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Posts Tagged ‘accusations against a pastor’

I have a confession to make … and it’s very painful indeed.

My name is Shirley.  Earlier this year, I said something to a friend that eventually resulted in devastation for our pastor … his family … our church … and my family.

Several months ago, I came home from work early one day, and I passed by the home of my friend Sandi.

Sandi’s car was in the driveway, but her husband’s car was gone, and a Ford truck – belonging to our pastor – was parked in front of Sandi’s house.

My first thought was, “Could something be going on between Sandi and Pastor Joe?”

So I drove by several more times later that afternoon, just to be certain, and sure enough, the pastor’s truck was still there.

By 4:45, Pastor Joe’s truck was gone, and by 5:35, the car of Sandi’s husband was parked in their driveway.

I was suspicious.  Years before, I knew someone whose church was devastated when it was discovered that the pastor was having an affair, so I’ve always been on the lookout for such signs.

Of course, I didn’t have any proof that anything was happening between the pastor and Sandi, but if something was happening, I didn’t want to remain silent, either.

So I called Beth, a good friend and the wife of a board member, and told her what I saw.  Beth thanked me for my call.

Two weeks later, the conversation at church was dominated by a single topic: Pastor Joe and Sandi were having an affair!

For the next several Sundays, the congregation was full of tension.  People stood around in cliques and spoke in hushed tones before and after services.  I happened to walk by two groups, and overheard both of them discussing the same topic: the relationship between the pastor and Sandi.

But I didn’t dare tell anyone that I was the person who initially raised the issue.

Beth told me that the board had already held an emergency meeting without Pastor Joe.  Then the board called another meeting and met with Pastor Joe alone, who vigorously denied that he was having an affair with Sandi.

But right around that time, I started receiving emails and phone calls from people at church claiming that the pastor was guilty of even more wrongdoing.

He was accused of mishandling church funds … of firing the youth minister out of jealousy … of ignoring the seniors in our church … and of mismanaging his family.

Suddenly, it was open season on Pastor Joe.

There were so many rumors flying around about his character and conduct that the board didn’t know what to do.

Due to their anxiety, some important families threatened to leave the church unless Pastor Joe was fired, so the board asked for Pastor Joe’s resignation.

But the pastor didn’t want to resign.  He claimed that he had done nothing wrong, and that all the rumors were really overreactions.

But nobody seemed to hear Pastor Joe’s denials … they only focused on all the new charges.

And then two staff members … several members of the church board … and leaders from the women’s ministry made additional charges against Pastor Joe.

The staff members claimed that he never affirmed them and demanded too much from them.

Several board members stated that the pastor’s marriage must be in shambles because of his affair.

The women’s ministry leaders stated that Pastor Joe didn’t like women and that he always made them feel uncomfortable.

And on and on and on …

It’s been months since Pastor Joe finally left the church.  We have an interim pastor now, but we’ve lost one-third of our congregation … including some of my best friends … and the board has sent out three letters begging the congregation to give more money by year’s end or we won’t be able to pay our bills.

In the meantime, I eventually found out the real reason why Pastor Joe was at Sandi’s house that afternoon.

Sandi’s husband Neil was raised by an uncle.  The uncle lived across the country, and died suddenly of a heart attack.

The news devastated Neil.  He called Pastor Joe and asked him to come to his house right away.

When Pastor Joe went inside Sandi’s house, Neil was there the whole time … and Neil’s car was missing because it was in a repair shop.

If a couple need counseling, they usually go the pastor’s office at church … but if there’s a death in the family, the pastor usually goes to see them in their house.

I should have known that, but for some reason, I forgot.

Right now, I’m wracked with guilt … and I don’t want to tell anybody what I said or who I said it to.

I just pray that someday, Pastor Joe can forgive me.

_______________

This story is a composite of stories I’ve heard from pastors and board members, although I do know a situation where a pastor was forced to resign because his car was parked outside a woman’s house.

There are several themes to this sad but increasingly common narrative:

First, Shirley should have checked with either Pastor Joe or Sandi before she shared her suspicions with anyone else at church.

She might have emailed the pastor and said, “Hey, I noticed your truck at Neil and Sandi’s house last week.  Is everything okay?”

Or she might have walked up to Sandi at church the next Sunday and said, “I noticed that the pastor’s truck was outside your house last Thursday.  I hope things are all right with your family.”

