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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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Pastor Karl woke up Monday morning with a splitting headache at 4:37 am after having the same nightmare he’d had for the past few weeks.

It was Sunday morning – 15 minutes before the worship service was scheduled to begin – and he had not prepared his sermon.

Karl wondered, “Why do I keep having the same nightmare?”  Whenever he got up to preach, he was always well-prepared … and everybody knew it.

Unable to get back to sleep, Karl stumbled into his home study, rubbed his eyes, and tried to have his quiet time.  As he read from 1 Kings about Elijah, that day’s packed schedule flooded into his mind.  He became so overwhelmed that he kept reading the same lines from Scripture over and over … but he couldn’t seem to grasp their meaning.

After a brief time of prayer, Karl sat in his chair, turned on the news, and fell asleep.

Waking with a start at 7:23, Karl awoke to find his two children had already left for school with his wife Valerie … so for a few minutes, he had the house all to himself.

As he ate breakfast, cleaned up, and got dressed, Karl continued to review that day’s schedule.  He kept telling himself, “I will be home tonight by 10 pm … I will be home tonight by 10 pm.”

Karl arrived at his church study at Family Bible Church at 8:28.  After putting his things on his desk, he walked into the church office to greet Amy, his office manager.  She promptly handed Karl an envelope and said, “It’s another anonymous letter … the second one within a week.  I think you better read it.”

Karl replied, “It’s not our policy to read unsigned correspondence.  If they don’t care enough to go on the record, how can we weigh their complaints or respond to their grievances?”

Amy responded, “I still think you should read it.”

Karl gave it back to her and told her to destroy it.

After signing some letters, Karl asked Amy, “Do you have the numbers from yesterday?”  Amy handed them to Karl.

For the third straight Sunday, overall attendance was down.  Karl couldn’t figure it out.  His sermons on marriage were relevant, the services seemed inspiring, and he’d received some great feedback from a cross-section of the congregation about his messages.

But the attendance figures didn’t reflect his optimism.

Just as ominous, Karl noticed that the offering was abysmal … about 25% less than the average amount the church needed every week to make budget.  Nothing made any sense.

Demoralized, Karl walked toward his office and was intercepted by the worship pastor, who reminded Karl that he would be on vacation the next two Sundays.  Just what we need, Karl said to himself: the B Team will be leading worship when we need the quality of the A Team more than ever.

Just as Karl breathed a brief prayer to the Lord for strength, Amy buzzed him and told him that Patti, the women’s team leader, was on the phone.  Patti was upset with the way the last two women’s events had gone … so upset that she threatened to quit.  Karl spent 45 minutes he didn’t have trying to get her to reconsider.

As he left his office for a much-needed bathroom break, Karl was intercepted by Joe and Tom, two of the seniors.  They wanted to know if Karl had a minute for them.  Karl assured them he would speak with them as soon as he returned from the men’s room.

Joe and Tom told Karl that several of the seniors were upset with him over his recent sermon on marriage … specifically the sermon where Karl preached on 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, Paul’s instructions on sex to married couples in Corinth.  The two men told Karl that the language he used was too graphic for some of the seniors to handle and that they would boycott the rest of his series on marriage as a result.

Karl tried to explain that for those under 60, the terms he used were mild and demonstrated relevance, but the two men said, “We just view ourselves as messengers.  We thought you needed to know.”

An anonymous letter … poor attendance and giving stats … the B team leading worship … and now a seniors’ boycott.  Karl wondered, “What else can go wrong today?”

Karl slipped into the worship center and tried to reach his wife on her cell phone … just for support … but she didn’t answer.

He prayed a brief prayer and returned to his study.

Checking his emails, Karl received two encouraging notes thanking him for last Sunday’s message on sex in marriage … but he also received two notes telling him that his sermon was too graphic.  Karl answered them all.  With one of the critical notes, he wrote several paragraphs … just for self-therapy … but then he erased everything and wrote a two-sentence reply instead.

Lunch was approaching, and Karl was scheduled to meet with Tim, whose family had been coming to the church for several weeks.  When Karl arrived at the restaurant at the scheduled time of 11:45, Tim was nowhere to be found.  He finally showed up at 12:10, causing Karl stress because he had so much to do that day.

