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Posts Tagged ‘pastors and vendettas’

A friend sent me an article yesterday reporting that Dr. Robert Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, was voted off the church’s board.  He had retired as the church’s pastor five years before.

Christians often have strong opinions about Dr. Schuller.  I have met believers who watched the Hour of Power every week without fail and loved it.  Others have not been as complimentary.

Dr. Schuller once lived across the street from my uncle and aunt when they lived in Garden Grove.  He invited them to help him begin his drive-in church.  They ended up at a different church instead.

When I was a kid, our family took a Sunday off from our own church and visited Garden Grove Community Church, as it was known then.  We all sat in our car and watched the service from the parking lot.  While it was definitely different, it was hard to see what was going on from our car’s back seat.

Years later, when I was in seminary, I read Dr. Schuller’s book Your Church Has Real Possibilities!  The book upset me.  There was little Scripture to back up Schuller’s approach to church growth.  Instead, he married American business principles with church ministry.  I probably wrote more disparaging comments in the margins of that book than any other book I’ve ever read, even though his ministry seemed “successful” at the time.

Eleven years ago, my son lived about a mile from the church, so one Sunday I decided I’d attend a service at the famous Crystal Cathedral.  While I didn’t care for the dueling organs or the TV cameras, Dr. Schuller spoke on “You shall not commit adultery” and absolutely nailed the message.  But when I looked around at the congregation, it was obvious the church was aging without reaching younger people.

Let’s put it this way: several years ago, there were twice as many kids at Vacation Bible School at my former church in the Bay Area than they had at VBS that year at the Crystal Cathedral – their multi-story children’s building notwithstanding.

There are many ways to look at the decline of the Crystal Cathedral: aging leadership, overly optimistic growth projections, too much debt, a watered-down gospel message, an ostentatious property (complete with statues and a cemetery), several unfortunate suicides on church grounds, and an inability to connect with younger people, to name just a few.

But there’s another possibility (no pun intended): Dr. Schuller’s inability to take his hands off the ministry.

Founding pastors have enormous clout in a church.  Their family members form the original core group even before the pastor selects his own.  Everyone who attends the church likes the pastor’s preaching and leadership.  If the average pastor gets two votes on the governing board, the founding pastor gets five.  The power can become intoxicating.

But … when a pastor resigns or retires, he needs to leave that church for good.

For starters, it’s wise for him to leave the community.  If a pastor leaves a church but chooses to live in the area afterwards, his presence will linger like a long, dark shadow over his former church.  And whenever people are disgruntled with their new pastor, they will be tempted to consult with their former pastor.

A friend of mine was the associate pastor in his church.  When the senior pastor stepped down because of a medical condition, my friend was asked to be the senior pastor.  However, the previous pastor remained in the church and the community, gradually undermining my friend’s leadership until he was forced to resign.

People inside the church chose not to follow my friend’s vision for the church because his predecessor failed to support him.  But if the previous pastor had moved away, my friend could have led the church unhindered.

There are exceptions to this practice, of course.  The pastor or a family member might be ill and need to stay in the area for medical treatment.  Or the pastor might have a daughter who wants to complete her senior year of high school before moving.  But even if the former pastor stays in the community …

Next, he should never intervene in that church’s affairs.  My former denomination had a code of ethics for pastors, and those ethics clearly state that once a pastor leaves a church, he is no longer to interfere in the way it’s governed.  If a pastor does intervene, he should be called out on his lack of ethics, but this only works well in hierarchical denominations – and many former pastors know this, which is why some undermine their successors from the cover of darkness.

The pastor, staff, and governing board have been given both the authority and responsibility under God to lead a given local church.  A former pastor – no matter how wise or powerful or popular he is – must relinquish his influence to God.

John the Baptizer said it best while talking about Jesus in John 3:30: “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John was saying, “My ministry is nearly over, while His is just beginning.  It’s time for me to step aside and give someone else the spotlight.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Third, it’s crucial that departing pastors direct complainers back to church leaders.  Let’s say that while I’m writing this article, a friend from a former church calls and wants to tell me about an issue involving the new pastor.  Ethically, I shouldn’t even listen to her concern.  Instead, I need to encourage her to speak directly with her pastor and the church’s governing leaders.

I’m not on campus.  I don’t know all the facts.  Besides, I’ve only heard one side of the story and may never hear the other side.  While I want to help my distressed friend, the best way I can help is to stay out of it and encourage her to resolve matters on her own.  Later on, I wouldn’t want to hear that that pastor was mistreated and wonder if I had something to do with it.

Finally, it’s all too common for pastors to have vendettas against their successors.  Let’s say that I’ve been the pastor of a church for fifteen years.  I’ve grown to love the staff, the leaders, and the people, very, very much.  We did some great things together: increased attendance, baptized new believers, and built a building.  The memories are precious.

But eventually I resign and move out of the area.  And after a while, the church calls a new pastor, someone who doesn’t know me and all the great things I did for the church.  While I’m bewildered as to why the church chose him, I share my opinions with my wife and no one else.

But as time goes on, I begin hearing about some decisions that the new pastor has made, and they baffle me.  When some friends from that church visit me, they tell me how much they despise the changes … and I have a decision to make.

If I agree with my friends at all, I validate their complaints and indirectly embolden them to take action against their pastor.  It’s like I have become their pastor-in-exile – and if they look to me as their pastor, they may want to remove their current pastor from office – and use my words to do it.

Because make no mistake, my opinions still carry enormous weight with some people.

The truth is that some pastors are egomaniacs who always view a former church as their church.  They want to take credit for every good thing that happens at that church even after they’ve left.

They haven’t learned to give all the glory to God.

Let’s return now to Dr. Schuller.  He retired as the senior pastor of Crystal Cathedral at the age of 79 but remained on the church board five more years until he was removed on July 3.

Wouldn’t it have been better for him to leave the church a few years ago – and possibly the entire Orange County area – so that his successor could lead and teach without his gigantic influence?

In fact, Dr. Schuller chose his son to succeed him, and less than three years later, removed him as senior pastor.  Now his daughter leads the church, and a lot of people don’t like the changes she’s made.  The church continues to decline.

While Dr. Schuller did build the church (humanly speaking), the church desperately needs to turn around – and it’s an axiom of leadership that the same leader who built the church cannot turn it around.

Wouldn’t the church benefit without any Schullers but with fresh leadership?

And haven’t attempts to control the church fractured their own family unity?

But here’s the problem: the Schullers can’t take their hands off the ministry.  They seem to view the Crystal Cathedral as their church.  In the process, they’re running it into the ground.

When Dr. Schuller dies, he won’t be able to control the church anymore.  Why not just “die” to the church and walk away right now?

Why not leave it in the capable hands of the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ?

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