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Today is the anniversary of a day that changed my life forever.

Nine years ago this morning, after returning from a mission trip overseas, I entered the office of the church I served as pastor for an 8:00 am meeting with the official board.  We were supposed to discuss our plans for the next year’s budget.

Instead, the board announced that they had terminated our most valuable staff member: my wife.  Their sole charge against her was that she had overspent her missions and outreach budgets by a wide margin.

But she wasn’t their eventual target.  I was.  The board didn’t have enough evidence against me that they could take to the congregation for a dismissal vote, so they went after her instead, assuming I’d resign if she did.

I’ve recounted the story of the fifty-day conflict that ensued in my book Church Coup (which may be the most detailed and complete account of a pastoral termination ever written).  I revisit the story in this blog every October 24.  As one of my advisors told me, “You never want to forget what it felt like to go through that awful experience.”

The purpose of telling my story is for pastors, board members, and churchgoers to learn what to do and what not to do during a conflict with the pastor.  I am not telling my story to garner sympathy or to gain followers.  By relating my experiences, I still hope to teach.

So let me share some snapshots of what I experienced over the seven weeks of the conflict.  Many stories are outtakes from my book while some are based on information I received after the book was published in the spring of 2013.

After more than 35 years in church ministry … I still can’t believe the following events happened to me … but they did.

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The board told me that they would give my wife a choice: she could resign or be fired.  They said they felt so strongly about their decision that they were all willing to resign, the implication being that if she didn’t resign, they would.

And the following week, because she didn’t resign, they did.  (To this day, I wonder who advised them to try that tactic.)

If she resigned, that would take the pressure off them … and that was her initial reaction: to just quit.

But when she thought more clearly, she didn’t believe she had done anything wrong … and she was positive she had not overspent the amount the board claimed.

So she didn’t quit immediately, as the board hoped she would.  We both decided to wait and see if we could discover the truth behind their decision first.

Kim’s dad (a former pastor and Christian university professor) told her, “If you didn’t do anything wrong, don’t quit.”  A Christian counselor who had advised us for years told me, “If she resigns, that would be a lie.  Make it a battle.”

We didn’t want to make it a battle, but the board had not made enough of a compelling case for my wife to say, “You’re right, I messed up, I will resign.”  We needed more information.

In my wildest dreams, I never thought the church board would take such drastic action.

But they did.

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For years, my wife worked for a pace setting company in Silicon Valley, and she sometimes had to fire employees … but always by the book.  She was upset with the board because they had not followed any kind of protocol.  She kept telling me that her rights had been violated.

Several months ago, my wife visited that company again, and briefly told her story to the organization’s founder and president, who agreed that my wife had every right to sue the church/board for wrongful termination.

On the one hand, Paul commands Christians not to sue other Christians in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.  I get that.

On the other hand, too many Christian organizations … especially churches … do violate the rights of staff members and pastors when they terminate them … and they do deserve to be sued.

But the separation of church and state usually protects such churches.

I wish some churches would be sued successfully … if only to teach church leaders to use biblical procedures … and due process … when they’re thinking about terminating pastors and staff members in the future.

Because if those same leaders were treated in a similar fashion at their workplaces, they would probably sue the pants off their companies.

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On the night after the board met with me, they convened a meeting of the church staff to announce my wife’s termination.  Not only did the board add several more charges to their list, but such a meeting was probably illegal.

An advisor who later became my mentor told me that in our state, if my wife had been in a secular company, she could have sued them for four to six million dollars for telling her co-workers why they had fired her.

Five nights later, when my wife finally met with two board members at my request … so they could tell her to her face why they had terminated her … she told them that she could sue them for the way they had handled things.  This wasn’t merely an emotional outburst … this was based on the careful way she fired employees for years at that Silicon Valley company.

A former board member from that church told me emphatically over a period of years that the board violated the church constitution and bylaws when they terminated my wife.  The governing documents clearly stated that staff members could only be fired upon recommendation of the senior pastor to the official board.  When the church voted to approve those documents, my wife was already a staff member.

One night, while walking along the Bay on a very dark night, I ran into another former board member who told me it was going around that my wife and I were planning on suing the church.  It wasn’t true … we weren’t planning on suing anybody … but many churchgoers believe the first thing they hear without confirmation.

The church board totally bungled the way they handled things, and when my wife called them on it, we became the bad guys … and had to be destroyed.

All too often, this is the way Christians handle their conflicts.  We’re godly … they’re ungodly.

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When my predecessor retired and left the church in December 2000, he and his wife moved to another state.  But they eventually moved back to California … and settled in the very city my wife and I have made our home the past six years.

My predecessor became the president of a parachurch group, and that group’s founder also lived in our city at the time.  The founder told me that several years before 2009, while they were playing golf, my predecessor told him that he was going to return to the church I was pastoring.  The founder told him, “No, you can’t do that!”  But my predecessor seemed determined.

This information tells me that the plot to get rid of me went back months … if not years … before the board acted against my wife.  As a megachurch pastor who knew my predecessor told me eleven days after the conflict surfaced, “You have no idea how much you have been undermined.”

That same pastor told me that he had heard my predecessor make the exact same charges against my wife using the exact same terms that the board used.  To what extent did my predecessor formulate or refine the charges against her?

Because my predecessor had been in ministry for years, his counsel seemed legitimate to the board.  They most likely trusted him without questioning his motives or strategies.

But in the process, the previous pastor clearly violated pastoral ethics … which the board undoubtedly knew nothing about.

A year after I left, guess who returned to the church to preach at the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services?

That’s right … my predecessor … who had his fingers in the church board, the church staff, and the congregation for many years.

God rest his soul.

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I’ve never given a moment’s thought to returning to my former church.  I served there ten-and-a-half years, resigned, and left it for good.  How wrong would it be for me to interfere in the church’s governance so many years after leaving?

Why did my predecessor even want to return?  My guess is that his Fan Club were telling him that things at the church were really bad and that only he could save the church.

In fact, several years before the conflict surfaced, I heard a report attributed to my predecessor that our church was losing attendees … when the opposite was true … and I informed the church board of the rumor without naming its source.

But we had grown steadily and were the largest Protestant church in our city.  We had a positive reputation for miles around.  We had built a new worship center.  My wife and I had both been keynote speakers at the area Sunday School Convention.  In our community, where a church of 150 stood out, we were like a megachurch.  A Navy chaplain once told me that when he was stationed near India, and knew he was going to move to our community, someone recommended that he attend our church.

Why did things seem so bad to a tiny group of people?  Because they didn’t have positions of power … and that was intentional on my part.  They were not behind our mission and vision.  They were not behind me as their pastor … and I knew it.  They were able to serve … just not in positions of influence.

But they thought that because they were founding members, they deserved preferential treatment.

One time, my predecessor visited the campus and told me that a woman from our church was calling him constantly to complain about me.  I figured as much.  While I was pleasant around her, I couldn’t let her be a leader because I didn’t trust her.

And I felt the same way about some of my predecessor’s other fans.

When people once held power in a church, but no longer do so, they will sometimes do anything to get that power back … even if they have to violate half the New Testament to do it.

