ll tell them what a bad driver you are.”

I got back in my car and drove away, not feeling real good about the encounter I had just experienced.

As I drove toward home, I thought to myself, “That person (she wasn’t a lady) was driving recklessly, and she’s probably had similar near-misses before … and she’s trained herself to act like a bully when she violates other people’s rights.”

Okay, that bit of psychoanalysis made me feel a tiny bit better.

But then I reflected on my own behavior, and I asked myself, “Why did I feel it necessary to confront that bully in the parking lot?  Why didn’t I just move on?”

Most of the time, I do.  In fact, I’ve trained myself to let most things go on the road.  It’s just not worth it.

But I know why I did it: right now, I am on emotional overload … my stress level is super high … and I lack a measure of self-control.

Now let’s think about some Christians in your church.

Let’s take Frank.  Frank is in his mid-60s.  In the past four months, he has undergone the following experiences:

*He’s been outsized at work and realizes his career is probably over.

*His work problems drove up his blood pressure so he’s now taking medication for that … and the medication has some strong side effects.

*Frank’s wife has recently been having memory problems, and Frank is worried that she might have … you know.

*One of Frank’s daughters recently separated from her husband, and she’s been coming over a lot more … sometimes staying the night.

So when Frank comes to church on Sunday mornings, he longs for an encounter with God.  He comes with a spirit in turmoil.  He hopes to depart with a spirit of peace.

But what happens instead?

*The music is pounding and seems louder than ever before.

*The announcements drag on and on … and several events are coming that Frank would like to attend, but he doesn’t have the money.

*The pastor’s message contains references to current movies that Frank would never see because he believes they’re immoral … but the pastor seems to love them.

*After the service, Frank hears that two of his best friends have left the church because they don’t like the music or the pastor’s preaching.

And Frank suddenly feels very much alone … in his own congregation.

Frank came to church highly anxious, hoping that God and His people would calm him down … but just the opposite happened.

And right now, Frank can’t handle his emotions.  He needs to talk to somebody about how he’s feeling.

He’d like to talk with the pastor, but he hasn’t been there long.  Frank doesn’t know him very well, and he’s afraid he’ll blow his top and end up a sermon illustration someday.

He’d like to express his displeasure to the music director, but doesn’t think it would do any good.

He’d like to talk to his wife, but she’s struggling to remember anybody’s names right now.

So when Frank gets home from church, he calls his friends who just left the church.

His friends rattle off a list of complaints … mainly about the pastor … and then Frank shares his grievances with them.

And before anyone knows it, a campaign to force out the pastor has begun.

Because this is where division begins in a church: when people begin to pool their complaints with one another rather than speaking directly with the person they’re upset with.

I’ve never tried to get rid of a pastor before, and I wouldn’t want to be a part of any campaign that had that as its goal.  I’d leave the church before I tried to push anyone out.

Yes, like the woman in the bank parking lot, some professing Christians are bullies.  They want to run the church their way … or else … and they will use threats and demands (they work well in churches that pride themselves on how loving they are) to intimidate the pastor.

But many churchgoers who end up causing trouble aren’t bullies … or even immature believers … but are ordinary believers who have been undergoing extraordinary stress in their lives.

They bring that stress with them to church, and if something at church adds to their anxiety, they start complaining … usually the first indicator that conflict is about to erupt.

Rather than dealing directly with their behavior, the pastor and/or key leaders might ask such people about their personal, family, and work lives instead:

*How is your husband or wife doing right now?

*How are your children doing?

*How are things at work?  How does that affect your career?

*How are you doing spiritually right now?  Emotionally?  Financially?

*How can we pray for you specifically?

*How can our church family assist you right now?

Many believers who end up creating havoc come to church highly stressed … become even more anxious when church doesn’t alleviate their anxiety … and finally decide to eliminate the source of their “church anxiety” … their pastor.

I don’t excuse it.

I do understand it.

And maybe … just maybe … understanding such anxiety can help church leaders address the concerns of “the anxious among them” in a more caring and compassionate manner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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