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Archive for the ‘Forgiveness and Reconciliation among Christians’ Category

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

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

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

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

But the odds are that it wouldn’t.

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

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

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

It’s never happened.

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

It’s never happened.

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

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

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

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

I was wronged … severely wronged.

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

Almost certainly not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But those kinds of confessions are all too rare.

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I realize it’s unlikely to happen.

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

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

Maynard then continues:

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

He then writes something both remarkable and scary:

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

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

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

There is just too much pain involved.

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s highly unlikely.

After Judas betrayed Jesus, our Savior let him go.

We need to follow His example.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be cheated?  Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.  1 Corinthians 6:7-8

Many years ago, when my family lived in Silicon Valley, we lived next door to a family that scared us half to death.

For example, one night around 11:15, I saw a glow outside our bathroom window.  When I opened it, I saw that our neighbor’s roof was on fire.

Matt, a young man in his early twenties, had lit a pillow on fire while smoking.  Not thinking, he quickly threw the pillow outside his window onto the roof …and tried to put out the fire by barraging it with glasses of water.

From time-to-time, Matt and his buddies would be drinking outside late at night, and they would sit on our front lawn … right by our bedroom window.  Strong disagreements sometimes ensued between Matt and his colleagues.

One time … around 3:00 am … I saw Matt slug his girlfriend after an argument … after which I immediately called the police.

Let’s put it this way: if our family was having problems, the last place we would go for help would be Matt’s family.

In the same way, when families in a community hear that Christians in a church are fighting … and resigning … and leaving … that’s the last place they would go for help … and that feeling might last for years.

This thought reminds me of a conversation that was relayed to me after a major conflict surfaced in my last ministry.

Someone was asking about our church, and an individual in city government replied, “You don’t want to go there.  They’re having problems.”

Until that time, as far as I knew, our church had a glowing reputation throughout the community.  We marched in our city’s annual parade (where people sometimes cheered when we walked by), were members of the Chamber of Commerce, participated in events like Relay for Life, and adopted a school, among other things.

But our conflict quickly spilled outside the congregation and made its way into people’s ears and homes.

Let me make four observations about how major conflict affects a church’s reputation:

First, churches in conflict turn off those they’re trying to reach.

Last night, my wife was watching a news show, and clips were shown of a well-known politician uttering hateful and vile language.

I instinctively blurted out, “You are not welcome in our house,” and muted the sound.

I do the same thing if a television debate becomes too nasty or volatile.  The rancor deeply disturbs my spirit and adds to my stress level.  I don’t need it.

That’s exactly how most unchurched people respond when they hear about a church that’s fighting.  Families have enough conflict of their own.  They don’t want anymore … especially from people who claim to love others unconditionally.

Much of the time, when a church forces out an innocent pastor, the news gets around the community, and those who considered visiting the church refrain.  If they visit any church, it will be one where people seem to get along.

The best “church shrinkage” strategy is for a congregation to let its differences hit the grapevine … including social media.

Second, churches in conflict negate their message of reconciliation.

Dr. Francis Schaeffer claimed that love was the final apologetic for Christians.

Jesus told His disciples in John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Is the converse also true?

We might put it this way: “By this all men will doubt if you are my disciples, if you hate one another.”

By the time a conflict gets around a community, the core issue is largely forgotten … and people focus on the relational fallout instead.  (“The people at that church don’t get along.”)

How can churches that claim to embrace the gospel preach effectively about Jesus when it’s obvious they’re not living its core belief?

We Christians basically have two messages: love God and love one another.

Major conflicts contradict both messages.

Why would anyone be attracted to Christ when it doesn’t seem to be doing any good in the life of His followers?

And why would anyone think that a “fighting church” could help them with their own relational problems?

Third, churches in conflict negate the process for reconciliation.

The gospel is the message of reconciliation.  But the New Testament is clear there is a process for reconciliation as well.

That process is often found in a church’s governing documents.  The process is based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-20 and amplified by verses like Luke 17:3-4; Galatians 6:1-2; and 1 Timothy 5:19-21.

I believe that when church leaders follow the teaching of Matthew 18 seriously, most conflicts inside a church can be resolved, and those conflicts will not spill out into the community.

But when church leaders ignore Matthew 18 … especially when they go straight to power and play church politics … one can almost guarantee that the conflict will get around the community.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 lay out deliberate steps, and the time between steps may take weeks, if not months.

Godly leaders are patiently willing to work those steps.

But anxious, immature leaders don’t want to work a process, so they envision the outcome they want and then devise shortcuts to get there … and in the process, wreak havoc on their congregation.

As Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, a lawsuit between believers is one such shortcut.

Paul says that those who sue other believers “have been completely defeated already” and “cheat” and “wrong” their brothers.

From time-to-time, I advocate for what I call a Conflict Resolution Group in every church.  Composed of at least three spiritual and wise individuals, this group’s charter is not to manage/resolve conflicts when they arise, but to train, coach, and make sure that believers – especially leaders – follow the biblical directives for conflict resolution.

Because, sad to say, it’s often church leaders who violate the biblical reconciliation process the most.

The governing board needs a group they’re accountable to for the process they use, but not the decisions they make.

Finally, churches in conflict implicitly confess they don’t know the pathway to reconciliation.

Evangelical churches tend to resolve major conflicts in one of three ways:

First, they force out their pastor and blame him for the entire conflict.

Whether the pastor started the conflict, or whether he couldn’t fix it fast enough, it’s amazing how many churches end up scapegoating the pastor for all their troubles.

Because when the pastor is 100% responsible for a church’s problems, those who blame him never have to admit they did anything wrong … and when they hire a new pastor, they get to remain in their current ministries.

Second, they either allow or encourage disgruntled people to leave the church.

Pastors and other leaders often assume that if a contentious faction leaves their church, the congregation will quickly resort to health.

Maybe yes … probably no.

The departing faction may end up at another local church … and use their former church as a mission field, thus perpetuating the conflict.

Finally, they act like nothing happened and sweep the issues under the carpet.

This is the default position in most evangelical churches.

*The pastor has been fired … but the leaders won’t talk about it.

*A staff person has been dismissed … but nobody will answer questions.

*A faction has angrily left … but the leaders act like everything is fine.

And in the process, we Christians never learn from our leaders how to address issues, disagree honestly, respond biblically, and work toward wise and loving solutions.

To use a football analogy, all we do in our churches is punt … punt … punt.

Is it any wonder then that all too many Christian couples divorce … that Christian parents stop talking to their adult children … and that Christian friends stop talking to each other for good?

Church leaders don’t model conflict resolution for us.  They model conflict avoidance instead.

Have you ever been in a church that handled conflict openly?

No, they’re all managed behind closed doors, where demands and threats may be used to end matters.

But in the process, God’s people never learn how godly people are supposed to handle conflict.

As Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 6:5:

Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?

Sometimes I wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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!

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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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