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Posts Tagged ‘slander against pastors’

There is a megachurch in the United States that hires dozens of staff members all the time … and fires some as well.

According to one of the church’s former senior pastors, whenever a staff member is dismissed, the same reason is privately given as to why that person left:

“They had an affair.”

If a staff member leaves due to burnout … or ineffectiveness … or a poor relationship with his supervisor … the response is always the same.

Why would a church do this?

It’s simple: in evangelical circles, if a pastor/staff member has had an affair, there is a consensus that they did a bad thing … they need to leave the church … and people stop asking questions about why that individual left.

But it’s clearly wrong to do this … and sinful … and falls under the category of lying.

In addition, accusing someone of adultery could destroy their reputation … their career … and their marriage.

I suppose that those who quietly announce that the departing staffer had an affair figure that their concise explanation will never reach the ears of the departing staff member, and even if it does, nobody will be able to trace back the origin of the charge.

But that’s what is troubling me right now: that lying sometimes goes on in the upper echelons of Christian churches … especially when it comes to the departure of pastors and staff.

Back in 1995, Bill and Lynne Hybels wrote a book called Rediscovering Church.  At the time, Pastor Bill was the senior pastor of the largest church in America, Willow Creek Community, in South Barrington, Illinois.

Lynne describes a tense time early in the church’s history.  A key member of the church staff was involved in sinful misconduct.  The elders confronted the staff member, hoping he would repent, but he resigned instead.

Lynne writes: “The following morning an elder announced the staff member’s resignation, citing ‘differing philosophies of ministry,’ and wished him well in his new endeavors.  The elders assumed the congregation would accept the partial explanation given, but they clearly misjudged.  By the end of the service, the core members of the church were in an uproar.  ‘Give us the truth!  Tell us what’s really going on!'”

Lynne continues: “The elders tried to explain in positive terms the philosophical and personality issues that necessitated a ‘a parting of the ways.’  But in order to protect the privacy of the resigned staff member, they hid the real issue behind an opaque screen of secrecy.  When people questioned the former staff member, he too avoided a straight answer.”

Without being given enough information to process, many churchgoers speculated that Pastor Bill was seeking more power and decided to eliminate the competition … and that the elders were his “naïve accomplices.”

With some other issues that were going on at the time, the church experienced a major train wreck, and scores of people left the church … just when the church was getting to ready to start a building program.

I don’t think the elders needed to share all the bloody details of why that staff member resigned.  After all, as 1 Peter 4:8 states, “… love covers a multitude of sins.”

But sometimes the reasons given as to why a pastor has left a church aren’t intended to “cover the sins” of the person departing.

They’re designed to cover the sins of the leaders who bullied that pastor and bungled his exodus.

This lying trend inside churches makes me ashamed … but I know why many leaders do it.

Several weeks ago, I heard a former presidential advisor in the United States say that lying in the interests of national security is justified.

In the same way, many pastors … staff members … and board members believe that lying inside a church is justified if it’s in the name of church security.

Their reasoning: if they tell the truth about why they fired a pastor or staff member, that could put the whole church in jeopardy.

So to protect the survival of the institution … to keep people attending and serving … and especially to keep people donating:

*They concoct a story that’s untrue.

*They use overly broad and deceptive terms like “philosophical differences” to explain the departure.

*They privately blame the pastor or staff member for everything … without the accused knowing anything about it.

*They conceal their role in the dismissal even if they’re guilty of betrayal … overreacting … creating pretexts … and ignoring Scripture and church bylaws.

*They continue to tell untruths until people stop protesting the departure of the pastor or staff member in question.

The lies are intended to work for a short time.  As the truth eventually comes out … and it always does … people become less emotional about the pastor’s departure, they choose not to challenge anybody over the spin … and then they forget about it.

But slander … if it’s really slander … always results in the destruction of a person’s peace … family … reputation … or career.

And that’s not what the gospel or Christ’s church are all about.

Let me share with you five ways we can stop the slander that happens in Christian churches concerning terminated pastors:

First, remain skeptical about the public version of why the pastor left.

I once had a friend who was on the board of a prominent church.  He was a huge supporter of the pastor.  The church was growing like crazy.

One night, my friend couldn’t attend a board meeting, and because he was absent, the board took the opportunity to force the pastor to resign.

Although my friend wasn’t present, he obtained a copy of the board minutes from that night, and sent them to me for my counsel.

In the minutes, the board agreed together to announce the pastor’s resignation the following Sunday morning … and to lie about it to the congregation.

I was appalled … and so were others.  In fact, one person ended up suing the church to find out the truth.

I refuse to follow leaders who lie in private or in public, and you shouldn’t either.

If someone lies to you once … and they get away with it … you can guarantee they will lie to you again and again.

This is especially true of politicians who lie with impunity in hopes that the public will forget their deceptions over time.

But lying happens at times inside Christian churches as well.

If you’re in a church, and a staff member or elder announces that your pastor has left, I wouldn’t automatically believe the public explanation.  I’d proceed to the next step:

Second, contact the pastor directly and hear his side of the story.

Some pastors are prohibited from saying anything about their departure if they signed a severance agreement with the church board.

But that agreement almost never covers the pastor’s wife … the pastor’s family members and friends … and his supporters inside the congregation.

