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I write a lot about the toll that forced terminations have on pastors and their wives … both personally and professionally.

I also write about the effects that pushing out an innocent pastor has on an entire congregation and its future.

But there is one group that I … and many in the Christian world … tend to forget about when it comes to pastoral exits: the average churchgoer.

Several years ago, I met with a longtime friend at Starbucks.  My book Church Coup had just been published and he wanted to discuss what I wrote.

My friend told me that he and his wife had been attending a church where they really liked the pastor … but seemingly overnight, the pastor disappeared … and the word was that the pastor did not leave voluntarily.

The church quickly hired a new pastor, and once again, my friend and his wife really liked him, but within a short period of time, that pastor was pushed out as well.

My friend and his wife were both hurt and sickened by what they had experienced.  He admitted that the two of them were not currently attending a local church although he didn’t rule out going to church sometime in the future.

My friend would be an asset to any church.  He has an earned doctorate … has taught in a Christian university … and for decades has been a key leader in one of America’s greatest institutions.

But somehow, I doubt that those who pushed out those two pastors even gave someone like my friend a second thought.

I suppose the only way to find out how the average churchgoer feels about their pastor is to call a public meeting and let each person vote on his future … either to give him a vote of confidence or to vote him out of office.

If and when a church does take that step, they’re almost always shooting themselves in both feet … as well as the heart.

Since most church leaders don’t want a pastor-board or pastor-staff rift to become known, they’ll work behind the scenes to try and checkmate their pastor privately.

But … and I ask this question all the time … how many people attend that church because of the pastor … and how many attend because of the pastor’s detractors?

Let’s say Sonrise Church averages 300 adults every Sunday.

And let’s say 15 people … that’s 5% of the congregation … want Pastor Paul to leave.  (That’s a typical percentage.)

And let’s say out of those 15 people:

*there are two board members and their wives.

*two are the associate pastor and his wife.

*there are three couples who believe the associate should be the pastor.

*there are three older individuals who have been in the church since its founding.

Then let’s say that out of the 300 who attend Sonrise:

*240 (that’s 80%) attend that church because they love Pastor Paul’s sermons … leadership … and personality.

*30 attend because they’re loyal to the church as an institution.

*15 attend because they’ve been there for more than 20 years.

*15 want Pastor Paul to leave.

Let me ask several questions about this situation:

First, why do most people attend Sonrise Church? 

They attend Sonrise because of Pastor Paul … pure and simple.

They may have initially come to Sonrise because of a personal invitation or a marketing tool, but they have made Sonrise their church home because they like the pastor.

Virtually nobody attends Sonrise because of the church board or the pastor’s detractors … and it’s highly likely that the great majority of the people couldn’t even name one board member.

Second, how likely is it that those 240 people are aware that 15 people want to get rid of Pastor Paul?

It’s not likely.  Those 15 know they must act in secrecy or risk having their plot exposed.  While they speak almost exclusively to each other, they are open to increasing their ranks if they know for certain someone feels as they do.

But if even a handful of those 240 discovered the plot, they might ream out the plotters, or contact Pastor Paul or another leader with their findings.

Third, why don’t the 15 leave the church quietly instead of trying to force out their pastor?

I wish I knew the answer to this question.  It would save everyone a lot of heartache.

My research and experience tells me that the 15:

*believe they are smarter and more spiritual than their pastor.

*believe they know the direction the church should go in the future.

*believe that one of their group should be the church’s true leader, not the pastor.

*believe that they somehow “own” the church in a greater way than others.  (This is “my” church or “our” church, not “their” church or “his” church.)

*believe that the pastor is either a “bad man” or a “bad leader” and deserves to be sent packing.

Fourth, how likely is it that the 15 are aware of the love and loyalty that the 240 have for Pastor Paul?

Again, it’s not likely.  Most of the 15 have closed ranks and only socialize with each other.  They don’t socialize with many people from the 240 … and when they do, they either discount their feelings or disagree with them.

If someone came to any of the 15 and said to them, “Most of the people in this church have great affection for Pastor Paul,” they would respond, “I don’t think that’s accurate.”  But they’ve isolated themselves from others for so long that they can’t accurately measure reality.

Finally, what’s the best word to describe the feelings of the 15 over against those of the 240?

Sinful … with selfish a close second.

Most of the time, when a faction pushes out an innocent pastor, they are thinking primarily of the wishes and desires of their own group rather than the church as a whole.

In fact, the faction is blind and deaf as to how the average churchgoer feels about their pastor.

I have heard the following statements from non-leaders whose pastors were forced out:

“The spirit has gone out of this church.”

“I don’t think I will ever be the same.”

“I’m so hurt that I can’t bring myself to go to church anywhere.”

“He was the best preacher I ever heard in my life.”

In their book Church Refugees, Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope claim that a high percentage of Christians are now “the dechurched.”  To save what’s left of their faith, they’re “done” with the local church, and never going back.

I wonder how many of those people were driven away from a church where a small percentage of bullies organized to take out their pastor.

The Book of James ends this way:

My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.  James 5:19-20

The implication in this verse is that the “wanderer” has left the fellowship because he or she did something wrong.

But it is entirely possible in our day for someone to wander away from church … or their faith … because of the way that professing Christians treated their pastor.

Thirty years ago, I attended a conference led by Win Arn called “How to Close the Back Door to Your Church.”  I learned a great deal.

One of the things I learned is that a church needs to track its attendees closely.  Once someone misses a few Sundays (at my last church, it was two), they need to be contacted right away.

Once people have missed six to eight Sundays in a row, they are nearly impossible to get back because they have reinvested their lives in other things … and have concluded that “the people of that church don’t care about me.”

When a faction in a church … whether it’s the official board, or just 5% of the congregation, succeeds in forcing out their pastor … the last place they’re focusing is on the average churchgoer.

They’re focusing on keeping the staff in place … selecting guest speakers for future Sundays … finding an interim pastor … and putting together a team to search for a new pastor.

So it’s easy for people who are angry … or bewildered … or hurt to slip out the back door and never be seen again.

It’s getting more and more difficult to win people to Christ these days.

