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Archive for the ‘Forgiveness and Reconciliation among Christians’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts about what I’ve written?

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While reading the Christmas story again last week, I was struck by a phrase in Matthew 1:19.  After Mary was discovered to be pregnant – presumably with another man’s child – Joseph her fiancee had several choices to make.

Because he was “a righteous man” – a man who thoroughly kept the Mosaic law – he intended to break off their betrothal because she had been sexually unfaithful to him.  According to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Joseph had every right to not only “divorce” Mary but also to insist that she be stoned in order to “purge the evil from Israel.”  Scripture seems to indicate that most men in Joseph’s situation would have had Mary executed.

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was guided by a different spirit.  The ex-taxman writes that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” so he decided to “divorce her quietly.”

He did not want to expose her to public disgrace.  How unlike our culture.  How unlike our media.  And sadly, how unlike Christ’s church.

I’ve been reading Gayle Haggard’s book Why I Stayed recentlyAs you may recall, Ted Haggard was the pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs – a mega church of 14,000 – as well as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.  Some unflattering news surfaced about him a few years ago, and Pastor Haggard resigned from both his positions.  Many women – even Christian women – would have left Mr. Haggard at that point, and would have been biblically justified in doing so.  But Gayle chose to stick it out with her husband, thus the title of the book.

The story of her relationship with Ted makes for fascinating reading, but I was far more interested in the latter half of the book.  Gayle describes the way that prominent Christian leaders, the church’s governing board, and their friends treated them during this time, and although she maintains a gracious, non-vindictive spirit throughout, the same cannot be said for the believers involved.

The Haggards – including Gayle, who was innocent of wrongdoing – were treated in a humiliating way by the church they founded in the basement of their home.  Within a week of their departure, all traces of their ministry at the church had been purged.  People who knew them were interviewed so as to find more “dirt” on them.  Both believers and non-believers were able to say anything about them they liked but the Haggards were not permitted to reply.  They were even told they had to leave the state of Colorado which meant that their children had to leave behind their friends and schooling.

No matter what they did, it was eventually misinterpreted.  No matter what they said, it was flagrantly disregarded.

Pastors are fond of preaching on the fact that God can use anyone, even a liar like Abraham, a murderer like Moses, an adulterer like David, and a hothead like Peter.  But let that same pastor fall into sin and he will be tarred, feathered, and blogged about ad infinitum, often by people who are his own teammates.

Phil Keaggy, who has long been my favorite Christian male artist, co-wrote a song with Sheila Walsh called “It Could’ve Been Me.”  The song always makes me think and can bring me to tears.  (The song is found on the CD Way Back Home and is available on iTunes if you’re interested.)  After describing the fall of a Christian leader, Keaggy’s powerful chorus nails each one of us to the wall:

But it could’ve been me,

I could’ve been the one to lose my grip and fall.

It could’ve been me

The one who’s always standing tall.

For unless you hold me tightly, Lord,

And I can hold on too,

Then tomorrow in the news

It could be me, it could be me.

Just four chapters after Matthew 1, the grown-up Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  When Mary “fell” – which is what Joseph thought until the angel enlightened him – Joseph chose mercy over vindictiveness.  Mary’s pregnancy undoubtedly caused her to lose her local reputation as a virtuous woman.  It might even have ended her chances of ever marrying anyone.

But although we now know the back story, neither Joseph nor the folks in Nazareth did at the time.  A modern love story would probably tell us that Joseph married Mary anyway, but as a keeper of the law, he couldn’t bring himself to do that … until God told Joseph that Mary was not only his soul mate but also the mother of the promised Messiah.

When pastors are forcibly terminated from their churches, they suffer many losses: their jobs, their income, their houses (in some cases), their careers (potentially), their marriages (sometimes) and most of their church friends.  And though they’re almost always innocent, their family members suffer those same losses.

But just like Mary and Ted Haggard, they also lose their reputations, whether the charges made against them are valid or not.

I find it ironic that pastors, who are conduits of God’s grace to scores of sinners throughout their ministries, cannot find that same grace when someone accuses them of wrongdoing.

