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Posts Tagged ‘Church Coup’

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.

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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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Have you ever taken a spiritual gifts inventory to discover which gifts God has given you?

Twenty-some years ago, I took the inventory that came with the Network material created by Willow Creek Church.

My primary gift?  Teaching.

My second gift?  Prophecy.

When I took the class “Discovering Your Ministry Identity” at Fuller for the Doctor of Ministry degree, my spiritual gifts inventory produced exactly the same results.

While I’ve always tried to use my teaching gift in love, that prophecy gift makes me seem outspoken, stubborn, and almost obnoxious at times.

I understand that when women feel strong emotions, they usually feel them from the top of their head to the tips of their toes.

That’s how I feel when I see wrongdoing in Jesus’ church.

It doesn’t matter if nobody is listening (or reading), or if I don’t use politically correct terms, or if I need to take a swipe at the behavior of Christian leaders on occasion … I have to speak out.

In fact, I’m not being true to either God or my giftedness if I remain silent.

That’s why I care so much about the involuntary termination of innocent pastors.  In fact, more of us need to speak up and say, “This is wrong and has got to stop.”

Enter Kent Crockett’s book Pastor Abusers: When Sheep Attack Their Shepherd.

While much of Crockett’s book overlaps with my book Church Coup, I love his fresh approach to the subject.

Let me share a few more quotes from his book:

“The devil is unmistakably the instigator of secret plots.  Nowhere in the Bible do we read about God calling for His people to meet secretly and plot the ousting [of] a pastor.  Instead, every instance in the New Testament of plots and secret meetings pertains to ungodly religious leaders who attacked God’s Son and His followers.”

While reading through the Psalms in The Message, I came upon Psalm 64 this morning.  David writes about his enemies:

They keep lists of the traps

they’re secretly set.

They say to each other,

“No one can catch us,

no one can detect our perfect crime.”

The Detective detects the mystery

in the dark of the cellar heart.

My friend Charles Chandler, executive director of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, taught me that when leaders or churchgoers plot to force out their pastor, they will insist on strict confidentiality from the pastor when they inform him of their plans … and that the pastor does not have to comply with their wishes.  As Crockett states, “Satan loves to plot evil schemes under the dark veil of secrecy against God’s messengers …. It’s just too easy for these thugs to concoct stories or exaggerate incidents to discredit the pastor’s ministry and ruin his reputation.”

This paragraph made me both angry and sorrowful:

“The abusers will often approach your friends, trying to persuade them to come over to their side.  They’ll misrepresent the situation, distort the facts, and say, ‘Let us tell you our side of the story.’  If your friend is gullible or has a weak backbone, he or she will cave in to their exploitation, instead of standing up for what’s right.  It’s worth repeating – never underestimate the incredible power of a slanderer to alter people’s thinking.”

I believe that slander is the number one weapon in Satan’s arsenal against pastors.  When half-truths, innuendos, and exaggerations are piled one on top of another, too many Christians choose to believe the “charges” rather than ask, “How do you know these charges are true?” or ask, “What kind of biblical process has been used to uncover this information?”

And the first thing anyone who hears such charges should do is contact the pastor immediately and ask him whether the charges are true.

In his chapter “The Silent Majority,” Crockett laments churchgoers who passively allow their pastor to take a beating without coming to his defense:

“Your supporters understand these antagonists are determined to run you off, and they prefer to stay out of the line of fire when it happens.  When the faction begins persecuting you, the depth of your supporters’ spiritual walk will determine which position they’ll take and which side they’ll choose.”

There are friends from my last ministry who have told me how sorry they are that they did not speak up for me when I was being publicly accused of wrongdoing.  I have never blamed them for remaining silent because it’s rare for Christians to publicly support their pastor when he’s under attack.  But I do believe them when they say that they will never let this happen again.

Unfortunately, too many believers are fooled by the following tactic.  Pastor Mike Johnston stated that he and his wife were friends with a woman for 25 years … and that she pledged loyalty to them … but then:

“I failed to take into account the slander factor, which is the exponential power a phantom allegation proclaimed through an alliance of troublemakers.  These particular pastor abusers banded together and fed her misinformation, which she never challenged.  Since the accusers kept repeating their lies, it convinced her that they must be telling the truth.  Without asking me to respond to their charges, she swallowed the bait, reneged on her promise, and joined their team.  After three months of unreturned phone calls, it became painfully evident our lifelong friend wanted nothing more to do with us.”

Guess what?  The enemy used the same tactic on Jesus, Stephen, and Paul.

I once had a teacher at Biola named Mr. Ebeling.  He was quite a character, but he used to utter the same phrase over and over:

“If Christians would just read their Bibles!”

The enemy’s strategy against pastors is clearly delineated in Scripture … but when he springs his trap, many people take his side and drive out their pastor.

Let’s put a stop to this evil once and for all!