Either way, she would have learned the true situation … since neither party had anything to hide … and that would have been the end of it.

Instead, Shirley failed to speak with either party and went straight to Beth, who talked to her husband, who passed Shirley’s suspicions on to the entire board … needlessly multiplying the number of people involved.

Second, Beth’s husband should have spoken immediately with the pastor and let him share his side of the story.

But he didn’t. Instead, he called the board chairman, who believed that since a board member was making the accusation against the pastor, it must be true.

But Beth’s husband didn’t make an accusation … he just raised a suspicion.  But that distinction was lost on the board chairman.

Unfortunately, with many people, a private suspicion is the same thing as a formal accusation because they hear things emotionally, not rationally.

The chairman could have told Beth’s husband, “Why don’t you call the pastor and find out why he was at Sandi’s house?”

Or the chairman could have suggested, “How would you feel if I called the pastor and got his side of the story?”

Instead, the chairman called a meeting of the entire board … escalating matters … and again, involving way too many people.

Third, the board didn’t keep a lid on their emergency meeting nor its purpose.

How many gossiping board members does it take to bring down a pastor?

Just one.

And how many gossiping board member’s wives does it take to bring down a pastor?

Just one.

There are a few people in every church who can be trusted to keep important matters confidential.

However, there are many more people who can’t be trusted with anything important.

But some church leaders want to make themselves look significant.  They long to tell people, “I know something you don’t know about our pastor.”

But when they do that … especially when they’re passing on false or incomplete information … the results can be deadly.

When certain people inside a church hear either a board member or a board member’s wife make a serious charge against their pastor, they focus on who is making the charge just as much as the charge itself.

In other words, they take the charge as the gospel truth without any independent verification.

Although those leaders could be completely wrong, their office and status in the church makes them automatically believable to many individuals.

Fourth, when a pastor denies accusations made against him, some people will ignore his protests and bury him with even more accusations.

I can’t get my head around this reality, but it happens all the time.

Because they’re public and influential figures, pastors are frequently accused of wrongdoing.

Sometimes the accusations are made in a restaurant after a Sunday service … or in a car driving home … or after a small group meeting … or via email or texting.

Let’s say a pastor is accused by various churchgoers of doing 100 things wrong in a church one year.

And let’s say that 93 of the accusations are made in private and never circulate inside the congregation, so they just disappear.

Then let’s say that four accusations are brought directly to the pastor’s attention, and he refutes them with ease.

And let’s say that two accusations are brought to the board, and they check with their pastor, who again debunks them.

But let’s say one accusation takes on a life of its own, and that key leaders believe it … and spread it … without ever checking with the pastor first.

That single unproven, unverified accusation has the potential to end the pastor’s tenure in that church.

Because when an accusation circulates long enough … and is passed around to enough people … it takes on a life of its own even if it’s untrue … because the pastor doesn’t know anything about it.

Paul’s caution to Timothy must be among the least-obeyed verses in the entire New Testament:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder [includes pastors; see verses 17-18] unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.  1 Timothy 5:19

Did you catch that?  The elders/board and the congregation should not even entertain an accusation against a pastor unless two or three witnesses are willing to go on the record.

And going on the record means that when they make their accusations, the pastor is allowed to face his accusers and respond to them.

In our little story, Shirley saw the pastor’s truck.  Beth didn’t … her husband didn’t … and the board chairman didn’t … but none of them possessed the wisdom or the courage to speak with the pastor directly.

The result?

Devastation all around.

Fifth, when one serious allegation about a pastor circulates around the church, people often add their own grievances to the mix.

I hear this story all the time.

Let’s say that a board member is telling people that the pastor has mishandled his expense account … and that the news is getting around the church.

When some people sense that the pastor is in trouble, it’s common for them to throw their own complaints about him into the hopper.

Rather than praying for the pastor and their church … or assuming a confident stance that the pastor will be exonerated … or waiting for an investigation to determine the truth … these individuals “pile on” the pastor with their own bitter feelings about him.

And when those allegations reach critical mass, the pastor can’t answer them all, and because those charges hang over him unresolved, he usually has to resign.

Finally, God’s people are all too quick to believe the worst about their pastors.

Becoming a credentialed pastor requires a lot of work.