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One woman did her best to disguise her opposition to me, and I had to interact with her on a regular basis.  After a while, pastors develop a sixth sense about such people.

After the board and associate pastor resigned, I called two public meetings of the congregation to announce their decisions.  During one of the meetings, a friend went into the women’s restroom and this woman was crying because, she said, she was afraid they weren’t going to get rid of me.

After we left, this woman openly bragged about how she and some others in the church worked the plot that sent us packing.

I could never plot against a pastor.  I’d leave the church first.

God calls a pastor to lead and teach.  He doesn’t call anyone to force out an innocent pastor.  So why is it so easy for many Christians to join a coup against the person that God called?

If you have a good answer, I’d like to hear it.

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The primary charge against my wife concerned finances.  I continue to maintain that the numbers that were verbally announced to me at the board meeting had been massaged.

For example:

*My wife had committed funds to some vendors for our annual Fall Fun Fest on Halloween … but we hadn’t yet held the event to recoup any of our expenses.

*As I mentioned in my book, several thousand dollars were mistakenly sent overseas … and undoubtedly counted against her mission budget … when she had nothing to do with that decision.

*When my wife was putting together a team for a mission trip to Eastern Europe, we had to buy the plane tickets in advance … and one person backed out.  We tried, but weren’t able to recoup the funds for one leg of his journey.

*When our mission team flew to Moldova, we brought along extra suitcases filled with items for poor people and the vulnerable children … but even though we were told in advance by an airline executive that we wouldn’t have to pay extra for each leg of our journey, we were overcharged for the suitcases anyway.

My wife or I could have explained these decisions had we been given the opportunity … but no one on the board asked us or the bookkeeper anything about these expenses.

The budgets of two unrelated ministries were thousands of dollars in the red … but to my knowledge, no one ever addressed those deficits with the leaders that managed those budgets.

No, my wife … our most effective staff member … was singled out for special mistreatment.

In the spring of 2009, I went to the board and asked for funds to visit two churches in Southern California to learn about their multi-venue services.  The board approved those funds … and then they were charged to the worship budget without the leader’s knowledge or consent … sending his pristine budget into chaos.

Were other unrelated expenses charged to my wife’s budgets without her consent or knowledge?

When I finally asked for the board’s accounting, I received something incoherent from the bookkeeper.  When my wife asked to see the board’s numbers, they did not give them to her.

When my wife finally met with the bookkeeper a month after the conflict surfaced … and the board members had all quit … the numbers told a completely different story.  When a nine-person investigative team examined matters a month after that, they concluded that “there was no evidence of wrongdoing” on our part.

Was the financial charge against my wife a bluff to prompt us both to resign?

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Someone made a public charge that I mismanaged church finances.  That was an outright lie.

What’s ironic is that even after the conflict erupted … and even after I left the church … I was still a central person concerning church finances.

*When the board refinanced the loan for the worship center, I had to sign the document.  If the credit union had known the board’s plans, they might not have approved the refinancing.  When companies make loans to organizations, they want to know in advance that the leadership is going to remain stable.

I wonder what the board told them about their pastor’s long-term prospects?

*During the conflict, the church bookkeeper stopped by my house once or twice a week so I could sign checks, which I’d do on top of her car on the street.

*Months after I had left the church, I was still the key person concerning the church’s credit cards.  The bookkeeper was still contacting me, asking me to call the company and give them directions.

If I had really mismanaged funds, would I have been able to do any of those things?

When a pastor mismanages funds at church, it’s often because his own financial house is in disarray … but our personal finances were and are pristine.

It’s so easy to throw general charges around without being specific and without doing it to the face of the accused.

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When the composition of a church board changes, it can throw the entire congregation off-balance.

For years, I had worked with three men on the board who were all older than me.  We had been through a lot together.  I trusted them, and their actions indicated that they trusted me.

One moved away about six months before the conflict surfaced.  He was the person who always had my back.  The other two termed out but stayed in the church.

Had even one of those men still been on the board, the coup never would have taken place.  They would either have stopped it or exposed it.

In the end, the new board in 2009 was composed entirely of people younger than me.  They lacked the experience and maturity of the older men … one of whom had experienced a church split years before in another church and would never have tolerated the tactics used by my opponents.

Someone on the board ended up leading the coup.  I always knew his identity.  May God forgive him for all the lives he harmed in his attempt at personal payback.

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The board never attempted anything resembling restoration.  It was all about punishment.  As Charles Chandler from the Ministering to Ministers Foundation told me, the board members were personalizing matters.

As a Christian counselor asked me, “Where’s the redemption in all this?”

There wasn’t any pathway to redemption.  Coups don’t involve restoration.  They can be bloody or bloodless, but they are always about one thing.

Getting rid of the leader at all costs.

If you can show me where in the New Testament we find such behavior commended, I’d be grateful.

I’ve been searching for years … and I still can’t find it.

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Wherever you find deceit and destruction, you find Satan.  Jesus called him “the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning” in John 8:44.

Based on some of the stories I’ve heard, I don’t believe Satan is centrally involved in every church conflict.  Some believe that he is.  I don’t.

I look for deceit and destruction.  Someone in ministry suggested adding “doubt” to the calculus as well.

There was definitely deceit in our conflict.  There were a lot of falsehoods going around: exaggeration, character assassination, misrepresentation, false allegations … it was all there.

And there was a lot of destruction as well.  Satan’s aim in most church conflicts is to destroy the pastor’s well being … reputation … and career … but ultimately, to destroy the church itself.

Although I was not personally destroyed, my effectiveness for future ministry was.  I don’t claim to know if that was the aim of anyone in the church.  Maybe so, maybe not.

But I do know this: Satan gained a foothold in the lives of too many of God’s people in that church.  Hatred and two-faced hypocrisy are not from God.

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Most pastors who are forced out of a church are never exonerated.  Their reputations are ruined, at least inside their former church.

But I was exonerated … twice.

The first time, a consultant the transition team and I hired during the conflict issued a report that the board had acted “extremely and destructively” and that my wife and I had been abused.

The second time, an investigative team of nine people from inside the church claimed that “there was no evidence of wrongdoing” on our part.

But some people could not allow those verdicts to stand.

When I left the church in December 2009, I was told that 95% of the church supported me.  A year later, I was told that support was down to 20%.

I don’t know the truth of either percentage.  But I do know that throughout 2010, there was a whispering campaign inside my former church to pin the blame for the entire conflict on me.

When an interim pastor (a friend of my predecessor’s) came to the church several months later, he convened a meeting of the old and new boards, and made everyone who knew the truth about the conflict promise that they wouldn’t discuss it with anyone.  So when people attacked my reputation, those leaders were told not to counteract any lies and to remain silent.

But what about the people who were spreading falsehoods inside the church?  Why didn’t anyone warn them to stop destroying the reputation of their previous pastor?

Because unity is based on truth … not lies … such diversions do nothing to heal people’s souls.

Even though I urged people to stay, scores of people eventually left the church and either changed churches … changed faiths … or sat at home for years because nobody had the guts to tell the church the truth about what happened.

Just another Christian cover up.  Business as usual.