How tragic for Christ’s kingdom if we bring some through the front door … and lose even more through the back door … because we keep beating up our shepherds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One of the primary factors in causing – and perpetuating – conflicts in churches is narrow thinking.

When people feel highly anxious … and under stress … their thinking ability shrinks.

Here are several examples taken from my own ministries over the years:

*When I was a teenager, our youth group used to meet before the Sunday evening service on the church campus, but the trend was toward meeting after the service in a home.  When the issue came before the congregation (which it never should have done), a furious discussion ensued.  The church secretary was so against the youth meeting in homes that she stormed out of the meeting, entered the church office (the door was at the back of the auditorium), and slammed the door behind her.

When she slammed the door, she in essence quit her job and left the church.

That’s narrow thinking.

*In my second pastorate, our youth pastor took the youth group to a Christian rock concert, which was fine with me.  The deacon chairman’s two children seemed to enjoy the concert, but not their father, who gave me a 15-page summary of a silly book slamming Christian rock music.  I wrote comments in the margins and asked to meet with him to discuss his viewpoint.

He asked me, “Are you going to let the kids go to any more rock concerts?”  I replied, “Yes.”  He responded, “Then we’re leaving the church.”

That’s narrow thinking.

*In one church, a woman on the worship team convinced herself that the congregation was going to start singing for half an hour every Sunday even though I had different plans for our worship time.  Because she was causing dissension, I invited her to my office, listened to her concerns, asked her if she understood my reasoning, and asked her to bring any additional complaints to me personally.

A few weeks later, she was basically telling people, “Either Jim goes or I go.”

That’s narrow thinking.

When we’re anxious and under stress, we often see only one or two ways to resolve a situation.

One common reaction to stress is the classic fight or flight syndrome.  In churches, this is usually directed against the pastor when someone says, “Either he goes or I go.”

On the old 24 TV series, Jack Bauer would often do something rash … like kill someone … and when he was confronted, he’d say, “I didn’t have a choice.”

That’s narrow thinking.

In his excellent book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, church conflict consultant Peter Steinke writes:

“When we are flooded with anxiety, we can neither hear what is said without distortion nor respond with clarity.  Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist, comments that stress limits our repertoire of responses.  Fixated on what is endangering us, we forfeit our imaginative capacities.  We act with a small and sometimes unproductive repertoire of behaviors.  With fewer alternatives, we act foolishly.”

When a church leader … like a pastor, staff member, or board member … is under great stress, they are tempted to make decisions that will end their temporary stress.

But the problem, of course, is that they may alleviate their own stress but create much greater stresses for others down the road.

Here are some thoughts as to how church leaders can better handle stressful decisions:

First, the bigger the decision, the more time the leaders should take.

I once spoke with the chairman of a church board that had fired their pastor.  Based on what the chairman told me, the pastor deserved to be removed from office.

The pastor did something in a board meeting that was not only wrong, but dangerous.  His actions created enormous trauma for everyone involved.  After the pastor left the meeting, the board chose to let him go and voted to give him a token severance.

I told the chairman that it was fine to decide to fire him that night but that the board should have waited several days before deciding on his exit package.  They were so stressed that, in my mind, they would have made a better decision had they waited.

Most of the time, I believe church boards should give a departing pastor a generous severance package because it provides the pastor with more options for his future.  The fewer the options, the greater the stress … and the greater the chance the pastor will start a church in his former church’s backyard.

Second, the bigger the decision, the more experts should be consulted.

In the first chapter of my book Church Coup, entitled “Pushed,” I recounted how the church board in my last pastorate tried to force me to resign.

When I met with the board at a showdown meeting, I asked them how many experts they had consulted to make their decision.  Their answer?  “Two” … and one person gave me the name of a pastor in another state.

By contrast, a few days later, I had consulted with seventeen experts, including seminary professors, conflict professionals, Christian counselors, an attorney, and several former board chairmen.

To this day, I remain convinced that the board’s thinking became so narrow that they didn’t really know what they were doing … and I told them that to their faces.

Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers, they succeed.”

Proverbs 24:6 adds, “… for waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.”

The pastors, staff members, and board members who create the most chaos in their churches are the ones who either don’t consult with anyone or who listen to only one or two others.

To truly resolve a major conflict, a leader needs “many advisers.”

Third, the bigger the decision, the more options need to be generated.

In his book, Steinke tells the story of a church board where their thinking was dominated by money worries.

A new board member named Chip offered various imaginative ideas for dealing with the church’s perpetual financial crisis, but the other board members “couldn’t accept the fact that their offerings reached the top five years ago and were steadily declining.”

The four leaders who were focused on finances had blocked an attempt to turn one of their two worship services into a contemporary one five years before.  When they made that decision, about forty members left … and took their checkbooks with them.

Over the previous five years, the board had come up with only one option continually: a line of credit at the bank.

Chip finally asked the board this question: “Are we going to stay focused on difficulty or are we going to look at the possible?”

(Besides many more options, that church also needs a new board.)

New leaders often bring fresh approaches to stressful situations … and should at least be heard.

Finally, the bigger the decision, the more calm the leaders’ spirits should be.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m super-stressed, I don’t tend to make good decisions.

Pastors … church staffs … and board members react the same way.

When church leaders undergo stress, their tendency is to alleviate the stress quickly … and in the process, they often make horrendous choices.

It’s better to take some time … dig into God’s Word … cast your burdens on the Lord … and ask Him to give you a peaceful heart.

That can be done individually, but it’s often wise to do it as a leadership group.

My third pastorate was my best, but it was also the most stressful.  In the first few years, we often had board meetings that lasted five to seven hours.

Our first chairman would usually choose a passage of Scripture and read it aloud to the rest of us.  Then we’d pray around the room, asking God for His guidance and direction in the decisions we were about to make.

While some board members probably wanted to “get in and get out” of the meeting quickly, the decisions we made were so important that we needed to have peaceful spirits.

This concept is so important to me that if I were running the church board, I’d tell the others, “We’re only going to make decisions when our spirits are calm.”

Taking time … consulting experts … generating options … and creating peaceful spirits are great ways for church leaders to expand their thinking.

And expanded thinking leads to churches that advance Christ’s kingdom.

