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Back in the 1990s, I read a little sidebar in Leadership Journal written by Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  I recounted this story often over the ensuing years.

Hybels wrote that he briefly visited the church campus for a rehearsal one week night.  The next morning, he received a note in his box from a church groundskeeper.  The note said, “Bill, when you visited last night, you parked in an area that’s off limits to everyone.  Just wanted you to know.”

Instead of lashing out at him, Hybels commended his corrector and told his Leadership audience, “I need to be an example, not an exception.”

And for decades, Pastor Bill from Willow has been an example of Christian leadership … until the recent revelations that may indicate inappropriate conduct on his part toward at least seven women.

There’s much we don’t know about what happened between Hybels and the women who have gone public with their concerns.  Maybe more revelations will surface in the coming days.  And I must confess … it’s difficult to analyze this situation from a distance.  But many people I know have been talking about it … with strong reactions on all sides … and I’ve learned a lot by listening to their observations.

I have no inside or additional information … just my own perspective about this situation.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 006(I’m adding a few photos I took from Willow in 2005 to break up this article.)

Let me pose and attempt to answer four questions about the Willow “train wreck”:

First, what do you think about the accounts of impropriety from various women?

At first, like many people, I didn’t want to believe the charges against Hybels.  We don’t have any video of Hybels’ individual encounters with these women, so they initially fall into a “he said, she said” category.  But when seven women share their stories, and patterns emerge from their narratives, the similarities are most likely true.

*The accounts told by various women go back as far as the mid-1980s through at least 2011, so Hybels can’t claim they all happened when he was younger (and didn’t know the boundaries) nor when he was older (and his judgment was worn down).  The accounts spread over nearly three decades seem to indicate a pattern of behavior.

*The accounts are too detailed and concrete to be dismissed as a conspiracy.  What dismays many of us is that the allegations don’t sound like the Hybels that thousands of us respected.  I have a friend whose wife was in Hybels’ youth group and she says he never would have acted like these women claim he did.  Did something change over the years?

*I can’t wrap my head around why Hybels liked to tell select women how attractive or sexy they were, but Willow’s leaders have had a track record of focusing on the outward appearance of their public leaders.

Twenty-five years ago this month, someone who used to attend Willow hired one of Hybels’ former top leaders to serve as a consultant for our new church.  One of the consultant’s recommendations was to keep those who weren’t “in shape” off the stage, especially if they were singing or acting in a drama.  When I unwisely tried to implement this “Willow value,” a good couple immediately left the church, and I alienated one of the elders as well as some others … and I’ve regretted it ever since.

Maureen Girkins, former publisher from Zondervan, says Hybels told her that “she’d be more successful if she tried to be sexier.”  A Christian leader might think that, but to say it aloud?

*Several women mentioned that Hybels told them how unhappy he was at home.  Many of us in ministry know that the pathway to an affair starts with both the pastor and another woman sharing their marital unhappiness with each other.  It’s dangerous territory.  Why did Hybels, of all people, take that risk?

I attended the first International Conference at Willow in June 1994.  Hybels met with a group of pastors one afternoon and told us that he was in counseling for some “junk” from his past and that he and his wife were in counseling as well.  He was very transparent about his problems even though he and Lynne had written their marriage book Fit to be Tied the previous year.

I think it’s safe to say that this ministry couple had ongoing struggles in their relationship, although that’s not uncommon.

*As Christianity Today noted, “Hybels pressured women into spending time alone with him.”  This sounds like more than mentoring.  He comes off as a man who needed a friend, someone who could understand him.  I’m not trying to minimize his actions … just trying to figure out what he was after.  Was he looking for a listening ear or a wifely upgrade?

*Was anyone else disturbed by several accounts of staffers telling various women that they were “Hybels’ type?”  When a Christian leader gets married, shouldn’t his wife be “his type” from that moment on?  If this detail is true, it sounds like something that would happen in middle school, not in one of the nation’s largest churches.

Hybels wrote books with the following titles, among many others: Christians in a Sex-Crazed Culture; Honest to God?; Descending Into Greatness; and Character: Who You Are When No One’s Looking.  Right now, those titles look a bit ironic.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 007

Second, if these accounts sound plausible, why did Hybels vehemently deny them all?

I can only guess.

Bill Hybels is the most transparent and vulnerable pastor that I’ve ever heard.  At the large-group gathering of pastors at the 1994 Conference, someone asked Hybels how he could be so transparent.  His answer?  He said something like, “It takes too much energy to hide things.”  While I enjoyed the creativity of Willow’s services … their core value of “people matter to God” … and the excellence with which they did everything … I was most impressed with the leadership’s authenticity, which sprang from their senior pastor.

So if Hybels was guilty of any of the infractions presented by these women, I would have expected him to confess, “I did say that … I didn’t do that … I may have done that.”

But that’s not what he did.  Instead, he initially issued a blanket denial, both to his congregation (including an online video) and to the Chicago Tribune, where he said:

“I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

Why the initial denials?

*Is is possible there is a “megachurch morality?”  Let me share what happened to me eight years ago.

Seven months after I left my last ministry, I was still pretty raw emotionally.  A friend set up a meeting between me and a megachurch pastor.  We spent an hour in his office together.

At one point, the pastor told me a story … which I have since forgotten … but he then told me, “If you share this story with anybody else, and it gets back to me, I will deny it.”

I didn’t forget that statement.

That’s not the kind of thing a pastor with integrity would say.  He was telling me, “If what I’ve just shared resurfaces, I will tell a lie.”  It just rolled off his tongue like it was no big deal.

Is it possible that some megachurch pastors have a “I will protect my reputation and that of my church” at all costs mentality … even if it means lying?  Is this how they stay in power?

I admit this question is based on one incident … but it makes me wonder.

One of my mentors … a man I respect as much as anyone … recently told me that the entitled and privileged in the evangelical world constitute “one sicko sick system.”  I lack his knowledge of what happens on the inside of a very large church, so I’m unsure what to think.

*Is it possible that Willow had a “buddy culture?”  Jodi Walle was John Ortberg’s executive assistant at Willow for seven years.  She writes in this piece on her website (www.jodiwalle.com), “There was probably a naïve ‘buddy’ culture that didn’t place enough emphasis on male vs female.  It shows that Bill was possibly more relaxed and felt too comfortable with women …”

Yes, some of the accusations might have occurred in the context of a “buddy” culture, and Walle wrote her piece before the April 21 revelations from Christianity Today.  But Zondervan publisher Maureen Girkins certainly wasn’t part of that culture.

But the women must have been equally relaxed with Hybels to run with him alone or to visit his hotel room when summoned.  Yes, he held a degree of power over some of them, but didn’t they think twice about such arrangements?  What was wrong with saying, “I’m not comfortable doing this or being here?”

*If Hybels had admitted publicly to any kind of wrongdoing, how would his confession(s) have been received?

Let’s go back to when Hybels’ accusers first went public.  If Hybels had said at that time, “Look, I didn’t use my best judgment in these situations, and I want to apologize to these women personally, and if necessary, in the presence of the elders.”

What would have happened?

I don’t know.  My hope is that upon hearing Hybels’ confession, each woman would have forgiven him completely, and that would have settled the matter.

But what if Hybels and/or the elders feared that if he admitted any wrongdoing … no matter how small … there would have been calls for his termination or resignation?

If Hybels had admitted some degree of culpability … and it somehow became public … he had no way of knowing what the aftermath of his admission might be.  What if someone refused to forgive him and sought revenge instead?

It’s easy to say, “Well, he shouldn’t think about the consequences.  He should just admit his sin and take his lumps like a man.”

But Hybels wasn’t the pastor of an average church, but the leader of one of America’s most influential churches … one that’s become a movement … with an association of churches … and one that trains thousands of leaders.

In a very real way, Hybels was Willow to tens of thousands of people … but if Hybels went down, Willow and all its ministries would be negatively affected … possibly for years.

