Posts Tagged ‘reconciliation with former pastors’

Many years ago, I became friends with a pastor in my denominational district who led a medium-sized church.

We had lunch together … saw each other at district meetings … and spent some time in conversation.

Then one day, my pastor friend … let’s call him Keith … was forced to resign after nearly a decade of ministry.

When I asked what happened, Keith told me that drugs were discovered inside his daughter’s suitcase at camp.

Even though she insisted that the drugs weren’t hers, a lynch mob from church formed, demanding that she repent in front of the congregation … and accusing her father of not managing his family well.

Choosing to believe his daughter, Keith resigned rather than subject her to public humiliation.

He was treated horribly, receiving only a small severance package and losing his medical insurance virtually overnight … ultimately a form of retribution.

After Keith quit, I invited him to lunch, and he poured out his heart to me.  I was the only pastor in the district to hear his story.

Everybody else forsook him … and believed the story that was going around … that Keith’s daughter tried smuggling drugs to camp.

Only she didn’t.

Sometime later, a high school girl confessed to church leaders that the drugs were hers.  Afraid that her suitcase would be searched, she placed the drugs in the suitcase of the pastor’s daughter … and sat silently by while the pastor’s family was run out of the church.

When anxiety grips a congregation … as it did in Keith’s case … some people become highly irrational, overreact emotionally, and seek to eliminate the cause of that anxiety: their pastor.

On a human scale, who usually keeps a congregation calm?

That’s right … the pastor.

But when the pastor is under attack, his own anxiety level skyrockets, and he’s in no position to calm anybody down.

This leaves two possibilities for alleviating congregational anxiety:

First, anxiety may be relieved if another leader … like the associate pastor, the board chairman, or a widely-respected individual … takes control of the situation and institutes a just and fair process to deal with people’s concerns about the pastor.

The problem is that most churches don’t have anybody like this … and even if they do, they don’t know how to do it.

*The associate pastor may be glad that the pastor is under attack, hoping to take his job.

*The board chairman may be leading the charge against the pastor.

*And those respected individuals may be ignored, avoided, or devalued by those who want to keep the anxiety level high.  (Their adage is, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”)

Second, anxiety may be relieved if the pastor resigns.

And when anxiety hits a certain level in most churches, this is the quickest way to stabilize the congregation and lessen tensions.

But in the process, the pastor is judged as guilty … and never given the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

In Keith’s case, his reputation as a father … as well as his daughter’s reputation … were both smeared for months.

Fortunately, after matters calmed down, the church called a new pastor … someone I got to know a little bit.

And soon after he came, that new pastor discovered the truth about the drugs and Keith’s departure.

*Some pastors would have sided with Keith’s opponents just to gain their favor.

*Some pastors would have ignored the truth so they didn’t have to live in Keith’s shadow (small as it had become).

*Some pastors would have said, “Well, that’s water under the bridge … let’s move on.”

*Some pastors would have said, “Some people liked the pastor … some didn’t.  I don’t want to take sides and alienate anyone.”

But the new pastor sought to pursue righteousness … even though it made some leaders/people in the church look bad.

The new pastor invited Keith and his family back to the church, where that pastor presided over a meeting where the congregation apologized to Keith and his family for the way they had wounded them.

For a while, I lost track of Keith … and then opened the major newspaper in our area one day and read a front-page article about him.

Keith had become a hospital chaplain and pioneered an approach to ministering to a certain class of patients with God’s mercy and grace … and was receiving nationwide attention for his efforts.

Could he have become that successful if his former church had not pursued reconciliation?

Because Keith’s former church was able to resolve their differences with him, they weren’t plagued by guilt and paralyzed by bitterness as happens in most churches.

That new pastor wisely understood that a congregation that has mistreated a pastor from the past cannot fully heal until there is an admission that the pastor was wronged and there is an attempt to reconcile with him.