 

 

 

 

 

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One of the greatest injustices in Christian churches today is that when a pastor is accused of wrongdoing, he usually lacks any kind of meaningful forum for responding to the charges.

And when he doesn’t respond adequately or immediately, any accusations are assumed by the pastor’s detractors to be true.

But it’s likely that pastors don’t answer charges well because they don’t know how to go about it.

The following story is a composite of situations I’ve heard about or experienced.

Pastor Bill attended a worship planning meeting one Monday night on his church’s campus, and after the meeting concluded, Jill, a team member, wanted to speak with him.

Jill was very emotional, and Bill did his best to listen, but ten minutes later, they were the only people in the building.

As soon as Bill realized they were alone, he began walking the distressed Jill toward the exit while trying his best to listen to her sorrow.

They spoke for a few minutes more outside the worship center, and as Bill turned to leave, Jill gave him a big “thank you” hug … which was witnessed by Cindy, a team member who had returned to retrieve her phone in the worship planning room.

The next day, the news was circulating around the church that Pastor Bill and Jill were involved.

The board chairman found out about it on Wednesday.

The entire board heard the news by Friday … as did most of their wives.

Bill didn’t hear anything until Sunday morning … in an email sent by a friend at 1:45 am, which he didn’t read until right before he left for church the next morning.

Most of the staff knew by Sunday morning … as did Jill’s husband and Bill’s wife.

Bill didn’t have a “thing” for Jill.  She was a ministry team member and a longtime friend.  He was just trying to be a good pastor by lending Jill an ear for a few minutes.

But when Cindy reported the incident to a few of her friends, they read their own experiences into what they heard and blew matters out of proportion, and suddenly Bill was on the hot seat.

Once Bill knew that the “incident” had traveled throughout the church, how should he handle matters?

Here are seven steps toward resolution:

First, the pastor can’t act like nothing happened.

He can remain silent publicly.  He can preach his sermon … greet his people … and go home.  Refuse to feed the fire.  Hope it will all blow over soon.

That approach might work with many such incidents, but the church grapevine comes alive whenever the pastor and another woman might be involved.

While the pastor might choose not to say anything … at least initially … he has to stay calm … and that’s not easy.

But he has to take action and get out ahead of this one.

Second, the pastor must tell his wife, board chairman, and associate pastor his version of events … separately and quickly. 

The pastor can’t overreact.

He must patiently tell his story to those closest to him.  He needs to be as open and honest as possible.

He must ask them if they believe him.  If they do, they will defend him.  If even one isn’t sure, however, it could cause trouble down the road.

The sooner the pastor gets the board on his side, the better, so the chairman should inform the rest of the board immediately.

The associate should handle the rest of the staff.

But most of all, the pastor’s wife needs to stand by him … strongly.

It would be advisable for the board chairman to contact Jill and receive her version of events as well.

The quicker the board acts, the sooner matters will be resolved.

This might seem like overkill, but let me assure you … the alternative is far worse.

Third, the pastor should ask the board to have a plan for response ready.

If the pastor’s marriage is loving and healthy … and everyone knows it … then this crisis will probably pass pretty quickly.

And if the pastor has a reputation for integrity, most people will give him the benefit of the doubt.

However … if there are churchgoers who don’t like the pastor, and want to see him leave … they might very well add their own charges to this “mini-scandal.”

For some reason, when a single accusation against a pastor makes its way around a congregation, there are usually those who seize the opportunity to make their own accusations against him.

One charge becomes two … becomes four .. becomes seven … becomes ten.

And then someone will call for the pastor’s resignation.

The board cannot assume that because Bill and Jill say that “nothing happened” that everyone else will believe them.

The truth is that a distinct minority may not want to believe them.

So the board needs to meet with Pastor Bill quickly … either on Sunday or Monday evening.

They need to hear his story from his own lips, and if they stand behind him, they need to put a plan in place for addressing any further accusations.

Fourth, the pastor needs to be an active participant in this process.

A mistake that many pastors make at this juncture is to relinquish everything into the hands of the board.

Why?

Because without guidance, some boards will make things even worse.

On the one hand, it’s understandable why the pastor would want to leave matters in the board’s hands.

When a pastor is under attack, it’s difficult for him to defend himself sufficiently.

The attacks hurt him and wound his spirit.  Since most pastors are pretty sensitive, they would prefer to assume a fetal position and lock themselves in a closet until matters are resolved.

But on the other hand, unless board members have had a lot of experience and have been well-trained in conflict management, their default position may be to put the incident behind them as quickly as possible.

And in the process, they may sell out their pastor.

I don’t like to say this, but when it comes to church matters, the pastor is likely a professional, and the board members are likely amateurs.

So the professional needs to provide guidance and expertise for the amateurs.

True, the pastor cannot exonerate himself.  He needs the board to do that for him.

But he needs to steer the process so the board can make their best possible decisions.

Fifth, the pastor must challenge the board to identify and confront those who have been spreading charges against him.

This is where most church boards blow it.

Stand behind our pastor?  Sure.

That’s playing defense.

Confront those spreading rumors?  Pass.

That’s playing offense.

I don’t know why this is so hard.

When Paul dealt with troublemakers, he named names: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:19); Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:17); Demas (2 Timothy 4:10); Alexander the metalworker (2 Timothy 4:14).

And John did the same thing when he singled out Diotrephes by name in 3 John 9-10.

These verses aren’t just taking up space in our Bibles:

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.  For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.  By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.  Romans 16:17-18

Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time.  After that, have nothing do with him.  You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.  Titus 3:10-11

A pastor once told me that he was under attack at his church.  He brought in a consultant who asked the board members, “Who is attacking your pastor?”

They knew who the individuals were.

The consultant then told them, “Go meet with them and tell them to stop what they’re doing.”

The board members replied, “But we can’t go.  Those people are our friends!”

The consultant responded, “Go … now!”

They got in their cars and went … around 9 pm, as I recall.

But most boards think that it’s somehow offensive to go on offense at this point … but it’s the best thing they can do.

The board is showing churchgoers that they take the Bible … church unity … truth … and their pastor seriously.

And believe me, word will get around the church … and people will think twice the next time they’re tempted to spread gossip about their pastor.

But if the board wilts at this point, they’re not only throwing their pastor to the wolves … they’re establishing a culture that says the board won’t stand behind their pastor.