None of us can say how those admissions would have been used.  Hybels had to have his eye on his succession plan and planned retirement, and knew that in the present cultural climate, even a private admission on his part about a sensitive issue could go public and put Willow and its Association in jeopardy.

I am not saying that Hybels chose to lie.  And I am not saying that he was even conscious that he had done anything wrong.  (It’s easy to rationalize a host of misbehaviors if you’ve been operating under a “buddy culture.”)

But he and the elders had to know that in this particular area … misconduct toward women … it doesn’t take much for people to coalesce against a common opponent … and for the target of their wrath to become toast.

We all watched the dissolution of Mars Hill Church several years ago.  A church of 14,000 people and its satellite campuses vanished into nothingness seemingly overnight.

Willow may be constructed on a more robust foundation, but in today’s climate … especially with the viciousness of social media … anything is possible.

To Hybels’ credit, he finally made the following statements to his church on the night of his resignation:

“… I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable.  I was blind to this dynamic for far too long.  For that I’m very sorry.”

He continued:

“… I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.  I was, at times, naive about the dynamics those situations created.  I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part.  I commit to never putting myself in similar situations in the future.”

This is a good start.  As the elders listen to the stories of other women, and as Hybels goes through a time of reflection, let’s pray that this conflict can be eventually resolved.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 017

Third, how should Christians view the organized effort to damage Hybels?

More than eight years ago, a small, vocal group inside the church I served wanted to force me out as pastor.  They didn’t have anything on me, so they went after my wife … who was on the staff … instead.  (These events are recounted in my book Church Coup.)

From the moment the accusations against my wife surfaced, I knew that I would end up leaving.

I brought in a church consultant who did some interviews and attended two congregational meetings.  As a former pastor, he knew instinctively what the opposition was trying to accomplish, and spelled it out in his report.  He contained the damage and helped me negotiate an exit package.

But most of my supporters didn’t think matters were all that serious.  Some were trying to figure out how I could stay while addressing the concerns of the opposition.

But my opponents weren’t in a negotiating mood.  They had organized a plan to push me OUT … and the signs were all there.

I don’t know how much opposition Hybels had from within Willow, or whether anybody currently on the staff or elders wanted his scalp.

But I know the signs, and I don’t believe the group effort involving John Ortberg was just after repent/prevent … trying to get Hybels to repent so they could prevent others from being hurt.

In my view, they wanted to damage his reputation as well.

I have a pastor friend who believes that it takes a megachurch pastor like John Ortberg to confront a megachurch pastor like Bill Hybels.  And because I don’t understand “megachurch morality,” my friend may be right.

My friend also believes that Ortberg had nothing to gain by becoming involved in this situation, although I surmised some possibilities in my article from March 28.

But I’m looking for a biblical precedent here, and having a hard time seeing it.  As apostles, Paul and John took on troublemakers inside churches by name, even though they weren’t present in those churches … but does Hybels fit that category?  And has Ortberg been given the authority of an apostle in today’s Christian community?

Something just doesn’t feel right to me about this.

Several thoughts:

*Division inside a congregation begins when churchgoers pool their grievances against a common opponent … usually the pastor.  I throw my two complaints into the mix … you toss in your four … and pretty soon, we have a list of twenty-four grievances against the pastor … and our twenty-four look twelve times worse than my original two.

Now the pastor is a bad guy who has to go because he committed twenty-four offenses!

In the process, I allow myself to be triangled … to take responsibility for your pain … rather than encouraging you to work things out between you and your offender.

It’s far, far better … and much more biblical … for God’s people to implement Matthew 18:15-17 before they do anything else:

#Go to the pastor privately and directly (Jesus doesn’t exclude Christian leaders from His words) and try and get Him to repent.

#If he won’t listen, take one or two more with you and try again.

#If he still won’t listen, tell the entire congregation.  (At this point, the official church board would probably become involved, and try and speak with the pastor themselves.  If he wouldn’t repent, then they could call a meeting of the church.)

Were these steps followed by each of the initial four women?  I’m not saying they weren’t, but it bothers me in any church that people can latch onto a group that opposes a pastor before they’ve tried speaking with him themselves.  It’s all too easy for a person with one grievance to carry the grievances of others … and it expands the sense of injustice … although it does make people feel powerful.

In my case, no one ever implemented Matthew 18 and came to me directly.  The first time I heard any charges were in a public church meeting … but Jesus doesn’t begin by saying, “If your brother sins against you … tell it to the church.”

More than eight years later, I still feel horribly violated by those public charges … and by that power tactic.  So I can understand how angry Hybels felt when someone started calling pastors and Christian leaders and accusing him of impropriety.

But is it possible that either Hybels or the elders … or both … made it difficult for the women to come forward and share their stories?

*In the Christian community, a pastor’s attackers are rarely confronted or disciplined.  In my last ministry, even though their tactics were not loving or godly, my detractors were not corrected or warned.  Humanly speaking, they got away with it.  In fact, some were later rewarded and given places of leadership.

One of the last places an accused pastor can find “justice” is inside a local church.

In Deuteronomy 19:15-21, a false witness in ancient Israel was given the same punishment that would have been granted the accused.  But this rarely happens in the Christian community today.  Those who slander leaders are almost never dealt with.  A pastor who is publicly accused of wrongdoing is assumed to be guilty.  Thank God the report of Hybels having a ten-year affair was quickly rebutted by Willow’s elders or Hybels could have been forced out by a lie four years ago.

*Why did Hybels’ accusers need John Ortberg’s assistance to confront Hybels?

Both the secular and evangelical presses have melded the offended women and the Ortbergs (and the Mellados) together.

I’d like to separate them out for a moment.

I can understand how the initial four women felt wronged as they heard each other’s stories.  And I can understand how one or two of them might choose to represent their friends and approach Willow’s elders with their concerns.

But why bring in Hybels’ former colleague John Ortberg?  (I just noticed on Amazon that they co-wrote a book together.)  Or did he volunteer to help them?  And it seems all the more odd because neither Hybels nor the elders seemed to respond to Ortberg’s overtures very favorably … especially when he and his group issued their infamous five demands.  (Why did they think the elders would agree to them?  Or were they just posturing?)

The women may have been naive about how these things work, but Ortberg assuredly knew what would happen once the women’s claims against Hybels went public.  He knows how the game is played.

Jodi Walle, Ortberg’s executive assistant I mentioned earlier, wrote an open letter to him on her website.  She asked him:

“How is it that now you are the one to give women a voice?  We have a voice.  It’s our job to use it.  To be current and to go to someone if they have harmed us.  You have nothing to say about any of it.  If anything, you are part of the problem.”

But she could have added, “I know what you are doing, John.  You are pushing hard so that Bill resigns.”

There’s an untold story as to Ortberg’s motives that we may never know … and yes, I’ve read his explanation online.

But Jodi Walle’s open letter to Ortberg paints a different picture of him than some might imagine.  Yet so far, to my knowledge, nobody has addressed Walle’s revelations publicly.

Read it yourself at www.jodiwalle.com

I find the silence very telling.

Hybels alleges … and I have no reason to doubt him … that someone was calling pastors and Christian leaders about him over the past few years, but that kind of whispering campaign … and it was a campaign … was designed to ruin Hybels’ reputation.

And contacting the Chicago Tribune about the allegations was the coup de grace.  Who thought that was a good idea?

But guess what?  The tactic worked.  It usually does … and Ortberg, as an experienced pastor, had to know that.

Paul Simon once wrote and sang a song called, “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love.”

And contacting Christian leaders privately and going to a secular newspaper “sure don’t feel like love” either.

*There are two main ways of getting rid of a pastor when he has not done something clearly impeachable:

First, you gather together multiple charges.

In Hybels’ case, there has been one primary charge: his improper behavior toward women.  There haven’t been accusations (to my knowledge) of mishandling church funds, for example, but there have been various allegations of sexual impropriety.

Second, you gather together multiple accusers … like in the Bill Cosby case.  

And that’s what happened with Hybels as well.

But the better way … and the biblical way … is for each individual to deal with issues as they arise.