Tim said some encouraging things about Family Bible, but then told Karl that if he had and his family were to stay, they needed to see improvement in the youth and children’s ministries.  Because Tim had an important position in a large company, Karl momentarily imagined him giving several thousand dollars a month to the church … helping to alleviate those nagging budgetary difficulties … but Karl swatted that thought away.  He then told Tim, “I will speak to the leaders of both ministries and see what I can do.”

When Karl returned from lunch, he looked through his mail, returned several phone calls, and then sat down for a marriage counseling session with a key couple from church.  Both partners led important ministries, and Karl had no idea there was anything wrong in their relationship.

An hour later, Karl felt like throwing up.  The woman claimed that her husband was guilty of physical abuse … the husband apologized for his temper … and Karl knew he couldn’t counsel them any further, so he recommended them to a local Christian counselor.  But now he knew too much about this couple’s relationship.  How could the husband remain a leader at church … and what was really going on in their marriage?

Since it was mid-afternoon, Karl decided to take a walk, and he ended up at the local drug store.  Trying to get his head together by killing a few minutes, two women from the church saw Karl and began telling them about problems they were having with their adult children.  Karl listened as best he could … offered to pray for them … and walked back to church … the last place he wanted to go.

After answering a few more emails and phone calls, Mike, the board chairman, showed up at Karl’s office for his 4 pm appointment.  The two leaders were supposed to review the agenda for that evening’s board meeting.  Karl asked Mike if he knew anything about the seniors’ boycott, and Mike assured Karl that he had heard nothing about it.

Mike then spent most of the session detailing his problems at work … draining Karl even further.

At 5:15, Karl drove home.  He changed clothes … looked at the mail … greeted his wife … conversed with his kids for a few minutes … and drove right back to church.

The board meeting … which began at 6 pm to accommodate the schedules of the board members … went downhill fast.  The board always reviewed the attendance and giving numbers, and two board members in particular wanted Mike to explain why both indicators were plunging.  Mike stammered out a response … he wasn’t ready for this grilling … but they didn’t seem satisfied.  “Oh, no,” Karl thought, “why aren’t they more supportive?  What’s going on around here?”

During the meeting, Karl received a text.  The senior leading the boycott against Karl’s marriage sermons was taken to the emergency room of the county hospital … 30 minutes away.  Should Karl stay in the board meeting or go to the hospital?

Karl asked the board.  They told him to go to the hospital.  When Karl got there, the senior had been placed in a room, and it was too late to see him.

Now Karl worried about what the board would say about him in his absence.

When he arrived home at 10:17, Karl’s wife Valerie was waiting for him.  She told him about her day … he told her about his … and they both went to bed.

But again, Karl had a hard time sleeping.

_______________

Being a pastor looks so glamorous to many people.  When the pastor stands up to preach on a Sunday morning, his voice is magnified … the lights shine on him … he seems to be in command … and best of all, he seems to be speaking for God.

My guess is that many young people sense a call to ministry by imagining themselves preaching to an enraptured congregation.

But preaching is only a small portion of church ministry for most pastors, even if it’s what most people think about when they mentally picture their pastor.

But the real work of ministry happens Monday through Saturday … behind the scenes … in a church’s offices and hallways as well as community restaurants … and it’s anything but glamorous.

Church ministry is incredibly stressful work.  The late management expert Peter Drucker said that being a local church pastor is one of the four most difficult jobs in America.

Why is this?

*People come at the pastor from all angles: appointments … phone calls … emails … letters … and even when he’s shopping.  And every time, the pastor feels like he has to be “on.”

*Church ministry is incredibly slow work.  People change slowly.  Congregations change even more slowly.  Pastors may be in a hurry for positive change, but almost nobody else is.

*Pastors have a hard time defining success.  Is it measured by statistics?  A full schedule?  Changed lives?  Faithfulness?

*Pastors are expected to give themselves completely to their congregations … but when can they replenish their own energy and strength?  After all, they work nights and weekends … times most people use to replenish themselves.

*Pastors often don’t know what people really think about them … and maybe that’s the only way they can stay sane.  But they also don’t know what people are saying about them, either, and such talk can end a pastor’s position … or career.

*Pastors can feel momentum shifting away from them in a congregation … and it feels like a very slow death.