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One day, I met with the rookie district minister to share my side of the conflict.  He listened politely and later helped reveal the part my predecessor played in the coup.

Several years later, when I was in New Hampshire, the DM called me out of the blue one Sunday morning to tell me that “I respect you and admire you.”

While that was nice, there was evidence to the contrary, so I didn’t know what to think.

But I had once served in the same church as an executive from that same denomination, and when he heard about the conflict … not from me … he told a friend, “[The church] owes Jim an apology.”

While I would welcome any kind of apology, nobody has ever apologized to me for their role in forcing me out of office.

Because if I’m innocent, they’re wrong … and I’ve learned that many, if not most, Christians hate to admit when they’re wrong.

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This is the last blog article I plan to write on what happened to me in 2009 unless there is some major future development.

The accusations against Judge Kavanaugh brought back a truckload of hurtful memories because the same tactics used against him were used against us.

My wife and I live in Southern California and are content with our lives.

We live about an hour from our son, his wife, and our three grandsons.  I wouldn’t trade being near them for anything in this world.

Our daughter – who was so strong for her dad and mom during the conflict – still lives in the Bay Area and leads a fruitful life.  We love her dearly.

God gave me a ministry to pastors and board members who are going through conflict, and I’m grateful for all the people I’ve been able to help.

Just last year, I advised a pastor from the East Coast who was able to beat back his own church’s coup attempt.  He stayed … and his opponents left.

I pray that happens more often.

I’ve written 596 blogs over the past eight years.  I plan to write four more and then take a break … maybe a long one.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

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When a pastor is forced to leave his congregation, who is to blame?

Some inside a church will instantly proclaim, “The pastor is completely responsible for his demise.  He is 100% at fault.”

Others will insist, “The pastor isn’t to blame for his departure.  It was that spineless board … that heartless faction … or even the devil himself that caused this mess!”

The truth usually lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

In my book Church Coup, I quoted church conflict expert Speed Leas, who wrote about a research project along this line:

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

This issue has been rattling around in my head for years, so let me mention five common scenarios involving a pastor’s departure … along with a general assessment of responsibility in each case:

First, if a pastor is guilty of a major offense, he is fully responsible for his own departure.

If a pastor is guilty of heresy, he should be fired and removed from office.

I read about a pastor many years ago who began teaching universalism, the belief that everyone – even Satan – will eventually be saved and go to heaven.

Since universalism perverts the gospel (if everyone can be saved, why did Jesus die?), the church was justified in removing that pastor from office, although he caused untold damage in the process.

If a pastor is guilty of sexual immorality, he should be removed from office as well.

I heard about a pastor who had an affair with a woman in his church for twenty years.  Twenty years!

How could he preach from the Holy Bible … serve Holy Communion … and even relate to the Holy Spirit while engaging in such conduct?

When the church board finally discovered the pastor’s misconduct, they took steps to remove him from office quickly.

Some experts believe these are the only two offenses that should merit a pastor’s forced termination, but I’d like to add a third: criminal behavior.

If a pastor has physically abused his wife … engaged in fraudulent financial behavior … assaulted people violently … or embezzled funds from his church … how can he stay as pastor?

He can’t.

When information about the pastor’s excessive misconduct comes to the attention of the church board, they should still:

*meet with the pastor

*ask him for his side of the story

*deliberate together prayerfully

*ask him to repent, if they discern he’s guilty

*aim for his restoration, not his destruction, if they remove him from office

But even if the board doesn’t handle the pastor’s departure perfectly, the pastor who is guilty of one of The Big Three has cooked his own goose.

However, this doesn’t mean that God is done with such individuals forever.

Second, if a church board has warned a pastor about a problem, and he’s failed to change his behavior within a reasonable time, the pastor is usually responsible for his own demise.

This scenario makes some assumptions … that the church board has:

*identified an area of the pastor’s life or ministry that needs changing

*spoken to the pastor directly and seriously about their concerns

*given the pastor enough time to turn things around

*monitored the pastor’s progress through the use of markers

*told the pastor what will happen if he doesn’t comply with their directives

Let’s say a pastor makes occasional insulting comments on Facebook to people from his church.  And let’s say that five people he has insulted are hopping mad and threaten to leave the church if the pastor’s behavior continues.

Once the church board approaches the pastor about this matter, he should do all he can to comply with their wishes, even if he doesn’t agree with each example they cite.

The pastor might choose to eliminate his Facebook page altogether … or write a message on Facebook apologizing for his behavior … or resolve to only write positive comments from now on … or at least refrain from saying anything that could be negatively interpreted.

But if the pastor continues to make insulting comments after being warned against it, then the pastor is to blame if the board reluctantly asks for his resignation.

There are church boards that work the steps I’ve listed above, but most boards don’t operate in such a clear manner.  They become anxious about the pastor’s behavior … handle things reactively rather than proactively … finally meet together in secret to discuss the issues … and only speak with the pastor directly when things have spun out of control.

And by then, it’s usually too late.

But if the board does everything right, and the pastor doesn’t change after a reasonable amount of time … he shouldn’t be surprise if he’s asked to pack his bags.

Third, if it becomes obvious that the pastor isn’t a good match for the church or the community, the blame for the pastor’s departure should be shared equally.

That is, the board should assume some of the blame, and the pastor should assume some of the blame.

Thirty years ago, I put out some resumes and had several phone interviews with search teams.

One was in Bay City, Michigan.  Another was in Rochester, New York.

The search team in Michigan liked me, but they asked me this question: “How would you feel about living so far away from your family in the West?”

Up to that time, all I cared about was leaving the church I was pastoring.  But they made me think about something I hadn’t really considered … and they were right.

Had I gone to Bay City, that church would have become our family, and neither my wife nor I would have seen our own parents or siblings very often.

If the board hadn’t asked me that question, and I had gone to Bay City, and it didn’t work out, they would be partially to blame.

But if I had gone there, and it didn’t work out, I’d share the blame as well.

I once heard about a pastor who was called from the South to a large church in Northern California.  His teenage daughter was forced to leave her boyfriend behind.

The girl became so depressed and distraught that the pastor resigned and returned to the South after less than a month in California.

It’s easy to say, “The pastor was totally at fault.  He never should have left the South.”  But it’s possible the search team didn’t look at the situation as carefully as they should have.

Mismatches usually reveal themselves pretty quickly.  It’s best if both the pastor and the search team admit, “We thought this would work out, but we can’t see it happening.  We’ll both take responsibility for this situation and not blame the other party.”

Fourth, if the board is happy with their pastor’s ministry, but the pastor is under attack, and the board fails to support him adequately, and the pastor resigns, the board is more at fault than the pastor.

Let’s say that Pastor Warren has been at Mercy Fellowship for six years.  And let’s say that Mercy’s attendance and giving have both doubled during that time.

And let’s say that ninety percent of the congregation loves Pastor Warren and that they are solidly behind his ministry … including the elders.

But one day, five people from an internal faction ask to meet with two of the elders.  They claim that Pastor Warren hasn’t been attending denominational meetings … that the church isn’t giving enough to the denomination … and that if things don’t change quickly, thirty people will leave the church.