However … two women claimed they did confront Hybels about his behavior.  One was Julia Wilkins from the gym (mentioned in the latest Christianity Today article), and the other was Vonda Dyer (who wrote her own story online).  It took great courage for those women to go to Hybels … in his office … and confront him … but in neither case did the women report anything resembling an apology.

Having been a pastor for thirty-six years, I know how difficult it is for people inside a church to confront their pastor about wrongdoing.  I could probably count on two hands the number of people that came to me personally over the years, so they stand out in my mind … and I’m probably a gentler person than Hybels.

When he denied any wrongdoing, it’s hard for me to believe that Hybels couldn’t recall those confrontations … especially since both women could have escalated matters by approaching Willow’s elders instead.

Conflicts in churches could be avoided and resolved if people would just address matters as they occur … and that’s certainly what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-26, and what Paul taught in Ephesians 4:26-27.

The Bible doesn’t give us a specific statute of limitations on confronting those who may have harmed us, but to go back twenty years to complain about a comment the pastor made seems vengeful to me.

There are two surefire ways to destroy a relationship: make a long list of someone’s offenses and recite it back to them … and mention offenses they may have committed that go back many years.

This is the way the world works.  This isn’t supposed to be the way the church works.

I just wonder who is influencing whom.

Willow Creek Conference June 12-15, 2006 172

Finally, how should people handle their complaints against a pastor?

This is my own shorthand formula:

First, overlook citations.  Pastors are human.  They make mistakes.  They wear down.  They get silly sometimes.  They aren’t always at their best.  Not every “offense” is serious.

My wife leaves her shoes all over the house.  Sometimes I trip on them.  I’ve asked her for years to put them away, but her habits haven’t changed.

To get along, I’ve chosen to overlook the shoes.  It’s not that important.  And she’s chosen to overlook some poor habits of mine.

I’m not prepared to say how many of the accusations against Hybels fall into the citation category, but I can think of a few that caused me to say, “Oh, brother.  That’s just piling on.”

They should have been overlooked rather than tossed into the mix.

Second, confront misdemeanors.  When a pastor has hurt someone … and he may not be aware of that fact … the person offended needs to speak with him privately.  Isn’t that what Matthew 18:15 teaches?  The burden is on the one sinned against to initiate reconciliation.

Most offenses that a pastor commits are misdemeanors in nature.  The only way to restore matters is for the offended person to take the initiative and lovingly approach the offender.

I’ve had people confront me about things I’ve said or did that hurt them, and when I did wrong, I apologized and asked for their forgiveness.

But I’ve also had people confront me about things that I didn’t do or say, and I wouldn’t apologize just to make the matter go away.

Many years ago, on Easter Sunday, the church I was serving had just finished the first service.  The worship team met to evaluate that service and make adjustments for the second service.  Out of nowhere, a male vocalist (who had a handicap) accused me of saying something cruel about him.  To his credit, he confronted me right away, but I didn’t say what he thought he heard, nor would I ever have said it.

Yet he demanded that I apologize to him.  But should I have apologized to him if I didn’t say what he thought I did?

Pastors are accused of offenses all the time … a few to their face, most behind their back.  It’s why Paul wrote 1 Timothy 5:19-21.  My guess is that most of the offenses that a pastor is accused of fall into the misdemeanor category … but relatively few people will ever confront the pastor to make things right.

Instead, they sometimes elevate clear misdemeanors to personal felonies.

Third, investigate felonies.  Many years ago, a woman approached me with information about a member of our church staff.  To put it mildly, he was not the person he claimed to be.

I spent two days at home making phone calls and doing research to find out if her allegations were true … and they were.  Then I shared my written documentation with the church board and we created a plan to confront him with two of the allegations.

They were both serious enough to result in termination.

According to Deuteronomy 19:15-21, when a person was accused of a crime in Israel, the judges commissioned and carried out an investigation, then issued their findings.

Sometimes pastors are accused of serious matters, and the official church board has to investigate the charges.

There are three primary areas that should cause church leaders to investigate a pastor’s conduct: heresy, sexual immorality, and criminal behavior.

Sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual intercourse outside marriage all constitute felonies that usually result in the immediate dismissal of a pastor.  By this standard, no one has yet accused Hybels of any ministry felonies.

But … and this is the challenging part … they may feel like felonies to the women involved.  Otherwise, why go public with their accusations?

The elders at Willow launched an internal investigation and then hired an outside investigator to examine the initial charges against Hybels.  One might say that both investigations chose to overlook citations nor cite any felonies.

But it seems obvious now that Hybels committed at least some misdemeanors.  They shouldn’t have been overlooked.

But I believe the moment Hybels’ accusers went public, his ministry at Willow was finished.  That’s the era in which we now live.

_______________

Bill Hybels has a secure place in the history of the Christian church.  He has done enormous good for the kingdom of God, even though many people have questioned or disagreed with his methodologies.

I’d like to recount a well-known verse of Scripture … one that many of us learned as a child:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32

I pray for Bill and Lynne Hybels and wish them well in the future.  And I pray that if Hybels sinned against any of the women who have come forward, that he would admit his wrongdoing and ask for their forgiveness.

And I also pray that the evangelical community, Willow Creek, and Hybels’ accusers can someday forgive him as well.

May this situation cause all of us to examine our own hearts and reexamine the way we deal with those who wrong us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our family bought a house last spring, and one of its many wonderful features is a three-car garage.

About one-third of the garage is filled with file boxes containing my books, sermons, teaching lessons, and other assorted items from 36 years in church ministry.

I’ve been trying to create more space in the garage by tossing as many of those files as I can, but one kind of file in particular has been sending me into mini-depressions.

Those files contain written documentation of conflicts that I’ve experienced over the course of my ministry life.

If I could blame all those conflicts on others, I would.

But in some cases, I didn’t handle matters as well as I could have … and it pains me to think about that, even for a second.

Whenever a church has a major conflict, there are often unreasonable, obstinate, irrational leaders and lay people involved.

But pastors and church leaders can do a much better job of teaching and modeling what God’s Word says about how to handle our differences as well.

Let me share three mistakes that pastors and church leaders often make that can help create church conflict:

The first mistake is that the pastor fails to teach on biblical conflict resolution often enough.

It’s the pastor’s job to teach his congregation, “This is how we handle conflict in our church family.”

Many pastors are afraid to do this, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why.

I once knew a pastor who found it relatively easy to confront people one-on-one about the sins in their lives.

That was always hard for me to do.

But he found it difficult to confront people’s sins from the pulpit … something that came naturally for me.

So I realize we’re all different, but I believe that a pastor has to plan at least one Sunday every year where he reminds the congregation, “This is how we deal with our differences around here.”

Some pastors prefer to preach through books of the Bible, and that’s commendable, but you can preach for years and never hit the key biblical passages on conflict resolution.

It has to be done intentionally.

It might be wise for a pastor to do a series … maybe four or five weeks … on conflict in general.  Touch on issues like conflict in the home … the workplace … with friends … and in the church.

Let people submit questions in writing on the conflicts they are experiencing all through the series, and then answer the best questions on the final Sunday.

Then announce, “This series has been so fruitful that I’m going to preach an annual sermon on conflict resolution from Scripture.”

My suggestion would be to schedule that sermon around the time of the annual meeting and budget presentation.

If the pastor never teaches on conflict resolution, how will people know how to act if they’re upset about something?

The second mistake is that church leaders have not devised healthy feedback mechanisms.

During my second pastorate, our church had a large wooden Suggestion Box, which I inherited from the previous administration.

If churchgoers weren’t happy with something, they could write a note and drop it in the box.

One Sunday, I held the box up during a sermon, made a negative comment about it, and then placed it inside the pulpit.

I didn’t like that box because it allowed people to write anonymous notes of complaint.

But what I failed to do was give people a healthy alternative instead.

There are many unhealthy ways that churchgoers express their negativity, but it’s up to church leaders to give them healthier ways to share their concerns.