After all, if God’s people can’t reconcile with a previous pastor, what hope do they have of reconciling a lost world to Jesus?

In their book Extreme Church Makeover, Neil Anderson and Charles Mylander tell the story of a pastor named John who discovered that “the church had not dealt fairly with their previous pastors …”

The authors write:

“John shared his observations with the current church board.  Although the primary players were no longer in the church, the same pathology seemed to continue – which is almost always the case.  Getting rid of a pastor or ungodly lay leaders doesn’t solve the problem by itself … it was obvious that past issues had only been covered up and not resolved.”

Pastor John “encouraged the board to contact Jerry, the previous pastor, and ask him if he would be willing to come back to the church for a special service of reconciliation.  They discovered that Jerry was still hurting from the devastating experience and had not returned to the ministry.”

When Jerry stood before the church body, the board read a list of offenses the church had committed against him and asked for his forgiveness … and after he forgave them, Jerry later returned to the ministry.

I know many pastors who were abused and then forced out of their positions.  These are good men who wish they could heal.

Some healing takes place when they unilaterally forgive their detractors … but complete reconciliation can only take place when a church and its leaders take responsibility for the way they treated their previous pastor … and let him know that they’re sorry for the way they mistreated him.

If you know of any churches that have pursued reconciliation with a previous pastor that underwent termination, I’d like to know about it.  Please write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org with the details.

But sadly, this kind of reconciliation happens all too rarely … probably less than 1% of the time.

Why do you think that is?

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Pastor John came to Calvary Church fifteen years ago.

The ministry went very well.  Unbelievers become believers.  Believers became devoted disciples.  The church built a new worship center and positively impacted its community for Jesus.

Then one day, Pastor John came to a board meeting where the chairman announced, “We’ve decided to make a change.  We want you to resign.  If you sign this agreement, we’ll give you three months of severance pay.  If you don’t sign, you’ll be fired and get nothing.  Your choice.”

Stunned and frightened, Pastor John signed.

Five years later, Pastor John still doesn’t feel right about what happened.

He never heard from the board why they felt he should be removed from office.  While he’s heard rumors, he doesn’t know the truth … and it bothers him … a lot.

On top of that, John’s relationships with each of the board members ended that night.  He never saw or heard from them again.

If the board had told John what he’d done wrong, John could have admitted his errors, asked for forgiveness, and reconciled with every person around that table.

Even now, John would like to reconcile with them, but he senses it’s too late.

Why do terminated pastors and the boards that dismissed them rarely reconcile?

First, many Christians view the pastor-board relationship as an employee-employer relationship.

Let’s say there’s a small business owner named Brad on the board.  Brad hires a young man from the church named Ralph to help him part-time.

But after a few weeks, Brad doesn’t feel that Ralph is working out, so Brad fires him.

When Ralph sees Brad at church, he avoids him because he feels that Brad doesn’t like or respect him.  And after a few months of dodging, Ralph leaves the church.

Brad doesn’t feel the need to chase after Ralph.  He hired him … fired him … and that’s business.

In the same way, many church boards conclude, “We’re not removing our pastor because we don’t like him personally.  We’re removing him because he’s not doing the job.  That’s business.”

But in this case, the pastor believed he was doing the job, and since nobody on the board ever spoke to him about his performance, he has the right to wonder if his dismissal was personal.

And if it was, he wants the opportunity to make things right.

Second, decision-making groups almost never admit they make mistakes.

When church boards make a unanimous decision … even when it’s wrong … they’re going to defend their decision until Jesus returns.

Because if one person admits they were wrong, that makes everybody else on the board wrong as well … and nobody wants to indict their colleagues.

However, I do believe that individual board members may later regret their decision to terminate a pastor … or the way they chose to dismiss him.

A friend once told me that his father – a church board member – voted to terminate his pastor … and that his decision haunted his dad for the rest of his life.

My guess is that there are thousands of current and former board members who regret their decision to force out their pastor … but it’s rare for them to do anything about it.

