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Posts Tagged ‘church conflict and denominations’

I recently spoke with a retired pastor in his mid-eighties about his denominational ties.

This pastor told me that he’s very upset about the division inside his denomination over a particular social issue.  Pastors and churches have been pulling out of the denomination which grieves this pastor’s heart.

But he went on to tell me that with all its problems, he would never leave the denomination.

He was educated by their school … pastored several of their churches … has his medical insurance with them … and receives retirement checks from them.  He has also made many friends within the denomination over the years.

In other words, my friend has been loyal to his denomination, and they have been loyal to him in return.

Thirty-five years ago, when I pursued ordination with my home church, I expected that my relationship with that church’s denomination would go equally as well.  I would be loyal to them, and they would be loyal to me.

But it didn’t work out that way … and it rarely does for pastors who have experienced attacks that lead to forced termination.

I was in the same denomination for 31 years.

For the first 15 years, I did everything I was asked to do: attend district and national meetings … serve on district committees … befriend my pastoral colleagues … talk up district retreats and events inside my church … let their missionaries speak during worship services … and demonstrate loyalty to the denomination as a whole.

For my last 16 years, I did not attend meetings … serve on committees … or talk up retreats.  I did have some friendships with district pastors, and I let a few missionaries come and present their ministries, but that was it.

I found that district and denominational work was distracting and pulled me away from my true calling as a local church pastor.  When you’re in a smaller church setting, you have more time for district activities, but as your church grows, it becomes more difficult to justify taking time and energy away from your church.  (After all, who is paying you?)

So when I went through a horrendous conflict in my last ministry five-and-a-half years ago, I did not expect any assistance from our local district office.

But I talk all the time with pastors who express to me how hurt … and even outraged … they are that their district minister/superintendent did not provide support for them when they experienced personal attacks.

So let me share with you five realities that I’ve learned the hard way about denominations and pastor-church conflict:

First, denominations are more politically-oriented than they are spiritual.

When a rookie pastor finally learns this truth, it’s devastating.

One pastor told me that when he assumed his first pastorate, his district leader told him that if he ever needed any counsel or support, he would be there for him.

But when this pastor found himself under fire, and he did contact his district official, he had already sided with the pastor’s detractors inside the church.

That’s not spirituality in action.  That’s politics, pure and simple.

Let me share a sad but true story of denominational politics in action.

When I applied for ordination in my district almost four decades ago, I met with an ordination committee that provided counsel for my upcoming ordination council.  One of the three committee members was a prominent pastor in the denomination.

Soon after that committee meeting, that pastor was discovered to be guilty of sexual misconduct with someone other than his wife.

If that kind of wrongdoing had happened with almost any other pastor, he would have been placed under discipline for at least two years before being recommended for another church.

But this pastor was a well-known speaker and author … and was well-connected inside the denomination.

Know where he ended up?  I heard him preach one Sunday … as the senior pastor of the largest church in the entire denomination.

This pastor committed a major moral offense … and was promoted!

But he repeated his mistake in that megachurch … and after moving to district headquarters, repeated it still again.

Why was this pastor moved from place to place even though he obviously hadn’t changed?

As an influential leader later told me, it’s because the denomination was “a good old boy network” … and this pastor was a “good old boy.”

In other words, personalities and politics trumped principles.

I am not saying that people who work for denominations are unspiritual, but that the political aspect is more pronounced in denominational decision-making than most pastors could ever guess.

So when a pastor gets into trouble inside his own church, and his district minister doesn’t support him, that pastor may be expendable because he’s on the wrong side of denominational politics.

Second, pastoral participation in district activities is far more important than most pastors realize.

Many district ministers evaluate a pastor not on the basis of his walk with God … or his congregational leadership … or his church’s effectiveness … but on how often the pastor attends district functions, and how much money the pastor’s church contributes to the district.

For years, I tried to convince myself that this wasn’t true … but it is.

A pastor who went to the denominational college or seminary … and shows up to district functions … and whose church gives generously to district coffers … becomes “our kind of guy.”

And the pastor who didn’t attend denominational schools … or doesn’t attend district events … or whose church gives little to the district … is someone that the DM would like to see leave so he can be replaced by “our kind of guy.”

In other words, pastors who don’t show blind loyalty to the denomination will not be shown loyalty in return … no matter how badly they’ve been mistreated by their church.

However, I know of at least one exception to this principle.

Ten years ago, I had a conversation after class with a professor in my Doctor of Ministry program.  He is one of the most influential leaders in the Christian world.

We were both in the same denomination at the time, and I told him that I was feeling a bit guilty for not attending denominational meetings for years.

He asked me, “Why does it bother you?”  After I shared a response, he told me, “I’ve been to three meetings in 28 years.”

I never felt guilty about that issue again.

Third, denominational leaders have a history of playing it safe.

I served as the pastor of four churches over the course of 25 years.

When I didn’t take risks, those churches didn’t grow.  When I did take risks, they usually did grow … but conflict was the price that I paid.

Why?  Because change … even when it’s wildly successful … always makes somebody angry.

There is no meaningful growth in a church without change … which leads to conflict … and if a pastor is afraid of conflict, his church probably won’t grow.

But when a district is looking for a minister/superintendent, they don’t want someone whose past ministries have experienced conflict.  Conflict in past churches may be a precursor of conflict in many district churches in the future.

The district wants someone nice … organized … safe … and predictable instead.

I was in the same denominational district for 27 years.  During that time, there were four district ministers.