May I urge you, not only at this Christmas season, but in every season of life, to be gracious toward every sinner who comes into your life, whether it’s a woman pregnant out of wedlock or a pastor who has been forced to leave his church because our Lord Jesus Christ suffered public disgrace that we might become recipients of His grace.

That’s why II Corinthians 8:9 is my favorite Christmas verse: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

May God give us the ability to treat wounded Christian leaders with the same grace that Christ has shown us … because only grace can lead us home.

Merry Christmas!

_______________

I wrote this article six years ago.  It was among the first ones that I published.  It’s still relevant today.

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A friend sent me an article yesterday about a well-known megachurch pastor (although he’s not someone I’m familiar with) who was removed from office by the governing board of his church for “ongoing sinful behavior” over “the past few years.”

Here’s the article:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/april/darrin-patrick-removed-acts-29-megachurch-journey.html

When I read the article, I was impressed by the way the board handled the situation.

In my experience, whenever a pastor is terminated or forced to resign, the board often handles matters poorly.  The board identifies the pastor as their enemy, exaggerates any charges against him, and either fires him outright or forces him to quit.

But the board mentioned in this article, in my view, seemed to do everything in a biblical and healthy manner.

Let me highlight five things that this board did right:

First, the board spoke with their pastor directly about their concerns.

Don’t all boards do this?

No, they don’t.

Too many times, church boards never tell their pastor what they’re seeing or hearing in his life or ministry that bothers them.  They remain silent, hold a secret meeting without the pastor present, detail all his faults, conclude he has to go, and assign someone to tell him he’s fired … or agree to tell him together at the next board meeting.

Individual board members might tell their spouses how they feel about their pastor … or they might tell certain friends in the church … but they never approach their pastor personally.

But thankfully, this board shared their concerns directly with their pastor from the very beginning, so that when he left, he didn’t feel that the board conspired behind his back or fired him via ambush.

One pastor told me he was fired in an email … without any kind of warning.  Another pastor was fired via certified letter.  Other pastors I know have been told they’re fired right after a Sunday service … again, without ever being told that anything was wrong.

Such tactics speak volumes about the lack of maturity on the board.

Second, the board told the pastor that their goal was his restoration. 

Much of the time, this is the key … but missing … element whenever a church board tries to correct their pastor’s behavior.

Think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15:

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

According to Jesus, what is the goal when a fellow believer sins against you?

The overarching goal is to win your brother over … to get him to listen to your concerns, repent of his wrongdoing, and change his behavior.

The goal is not to remove the pastor from office or from the fellowship.  That’s the last step in the process (verse 17), not the first step.

I’ve discovered that when a board begins with the end result … “We need to remove our pastor from office right away” … they will wreak havoc on their pastor, his family, the congregation, and even on the board members themselves.

Because all too often, the board really wants to punish the pastor … and engages in what is really a vendetta.

But when the board begins with a process … “We are going to take our time, work the steps, encourage our pastor’s growth, but monitor his behavior” … there may be some fallout, but God will honor such a board’s motive.

Pastors not only have faults they know about … they also have blind spots.  The best men do … even those pastors whose sermons you revere or whose books have blessed your life.  (And that includes John MacArthur.)

If a pastor believes that he will be treated fairly and graciously by the governing board, he’ll be much more open to admitting his faults and trying to work on them.

But if a pastor believes that the board’s attitude is “one mistake and I’m out,” he’ll become resistant to correction … and too many boards operate like this.

And they’re usually the unspiritual ones.

Third, the board was specific about the behaviors they wanted the pastor to change.

In their letter to the congregation, the board mentioned “historical patterns of sin” and “pastoral misconduct.”  They even named the exact behaviors that concerned them.

And, may I add, they gave the pastor plenty of time to change … a few years.

The pastor didn’t have to guess which behaviors the board didn’t like.

He knew.

In addition, the board let the congregation know that the pastor wasn’t guilty of adultery or financial impropriety.

Whenever a pastor is fired, but the governing board is silent about the grounds for dismissal, people automatically assume that the pastor committed adultery or engaged in fiscal shenanigans.