So the two elders share this conversation with the other elders, and they speak with Pastor Warren at their next regular meeting.

Pastor Warren responds, “That’s right, I don’t attend denominational meetings.  I went to some my first several years here, but I found them to be a waste of time.  I’ve shared my stance with the elders before.  And we don’t give much money to the denomination because frankly, all we’re doing is propping up a bureaucracy run by a good old boys network.  I’d rather we invest in more productive ministries.”

The elders now have a choice.  They can back their pastor, or they can back the faction, but if they don’t back their pastor, he may choose to resign … and that will hurt the church far more than if the faction left.

I once knew a pastor who grew a megachurch.  One day, he fired a staff member.  The board hired him back.  The pastor resigned.

Pastors aren’t infallible.  Sometimes they get things wrong.  But the board needs to know that if they fail to support their pastor publicly, the pastor might choose to resign instead … and that will leave the board in charge of the church until they call a new pastor.

Finally, if a board fires a pastor without warning or explanation, the fault lies almost exclusively with the board.

Pastors aren’t mind readers.  They assume that things are going well unless somebody says, “We’re concerned about this particular issue.”

And a pastor should feel that wayYou can’t minister effectively if you’re walking around all day asking, “I wonder who’s mad at me?  I wonder if I’ve done something wrong?”

But a common scenario I hear from pastors is, “I thought everything in my ministry was going fine.  And then the board called me into a meeting after the morning worship service and they fired me.”

A board that would do that is composed of cowards.

If a church board is upset with their pastor, they have a responsibility to:

*schedule a meeting with him

*tell him to his face what their concerns are

*allow the pastor to offer feedback

*create a plan with the pastor’s input

*revisit the plan at reasonable intervals

How much time should the pastor be given?

Church conflict expert Peter Steinke says twelve to fifteen months.  If there hasn’t been sufficient improvement by then, the board has every right to remove the pastor.

The beauty of this approach is that the pastor can decide whether or not he wants to stay.  If he thinks the board has been unfair … or that he can’t change … or that he doesn’t need to change … then he has time to search for another ministry.

But most boards don’t do this.  They fail to tell the pastor their concerns directly … speak only among themselves … blame the pastor for not changing … work themselves into a high state of anxiety … and then fire the pastor abruptly.

And when a board fires an innocent pastor (that is, he’s not guilty of any major offense) suddenly, they’ve now bought their church two to five years of misery … or a gradual death spiral.

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I believe there are times when a pastor needs to be removed from office.

But even when that becomes necessary, the pastor still should be treated with dignity, compassion, fairness, and grace … not abuse, insensitivity, injustice, and revenge.

The pastor and his family should also be given a generous severance package so they can transition financially into their next season of life.  Church boards that fire their pastors with little or no severance are denying the faith they claim to believe.

And the church board should tell the congregation as much as they can … not as little as possible … about why the pastor left if they want to reestablish trust.

Can you think of any other common scenarios that I missed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John MacArthur is a famous Bible teacher, pastor, and author.

And he sometimes intimidates me because he seems to be perpetually godly rather than human … and I have a hard time relating to people like that.

Yet MacArthur has certainly played a large part in my spiritual development.

When I was fourteen years of age, I went to Hume Lake Christian Camp for the first time.  John MacArthur was our guest speaker that week.

The first night, he shared about a car accident he once had that changed his life … and he did it with great humor … but his story really got my attention.

Later that week, MacArthur challenged us to read our Bibles every day, and I took his counsel to heart, rededicating my life to Jesus Christ.

When I entered Talbot Seminary (now School of Theology) in 1975, I was well aware of Talbot’s two most famous graduates: MacArthur and Josh McDowell.

MacArthur spoke in chapel one day on the glory of God.  Afterward, my friend Dave and I talked about what made MacArthur such an effective communicator.

To me, it was his authority … his certainty … that he believed what he was telling us with every fiber of his being.

Four years ago, my wife and I finally visited Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California, where MacArthur pastors.  I wrote a blog article about our visit which you can read here:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2013/11/25/visiting-john-macarthur/

Several nights ago, this thought kept running through my mind: “I wonder if John MacArthur has any hobbies?”

While searching the internet, I ran across an interview MacArthur gave on his Grace to You radio program in 2004.  If the interview was designed to humanize MacArthur, it certainly succeeded.  The interview can be found here:

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-33/John-MacArthurs-Life-Testimony

MacArthur shared again about the car accident that changed his life … about how he and his wife got together (even though she was engaged to someone else) … about another car accident that nearly took his wife’s life … and how Dr. Feinberg at Talbot reamed MacArthur out for missing the point of a passage when he preached during chapel.

And then the interviewer asked MacArthur this question:

What was the most difficult thing for you as a young pastor?

JOHN: The most difficult thing that ever happens to me, whether it’s when I’m young or old, is disloyalty at the level of leadership. Not because I deserve loyalty, but because disloyalty is so destructive. The hardest thing you’ll ever deal with is false accusation…people who say things about you that aren’t true and undermine people’s trust and confidence and this goes on in my case all the time all over the place. Not so much at Grace Church, anymore. Our people are very loyal. All the critics I’ve outlived. What are they going to bring up that they haven’t brought up in the past, you know. But even beyond Grace Church, there are all kinds of accusations and criticisms that aren’t related to reality made against me. That’s very hard to deal with because I don’t want to be viewed by anybody as unfaithful to the Lord, unfaithful to His Word as an unfaithful Christian. But I think it’s particularly painful at the level of intimacy when you pour your life in investment spiritually into men around you that serve with you and they generate a mutiny against you. That is very hard to deal with…very hard.

That happened to you…

JOHN: Oh, it’s happened several times. Yeah, it’s happened several times. And it’s a shock. You know, your own familiar friend has lifted up his heel against you, the one with whom you broke bread, you know, like the Scripture says about Judas. And I’m loyal. I think the only way to get loyalty is to give loyalty. If somebody in church comes to me and criticized another staff member, they don’t find me a very good listener. I will rise to the defense of all those that are in my care and serve alongside me. People don’t do that because they know they’re not going to get anywhere with me. And I expect in giving that loyalty to receive that back because disloyalty is so harmful to the unity of the church. So that’s always been the hardest thing to deal with. To criticize me personally, is not disloyal. To undermine me and criticize me publicly, behind my back, that’s disloyal.

Let me make four observations about what MacArthur says:

First, no pastor is exempt from leadership betrayal.

If someone asked me, “Can you think of a pastor who has never experienced staff or board disloyalty?”, my guess would have been John MacArthur.

But MacArthur admits … quite candidly … that some men around him generated “a mutiny” against him “several times.”

King David, Israel’s greatest king, knew all about such disloyalty.  He writes in Psalm 41:5-9:

My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die and his name perish?”

Whenever one comes to see me, he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander; then he goes out and spreads it abroad.

All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me, saying, “A vile disease has beset him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.”

Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.

Of course, referring to Judas, Jesus quoted Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 about their own relationship.

And in 2 Timothy 4:10, 14, Paul mentions two men who betrayed him:

… Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me …

Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm … he strongly opposed our message …

If David, Jesus, and Paul all experienced betrayal, then it can happen to anybody … including John MacArthur.

