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Posts Tagged ‘pastor-church conflict’

Of the 450 or so blog posts that I’ve written, this is one of my favorites.  It’s based on the film High Noon starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly and is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.  If you’ve never seen it, I encourage you to check it out … I saw it offered on Netflix the other night … and to ponder its relevance for the Christian church.

Toward the end of the last millennium, the American Film Institute produced a list of the Top 100 Films of All-Time.  Since I was unfamiliar with most of them, I systematically visited the local video store and checked out as many as I could.

One of those films was High Noon – now listed by the Institute as the 27th greatest film ever.

Last night, through the magic of Roku, my wife and I watched the film again.

Gary Cooper stars as Marshal Will Kane.  (My brother John has lived for years in Montana on land once owned by Gary Cooper.)  As the film opens, it’s Kane’s wedding day.  He’s marrying Amy (played by Grace Kelly).

But as they’re ready to leave on their honeymoon, Kane and his wife learn that the dreaded Frank Miller has been released from prison … and is coming to town on the noontime train … to wreak vengeance on the marshal who put him behind bars.

As evidence of this fact, Miller’s brother and two cohorts ride through the middle of town toward the train depot while all the townspeople scatter.

Marshal Kane is advised to hightail it out of town with his bride and not look back.  After all, a new marshal is scheduled to take over the next day.  Let him handle the Ferocious Four.

Kane is torn.  On the one hand, everybody’s telling him to leave town with Amy … so that’s what he does.  But five minutes outside town, he turns around and goes back, telling Amy that they’ll never be safe if he doesn’t confront Frank Miller and his boys now.

As I watched the film with fascination, I saw many parallels between the way people reacted to the conflict inside their town and the way churchgoers respond to open conflict at their church:

First, everyone feels anxious when a group’s leader experiences an attack.

The opening scenes of High Noon show a town that’s been rejuvenated.  The people of the town are having fun and laughing.

But when Ben Miller (Frank’s younger brother) and his two buddies ride through town, everybody gets off the street and hides.

The town became a happy place because of the work done by Marshal Kane.  He’s the one who cleaned up the streets and made the place safe for women and children.

But as anxiety rises in the town, people begin to engage in self-preservation.

When a group – and it’s always a group – attacks a pastor, the entire church senses something is wrong.

Sometimes people can tell a pastor is under attack because he’s no longer himself.  He lowers his head, doesn’t smile, and seems jittery.

Other times, people start to hear rumors about the pastor – or charges by people who don’t like him.

And as anxiety begins to spread around the church, people start heading for the tall grass.

Second, a leader under attack needs reinforcements.

Marshal Kane was a tall, strong man who knew how to handle a gun.  But would he prevail in a showdown with four experienced gunmen?

Probably not – so Kane began asking the townspeople for help.  He asked men whom he had once deputized.  He asked the guys in the local saloon.  He even interrupted a church service and asked the congregation if a few men would volunteer to assist him.

After all, if 8 or 10 men stood shoulder-to-shoulder next to Kane, then maybe Frank Miller and his gang would see they were outnumbered and just ride out of town.

No pastor attacked by a group in a church can survive unless he has reinforcements.

Maybe some staff members are willing to stand with him … or the entire governing board … or some former leaders … or a group of longtime friends.

If the associate pastor stands with the pastor … along with the board chairman … and a few other key leaders, the pastor may have enough support to turn back the Gang of Gunmen.

But without that support, the pastor … and possibly the church … are toast.

Third, most people bail on their leader when he needs them the most.

This is the heart of the film.

Amy, the marshal’s new bride, runs away from her husband when they return to town because she’s a Quaker and doesn’t want to see any killing.

The guys in the saloon prove worthless.

The people in the church discuss helping their marshal … then decide against doing anything at all.  (The pastor says he doesn’t know what to do.)

And Marshal Kane can’t convince any of his deputies to help him.  One who said he’d stand by his leader runs when he discovers nobody else will help the marshal, and the current deputy is angry with Kane because he wasn’t selected to be marshal after Kane’s tenure.

Kane even goes to see a former girlfriend … and she announces she’s leaving town, too.

Over 25 years as a solo or senior pastor, there were attempts to get rid of me on three separate occasions.

The first two times, the board stood with me.

The last time, most of the staff and a group of current and former leaders stood with me.

But when most pastors are threatened, everybody bails on them.

Why is this?

Because people aren’t informed?  Because it’s not their fight?

No, it’s usually because those who stand beside their pastor when he’s under attack end up enduring the same vilification that the pastor receives … and few are willing to suffer like that.

Finally, the only way to defeat the attackers is to stand strong.

After Frank Miller came in on the noon train, he and his boys left for town to carry out their plan: kill Marshal Kane.

At the same time, Kane’s former girlfriend climbed onto the train … along with his wife Amy.

When Amy hears shots, she instinctively bolts off the train and heads for town.

When she gets there, her husband has already killed two of the four gunmen.