Are you with me?

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

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I’m currently reading a book by Kent Crockett called Pastor Abusers: When Sheep Attack Their Shepherd.  Crockett is currently on the staff of a church in Alabama.

In his first chapter, titled “The Secret Church Scandal,” the author writes:

“The secret church scandal we’re talking about is the persecution of the pastor by mean-spirited people within the church, who are the ‘pastor abusers.’  They’re planted in nearly every congregation.  Many are even running the church.  They may be deacons, disloyal staff members, or members of the congregation who are determined to destroy the pastor through personal attacks, slander, and criticism.  Outwardly they may look respectable, but inwardly their hearts are wicked, and their mission is to bring down their spiritual leader.”

I must confess, I cannot understand why professing Christians would ever do such a thing.

Based on my own experience, I can understand why believers might:

*disagree with their pastor’s teaching.

*find him to be arrogant or obnoxious.

*become bored with his preaching or stories.

*choose to leave their church for another.

But how can a believer who has the Holy Spirit living inside of him or her ever try and destroy or bring down a pastor called by God?

Crockett continues:

“Pastor abuse is the scandal that no one is talking about.  The mistreatment of clergy is as horrifying as it is secretive, and the casualties are reaching epidemic proportions.  Over 19,000 pastors get out of the ministry every year.  When the sermon ends on Sunday, over 350 pastors will be gone before the next Sunday service begins.”

These statements are similar to ones that I made in my recent book Church Coup … and no, I did not consult Crockett’s book before I wrote mine.  But it’s amazing how many nearly-identical statements we both made.

What happens after a pastor under fire leaves?  Crockett continues:

“Meanwhile, the revolving door at the church makes another turn.  As the fired pastor makes his exit, the old guard looks to find another pastor who will meet all of their expectations, and history repeats itself with a new victim.  Just like the abusive husband beats his next wife, the abusive church will mistreat its next pastor.”

How can a church prevent this revolving door syndrome?  Both Crockett and I agree that the perpetrators must be given a choice: repent of your sinful actions or leave the fellowship.  Yet Crockett writes:

“Because few churches exercise church discipline, pastor abusers are rarely held accountable for their actions.  This emboldens them to keep attacking God’s shepherds, knowing that no one will challenge their despicable behavior.  Eventually someone must take a stand against the abusers and hold them accountable, or their attacks will never end.  Church discipline is essential is we’re ever going to solve the pastor abuser problem.”

There are times when I feel like I’m talking to myself about this issue, but as soon as I get together with other believers – whether they’re family members or old friends – they’ll immediately start telling me about a conflict that devastated their church years ago, or one they’re going through right now, or one they sense is coming.

Then they’ll tell me about a pastor or staff member who left church ministry … and about family members who have quit going to church altogether … and sometimes they’ll admit that they’ve quit going to church as well.

How can Christians remain silent about this issue?

If we want Christ’s kingdom to expand … if we want our churches to grow … if we believe that Christians should attend and stay in local congregations … then shouldn’t we do all we can to prevent pastors and Christians from leaving the church altogether?

I’m willing to speak up … how about you?

I’ll write more about Kent Crockett’s book Pastor Abusers next time.

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

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Of making many books there is no end … Ecclesiastes 12:13

Several years ago, a few days after leaving my last pastoral ministry, I spoke on the phone with a Christian attorney who was assisting me with some documentation.

During our conversation, I mentioned to him that I planned to write a book about the events surrounding my departure from the church.

He offered one short phrase in counsel: “Just make sure you tell the truth.”

With my recently-published book Church Coup, I did my best to tell the truth from my perspective.

Let me ask and answer three questions about the writing of the book:

1.  How did people react when you told them you were writing a book?

I received so many different reactions:

*Skepticism.  Most of us have a hard time believing that anyone we know would become a published author, so some people said, “That’s nice” or “Send me a copy when you’re done” – but they weren’t sure I’d ever finish.

However, because anyone can self-publish nowadays, that book can be published … you just have to pay for the privilege.

*Discouragement.  One Christian leader – whom I greatly admire – told me candidly that if I wrote a book on the forced termination of pastors, it wouldn’t sell.

To verify that, a Christian literary agent told me that a major Christian publisher turned down an offer by a bestselling Christian author to write a similar book years ago.  He also told me my book was too long.  (So I cut it from 450 pages to 290.)

*Competitiveness.  I told one Christian leader that I was writing a book … and he proceeded to tell me about a book he had written that sells 5,000 copies every year.

I liked the attitude of another leader better.  When I told him about my book, he told me about a book he had written about an issue in his family … and offered to give me one from the trunk of his car.

*Encouragement.  One Sunday morning at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, my wife and I stopped after the service to chat with Dr. Mark Moore, who had just become the church’s teaching pastor.  When I told Dr. Moore about the book, he asked me to send him a copy when it was finished.  I felt inspired after talking with him.

