Posts Tagged ‘church politics’

This past weekend, while doing some work around the house, I was plagued by some ministry memories I thought I had long forgotten.

But the more I tried to push them down, the more they flooded my soul, and the only way I know to be rid of them is to write them down and share them.

So here goes …

Nearly 30 years ago, I pastored a church in Santa Clara, California … the heart of Silicon Valley, south of the San Francisco Bay.

Early in 1988, my all-time worst antagonist … a man I’ll call Bob … had returned to the church after a year’s absence.  He ended up leading a rebellion against me for two primary reasons: he and his wife didn’t like our change in worship music (which the board unanimously supported) and some of the seniors griped to Bob that I didn’t care about them (if you knew them, you’d understand).

About twenty percent of the congregation ended up following Bob out of our church.

Rather than attend existing churches in the area, those refugees formed their own congregation in a school about a mile from our property … and used our church as their sole mission field.

A pastor who had left his church due to moral failure ended up doing a lot of guest speaking at that new church.

Even though their attendance was meager, Bob contacted the district minister with the stated goal of having his new church admitted both into the district and the denomination.

When I found out about Bob’s intent, I told the district minister, “If you recognize that renegade church, we will pull our church out of the district.”

And I meant it.

It just so happened that the denomination’s annual meetings were being held at the new Santa Clara Convention Center that June … just a few miles from our church … and my wife Kim had volunteered to lead the early childhood program.

I chose to serve with my wife and to help with her program for the upcoming annual meetings.

The festivities opened on a Wednesday night, and the facilities were spectacular.  The early childhood program was located on the second floor, and that’s where I stayed that first night.

But someone quickly brought me some bad news.

Bob was in the lobby of the convention center handing out literature to pastors and delegates inviting them to his new church!

This was a complete breach of protocol.  It just wasn’t done.  The meetings were all about churches as a whole, not any one church in particular.  Nobody went to the annual meetings and publicized their church at the expense of others.

Those who brought me this news also told me that Bob was not only publicizing his church, but taking verbal shots at me … the pastor of the only denominational church in Santa Clara … while I was serving God in a room upstairs.

Later that day, I found our district minister and asked him what he was going to do about Bob’s breach of protocol.

His reply?

“What can I do?  I don’t have the authority to do anything.”

As far as I was concerned, that was the wrong answer.

I spoke with several of my pastoral colleagues, and they were appalled that Bob was passing out literature about his church … and that the district leadership was allowing it to happen.

Finally, a long-time pastor scooped up all of Bob’s literature (he wasn’t in the lobby at the time) … threw it out … came to me … and slapped his hands together as if to say, “That will take care of that.”

I don’t know how Bob reacted when he discovered that his literature had disappeared.  Maybe he blamed me … maybe not.

But that incident is a microcosm of how denominations treat pastors when they’re assaulted by conflict:

First, many denominational leaders secretly hope that certain pastors and churches fail.

Bob was a formidable opponent.  He wanted to turn our church back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I couldn’t reason with him, and neither could anyone on our board.  He was a bully, and he was going to attack me until I resigned.

Several months before, my district minister had even recommended that I quit because of Bob’s attacks.

But I didn’t leave.  I stayed … forcing Bob and his minions to depart instead.

I couldn’t figure out why my district minister wasn’t more supportive … until a pastoral colleague clued me into what was really happening.

My friend told me that district leaders wanted both me and our church to fail so they could take over the property … sell it … and use much of the proceeds to plant new churches.

Most denominational churches insert a clause into their governing documents that states that if the church dissolves, the property reverts to the denomination.

Although our church property sat on less than two acres, land in Silicon Valley at that time sold for one million dollars per acre.

What better way to secure a windfall than to force me out and take over the church?

If you’re skeptical that denominational officials do things like this, let me assure you … they do.

And in my case, I’m positive that’s what was happening.

Second, many denominational leaders claim they lack the ecclesiastical authority to resolve conflicts involving pastors.

This is precisely what my district minister told me: “I don’t have the authority to take any action toward Bob.”

Fine … maybe the DM didn’t have any official authority to deal with him.

Many denominational executives claim that they can’t interfere in the life of a congregation because churches are autonomous … that is, they govern themselves without any outside interference.

But let me tell you … when a district minister wants to interfere in a church situation and get rid of a pastor … he will.

My district minister at that time went back to his previous church, advised the board on how to get rid of their current pastor, and was present when the board demanded the pastor’s resignation.