While the drunks in the saloon nervously wait … and Kane’s friends hide in their homes … and the congregation down the road prays … Amy, of all people, defends her husband.

And in so doing, she saves his life … and their future together.

When a group attacks a pastor, they have one of two goals in mind: defeat him (by forcing him to leave) or destroy him (by ruining his reputation and damaging his career).

Because most pastors are tender souls, he usually has just two chances to emerge victorious after such a showdown: slim and none.

Even if the pastor wilts while attacked … and most do … the attackers can be driven away – and even eradicated – if the pastor has just a few Amys on his side.

While we have several incidents in the New Testament where a spiritual leader is corrected (Paul opposed Peter to his face in Galatians; Aquila and Priscilla instructed Apollos in Acts 18), we don’t have any incidents in the New Testament where a group of believers tries to destroy their spiritual leader.

So let’s do our best to eliminate this ecclesiastical plague in the 21st century.

With the Gang of Four lying motionless on the town’s streets, the townspeople come outside and cheer Amy and Marshal Kane … who drops his badge onto the street and leaves town for the final time.

Once upon a time, pastors would endure an attack in one church … then go to another church, where they’d be attacked again … then do the same thing several more times.

In our day, most pastors are leaving ministry after the first attack.

If High Noon ever comes to your church, don’t just talk or pray.  If your pastor is being unfairly accused, be willing to fight with him.

Because if he leaves town, the Gang of Four will end up in charge.

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What does it mean when a pastor is “under attack?”

It means that people from inside your church are openly challenging your right to lead the congregation anymore.

These people (often including official leaders) believe that your ministry is finished, not because God says you’re through, or because the official leaders say you’re through, but because these self-appointed vigilantes say you’re through.

Their goal?  To destroy your reputation … remove you from your position as pastor … and, in some cases, end your career in ministry altogether.

How should a pastor respond when under attack?

Last time, I offered the following five suggestions:

First, trust your pastoral instincts.

Second, locate several comforting passages of Scripture and read them daily.

Third, confide in believers from outside the church.

Fourth, identify and meet with your supporters from inside your church … cautiously.

Fifth, gauge the opposition against you: both who and how many.

Let me add five more suggestions:

Sixth, try and determine the charges against you, but realize they’re probably irrelevant.

Why do I say this?

Because once there is a movement inside the church to force you out, the charges really don’t matter to your accusers.

Those who insist that you leave aren’t interested in a biblical process, or your own repentance and redemption, or the health of your congregation, or your church’s testimony in the community.

Once they have launched an attack, they are only interested in one thing: your departure.

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I need to: you can’t reason with your attackers.  And if you try and set up a meeting with several of them, it will not go well.  It’s a waste of time.

Once they’ve decided that you need to go, they will stop at nothing until you clean out your office and turn in your keys.

Based on my experience:

*There won’t be any single impeachable accusation against you.  If you were guilty of heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior, your opponents would have presented their evidence to the church board and let them dismiss you.

*There will be a laundry list of charges against you.  If your opponents had just one or two charges, you might be able to answer them favorably, so to make sure that doesn’t happen, they’ll hit you with multiple charges.

*There will be charges you know nothing about.  You offended a board member’s wife two years ago … you failed to greet someone in the church lobby one Sunday … you speak too much about cultural issues … and so on.  In most cases, you will hear about these “charges” for the first time …  but nobody has ever had the courage to share any concerns with you until your opponents decided to pool their complaints together.

*There will be new charges created until you resign.  If you answer one charge, another one will be created.  The charges aren’t grounded in reality, but in the hardness of some people’s hearts.

*There will be different charges from different people.  One person doesn’t like the way you dress … another doesn’t like the seminary you graduated from … another doesn’t like your lack of denominational involvement.  There won’t be a consensus on why you need to leave, but only that you need to leave.

Seventh, try and discern if your church has already created a process for terminating a pastor through its governing documents or board policies.

When your church began, it probably adopted a constitution and set of bylaws.  These are your governing documents.

They were created when people were thinking clearly … and biblically.  Those documents are intended to govern your church … especially when people overreact and become irrational.

So locate the latest version of your governing documents.  Look carefully at what they say about removing a pastor from office.

And realize that your opponents may not know what the documents say about a pastor’s removal … or care.

If you plan to stay and fight, then point out how your detractors are ignoring the governing documents, and insist they comply with them.  They’ll probably pull back, regroup, and reload, but it will buy you some time.

If you plan to leave, then keep those violations to yourself … and only bring them up in any negotiations for a severance package.

Eighth, do everything in your power to avoid a public congregational meeting.

Sadly, I’ve been through two of these meetings in my 36-year ministry career.

The first meeting was called to vote out our church’s pastor … and that’s exactly what the congregation did.

The second meeting ended up focusing on me and is described in my book Church Coup in a chapter entitled, “Hell Invades the Church.”  While no formal vote was taken at that meeting (there were actually two meetings on the same day), I knew I had to leave when those meetings ended.

Most church governing documents require that any upcoming meeting of the congregation be announced ahead of time … let’s say seven days in advance.