A megachurch pastor once told me that four staff members tried to force him from office.  When their plot failed, they all resigned.

The pastor didn’t hear from any of those staff members for years.

Then one day … seven years later, as I recall … the pastor received a letter of apology in the mail from one of the staffers.

Sadly, that’s probably the best that can be expected.

Third, the composition of church boards changes all the time.

Steve, Dave, Bill, Ron, and Doug were all members of the board that pushed out Pastor John.

But the following year, Steve and Dave went off the board, and two new members took their place.

The next year, Bill moved away, and someone took his place as well.

So after five years, it’s possible that the board members that dismissed Pastor John either aren’t board members any more, or that they all live in different locales.

Because they’re no longer an entity … even if the Holy Spirit convicted each of them of sin … how could they reconvene to make things right?

They would no longer be authorized to speak for the church … just for themselves.

This wouldn’t prevent Doug, for example, from contacting Pastor John and saying, “I was wrong to remove you from office.  Please forgive me.”

But how could Doug admit that he did wrong without indicting his fellow board members?

When Pastor Guy Greenfield wrote letters to those who tried to destroy his ministry, not one person … including any of the board members … contacted him to apologize for the way they drove him out of their church.  (He recounts this story in his book The Wounded Minister.)  He reached out for reconciliation, but nobody was interested.

This was the case as well for J. R. Briggs in his new book Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure.  When he tried to reconcile with the elders who had hastened his departure two years before, nobody was interested in admitting they had made any errors.  In fact:

Fourth, the positions of many board members harden over time.

In the case of Pastor Briggs, he just wanted to leave and start a new church … and was ordered not to do so by the elders.

(This is absolutely ridiculous.  Once Pastor Briggs had left, he was free in the Lord to start a church anywhere he liked.  The board could have negotiated any concerns they had with Pastor Briggs’ plan instead of forbidding him to plant a church … which he went out and did anyway because once he resigned, those elders no longer had any authority over him.)

In fact, one of the pastors told Pastor Briggs “that leaving the church and starting ours was sinful – and that God would, as a result, continue to limit my small ministry, possibly for decades into the future.  He said my ministry and our church were illegitimate and dishonoring to God.”  (That’s the scarcity theory in action.)

Pastor Briggs hoped that after two years, the position taken by church leaders would have softened.  Instead, their position seems to have hardened.

We all have what’s called “the self-justifying bias.”  This means, “If I say it, it’s right.  If I do it, it’s right.  If I decide it, it’s right.”

But there are objective standards of right and wrong when it comes to pastoral termination found in:

*The New Testament, especially Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Timothy 5:19-21.

*The church’s governing documents … the constitution and bylaws.

*Federal and state laws as they apply to firing an employee … as well as offenses like slander, libel, and the violation of privacy.

As long as board members continue to remain friendly with one another, the chances are near zero that any of them will ever admit they did anything wrong.

If anybody tries to point out any errors they made, they would simply close ranks and defend the group’s decision to the hilt.

Finally, nobody wants errors long covered up to be exposed.

Someday, I would love to do a research project by interviewing church board members who were involved in terminating their pastor.

My guess is that in most cases, the board violated one, two, or all of the objective standards for termination mentioned above.

If that’s the case, how likely is it that anybody from that board would want to reexamine how they handled the termination process?

They wouldn’t.

Their attitude would be, “That happened a long time ago.  Let’s all move on and let God sort it out.”

Of course, that sentiment wouldn’t work in the business world, but it seems to work wonders in the Christian community.

When an ex-pastor believes that the church board violated him in the way they terminated him, all he can do is forgive the board unilaterally.

Nobody will make any arrangements for reconciliation years later because nobody wants to admit that they did anything wrong … or anything worthy of forgiveness.

It’s all too uncomfortable.


Jesus and Peter split before the cross, but reconciled after the cross.

Paul and Barnabas split over John Mark, but reconciled later.