_______________

I’ve had many days in church ministry like Pastor Karl.  In fact, much of Karl’s Very Bad Day originates from memories of my own time in ministry.

How do you feel about what I’ve written?

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Ten years ago, I was pastoring the largest Protestant church in our city and working on my doctoral project for Fuller Seminary.

Because I was using so many books during that time, I set up a card table in my study at home, right next to my desk and computer.

The title of my project was “Conflict Transformation: A Biblical Model Informed by Family Systems Theory at ______________ Church.”

Regardless of the title, my project was really about how to prevent and resolve antagonistic behavior in the local church – nearly always directed toward the pastor.

I wanted to research and write on this issue because I had seen antagonistic behavior directed toward pastors all of my life:

*My father was pushed out of a church he planted after five years.

*A pastor at my next church was forced out as well.

*My father-in-law was forced out of his two pastorates.

*A pastor I worked for was voted out of office during a contentious church meeting.

I’ve seen pastor after pastor bullied … threatened … falsely accused … mobbed … and damaged … simply because the pastor would not surrender himself to a faction in the church … including the official board.

But two years after earning that degree, I went through a severe conflict in my own ministry … and I learned ten times more going through that conflict than I did writing about it from an academic perspective … although the academic preparation gave me a foundation for interpreting what was happening.

Let me share four things that I learned from going through that conflict I could not have learned from books or professors:

First, I learned that Christians can hate their pastor for a long time without ever revealing their feelings to him.

If I was attending a church, and I couldn’t stand my pastor, I would leave the church.

I would leave even if my family members all loved him … even if I enjoyed a fruitful ministry as a volunteer … even if I had been in that church for years … and even if I didn’t know any other church to attend.

Let me say this loud and clear: it is better for you to leave the church … even if you have to sit at home on Sundays for six months … then to stay in your church and lead a rebellion against your pastor.

Because when people hate their pastor … whether it’s because of his personality, or his preaching, or his mannerisms, or the changes he’s instituting … they will invariably share their feelings with their family and friends.

And those feelings will almost always go viral, because sharing your bitterness will embolden others to share their grievances as well.

As James 3:5 says, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”

A spark against a pastor has to start somewhere, and when it does, it often results in a firestorm that engulfs the entire congregation.

Before the conflict surfaced, I had no idea that some people hated me with a passion, but I have written evidence that they did.

But none of those people ever had the courage to come to me and say, “Hey, Jim, I have an issue with you, and I’d like to share it in hopes that we can work together better.”

God hates sin, but God doesn’t hate sinners.

And He doesn’t hate His own people.

And He especially doesn’t hate His own called servants.

But for some reason … in nearly every case where an innocent pastor is pushed out of office … hatred is the fuel that drives the conflict.

I couldn’t learn that from a book … I had to experience it myself.

Second, I learned that the pastor feels massive betrayal during such a conflict.

I bought a book a while back on betrayal in the local church.  The book contained some good insights … I’ll probably share some of them sometime … but as I read it, I wanted to ask the author one question: “Have YOU ever gone through a massive betrayal in a church before?”

If he had experienced betrayal himself, I think he would have rewritten large portions of his work.

Let me share just one instance of betrayal … and I could cite many more.

After the conflict in my last ministry came to light, I was unsure who I could trust anymore.  For the most part, I waited until people came to me and expressed support before I shared anything with them from my perspective.

After a brutal public meeting of the congregation, a man came up to me and expressed strong support.  We had done things together outside of church and I was glad he was on my side.

A month later, on my final Sunday at the church, I invited people who had demonstrated support to a final luncheon at someone’s house, and I invited this man along.

Before he left that day, he told me that he had met with one of my detractors, and that person’s attitude toward me was, in his words, “nasty.”

Several months later, I noticed on Facebook that this man had a birthday, so I wrote him a note, telling him that if I ever came back to the area, maybe we could get together.

But his conciliatory tone had changed.  I could tell by what he wrote that he had been worked over by one or more of my detractors … and that our friendship was over for good … even though I had never shared with him my side of the conflict.

When scenarios like this are constantly repeated … and they were in my case … you suddenly become suspicious of everyone you once deemed a friend from that church.

In fact, you come to a point where if you lose contact with someone in the church … even for a few days … you assume that they have turned against you.