I was a pastor for 36 years.  To become a pastor:

*I attended a Christian liberal arts college for four years before graduating.

*I attended seminary for five years to earn a Master of Divinity degree.

*I was ordained in my home church, which required that I share my conversion testimony, call to ministry, and a written statement of faith before several dozen Christian leaders, mostly pastors.

*I borrowed funds to complete my education (some prospective pastors borrow tens of thousands of dollars).

*I spent seven more years earning a Doctor of Ministry degree.

I wanted to be the best pastor I could be … and thousands of my colleagues have walked a similar path to gain their credentials.

But in today’s climate, one false allegation … one unsubstantiated rumor … can end not only a pastor’s tenure in a particular church, but also his entire career.

If a pastor is guilty of heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior, he should resign voluntarily, and if he doesn’t, a church board has every right to dismiss him from office while still treating him with dignity and compassion.

But so often, a pastor is forced to resign, not because he did anything wrong, but because church leaders … usually those on the official board … let church politics determine their pastor’s future rather than devising and implementing a biblical, fair, and just process to evaluate any accusations made against him.

The pastor ends up leaving the church because church leaders let the accusations against him get out of hand.

Earlier I mentioned that I know a pastor who was forced to resign because his car was parked outside the home of a woman in his congregation.

Years later, a new pastor came to that church, and asked the previous pastor to return so the congregation could ask the pastor to forgive them for the way they mistreated him.

Maybe Shirley will repent, too, for the way she started the rumor mill grinding about her pastor.

But she shouldn’t be the only one to repent.

There’s more than enough blame to go around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Out of the 269 articles I’ve posted on this blog, a few stand out in my mind because they challenge conventional wisdom.  That’s certainly true of this article from nearly two years ago:

(The following post is meant to be interactive.  Along the way, I have included some questions that I’d like you to answer for your own benefit.  Compare your responses to what actually happened in the story.  Thanks!)

Yesterday I read a true story about a church that faced a terrible situation.  The story comes from congregational consultant Peter Steinke’s book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  I do not wish for anyone to be upset by this story, so please know ahead of time that the story turns out favorably for all.

Here’s what happened:

A young girl in a church accused her pastor of molestation.  Two leaders, Tom and Diane, met privately with the pastor to notify him of the charge.  By state law, they had to report the charge to a governmental agency.

The pastor shook his head and quietly responded, “I have never touched her.  Never.”

1.  Which option would you recommend for the pastor if you were Tom or Diane?

  • Stay and fight the charge.
  • Take a leave of absence.
  • Resign immediately.
  • Hire an attorney.

Which option did you select?

Tom and Diane recommended that the pastor take a leave of absence.

However, the pastor eventually decided against that option because he felt it indicated guilt.  He told the leaders, “I need to clear my name, but I don’t want to drag the church through this for months.”

Tom and Diane knew they had to inform the congregation of the charge, and when they did, a group of members thought the pastor should resign.  The leaders of the church were warned that most cases like this one are based in fact.

2.  What should the leaders do now?

  • Insist that the pastor stay and fight.
  • Encourage him to take a leave of absence.
  • Recommend that the pastor resign.
  • Let the process play itself out.

Which option did you select?

The leaders decided to let the process of justice go forward and stand behind their pastor until the legal system made the next move.

The leaders also decided that they would meet every week for prayer followed by a sharing time where they would openly discuss what they were thinking.

Tom shared that he believed the pastor was innocent.

Diane wondered how stable the girl was based upon the fact that her parents had gone through a terrible divorce two years earlier but had now jointly hired a lawyer.

Another admitted that she was being pressured by other members to withdraw her support for the pastor.

The pastor told the leaders that he would hold no resentment if anyone felt compelled to withdraw their support from him.

One leader chose to resign.

Marie, another leader, stood solidly behind the pastor because she had been falsely accused of something at her own workplace.

A few anxious leaders turned against the pastor and condemned him.

3.  If you attended those weekly meetings, what would you as a leader do now?

  • Insist the pastor stay and fight.
  • Encourage him to take a leave of absence.
  • Recommend that he resign.
  • Let the justice process run its course.

Which option would you select at this point?

The leaders chose the last option once again.

Fourteen weeks later, the charges against the pastor were suddenly dropped.