If you’re diligent, there are always ways to find out what really happened.

When I hear that a pastor or staff member is about to get the ax, I advise them to tell their side of the story to people they want to keep as friends before they sign a severance agreement.

Why?

Because after the pastor leaves, there may be a concerted effort to destroy his reputation, and in all too many cases, those friends who haven’t first heard the pastor’s side may abandon him if they pay attention to the whisperers.

Two family members told me what happened in their church.  The board forced the pastor to resign, and then stood up in front of the church and warned people not to discuss his departure with the pastor … or else!  (Those family members wisely left the church.)

While churchgoers don’t need to know all the gory details as to why a pastor left, they need to know enough so they can still trust the church’s leadership.

Third, correct any misinformation that you hear going around.

Those who believe the first thing they’re told about a pastor’s departure may unknowingly pass around slanderous information.  Be very careful.

Yes, pastors are fallible beings, and they may be guilty of a disqualifying sin, like sexual immorality or criminal behavior.  So if you hear that’s why they left the church, the information might be accurate.

But remember the story that begins this article … accusing a pastor of specific sins usually causes most people to back off from inquiries … even if the charges are false.

I believe that truth should trump unity inside a local church because unity is based on truth.

For example, let’s say that this Sunday, an announcement is made that your pastor has resigned, and you want to find out why.

So you speak to an elder … then to the pastor’s brother … and you’re convinced that church leaders pushed out the pastor in a power play.

Some people will tell you, “Let this go.  Drop it!  The pastor is gone.  Now is the time for the church to come together and be united.”

But how can a church unite around a lie?  The only way it can heal is for the people to be told the truth.

In Dennis Maynard’s book Healing for Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack, the author writes:

“The wounded members of a congregation will share a common prescription with their wounded pastor or lay professional.  They need to talk about what happened.  If they remain silent their wounds will become gangrenous.  Allowing the antagonists to continue to spin their story only increases their pain and anger.  Their sense of justice demands that the antagonists be exposed for exactly what they did.  Based on the experiences that form the foundation of these books [Maynard’s books on sheep attacks], it is highly unlikely they will be offered such an opportunity in the congregation.  Yet these truth tellers need to speak.  Your healing begins by doing that very thing.  Follow the scriptural admonition to speak the truth in love.  Hearing yourself do so will contribute to your healing.”

It may take weeks or months for the truth about the pastor’s departure to emerge, but if you’re patient, you will learn as much of the truth as you want to know.

The pastor’s severance agreement may expire when he receives his last payment from the church.  Then he may be free to share his side without repercussions.

People can only cover up their sins for so long.  It only takes one or two individuals to blow the lid off of a cover-up.

Fourth, pastors need to add one paragraph to their severance agreements.

In most written separation contracts, the departing individual agrees that they will not harm or sue the institution they are leaving.

But from my experience, and from the stories I hear from terminated pastors, this isn’t the problem.

The problem is that people inside the church … including church leaders at times … end up harming the departing pastor’s reputation.

Now if a pastor was truly a destructive individual, then just telling the truth about him could destroy him.

But much of the time, a pastor is innocent of wrongdoing but quietly charged with major sin anyway after he departs.

For this reason … however it’s worded … I believe that before a pastor signs a separation agreement, he should insist that a paragraph be added that says that (a) church leaders will not slander him after his departure, (b) church leaders will swiftly and forcefully correct any misstatements going around about him, and (c) church leaders will only speak of the departing pastor in a truthful manner.

I can understand why church leaders might balk at such language, but only if they plan to do the very things that paragraph prohibits.

Finally, pastors need an ethical and legal recourse if they’re slandered.

I know a pastor who was under fire but innocent of wrongdoing.  He tried to stand strong against the opposition, but they began lying about him, and sadly, some people began to believe the lies.

Worn down, the pastor agreed to resign in exchange for a severance agreement, but when he left the church, there was still a cloud hanging over him.

Before he left, the pastor had commissioned a team of people to investigate the charges against him.  The team ended up being composed of various church leaders.  Several of them told the pastor before he left that the charges against him were baseless.

Two weeks after the pastor left, the board chairman stood in front of the church and publicly stated that an investigation had been conducted and that the pastor was innocent of any wrongdoing.

That should have put an end to the matter.

But there were still people inside the church … and on the outside … who didn’t want the pastor to be vindicated.  They had invested a great deal in forcing him out of office, and if he was exonerated, they might appear guilty by default.

So after the pastor left, they engaged in a whispering campaign and accused him of all kinds of misdeeds … all of them untrue.

But their strategy paid off when many churchgoers believed their falsehoods, cut all ties to that pastor, and castigated his reputation inside the church.

That pastor would like to visit that church someday … maybe to attend a memorial service, or a worship service … but he doesn’t believe he can because of the lies told about him … lies that should have been corrected but were permitted to spread throughout the church.

That pastor has little recourse.

*He would never sue the church … or any of the individuals connected to the church … past or present.

*He would never make demands or threats of the current administration.

*He would never demand that the denomination or district that church belongs to take action.

*He would never manipulate people inside the church into refuting the charges made against him.

But the church of Jesus Christ provides no forum he can use to clear his name.

So he did the only thing he could: he told his story in the pages of a book.

And it took me three years to write it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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