So even though it may not feel like a blessing, it’s wise for a board to say, “We’re dismissing the pastor because he did this and this and this … but we want you to know that he didn’t do this and this.”

The board did such an effective job that the pastor released a statement admitting that the board was right … he was still plagued by certain sins … and that their deliberations were “miraculous and beyond gracious.”

I wish that every dismissed pastor could say that they were treated that justly.

Fourth, the board kept the process as open as possible.

The board not only involved the pastor in the corrective process, but after the pastor agreed to resign, they also told the congregation why the pastor left and encouraged people to send them feedback, including both questions and comments.

They also put their names and email addresses on the contact page so people could easily converse with them.

This is a far cry from most of the situations that I hear about.

I once heard about a church board that announced that their pastor had been dismissed, and then warned the congregation, “You are not to contact the pastor at all.”

If I was told not to contact the pastor, that’s the very next thing I’d do.

You say, “But Jim, wouldn’t your action be divisive?”

My reply: “Unity should always be based upon truth, and trying to find out the truth isn’t by itself divisive.”

You might counter with, “But if you contacted the pastor after the board told you not to, isn’t that being rebellious against God’s leaders?”

Maybe, but what if they’re trying to cover up their own mistakes?  What if they’re more guilty than the pastor?  How can anyone know unless they do contact the pastor?

I’ve noticed that the more hush-hush the board is about their pastor’s dismissal, the more they’re trying to protect themselves … and the more likely it is that they intend to slander the pastor’s reputation to eliminate any future influence in the congregation.

Finally, the board made sure that the pastor and his family were cared for.

The board did this in two primary ways:

*They gave the pastor a severance package.

*They encouraged the congregation to send encouraging notes to him and his family.

I’m embarrassed to say that there are many church boards that plan to fire their pastor, and at the same time, do all they can to make sure that they don’t offer the pastor any kind of severance.

I’m thinking of one pastor in particular who was forced to resign and was denied severance even though he had no savings, Social Security, or retirement income to fall back on.

Boards offer excuses like:

“We don’t have the money to offer the pastor anything.”

“We have the money but let’s earmark it for other projects.”

“The pastor has behaved so badly that he doesn’t deserve any severance.”

“The pastor’s wife works so we’re off the hook and don’t have to give him anything.”

“Let’s let the church vote on any severance package … and arrange matters so they vote no.”

But as I’ve said many times, the board should offer the pastor severance more than 95% of the time because:

*the pastor’s family needs financial assistance even if the pastor has been a rascal.

*it can take a pastor a year or longer for the pastor to find another ministry.

*a severance package minimizes the chance the pastor will start a new church in the community … and use his recently-former church as his mission field.

*it’s the right thing to do.

I also love the idea that the board encouraged the congregation to write positive notes to the pastor and his family.

This practice can provide healing for the pastor, who is tempted to think, “I must be a horrible person for not being able to keep my pastor-job.”

This practice can also be therapeutic for the congregation because they’ll be forced to see all the good the pastor did during his time at the church … and not just the bad.

Whenever a governing board has to correct a pastor’s conduct, it’s very stressful for everyone concerned … and it’s tempting for board members to say, “Let’s just end the anxiety and fire the guy.”

But when a board operates biblically, their actions might even cause their pastor to agree with their conclusions.

How do you feel about the way this board handled their pastor’s dismissal?

I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

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When a major conflict surfaces in a local church, the pastor usually becomes entangled in the mess … even if he didn’t start it … and even if the conflict doesn’t initially center upon him.

And in too many cases in our day, when the pastor becomes embroiled in a church conflict, those who don’t agree with the pastor’s position seek to force him from office.

Both in my book Church Coup, as well as in this blog, I write a lot about how pastors are negatively impacted by such conflicts.

But pastors aren’t the only casualties.

In fact, the primary casualty resulting from severe conflict may be our message: the Christian gospel.

Paul gives the most complete description of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 when he says that:

*Christ died … and His burial proves He died.

*Christ arose … and His appearances prove He rose.

History tells us that Christ died and rose again.

Faith tells us that Christ died for our sins.

Over in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Paul tells us that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Paul tells us twice within the space of two verses that God has given us [believers] the ministry/message of reconciliation.