Christians sometimes don’t get along and split up.  It’s regrettable, but it happens.

But shouldn’t they at least desire to reconcile … especially if they are Christian leaders?

If Christian leaders refuse to reconcile, what hope is there for reconciliation among Christian workers … divorced Christians … estranged parents/children … and believing friends?

What are your thoughts about this issue?










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I’m reading a new book by J. R. Briggs called Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure and enjoying the author’s insights on matters like shame, loneliness, wounds, and recovery for pastors in church ministry.

The author tells his own story of (perceived) ministry failure, and it’s worth recounting for a moment.

After graduating from a Christian college, J. R. and his wife moved to Colorado Springs – the evangelical Vatican, he calls it – and eventually was hired to pastor a group of young adults at the second largest church in the city.  Not only did J. R. see numerical growth under his leadership … he had also written three books before he turned 28.

Several years later, a senior pastor named Gary from a megachurch in the Philadelphia area asked J. R. if he might have an interest in starting an alternative service for younger adults like he was doing in Colorado Springs.  Pastor Gary told J. R. that he was planning on retiring in a few years and was looking to groom a younger pastor to replace him.

So J. R. and his wife Megan left Colorado and moved to Philadelphia.  J. R.’s ministry in the church of 3,000 members went very well.  He received opportunities to preach on occasion, and did so well that some on the staff called him “Golden Boy.”

But J. R. and his wife came to believe that God did not want him to become the senior pastor of a megachurch.

Several months later, Pastor Gary and the elders engaged in a “messy struggle.”  J. R. writes, “After twenty years of ministry he left, causing confusion, anger and hurt within the congregation.”

J. R. was invited to attend the next elder meeting, and in the process, he told the elders that “I knew that Gary was grooming me to become his successor, but I was not interested in taking the position.”

But the elders claimed they knew nothing about this succession plan … and said that if it were up to church leaders, they never would have hired J. R. at all.

That knowledge pushed J. R. and his wife “over the edge.”  Megan stopped attending services.

Because they didn’t feel they fit with the vision of the church, J. R. felt that God was releasing him to leave and plant a church in the Philadelphia area.  He approached the elders who disagreed and said “that we were not to do this and that it would be sin to pursue church planting in the region.”

J. R. adds, “Accusations, misunderstandings, threats and ultimatums were made, further solidifying and affirming the fact that we could not stay.”  The elders then told J. R. that if he planted a church in the region, they would terminate his employment within the week.

J. R. and his wife still believed that God wanted them to plant a church in the Philadelphia area.

The senior leaders then declared publicly that J. R. was leading a church split even though he just wanted to leave quietly without stealing any sheep.

Two years to the day after he was hired, J. R. and his wife left their church home for good.  J. R. and his wife lost a dream … trust in church leadership … local friends … their home (which they were forced to sell) … his salary … and financial security.

He writes, “My soul was bludgeoned, dumped in the back alley and left in the dark.”

While raising support and assembling a core group, J. R. and his wife received anonymous hate mail from people at his former church for over a year … including non-anonymous letters from one elder’s wife.


Two years after he left, J. R. believed that he was healthy enough to reach out and try and reconcile with the former leaders of the church.  He wanted to talk through what happened … and the elders accepted his invitation.

J. R. asked if each party could share how they truly felt.  He writes:

“The anger had not been tempered.  One of the pastors told me that leaving the church and starting ours was sinful – and that God would, as a result, continue to limit my small ministry, possibly for decades into the future.  He said my ministry and our church were illegitimate and dishonoring to God.”


After all the hurt J. R. and his wife had endured in that church, how wise was it for him to call a meeting and attempt reconciliation with that church’s former leaders?

I’m going to address this particular issue in my next blog post, but I’d like to ask you to think about the answer to this one question … maybe this weekend:

Why is it nearly impossible for former pastors and church boards to reconcile either personally or professionally?

Here is that next post:



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