I couldn’t learn that from a book … I had to experience it myself.

Third, I learned that the body of Christ lacks any kind of fair process for dealing with accusations against a pastor.

Most attacks on a pastor originate with a group of seven to ten people, regardless of church size.

Sometimes … especially if board or staff members are involved … those seven to ten individuals can force the pastor to resign without resorting to anyone else in the church.

But if the board and/or staff can’t do it alone, they will seek reinforcements from inside the congregation, including their spouses … friends … family members … and people who have left the church.

Those seven to ten people can grow to 25-35 pretty quickly.

As a conflict spreads throughout the church, the pastor needs people who are spiritual … and strong … and wise to counter the charges made against him.

The issue is never, “Are the charges being made against the pastor true?”

The issue is always, “What kind of process has been used to deal with the pastor’s shortcomings?”

If I was a church member, and I caught wind that the church board or a faction were making accusations against my pastor, I would ask each of them the same question:

WHAT PROCESS ARE YOU USING TO DEAL WITH THE PASTOR’S PROBLEMS?

I would specifically ask these questions:

*Does the pastor know what you are saying about him in private?

*Have you given the pastor the opportunity to respond to you or any of his other accusers?

*What steps are you taking to insure the pastor is treated fairly and justly?

*Which biblical passages are informing your process?

And if I didn’t like the answers to those questions, I would inform the pastor that he was being judged by the law of the jungle … not by Scripture.

And I would also figure out a way to tell the congregation that the pastor was being abused and lied about without giving him a chance to respond.

For several days in a row, someone entered the following phrase into a search engine and then found my blog:

“How can we fire our pastor without going by the church constitution?”

Do you know what they’re really asking?

“How can we avoid using a process that is biblically-based, takes time, preserves the pastor’s rights, and doesn’t guarantee the outcome that we want?”

Instead, they want to know, “How quickly can we get rid of the pastor without giving him any safeguards?”

In my case, I asked for but was not shown any evidence that church leaders claimed to have.

And I was never given a fair forum in which to answer any of the charges that were circulating around the church.

The leaders involved in pushing me out were very process-oriented whenever it came to changes I wanted to make at the church, but when they wanted me to leave, they resorted to short-cuts instead.

This is what happens almost every time that professing Christians try and force their pastor to resign.

I couldn’t learn that from a book … I had to experience it myself.

Finally, I learned that Satan’s presence during a conflict is so real that you can almost see him … and smell him.

I have told the story of what happened to my wife and me in my book Church Coup, but let me just touch on several things we experienced during the 50 days of our conflict:

*The conflict culminated on Halloween … and we always had the biggest outreach event of the year that evening.

*My wife and I experienced fear that we have never experienced before or since.

We were afraid to stay in our house.

We were afraid to answer the telephone.

We were afraid to answer the doorbell.

We were afraid to get the mail.

We were afraid to have any contact with our detractors.

We were afraid that we were going out of our minds.

We were afraid that we had done something horrible … but we didn’t know what it was.

*My wife was attacked by Satan in a visible, soul-destroying way.

I do not blame and have never blamed any individuals for what happened to her.  Her attack was not mediated through individuals … it was a direct assault by the enemy upon her heart, mind, and body.

*There were many lies going around the church about me, but there were so many that I didn’t know where they came from or how to answer them.

*I received an anonymous letter in the mail with the word RESIGN typed in large letters.  I gave the letter that night to a member of the new church board … he wanted to see if he could determine who sent it … but he never did.  That letter was NOT from God, believe me.

I don’t believe that every conflict in a church is from Satan, but there are two tipoffs that he’s involved:

First, there are lies and false accusations floating around the church.

Second, there is an obvious attempt to destroy the pastor’s reputation, position, career … and even his health.

At the time, I thought that Satan was targeting me to get me out of church ministry, but he was really attacking me as a means of attacking the church.

I couldn’t learn that from a book … I had to experience it myself.

There are many other things that I could only learn by going through a conflict firsthand, which is why I wrote my book Church Coup … and one of the most frequent comments that I receive from pastors is, “You’re describing exactly what I went through!”

That sentiment always gladdens my heart, because it means that what I experienced … and suffered … is fulfilling God’s ultimate purpose.

