Posts Tagged ‘leaving a church’

While going through some old church files recently, I stumbled upon a folder I forgot I had.

The folder contained documentation related to a couple who had once left a church I pastored.  I’ll call them Harry and Mary.

Harry came to Christ under my ministry.  A while later, I married him to Mary, a long-time Christian.  They attended several small groups that I led.

I even invited Harry over to watch the Super Bowl with me one year.

During premarital counseling, I discovered that Mary struggled with a particular issue.  While I made suggestions on how to manage things, there didn’t appear to be a long-term solution at hand.

Then one Sunday morning, I made a strong statement from the pulpit that reflected a value I held dear.  I could have said it better, but I explained it and moved on.

But I had hit a nerve with Harry and Mary.  They were incensed at what I had said.

Harry and Mary were part of a group that met after the first service.  When they entered the room, they immediately began criticizing me to a new couple.

That new couple never returned.

I don’t remember receiving flak from anyone else after making my statement, but Harry would not let me forget it.

He made an appointment with me in my office and wanted me to apologize for the statement that I made while preaching.

If he had said, “Jim, I appreciate your ministry.  I enjoy your preaching and have learned a lot about the Bible from you.  But that statement you made really stung, and here’s why,” I probably would have said, “Harry, I still believe in what I said, but I admit to you I could have said it better.”

But that’s not what Harry did.  He demanded an immediate apology.

Some pastors would have apologized on the spot.  Others would have stood their ground.

I tend to come from the “stand your ground” group.

And all I could think of was, “If I apologize this time for something I said while preaching, is he going to demand more apologies in the future?”

If I apologized, I was extremely concerned about the precedent I would be sending.

So I tried to explain rather than apologize … but that wasn’t enough for Harry.

He and his wife wrote a letter to the church board.  The chairman listened to the recording of my message.

The board’s conclusion: I hadn’t said anything wrong.

The board unanimously stood behind me, and Harry and Mary fired off another letter to the board, letting them know in detail why they were leaving the church.

Pastors would rather gather sheep than drive sheep away, but when sheep begin to threaten the shepherd, the shepherd must enforce boundaries.

Let me make four statements about people who threaten to leave a church:

First, making threats is a power move, not a love move.

Several years ago, I traced the English words “threat,” “threats,” and “threatening” throughout both Testaments and could not find a single instance in which those terms were used in a positive manner in Scripture.

When someone threatens us, they promise, “If you do A, I will do B” or “If you don’t do A, I will do B.”

Using a threat implies that the person making it (a) is superior to the person being threatened, and (b) views himself or herself as being indispensable.

While our world often operates by threats, that’s not the picture we receive in Scripture of how relationships operate in the body of Christ.

If I could do it all over again, I would have told Harry, “When you threaten me, I feel defensive and resistant.  If you’ll calm down and rephrase how you feel, I can hear you better.”

Second, making threats damages innocent people.

I once served on a church staff and was approached by someone who told me, “If the pastor doesn’t start doing Such-and-Such, ten percent of the people in this church are going to leave.”

That wasn’t a warning … that was a threat.

Based upon our attendance at the time, ten percent equaled 25 or 30 people.

That’s a lot of attendees … a lot of volunteers … and a lot of givers.  If they all left, it might take several years to replace them, and that can cause a pastor … or staffer … to panic.

My experience tells me that only a handful of those 25-30 people really felt strongly about the issue.  In fact, the likelihood is that most people agreed to join the cause simply to support their friends.

Knowing what I know now, I would have told the person making the threat, “This isn’t the best way to handle this situation.  Can you identify for me the two or three people who are most upset by this issue?”

If given their names, I would have said, “Chances are this is just their concern.  If this is a personal matter, I encourage someone to go and speak with the pastor directly.  If this is a policy matter, I encourage someone to go and speak with a board member directly.  But I encourage you to stop speaking for anyone who is unwilling to go directly to the pastor or the board.”

Suggesting a wiser course of action may not always work, but it’s worth a try.

Third, making threats works all too often.

This is why people do it … at least, at church.

People would never make similar threats at work, or at a government office, but they’ll do it with God’s people.  Why?

Peter Steinke writes in his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times that when some people use aggression and anger at church:

“Peace mongering is common.  With tranquility and stability reigning as premium values, congregational leaders adapt to their most recalcitrant and immature people, allowing them to use threats and tantrums as levers of influence.  Malcontents’ complaints never seem to cease.  Unwilling to confront the constant critic, leaders set the table for the unhappy souls to have a movable feast of anxiety.  By appeasing rather than opposing, leaders give control to reactive forces.  Feed them once and leaders can be sure they will be back for more.”

Of course, that’s the problem when threats work: it’s guaranteed those same threats will be used again.