Paul’s emphasis in these verses is that God took the initiative to turn enemies [unbelievers] into friends [believers] through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross … and God wants us to share this message of reconciliation with the world.

God wants to reconcile us to Him, but He doesn’t want to stop there.

God also wants those who have been reconciled to Him to reconcile with one another.  Jesus told His followers in John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

In His High Priestly Prayer in John 17:21, Jesus made a similar statement to His Father:

“… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Francis Schaeffer, the Christian theologian and philosopher, called Christian unity “the final apologetic.”  The world may be able to argue with our doctrine, but if we love each other authentically, they can’t argue with our community … which is a testimony to the truth of our message.

But the converse is also true: if we don’t love one another … if we backbite and fight and quarrel and separate … then people will not know that we are Christ’s disciples, and the world will not be inclined to believe our message: that the Father sent the Son.

Let me share four ways I have seen the gospel message negated by major church conflict:

First, the bad news of the conflict seems to overwhelm the good news of the gospel.

When a pastor is under attack … when a staff member is engaging in rebellion … when a group threatens to leave the church together … those actions result in negative emotions, and they tend to permeate the entire congregation.

You can feel it when you step onto the campus.

Many years ago, when my wife and I lived in Anaheim, we had the weekend off from our church, so we decided to visit the church behind our apartment complex.

When we entered the worship center, I could sense that something was wrong, even though no one said a word about it.  You could cut the tension with a knife.

The pastor spent the first twenty minutes of the service defensively explaining some changes he wanted to make to the church’s schedule.  Twenty minutes!

Soon afterwards, that pastor resigned … and I never visited that church again … in part because I didn’t want to experience those anxious feelings again.

My guess is that others felt the same way.

Second, people don’t feel like inviting unbelievers from their social network to church during a conflict.

Imagine that you’re ten years old and you’ve invited your best friend to your house one Sunday.

Since your friend lives a few houses down the street, you wait for him in your front yard … but as he approaches, you hear your mother and two siblings verbally fighting with each other in the house.

Do you want your friend to enter your home with all the tension going on?  Probably not … because it’s embarrassing.

In fact, as long as there is the possibility that there’s going to be fighting inside your house, you’re probably not going to invite any friends over at all.

When churches are filled with anxiety and tension, attendees don’t want to invite family, friends, or co-workers over because it’s poor marketing for the truth of the gospel.

Churches don’t grow during times of major conflict … and the gospel message, powerful as it is, falls on rocky ground.

Third, people aren’t attracted to our message during a major conflict.

There is a religious group in our neighborhood that goes door-to-door sharing their message.  My wife and I know some people in this group, and they have tried sharing their faith with us.

But their buildings are tiny … they don’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays … and I can’t point to one thing that I find attractive about their faith.

Why would I want to join their group?

Conversely, many Christian buildings are quite spacious … we do celebrate Christmas and most birthdays … and there are many things that are attractive about our faith.

And yet … who wants to believe our message if it seems to result in people despising each other?

If Christians are going to win people to Christ, we have to embody our message … not only that Christ died for everyone, but also that Jesus wants His people to love one another.

And when the opposite is occurring, people stay away from our churches.

In my last church, my wife always talked about “spreading good rumors.”  For years, the news that come out of our church was positive, inspiring, and uplifting.

But when a major conflict broke out, it was reported to us that someone in city government … speaking about our church … told a friend, “They’re having problems.  You don’t want to go there.”

The power of our message to attract unchurched people was negated by our inability to get along.

Finally, people leave our churches in droves during times of major conflict … and don’t feel like sharing the gospel.

I vividly remember a Sunday during the conflict in my last church when our leaders held two public meetings to discuss some issues that were affecting our spiritual family.

The meeting was hijacked by one person.  He shared a litany of charges against me … most of them untrue … and from that time on, the congregation morphed into something unrecognizable.

After the second meeting, a kind and gentle man came up to me and expressed his sorrow for what I had experienced.

I never saw him again … and he never came back to the church, even though he had attended for many years.

That meeting ended his association with our fellowship forever.

