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Posts Tagged ‘church discipline’

Someone recently asked me the following question:

“What is the likelihood that a forced termination or major conflict could happen at the same church more than once?  (Let’s say within a 10-15 year span.)  Are there any statistics on that subject?”

Yes, there are.

Leading Edge, a resource for leaders of healthy churches, reported the following statistics in September 2003:

*25% of US pastors have experienced a forced exit at some point in their ministry.

*33% of US churches have had a pastor leave due to a forced exit.

*62% of ousted pastors were serving a church that had forced one or more pastors to leave in the past.

And the most chilling statistic of all:

*10% of US churches have forced three or more pastors to leave in their past and are considered “repeat offenders.”

The driving force behind a pastor’s forced exit is usually a small faction inside the congregation … composed of only 3-4% of the people.

The second largest catalyst is a member of the church’s governing board.

The typical size of the small faction is 7-10 people.

Once a faction or a board forces out their pastor, they know the template and may feel free to use it on the next pastor … and the one after that.

Let’s freely acknowledge that a small percentage of pastors should leave due to heretical teaching, sexual immorality, or a criminal offense.

But in most cases, the pastor hasn’t done anything worthy of banishment.

Presuming that a pastor is innocent of any major offense, how can the people of a church that has experienced this tragedy prevent the forced exit of their next pastor?

First, identify the perpetrators by name.  A congregation needs to know the identities of those who forced their pastor to leave.  If you don’t know who did it, you won’t be able to stop them from doing it again.  This is biblical.  (Paul fingered Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander the coppersmith as troublemakers, while John cast a spotlight on Diotrephes.)

Second, confront the perpetrators for their divisive actions.  Even if a congregation identifies the perpetrators, little has been accomplished if those same people are quickly placed into leadership positions.  See Titus 3:10-11.

Let me say this as emphatically as I know how: it is spiritually and morally wrong for a congregation to place people into leadership who used deception and destruction to force out the previous pastor.

If you doubt me, read the Book of Numbers sometime soon.  Moses and Aaron were frequently criticized by various leaders and factions in Israel … but God always sided with his chosen leaders and always disciplined those who attacked them.

And God never said to the perpetrators, “You know, you guys are right.  Moses shouldn’t be in leadership.  I’ll open up the earth and swallow him up … and let you guys lead Israel instead.”

In fact, in Numbers 16, God opened up the earth and swallowed the 250 people who stood with Moses’ three critics instead.

Third, prayerfully ask the perpetrators to repent for their actions.  However, this rarely happens.

I know a church where four staff members tried to force out their pastor many years ago.  The pastor threatened to expose them … and three of them quickly resigned.  (The perpetrators in such cases fear public exposure more than anything.)

About five years later, one of the four wrote the pastor a letter of apology, admitting that what he had done was wrong.  The other three?  He’s still waiting to hear from them.

I don’t know why this is, but some people demonize their pastor and then believe that they are justified using any and all means to force him to quit.

Such methodology damages more than the pastor, though: it damages a church’s soul.

Finally, realize that pastors are most vulnerable between years four and five.  Most pastors enjoy a honeymoon of a year or two when they first come to a church, especially if they don’t initiate much change.

During year three, the pastor’s critics begin to emerge.

Between years four and five of a pastor’s tenure, the pastor typically announces and promotes a specific agenda for the church’s future.  Because change provokes anxiety, some people will rebel against the pastor’s agenda.

The pastor’s critics will begin to question everything he does and says.  They will talk to others who feel the same way.  If a leader emerges, they will form a faction to take back their church.

If the pastor is a strong individual … and especially if he has board support … he will continue to communicate the direction he believes God wants him to take the church.

And this will force much if not all of the faction to leave the church.

But if the pastor collapses emotionally … or his family wilts under the pressure … or the pastor’s health is affected by the constant criticism … and especially if the board caves on him … then the pastor will choose to resign instead.

And a tiny, vocal faction will privately take credit for getting rid of their minister.

This information is contained in Carl George’s brilliant article called “The Berry Bucket Balance.”

Many years ago, I did a study of pastoral tenure in my district.  I examined the tenures of 60 pastors.

The average tenure of those pastors was 4 1/2 years … midway between years four and five.

This is a time to be hypervigilant … but an attack can come at any time.

A few years ago, I wrote my doctoral project at Fuller Seminary on church antagonism.

During my research, I analyzed five major conflicts that my church at the time had experienced over the years.

I discovered that the church’s culture was one of non-confrontation.  When people acted up … or committed evil … nobody did anything about it.

The perpetrators felt free to attack, criticize, and even destroy people because they knew that nothing would happen to them.

We have to hit this issue head-on or there will be even more repeat offender churches in the future.

Your thoughts?

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This article is the second half of the answer to the question, “What happens to clergy killers?”  In other words, when a group attacks and consequently “takes out” a pastor, how do the people of the average church respond to such an attack on their minister?

The answer might surprise you.  Here’s part two from my upcoming book:

In some situations, mature Christians hang around to see if church leaders will correct the instigators. But if nothing happens after a while, these believers may leave the church permanently, especially if they see the perpetrators serving in visible positions. During such conflicts, a church is going to lose somebody. Isn’t it better to lose divisive people than mature believers?  Anderson comments, “The result is that the church keeps the dissenters and loses the happy, healthy people to other churches. Most healthy Christians have a time limit and a tolerance level for unchristian and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.”[i]

I had a conversation recently with a Christian man.  We were discussing what should be done (if anything) to churchgoers who join forces to push out their pastor.  This man believes that a church should remain passive toward perpetrators because God will eventually punish them.  He told me about an associate pastor who engineered the ouster of his senior pastor.  The associate later contracted cancer and his wife died a horrible death.  Christians don’t need to address the perpetrators, he said, because “God’ll get ‘em.”

It is true that God may get them.  The law of sowing and reaping still applies in this life (Galatians 6:7) and God promises to repay us all according to our deeds in the next life (2 Corinthians 5:10).  There are cases in the New Testament where God executed swift punishment against professing believers like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and staunch unbelievers like King Herod (Acts 12:19-23). Most pastors can tell stories about the eventual demise of attendees turned into attackers.  For example, a man who led an attack on one of my pastors died of a heart attack the day he was moving out-of-state.  While God may not “take out” every perpetrator, how are twenty-first century believers to interpret all the biblical admonitions to confront divisive individuals in a local church?  Have God’s words now become irrelevant?

When I was a rookie church staff member, I witnessed an event that I have never forgotten.  A few hours before a Sunday evening service, the elders met to discuss what to do about three church leaders who were involved in sexual immorality.  I watched as the door to the pastor’s study swung open and various elders piled into cars to drive to the homes of those leaders and confront them. The serious looks on the leaders’ faces told a story – they didn’t sign up for this – but to their credit, they did it.  Eventually, one offending leader made a public apology (without naming his sin) but all three families affected chose to leave the church.

Where is the courage today that those elders displayed?


        [i] Leith Anderson, Leadership That Works: Hope and Direction for Church and Parachurch Leaders in Today’s Complex World (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1999), 31.

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