Not only was it a total breach of ethics, he was also violating that church’s autonomy by interfering … and his influence led to a lawsuit.

In my case, I wanted someone to exercise moral and spiritual authority.

After all, what good is ecclesiastical authority if it doesn’t translate into moral and spiritual decisions?

Thank God, several of my fellow pastors did take action against Bob’s sabotage efforts … and I was grateful for their courage.

But if you’re looking for principled action, look away from the district office … because denominations are far more political than they are spiritual.

Finally, many denominational leaders are more interested in building their denomination than advancing Christ’s kingdom. 

This was certainly true in our district.

I went to Talbot Seminary (now School of Theology), a non-denominational school.  While there, I gravitated toward books written by British scholars like John Stott, J. I. Packer, Michael Green, F. F. Bruce, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Those guys were my heroes.

I tried to think broadly, read widely, and view Christ’s kingdom internationally.

But when I started becoming involved with my church’s denomination, I was appalled at how narrow their thinking was.

For example, I served for several years on the district’s education committee.  One day, I asked the chairman if I could invite Pastor Chuck Smith from Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa to speak to the pastors in our district.  (I knew a pastor on that committee who was saved at one of Calvary’s concerts.)

At the time, Calvary Chapel may have been the largest church in the United States, and certainly was among the most influential churches anywhere in the world.

One of my best friends worked at Calvary with Pastor Chuck and I thought it would be great to have someone from outside the denomination talk about leadership.

My friend asked Chuck if he would speak for us, and Chuck said yes, so I went back to the chairman of the committee to deliver the news.

The chairman asked a district official if Chuck could come and speak.  The official said that Chuck couldn’t come because there were plenty of denominational personnel who could speak to the leaders without going outside our own group.

Pretty lame excuse, if you ask me.

That same district official later criticized me for going to Talbot even though choosing a denomination wasn’t even on my radar when I selected a seminary to attend.

A lot of pastors at this point might say, “Okay, this group may identify its denomination with the kingdom of God, and they’re obviously mistaken, but I’ll suck it up, play the game, schmooze the right people, and maybe move up the ladder someday.”

But I can’t do that.

My wife and I have been watching the TV show Blue Bloods on Netflix.  If you haven’t seen it, Tom Selleck plays Frank Reagan, the police commissioner of New York City.  (And if you aren’t aware of this, Reagan’s family openly talks about their Catholic faith and often says grace before eating … a rarity on television.)

When faced with a dilemma, Reagan always wants to do the right thing.  He always chooses principles over politics.  He hates phoniness … meaningless social events… and speaks his mind at all times.

That’s me … and that’s why I resonate with Frank Reagan so well.

But I was never comfortable in my denomination.  I was the wrong ethnicity … went to the wrong seminary … thought outside the box … and could not turn a blind ear to wrongdoing.

Many years ago, that district was holding a meeting one Saturday at my best friend’s church.  I dutifully put on my suit (this was the early 1990s), got in my car, and drove down the expressway toward the church.

About a mile down the road, I thought to myself, “I hate these meetings.  I don’t want to go … so why am I going?”

I turned around … went home … and never went to another one again.

My wife applauded me.  She said, “You always come back from those meetings depressed.”

She was right … and I hate being depressed.

Fast forward 15 years.

In our last church, out of 400 adults, only seven people cared about our church’s affiliation with that denomination.  Only seven.

One night, at a board meeting, a board member asked me what it would take to leave the denomination.

I told him that I didn’t want that to happen on my watch.

My wife later told me, “You made a mistake.  You should have taken the church out.”

She repeated that same sentiment to me this past weekend.

But I didn’t want to do it.  I thought I could just ignore them indefinitely.

When major conflict surfaced in my church in 2009, I discovered that my former district minister – who never once contacted me personally over a five-year period – was integrally involved in getting rid of me … even though he liked to claim, “I can’t interfere in local church conflicts.”

My wife was right … I should have led the church out of the denomination years before.

If I had, maybe I’d still be a pastor today.













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Most churchgoers have no idea what really goes on behind-the-scenes at the average church.  What really happens in meetings of the board and staff?  How many decisions are really made on the basis of Scripture and prayer?  How do the key leaders really behave when they’re immersed in a crisis?

When I first joined a church staff – and later when I became a pastor – I was horrified at how many decisions in a church were made on the basis of politics, pure and simple.  I was shocked because I thought Christian leaders would make spiritual decisions rather than political ones.  While I have been in churches where the leaders truly “walked the walk” in every situation, I have also been in churches where the leaders seem to forget they’re in a church.