Some tried to stay at the church they called home, but over time, many good people gradually left … some finding a new church home … some not going to church anywhere.

God’s people expect that their church will be a place of love and peace and joy … and when it’s like that, they are open to sharing their faith.

But when their church becomes a place of hatred and war and sadness … people resist sharing their faith because their fellow Christians fail to embody the message of reconciliation.

Yes, I know that disagreements between Christians are normal and can even be healthy in the long run.

But when conflicts spill over boundaries … when people conspire to “take out” their pastor … when God’s people are obsessed with winning at all costs … the greatest casualty may not be the pastor’s job … or the well-being of the staff and official board … or a slide in church donations and attendance.

The greatest casualty of all may be the negative impact on the gospel: that God in Christ came to reconcile sinners to Himself … and that when God’s people love each other, we provide a powerful message to a fractured world.

The question that we should ask when we’re engaged in a major church conflict … but rarely do … is this one:

How will the gospel be impacted by this conflict?

 

 

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I once served as the pastor of a church where the board chairman made a colossal mistake … and I didn’t know what to do about it.

The elders had hired a contracting team to renovate a warehouse we rented into a contemporary worship center.  The contractors we hired lacked a sense of urgency and weren’t making much progress.  Worst of all, when the contractors billed us, we paid them immediately … but they were diverting funds to other projects without paying their sub-contractors.

Concerned that we might be getting ripped off, I recommended to the elders that we consult with an attorney, who told us in no uncertain terms not to pay the contractors any more money until we received lien releases from all the sub-contractors.

One Friday afternoon, the contracting team met with the board chairman (I’ll call him Ben), another elder, and our associate pastor in my office.  (I wasn’t present.)  The contractors said that if we didn’t pay them even more money, they’d pull their people off the job.

Ben took out the church checkbook – he also served as leader of the finance team – and wrote the contractors a large check.  He wanted to keep the project moving along.  The associate pastor warned him not to do it … but Ben did it anyway.

When I was informed later that evening of what had taken place, I was justifiably angry.  Not only had Ben acted against the advice of our attorney, he had also paid the contractors in direct violation of the will of the other elders.

What in the world was I going to do?

Since I accounted directly to the elders … and since Ben was the chairman … in a very real sense, he was my boss.  How could I confront him – of all people – with wrongdoing?

After a terrible night, I arose that Saturday morning and drove to the warehouse.  There was a small room upstairs where some men held a half-hour prayer meeting early every Saturday.

Ben – who met me for prayer on Saturdays – was the only person to join me that day.

And he felt just terrible.

He told me softly but emphatically – with his head hanging down: “I blew it.”

I don’t recall what either one of us said after that, but as pastor, I had to discern how to handle Ben’s mistake.

I don’t remember how many Christian leaders I spoke with about Ben’s action, but I do recall talking to two in particular … and one gave me counsel that I’ve always appreciated.

This leader … who had known Ben for several decades but was now serving at another church … told me that I needed to put Ben’s blunder in the context of his total life and ministry.

This leader told me: “Ben has served the Lord faithfully as a layman ever since I’ve known him.  He has done it all joyfully and yet has never been paid a nickel.  His track record does not indicate that he’s made similar mistakes in the past, so please take his entire life and ministry into account as you make your decision.”

I finally decided that Ben could remain as chairman of the elders, but that he would have to step down as finance team leader.  (I never wanted him to hold two such positions – it concentrates too much power in one person’s hands – so it was an arrangement that I welcomed.)

I called Ben into my office and shared with him my decision.  He completely understood my reasoning and didn’t fight me.  He resigned as finance leader immediately.

I don’t think we ever discussed it again.

Years later, I left that church and moved hundreds of miles away.  I didn’t think I’d ever see Ben again.

But a few years ago, he and his wife were driving across the country, and the other elder I mentioned above invited me to lunch with Ben.  We had a great time.

Ben died several years ago, and although I wasn’t able to attend his memorial service, I wrote his wife a letter.  Although I can’t find the letter on my computer, I know that I didn’t mention his mistake more than two decades before.

In the context of his entire life, it simply didn’t matter.

