Posts Tagged ‘conflict in pastoral transitions’

What happens inside a congregation after a pastor has been forcibly terminated?

It might surprise you … and even shock you.

From all I’ve gathered, here are four events that often occur after a pastor has been forced to leave a church:

First, there are immediate attempts to discredit that pastor.

In Season 5 of the hit TV show 24, Karen Hayes and her assistant Miles march into the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and attempt to absorb CTU into Homeland Security.

With CTU Director Bill Buchanan onsite and in their way, the pair get together and concoct a story designed to (a) discredit Buchanan in the eyes of his loyal CTU followers, and (b) provide justification for their own takeover.

But to discredit Bill Buchanan – a man of great integrity and sound judgment – they have to lie about him.  In their minds – because they believe they are better suited to lead CTU than Buchanan – their lie is justified.

I can’t cite any studies on attempts to discredit former pastors, but I’ve heard plenty of stories, and they’re basically the same.  As soon as the pastor leaves, some people begin to slander him.

But the sad part is … few people make any attempt to stop the lies.

But if you permit a lie to be told without correcting it, aren’t you guilty of perpetuating that lie?  And how can God bless your church if there’s such blatant sin in the camp?

Over the past several years, I have been shocked to learn how often Christians – even Christian leaders – lie.  They do this either to discredit another leader or to build up their own accomplishments.

I’m reminded of the time that a pastor near Willow Creek Church was circulating false stories about Bill and Lynne Hybels.  The two of them went directly to that pastor and said, “The things you’re saying about us are tearing our hearts out!”  The lies stopped.

On behalf of every pastor who has been undeservedly forced to leave a church, let me say to those who are spreading falsehoods: “The things you’re saying are tearing our hearts out!”

Please, stop lying about men and women who have been called by God to serve His church.

Second, the interim pastor tries to discredit the previous pastor behind the scenes.

There are several options available to interim pastors after they follow a pastor:

*The interim can ignore the previous pastor.  In their book The Elephant in the Boardroom, Weese and Crabtree write: “It would be refreshing and liberating for many members to hear their pastor speak, in positive terms, the name of the pastor who went before and was referred to as an instrument in God’s plan for building the church.  In reality, the opposite is often the case.  A pastor is sometimes so threatened by the esteem paid to a predecessor that he or she gives the signal to members that they are not to speak about the predecessor in the pastor’s presence.”

A pastor wrote me recently and said that after being forced to resign, the bully responsible for the pastor’s departure told that pastor’s church friends to shun him, which hurt that pastor deeply.  Seven months later, that pastor is still in great turmoil.  But like it or not, the previous pastor’s presence hangs over a church for a long time, so we can’t just pretend that he was never around.

I love the way the San Francisco Giants handle matters with their past managers and players.  As often as they can, they bring them back to honor them just for being a part of the Giants’ family.  Even if a famous manager or player left the Giants under less than optimal conditions, the Giants still attempt to honor them in public.  If secular companies can do this, why can’t churches do this as well?  What about Hebrews 13:7?

*The interim can trash the previous pastor.  Several pastors have contacted me recently and told me how hurt they were to hear that the interim pastor who followed them adopted this approach.  The interim’s attitude seemed to be, “Your pastor deserved to leave this church.  You shouldn’t have any more contact with him.  He shouldn’t even be in the ministry anymore.  I’m your pastor now, so follow me.”

I can understand why an interim pastor – who has a short window in which to try and turn around a leaderless church – would want a congregation’s attention focused away from the previous pastor.  But to do that, must the interim intentionally harm the reputation of the previous pastor and act like that pastor was evil incarnate?  Where do we find this tactic in Scripture?  If the interim trashes the previous pastor, won’t the interim eventually be trashed as well?  (See Matthew 7:1-2.)

*The interim can honor the previous pastor.  This is the approach recommended by Weese and Crabtree who label this approach TLC: talk, listen, and confirm.  They write: “Members and leaders need to confirm that past experiences, including those with a predecessor, make an important contribution to the drama of their lives even when a significant change had to be made.”

They continue: “The operation of the human ego in pastors can work against a healthy pastoral transition.  The ego does not want to ‘adopt’ the effective ministries that were the ‘children’ of the previous pastor; it wants to have its own children. . . .  It is best to think of a pastoral transition as a blended family in which former effective ministries are adopted by the new pastor while new ministries are birthed as well.”