And the governing documents may require that the purpose of any special meeting be shared with the congregation as well.

But once your adversaries discover why you’ve called the meeting, they will accelerate their campaign to force your resignation.

They will contact people who have left the church, hoping that a few of them will feed them some dirt … and they will be invited to the meeting … even if they can’t vote.

Your detractors will be highly motivated to fill the auditorium with their friends … to announce the charges against you … and to trash your reputation in front of the congregation.

I heard about a pastor who was accused … along with his wife … of smoking pot.  When the pastor tried to defend himself in a public meeting, he was shouted down … and left the meeting in shock.

The only way I would engage in a public meeting is if:

*I knew I could control the microphone.

*I knew I could control the process … and that might be difficult if a moderator or board chairman runs the meeting.

*I knew ahead of time that I would be given the opportunity to present my case to the congregation.

*I knew ahead of time that any vote on my position would not be held on the same day as the meeting.

*I knew that most of the congregation was behind me … and would be willing to stand up to my opponents.

Other than meetings of the official church board, more damage occurs in public congregational meetings than anywhere else in a church’s life.

Do your best not to call one.  They can harm people for years.

I know … firsthand.

Ninth, realize that Satan is behind all the chaos … and that his ultimate aim is to destroy your church.

You are NOT the enemy’s target.  It may feel like you are, but you aren’t.

The proof?  Whenever you leave the church, the enemy will most likely leave you alone.  He doesn’t hate you as a person … at least no more than he hates the average Christian.

No, he hates you as a pastor.  If he can drive out the shepherd, he can scatter the sheep … and assume control of the entire pasture.

You are simply the means to an end.  The devil knows that the quickest way to take out a church is to take out its pastor.

To do that, he will use two primary tactics: deception and destruction … or deception leading to destruction.

In other words, Satan will lie about you … throw all kinds of false accusations at you … in order to smear you and force you to leave your position.

And tragically, all too many churchgoers will believe the first negative thing they hear about you without ever checking with you to see if it’s true.

When they’re attacked, many pastors go into hiding and curl into the fetal position.  They blame themselves for the entire mess, castigating themselves for (a) not being perfect, (b) not knowing the attacks were coming, (c) choosing disloyal church leaders, or (d) not creating a forum in which to answer the charges against them.

But this all plays into Satan’s hands.

If your detractors were truly spiritual, Bible-believing Christians, they would never hold secret meetings, pool their grievances against you, attack you anonymously, and demand your resignation.

Where in the New Testament do we find believers acting that way?

We don’t.

If your opponents really loved God, and truly followed Scripture, they would never act in an unbiblical, political fashion against you.  They would use a biblical/constitutional process instead.

But when they use the law of the jungle, that’s the tipoff that they’ve surrendered their hearts to Satan.

Finally, God will use this experience to give you a better life … and ministry.

If you remain as pastor of your congregation, make sure that your church’s leaders use a biblical process to confront the troublemakers.

*If they repent, forgive them and let them stay … but do not let them be leaders for at least two years … and monitor their speech and behavior.

*If they refuse to repent, then ask them to leave your church.  You cannot let them stay and resurface with new complaints down the road.

However, if you are forced to resign from your position as pastor, realize that God in His sovereignty may very well be protecting you from future harm.

The spiritual temperature of your congregation can be difficult to measure.  Sometimes the pastor thinks a church is healthier than it really is … and only a crisis reveals the truth.

In my case, I thought my congregation was more mature than it ended up demonstrating.  On a 1 to 10 scale … with 10 being the most spiritual … I thought my church was at a 7 … when it was probably around a 3.

Some individuals were at a 10 level spiritually … while others hovered around a 1 or a 2 … and unfortunately, those at the lower levels were the ones who prevailed … which says something about the church’s overall maturity.

I was worn out when I left, and had I stayed, I might have become a basket case.  God knew that.

Referring to Lot leaving Sodom and Gomorrah, 2 Peter 2:9 says that “the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials …”  Another version says that “God knows how to deliver the righteous …”

For months after I resigned, I told myself, “I’ve been forced to leave a congregation.  How humiliating!”

But somewhere along the line, I started telling myself, “I’ve been delivered from an intolerable situation.  How liberating!”

I’m sure Jonah didn’t like being swallowed by a large fish, but that’s the means God used to get him to Nineveh.

And I’m sure that most pastors don’t like being swallowed by a few detractors, but sometimes that’s the method God uses to propel a pastor toward more effective ministry.

No, God isn’t directing your detractors to lie about you, and He will hold them accountable … but He is above and behind all that is happening to you.

Remember the story of Joseph in Genesis?

Or the story of Jesus in the Gospels?

God used the evil motives of conspirators to save others in both those cases … and He will do the same for you.

If you’re under attack, and you’d like someone to listen to you … pray with you … and help you think things through, please write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org.

There is no cost to you … I just want to help as I’ve been helped.

What are your thoughts about what I’ve written?

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