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Archive for the ‘Pastoral Termination’ Category

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

Bear with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t remember saying that.”

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

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

“You must have misinterpreted what I said.”

And on and on and on …

If you lie to me once, you sinned.

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

You’ve established a pattern.

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He left the church soon afterward.

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we worked right across the hall from each other.

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

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

_______________

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

It didn’t help.

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

Guess who they were going to believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The associate instantly resigned.

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

How should we handle them today?

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

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

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

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

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

My guess is the latter.

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

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

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

Or maybe he did something very, very wrong.

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

I don’t know.

But leaving before the school year concludes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes for a tough holiday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should a letter have been sent to parents’ homes?

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

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

That would dampen the mood, wouldn’t it?

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

Maybe they did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*write a positive letter

*read it to the church board

*read it to the congregation

*hang around to answer questions, if the board permits

*distribute that letter as widely as possible

That’s the healthy way, isn’t it?

But there’s one thing left …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How different a school is from a church!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pastor Henry felt all alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry did not like what he was hearing.

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

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

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

Henry suddenly felt very foolish.

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

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

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

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

Henry’s heart sank.

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

Years later, I made many friends in that church.

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

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

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

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

Could it be because of people like Bret and Hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are seven possibilities:

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

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

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

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

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

That’s just the way life is.

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

It’s just something we have to accept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same thing happens in Christian circles.

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

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

I learned this one the hard way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The template goes like this:

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

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

And the list goes on and on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not?

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

Does this stuff really happen in supposedly godly local churches?

Yes … all the time.

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

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

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

Maybe yes, maybe no.

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

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

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me give you an example.

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

Nobody wanted them … not even the local rescue mission.

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

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

His conclusion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially when they decide to throw out the old hymnbooks.

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

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

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

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

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

I felt the stress level rise quickly inside me.

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

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

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

I froze … and then got out of my vehicle.

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

I loudly said, “You almost hit me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what happens instead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*How is your husband or wife doing right now?

*How are your children doing?

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

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

*How can we pray for you specifically?

*How can our church family assist you right now?

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

I don’t excuse it.

I do understand it.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sixty years ago, a young pastor lived across the street from my uncle and aunt in Garden Grove, California.

This pastor told them that he was starting a new church in the community and asked them to join it.

They declined.

That pastor’s name?

Robert Schuller.

Dr. Schuller believed that when a pastor was called to a church, he should be committed to that church for life.

Although Schuller’s story didn’t end well, he remained the pastor of Garden Grove Community Church … and then the Crystal Cathedral … for his entire ministry career.

I believe that most pastors take that attitude when they’re called to a church: “I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life … or until God takes me home … and that means I’m not going to run whenever trouble starts.”

My ministry is primarily focused on helping pastors and church board members who are struggling in their relationship to handle their disagreements in a biblical, just, and loving manner.

Yet pastors are being forced out of their positions – often by church bullies – at an ever-increasing rate … and I don’t think that pastors should automatically resign when that happens.

But I believe there are times when the best decision a pastor can make is to resign unilaterally and voluntarily.  In such cases, the pressure doesn’t necessarily come from outside the pastor, but often inside the pastor.

When should a pastor resign?

First, when he’s disqualified himself morally.

The first thing most of us think of when we read the above phrase is adultery.

I’m sure many pastors think to themselves, “If I was ever guilty of sleeping with someone other than my wife, I’d quit immediately.”

And yet it’s shocking how many pastors have fallen morally and yet continue on as if nothing ever happened.

Rather than leaving, they wait until they’re caught and then resign … sometimes years or even decades later.

And I always wonder, “How could they hold and preach from the Holy Bible … and serve holy communion … and do it all in Christ’s holy church … when they’re leading such unholy lives?”

More than twenty years ago, I remember a nationally known pastor who resigned from his church for “inappropriate behavior.”

Interviewed in front of his house by a television crew, this pastor stated that he had no business ever being a pastor again.

I thought to myself, “Wow.  You just don’t hear that anymore.”

After running the clip, the female host told her television audience, “The minister’s attitude is refreshing.”

But I have since discovered … from two reputable sources … that the pastor didn’t resign voluntarily but was caught doing things pastors shouldn’t do.

There are other sins that might disqualify a pastor from office as well, including stealing church funds, physical abuse, blatant lying, or even murder.

But for some reason, it’s relatively rare for a pastor to blow the whistle on himself.

Is that due to a pastor’s high commitment level, or his pride?

Second, when the congregation no longer responds to his preaching.

Many years ago, I had lunch with a former pastor who had led a megachurch for more than two decades.

This pastor was well-known in many circles and had written a book that still sold thousands every year.

He told me that for some reason, his people had stopped listening to his sermons.

In fact, he felt they needed to hear a fresh voice.

So he went to the church board and told them he wanted to negotiate a settlement so he could leave.

I can relate to this pastor’s story.

During my final pastorate, over my first few years, my sermons were very well received.

But over my last few months, I just wasn’t connecting as I once had.  Some of my humor fell flat … I started repeating myself … and I may have preached in a tone of frustration.

Looking back, maybe I was trying to work out solutions to my own problems through my preaching rather than dealing with the congregation’s issues.

Toward the end, there were Sundays where nobody told me they “liked my sermon.”

When a pastor receives positive feedback from a sermon, it provides much-needed fuel for his next message … but when he receives little to no feedback, it can become very demoralizing … and, in some cases, serve as a signal that the pastor needs to leave.