The best way to honor a previous pastor is to speak well of him in public … and to defend him from slander in private … even if he wasn’t perfect.  (Interims aren’t perfect, either.)

Third, some of the people responsible for pushing the pastor out become church leaders.

In fact, those who pushed out the previous pastor will try and cozy up to the interim.  They’ll rip on the previous pastor and tell the interim that he’s just what the church needs … even if they don’t yet know him.

Some interims fall for this approach.  Maybe they no longer feel significant in ministry or they need affirmation or they’re glad to hear that the previous pastor had his foibles.  But then they take this information and embellish it.

However, if they were saner, they’d realize that the people who tried to push out the previous pastor may be at the forefront of pushing out the interim.  People who crave power want it no matter who is leading their church.

In fact, let’s just say it: the bullies responsible for forcing out an innocent pastor should never be allowed to get anywhere near church leadership unless they repent … even if they become bosom buddies with the interim or the next pastor … and the interim/next pastor needs to know all the names of those who pushed out the previous pastor.

I recently asked a pastor this question: “If you became the pastor of a church, and you knew the names of those who pushed out the previous pastor, would you put any of those individuals into leadership?”  My pastor friend didn’t even blink.  He immediately uttered, “No.”

Forgive me, but how can pastors be so stupid?

If Jesus had stayed on the earth 40 years instead of 40 days, and He decided to get the old gang back together, would He have chosen Peter again?

Yes, because Peter repented of the fact he had denied Christ three times.

But do you think Jesus would have put an unrepentant Judas back into leadership?

No way.

And yet in church after church, after the previous pastor has left, Judas is asked to become a church leader … and we wonder why we can’t expand the kingdom of God.

Finally, most of the pastor’s supporters eventually turn on him.

I’m going to share a story that I’ve never told before.

Two months after my wife and I left our last church, I drove by myself back to our old place – a full day’s drive.  Our house was on the market but hadn’t yet sold.  We had left many things behind and needed to transport them to our new home.

I stayed for the last time in our old bedroom.  That night, I walked around our former neighborhood and spotted the house of the individual most responsible for our departure.

I knew who that was and what he had done.  In fact, his wife had called churchgoers in an attempt to harm our reputations.  To this day, I don’t know why he attacked me, although my hunches are probably accurate.

Anyway, I sat on a park bench and prayed for him and his family.  I forgave him and his wife.  I asked God to bless them.

But several months later, this man spent an entire evening running me down in front of friends and supporters even though he had never confronted me to my face.

When he was allowed to do that, I knew what would happen: my wife and I would lose nearly all our friends from that church.

We weren’t there anymore.  We didn’t know what was being said about us,  so we couldn’t adequately defend ourselves.

After this trashing occurred, people who promised they would remain my friends slowly stopped being my friends … and I will probably never see them again this side of heaven.

The trashing was aided and abetted by a Christian leader who should have known better.  He knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.  He was scapegoating me for the entire conflict.

After this happened, I contacted some friends from that church, but their attitude toward me had changed.  They were done with me, and I knew it.  They have made zero attempts to renew our friendship.

What hurts the most is not that we’ve lost friends, but that friends who once believed in us seem to have sided with our critics.

We still have a few friends in that community, and because they’ve remained with us through thick and thin, they will probably always be our friends, for which we’re grateful.

I can accept the fact that when a pastor and his wife move away from a church community, the pastor and his wife … as well as their church friends … will all make new friends … and gradually drop some of their old friends.

But I refuse to believe that God supports the trashing of a Christian leader’s reputation when that leader is not guilty of any major offense.

When I was nineteen years old – and had only been a youth pastor for two weeks – I learned about some sexual shenanigans that involved top leaders in my church.  I was devastated.

My pastor – who later became my father-in-law – told me that night, “Jim, don’t ever be shocked by what Christians do.”

Over the years, I’ve tried to take his advice … but forgive me if I’m still shocked by how Christians behave during pastoral transitions.

Because if Christians preach that every person is made in the image of God … and that God loves every one of us … and that Christ died for every person … and that God isn’t finished with any of us yet … then how can Jesus’ people trash Christian leaders – especially those who aren’t present to defend themselves?

Let’s play on Jesus’ team … and not on Satan’s.

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and information about upcoming seminars.

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