I’m just glad he felt free to admit it.

Second, it’s beyond painful to support leaders fully and receive betrayal instead.

MacArthur confessed:

“But I think it’s particularly painful at the level of intimacy when you pour your life in investment spiritually into men around you that serve with you and they generate a mutiny against you. That is very hard to deal with…very hard.”

My wife and I attended one of America’s largest churches for nearly two years when we lived in Phoenix, Arizona a few years ago.

Three times within six months, I heard the church’s senior pastor talk about a staff rebellion that had occurred nearly fifteen years before.

He was still hurting over what had happened.  Years later, he still couldn’t believe those four staff members would try and push him out as pastor.

I left my last ministry eight years ago.  At one point, we had a staff of eleven people, some full-time, some part-time.

I went to bat for those staff members continually, getting them more money … more vacation time … and even giving part-timers paid vacations.

One staff member made a mistake on his taxes that cost him thousands of dollars, so I went to the board and they covered his mistake financially.

Another staff member literally worked in a closet when I came, so I made sure she came out of the closet and had her own office work space.

How was my loyalty repaid?

Some staff collaborated with my predecessor and I was forced out of office.

MacArthur survived his mutinies.  I did not.

But either way, it’s something you never forget.

Third, loyal pastors cannot understand disloyal leaders.

In the interview, MacArthur said:

“And I’m loyal. I think the only way to get loyalty is to give loyalty. If somebody in church comes to me and criticized another staff member, they don’t find me a very good listener. I will rise to the defense of all those that are in my care and serve alongside me. People don’t do that because they know they’re not going to get anywhere with me.”

Not every pastor is loyal to his staff and board.  I’ve heard some sad stories to that effect.

But the best pastors demonstrate loyalty and expect it in return.  And when the leaders around the pastor collaborate to criticize or take out the pastor, the pastor can’t get his head around it.

I served under five pastors.  In each case, I was the top staff member.

And in each case, I was completely loyal to my pastor.

Did that mean I agreed with everything the pastor said or did?  Absolutely not.

But I wanted each pastor to know that even if everyone in the church turned against him, I would still stand by his side.

So when staff members … and in my last church, board members as well … turned on me, I could not emotionally understand what they were doing.

I still can’t … because it’s something I could never do.

But sometimes I wonder, “Why was it so easy for them to be disloyal?”

Fourth, nothing hurts a pastor more than false accusations.

John MacArthur said:

“The hardest thing you’ll ever deal with is false accusation…people who say things about you that aren’t true and undermine people’s trust and confidence and this goes on in my case all the time all over the place. Not so much at Grace Church, anymore. Our people are very loyal. All the critics I’ve outlived. What are they going to bring up that they haven’t brought up in the past, you know. But even beyond Grace Church, there are all kinds of accusations and criticisms that aren’t related to reality made against me. That’s very hard to deal with because I don’t want to be viewed by anybody as unfaithful to the Lord, unfaithful to His Word as an unfaithful Christian.”

I don’t know what kind of accusations have been made against MacArthur during his long and successful ministry career.

His critics seem to single out his critical tone or his lack of graciousness whenever he deals with controversial issues … and he doesn’t shy away from anything.

In my younger days in ministry, I felt that MacArthur was a bit harsh at times.

But as I’ve gotten older, I thank God for him because he’s one of the few prominent Christian leaders who haven’t compromised or wavered on biblical truth.

What amazes me about the interview with MacArthur is that even though some leaders tried to overthrow him … and that’s the definition of a mutiny … he never quit.  He forged ahead.

You can do that more easily in your thirties, forties and early fifties.  But when a church’s leaders come after you when you’re in your late fifties or early sixties, it’s a different story entirely.

When you’re younger, if you’re “lied” out of your church, you can eventually find another church.  But when you’re older, those same churches won’t even consider you due to your age.

In my last church, I was accused of all kinds of things … especially after I resigned.

But the leaders were cowardly.  Whatever was being said, nobody said it to my face.

To this day, there are probably people who think that I had an affair … that I didn’t really preach the Bible … that I spent so much money that I left the church in massive debt … that I let my wife (who was on staff) do whatever she wanted … that I mistreated staff members … that I wasn’t approachable … and on and on.

When I first heard untrue claims against me, I wanted to defend myself publicly.

But I quickly realized it was futile.  I could not stop the tidal wave of hatred that was washing over the entire congregation.

There was no fair and just forum where I could respond to my critics.

So I just surrendered.

This kind of mistreatment has a name: “mobbing.”

In a church setting, certain leaders bury the pastor with false charges trying to force his departure.

They don’t want justice.  They want revenge.

I’m glad that John MacArthur is still pastoring Grace Community Church nearly fifty years after he began.

How has he done it?

Those who survive in ministry are those who follow Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:21-23:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

And that’s what both Jesus and John MacArthur have done over the years: entrust themselves to Him who judges justly.

May we learn from their example.

 

 

 

 

 

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In the fall of 2009, my wife and I went on a missions trip to Moldova with three other people.  After spending several days in London to recuperate and see some sights, Kim and I traveled north to Wales, Keswick, Edinburgh, and York before returning home.

trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-061trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-319  trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-512 trip-to-the-uk-1-oct-2009-532

Whenever I look at photos from that trip, this little voice tells me, “The whole time you were away, the church board back home was plotting to end your ministry.”

As I’ve recounted in my book Church Coup, the official board met with me on October 24, 2009 and announced a decision designed to end my tenure at the church I had served effectively and faithfully for 10 1/2 years.

Talk about an “October surprise!”

Forty-three days later, I resigned, and preached my final sermon a week later.

I’ve been through many tough times in ministry, and managed to overcome each situation with God’s help.

But not this time … because the spirit in the church had changed.

When I refer to such a “spirit,” I’m talking about an atmosphere … a climate … a mood that I could feel … though others may not have sensed it.

In fact, one way of looking at that fifty-day conflict is to identify the spirits that drove some to push out their pastor.

As I’ve listened to the stories of many pastors and church leaders since my departure, I’ve learned that these spirits are usually present before a pastor is forced to resign … as well as during any extended conflict.

As I see it, there are at least seven spirits that drive a church coup:

First, there’s the spirit of resistance.

For years, we were the largest Protestant church in our city of 75,000 people … by far … excellent numbers in a city with only three decent Protestant churches at the time.

But an underground resistance movement… fueled by someone outside the church … slowly expanded and reached a crescendo by the fall of 2009.

Most of my time as pastor, both my leadership and preaching were well-received … but near the end of my tenure, things had changed.

Resistance is the feeling a pastor senses that certain leaders and members are no longer following his leadership.

I first started detecting resistance when we started a building program around 2002.  I let the congregation have input on both the architect’s drawings as well as our fundraising plan.

And every vote involving the building was unanimous.

We lost about eight percent of our people during that time, and two individuals in the inner circle tried to sabotage the project.

As a leader, I never forced my ideas on people.  I made proposals, stated my case, asked for input, addressed objections, called for an official decision, and then moved forward.

If various individuals didn’t like my proposals, they had many opportunities to voice their displeasure in public.

But they didn’t … they went underground instead.