Third, when you’re hanging on for a paycheck.

I once worked with a pastor who had announced to the church that he was going to retire at a future date.

After he made his announcement, he didn’t do very much around the office.

He signed checks … came to my office and talked … and spent most of his time just killing time.

I never saw him read a book.  I never saw him study for a sermon.

He came to the office late, and left early.

There’s a sense in which we can understand a situation like this.  If a pastor has served a church faithfully for years, and wants to give them plenty of advance notice that he’s going to retire, maybe he shouldn’t be expected to be a ball of energy.

But what bothers me is that there are thousands of pastors around who aren’t nearing retirement and yet act just like they are.

Life’s too short to be unhappy and unfulfilled in your job.

My counsel to a pastor who is just putting in time would be, “Get out … as soon as you can … because your people deserve a more energetic and effective shepherd.”

Fourth, when attendance is in a death spiral.

Forgive me for the following cynical statement, but I believe that it’s true:

“Many churches exist to pay the pastor’s salary.”

This statement refers to churches that:

*were once growing and vibrant.

*have been in steady decline for years.

*struggle just to put on a service every Sunday.

*are wearing out their few remaining lay leaders.

*nobody wants to invite their friends to attend.

*allocate the overwhelming bulk of their income to the pastor’s salary.

*have no positive plan for turning the church around.

I wrote an article about this situation a while back because it’s so common:

When Should the Pastor of a Church in Steady Decline Leave?

After soliciting responses from some top Christian leaders, I synthesized their counsel and then wrote this article:

Turning Around a Declinling Church

Let me make this bold statement: unless the pastor of a church is willing to reinvent himself, the pastor who presided over a steady decline rarely presides over a turnaround.

It would be helpful for a church in steady decline to bring in an outside consultant to take an objective look at their situation as well as their future, but such a church usually needs a new pastor with fresh vision and energy.

Fifth, when the pastor can no longer endure personal and family attacks.

If a pastor is a strong individual, most people unhappy with his ministry will just leave the church … a few loudly, most quietly.

If a pastor is more passive or perceived to be weak, a bully may try to take him out … or organize a faction that starts making demands and threats.

Pastors know they’re going to be criticized: after sermons, on response cards, through emails, via anonymous letters, and worst of all, through messages relayed by others.  (“So and So is mad at you.”)

Much of this is par for the course, but when people threaten the pastor’s reputation or job, and add threats and demands, it can become a bit much … and sometimes, become abusive.

I believe that when a pastor is being abused, the church board needs to step in, calm down those making the threats, and encourage them to modify their behavior … or leave the church.

But if the board won’t do that … or the threats originate with board members … then most pastors can only take so much.

But what pushes most pastors over the edge is when professing Christians attack his wife and children.

This happened to me during my second pastorate.  The seniors class rebelled against me and drew up a list of all my faults … including those of my wife and kids.

My wife’s offense?  Her slip was showing one Sunday.

When the board unanimously stood with me, my attackers immediately left the church, but it was almost more than we could take.

We all have a different threshold for criticism.  Maybe you can take more than I can.

But when pastors are “mobbed” by a sizeable portion of the congregation, why put up with it?

And short of a heaven-sent revival, what can a pastor do to mollify such people?

Just leave ’em behind.

Sixth, when the pastor would rather be doing something else.

Years ago, I knew a pastor – a very godly man, in my view – who was being consistently attacked at church.

The pastor lived across the street from the church campus, and had some used refrigerators in his garage, which he loved to work on.

One Sunday night, after a terrible congregational meeting, my friend walked across the street to his home and decided to resign and fix refrigerators and appliances for a living.

I began serving in church ministry at age 19, and worked only for churches for nearly the following four decades.

So when I was forced out of my church, I couldn’t identify any transferable skills that I could use to start a business or land a decent secular job … unless flipping hamburgers and cooking fries counts for something.

But many pastors do have those skills, and if the day ever comes when they’d rather make a living in a previous profession, then maybe that’s what they should do.

My first seminary professor was the great Dr. Charles Feinberg.  He told my Old Testament class, “Gentlemen, if you can do anything other than being a pastor, do it!”

He was right.

Finally, when the church board asks for your resignation.

I sometimes hear stories about pastors who were fired by their elders or deacons.

Sometimes he’s fired after a Sunday service … or at a special/regular board meeting … or by two board members who meet with the pastor privately … or sometimes through an email or a letter in the mail.

In a perfect world, it would be preferable if the board asked the pastor for his resignation, and the pastor traded it – and a unifying letter – for a generous severance package.

But all too often, the pastor is fired unilaterally … without any explanation … without letting him ask questions or give feedback … and without any severance package.

However, if a board has prayed about it … consulted with outside experts … and every person on the board is in agreement, then the board should ask the pastor for his resignation rather than firing him outright.

This not only preserves the pastor’s dignity, but sounds much better on a resume.

However, if the board does ask the pastor for his resignation, they shouldn’t force him to quit right then and there.  (Some boards prepare a letter they want the pastor to sign ahead of time.)

The pastor needs time to think, pray, and speak with his family … and yes, giving him time runs the risk of his saying, “No, I’m staying” or even leading a counterattack.

But if the board unilaterally fires the pastor without notice or any good reason, many in the congregation may rebel, and the church may dwindle significantly, and require years to rebuild.

In almost every case … unless a board is composed of cruel and godless individuals … I believe that a pastor should resign if the board asks for his resignation.

Can you imagine other scenarios where a pastor should resign voluntarily?

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