If you’re a pastor or staff member who has gone through a horrendous conflict, I want you to know something:

There is a God-ordained purpose behind your suffering, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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How would you like to receive top-notch training from an expert you respect and admire?

That’s what happened to me last week when I flew to Minneapolis and received 14 hours of training in church conflict from veteran congregational consultant Peter Steinke.  He’s the author of several books, including Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, one of my top five favorite books on church conflict.

Steinke has engaged in congregational interventions over 27 years.  He’s been involved with 217 churches/Christian entities encompassing 16 states and 8 denominations.

And from his experiences working with churches, he’s created a process for helping churches in crisis called Bridgebuilder.

Steinke presented case studies … worked his way creatively through a syllabus … and made lots of offhand remarks, many of which I wrote down verbatim.

Here are ten insights concerning church conflict that I found fascinating and that I thought you might benefit from.  They aren’t in any particular order.

Insight #1: “When you replace a music director, you sign your death warrant.”

Why is this?  Because many people become emotionally attached to the staffer who leads them to God’s throne in worship.

And if a pastor or a board tries to force out that person and put someone else in their place, things can become very unpredictable.

Insight #2: “People engage in sabotage when they are losing control.”

How many times have you witnessed this experience?

A board member … staff member … key leader … or opinion maker is unhappy with a decision made by the pastor.  The pastor meets with them … listens to their concerns … explains his position … and concludes the meeting in prayer.

Then that unhappy person immediately goes out and begins to undermine the pastor using threats, demands,  and complaints.

Why?

Because the pastor seems to be in control … and the discontented person senses they’re not.

Insight #3: “Getting rid of a pastor won’t solve the [presenting] problem.  The problem is within the system.”

It is common for some people in a church to think, “We’re having problems because of our pastor.  If we get rid of him, this church will be far better off.”

This kind of thinking … borne out of anxiety … is counterproductive.  Many churches have built-in patterns that cause them to go off the tracks.  Those issues must be identified, faced, and resolved.

But if they aren’t, the next pastor … and the next one … and the next … may all be sent packing because the real issues haven’t been addressed.

Insight #4: “Peace is often preferred over justice.”

During a conflict situation, churchgoers just want the conflict to end, even if the pastor … staff members … or others are treated shabbily.

The mature congregation says, “We’re going to aim for justice, so we’re going to devise a process, take some time, and handle this wisely.”

The immature congregation says, “We just want peace, so we’re going to ignore processes, take shortcuts, and get this over with quickly.”

Insight #5: “It’s better for people to leave than go underground.”

When a major conflict surfaces in a church, there are going to be losses in attendance and donations and volunteers, no matter which choices are made.

When people leave the church for good, there is closure for everyone involved, painful though it may be.

But when people start meeting and plotting in secret, they’re prolonging and intensifying the conflict … and there’s going to be some form of implosion.

Insight #6: “The consultant is responsible for the process, not the outcome.”

Steinke says that when prospective congregations ask him about his success rate with interventions, he answers, “100%.”

He believes he’s been successful when he works the process he’s devised, which is his responsibility.

But the outcome of his intervention?  That’s the responsibility of the congregation and its leaders.

For this reason, he doesn’t make recommendations to churches in conflict, but gets them to make their own recommendations.

Insight #7: “The top trigger for conflict is money.”

Steinke says these are the top 7 triggers for conflict in churches: money, sex, pastor’s leadership style, lay leadership style, staff conflict, major traumas/transitions, the change process.

Just my own observation: when money becomes the bottom line in a church, it becomes an idol, and God is relegated to second or seventh or tenth place.

But when God is first, money takes its rightful place.

But when giving goes down … or doesn’t meet budget … some leaders/people become anxious, and instead of turning to God, they try and control the money even more.

The result?

Conflict.

Insight #8: Conflicts in churches increasingly revolve around the change process.

Steinke said that 42 of the last 47 interventions he’s done … nearly 90% … have to do with change.

Many pastors feel that all they have to do is announce a change and it will automatically happen.  Once they’re convinced, they assume others will be as well.

But people need time to process change … ask questions … share feelings … and seek clarification.

When they’re not given those opportunities … conflict results.

Insight #9: During public meetings, there will be no verbal attacking, blaming, or abusing of others tolerated.