By the time 2009 rolled around, I could feel the resistance, especially when I preached.  To quote Phil Collins, there was “something in the air.”

No matter what I did – perform a wedding, conduct a funeral, propose a change – there always seemed to be pushback.

Especially from the church board.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not please them.  They never told me I was doing a good job.  They never tried to encourage me.  I always felt like I was on trial.

And their resistance started wearing me down.

Second, there’s the spirit of bitterness.

Regardless of church size, it only takes seven to ten people to force a pastor out.  If that minority is determined to oust the pastor … and are willing to use the law of the jungle … they often succeed.

Some people were angry with me because I took positions contrary to theirs on matters like baptism … women in ministry … outreach events … worship style … you name it.

A handful shared their disagreements with me and we worked things out.  Most told everyone but me about their anger and pulled others into their web.

For example, as our new worship center neared completion, I created seven principles for the way we were going to run our worship services.  I went to the church board and gained unanimous approval for those principles.

But a woman on the worship team disagreed vehemently.  She began complaining about me to anyone who would listen, to the point that the board chairman had to intervene.

I invited her into my office, listened to her concerns, explained my position, thought we had an understanding, and assumed that was the end of it.

Until she started complaining again.

A few months later … having caused much division … she and her family left the church.  It hurt.  I thought we were friends.

I’m unsure if she ever forgave me.   And when people feel and express bitterness toward their pastor, that bitterness spreads, and eventually wears a pastor down … and can tear a church apart.

And all too often, the bitterness morphs into a vendetta.

Third, there’s the spirit of hypocrisy.

A hypocrite is a play-actor … someone who acts one way in public but another way in private.

While hypocrites act in a spiritual manner outwardly, they are completely different people inside.

Pastors can sense those individuals and families who aren’t behind them.  You try and move toward them, and love on them, but sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

There was a couple in that church who had been there since the church started.  No matter what, I just couldn’t seem to connect with them.

Let’s call them Bo and Jo.

I ministered to them when there were deaths in their family.  I intentionally sought them out for conversation after services.  They were cordial but rarely warm.

I knew they were good friends with my predecessor but tried to ignore that connection.  After all, what could I do about it?

Eight days after the conflict started, the entire church board resigned, and a week later, we held two already-scheduled congregational meetings designed to announce the board’s departure.

After 24 years of leading healthy congregational meetings, all hell broke loose that Sunday.  A few members became unglued and publicly sided with the board.

After the second meeting, Bo came up to me and said, “I’m praying for you, brother.”  I looked at him and said, “Are you, Bo?”  (I knew he stood against me.)

A friend later told me that Jo was crying in the ladies room because she was afraid that I wasn’t going to be kicked out as pastor.

Before I resigned, I was informed that Bo and Jo played a crucial role in forcing me out.

Jesus knew who the hypocrites around Him were and called them out.  I sensed who some were but never knew what to do except keep them out of leadership.

If you don’t want me as your pastor, there’s a simple solution: leave the church.

But people like Bo and Jo don’t want to leave.  They want their pastor to leave instead … even if he isn’t guilty of any major offense … because in their minds, it’s their church, not his church.

And, of course, they know best.

And because hypocrites are experts at playing a part, pastors may not know who they are, so they can’t proactively work things out with them.

Fourth, there’s the spirit of cowardice.

When it comes to interpersonal squabbles at church, most Christians are cowards.

If they’re personally offended by someone, they don’t approach the person who hurt them as Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:15 … they complain to their network instead.

This is especially true when it comes to pastors.

Whenever someone had the courage to tell me directly they were upset about something, I always thanked them for speaking with me personally … but it rarely happened … not because I’m scary, but because people find it uncomfortable to confront their pastor.

But sometimes, what people are thinking and feeling about their pastor is based on inaccurate information … and God’s people may not want to hear the truth.

Last year, I heard about a church where someone accused the pastor of stealing a small amount of money.  Instead of speaking with the pastor privately, this individual reported the pastor to the authorities, and then told many others in the church about his accusation.

As the charges bounced around the congregation, some felt emboldened, and added their own personal gripes about the pastor to the mix.

The pastor was driven from office even though the evidence clearly showed he had done nothing wrong.

His career was destroyed over a lie.

Christians become cowards when:

*board members are upset with the pastor but never tell him how they feel.

*members allow false accusations about their pastor to spread.

*everybody is afraid to confront the ringleaders who initially attacked the pastor.

*people who know the truth won’t share it for fear of being vilified.

If God’s people would just grant their pastors the protections Scripture offers them in Deuteronomy 19:15-21, Matthew 18:15-17, and 1 Timothy 5:19-21, we could put an end to the epidemic of pastoral terminations once and for all.

But that will require a spirit of courage that is sadly lacking in most congregations… and it requires working hard to disintegrate the groupthink that grips so many.

Fifth, there’s the spirit of gullibility.

Many years ago, I began an Easter service by announcing that the President of the United States had suddenly resigned.

After hearing gasps all over the room, I exclaimed, “April Fool!”

If I tried that today, someone would check out the news on their smart phone before I ever got to “April Fool.”

But churchgoers who often check out the facts regarding the news rarely check out negative information they hear about their pastor.

If I was a regular churchgoer and I heard a serious rumor about my pastor, I would want to know:

*the original source of the rumor.

*who is spreading the rumor.

*who they’ve been talking with.

*how solid their information is.

*the views of different staff and board members.

If I believe the first thing I hear, then I’m really gullible.  And if I pass on that information without verifying it, I could well be passing on a lie … and destroying both my pastor and my church.

But wise, mature, discerning Christians check out the veracity of what they hear before they do anything else.

Yet in all too many churches, people hear negative information about their pastor … instantly believe it … spread the story to others … and then can’t revise the narrative because it will make them look bad … so they continue to perpetuate half-truths and outright lies.

During our conflict, after board members resigned, they and their wives jumped on their phones and called as many people as possible.  (A friend from out-of-state told us who called her and what was said.  Why call her?)

When I was telling my story to my ministry mentor several years ago – a former pastor and denominational president – this is the point at which he said, “Jim, I am so sorry.”

It’s one thing for people who hate their pastor to spread vicious rumors about him.  It’s another thing for good Christian people to believe them … especially when the pastor has a decade-long track record of integrity.

What hurts more than anything is that most people never bothered to pick up the phone to hear my side of the story.

The week before I resigned, Satan attacked my family in a horrible way.  Few people know the story.  I’ll spare you the details.

During the attack, I received a phone call from a newly-elected board member who told me about the latest charge against me.  He told me the source of the rumor … where that person heard it from … and exactly what they were saying.

Because he called, I was able to snuff out the rumor with facts, which I’m sure he passed on to the other new members.

I could have snuffed out all the rumors if people had just contacted me … and I still can … but by this time, nobody cares.

Don’t the conquerors write the history?

Sixth, there’s the spirit of blindness.

By blindness, I mean that a pastor’s attackers believe they see his faults clearly.

They just can’t see their own.

Let’s modify Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5 a bit:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your pastor’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your pastor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your pastor’s eye.”

Paul’s words in Galatians 6:1 (with one modification) are also appropriate here:

Brothers, if your pastor is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.