I’ll mention three quick ones:

*Let the pastor and board conduct an all-church survey at least annually … maybe in the spring.  Cut the Sunday service(s) short by ten minutes and ask people to fill out the surveys where they’re seated.  Ask a handful (maybe five) open-ended questions that call for a positive response.  For example:

Why do you attend our church?

What are we doing well?

Where do we need improvement?

Where would you like to see us in five years?

Then tabulate the responses and put them all on the church website.  Don’t fear the negative responses … they will usually be drowned out by the positive ones. (When I did this once, under improvement, someone wrote, “Get a new pastor.”)

*Hold an informational meeting at least annually.  Let the pastor/staff/board present the church’s goals and budget for the next year.  Then ask people if they have any questions or concerns about the presentation.  If the leaders really listen, many people will share their true feelings, but do so in a structured way.

*Designate several times a year for the pastor to take questions from the people of the church.  He can do this in a large meeting … a smaller forum … or online.  (Maybe try all three to see what works best.)  When he does this, he needs one or two key church leaders to monitor the discussions and to support the pastor in case things go south.

The beauty of these approaches is that:

*the pastor and official leaders are being proactive, not reactive

*the leaders can stay in touch with the congregation better

*the leaders come off as being transparent

*if people complain in inappropriate ways, the leaders can ask them, “Why didn’t you speak up when we had our survey/meeting/forum?”

Over the years, I’ve discovered that people want their say far more than they want their way.

If feedback opportunities are spread throughout the church year, leaders will usually be able to head off any major disgruntlement.

But the one thing church leaders cannot do is to prohibit churchgoers from expressing their opinions and feelings.  Better to channel their concerns in a structured manner than to provide zero feedback mechanisms.

I know a church where the pastor did one of the most reprehensible things I’ve ever heard.  (I have the documentation.)  But whenever churchgoers went to church leaders and expressed their concerns, they were told, “If that’s your attitude, you can leave the church.”

If the leaders want people to attend, serve, and give, the very least they can do is listen to them if they want to express a concern.

The third mistake is that church leaders forget to remind churchgoers of the biblical principles for conflict resolution and the existing feedback mechanisms.

A wise board member once told me, “Most sermons don’t contain a lot of new information.  They’re just reminders.”

We all forget how to act like a Christian at times.

Maybe we’re not feeling well physically … or we’re dealing with frustration at home … or we’re afraid we’re going to lose our job … and we bring our concerns to church.

And when something makes us feel uncomfortable, we overreact emotionally and start spreading our discontent to others.

In fact, even the best Christians get upset about something at church from time-to-time.

And when that happens, they need to be reminded, “How do you think God wants you to handle your feelings right now?”

This is why I believe that every church should have some sort of written brochure that specifies “how we handle conflict around here.”

Let’s say that Joe is upset after a service because he didn’t like something the pastor said in his sermon.

So Joe goes up to Harold … a board member … and starts ripping on the pastor.

Harold should pull Joe aside … listen to him … ask some questions … and then say to Harold, “I suggest that you read this brochure on how we handle conflict in our church and then contact the pastor directly about your feelings.  I have found that he is a good listener and that he really cares for every person in this church.  Will you promise me you’ll do that?”

What are the chances that Harold is going to go home and either hit the phones or complain online?

He might … but he’s also been told by a church leader how to handle his concerns in a biblical and healthy manner.

And if Harold finds out that Joe isn’t handling matters wisely, he has every right to contact him and remind him what to do.

When it comes to handling conflict wisely, we all need reminders, don’t we?

_______________

The first three mistakes have to do with failures on the part of the pastor, staff, and official board.

The final four mistakes have to do with failures on the part of disgruntled congregational members.

I’ll write on that next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“You never need to explain yourself to anyone.  Your true friends don’t require an explanation.  And your enemies won’t believe anything you say.”  Dr. Dennis Murray, Healing For Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack

On October 24, 2009 – eight years ago today – a coup was attempted at the Bay Area church I had pastored for nine years.

The official board consulted with … and likely collaborated with … the church’s founding pastor (my predecessor) to push me out as pastor.

Somewhere along the line, the associate pastor signed onto the coup, along with churchgoers who were loyal to my predecessor.

Even though I wrote my book Church Coup (published in 2013) as a cautionary tale, I revisit the conflict on this blog every October 24 to see if my perspective has broadened and deepened.  (If you’d like a more detailed description of what happens inside a church when a pastor is attacked, my book – which is on Amazon – may be of interest to you.)

I have no desire to convince my detractors that they behaved unwisely or even cruelly, so this article is not aimed at them, but I am including information I’ve never shared before.

This time, I’ve decided to answer eight questions about the conflict, and hope that my responses will provide insight into coup attempts involving other pastors.

We’ll do Part 1 today, and Part 2 in two days.

What was the coup really about?

I believe the coup was really about stopping the church’s mission, which was designed to reach people without Christ.

When I was hired as associate pastor in June 1999, the senior pastor – a friend for years – wanted me to continue his efforts to reach unchurched people.

We served together eighteen months, and then he retired and I became senior pastor.  (The congregation had approved me as senior pastor-elect seven months before.)

Over time, I had earned solid credentials.

I had been the senior pastor of an outreach-oriented church in Silicon Valley for seven years and had served as teaching pastor of a similar church.  I had also received extensive training from Willow Creek and Saddleback Churches.

My wife had undergone the same kind of training and had served alongside me at the Silicon Valley church.  When it came to outreach-oriented ministry, we both knew what we were doing.

So I wasn’t changing the church’s charter, but clarifying it … expanding it … and furthering it.

Several months after I became pastor, I invited Dr. Gary McIntosh – one of the foremost experts on growing churches in the world – to lead a series of workshops for our leadership team, and 43 people came.  The time with Gary was extremely productive.

We also had a professional facilitator inside the church oversee the creation of our mission and vision statements … starting with congregational input, and ending with board approval.

So I received wide support for our mission during my first few years, which enabled the church to grow numerically in a highly resistant community and to construct a new worship center.

But toward the end of my tenure, the mission was being sabotaged from within.

Who was sabotaging the mission?

We hired an associate pastor in early 2007 who told me before he was hired that he wanted to be in an outreach-oriented church, but after he arrived, he began to resist the mission because it made him too uncomfortable.

We called a husband-wife team as our youth directors a few years before that, but long after they were hired, they confessed that they didn’t believe in the mission, either.

It was difficult serving alongside key leaders who weren’t with us … and their lack of support eventually became obvious.

For years, I received my greatest support from the official board, and our church grew to become the largest Protestant church in our city.

And with that support, I was able to overcome most staff resistance.

But as 2009 approached, we lost three key board members.  All three men were older than me.  All three supported me fully.  And all three constantly had my back.

As we added new board members, every one was younger than me and involved in business.  I naively assumed they were all behind our outreach mission.

On paper, they were.  In practice, they weren’t.

They began viewing the ministry through “maintenance eyes,” not “mission eyes” … and in my view, had a “money comes before ministry” mentality.

But the one person most committed to an outreach-oriented church was my wife Kim.  I could always count on her.

How did the conflict about mission lead to your departure?

I once had a conversation with a pastor friend whose church was growing rapidly.  He told me, “There are many people in this church who are trying to change our direction so we only reach Christians, but I can’t let that happen.  You have to keep the mission of reaching people for Christ front and center or the church will go off track.”  His comment always stuck with me.

For most of my time in that church, both the leaders and the congregation were solidly behind the mission.

But as we got deeper into 2009, my wife and I were continuing to go in an outreach direction, while the associate and the board were going in an opposite direction … without any formal discussion.

Let me share one story to illustrate this polarization.

As the summer of 2009 ended, we had a part-time staff member in charge of small groups.  She did a great job, putting together thirty groups at one point.  But when she moved away, the small group ministry fell to the person originally hired to oversee it: the associate pastor.

Only he had never been in a small group in his life.

Every year, we announced that year’s groups at a small group fair.  The leaders would stand behind tables and present their groups to interested parties.  People would sign up at the tables and write down their phone numbers/email addresses.