But the greatest encouragement I’ve received came ten years ago from Dr. Archibald Hart from Fuller Seminary – one of my very few Christian heroes.  (I keep a framed copy of the comments he made on the post-seminar paper I submitted for his class.)  When I wrote in that paper that I felt compelled by God to write, he jotted down, “I’ll be praying that God will not release you from these commitments!”

What’s interesting to me is that many people from my previous church knew that I was writing a book – I announced it repeatedly for months  and even released a few excerpts on this blog – but no one ever asked me not to write anything.

2.  Why did you write on the forced termination of pastors?

*Because I felt compelled by God to write it.  Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:17-18).  I’m not sure what he did there or how he lived, but God used that time to prepare Paul for greater ministry.

In the same way, Church Coup was written almost exclusively in several desert locations.  The Lord gave me time to pray, reflect, and work in relative solitude.  I could not have written any book if I was still pastoring.

*Because I wanted to bring meaning to my father’s death.  There is a sense in which a particular church killed my father, who resigned his position as pastor in June 1965.  He died on February 9, 1967 – more than 46 years ago – after several months of suffering from pancreatic cancer.  He went through such a horrendous conflict in that church for two years that I believe the stress compromised his immune system.

My wife never met her father-in-law.  My kids never met their grandfather.  My sister barely remembers her own dad.  But I will never forget him … and I want what happened to him to help others, which is why Chapter 12 begins with his story.

*Because I’ve cared deeply about the forced termination of pastors for decades.  35 years ago, I served as youth pastor in a church in SoCal that voted their pastor out of office.  Although I was not integrally involved in the conflict, I was lobbied by both sides, and I watched in disbelief as Christians acted like the world they were supposedly trying to convert.

Since then, I’ve collected books on the topic, spent countless hours discussing the problem with pastoral colleagues (and anyone who would listen), and thought long and hard about how pastor-board/congregation impasses should be handled.  In fact, 25 years ago, a Christian attorney and I began writing an article on how these situations could be addressed in an optimal way.  While I still have the article, we never published it.

*Because I did my doctoral work on church antagonism.  I had already read scores of books and articles for my dissertation, so why not build on what I had already done?

*Because I wanted to give meaning to a conflict I experienced firsthand.  With my background and passion for the issue of forced termination, how could I not write about it when I went through the experience myself?  Through the years, God has uniquely prepared me to write about this single issue.  If I died today, at least I’ve left behind something that might help Christian leaders and churches in the future.

I’ve asked myself, “What have I learned by going through this crisis?  How can I help other pastors, governing leaders, and congregations?  How can we handle these tragedies in a more biblical manner?”

3.  What kind of reactions do you hope the book inspires?

Some people have already read the book and shared with me their feelings of anger, sadness, empathy, and horror.  I dare not try and program people’s responses, but my prayer is that readers might sense:

*Humility.  During a conflict, it’s okay to disagree with others.  It’s okay to hold firmly to a position.  But too many people in a conflict quickly demonize those who disagree with them … and that attitude leads to destruction.

Humility means there’s a possibility that I’m wrong … or that I may have exaggerated wrongdoing in others … or that I may have overreacted to protect my image or my feelings.

And more than anything, humility may mean that I need to break from the party line and admit, “I crossed some spiritual and moral lines during this conflict.  Please forgive me.”

I pray that all of us – including me – can say to the Lord, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24).

*Change.  In the book, I try and challenge some of the conventional wisdom about conflicts in churches when it doesn’t square with Scripture.

The old paradigm said that if a few people charged a pastor with wrongdoing – especially members of the church board – then the pastor should automatically resign to keep the church united.

But then I read that Jesus was accused of wrongdoing all the time, but He didn’t resign as Messiah.  And Paul was incessantly criticized by the church in Corinth, but he kept on serving faithfully.

In fact, while reading the Bible, I discovered that Moses, Jesus and Paul constantly responded to their critics and stayed in their positions rather than walking away from God’s call.

Of course, there is a time when a pastor should leave a church – and it’s not always when the pastor wants to go.  But if and when that ever happens, it must be handled in a Christian manner – with grace, truth, humility – and especially redemption.

And when people attempt to push out their pastor, they may not be doing the work of God.

*Wisdom.  I subtitled the book A Cautionary Tale so that the reader can learn from both the wise and foolish decisions that were made during the conflict.  And I quoted multiple times from the best congregational conflict experts possible.  Since there’s little in print on the issue of forced termination, I wanted to make a small contribution to the literature on the subject.

I’ve preached hundreds of sermons, many of them on cassettes that I’ve stuffed into boxes in my garage.  Nobody has ever asked to listen to even one of them.

But maybe through this book, the church of Jesus Christ can make some small headway in combatting this plague of forced termination in our churches.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  Romans 14:19

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