I have known several good pastors who quit at this point … not because they did anything wrong, but because their boards actively or passively caved on supporting their shepherd.

Sixth, the pastor must wait patiently for the board to finish their work.

This is so difficult.

Many years ago, a church leader vocalized an accusation against me.  It was a spur-of-the-moment thing … and I didn’t react calmly.

I immediately contacted the board chairman and an attorney in the church.  The board launched an investigation.

The next day, they met with my accuser and with me separately.

Then they asked me to apologize to my accuser.  Although I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, I did apologize … the next morning.

Then the board asked my accuser how many people had been told about the incident.  After gathering their names, board members contacted each person and told them not to spread things any further.

I not only had to wait for the board to finish their work … I had to wait to see if there would be any fallout down the road.

Tom Petty is right … the waiting is the hardest part.

Several individuals eventually left the church over it, but what could have been a tragedy was averted because the board handled things patiently and quietly.

And I had to let them do it.

I had input on the process because I had written a policy handbook months before that addressed how to handle such incidents … and thankfully, the board not only approved it, they followed it.

Finally, the pastor needs to teach his church how to handle both interpersonal and institutional conflict.

Once board members confronted those who spread rumors about Pastor Bill, the rumors died a quick death.

But had the board members failed to confront the gossips, matters could have gotten worse … much worse.

In many ways, the board had a choice: either confront the talebearers privately in their homes or eventually address the issues publicly in a congregational meeting.

And if you’ve ever seen a pastor on trial in a public meeting, you’ll never forget it … and won’t ever want to see it again.

In a few months … after the church is at peace … Pastor Bill needs to do some teaching on how believers should address conflict with each other and how believers should address grievances with church leaders … including their pastor.

Whenever I spoke on conflict, I automatically ruled out relating any incidents from my current church … only churches from my past or those I heard about from others.

So the pastor should not connect his sermon to the incident several months before.

Instead of trying to rectify the past, the pastor should try and prevent such incidents in the future.

In fact, I believe a pastor should discuss “how we handle conflict around here” at least once or twice every year.

Because when people become emotional, they become irrational, and such people can cause a lot of damage in a church.

Biblical safeguards are the church’s … and the pastor’s … ultimate protection.

_______________

Today marks the 550th blog article that I have written and published.

As of today, I’ve had more than 202,000 views on the blog over the past six-and-a-half years.

Sometimes I’ll write an article … it will do well initially … and few people will ever view it again.

Other times, I’ll write an article … it seems to go nowhere … and yet several years later, it will receive a healthy viewership.

With today’s article, I started in one direction, and as I wrote, I sensed I needed to go another direction.  I trust this article will be just what someone needs.

Whether you’re a longtime reader, or have stumbled onto this blog, thanks for checking in.

If I can help you with a conflict situation, please write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org and we’ll make plans to talk.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Romans 12:18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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“What else don’t you like about the pastor?”

John, a former board member and longtime attendee at Hope Church, asked this question of the thirteen people who were meeting in his living room one warm Thursday evening.

“His clothes are really blah … not fashionable at all,” commented Mary.

“And I don’t like the way he does his hair,” chimed in Patty.

“And that car he drives,” added Pete.  “It may be paid off, but it’s a real eyesore.”

“Okay,” John summed up, “we’ve now listed eighteen things we don’t like about Pastor Phil.  Let’s take a break and see if we can come up with a few more.  In the meantime, Cheryl, why don’t you read them back to us?”

Cheryl dutifully read each “charge” to the group … and many members nodded their heads approvingly as they heard them recited.

Welcome to the “gunnysacking the pastor” meeting.

I first heard the term “gunnysacking” from a woman in my last church who was a professional conflict manager.  She used it to describe the ugly process that occurs when a group gathers all their complaints against their leader in one bag … and then pours it out on top of him or her all at once.

Gunnysacking occurs in a church when a group of churchgoers meet to make as many allegations as possible against their pastor in hopes that he will hear their charges and resign.

It’s akin to brainstorming everything that you don’t like about a person.

Let me make ten comments about the art of gunnysacking a pastor:

First, gunnysacking is a cowardly activity.

Gunnysackers lack the courage to handle any concerns they have about their pastor in a biblical and loving manner.

If they’re upset about the pastor’s clothes or car, they should speak with him directly rather than with their friends.  After all, what can their friends do about the pastor’s clothes or car?

But instead of speaking with their pastor personally, they only share their petty grievances with people they know feel the same way … and it doesn’t help anyone.

Second, gunnysacking is intended to be a shortcut.

Gunnysackers ignore the protocols that their church has already set up to handle complaints against the pastor.  These protocols are usually spelled out in their church’s constitution and bylaws.

But those processes take time, and often require the cooperation of the official church board.  And by the time gunnysackers find each other, the last thing they want to do is wait.  Their anxiety makes them want to act … now.

In my experience, unless a pastor is guilty of a major offense (heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior), the faster the gunnysackers act, the more damage they will ultimately cause.

Third, gunnysacking wreaks of desperation.

Gunnysackers sometimes air their complaints to church staff or board members.  If they can find a leader who agrees with their complaints, they may very well try and recruit that person as an ally.

But if they try and find allies … and no leader bites … then they figure, “We’re just going to have to do this ourselves.”

The gunnysackers I’ve known shared a narrow view of how church should be done.  And when the pastor didn’t meet their expectations … there was only one solution: he has to go … and we’re willing to provide the push.

For this reason, gunnysacking is an activity of the flesh, not the Spirit.

Fourth, gunnysacking substitutes a quantity of charges for quality charges.

In the average evangelical church, if the official board discovered that the pastor had been engaging in sexual immorality with Bertha Blue at the local motel, they would most likely fire the pastor immediately.

If you have one substantive charge, you don’t need to add more.

The only reason a group piles accusation upon accusation is because they lack anything impeachable.

I once was presented a plethora of negative information about a staff member.  I stayed home and investigated the charges over two full days, and, sad to say, the charges were all true.

I could have confronted him with at least seven to ten indiscretions, but I chose to present him with just the two worst infractions.

When we met, he denied the charges, but I had the evidence in my hands, and he resigned soon afterwards.