In an outreach-oriented church, the leaders contact those who signed up. We reach out to them.

But the associate pastor vehemently believed that those interested should call the leaders instead … and then accused me of “coddling” people when I disagreed.

I wasn’t coddling anybody.  I wanted the maximum number of people in those groups because that’s where real life change happens in a congregation.  And the best way for people to join a group is for someone to invite them.

But the staff member with zero small group experience thought he knew better than the pastor with more than twenty years of small group experience … and that ministry began to collapse.

And that’s how my last year at the church went.  Resistance, sabotage, passive-aggressive behavior … and I could feel it.

And when that kind of climate develops, you’re going to make some mistakes … and every one will be recorded and counted against you.

Just for the record, those who resisted my leadership were all in contact … and later collaboration … with my predecessor.

When did matters finally come to a head?

The year 2008 was the best year our church ever had.  We had 785 people on Easter Sunday … had nine Sundays over 500 people … and enjoyed our highest average Sunday attendance ever … all on a one-acre campus that was nearly invisible from the street.

You might recall that 2009 was a difficult year economically, and after two years of generous giving in our church, we were about five tithing families short of meeting our budget, which caused great anxiety on the board.

Even though Kim had made plans for outreach events and two mission trips, the board set up procedures designed to slow or limit those activities.  Most of the staff were frustrated by the board’s micromanagement, but the board expected me to keep the staff in line.

I wanted to start a third service to reach a younger demographic, and so with board approval, eleven of us – including two board members and two staff members – visited two churches in Southern California to learn how to add that service.

After many months of work, the board turned down my proposal for a third service at a special meeting, and it became evident that we weren’t in sync.

On paper, our church was still outreach-oriented.  In practice, it was starting to flip backwards.

At the next regular board meeting, we started at 6:00 pm and were still going strong by 10:00 pm.

About 10:10 pm, the chairman stated that the church budget was frozen for the rest of the year and that nobody should even ask for more funds.

I was shocked.  Nobody had discussed this with me in advance, but it was clear that the board had colluded together in making this decision.

Trying to be conciliatory, I told the board that I had already announced to the congregation that we were going to produce a special drama for our upcoming anniversary called A Divine Comedy.  We had already obtained the script and were in the process of holding auditions.  The play was going to cost some money, but if we couldn’t find it in the budget, then I told the board, “I’ll ask several people with the gift of giving to donate the funds.”

The chairman responded to my comment by saying, “No.”

What?  The board was telling the pastor that he couldn’t raise money?

I should have calmly asked, “What do you mean, the budget is frozen?  Who made that decision?  When was it made?  Why wasn’t I included?”

Instead, I lost it.

I don’t know how long my rant lasted … maybe a minute? … but I told the board that it wasn’t fun working with them anymore and that the staff didn’t want to take any risks because the board had started micromanaging them. (Managing them had always been my job, not theirs.)

After the meeting, I spent a long time conversing with the chairman.  I felt awful about the way I had reacted … and knew that everything I told him would quickly get back to the others.

I immediately sought out a counselor to find out why I had reacted so badly.  After hearing me and testing me, he concluded, “You are severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

(Why did I burn out?  The construction of the worship center … finishing my doctoral program … and dealing with board and staff resistance all took their toll on me.)

After sharing this story with a pastor friend, he told me, “Jim, you had every right to be angry.”

I told him, “Maybe so, but I got too angry.”

Many pastors lose it in a board meeting on occasion, but in twenty-five years as a pastor, I never had.  In that church, I had a nine-year track record of remaining calm in meetings, but now I had messed up.

I felt like a colossal failure.  I never became angry after that, but I know my rant was used against me.

A more mature board might have met together and said, “Jim seems to be under great stress right now.  He’s meant so much to this church.  Something is troubling him, and we need to find out what it is.  Let’s send two board members to meet with him and see how we can help him overcome his frustration so we can all work together in harmony.”

But that’s not what happened.

In the end, the board never spoke with me about that night again.  They should have.  I was too embarrassed to go to them.  I wanted them to speak with me as a sign of love.

Instead, they did something else.

They waited until we were overseas on a mission trip … and then went after my wife.

Why did they go after your wife?

Kim is an amazing woman … maybe too amazing.

And she does a lot of good … maybe too much good.

The board hired Kim in 2001 as full-time outreach director after a search process produced twenty possible candidates.  Kim was the only person to survive the first round.  She was hired on merit because she knew more about outreach ministry than any other applicant even though others had more formal education.

(One time, we let a major outreach group use our facility for a training meeting.  Kim walked into the room and heard the leader using her material.  They had stolen it from her outright, but that shows how much her approach was valued.)

Kim was the best leader in our entire church.  She had vision … passion … charisma … a great work ethic … and a heart that beat for lost people.  As our mission statement put it, she loved to “share God’s unconditional love.”

In fact, several months before October 24, a board member told Kim, “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to this church.”

She learned people’s names.  She learned about their families and problems.  She recorded what she heard and used that information to help people become assimilated into church life.  She started new ministries … recruiting and training leaders to take them over.  She shared her faith everywhere.

And she did it all with contagious enthusiasm and a smile.

She was the most indispensable person in the entire church … including the pastor.

But she made a few enemies along the way because she believed so strongly in our church’s outreach orientation … and because, in my view, some individuals were jealous of her influence.

On October 24, the board told me they had terminated Kim’s position effective immediately because, they said, she had overspent her budgets.

When I asked how much she had overspent, I was given a number verbally.  I should have asked for written documentation, but I wasn’t thinking clearly.

I did ask for it three days later, but received nothing coherent.  Kim then asked for the documentation again two days later when she met with two board members, but was given nothing.

Was it all a bluff?

The bookkeeper later met with Kim and determined she had overspent her budgets by a negligible amount … light years away from the number I was given at the October 24 meeting.  A nine-person team from inside the church later investigated all charges and concluded there was no evidence that either Kim or I had committed any wrongdoing.

At that October 24 meeting, the board told me to tell Kim that she had a choice: she could resign or be fired.

And then the chairman made a statement I still can’t believe: the board felt so strongly about their decision that they were all willing to resign.

_______________

I’ve answered five questions so far, and will be responding to the final three questions in two days.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When a husband and wife aren’t getting along … and they can’t seem to resolve their issues … they may seek out a third party: a counselor.

When an employee feels she’s been wronged by her employer … and she’s tried but can’t resolve the issues inside her company … she may seek redress from a third party: a judge.

But when people in a church are in conflict and they aren’t able to resolve matters, what do they do?

They usually choose up sides … exonerate themselves … demonize their opponents … put their heads down … and attempt to bulldoze their way to victory … even if it splits their church wide open.

There is a better way.

Church conflict expert Speed Leas, in his brilliant manual Moving Your Church Through Conflict, believes there are five levels of conflict in a local church.

Leas says that conflict at levels one through three can be resolved by God’s people within their local church.

But when a conflict escalates to levels four and five, the conflict cannot be resolved inside the church.  It’s gone too far.

The church needs outside intervention instead.

But in my experience, the great majority of Christians resist that idea.

Years ago, I served as pastor of a church where we were being cheated by a building contractor.  He was billing us for his work … we’d pay him … but then rather than pay his sub-contractors, he’d divert the funds to other projects he had.

The sub-contractors were naturally upset that they weren’t being paid and came to us for the money … but we’d already paid the contractor.

We held a board meeting, and it was a bit tense because I wanted us to go to an attorney, while someone else felt it would be a waste of time.

I understand the sentiment: “Look, this is our problem, so we need to be the ones to solve it.  All we’ll do is make the attorneys richer.”

But sometimes, the biggest barrier to resolving a conflict is our pride.  We just don’t want to admit that someone else knows how to handle matters better than we do.

According to Leas, a conflict at Level Four has the following characteristics:

*Each group stops talking with the other, even when they’re in the same room.

*Each group is convinced that the other party “won’t change.”

*Each group no longer wants to win … they want to hurt the other side.

