Posts Tagged ‘blaming the pastor’

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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After a pastor has been forced out of a church, he goes through an incredible amount of pain.

*He loses his position … and maybe his career.

*He loses most of his church friends … and sometimes his wife and/or children.

*He loses his income … and can’t file for unemployment.

*He loses his joy and drive … and his ability to trust people.

Statistics indicate that 45% of the time a pastor experiences a forced exit, a small faction was responsible for his departure.

Only 7% of the time is the pastor’s misbehavior the real reason for his leaving.

And yet … after his last day … forces inside the church will informally conspire to blame everything on him.

What are these forces?

First, many interim pastors blame the previous pastor for any conflict that ensued.

I hear these stories all the time.  They have become predictable.

An interim is hired … comes to a church that’s just pushed out their shepherd … and concludes, “The pastor deserved to leave.”

Why does the interim do this?

*He wants to curry favor with his new employers.

*He wants to discredit the previous pastor so he will look good by comparison.

*He wants to make friends with “the faction” so they won’t turn on him.

*He wants the shadow of the previous pastor to stop hovering over him.

*He wants to “forget the past” and move on.

But in the process, many … if not most … interims allow the reputation of the previous pastor to be trashed.

And what’s sad is that in most cases, the interim has never even met the previous pastor.

Wouldn’t it be better if an interim pastor said this publicly instead?

“I have never met your pastor, so I don’t know him at all.  From what I’ve heard, he did a lot of good while he was here.  I’m sure that many of you have fond memories of him, especially when he ministered to you during a time of need.  Although I don’t know all the events surrounding his departure, as long as I’m here, we’re going to honor him for the good that he did, and pray that God will eventually bring about reconciliation between the pastor and anyone who might be upset with him.”

But when is the last time you heard an interim pastor say something like that?

Second, the church board blames the previous pastor as well.

They say things behind the scenes like:

“He always wanted his own way.”

“He wanted to change things too fast.”

“He refused to cooperate with us.”

“He never listened to our ideas.”

These charges sound credible because members of the governing board both knew and worked with the pastor.

But there are two problems with these statements:

*The pastor isn’t around to defend himself.  He may have a vastly different interpretation of the circumstances prompting his departure.

*The church board ends up taking zero responsibility for their part in the pastor’s exit … leaving them in a position to repeat their error.

During my 36 years in church ministry, there were many staff members who worked under me.  Sometimes, those situations didn’t work out.

When they left, I asked myself, “What did I do to contribute to their lack of success here?”

If it was a character issue, there may not have been anything I could do.

But if it was a supervisory issue, then maybe I did bear some responsibility for their leaving … and I didn’t want to repeat my mistake with the next person hired.

Wouldn’t it be better for a church board to say this publicly instead?

“We are sad that our pastor has left.  He was called here by God.  He loves his wife and children.  He worked hard as pastor.  We felt that his preaching was biblical and instructive, that he cared deeply for the people of this church, and that he will be very much missed.  Although we aren’t able to share all the details of his departure, we believe that he still has a future in ministry.  Therefore, we will not tolerate anyone trying to destroy the pastor’s reputation.  If we hear any talk along this line, we promise that you will be confronted and corrected.  Let’s not cause any more pain for the pastor or our people.”

But when is the last time you heard a board say something like that?

Third, the faction that drove out the pastor must blame the pastor. 

They have to.  It’s part of their narrative.

The faction could be a group of old-timers … or seniors … or traditionalists … or staff members … or the church board … or a synthesis of these groups.

The faction … often as few as 7 to 10 people … will blame all the church’s problems on the previous pastor for a long time.

They want the spotlight on him … not on them.

But this isn’t the tactic of a mature believer, but of a child.

When I was in second grade, some girls were bothering me.  One recess, my friend Steve and I handled things … unwisely.

The girls told the teacher.  The teacher came over to me in class and shook me … hard.

Thinking fast, I blamed everything on Steve … and it worked.

I don’t remember what happened to Steve, but I quickly found myself in the clear.

The girls shouldn’t have done what they did.  And Steve shouldn’t have helped me scatter them.

But I bore responsibility for my actions.

And when a faction plays a part in pushing out a pastor, they are responsible for their actions.

But for some reason … and I will never, ever understand this … nobody at the church holds them responsible.

In fact, they’re usually forgiven (which really means excused) without demonstrating any kind of repentance.

Their false accusations … malicious charges … gross overreactions … and attempts to destroy someone called by God are all ignored by the interim pastor … church board … and church staff.

And then, to guarantee future immunity, this group cozies up to the interim and the new pastor.

Wouldn’t it be better for the pastor’s attackers to say this publicly instead?

“We were angry with the pastor.  He didn’t always do what we wanted him to do.  His resistance made us anxious.  And so we overreacted.  We spread vicious lies about him.  We ran him down every chance we could.  We used the telephone and social media to make him look bad.  Even though our accusations clearly hurt him, we kept things up, even attacking his wife and children.  But we were wrong.  Although we can’t bring the pastor back, we admit our part in his departure, and will submit to any correction that the church board deems fair.  And we promise to apologize to the pastor for the way we treated him and his family.  We have asked God to forgive us and ask you as a congregation to forgive us as well.”

But when is the last time you heard a faction say something like that?

When pastors leave a church prematurely, they may have made some mistakes … but that doesn’t mean their reputations should be besmirched in their former church … among their former church friends … or in the wider body of Christ.

The single best way to protect the previous pastor’s reputation is for the remaining church leaders to properly assess responsibility for the pastor’s departure.

If the pastor was guilty of heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior, okay, then maybe he’s fully or almost fully to blame for his leaving.

But if a faction rose against him … and the board turned against him … and some staff betrayed him … then how can the previous pastor be 100% to blame?

He can’t be.

God forgive us for the way many Christians thoughtlessly harm the reputations of a former or current pastor.









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