We live in a culture that exhibits zero tolerance toward the mistakes of public persons.  Say or do the wrong thing in someone’s eyes, and they’ll mention it on Twitter … slam you in a blog … or denounce you in a press conference.

I fear that much of that spirit has leaked into our local churches.

There is great pressure on pastors to be perfect.  It’s a pressure that I felt every day during my 36 years in church ministry.

And it’s an impossible standard to meet.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I’m glad that I’m not a pastor anymore.

Because when a pastor misspeaks from the pulpit … or makes a less than stellar decision about a staff member … or doesn’t show up for a large social event … there are always people ready to pounce on him and denounce him.

But I maintain that we should view pastors – and all Christian leaders – through more charitable lenses.

Yes, pastors who are guilty of clear-cut heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior need to be confronted – and fired.

But most of the time when a pastor makes a mistake, it doesn’t approach the gravity of these offenses … and yet there will always be someone who magnifies a mistake and concludes, “Let’s just fire the guy.”

In Ben’s case, his life and ministry were not defined by a single mistake.

Ben loved his wife and spoke highly of her.  He spent a bundle when his daughter got married.  When his father died, he invited his mother to live in his home.

I can still see him reading Scripture before board meetings … inviting the board to pray in the four corners of the warehouse before we starting using it … and reminding me all the time, “God is in control.”

And when I was attacked by a group in the church, he always supported me and encouraged me.

Because Ben didn’t define me by my mistakes, it made it easier for me not to define him that way as well.

So yes, I remember his mistake … but that’s not how I define him … and I’m sure that’s not how God defines him, either.

I think Satan wants us to focus on the flaws in God’s leaders so that we turn from them as examples.

Should we turn away from Abraham because he lied about Sarah being his sister?

Should we turn away from Moses because he angrily struck the rock in front of Israel?

Should we turn away from Elijah because he ran away in fear from Jezebel?

Should we turn away from half the Psalms because David impregnated Bathsheba and murdered her husband?

Should we turn away from most of the Book of Proverbs because Solomon had too many wives and concubines?

Should we turn away from Paul because he called the high priest “you whitewashed wall?”

Should we turn away from Timothy because he was shy and timid and often afraid?

Or should we factor in their flaws and mistakes but view their lives and ministries as a whole?

Yes, I know there’s more to be said on this subject … much more.

But for now, I want to encourage you to define the people in your life … including your pastors … not by their mistakes, but by their entire lives.

Isn’t that the way we want God to view us?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let me share a little secret as to why pastors sometimes choose not to resolve every conflict they might have with someone in a congregation.

Pastors have a limited amount of energy.  They expend much of that energy – I’d guess a minimum of 50% – on the preparation and delivery of their weekly sermon … and that sermon is the most important thing they do all week.

Pastors also engage in staff management … board consultations … individual counseling … hospital visitation … special projects … social functions … conflict intervention … and an endless number of additional tasks.

And when pastors perform these tasks, they need to be at their best.  One careless word on his part … one misinterpreted action … and his imperfections will be spread all over the church.

Whenever a pastor has to deal with someone who is angry/hurt/offended, that encounter robs him of precious energy for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.  Such encounters can deplete his energy and paralyze him emotionally, affecting the pastor’s ability to lead … pastor … and even preach.

Many years ago, I served on the staff of a church where the pastor was under assault.  Being a sensitive man – as most pastors are – the criticisms devastated him.

He called me on the phone and told me that he was so distraught that he couldn’t focus clearly enough to study for his sermon … which was only three days away.

But pastors can’t allow themselves to come to church on Sundays with depleted energy.  They have to be at their best, not just to please the Lord, but to inspire, encourage, and equip their congregations.

This little discussion leads me to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Let me make five observations about this verse as it relates to pastors:

First, Jesus does not include or exclude spiritual leaders from His instructions. 

Since the Lord wants His leaders to model submission and obedience in a local fellowship, I believe that these verses apply to pastors as well as regular churchgoers.  Pastors are “brothers” … and pastors sometimes offend their “brothers,” too.

Second, Jesus envisions a situation where one of His followers is estranged from another follower.