The best illustration in the Bible of politics in action occurs when the Sanhedrin sent Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.  Let me share with you five political strategies that Pilate used that I have seen used in local churches:

First, politicians succumb to outside pressure.  When Jesus was first brought before Pilate, the Jewish leaders accused Him of “subverting our nation.  He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2).  In other words, Jesus was accused of trying to overthrow Rome.  But after Pilate initially questioned Jesus, he told His accusers, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4).  And yet, when Jesus’ countrymen continued to accuse Him of stirring up the people, Pilate lost his nerve and backed down.

In my first pastorate, the board chairman asked me to take action over a theological issue involving two of his family members.  After I researched the issue, I presented relevant materials to the board in a three-hour meeting, after which we made a unanimous decision.  When I tried to explain our decision to the family members, they threatened to leave the church and demanded a personal apology.  When I asked the board for support, they flipped on me and told me to apologize, but I refused.  I reminded them that we had made a decision together based on Scripture, but that didn’t matter to them.

While politicians wilt when pressured, spiritual leaders stand strong.

Second, politicians avoid the tough calls.  Dr. Luke tells us that when Pilate heard that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent Jesus to see the ruler of Galilee, King Herod, who was visiting the Holy City for Passover.  Pilate hoped that Herod would make a decision about Jesus’ fate that would take the Roman governor off the hook, but Herod merely ridiculed Jesus and sent him back to Pilate.

I once was informed about some inappropriate material on the social networking site of an important person in my church.  I consulted with that person’s supervisor who promised to address the issue, but months later, the objectionable material was still there.

While a politician prefers not to confront a friend, a spiritual leader seeks that person’s repentance and restoration.

Third, politicians scapegoat innocent people.  Which crimes had Jesus committed against Rome?  He hadn’t committed any.  Pilate twice confessed that Jesus was innocent of all the charges hurled His way (Luke 23:4, 14), but instead of exonerating and then releasing Him, Pilate decided to punish Jesus (by beating) before releasing Him.  Why?  This is what His vocal constituents demanded even though Jesus was blameless before the law.  Rather than declaring Jesus completely innocent, Pilate declared Jesus partly innocent.

I know a church where the pastor resigned because a member of his family was accused of a crime they didn’t commit.  No one in that church moved a finger to right the wrong – until the new pastor came.  When he heard the truth, he arranged for the former pastor to return.  In public, those who falsely accused the pastor admitted their error, the church asked his forgiveness for permitting a grave injustice, and the pastor and church experienced a liberating reconciliation that allowed both parties to move on with God’s blessing.

While politicians apportion blame for conflicts indiscriminately, spiritual leaders apportion blame accurately.

Fourth, politicians don’t seek divine wisdom.  With the Sanhedrin breathing down his neck, Pilate did not seek guidance from Scripture, or a prophet, or prayer.  God tried to speak to him through a dream that He gave Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19), but Pilate brushed off the message.  He was used to making unilateral decisions based on Roman interests + common sense, but both of those touchstones failed him at this juncture.  Had he only looked above instead of around … history might have judged him differently.

I have been all too many board meetings where the board members – who have been chosen primarily because of their walk with God – never even consider consulting God when they get stuck on an issue.  They don’t quote Scripture or turn to key passages.  They don’t stop the meeting to consult with the Lord in prayer.  I have even been in meetings where the meeting wasn’t opened with prayer.  It’s like the Lord isn’t even there.  Board members just discuss issues using worldly wisdom but never truly seek the Lord’s mind on anything.

While politicians consult exclusively with their peers or constituents, spiritual leaders initially seek the Lord’s face on everything.

Finally, politicians want to look good.  They care more about their image than their character.  They care more about how they appear to others than how they appear to God.  John makes a profound statement about many of the Jewish leaders who believed in Jesus but would not confess Him openly: “For they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:43).

Stuart Briscoe from Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin is one of my all-time favorite preachers.  I once heard him make this simple but profound observation: “Most people want to feel good and look good.  They don’t want to be good and do good.”

While politicians are primarily concerned with feeling good and looking good so they can be re-elected, spiritual leaders care more about being good and doing good – even if that means they’re one-termers.

If we’re serious about wanting God’s blessing on our churches, if we truly wish to obey God’s Word, if we want to impact our communities for Jesus, if we want to see revival in our time – then we need to stop making decisions in our churches purely on the basis of politics and start making decisions on the basis of righteousness instead.


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