4.  What should Tom and Diane do now?

  • Verbally berate every person who doubted the pastor’s innocence.
  • Encourage all the doubters to return to the church.
  • Shame those who didn’t stand with the pastor.
  • Just turn the page and move on.

Which option did the leaders select?

They decided to personally contact anyone who doubted the pastor (or the leaders) and welcome them to return to the church – no questions asked.

5.  What did the leaders of this church do that was so unique?

  • They stood behind their pastor whether he was innocent or guilty.
  • They ignored almost everything the congregation told them.
  • They waited for the truth to come out before making a judgment.
  • They took the easy way out.

Which option did you go with?

The third statement best reflects the mindset of this church’s leaders: they chose to let the justice system take its course before deciding the pastor’s future.

According to Steinke, many people facing these conditions become what psychologists call “cognitive misers.”  They instinctively draw either/or conclusions: either the pastor is innocent or he’s guilty.  Either the pastor is good or he is bad.

But the leaders of this church are to be commended for not letting anxiety make decisions for them.  When certain people were calling for the pastor’s resignation – and even staying home from services until he left – the leaders stuck to their original decision and let the legal system do its work.

The pastor’s job, career, and reputation were all saved.

The church’s reputation and future were preserved.

The decision of the leaders was vindicated.

Why?  Because the leaders chose to make their decision based on truth rather than (a) unity, (b) politics, (c) groupthink, or (d) anxiety.

Let me quote Steinke on this issue fully:

“Nowhere in the Bible is tranquillity preferred to truth or harmony to justice.  Certainly reconciliation is the goal of the gospel, yet seldom is reconciliation an immediate result.  If people believe the Holy Spirit is directing the congregation into the truth, wouldn’t this alone encourage Christians who have differing notions to grapple with issues respectfully, lovingly, and responsively?  If potent issues are avoided because they might divide the community, what type of witness is the congregation to the pursuit of truth?”

In other words, the church of Jesus Christ does not crucify its leaders just because someone makes an accusation against them.

Think with me: if unity is more important than truth, then Jesus deserved to be crucified, didn’t He?

The accusations against Jesus caused great distress for Pilate, resulting in turmoil for his wife and animosity between Pilate and the Passover mob.

The Jewish authorities had to resort to loud and vociferous accusations against Jesus to force Pilate to act.

The women around the cross wept uncontrollably.

The disciples of Jesus all ran off and deserted Him in His hour of need (except John).

Jesus’ countrymen engaged in mocking and taunting while witnessing His execution.

Who caused Pilate, the Jewish authorities, the women, the disciples, and the Jewish people to become angry and upset and depressed?

It was JESUS!  And since He disrupted the unity of His nation, He needed to go, right?

This is the prevailing view among many denominational leaders today.  If a pastor is accused of wrongdoing, and some people in the church become upset, then the pastor is usually advised to resign to preserve church unity, even before people fully know the truth – and even if the pastor is totally innocent.

In fact, there are forces at work in such situations that don’t want the truth to come out.

That is … if unity is more important than truth.

But if the charges against Jesus – blasphemy against the Jewish law and sedition against the Roman law – were false and trumped up, then Jesus should have gone free even if His release caused disunity in Jerusalem.

The point of Steinke’s story is that leaders – including pastors – need to remain calm during turbulent times in a church.  There are always anxious people who push the leaders to overreact to relieve them of their own anxiety.

If Pilate hadn’t overreacted … if the mob hadn’t … if Jesus’ disciples hadn’t … would Jesus still have been crucified?

Divinely speaking: yes.  It was the only way He could pay for our sins.

Humanly speaking: no.  What a travesty of justice!

20 centuries later, Jesus’ followers can do a better job of handling difficult accusations against Christian leaders – especially pastors.

Instead of becoming anxious, they can pray for a calm and peaceful spirit.

Instead of making quick decisions, they can make deliberate ones.

Instead of aiming for destruction, they can aim for redemption.

Instead of holding up unity as the church’s primary value, truth should be viewed that way.

If the pastor in this story had been guilty of a crime, then the leaders needed to choose a different course of action.  Sadly, these things do happen in our day, even in churches.

But in this case, the leaders stood strong and did not let the anxiety of others – or their own – determine the destiny of their pastor and church.

They opted for truth instead.

And the truth will set you – and everyone else – free.

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