If I had added more allegations to the two strong ones I already had, it would have been cruel and come off as revenge … and revenge has no place among Christ’s people.

In my mind, the whole gunnysacking process is a silent confession that the “sackers” lack any substantive charges.  They throw accusations at the wall, hoping some of them stick.

Fifth, gunnysacking is an attempt to make “my complaint your complaint.”

If I don’t like the way the pastor wears his hair (a complaint made against my pastor father many years ago), that’s my personal feeling.

And to even ruminate on that for more than a few seconds smacks of pettiness and a lack of authentic spirituality.

If I’m sitting in church Sunday after Sunday, and I really can’t stand my pastor’s haircut, then I either need to leave the church or ask the Lord to help me accept my pastor.

But if I choose to share my feelings with an entire group, I’ve crossed a line, because now I’m trying to take my private feelings and turn them into official charges … even if they’re not used in the end.

And, my friends, that is just plain evil.

Division in a church begins when people pool their complaints.  Gunnysacking is among the most divisive activities that can ever take place inside a congregation.

Sixth, gunnysacking is ultimately a destructive behavior.

Let me tell you how I was “gunnysacked” as a pastor three decades ago.

I’ve told this story before, but in my second pastorate, the seniors had a Sunday School class which was taught by a former pastor in his late sixties.

He was very disgruntled because he wanted to serve as a pastor or a missionary, but because of his age … and two divorces … nobody would hire him.

So in his class, he railed against some of the practices the elders and I had agreed upon … changes we felt were necessary to reach our community.

The seniors quickly coalesced around the former pastor, and one night, seventeen people met for a single purpose: to create so many charges against me that the elders would ask for my resignation.

The purpose was not constructive … it was destructive.

They not only attacked me, but they attacked my wife, my nine-year-old son, and my six-year-old daughter.

That’s sick.

They claimed that my wife’s slip was showing one Sunday.  (If just one of those people loved her, shouldn’t they have told her personally?)

And one complaint about me was that the drummer’s wife wore her dresses too short.  (Again, why didn’t one of the gunnysackers speak with her personally?  Why was that my job?)

Every single charge was that petty.

Seventh, gunnysacking denies the pastor due process.

In my case, the “Oust Jim” group planned to meet with the elders, read their charges aloud, and then figured that the elders would agree with them and ask me to leave.

There are two huge problems with this scenario.

First, the pastor’s accusers get to bypass him completely and never have to make any charges to his face.  And when churchgoers don’t meet with their pastor directly with their complaints, they almost always tend to exaggerate.

Second, the pastor never gets to hear the charges against him nor answer them.  In fact, he doesn’t know what is being said about him nor who is making charges against him.

And by any measure … biblical, cultural, personal, or organizational … that is just plain wrong.

Years ago, I spoke with a pastor who went to a meeting with several hundred disgruntled churchgoers.  Predictably, they turned into a mob, and both the pastor and the church were severely damaged.

So for that reason, I believe that whenever gunnysacking is occurring, the official board needs to become involved.

Eighth, gunnysacking requires the official board to intervene and redirect the gunnysackers toward a healthy, biblical process. 

In my situation thirty years ago, I heard what the gunnysackers were doing, so I spoke with the board chairman, Richard, about how I felt matters should be handled.

I told Richard that he should do two things:

*Tell the gunnysackers to choose two representatives to make their charges.  The elders should also choose two representatives.  A two-on-two meeting is much more fair than having seventeen Jim Haters meet with four elders.  The numbers alone would make any meeting emotionally lopsided.

*The two elders should answer each charge instantly after it’s made.  The two reps from the pastor hating group should not be allowed to read all of their charges at once.

To his everlasting credit, Richard agreed with my counsel and fully carried it out.

If I had to do it over again, I’d add a third piece of counsel:

*The gunnysackers should be told to go back and organize their complaints:

They should write the name of the original complainer next to each complaint.

The original complainer should then be told, “You are responsible for making this complaint yourself.  The rest of us will not be getting involved.  It’s not really our complaint … it’s yours.  We’re not going to carry your offenses for you.”

The complaints should be divided into two categories: personal and policy.

The personal complaints require that the complainer set up an appointment with the pastor and share their complaint(s) to his face.

If the complainer refuses to do this, then the complaint is, from that time on, a non-issue.

Most gunnysackers won’t do this because they know … deep in their hearts … that their complaints are both petty and mean.

The policy complaints require that the complainer set up an appointment to meet with two representatives from the official church board.  Since the board makes policy – usually in conjunction with the pastor – most complaints about the ministry should start with them.  The pastor should be left out of policy grievances unless he made policy unilaterally … and if so, those policies can be brought to the church board for discussion.

Ninth, gunnysackers want to end their relationship with their target.

The best way to handle complaints against a pastor is to handle them as they arise.

Deal with them one at a time.

If you want to end your relationship with your child, just dump ten things they’ve done wrong on them all at once.

If you want to send your spouse packing, just recite all their faults in one glorious bundle.

If you want to get fired, just tell your boss all the things you don’t like about how he or she manages things.

If you want to keep a relationship with someone, you deal with one issue at a time … as each one arises.

If you want to end a relationship, just keep score and drop the whole load on them at once.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that “loves does not take into account a wrong suffered.”  In other words, love doesn’t keep score.

But hate sure does.

Finally, gunnysackers expose themselves as allies of the enemy.

I can’t find one place in the New Testament where God’s people got together and compiled a list of their leader’s faults.

The disciples never did this with Jesus … and Paul’s followers never did this with him.

This is not how God operates.  The Holy Spirit knows that God’s people are fragile, so rather than convict us of 26 sins at once, He tends to hit us with one or two at a time.

After all, who can change 26 things about themselves at a time?

But this is how Satan operates.  The accuser of the brethren loves to convince believers that they are bad … worthless … and unfit for the Master’s use.

And he hopes that we become so discouraged … and even depressed … that we stop loving and serving God with a devoted heart.

I hear about gunnysacking attempts in churches quite a bit.  Sometimes the complaints even originate with the church board.

I have a suggestion.