God’s Word does not say that you are to watch your pastor’s life and then tell others about every little thing he may have done or said wrong.

No, Scripture says that before you deal with those caught in sin, you should first “watch yourself” to make sure you have a humble, loving approach so you can restore the wayward person.

And if you don’t first “watch yourself,” you aren’t qualified to address anyone’s sin.

Whenever a pastor is pushed out of a church, there are usually a few narcissists and sociopaths involved.  People who have these personality disorders never admit they do anything wrong at home … at work … or on the road.

They bring that same mentality to church, and when they sense their pastor is vulnerable, they move in for the kill … and never feel badly about the part they play.

What’s amazing to me is that many churches allow such spiritually blind people to be their leaders.

Finally, there’s the spirit of destruction.

There is a spirit behind these seven spirits … and it’s not the Holy Spirit of God.

As Ephesians 2:2 specifies, it’s “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” … Satan.

As I say quite often, Satan has invaded a church when two factors are present: deception and destruction.

Or we might say … deception leading to destruction.

Jesus said in John 8:44 that Satan is “a liar and the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning” … and He was addressing His comments to spiritual leaders.

When a pastor has done something wrong, those in a church controlled by the Holy Spirit will gently and lovingly confront him with the goal of restoring him spiritually and even vocationally.

But under similar circumstances, those influenced by Satan will harshly and hatefully condemn him with the goal of destroying him both personally and professionally.

Instead of identifying Satan’s work in their own lives, such people gleefully detect satanic influence in their pastor.

As Neil Young sang, “I don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them.”

My wife and I could not only sense Satan’s influence during the conflict … we could taste and feel it.

It’s something you never forget.

After the church board resigned, I hired a church consultant … with the assistance of five well-respected congregational leaders.

After interviewing some leaders, and witnessing two horrendous congregational meetings, the consultant wrote a report where he exonerated my wife and me and faulted others.

Then a nine-person team from the church looked into the charges against us and publicly announced that we were not guilty of wrongdoing.

But one year later, the tables had turned, and friends sadly informed me that my reputation inside the church had been decimated.

The verdicts of the consultant and nine-person team no longer mattered.  My opponents had to win.  I had to be destroyed.

The hit job on me was so complete that after I left the church, not one person – including family, friends, or colleagues – felt that I should ever pastor again.

After 36 years, my church ministry career was over.

_______________

Several months after I resigned and moved to another state, I had a conversation with a church consultant from the Midwest.  I kept asking him, “Why did these people … who claimed to be Christians … act the way they did?”  Because I could never act that way toward anyone else, I couldn’t get my head around it.

The consultant told me, “Jim, the opposition to your ministry was probably there for years, but you didn’t see it because people covered it up well.  When you were attacked, their true feelings came spilling out.”

_______________

I’m going to end this article by quoting Galatians 5:19-23:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hated, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Which terms best represent those that try and force out their pastor?

Hint: it’s not the second group.

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While watching television this morning, I saw a commercial I’ve seen scores of time before.

It was an ad for Wounded Warriors Project, including photos of American military veterans who have been severely injured during combat and are struggling to lead normal lives.

With the concerned face and deep voice of country singer Trace Adkins inviting viewers to support WWP financially, I’m sure these commercials are providing tens of thousands of dollars in revenue to help our vets in need … which is really wonderful.

But did you know there are thousands of former and current pastors who might also be termed Wounded Warriors?

Many of you do know … some of you may not.

I mention this because last week, I posted an article called “19 Things I’d Rather Do Than Attend a Church Board Meeting.”  Although several Christian leaders told me they resonated with what I’d written … including a seminary professor and well-known author … one person … whom I do not know … left this comment:

Articles on congregational and pastoral leadership written in bitterness following a painful dismissal are not particularly insightful or productive.  This one is no exception.”

(My policy is to let comments stand, even when they’re negative.  I don’t edit them, and only a handful of times have I chosen not to approve comments because I felt they made the writer look bad.)

Let me make several observations about this comment – which is atypical of the ones I normally receive – which will give me the opportunity to make some clarifications about my writing ministry:

*I tried to write an article that contrasted my previous calling as a pastor with my current job, which is serving with my wife caring for children in our home … and I made the point that at this point in my life, I prefer what I’m doing right now.

*As those who know me or my previous church situation knows, I wasn’t dismissed as pastor.  I chose to resign because my wife was attacked as a way of forcing me to quit … an entirely different dynamic than usually occurs.  That may be a “forced resignation,” but it wasn’t a “painful dismissal.”

*Even though I wrote a book about that 50-day conflict … and even though I refer to it on occasion in my blog … I usually write as if people are coming to my blog for the first time.  This means that I sometimes will repeat myself … and risk boring my faithful readers … but I want my readers – especially pastors and their wives who have gone through a forced termination – to know that I understand what they are going through and that I feel their pain.

*I’m not bitter about what happened.  I accepted my destiny long ago.  I have no desire to hurt any of my detractors for what they did … I forgave them years before … nor to harm my former church in any way.  But I am wounded, and always will be.  How could I not be?  My career in church ministry ended after 36 years!  But I’m just one of thousands of God’s servants who have suffered similar mistreatment – like David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Paul, and Jesus – and were changed by the experience.

*The list of “19 Things” was tongue-in-cheek and presented in an ironic manner.  My sermon prep teacher warned our class years ago not to use irony when we preach because many people don’t get it.  It’s still true … but I still enjoy using it … even though I risk being misunderstood.  Maybe I could have written that article better.

*My main takeaway from this comment was, “I don’t want to hear anything about the dismissal of a pastor from a congregation or the way he feels afterward.  If I hear anything … regardless of the person’s experiences or motives … I will label it sour grapes.”

It’s this last observation that I’d like to address for a few moments.

When I started my blog in December 2010, and when my book Church Coup was published in March 2013, I made a conscious decision: to be willing to share in detail an attempt by a few people from my former congregation to force me out of my pastoral position.  I also chose to share how I felt about it at the time … and to try and make a dent in the epidemic of forced terminations in Christian churches today.  (I’d like to think that I’ve succeeded somewhat based on the thousands of views I’ve received for my article “If You Must Terminate a Pastor” as well as the number of pastors, board members, staff members, and laymen I’ve counseled over the past few years.)

I didn’t share everything that happened … it would have made the book much longer … and I intentionally left out parts that might make some individuals look bad.  In fact, I spent six hours with an attorney reviewing the book’s contents so that I was telling my story accurately rather than wreaking revenge.

I knew that the book would never be a Christian bestseller, although I’ve sold more copies than I thought I would.

I assumed that some Christian leaders would severely criticize me for revealing information that normally stays hidden inside a congregation, although I masked the church’s name … the city where it’s located … and the real names of those who wished me harm.  However, while I’m ignorant of what has been said about my book in private, few leaders have criticized me to my face, and many have thanked me for writing and getting the issue out into the open.

I shared how I felt about the conflict because I’m not a programmed robot; I’m a real person with real feelings.  A Christian counselor told me, “If you want to help others, don’t ever forget how you felt when you were going through your conflict.”  Some Christians are uncomfortable reading about how a pastor feels after a forced exit … and someday I’ll speculate on why that is … but I will continue to inject emotion into my writing because it takes too much effort to suppress it.