I don’t know how the first leader was chosen … but I know how the other three were selected: all were members of the district’s trustee board.

They were diplomatic … known quantities … and solid individuals … but they didn’t do or say anything that could remotely be considered risky.

So when a district minister hears about a pastor who has taken some risks … and angered some churchgoers in the process … he can’t relate to that pastor.  After all, he spent his entire ministry trying to placate people in various congregations.

So instead of understanding that pastor … and empathizing with him … and standing behind him … the district minister blames the pastor for the entire conflict.

In our district, the DM encouraged churches to grow … and growing churches were highlighted at district meetings.

But when some pastors took the necessary risks … and implemented change … their leadership was challenged, and conflict broke out in their church.

Those pastors rightly expected that their DM would stand behind them … especially since they were trying to obey Christ’s Great Commission and “make disciples of all the nations.”

But when pastors find themselves under fire in their churches … and later discover that their DM is standing against them as well … it’s enough to send a pastor into spiritual and emotional despair.

This leads us to the next reality:

Fourth, denominational leaders usually side with the pastor’s antagonists over against the pastor.

There is a growing body of literature today that blames most church conflicts on church boards and/or factions.  For example, Alan Klaas, who investigated why pastors are forced out of office in different denominations, concluded that in 45% of the cases, a minority faction pushed the pastor out, while only 7% of the time was the pastor’s misconduct the primary factor.

When I provide counsel to pastors about the attacks that they’re undergoing, I’m appalled by the tactics that church laymen use to force out their pastor.  You won’t find them anywhere in the New Testament … they lack love and grace … and if they’d use similar tactics in a secular company, they’d be sued in a heartbeat.

So how in the world can a district minister close his eyes to evil … ignore the demands of righteousness … and castigate the pastor for all the problems in a church?

In their book Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry, researchers Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger state that 42% of their respondents left church ministry because they didn’t feel they were supported by denominational officials when they needed help the most.

Most pastors don’t know this until they contact their district minister for help … and discover that their adversaries have already bent his ear.

And sadly, many DMs … like many Christians … believe the first person who tells them about a conflict.

When my conflict occurred, my district minister … who had been on the job barely a month … called me about the conflict because someone from the church had called him about it.  Fortunately, I hired a consultant who came to the church … interviewed staff … witnessed two destructive meetings … and collaborated with my DM to expose the plot against me.

If I hadn’t hired that consultant … who was well-respected in the larger Christian community … where would that DM have come down?

I don’t really know.  But I had a hard time trusting anyone in his position because of what had happened to me twenty years earlier.

Five years into my second pastorate, I was attacked by a seniors class.

My district minister then recommended that I resign.

Why?  Because I had committed some great sin?

No, because a guy named Bob and the seniors were upset with me … and they were very vocal … even though they were the only ones who were upset.

I knew what unilateral resignation meant: financial ruin (we had no savings and didn’t own a house) … the possible end of my pastoral career … an incredible strain on my wife to be the immediate family breadwinner … and being forced to move and live with family somewhere.

Fortunately, I waited three days before making my decision, and met with the church board first.  To a man, they all stood behind me and said, “If you resign, we’re all going to resign as well.”

I stayed … let Bob and the seniors leave … and began rebuilding the ministry … which improved greatly without Bob and his gang around.

But I will never forget that when I needed him the most, my district minister collapsed on me.

Thankfully, I have heard of a few district ministers who stand behind their pastors when they’re attacked, but my guess is that 90% of them stand with the pastor’s antagonists instead.

Why is this?

Because it’s easier to find another pastor than it is to plant and build another church … and if the DM stands with the pastor, he’s afraid of alienating the “winners” in the conflict … who might withhold their giving to the district, or pull their church out of the denomination altogether.

Finally, it’s usually counterproductive to trust a district leader with any confidential information.

When I became a pastor, I viewed my district minister as a “pastor to pastors” … and he encouraged that perspective.  But boy, did he dish out confidential information about other pastors … in some cases, bordering on slander.

Naively, I shared some real struggles with my next two district ministers … and in both cases, that information was later used against me.

Unless you have spoken to other pastors under fire … and know for certain that your district minister is someone you can trust … I wouldn’t tell him anything that could later be used against you.

It’s far better to speak to a Christian counselor … a friend who lives some distance away … or a former professor … than to trust most district officials … some of whom continually manipulate the district chessboard so they can get “their kind of guy” placed.

_______________

A longtime pastor friend worked for a denominational office for many years.  Nearly twenty years ago, he told me that the denomination was “a dying organization.”

I felt then … and I still feel today … that the success or failure of a denomination rests with how strongly district leaders support their pastors … not how strongly pastors support their district office.

I told a story in my book Church Coup about a pastor whose church grew from 80 to 370 in fifteen months, followed by the building of a new sanctuary which was quickly filled.  But as more people came, a group in the church began losing influence and wanted to snatch it back, launching a major conflict. The pastor tried to follow the advice of his DM and be redemptive, but the DM later demanded that the pastor resign, even though he had done nothing wrong.

This pastor later learned that he was the 28th innocent pastor within a twelve-month period to be forced to resign in that district.

Until the above scenario changes, I question how much time and energy a local church pastor should give his district and denomination.

I’m 100% behind advancing the worldwide kingdom of God … but skeptical about supporting a denomination that expects the loyalty of its pastors without giving back loyalty in return.

Sounds like a bad deal, doesn’t it?

 

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