The term “brother” implies a spiritual relationship … maybe even a close one.  Jesus is talking here about interpersonal relationships inside the family of God.  He is not talking about relationships with just anybody.

Maybe your brother (or sister) is so upset with you that they are ignoring you … avoiding you … talking negatively to others about you … or lambasting you to your face.

Whether they’re justified or not, “your brother” (or sister) is angry with you about something.  There is a break in the relationship … and at least one of you knows it.

Third, Jesus implies that the offender knows what he or she did wrong.

Jesus says that while you’re in the very act of worship, you suddenly “remember that your brother has something against you.”

Do you know precisely why your brother is angry with you?  My guess is that you do.

It’s something you did … or said … or something you didn’t do … or didn’t say.

However, when it comes to pastors, people are often angry with them without the pastor knowing why … and this is because most people are scared to death to confront their pastor about anything.

If a pastor discovers that someone in his church is upset with him, must a pastor drop everything, contact that person, and try to make things right?

Some would say yes.  In fact, I have a book written by a former megachurch pastor who shares story after story about times that he sensed someone in the church was angry with him.  In every instance, he went to them … he is a very sensitive man … and said, “Brother, I don’t know what I did to offend you, but I want to tell you I’m sorry and ask you to forgive me.”

This is where I part company with the broad interpretation of this passage.

If I’m a pastor, and I definitely know why someone is angry with me … and it’s negatively impacting our relationship … I believe that I have a biblical obligation to take the initiative, contact that person, and see if we can work things out.

But if someone is angry with me and I have no idea why, I don’t believe that I have an obligation to contact them.  Instead, I believe that they have an obligation to contact me according to Matthew 18:15-17.

In other words, pastors need to take the initiative for specific, known offenses against their spiritual family members … but wait for others to take the initiative for general, unknown offenses.

Because of the nature of their calling, pastors lack the time and energy to “turn over too many rocks” in their congregations.  For if they do, they will undoubtedly encounter venomous snakes and scorpions … and they’ll spend all their time tangling with them rather than watching the entire flock.

Fourth, Jesus emphasizes the importance of resolving interpersonal conflicts quickly.

When I was a kid, my brother and I sometimes got into fights.  They never lasted long … and I usually won … but I didn’t always fight fair.

I’d hit him hard enough to end matters, and then immediately tell him, “I’m sorry.  Will you forgive me?”

I wasn’t inwardly remorseful or repentant … just outwardly dutiful … and with my lousy attitude, my brother had every right not to forgive me.

In other words, some conflicts can be resolved too quickly.

But that’s not the case with most of us.  We let conflicts drag on … damaging our relationships … poisoning our souls … and sometimes spreading to others.

So when Jesus’ followers are offended, He wants them to resolve matters as quickly as possible.

I once worked for a pastor who was feuding with the chairman of the deacons.  Their feud was becoming known all over the church.  It was getting ugly.

One Sunday morning … before communion … the pastor publicly told the congregation that he and the deacon chairman weren’t getting along, and publicly asked for his forgiveness.  The chairman stood and forgave the pastor.  (What other option did he have?)

My problem with that approach is that now scores of people knew about a conflict they didn’t need to know about … but they did see their pastor model Matthew 5:23-24 in action.

I’ve said it many times: if Christians would just apply Matthew 18:15 with a degree of urgency … as well as Matthew 5:23-24 … church splits would be reduced to almost zero.

Finally, Jesus never modeled these verses for us.

In Matthew 15, Jesus warned His disciples against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  In verse 12, “His disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

Jesus didn’t apologize for His sentiments.  He didn’t feel convicted.  He didn’t seek out His spiritual rivals and tell them, “Look, guys, I didn’t mean what I said” or “I could have said things better.  I’m so sorry.”

No, He doubled down and told His followers, “Leave them; they are blind guides.  If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14).

When I was a pastor, I once received a phone call from the son-in-law of a man whose memorial service I had conducted.  The man reamed me out for preaching the gospel at his father-in-law’s service and demanded an apology.  I refused and told the man I had every right to say whatever I wanted on my own turf … our church’s worship center.

I didn’t know the man.  He wasn’t my brother.  These verses don’t apply to such people … although “do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6) was more relevant to his situation.