Some Christian leaders view forced terminations both cynically and politically.  Their attitude is, “You were pressured to resign.  You lost, your opponents won.  That’s just the way it goes.  Shut up about it now.”  I am troubled by that attitude because it guarantees that forced terminations – along with all the damage they cause – will continue unabated in Christian churches … although I certainly don’t want to bleed all over the place whenever I write!

The Christian community as a whole does not want to hear about pastoral termination or to hear from its victims.  We’d rather banish such pastors … call them “losers” … and tape their mouths shut.

Many years ago, a prominent Christian psychiatrist – who had counseled hundreds of pastors who had experienced a forced exit, along with their wives – wanted to write a book about the subject.  He pitched it to a major Christian publisher … and they turned him down.  The assumption was, “Who wants to read about pastors who have been terminated?”

The Christian community wants to keep this issue buried because (a) it’s poor marketing for the Christian faith; (b) it exposes glaring weaknesses in congregational life; (c) it reveals hatred and bitterness among church leaders; and (d) it negates the power of the gospel to reconcile relationships.

But don’t Christians believe in redemption … even for ex-pastors?

Can’t we learn something significant from the stories of those who have been forced out unjustly?

Why would we want to silence such pastors?

What are we as Christians afraid of?

Wouldn’t the wider Christian community benefit from an honest discussion of this issue?

Because when a forced termination is handled poorly … and they usually are … forces are unleashed in a church that people can’t control … and those forces damage lots of people … as well as their church’s future.

This is the 491st blog post I’ve written.  On occasion, I’ve written about baseball … music … travel … even cemeteries! … and I’ll do more of that in the future.

But I know why people come to my blog in the first place: because I deal with the topic of pastoral termination … in all its many ramifications … and in an authentic and thorough fashion.

When I was in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary, my focus was on church conflict.  My editor couldn’t believe the examples I used in my dissertation because she wasn’t aware of what goes on in Christian churches behind closed doors.

But God has called me to this ministry, and I will continue to speak up … and speak out … as long as He gives me breath.

Thank you for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Tomorrow is Halloween.  I loved Halloween as a kid.  I don’t love it anymore.

Why not?  As I described in my book Church Coup, events occurred on Halloween four years ago that changed the way I view the day forever.

Simply put, in the midst of a church conflict, my family was spiritually attacked on October 31.  I witnessed the attack, along with several others.  It was frightening … custom-designed … and very, very real.

The intent?  To destroy my family and my ministry.

In the book, I chose not to reveal the details of the attack which did not originate from humans, but from the enemy of our souls.

Satan is real.  He hates God the Father …  Jesus Christ … Jesus’ church and followers … and even you.  If the devil and his hordes cannot keep a person from following Jesus, they will seek to neutralize or even eliminate that believer’s impact so that Christ’s kingdom cannot advance through them.

If you’re courageous enough to keep reading, let me share a story that I left out of my book.

__________

Kim and I had seen Satan at work in Silicon Valley nearly twenty years before.  Santa Clara County has a much larger array of agnostics and atheists than almost anywhere in the United States, so it’s a spiritually resistant area.  We were launching a new church in a warehouse located at a busy intersection when our family suddenly began to receive obscene phone calls at home.  An anonymous caller continually left menacing messages taken from a Three Stooges short or a movie.

One time, the caller left a message taken from the soundtrack to the film The Poseidon Adventure.  Gene Hackman plays a minister trying to lead survivors out of a large ship that had capsized.  Ernest Borgnine’s character says to him at one point, “I’ve had just about enough out of you, preacher.”  That very quotation from the lips of Borgnine’s character was left on our machine!  When I consulted with Dr. Ed Murphy, a worldwide expert in spiritual warfare, he surmised that someone had put a curse on our church.

Dr. Murphy writes about this issue in The Handbook of Spiritual Warfare:

“Cursing is not used in the Old Testament with the Western idea of swearing or speaking dirty words.  Cursing in the Old Testament is a power concept meant to release negative spiritual power against the object, person, or place being cursed.  This is true even when God does the cursing.  In fact, most curse expressions in Scripture refer to God’s action or the action of His servants in accordance with His will.  It is God releasing His power or judgment.  That is why I call it negative spirit power even when activated by God.”[1]

Dr. Murphy continues:

“Many believers have been victims of the curses of the Enemy pronounced by the Enemy’s power workers…. Such curses, to be most powerful, are ‘worked up’ by invocations to the spirits and satanic magic.  They are overcome only by the greater power of God.  Sometimes God does not automatically overcome those curses on our behalf, however.  We are to learn the world of spirit power curses and break them ourselves.  Thus the importance of group spiritual warfare praying.”[2]

After our grand opening, our church quickly became the second largest Protestant church in our city, but we constantly sensed there were strong spiritual forces working against us.  When our warehouse church found itself between leases, the owner forced us to move out, and in the process, we lost one-third of our attendees overnight.  It was only then that I discovered that some illicit activities had been occurring at the intersection where our church was located.  The massage parlor diagonally across the intersection from us was the scene of a host of immoral sexual activity, and our immediate area had become a haven for drug dealers.  When our church moved into that warehouse, we were invading Satan’s territory.  No wonder he fought us so hard the whole time we were there!

Our church moved to a high school five miles away and I eventually scheduled a series of messages on controversial issues.  The night before I was scheduled to speak on A Christian View of Homosexuality, all hell broke loose in our home and church.  Without going into detail, the spiritual warfare I experienced before I gave that message was so real that I could almost smell sulfur – and I did give the message.  But I was so attacked the night before that I felt compelled to write a resignation letter because I sensed that my wife and I had become special targets of Satan.  While I never submitted the letter to the board, I resigned a few months later because, for the first and only time in our lives, our marriage had become severely strained due to events at church.

__________

There are several more stories in the book that discuss the spiritual warfare that new church experienced.  It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.  While I’ve sensed the influence of Satan at various junctures during my 36-year church career, the occasions I’ve just described represent the two worst attacks I’ve experienced.  Satan and his minions tend to leave pastors and churches alone when the mission is muddled, few people are converted, and the church fails to make inroads into the community.  But when a church penetrates the spiritual Red Zone – to use a football analogy – the evil one begins to target the quarterback (pastor) with blitzes and cheap shots designed to knock him out of the game … all the more reason why the quarterback needs a skilled and determined line to protect him.

This is a good time of year to remember that while Satan is real and powerful … our God is more powerful still.

Jesus gave Paul a mission in Acts 26:17-18.  It’s ours as well: “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

Our Lord and Savior told Paul that Satan is real … that he has power … that he wants people to remain in spiritual darkness … that he wants people to wallow in an unforgiven state … but that he has already been defeated at the cross.

But we cannot defeat Satan by fighting each other.  Fellow believers are not the enemy.  The enemy is the enemy.

Let’s unite together and fight him instead.


      [1] Dr. Ed Murphy, Handbook of Spiritual Warfare (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), 442.

      [2] Ibid, 444.

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