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Posts Tagged ‘forced exits for pastors’

I love the fall.  It’s my favorite time of year.

But I don’t like the last eight days of October.

Because on Saturday, October 24, 2009, at an 8:00 am board meeting, events were set in motion that forced me to leave a church I had loved and served for 10 1/2 years.

In case you’ve stumbled upon this blog for the first time, my name is Jim, and I was a pastor for 36 years.  I’m a graduate of Biola College (now University), Talbot Seminary (now School of Theology), and Fuller Seminary, where I earned my Doctor of Ministry degree in church conflict in 2007.

For many years, I pastored the largest Protestant church in a city of 75,000 people.  We built a new worship center on our small, one-acre campus and successfully reached people who weren’t going to church.

But six years ago this week, I went through a horrendous conflict that ultimately led to my resignation.  I wrote a book about my experience called Church Coup.  The book was published in April 2013 and is on Amazon if you’re interested.

Since that conflict, I’ve written 475 blog posts, most of them on pastoral termination.  And over the past few years, I’ve written a special blog whenever October 24 comes around.  Call it self-therapy.

I feel great liberty in discussing this topic openly because (a) I will never be a pastor again, and (b) I have already lost nearly all of my friends from that church.

This year, I’d like to ask and answer seven questions about my experience in hopes that my story might give greater perspective to the issue of pastoral termination in the wider Christian community.

Why do you think you were pushed out as pastor?

There are multiple answers to this question.

Financially, after two great years, our church had a rough year in 2009.  The shortfall wasn’t anybody’s fault.  We were behind budget all year, but we had plenty of funds in reserve to carry us through.

There was no need to panic.  But some people became overly-anxious, and began to overreact to a situation that nearly every church was experiencing that year.

We also had a church board with the wrong combination of individuals.  They were all good people, but three were new to the board, and everyone was younger than me, so we lacked veteran leadership.  The board member who always had my back moved away, and two other seasoned laymen were on hiatus from the board.

So there wasn’t an experienced, calming influence in the group.  I believe the board interpreted some things I said in the worst possible light, overreacted to the financial shortfall, and chose a course of action designed to rid them of anxiety but that ended up causing great harm to many people, including the board members themselves and half the church staff.

Three Christian leaders later told me that for years, I had been undermined by a prominent ex-leader who had left the church years before.  I knew it was taking place, and could pinpoint those who were being influenced, but without proof, I chose to ignore the behavior.  This ex-leader advised the church board during the conflict, but his counsel backfired.

Then the mob mentality seized the congregation.  There were all kinds of charges thrown at me, and enough people believed them that I couldn’t stay.

I counsel pastors and church leaders about the conflicts in their congregations, and the situation that I experienced ranks in the Top 5 Worst Conflicts I’ve ever heard about.  A former pastor and seminary professor told me, “You’ve been to hell and back.”

I’m still coming back.

What impact has the conflict had on you and your family over the years?

I’ve always done my best to be authentic … to share how I really feel … yet to do so with love and civility.  Although I will continue that practice, I’m doing so with much restraint.

*I wonder why God didn’t protect my wife from being spiritually assaulted.  I watched helplessly as my wife … who has done more good for the cause of Christ than most of my detractors put together … was attacked in a brutal and destructive fashion by the enemy.  She was diagnosed with PTSD and told not to work for one year.  I would gladly have taken bullets for her, but she took them for me instead.

*I wonder why the generous and gracious congregation that I served for years turned into a place of betrayal, false accusations, and character assassination overnight.  The mercy, grace, and love of God vanished from the congregation, as did forgiveness and truth.  People who attended the church after we left told me that the church was never the same after the conflict occurred.

*I wonder why we still find it hard to trust churches as institutions.  Over the past six years, my wife and I have had three church homes (18 months in one church, 18 months in another church, 3 months in a church I served as an interim).  We’ve also spent nearly three of those years looking for a church home.  We’ve probably visited close to 75 churches during that time span (we visited another new church last Sunday) but have felt uncomfortable in most Christian churches.  Will that discomfort ever go away?

*I wonder why we’ve had to suffer so much financially.  When the conflict broke out, our personal finances were pristine, and we owned a house.  We’ve rented six places since then, and my wife and I will have to work well past full retirement age just to survive in the future.