During his interventions, Steinke gives church attendees opportunities to speak publicly about how they feel about the conflict.

But they are not allowed to begin their sentences with “You,” but must make “I” statements instead.

If people violate this rule, Steinke reiterates it and expects people to abide by it.

If only we’d had this rule during all those business meetings my churches had over the years …

Insight #10: The consultant focuses on working the process, not on changing others, alleviating their anxiety, or giving them answers.

When Steinke goes into a church situation, he focuses on his role and reactions, not those of others.  He tries to remain a “non-anxious presence.”

Once again, the consultant’s job is not to analyze the church and fix everything, but to work a predetermined process that causes a church’s members to discuss and affect their own outcome.

After attending Bridgebuilder, I am now qualified to offer it to congregations in conflict.  If you know a church that might benefit from this process, please send them my way.

Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do you always have to be right?

I know the temptation all too well.

In my first pastorate, I visited shut-ins, and one day, I visited Cecil and Freda.

Due to their age, they rarely came to church, and Cecil told me that he said the Lord’s Prayer every day.  But he had a bone to pick with me.

Cecil said that when I read or said the Lord’s Prayer, I said, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  But Cecil wanted me to know that it was really in earth as it is in heaven, not on earth.

I took out my pocket New Testament, and Matthew 6:10 said “on earth,” not “in earth.”  (When in doubt, let Scripture decide.)

But doggone it, Cecil had been saying the Lord’s Prayer for many years, and he was saying it the right way, and everybody else – even Bible translators and his pastor – were wrong.

What can a young pastor do?  I just smiled and changed the subject.

In that instance, I was wise.  But on another occasion, I was anything but.

I once visited a newly-married couple in their home after they had visited our church the previous Sunday.

While we were chatting, the woman blurted out, “But all sins are equal in God’s eyes, right?”

I should have let it go … I should have let it go … but I didn’t.

I gently explained what I believe Scripture teaches: that any and every sin will condemn us before a holy God, but that some sins are definitely worse than others in this life.  (For example, uncontrolled anger and murder are both sins, but murder is far worse than uncontrolled anger.)

But this couple had come from a church background where they had heard the phrase “all sins are the same before God” and my little two-minute explanation wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

They never came back to the church … and I needed to learn that I didn’t always have to be right.

How many conflicts in this world occur because people insist that they’re right and the other party is wrong?

How about Israel and the Palestinians?

How about Democrats and Republicans?

How about creationists and evolutionists … or global warning proponents and skeptics … or those who welcome illegal immigrants and those who don’t?

In the same way, many conflicts in churches occur because some people … even pastors and church leaders … have to be right all the time.

They have to be right about every nuance of theology … the proper interpretation of tough passages … the color of the nursery … and how long the pastor preaches.

And even when they violate Scripture, they still insist they’re right … and that those who disagree with them are wrong.

But Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

You can know a lot … and be right nearly all of the time … and yet do it all with a prideful heart … and so be very much wrong.

Let me offer three thoughts about “being right”:

First, it’s right to take and present a position.

My wife recently did some redecorating for her home preschool.  She asked me what I thought.  I told her what I really felt … once.

She listened … countered with a few ideas of her own … and that was that.

I stated my position and then dropped the matter.  Since it’s her preschool, she needs to make the final decision.

There would be far fewer conflicts in churches if churchgoers treated pastors the same way.

For example, let’s say you don’t like a change in the worship service.

It’s all right to feel the way you do … and to tell your pastor how you feel … but then let the issue go.

Trust that he will make the right call, even if it takes a while.  You had your say … but must you have your way?

Second, learn who you can argue with … and who you can’t.

I like to argue, to test my positions and learn how other people think.  Ultimately, I’m after Truth with a capital “T.”

I try to argue without being argumentative, but sometimes, that doesn’t work out.

My wife and I were once invited by a friend and his wife to a dinner honoring various kinds of ministry chaplains.

While sitting at dinner, I made a comment about abortion, assuming the person sitting next to me would agree with my position.

He didn’t.

We quickly got into a verbal exchange … all because I didn’t yet know who he was.

If you know someone who loves a friendly argument, by all means, go at it … just so you remain friends afterwards.  Jesus certainly argued with both His disciples and His enemies a lot.