Finally, making threats should never be rewarded.

Once Harry went to power … and refused to shift into love mode … I knew what the outcome was going to be: he and his wife were going to end up leaving the church.

For a few weeks, they sapped the energy out of the congregation, the church board, and their pastor.

More than 95 percent of our congregation liked the church the way it was.  People were growing spiritually and excited about our future.

But the more the board and I engaged with Harry and Mary behind closed doors, the less effective we were in ministering to the rest of the church.

Because of the energy sap, and because most people who make threats are never satisfied, I believe that most pastors and boards should handle similar situations swiftly but firmly by saying:

“We have listened to your complaints.  We have made a decision, and we cannot support the way you have handled things.  You have a choice: either stay at the church and support the ministry, or feel free to leave.  The choice is up to you.”

Pastors should never make threats, either, and those that do should be given the opportunity to rephrase their threat.  But if a pastor consistently says, “If you don’t do this my way, I will resign,” then a church board may reluctantly have to say, “Pastor, we don’t reward threats, so if that’s your final decision, we’ll accept your resignation.”

As a pastor, I hated it when people left the church, and tended to take it personally.

But sometimes, the best possible outcome is for unhappy people to walk out the door and never return … especially if they unwisely use threats.

And when people who use such tactics leave, throw a party!

I always did.













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One of the most common emails I receive goes something like this:

“I love my church, and have been attending for many years.  I have many friends there … my family loves going … and I have a meaningful place of service.  But my pastor is driving me crazy.  He doesn’t listen to suggestions … responds harshly to the slightest criticism … manipulates people and situations … attacks critics from the pulpit … and presides over a declining church with no meaningful plans for turning things around.  I’ve tried to meet with the pastor and express my concerns, but he doesn’t seem to hear me.  I’m really torn up about this issue.  What should I do?”

Yes, there are chronic complainers in every church, but I don’t sense these people fit that description.  Most complainers aren’t seeking solutions … they just want to receive attention by venting.  But the people who write me really want to know what to do.

If this is how you feel about your pastor, let me offer five options for resolving matters … and this is not an exhaustive list:

First, stay and stew. 

Many people who are frustrated with their pastor get up every Sunday morning … get dressed … take their family to church … become upset all over again by their pastor’s announcements or sermon or manner … and go home even more frustrated than before.

Sometimes, their family members agree with their views.  Other times, they’re the only one in the family who feels the way they do.

These people contemplate leaving their church, but don’t feel they can because (a) key family members still love the church, (b) they still have meaningful friendships there, and (c) they’re still engaged in significant ministry.

So they feel helpless … trapped, even … like they’re forced to stay at a place where they’re increasingly miserable.

But that’s just not the case.  You don’t have to attend your church on autopilot every week.

You have a choice.

You can go … or not go … and that’s up to you.  God has given you the ability to decide where you attend church, and you don’t have to go where you’ve gone for years.

Staying and stewing isn’t going to resolve your dilemma, but it is a choice.

But does God want you hurting and unfulfilled for years?

Second, pray that the pastor will change.

A church leader wrote me months ago wanting to know how he could convince his pastor to change his behavior.

I told him that his desire was ultimately futile, although that’s not what he wanted to hear.

When a pastor comes to a church, his basic character and personality have already been formed.  Pastors aren’t four-year-old kids who can still be molded by their parents.  What you see is usually what you get.

If a pastor is an introvert, he’s not going to become an extrovert.

If a pastor is short, he’s not going to become tall.

If a pastor is sensitive (and most are), he’s not going to become tough overnight.

If a pastor loves the Giants (as I do), he’s not going to become a Dodgers fan.

A wise board member once told me that Christians shouldn’t play Holy Spirit in each other’s lives.  It takes time for the Holy Spirit to prompt change in your life … and it takes time for the Spirit to change pastors, too.

Pastors can and do change outwardly.  They can change their appearance … utilize new expressions … add humor to their messages … become less intense … and learn to speak more slowly.

And God can and does change pastors from the inside out … but it’s a work that He does rather than something that we do … and it’s always done on His timetable.

Most of the time, pastors don’t change very much, if at all.  If a pastor changed to make you happy, that change might make someone else unhappy.

The truth is that the great majority of people in your church are happy with who your pastor is.  That’s why they attend.

Better to say, “Lord, I’m going to stay in this church and let You change our pastor” than to say, “Lord, I’m only going to stay in our church if the pastor changes … hopefully tomorrow.”

Third, leave the church abruptly … maybe angrily.

Last year, I attended a local megachurch three times.  I liked it less each time I went.

On my third visit, I felt that the pastor was manipulating people to receive Christ so he could have enough people to baptize later that afternoon.