*Each group takes on an air of self-righteousness: “We’re right … they’re wrong.”

*Each group uses threats and demands against the other.

*Each group takes the stance: “Either he/they leave(s) or we will.”

When a conflict reaches Level Five, one side wants to destroy their opponents.

At Level Four, a faction may want their pastor to leave.

At Level Five, they want his position … his health … his family … and his career decimated.

I have been on the receiving end of both Level Four and Level Five conflict, and in both cases, the opposing group left the church.  In the first case, the conflict died down.  In the second case, the conflict got worse.

If a church is having a conflict, the chances are great that the pastor has become involved somehow.  Either he’s perceived as “the problem” or he hasn’t yet “fixed the problem.”  And the anxiety around the church becomes so great that people begin to wonder, “If our pastor is this incompetent or this useless, why should he stay?”

So when a conflict hits Level Four … or if it quickly leapfrogs to Level Five … the church board needs to seek outside intervention as soon as possible.

Here are five reasons to seek outside help:

First, the current church leadership has been unable to resolve the conflict at Levels One, Two, or Three where it’s much more manageable.  If they can’t manage things at the lower levels, they’ll never be able to manage matters at the highest levels.  They need an outsider.

Second, many church leaders have either been in their church for many years, or their present church is the only one they’ve ever known.  They’re so immersed in their present church culture that they don’t know how pastors and boards in other churches handle conflict … but an outside interventionist almost assuredly does.  He will help them broaden their thinking.

Third, pastors and church leaders can become so anxious and stressed about a conflict that they think they’re going crazy.  They become so irrational that all they want to do is get the conflict over with.  An outside interventionist comes in with a clean slate … no emotional investment … and a neutral approach that seeks the good of the church as a whole, not just the pastor, board, or a vocal faction.

Fourth, pastors and church leaders usually lose control of the process when a conflict erupts in their congregation.  An outside interventionist can remind everyone of what Scripture says, what the church constitution/bylaws say, and what secular law says about how Christians are to treat one another.  The interventionist can set ground rules for behavior and remind people when they have crossed the line.

Finally, the interventionist can teach the leaders … and by extension, the congregation … new skills, processes, and resources for managing conflict in the future.

Let me share my story along this line.

Seven-and-a-half years ago, I found myself in the worst conflict of my 36-year ministry career.  I didn’t know which Christian leaders to contact, so I contacted everyone I knew outside my denomination.

The name of a Christian leader popped into my head … someone who had once commended me on an article I wrote in a Christian magazine … so I looked him up online and made a phone appointment with him.

He had been a pastor … a district executive … and a denominational president.  Later on, I found out he was considered to be the best-networked evangelical leader in Southern California.

We had a two-hour conversation.  He gave me more valuable counsel over the phone that day than the other sixteen leaders I contacted combined.

He later became my mentor … and my friend … giving me hours of his valuable time, and advising me at key times when I needed to make a major decision.

My conversation with that leader was free.  He recommended I speak with the head of the consulting firm that he worked for, so a few hours later, I did.

After about a 45-minute conversation, the consulting head told me, “Jim, we need to get someone to your church as soon as possible.”

The next day, our church had been assigned a top Christian leader.  The following weekend, he dropped everything to fly to our area and help facilitate the conflict.

How much did he cost?

Think $5,000 to $10,000.  The better the interventionist, the more they cost.  If someone says they’ll do it for free, they’re probably not very good.

What did he do?

*He met with me and heard my side of things.

*He met with the church staff and interviewed them.

*He met with a group of church leaders and helped formulate strategy for two congregational meetings.

*He later met with both my wife and me.

*He stayed in constant contact with a transitional leadership group.

*He attended the two public meetings and became so incensed that he stood up after the second meeting and scolded the congregation.

*He did investigative work and uncovered a plot originating outside the church designed to force me out of office.

*He wrote a report and gave one copy to me and one to each of the transitional leaders.

*He told me that I had a future in ministry and made recommendations to the transitional leaders for a realistic severance package.

And he did it all in five days.

Who should a church hire as an interventionist?

I recommend … along with many other Christian leaders … that you don’t seek outside help from your denomination, at least initially.

Most denominational leaders aren’t trained in conflict intervention.  Even though they’ll make a pretense of acting neutral, any decisions they make will most likely be political.

And they usually recommend that the pastor leave the church, even if he is innocent of any and all charges.

If you do use denominational services, only go to them if every other avenue fails.

Here are some ideas about hiring an interventionist:

*Contact Peacemaker Ministries.  They often have trained interventionists and mediators in many communities, including former pastors and attorneys.

*Contact the executive pastor of a megachurch.  It’s nearly impossible to make contact with the lead pastor of a huge church, but you can often contact other staff members, like the executive or an associate pastor.

*Contact the seminary your church knows best, or the one you graduated from.  I was able to speak with a professor from my seminary who had extensive knowledge of church transitions and was able to give me valuable feedback.

*Contact Christian leaders who do this for a living, like Peter Steinke with BridgeBuilder.  I’ve had training directly from Steinke, and he focuses on the process that congregations should use to resolve conflicts rather than resolving matters by himself.

*Contact someone like me … a former pastor who has credentials in conflict management.

Two additional ideas:

First, make sure that you allow representatives from both sides to interview a consultant before he’s hired.  Don’t hire someone and then try and impose that person on the other side.  That will create even more conflict!

Finally, do your best to follow the consultant’s recommendations.  I’m amazed when a church hires a conflict consultant and then completely ignores his report.  How arrogant … or stupid … is that?  This usually happens in situations where either the pastor or the board is faulted in some way by the consultant and those leaders refuse to believe that they might be the problem.

By the way, when my church hired an attorney many years ago, that attorney … and someone else from his firm … not only saved our church … they also helped us settle a lawsuit that was eventually filed against us … and we settled for pennies on the dollar.

That incident completely changed my outlook on attorneys.

And hiring that consultant in 2009 changed my outlook on hiring church outsiders as well.

Is it possible that your church needs an outside interventionist?

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

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

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

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

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

I felt the stress level rise quickly inside me.

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

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

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

I froze … and then got out of my vehicle.

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

I loudly said, “You almost hit me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what happens instead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*How is your husband or wife doing right now?

*How are your children doing?

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

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

*How can we pray for you specifically?

*How can our church family assist you right now?

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

I don’t excuse it.

I do understand it.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This is my 500th blog article, and for the past few months, I’ve been thinking and praying about how I should mark this milestone.

After much reflection, I’ve decided to distill some of the things I’ve learned about pastoral termination that I haven’t written about before.

After earning a doctorate in church conflict … after writing a book called Church Coup … after providing counsel for scores of pastors and board members … and after writing all those blogs …  let me share with you five hidden realities surrounding pastoral termination today:

First, evangelical Christian churches rarely treat a pastor under fire justly.

When a faction inside a congregation attacks their pastor, they don’t consider treating him fairly … they just want him to meet their demands or resign.

When a staff member sabotages his pastor – personally or professionally – he’s not concerned about justice … he just wants to avoid doing what the pastor wants.

When a governing board prematurely forces their pastor to resign, they will avoid Scripture … ignore their governing documents … and later declare that everything they did was justified.

The standard seems to be “how we feel about the pastor” or “let’s make sure the pastor gets what he deserves” rather than anything related to Scripture or even love.

When a pastor is under fire inside his own church, all the rules tend to get tossed aside.

There should be a rulebook for treating a pastor under attack fairly … but most of the time, there isn’t.

I’ve written nearly 100 pages of such a rulebook, but haven’t been able to finish it.  If you think it’s important, please pray that the Lord will help me to get it done.

Ironically, mainline churches – which tend to be theologically liberal – treat their pastors much more fairly than evangelical churches … which claim to believe and practice divine truth.

By the way, I shouldn’t have to say this, but the goal of discipline/correction in the New Testament isn’t revenge, but restoration (Matthew 18:15-16; Galatians 6:1).  My guess it that at least 80% of the time, the restoration of a “wayward” pastor isn’t even considered by the governing board.