What impact has your book Church Coup had?

When I wrote the book, I wanted to make a contribution to the field of church conflict and pastoral termination and believe that I’ve done that.

The book has sold several more times than the average Christian book, and I’m pleased with the number of reviews I have on Amazon.  However, I’d like to remove the lone one-star review because I don’t think the reviewer read the book at all.

Dr. Archibald Hart from Fuller Seminary told me he would include the book in the reading list for his classes at Fuller.  A colleague from Pennsylvania quoted from my book in his Doctor of Ministry project.  A pastor I’ve never met has recommended the book to church leaders.  It’s a niche book, but those who need it will find it.  (I spoke on the phone yesterday with a church leader who told me that he wished he had found the book sooner so he could have used it during his church’s conflict.)

I once met with a sales rep from a Christian publisher.  He told me that I’d need to shorten the book to 150 pages for it to be stocked in Christian bookstores, but I’m glad I wrote the book I wanted to write … although I wonder why there are more than 20 used copies on Amazon!

Have you heard from any of the people you mention in the book?

Just a handful.  I think that the conflict we endured was so painful that nobody wants to relive it.

*Some of my detractors have read the book but don’t seem to recognize themselves.

*Most people decided on the narrative they wanted to believe years ago, so the book changed few people’s minds.

*If I had published the book six months after I’d left my last church, it might have had a positive impact, but because I waited more than three years, most people had moved on emotionally.

*I had already cut ties with 80% of the people I mentioned in the book, so little that I wrote affected those friendships.  I didn’t write a book and then lose friends; I lost friends and then wrote the book.

Have any of your detractors made contact with you?

No.  There were nine people most responsible for trying to force me out, and not one has ever contacted me directly.  One did relay a message to me indirectly through a friend.

Another detractor was a friend for 22 years.  He had attended my ordination and even signed my certificate.  We have never spoken since he involved himself in trying to undermine me.  I’ve been told on good authority why he tried to push me out but I’ve never revealed that information publicly.  Although his backroom maneuverings temporarily succeeded, scores of people were harmed by his efforts.

In some termination situations, the church board loves the pastor personally, but feel he needs to leave for the church’s benefit.  In other situations, the pastor is doing a good job, but someone on the board despises the pastor personally, and that hatred spreads to others – usually including the church board – which uses “official charges” as a smokescreen for personal hatred.

Six years after the fact, I remain convinced that the attempt to push me out was personal and motivated by revenge.  I did not do anything rising to the level of official termination nor did I deserve how I was treated after 10 1/2 years of faithful service.  While it feels good to say that, I’ve had to endure a myriad of false charges, most surfacing after I left the church … and my guess is that most people who said cruel things had no idea their words would get back to me.

Some people from my former church read this blog when I first came out.  My guess is that almost none of them read it anymore.

I don’t want to hurt people the way they hurt me.  I have a story to tell, and I’m going to do so as often and as long as God uses it.  But I’m not going to mention anybody’s name in public.

In my blog, I usually don’t reveal the names of people whose stories I recount because I don’t want their names to pop up in a search engine.  If anybody really wants me to identify someone, and it’s appropriate, I will do so privately.  For example, a friend recently wrote me and asked for the names of the experts who advised me on when to terminate the pastor of a declining church.  I felt comfortable sharing that information with him because he’s trustworthy, but I’m very careful with names … unless I mention someone that I admire.

What were some of the charges against you?

In consultation with respected church members, I hired a church consultant who came to the church for a weekend.  He interviewed staff, met with the transition team, and attended two public informational meetings.  He later told me that those meetings were among the worst he has ever seen, so he witnessed the destruction firsthand.

He wrote a report stating that my wife and I had a future in ministry and that certain members had acted “extremely and destructively.”

Two Sundays after my wife and I left the church for good, a 9-person team publicly stated that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on our part.

But that just made some people angrier.  They had to win … even if it meant destroying the reputation of their former pastor.

Let me share just one example of a charge that was floating around my last church.

Before that board meeting on October 24, my wife and I had traveled to Eastern Europe on a church-sponsored mission trip, but someone was telling people that we hadn’t paid for our share of expenses.