The manipulation really bothered me … as it always does … so I stopped attending.

That’s easy to do when you’ve only invested three Sundays of your life.  It’s much more difficult when you’ve invested hundreds of Sundays and thousands of dollars in a specific ministry.

But I’ve known people who left a church suddenly.  They didn’t like something the pastor said … or the pastor’s announced plans for the future … or the way a staff member was fired … and so they told themselves, “I’m never going to that church again.”

In my second pastorate, the board and I agreed that we would update the music and begin singing praise and worship songs on Sunday mornings.  A board member’s wife immediately stopped coming, and then her husband stopped, too.

And boy, were they angry!  They made lots of noise on their way out the door … which spoke volumes about their character.

I believe that leaving a church abruptly and angrily isn’t a great option, but it is an option.  If you’re miserable when you hear your pastor preach on Sunday, you can end the misery immediately.

Just don’t go back … ever.

But leaving suddenly usually means giving up many of your friends … surrendering your ministries … and disappointing your family.

It’s doable, but maybe not preferable.

Fourth, conspire with others to force out the pastor.

Start complaining about your pastor … frequently and loudly.  It won’t take long before you find others who agree with you and have been waiting for someone to voice their feelings.

I can tell you exactly how to get rid of your pastor, but unless he’s guilty of heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior, I’d leave this decision up to the official leaders.

However, most people who write me have already rejected this option.  If they really wanted to force out their pastor, they would just do it rather than look for other solutions.

If you’re thinking about leading a rebellion against your pastor, though, let me warn you: you may destroy your church … your pastor … his family … and your own spiritual life.

This may be a destructive option, but it is an option … and sadly, one that’s increasingly common these days.

Finally, find a church where you can grow spiritually.

There used to be a group that believed that according to the New Testament, there was only one God-sanctioned local church in every city (for example, the church at Corinth, the church at Ephesus, and so on) and that their churches were the only legitimate churches in every city.

But my guess is that in your community, there are many more churches around than just the one you’re attending.

Being a member of a church isn’t like taking marriage vows.  You don’t have to be committed to one church for life.

If the pastor continually frustrates you … if you go home on Sundays feeling crazy and confused … you don’t have to keep going back to that church.

Rather than leaving suddenly, the better way to handle things might be to visit some other churches in your area.

You might attend your church one Sunday … then another church the next Sunday … then your church … then another church … and so on.  That way, you keep a presence in your church, and you no longer feel trapped.

If you really like a church, go back several times.  If you’re married, invite your spouse along and solicit their opinion.

In my experience, it takes at least six months to find a new church home.  The whole process can drive you crazy.  No church has everything you want.

But the smaller the church, the more important it is that you like the pastor, because in many smaller churches, the church revolves around the pastor.  If you don’t like a pastor or his preaching, cross that church off your list.

I don’t know why, but this is a step that many Christians just don’t want to take.  Looking for another church makes them feel disloyal.

But this is a short life.  God wants us fulfilled, not frustrated.

There are three questions that I believe every pastor-frustrated person needs to answer honestly:

*What is the pastor’s plan for growing this church?  Can I get behind it?

If the pastor doesn’t have a plan, or his plan doesn’t inspire people, your church is headed for some rough days.

*How much am I growing spiritually here?  If I’m not, is there somewhere else where I can grow?

Church life isn’t primarily about friendships and ministries.  It’s about deepening and enhancing our walk with God.  My guess is that most people who are upset with their pastor stopped growing spiritually a long time ago.  Will staying or leaving stimulate that process more?

*What does God want me to do about attending here in the future?  If He wants me to go … or stay … or change … will I completely obey Him?

My wife and I got married a month before I entered seminary.  Her father married us in our home church.  I had been his youth pastor for two years.  We wanted to stay there a long time.

But barely a month after we were married, we left … and went to a sister church several miles away.

Some of my friends from my former church were really upset with me.  They felt I was being disloyal … and after throwing us a big wedding, even ungrateful.

But circumstances had changed, and we had changed.  I needed to start over again, to make new friends, to find a healthier place where I could serve.

Maybe we left our old church too soon, but God abundantly blessed our decision.

I was eventually hired as a staff member and later ordained in that new church.

God will abundantly bless your decision, too.



















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Many interesting events have occurred on October 24 throughout history:

*Jane Seymour, third wife of King Henry VIII of England, died 12 days after childbirth in 1537.

*The 40-hour work week began in the Unites States in 1940.

*The charter of the United Nations officially came into effect in 1945.

*The great Dodger Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson, died at age 53 in 1972.

*The Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, in Game 6 to win the 1992 World Series.

