Posts Tagged ‘blaming the pastor for conflict’

I recently purchased a plastic container of cleaner at my local Lowe’s.  By the time I arrived home, the cleaner had leaked all over the trunk of my car.

So I went back to Lowe’s and asked the woman at customer service, “Who is responsible for the fluid from this cleaner leaking out before I arrived home?  Lowe’s?  Me?  The manufacturer?”

She concluded that the mess was the responsibility of the manufacturer, so I departed with a new container.  But that transaction made me wonder:

When a pastor is forced to leave a church, whose fault is the mess?

Here’s my take on this question:

First, when things are going well at a church, everybody should share the credit.

When a church is growing … when new ministries are being started … when giving is exceeding the annual budget … when people are coming to Christ … almost nobody inside that church will say, “The pastor is 100% responsible for all the good things that are happening.”

Humanly speaking, the board gets some credit.  The staff should receive some kudos.  Key lay leaders … worship personnel … small group leaders … everyone makes a contribution when a church is humming along.

The pastor may be casting the vision … setting the pace … motivating the leadership …  and preaching his heart out … but he’s not completely responsible for the church’s success.

Because ultimately, God should receive the glory.

I remember reading a story years ago about the legendary baseball pitcher Satchel Paige.  Sometimes he would tell his fielders to sit down because he was going to strike out the side.

On those occasions when he was successful, should Paige have received full credit?

He still needed a catcher.  He still needed hitters to knock in runs.  He still needed a manager … and stadium personnel … and fans in the stands … just to be able to stand on the mound.

In the same way, when a church is enjoying success, the pastor may be in the center, but he can’t be successful without the office manager … sound team … worship vocalists and musicians … greeters and ushers … nursery and children’s volunteers … and offering counters, to name just a few.

Credit for success should be shared.

Second, when things are going south, it’s usually due to multiple issues.

Let me use the conflict that surfaced during my last pastorate in the fall of 2009 as Exhibit A.

The previous two years, our church had received more financial donations than at any time in our history … and we began that year with a healthy reserve fund.

But the recession was well under way, and it affected our church’s giving … just like it did with every church.

Some Sundays, the offerings were very generous … but other Sundays, they were alarmingly low.

Whose fault was that?

On a personal level, my wife and I continued to give beyond a tithe.  Many others gave what they always did.

But some reduced the amounts they gave, while others stopped giving altogether.

Because I believe a church’s donors have the right to know how their funds are being used, I continued to publish the giving statistics in the bulletin … and would do so again.

In fact, I did my best to let the congregation know exactly where we were at financially throughout that year.  And before I left on an overseas mission trip, I scripted some remarks for the board chairman to make at an all-church meeting … a meeting that was later cancelled.

But our failure to meet the budget created great anxiety for some leaders who had never been through a church financial drought before … and in my view, their anxiety caused some leaders to overreact to a down cycle that almost all churches were undergoing.

In fact, my friend Charles Chandler from the Ministering to Ministers Foundation in Richmond, Virginia told me that many churches were experiencing conflicts due to the recession in 2009.

So there were many issues at our church that year:

*the recession negatively impacted giving

*some key church leaders became highly anxious and reactive

*those same leaders lacked the experience to pull the church through its hard time

*some people reduced their giving or stopped giving at all

*money assumed far more importance than it ever should have received

When opposition to my ministry finally surfaced, the causes were multiple … regardless of what was being said.

Third, when the ship hits strong waves, some seek to throw the captain overboard.

I enjoyed ten wonderful years in that church.  God blessed us in so many ways.  We were the largest Protestant church in our city … had an overall positive image … and engaged in many forms of outreach to the community.

But by the time 2009 was half over, some key leaders had determined that they should serve as a collective captain … and that I should be tossed into the deep.

I was not guilty of any major sin.  No illegalities … no immoralities … no criminalities … no heresies.

But it didn’t matter.  We were having a tough year, and some people concluded that I needed to pay for it.

And I did.

But so did many others … and as I’ve recounted in my book Church Coup, by the time the dust settled, the top ten leaders in the church all vanished.

Rather than throw me overboard, things would have gone much better if some leaders had said to me, “Jim, you’ve had far more experience than we’ve had to get through these crises.  What do you suggest we do to weather the storm?”

But rather than listening to their God-appointed leader, the crew staged a mutiny.

This scenario happens in a plethora of churches today, and I hear many of the stories.

When conditions become abnormal in a church, people look at their pastor and say one of two things: either “Our pastor caused this mess” or “Our pastor needs to clean up this mess.”

And if things don’t revert to normal pretty quickly, some start warming up their pitching arms.

Finally, blaming the pastor entirely for a conflict keeps the church frozen in immaturity.

In my book Church Coup, I wrote two chapters of analysis as to what went wrong in our situation.

One chapter was called, “Mistakes I Made.”  The next one was called, “Mistakes They Made,” referring to the church board.

At the beginning of “Mistakes They Made,” I inserted the following quotation from veteran church conflict expert Speed Leas, who cited a research project that tried to determine who was at fault when a pastor is forced to leave a congregation:

“While we could find some situations that were primarily the congregation’s ‘fault’ … and we could find some that were primarily the pastor’s ‘fault’ … these occurrences were rare.  Most of the time we found a mixture of congregational and pastoral causes that defied unraveling as to who ‘started it.’  Asking the question ‘Whose fault is it?’ in the church seemed to tangle people up … more than it helped … in our research into 127 ‘involuntary terminations’ or firings, we found the need to find fault to be one of the most characteristic and least helpful dimensions of the conflict … it is almost never the case that one party is exclusively in the wrong.”

In my case, an outside church consultant exonerated me, as did a nine-person investigative team from within the church.

But a year later, many people from that church came to believe that I was completely responsible for the entire conflict … a viewpoint that has wounded me over time because it simply isn’t true … and because people must believe a host of lies to come to that conclusion.

Because when a pastor isn’t around to defend himself … and when people don’t hear his version of events … those responsible for the pastor’s departure get to write their own narrative.

I submit that sometimes a pastor does need to leave a church … that his ministry there is over, and that the church needs a fresh start with someone else.

But just as a pastor isn’t totally responsible when a church does well, so too a pastor isn’t completely liable when a church struggles.

In fact, I believe that our tendency to blame others 100% for a conflict is a defense mechanism designed to prevent us from examining our own lives to see what role we may have played in a conflict.

It’s easy to say, “That pastor was bad!  I’m glad he’s gone!  He was ruining our church!”

It’s much harder to say, “Oh, God, I didn’t behave very well during this conflict, did I?  I never heard the pastor’s side of the conflict … never prayed for him and his family … engaged in some mean-spirited gossip … made some wild guesses as to why he left … and failed to see that I bear some responsibility for joining the mob and hurting one of your called servants.”

Do pastors make mistakes that sometimes lead to their leaving a church?


Do board members and staff members also make mistakes that can lead to a pastor’s resignation?


Do congregational attendees sometimes overreact and make their own personal contributions to a pastor’s leaving?


Then let’s stop blaming the pastor for everything that goes wrong in a church … and everything that goes badly during a conflict … and remember that all of us play a part whenever a pastor is forced to leave a church.

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