After the mission part was over, our team flew to London to rest and see the sights for several days.  (Nearly all mission teams do something similar.)

We put all of the charges for our hotel and meals in London on the church credit card.  Then when our team returned home, the charges would be converted from British pounds to American dollars (there’s usually a lag in this process) … the charges would be divided up among various team members … and we’d all reimburse the church for our personal expenses.

This was standard operating procedure whenever a mission team went overseas.

But we didn’t find out the charges for more than a month.  As soon as we found out, we reimbursed the church immediately.

But one of my detractors was running around telling people that we never paid the church back for those charges … implying that we stole money from the church … and God only knows how many people believed that.

Do you see how subtle such accusations can be?

There are other charges floating around in the ether that I’ve heard about that are just as false.  They have caused my wife and me great sorrow over the years.

Here’s what bothers me: the charges were circulating around the church long before I heard about them or had the chance to respond to them.  People were leaking information and trying to impugn my character without ever giving me a chance to respond.  There was no forum made available where I could answer the charges made against me … and this happens in most churches.  It’s one of the least attractive truisms in Christian ministry.

I could never treat anyone else that way, especially a pastor.  Could you?

When the charges began circulating, I needed to know who was making them and exactly what they were saying.  Then I should have been given the chance to respond, and the charges should have been dismissed.

The problem was … and is … that when people are trying to destroy you, they will continually find charges to throw at you until you leave.  And after you leave, they manufacture new charges designed to alleviate their own guilty consciences, to make them believe that their mistreatment of their pastor was justified.

Where do we find this kind of practice in the New Testament?

We don’t.

What have you learned about pastoral termination over the past six years?

I probably had an average amount of conflict over the years in that church as exemplified by the fact that I never seriously considered resigning.  I worked hard to resolve every issue and conflict that came my way.

But then a conflict surfaced … and “ended” … in just 50 days.

Yet during those 50 days, I went through a wide range of experiences – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – so I have both a broad and deep range of firsthand understanding about pastoral termination.

Let me recommend three practices that are biblical and that a church’s leaders must institute whenever a pastor is under attack:

*Whenever a pastor is publicly charged with wrongdoing, he needs to answer his detractors publicly and quickly or people will assume he’s guilty.

I was publicly accused of some charges in two informational meetings 15 days after the conflict surfaced.  I was told by our church consultant (who attended both meetings) that I could not answer any charges made against me, and I promised him that I wouldn’t.  But when I didn’t respond to the charges, some people assumed they were true.

If I had to do it over again, I would have listed the accusations made against me and responded to them in writing after those meetings had concluded.  If people tried to argue with me after that, I probably wouldn’t have responded further.  But when I didn’t say anything at all, I was pronounced “guilty” in many people’s minds.  To many people, silence = guilt.

*Church leaders need to do their best to protect the reputation of their previous pastors. 

Sad to say, there is a stigma in Christian circles concerning pastors who have undergone a forced termination.  Even though it’s 6 1/2 times more likely that a pastor is pushed out because of a faction in the church than his own sinful conduct, the Christian community tends to turn its back on its wounded warriors.

To this day, I’m shocked and disappointed that leaders in my former church allowed my reputation to be trashed during the year after I left.  Some might have answered charges against me privately, but it needed to be done publicly and firmly.  One person in particular allowed the charges to be spread.  May God forgive him.

*An unjust pastoral termination hurts not just the pastor and his family, but can damage a church for years to come. 

Doesn’t David admit in Psalm 32 that he suffered physically and spiritually until he acknowledged his sin to God?  Doesn’t this same principle apply to churches as well?

There were attempts after I left to smooth over what happened, but no one was given the opportunity to repent for their part in assaulting their pastor.  In my opinion, a church can never fully heal until its leaders reveal the truth about what really happened and allow people to confess to wrongdoing.  Until that happens, the memory of that conflict is hidden in its walls … and will assuredly damage its soul.

I realize that some people are going to say, “Methinks he doth protest too much.”  Maybe so.  But I’ve sensed God calling me to be transparent about the events that happened to me so I can help those He brings my way.

If you or a pastor you know is presently under attack, and you could benefit from an understanding ear and some counsel, please write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org and we can either converse via email or set up an appointment on the phone.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.  1 Peter 5:10

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