Instead of holding meetings to attack the pastor, how about holding meetings to pray for the pastor instead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This morning, I received an email from a PhD student at a Christian university.  He wants to interview me as to what happens in a congregation after a pastor is involuntarily terminated.

I’ve been hoping someone would do a study like this for some time.

During my second church staff experience, my pastor was voted out of office, so I have undergone such a scenario firsthand.  I have also heard from scores of churchgoers and leaders who have shared with me what happened in their church after their pastor left.

Most of these consequences are not matters that church leaders anticipated when they forced out their pastor.  There isn’t much in print on this issue, so most leaders are flying blind when they get rid of a pastor.

This is what God’s people have told me:

First, a few people – usually the pastor’s supporters – leave the church immediately.

When I was in my early twenties, my pastor was removed from office by the congregation.  I assumed there would be a mass exodus, but as I recall, only one family left the church, which still surprises me.

In my own case, after a horrendous congregational meeting – one that indicated that I needed to leave my church – a veteran Christian came up to me and expressed great sorrow at the way I was treated.  He told me that he had seen this kind of thing before, knew where it was going, and wanted no part of it.

After that meeting, he and his wife left for good, ending up at a friend’s church instead.

The more unfairly the termination is perceived by the congregation, the more people will leave … and among those will be some who can never be replaced.

Most staff members will stay … at least initially … because the church pays them, but if a key board member or leader leaves, their example might persuade others that they’re on a sinking ship and need to dive off … quickly.

Second, church leaders will feel overwhelmed as the pastor’s duties land on them.

If a senior pastor is forced out, and the church has an associate pastor, most of the ex-pastor’s duties may fall on him by default.

If the church has a larger staff, those duties may be spread out among staffers.

But if the church doesn’t have staff, the pastor’s duties will probably revert to the board, and the chances are high that they won’t know what to do … which is why many boards hire an interim prematurely.

My guess is that most board members don’t know all that their pastor does in a given week or month, and when they force him out … especially if it’s abrupt … they have no idea how much work won’t get done … and the pastor they just pushed out won’t be available to help them.

Without their pastor, many people won’t know where to go for counseling, either … and chances are poor that they’ll seek out the very board members who pushed out their beloved shepherd.

Third, the congregation craves stability.

For many people, a pastor is the father they never had … and the pastor’s wife is the mom they wish they had.

It’s tough enough in a family when either dad or mom leaves home, but can you imagine how hard it would be if they both left at once?

But that’s what happens when a pastor is forced out of office.  The church’s spiritual father and mother vanish overnight.

Some big sisters and brothers usually try and assure their church family that things will be okay, but to many in the congregation – especially new believers and newcomers – the church feels like a plane in free fall.

Sadly, some leaders and churchgoers become so desperate for normality that they will do almost anything to feel better again.

It’s at this point that many leaders make a foolish mistake.

Fourth, the church board hires an interim pastor too quickly.

When my pastor was removed many years ago, the district sent us an older man: J. Wilbur Bullard.  Dr. Bullard was a spiritual man … and a sweet man … but he was also an experienced pastor … and he righted the plane immediately.

Dr. Bullard happened to work out, but all too many church boards … feeling anxious and confused … fail to take the time to hire the right interim for their church.

Instead, they hire the first interim available … sometimes, a friend or colleague of someone in district leadership.

Of course, a district minister wants someone he knows to become interim pastor.  If the DM shows loyalty to the interim, he expects the interim will show loyalty in return and keep funds flowing from the church to district coffers.

But what’s most important is that a church hire the right interim … preferably an intentional interim … and not all interims recommended by districts know what they’re doing.

The average interim comes to a church and buys time while the search team looks for a new pastor.

An intentional interim comes with a structured plan and helps the congregation define who they are and what they want – and need – in a new pastor.

A church board or search team should interview multiple interim candidates and find the one who fits best in their situation.

In fact, it’s better to hire no one than the wrong person.

I trained with Interim Pastor Ministries led by Tom Harris.  I highly recommend Tom’s approach to interim ministry.  Tom gave me the opportunity to serve as an interim at a wonderful church in New Hampshire, and although I chose not to pursue any more opportunities after that, he runs a first-class organization.

If you’re a board member or church leader, and your pastor recently left, and you haven’t yet hired an interim, you owe it to yourself to contact Tom first.  Here’s his contact information:

http://www.interimpastors.com/

Fifth, the church board says as little as it can about why the pastor left.

Not long ago, I spoke with the chairman of a church board that had fired their pastor … and for good reason.

The chairman spoke with an attorney who told him to say nothing about why the pastor left.

But I told the chairman that if the board said nothing, that might keep them out of legal trouble, but they would subsequently have problems with others in the church.

Why?

Because when a pastor is fired … especially if the whole process is abrupt … many churchgoers will be highly anxious, and need an explanation from church leaders to help them make sense of things … and to stay.

Churchgoers also want to trust their leaders, but if the only explanation they receive is, “We can’t say anything, but trust us,” I for one wouldn’t trust them at all.

Why not?

Because that’s not the reasoning of a board that rightly terminated their pastor … that’s the reasoning of a board that’s trying to cover up their part in their pastor’s departure.

I’m a firm believer that a church board needs to say as much as they can about why their pastor left … not as little as they can.

The board doesn’t need to say, “Pastor Smith committed adultery with Betty Lou, the head of women’s ministry.”

But they do need to say, “Pastor Smith was guilty of moral failure” … and if the board has a statement from Pastor Smith admitting that fact, so much the better.

There’s a fine line between harming a pastor’s reputation/future earning power and telling a church the truth … but church boards need to walk that line if they want to restore confidence in congregational leadership.

For the optimal way to remove a pastor from office, you might find this article beneficial:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2016/04/15/removing-a-pastor-wisely/

And for more on sharing information with a congregation, I recommend this article:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2015/01/12/telling-the-truth-after-a-pastoral-termination/

Sixth, many of the church’s best people still may eventually leave.

Nobody attends a church because of the church board, which meets and makes policy in private.

No, most people attend a church because of personal relationships … and because they like their pastor.

In fact, many believers who end up choosing a particular church have visited other churches for months before finally settling down.

When I left my last church, I encouraged everyone I knew to stay.  A few left right away, but most gave it their best shot for as long as they could.