They just want him gone … and will use any weapon in their arsenal to accomplish their goal.

We can do better than this … much better.

Second, pastors who have been attacked in the past have a limited pain threshold.

A friend of mine called me several weeks ago and asked if I would be interested in becoming an interim pastor at a church not far from my home.

I didn’t have to think about it or even pray about it … my answer was a swift “No.”

I know some older pastors who have suffered through an unjust termination, and they love ministry so much that they are open to an interim position.

But I’m not … and maybe it goes back to something I learned from Jay Carty.

Jay Carty played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1968-1969 season.  Lakers’ announcer Chick Hearn once nicknamed Carty “Golden Wheels” because he was so slow on the court.

Carty became a popular Christian speaker.  I once sat next to him at a pastors’ meeting (I told him I still had his autograph from that 68-69 season) and he told me this story:

He said that if you put a fly in a jar, the fly will try to fly out by hitting the lid of the jar once.  The fly will try again a second time, but after that, the fly will give up because it doesn’t want to go experience any more pain.

I’m unsure whether that’s how flies really act, but when it comes to church ministry, there’s definitely some truth there.

Back in the mid-1980s, I survived two separate attempts to get rid of me as pastor in the same church.  Both times, my antagonists left instead of me, but I was bruised and bloodied emotionally for months.

Somehow, God enabled me to lead the rebirth of that congregation (I contributed a chapter to Gary McIntosh’s book Make Room For the Boom … or Bust detailing what happened) but it about killed me.  A nationally-known church consultant told me, “It’s a wonder you’re still standing.”

Even though I was exhausted, a pastor friend told me, “I think you have one more church left in you.”

So I became the pastor of a congregation that seemed healthy.  Attendance and giving nearly doubled during my tenure … we built a new worship center … and we became the largest Protestant church in our city … but church leaders eventually turned on me, and even though I chose to resign, some people were pushing me toward the door … hard.

Even when you’re successful as a pastor, there’s a limit as to how much pain you can take before you reluctantly admit, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Three attacks and you’re out.

Third, the Christian community observes a “winner take all” mentality when it comes to pastoral termination.

When a pastor presides over a growing congregation, he will make enemies … on the staff, on the board, among key leaders … and if they pool their complaints, the pastor’s tenure may end swiftly and harshly.

I’m thinking of a megachurch pastor … one of the best Bible teachers I’ve ever heard … who was forced to resign because he tried to make changes to the worship service.  He received approvals through all the proper channels except he didn’t consult the people with old money … who no longer held official positions … and they made his life a living hell until he quit.

In the Christian community, pastors like that gifted megachurch minister are labeled “losers” if they’re forced out even when they have done nothing wrong.

I have a pastor friend who reads this blog who told me that for years, whenever he heard about a pastor who experienced an involuntary exit, my friend would think to himself, “What a loser.”

After it happened to him, he found himself singing a different tune.

However, the pastor who is pushed out of a church is a “loser” in one respect: he loses most of his church friends … his reputation … his income … his position … his house (sometimes) … his career (often) … and occasionally, even his wife … and all those losses together brand him in many people’s eyes as someone to be shunned and abandoned.

Yet it doesn’t matter if the pastor’s antagonists harassed him … lied about him … or misrepresented him … if he’s forced out, he’s the loser … and by default, those who successfully removed him are crowned the winners.

And in the words of the pop group Abba, “The Winner Takes it All.”

In the Christian world, people don’t care about the details of a pastor’s ouster … they only care about outcomes.

There’s only one problem with this shallow thinking:

By this reckoning, Jesus was a loser, too … as were His apostles.

Even though I was pushed out of my last ministry, I have never viewed myself as a “loser,” but I know that some do, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Except to say that the values of the evangelical community are often more tied to worldly success than biblical faithfulness.

Fourth, those who force out an innocent pastor should be exposed and asked to repent.

Here’s something I will never understand:

If a pastor starts bullying and manipulating people in his church, shouldn’t he be confronted and asked to repent?

Of course … and if he refuses to repent, he’s subject to being removed from office.

By the same token, if a group in a church … even if they’re the governing board … start bullying and manipulating the pastor behind-the-scenes, shouldn’t they be confronted and asked to repent as well?

Yes, they should … but if they’re successful in getting rid of their pastor, nobody will ever ask them to repent.

The governing board won’t.  The staff won’t.  The congregation won’t.  The district won’t.

Even if they know the facts, no single party will approach the pastor’s detractors because the pastor lost and his opponents won.

And in the evangelical world, that’s the end of the matter.  (Remember, according to 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, we’re not supposed to sue one another.)

In fact, if a church is denominational, the district minister will often spin the pastor’s departure and make him look bad … and make those who pushed out the pastor look good … even if the latter group acted wickedly.

I’ve seen this scenario played out scores of times over the years.

This kind of cover up … slander … and lying has nothing to do with biblical righteousness … and everything to do with crass politics.

District ministers in evangelical denominations (many of which are congregational in nature) like to say, “Oh, we can’t intervene in disputes in a local church.  We respect the autonomy of the local church.”

But that bromide is a lie.

Because district ministers do interfere in the lives of local churches (almost always behind closed doors) … and I can tell you story after story where that’s exactly what happened … including my own case.

I have learned over time that 90% of all district ministers handle church conflicts in a political way … not a spiritual way … because they aren’t interested in truth or righteousness … they’re interested in keeping donations flowing from the church to the district office to pay their salary.

And if they side with the pastor … or even hint he’s right and the board is wrong … he’s afraid the church will cut off those funds.

So he either remains silent or aligns himself with the church board … and nobody is asked to even consider their part in their pastor’s departure.

Because after the pastor is gone, the whole conflict can be blamed on him.

Finally, pastors get into trouble when they forget they are persons first, pastors second.

Nine months before I left my last ministry position, I was struggling with whether I could be a pastor anymore.

Instead of being a pastor, I longed to be just a person.

I didn’t want to be Pastor Jim … just Jim.

I would come home from a day at the church office … park my car in the garage … rush inside to eat dinner … and rush back to church for a meeting.

But I didn’t want to go to the meeting … I just wanted to stay home.

I began avoiding tasks I didn’t want to do … and avoiding people I didn’t want to see … and trying to figure out what was wrong with me.

Part of me wanted to tell the church board how I was feeling.  I knew I needed some time away to recover, but when I looked at the composition of the board, I decided I couldn’t risk telling them anything.

That particular group would not have understood.

I reasoned, “If I tell them how I am feeling … because they don’t seem to care for me as a person … they will probably fire me outright or force me to quit.”

And I couldn’t take the chance.

So I decided to tough it out and hope that I’d improve over time … and at times, I behaved uncharacteristically.

People like it when their pastor’s behavior is predictable.  When the pastor becomes unpredictable, some will clamor for him to leave.

I finally went to see a Christian counselor, who diagnosed me with a severe case of burnout … and said I was headed for a breakdown.

Thank God, I didn’t break down … not even when the conflict surfaced two months later … but I came awfully close.

I don’t blame the church board for my condition because I never told them about it … but I do blame them for not saying to me, “Hey, Jim, you don’t seem like yourself.  Are you okay?  Is something wrong?  Can we pray for you?”

There is no doubt that my burnout was the result of being overcommitted to my ministry.  I cared too much … and maybe that was my undoing, but I needed somebody to say, “Hey, it’s okay to back off … we’ll help carry the load.”

I wore the “pastor” hat too often … and longed to be just “Jim” … a normal, anonymous person … instead.

I finally got my wish.

_______________

This is my 500th blog article.  I started writing … with trepidation … in December 2010.

I wasn’t sure if anyone would find … much less read … anything that I wrote.  And because my son warned me that I would attract critics, I braced myself for mean-spirited comments that never came.

Some blog articles have done very well.  Some died the day I wrote them.  In the early days, I wrote three in five days.  Now I only have time for one per week.

From the beginning, my primary passion has been the relationship between pastors and their antagonists in a local church … especially those who pursue the pastor’s termination.