But if you’re around someone who doesn’t like to argue … let it go!

And my guess is that the vast majority of people do not like to argue.

Finally, realize that everybody is wrong at times … even you.

Last Saturday, my wife and our daughter and I visited San Diego.

I suggested that we visit the collection of shops and restaurants known as Seaside Village.

My wife gently called it Seaport Village.

I said, “No, I think it’s Seaside Village” … but then I wondered, “What if she’s right?”

When we walked up to the village, it was Seaport Village all right.

Because I didn’t make a big deal about the name, my wife and daughter let it slide.

But if I had said, “I’ll bet you fifty dollars that I’m right,” they wouldn’t have let me forget it all weekend.

When we know we’ve been wrong in the past, that knowledge should give us humility the next time that we’re positive we’re right.

But when we always insist that we’re right, we alienate our loved ones and people stay away from us.

In U2’s song Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own, Bono sings to his dying father, “You don’t have to put up a fight, you don’t have to always be right …”

If Christians would memorize and practice those lyrics, we’d have fewer conflicts and more far peace in our churches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve recently been doing an intensive study of Numbers 16 … the story of Korah’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron.

Korah and three of his colleagues … along with 250 community leaders … decide that they don’t want to follow Moses’ leadership anymore.

Why not?

The group approaches Moses and Aaron and says in Numbers 16:3: “You have gone too far!  The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them.  Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”

Translation: “There is nothing special about you two leaders.  We are just as holy as you are.  So why are you always telling us what to do?  We’re not going to take it anymore!”

Moses and Aaron were old men.  It’s possible that Korah was much younger and felt he could do a better job at overseeing priestly duties than Aaron could.

But as the story proceeds, it’s obvious that God sides with Moses and Aaron and opposes the attempted coup.

Most church conflicts begin because a group inside the church believes that they know how to run the church better than the official leadership … usually the pastor.

Their attitude is, “We’re more spiritual than the pastor … we’re smarter … we’re more resourceful … we’re more in touch with the congregation … so we should be running the church rather than him!”

Whenever these conflicts arise in churches … and they arise all the time … most people miss the best way to resolve the conflict.

The question is not, “Who is best qualified to lead this church?”

The question is, “Who did God call to lead this church?”

Moses told the coalition in Numbers 16:11: “It is against the Lord that you and all your followers have banded together.”  They thought they were rebelling against two human leaders, but Moses says, “No, by rebelling against God’s leaders, you’re really rebelling against the Lord.”

Moses goes on in Numbers 16:28, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea.”  Then he proposes a test to determine who is on God’s side and who is not.

Early in my ministry, I inherited a church board full of wonderful men … all except for Don.

Don wanted to take our church back to the 1950s – even though it was the late 1980s – and he wanted us to reinvent ourselves into a small, Midwestern church … even though we were located in California.

I was trying to take the church forward, while he insisted we go backward.

Don had not been called by God to pastor a church … but he was called by friends to lead a rebellion.

Don had not been formally trained in biblical interpretation or pastoral ministry … but he knew something about politics and power.

Don had not been given the spiritual gifts of leadership or teaching … but he didn’t need those gifts to subvert his pastor.

Don had not been ordained to gospel ministry … but that didn’t matter to him.

Don held secret meetings … listed all my faults, including those of my wife and children … and then demanded that I resign.

The elders of Israel supported Moses and stood by him … and the elders in our church did the same.

Don’s group quickly left the church … started their own church a mile away … and used our church as their mission field.

But a year later, their church folded.

God had called Don to be a dock worker, not a pastor.

And He had called me to be a pastor, not a dock worker.

God had called Moses to lead Israel, not Korah.

And He had called Korah to be a Levite, not the leader of a nation.

Many church conflicts could be resolved if God’s people would take some time to read Scripture … do some reflection … and ask this question:

Who did God call to lead this congregation?

If the answer is Moses … follow him.

If the answer is your pastor … follow him.

But if you follow Korah … or Don … things aren’t going to work out for you … guaranteed.

All you’re going to do is hurt a lot of people … including you and your family.

If your pastor isn’t leading or preaching or pastoring like he could be … then pray for him … and love him … and listen to him … and support him … as long as he follows the Lord.

That’s far better than watching the ground open up and swallow you and your family whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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