But over time, some contacted me and said, “I really tried to stay, but in the end, I had to go.”

For example, one friend stayed for a year but finally left when she saw someone who helped push me out sitting near her … and knew that his divisive actions and comments were never addressed by church leaders.

Over time … without solicitation … people told me, “I just left the church.”  Sometimes they told me why … sometimes not.

Some friends also told me on occasion, “So and So no longer attends.  They’re now going somewhere else.”

And I’d think to myself, “The church can’t thrive without these people unless many more like them are coming in the front door.  They’re solid believers … regular attenders … generous givers … and faithful volunteers.”

It’s my belief that when a good pastor – who was not guilty of any major offense – is forced out by the church board, most of the “good people” at the church will eventually leave.

And sadly, without those “good people,” the losers end up in church leadership, plunging the church into a downward spiral that’s nearly impossible to stop.

Finally, terminating an innocent pastor can have tragic consequences for a church for years to come.

By innocent, I mean a pastor who was not guilty of any major offense … only manufactured offenses.

When a church terminates such a pastor, they invite these results:

*Some churches that terminated a pastor find it easier to terminate the next pastor(s).  This is what happened in my father’s case.  Even though he was the founding pastor of a church, the board pushed him out … and then pushed out the next two pastors.

Some churches are “repeat offender” congregations, and most healthy pastors won’t even consider serving them.

*Some churches that terminated a pastor hire a new pastor who eventually takes the church down the tubes, but the congregation experienced such trauma after removing the first pastor that they give the next pastor immunity … even if he’s unqualified or incompetent.

This means that the church fired a pastor they should have kept while keeping a pastor they should have fired.

*Some churches – although a relatively small percentage – may thrive in the days ahead, but I don’t hear about these churches.  Nobody calls me up and says, “Hey, Jim, we fired our pastor a year ago, and now our church is doing better than ever!”

I’m sure this happens … just not very often.  (This would make another good study.)

*Some churches dissolve several years after terminating an innocent pastor.

This is what happened in my father’s case.  After pushing my dad to the sidelines, the church board terminated the next two pastors, and the church then dissolved.

Years after the congregation removed their pastor, the church I served as a staff member eventually dissolved as well.

A friend who reads this blog told me that after he was forced out, the board forced out the next pastor, and then the church disappeared.

Nothing kills a church’s morale like firing their divinely called shepherd.

_______________

When a church board believes they’re at an impasse with their pastor, they may very well want to engage in “fight or flight” … that is, either “the pastor goes or we go.”

Some board members tell their colleagues, “In my business, when I have an employee who isn’t working out, I just fire him and hire somebody new.  Let’s do that here.”

But a church isn’t strictly a business … it’s more like a family.

And although a small business owner or a supervisor might be able to control the consequences after firing an employee, no church board can control what happens after they force a pastor to leave.

One of my aims with this ministry is to say to boards who have issues with their pastor, “Think Christianly.  Think biblically.  Think broadly.  Think compassionately.”

I am not saying you can’t or shouldn’t terminate your pastor.  I am saying that unless he’s guilty of a major offense (heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior), don’t let your anxiety cause you to do something that will damage your church for years … or end its very life.

Seek God’s face … get professional counsel … take your time … do it right.

What are some other consequences you’ve seen after a pastor is terminated?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A pastor I knew for more than twenty years died last week.

For years, AA was my friend.

My first exposure to him was at Biola College when he came and spoke in chapel one Thursday morning in Crowell Hall.

AA pastored a church in Fresno and shared with students that radio ads helped his church to grow … then proceeded to play one such ad on a tape recorder.

Years later, on Veteran’s Day in 1980, my church in Garden Grove called an ordination council for me.  AA … who was now pastoring a church of the same denomination in central Orange County … signed my certificate after the examination, although I don’t recall his presence that day.

Fast forward six years.  One afternoon, I was sitting in the office of our district minister when he told me that AA was coming to Oakland to pastor one of the oldest churches in the district.  I wondered, “Why would anyone leave the beauty of Orange County for the ugliness of downtown Oakland?”

But AA went to that Oakland church, and using his entrepreneurial gifts, he sold some church land and started a new church in a beautiful area just a few miles away.

Right before Christmas in 1986, our district held their annual Christmas party at Mount Hermon Conference Center.  I was asked to do a humorous reading of The Night Before Christmas in the style of an expository preacher and it went well.  Afterwards, AA came up to me and suggested we have lunch together.

A few weeks later, we sat in a restaurant near his church overlooking a lagoon (a place I would later eat at dozens of times) and shared our ministry wounds together.  In the process, we became fast friends.

I invited AA to my church in Silicon Valley one day.  The church wasn’t doing well … we’d had a merger four years before that imploded … and I wanted his opinion on our prospects.

He surveyed our campus and quickly said, “I wouldn’t come here” which hurt a bit.

But he also read an article I wrote on “lost shepherds” and told me that it was good and that he knew the editor of the denominational magazine and would recommend that it be published, which is eventually what happened.

One day, I was speaking by phone to the president of our denomination, and he suggested that I put together a group of pastors in my area for support.  Our first meeting was at a Sizzler in Hayward, and over the next few years, our group of five met nearly every month for lunch.  AA was in that group.

For several years, those pastors and their wives met at AA’s home in early December for a Christmas dinner.  He and his wife were very hospitable.  We enjoyed other social events with those couples over the years as well.

I invited AA to speak to our leaders at my church in Silicon Valley, and he in turn had me speak at a men’s breakfast and a stewardship banquet at his church.

In the summer of 1997, I knew I was going to be leaving my church in Silicon Valley, so AA invited me to speak to his church on a Sunday morning.  The time went well, and AA said he wanted to hire me as his associate pastor, but things didn’t work out at the time, and I ended up at a friend’s church in Arizona instead.

But in the fall of 1998, AA began sending me emails, wanting to know if I’d consider becoming his associate pastor.  He planned on retiring and wanted to choose his successor.  After combing through 85 resumes, AA and the board couldn’t find anyone suitable.

I sent him five reasons why it would be good to work together, and five reasons why it wouldn’t work.

He answered all five objections.

