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Posts Tagged ‘denominational support of pastors’

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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A wise old pastor once warned me to avoid “the kiss of death.”

The kiss of death for a pastor isn’t administered by a woman … or a governing board … or a government agency.

No, the kiss of death occurs when a pastor resigns his position without anywhere else to go … because when churches are looking for a pastor, they prefer to call one who is already serving in a church rather than one who is in secular work or unemployed.

I nearly experienced the kiss of death in my second pastorate.

The church I served as pastor was the result of a merger between two churches … and I had led one of those churches.

The church board and I went on a retreat in the mountains.  We evaluated the entire ministry, including ways to improve everything we did.

This included the music ministry.

The board agreed to allow a band of young men to play for our services on Sunday mornings and evenings.

(The mother of the board chairman liked the band so much that when she died, she requested they play at her memorial service.)

However, when we made this change, I warned the board in advance that some people weren’t going to like it.

And I was right.

One middle-aged couple in particular became incensed about the music.  The wife refused to come to church.  Her husband eventually stayed home as well.

One year later, this antagonist contacted my district minister to complain about me.  By this time, he had gathered together a small but vocal contingent of people who viewed me as the antichrist.

One night, my district minister and I had a conversation in which he recommended that I resign to keep the peace in the church.

However, the entire board had told me that if I resigned, they would all resign along with me … leaving the church in the hands of the antagonists … who didn’t have a collective clue as to how to run a church.

Fortunately, the board stood with me … but the district leadership wilted.

For years, this scenario has played itself out in thousands of churches:

*The district leaders of a denomination hold a training time for pastors.

*The pastors are encouraged to institute changes in their churches so they will grow numerically.

*The changes always involve taking risks … and such risk-taking always angers some attendees.

*Those attendees who are angry about the changes don’t speak directly with their pastor about their feelings.

*Instead, they go around the pastor and form a faction inside the church designed to oust the pastor … threatening to boycott services and withhold giving unless their demands are met.

*In the process, someone in their group calls the district minister and complains to him about the pastor, intimating that the pastor is so divisive and/or ineffective that he should be removed from office.

*The district minister listens to the complainers, ends up taking their side, and then recommends that the pastor resign to keep peace in the church.

That’s exactly what happened to me 25 years ago.

Here’s the problem, however.  For any church to grow:

*The pastor needs to assume leadership.

*Leadership involves taking risks.

*Risk-taking always provokes change.

*Change always provokes anxiety and even anger.

*And those reactions are always aimed at the leader … in this case, the pastor.

*If the pastor receives support from the church’s governing board, he will survive and the church has the best chance for success.

*The pastor also needs support from his “superior,” whether that’s a district minister or a bishop.

*But if either the board or the district collapses on the pastor, he may be forced to resign.

I’ve recently been reading an insightful and motivating book on denominational leadership at the district level.

It’s called Hit the Bullseye by former denominational executive Paul Borden.

Borden says that district leaders need to become coaches for pastors, who need to become better leaders in their churches.

And if this occurs, Borden writes about district leadership:

“We are also willing to confront those congregations and congregational leaders (the emotional terrorists) who for years have chewed up pastors and spit them out.  We have confronted both pastors and congregations even though it has cost the region the loss of financial support.”

That last statement takes great courage to implement.  One of the reasons district leaders side with a church over against their pastor is to keep donations to the district flowing.

Borden continues:

“Finally, we are adamant about not letting the region be used to promote congregational triangulation, which allows laity to condemn pastors anonymously.  If any lay leaders call the region to complain about their pastor those leaders are told they must first confront their pastor before we will become involved in offering assistance, if that is required.”

Borden goes on to say that “congregational transformation will create tremendous conflict in dysfunctional, dying churches” and that “the worst thing that can happen in the midst of such conflict is mediation, since the conflict is more about the transfer of power and who will lead the congregation, than individuals or groups not being able to get along.”

Let me tell you one reason why so many churches aren’t growing and so many pastors are ineffective.

It’s because pastors instinctively know that for a church to grow, they’ll have to take risks … and if they do, they may very well end up standing alone without any support … because many Christian leaders will not stand up to emotional terrorism.

Will you?

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