But on a more personal note, events that surfaced on October 24, 2009 signified the conclusion of a fruitful church ministry for my wife Kim and me, which I’ve detailed in my book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict.  (If you don’t have a copy, you can order one by clicking on the picture on the right.)

Since we resigned and left the church in December 2009, I’ve started a blog (303 articles and counting), formed a non-profit ministry, written a book, conducted seminars on addressing conflict biblically, and counseled lay leaders, staff members, and pastors who are undergoing conflict in their churches.

I plan to continue doing this – and much more – as long as God gives me breath.

But I’ve never celebrated online the wonderful ministry that my wife Kim and I enjoyed for nearly that entire 10 1/2-year period.  In all my writing, I’ve never even mentioned the name of the church where we served or the city where it’s located … and that policy will continue.

Most of the time, my memory won’t allow me to mentally navigate to any time before 2009.  But just looking through pictures of happier times evokes a positive emotional reaction for me, which is why I’m glad I took thousands of photos documenting our ministry.

Rather than recount the pain, today I’d like to remember times, events, and people that the Lord blessed … and that once again bring a smile to my face.


In 1999, the Lord led my wife Kim and me to a church that we didn’t really want to serve.  The church building was invisible from the street and located at the end of a long parking lot (behind the trees in the photo) … and yet perched on a beautiful lagoon.

BFCC Building Pictures August 26, 2005 006IMG_0486

A group of 29 parties banded together and donated funds for us to have a down payment on a house … just 30 seconds from the water.

Bay Farm Bridge & Environs Aug. 17, 2007 066Bay Farm Photos Dec. 14-16, 2009 085

The Lord blessed the ministry to the extent that we became the largest Protestant church in our city and eventually built a worship center on the church’s small, one acre property.

BFCC Building Pictures Oct. 10, 2005 038BFCC Building Pictures Oct. 10, 2005 016BFCC Grand Opening Sunday Nov. 6, 2005 011

Several years later, 785 people attended our two worship services on Easter … more than maximizing the small campus.  That year, the congregation donated nearly a million dollars to the ministry.

BFCC Easter March 23, 2008 034

We hosted many outreach events on our campus, like Summer Bible Camp for kids …

BFCC Summer Bible Camp Finale July 17, 2009 013 BFCC Summer Bible Camp Finale July 13, 2007 085

and Western Fall Fun Fest for families every Halloween.

BFCC Fall Fun Fest October 31, 2007 092 BFCC Fall Fun Fest 2008 120BFCC Fall Fun Fest October 31, 2007 123BFCC Fall Fun Fest 2008 107

We penetrated our community by marching in the city’s annual Fourth of July Parade, passing out literature about our ministry, and even winning several trophies.

IMG_0138 IMG_0152BFCC 4th of July Parade 2008 150BFCC 4th of July Parade 2008 164

Our church also took four mission trips to Moldova.  The first time, I taught a course on Christian marriage – the final course in a 3-year leadership training program – with the graduates pictured below.


Three years later, I taught pastors and leaders in Moldova how to manage conflict in their ministries … right before walking into my own conflict back home.

Moldova Photos 1 Oct. 2009 490Moldova Photos 1 Oct. 2009 491

Kim also led two teams to Kenya, culminating in generous donations from our congregation and community for the building of a well in a remote village many hours from Nairobi.  Kim led a team for the dedication of the well.  In the photo below, Pastor Peter obtains water from the well, and then …

IMG_0740 IMG_0472

Kim meets Stephen Musyoka, who was then Vice President of Kenya.  He flew into the village via helicopter for the dedication.


One of the great things about Kim is that she adapts to any situation, whether it’s joking with a VP …


speaking in front of a village …


or sharing the gospel using the Wordless Book.


Throughout the entire 10 1/2 years at the church, Kim and I served as a team.  Our daughter Sarah came around at key times as well.

Easter @ BFCC April 8, 2007 024BFCC Mystery on the Menu Event 001024

In retrospect, it’s good that I left the church when I did.  While I’m still not crazy about how we left, God will handle those things.

My friend and mentor Dr. Charles Chandler says that while a church can take your job, they can never take your calling.   That’s certainly true.

But there’s something else that no person or group can ever take away: the hundreds of lives that were changed through that ministry.

When I first entered Talbot Seminary in 1975, my initial class was with Dr. Charles Feinberg, who was a legend in Christian circles.

Dr. Feinberg told our class, “If you can do anything other than being a pastor, do it.”

I’ve felt that way many times!

But I’m glad for the 36 years that God allowed me to serve him in pastoral ministry.

And I’m grateful that God now allows me to help other pastors and churches navigate their way through conflict situations.

It’s my personality to draw on past experiences to help others … and yet none of us can afford to dwell on the past too much.

As baseball immortal Satchel Paige used to say, “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”

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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