Kim and I flew to Oakland on a Friday.  That night, we went out for dinner with AA and his wife, and we had a great time together.  But one of the board members was so upset about the possibility of my coming (he never even met me) that he instantly resigned.  (He wanted a Union Seminary grad instead!)

My wife and I met with the board the following morning, and things went well enough that I soon returned and spoke on a Sunday.

The board offered me the job of associate pastor, and I eventually accepted.  I did not call myself to that position … God called me … because I initially didn’t want to go.

Because our daughter Sarah was in high school, I agreed to start my ministry on June 1, 1999, so she could finish her junior year in Arizona.

In January 2000, AA announced to the church that he would be retiring the following December.  By this time, I had served at the church seven months, and except for one critic … a board member … I felt I got along great with everyone.

The following April … nearly a year after I came to the church … I asked the board to have the congregation vote on me as senior pastor-elect.  The vote was 76-4 … 95% approval.

AA began to pull back on his ministry a bit, and I began to assert myself more.  One day, as we walked past the open field on the church property, AA told me, “That’s where you will build a new sanctuary someday.”

In the fall of 2000, AA and his wife took a trip to New England, and while they were there, my primary critic resigned his position at the church and openly took shots at me.  When he returned home, AA fully supported me, which made matters disappear quickly.

That same critic began spilling board secrets in public, including the fact that the board had agreed to give AA a generous financial gift upon his retirement.  The church was holding its annual congregational meeting in November, and AA was worried that some oldtimers would publicly object to the gift and that he might not receive it.

I shared with AA and the board how to nullify any objections with the congregation, and the meeting passed without incident.

During the eighteen months that we worked together, AA and I got along very well.  We may have disagreed about certain issues … we’re very different people with very different styles … but I don’t recall one time where we had even a single unpleasant conversation.

And during the fourteen years that we knew each other, I considered AA to be one of my closest friends.  In fact, had I died before him, I wanted him to conduct my memorial service.

After he left the church and moved to Arizona, I did my best to maintain contact:

*Whenever I referred to AA in public, I spoke of him in positive terms and with gratitude.

*Whenever I spoke with his friends within the church … including four staff holdovers … I was conscious that anything I said might get back to him … and it sometimes did.  In fact, AA once told me that a certain individual called him all the time to complain about me.

*Since AA had family in our community, he visited the area a few times a year.  At first, he’d contact me and we’d get together, but after a while, he’d come into town and meet with people from the church without telling me, which made me suspicious.

*He and his wife visited the church a few times after he retired, and things seemed to go well … until the Sunday when I stood up to preach and noticed that AA and his wife were sitting by themselves next to a couple who were angry with me about an issue that had no resolution.

*I interviewed AA about two incidents that happened during his tenure as pastor that led to conflicts and included them in my doctoral project for Fuller Seminary.

*AA became president of a parachurch organization.  Our church supported him financially as a missionary and hosted one of their meetings in the church library.

*I invited AA to speak at the dedication of our new worship center in October 2005.  I also presented him and his wife with a letter of appreciation and a plaque for all they had done for the church.

But during his message, AA made a derogatory comment about me … one that most people wouldn’t have noticed … and I knew something had changed.

Then one man inside the church sent a bizarre email to one of our staff members stating that I needed a mentor and that AA should come back to the church as my associate pastor.  I called the man and tried to set him straight, but it began to dawn on me: AA is telling at least some people that he regrets leaving and wants to come back to the church.

After he retired, AA and his wife lived in Arizona … then Southern California (ironically, in the same city my wife and I live in now) … then in a city in Northern California.

Somewhere along the line, I knew I was being undermined and that anything I did or said that AA’s friends didn’t like would end up being shared with him … and quite possibly, be wrongly interpreted.

I had three options:

*Engage in an investigation into AA’s conduct.  But who would do it?  How would anything change?  What good would come from it?

*Confront AA about his behavior.  But what if he denied everything and then told people I was insecure and paranoid?

*Ignore his behavior and continue building the church … which is what I did.  But what if the undermining gained critical mass?

The church was doing well.  The attendance and giving nearly doubled during my tenure.  We built a new worship center where every vote by the congregation was unanimous.  We were the largest Protestant church in our city by far and had a great reputation in the community.

Fast forward ahead four years.

In the fall of 2009, I heard that AA and his wife were living in a house owned by former church members on weekends … only 500 feet from our church campus.

Only AA never told me.

Intentional or not, he now had a base of operations near the church to hear any complaints against me … just like Absalom listened to complaints about his father David at the gates of Jerusalem.

Only people weren’t bringing any complaints to me, so I didn’t know what they were or who might be upset with me.

I didn’t know it at the time, but AA not only had his fingers in the congregation … he had his fingers in the church staff, and especially in the church board.

In October 2009, a conflict broke out with the church board, and a few weeks later, I chose to resign.

The night I told church leaders that I was going to leave, I was told by the church consultant I had hired that AA had been meeting with the six members of the church board about me.  I don’t know who initiated contact, or how many times they met, or whether the board wanted AA to be their next interim/senior pastor … although a top Christian leader told me that was the plan.

That consultant exposed the plot and wrote a report stating that AA should not be allowed to return to the church in any capacity.

After years of friendship, my good friend had completely flipped on me.

_______________

I never learned what I did or didn’t do … or said or didn’t say … to cause AA to conspire to force me out of my position and eventually end my pastoral career.

Although I can venture some guesses, I’m not very good at mind reading.

I can’t recall our final conversation, but found it telling that he never contacted me after I resigned and left the church, even though I wrote a book about the conflict (Church Coup) and have written more than 500 blogs … most of them about pastor-church conflict.

Several years ago, I went to his Facebook page, and noticed that he was friends with nearly every single person who stood against me in my final days, including former board members and staffers.

In England, they call that a Shadow Government.

I have no idea when or where AA’s memorial service will be held … or if it’s already been held … and I’m certain that I won’t be asked to speak.

So I thought I’d write a blog about the man I knew.

I’ll always be grateful that he wanted me to become his associate pastor and eventually succeed him as pastor.  By every measure, the church did quite well over the next nine years.

And I’ll always be grateful for his friendship … his counsel … his support … and all the good times we had.

Rest in peace, Andy.  I forgive you.

See you in glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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