If you’re a subscriber, or an occasional reader, thank you so much for reading what I write.

I try to tell the truth with grace.

When you think about it, let me know if what I write is helpful.

Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Several years ago, I preached a sermon on the topic “Resolving Conflict Biblically” at a church several communities away.

When I was done speaking, a woman in her mid-80s – who had attended a prominent California church for most of her life – told me, “I have never heard a sermon on the subject of conflict in my entire life.”

Now maybe she was ill or away on the Sundays that her pastor spoke about conflict, or maybe all his sermons fused together in her mind.

But I happen to know that her former pastor – one of America’s best-known Bible teachers – experienced a major conflict in his church before he eventually resigned.

The best churches experience major conflicts.  In fact, I still agree with this adage that I heard years ago: “Small churches have small problems, while big churches have big problems.”

Regardless of your church’s size, it’s almost certain that your congregation will experience a severe conflict within the next ten years … and about a 40 percent chance that you’ll suffer through a major conflict within the next five … unless your church is ready when that conflict strikes.

But sadly, most churches aren’t ready for a major conflict.

Maybe they’re in denial, thinking, “We’re such a nice group of Christians that nothing horrendous could happen here.”

Or they’re thinking, “Our constitution and bylaws specify what to do if conflict breaks out, so we’re adequately prepared.”

Or they’re thinking, “Our leaders are such godly individuals, they will handle any conflict expertly” … not realizing that church leaders are often the source of major conflicts.

There isn’t a lot written on how to prevent major conflicts in church life.

That’s why I’m doing a workshop for Christian leaders next week called “Strengthening Your Church’s Immune System.”  I’ll be talking about ten ways that a church’s leaders can prepare for and prevent major conflict from even happening in their congregation.

Let me share with you one of the ten steps I’ll be presenting next week … and it takes a bit of work.

I believe that the lead pastor in a church must take the initiative to prevent major conflicts from surfacing.  He should allow people to share feedback and even disagree about matters without, at the same time, letting them start a bloodbath.

One way to do that is to hold regular meetings involving every key leader in your church: staff members, board members, ministry team/committee leaders, small group leaders … and to find reasons to make the group larger rather than smaller.

So if feasible, I’d invite their spouses as well.

The meetings can be held monthly or quarterly … maybe after the last service on Sunday morning, which means you’ll have to provide lunch … but it’s essential that they be held.

During one of those meetings, here’s what I would do if I were the pastor:

First, I would prepare a 3-4 page document for each person listing every New Testament reference – word for word – on church conflict. 

Maybe throw in some verses from Proverbs on the tongue as well.

Don’t ask people to look the verses up in their Bibles.  It takes too long … people have different versions … and you want all the relevant verses gathered in one place.

So the pastor should do the work for them.  Write out Matthew 18:15-17 … 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 … Titus 3:10-11 … 3 John 9-10 … in chronological order.

Second, I would ask the leaders to divide into groups without their spouses. 

The fewer people in each group, the more each person will have to interact with Scripture themselves … and that’s what you want.  Aim for five people per group.

I would have at least as many groups as there are pages.  For example, if you hand out five pages of verses, make sure you have at least five groups.

If you have 50 leaders present, then make ten groups with five individuals in each group.

Third, I would ask each group to appoint a leader … and for group leaders to ask for volunteers to read the verses.

My last few years as a pastor, I always asked for people to volunteer as readers.  Some people can’t read very well, and others become anxious when asked to do something in a group.  You want people to feel comfortable going through this exercise.

Fourth, after the verses have been read, ask each group to summarize the verses on their page in five principles. 

This should take 15-20 minutes per group.

Then starting with page 1, ask each leader to appoint a spokesperson to present their five principles to the entire group.

Fifth, the pastor should ask someone ahead of time to record each principle word for word on newsprint and hang each sheet on the wall. 

This isn’t busy work … it’s documentation.  In fact, the pastor should store the newsprint somewhere safe in case someone ever challenges the wording of the principles.

Sixth, after all the reports, the pastor should ask the entire group questions like:

*Can we summarize the teaching of Scripture concerning conflict resolution in one sentence?

*Which verses that you studied stand out to you?

*How well do you personally carry out these principles in your own life?

*Why do we have such a hard time dealing with conflict?

*How realistically can we follow the teaching in these verses in 2016?

*How well does our church follow Scripture when it comes to conflict resolution?

Seventh, after that discussion, the pastor should do two things:

*Ask someone to collect all the newsprint sheets and give them to the pastor directly.  The pastor should consider reproducing everything written down word for word on the church website.  This not only shows the leaders that their words are taken seriously, this also shows the congregation that the church takes Scripture seriously when it comes to conflict.

*Then reserve time on the agenda of the next board meeting – or call a special Saturday board meeting – and ask the governing board as well as members of the church staff to summarize the biblical teaching on conflict resolution in ten principles.

(The board and staff should do this because they are ultimately the guardians of both the congregation and the pastor … and because they are sometimes the sources of potential trouble themselves.)

When that’s complete … maybe at the next board meeting … three more things need to happen:

Eighth, the pastor makes sure that those ten principles for resolving conflict are posted in key places all over the church.

This includes the rooms where staff meetings, board meetings, finance team meetings and other key meetings are held.

Ninth, the pastor then schedules a brief series – maybe two sermons – on those ten principles, letting the congregation know, “This is how we handle conflict around here.”

And every year – possibly before the annual meeting – the pastor should preach another brief series on biblical conflict resolution.  Call it internal insurance.

Finally, the pastor schedules time every six months to review the principles with the staff, the board, and the key leaders. 

This doesn’t have to take long, but it has to be done.

Some people might say, “But Jim, if a severe conflict does break out, some people will become so emotional that they will ignore those principles, so aren’t these principles really worthless?”

No, they aren’t worthless.  God gave those principles to us, and He never gives His people anything that isn’t of value!

But even if some people become irrational during conflict, there are others in the congregation who will view matters in a more biblical and rational fashion, and you want the more logical people to deal with the more emotional ones.

Let me give you an example of how these principles can help once they’re posted:

Imagine that you’re in the church library after a Sunday service, and a woman saddles up to you and says, “Listen, a few of us are meeting for lunch today to discuss the latest changes that the pastor is trying to impose on our church.  If you want to join us, we’re meeting at Olive Garden at 1:00 pm.”

Instead of answering her directly, you take her by the hand, waltz her over to the north wall, show her the list of ten principles for resolving conflict biblically, and say to her, “Look at principle number seven.  It says, “If you are upset about a policy, please speak directly with any member of the church board.  [They set policy along with the pastor.]  And if you are upset with the pastor personally, please speak directly with him.”

You then ask this person, “Are you upset with a policy?  Then you need to speak directly with a board member … maybe the one you know the best.  But if you’re upset with the pastor personally, you need to speak with him directly.  Which is it?”

If the person says, “I’m upset with the policy,” then ask the person, “Which board member will you speak with about this issue?”

If the person says, “I’m upset with the pastor,” then ask them, “When will you be speaking with the pastor about this issue?”

If the person says, “Forget it.  I thought you were a friend, but you aren’t,” I’d say to them, “These ten principles summarize how we handle conflict around here.  If you don’t comply, I will report you to the pastor and the church board and tell them what you’re planning to do.  It’s your call.”

The beauty of this approach is that these principles:

*are based on Scripture.

*have been devised by all the key leaders in the church.

*have been ratified by the governing board and staff.

*have been presented to the church through the pulpit.

*have been posted all over the church facility.

*can then be enforced by all of God’s people.

If you follow this plan, I can’t guarantee that you’ll never experience a major conflict in your church.

After all, when some people are intent on committing murder, they can be hard to stop.

But I can guarantee that if you do this, the plotters will know that they’re violating Scripture and the culture of their church … and that will take all the fun out of plots against the pastor … secret meetings … and playing politics.

If you can manage major conflict in your church, that might allow your church to do what Jesus called it to do:

Fulfill His Great Commission in your community.

 

 

 

 

 

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