But in Mark 3:20-35, Jesus’ mother and brothers were really worried about Him.  They thought He was “out of his mind” and that He was so devoted to ministry that He wasn’t taking care of Himself.

When they “went to take charge of him,” Jesus didn’t apologize for upsetting them.  Once again, He doubled down … refused to go back home with them … and said to the crowd surrounding Him, “Who are my mother and my brothers?  Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus didn’t say … as that sensitive pastor did … “I don’t know what I did to offend you, but I want to tell you I’m sorry and ask you to forgive me.”  No, Jesus ignored His mother and brothers … claimed His listeners as His spiritual family … and focused on the mission the Father had given Him to do.

I don’t pretend to understand completely all the ramifications of this passage.  It’s been one that has troubled me over the years, and I’m not always sure how to apply it.

But I hope that my thoughts will cause you to think through not only the truths of these verses, but also their importance in your spiritual and relational worlds.

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There are occasional verses in Scripture that I don’t fully understand.

And two of those verses are found in Matthew 5:23-24 in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus says:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Jesus seems to be saying, “If you’re in the act of worshiping God, and suddenly recall that a fellow believer is angry with you, suspend your worship, seek out your friend, make things right, and return to worship renewed.”

These two verses seemed simple to live out … until I became a pastor.  And then I ran into all kinds of scenarios where I tried to live out these verses but wasn’t sure how to apply them.

Some examples:

*How about when a pastor stands up to preach?

Some Sunday mornings, I would walk up to the stage … look out over the congregation … see several people who didn’t like me … and wonder, “Should I keep on preaching, or stop everything and find out why those people hate me?”

I kept on preaching … but did I violate Matthew 5:23-24 in the process?

*How about when people leave the church without telling you as pastor?

One time, a family had stopped coming on Sundays for several weeks, and someone told me they had left the church.  So I drove over to their house and knocked on their door, and the man of the house appeared.  When I asked if I could speak with him and his wife, he refused because his wife didn’t want to talk to me.  Although she later returned to the church for a brief time, the family ultimately left for good … and they never did tell me what I had done wrong.

I tried to apply Matthew 5:23-24 in that situation … so why didn’t it work?

*How about when someone continually asks if you are angry with them?

Years ago, a staff member came to me every few weeks and asked me, “Are you upset with me?  Have I done something to offend you?”  I wondered, “Am I giving off accidental signals that he’s displeased me?  Or is he just an overly-sensitive individual?”  Although he was trying to live out Matthew 5:23-24, in my view, he went way overboard.

Let’s reverse this situation.  How would you feel if your pastor came to you every few weeks and asked, “Have I done something to offend you?  Please tell me what I’ve done so I can make things right between us!”  Would you start to run every time he got near you?

*How about when someone comes to you and says, “So-and-So is really angry with you?”

This scenario happens to every pastor.  Whether they’re meddling or just want everybody to get along, some churchgoers seem to ferret out offenses that the pastor has committed against others … then come to the pastor to report the bad news.

If a pastor has preached his heart out at two services on Sunday morning, and a Christian ferret comes to him after the service and says, “There are four individuals in this congregation who are really upset with you, pastor,” should the pastor spend the rest of his Sunday contacting these people to make things right with them?

But most of the time, when I have approached people who were reportedly incensed at me, they denied that they felt that way at all … and sometimes, I felt like an idiot.

Is that a valid application of Matthew 5:23-24?

*How about when a pastor makes a decision that negatively impacts many people in the church?

I once attended a leadership conference at a prominent megachurch.  A well-known pastor told us that he once tried to impose a major change on his church, but because he didn’t handle things wisely, many people were either upset with him or stopped coming altogether.  In the spirit of Matthew 5:23-24, this pastor visited every home that he could identify where people were upset with him, and he apologized for his behavior personally.

While I have great admiration for any pastor who would humble himself like that, I also wonder if that was the best way to handle that situation.

I am not trying to evade what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:23-24, but I am trying to understand His words so that pastors know when to apply them … and when not to do so.

What do you think Jesus was saying in those two verses?

I’ll have more to say on this topic next time.

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