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Posts Tagged ‘undermining a pastor’

A pastor I knew for more than twenty years died last week.

For years, AA was my friend.

My first exposure to him was at Biola College when he came and spoke in chapel one Thursday morning in Crowell Hall.

AA pastored a church in Fresno and shared with students that radio ads helped his church to grow … then proceeded to play one such ad on a tape recorder.

Years later, on Veteran’s Day in 1980, my church in Garden Grove called an ordination council for me.  AA … who was now pastoring a church of the same denomination in central Orange County … signed my certificate after the examination, although I don’t recall his presence that day.

Fast forward six years.  One afternoon, I was sitting in the office of our district minister when he told me that AA was coming to Oakland to pastor one of the oldest churches in the district.  I wondered, “Why would anyone leave the beauty of Orange County for the ugliness of downtown Oakland?”

But AA went to that Oakland church, and using his entrepreneurial gifts, he sold some church land and started a new church in a beautiful area just a few miles away.

Right before Christmas in 1986, our district held their annual Christmas party at Mount Hermon Conference Center.  I was asked to do a humorous reading of The Night Before Christmas in the style of an expository preacher and it went well.  Afterwards, AA came up to me and suggested we have lunch together.

A few weeks later, we sat in a restaurant near his church overlooking a lagoon (a place I would later eat at dozens of times) and shared our ministry wounds together.  In the process, we became fast friends.

I invited AA to my church in Silicon Valley one day.  The church wasn’t doing well … we’d had a merger four years before that imploded … and I wanted his opinion on our prospects.

He surveyed our campus and quickly said, “I wouldn’t come here” which hurt a bit.

But he also read an article I wrote on “lost shepherds” and told me that it was good and that he knew the editor of the denominational magazine and would recommend that it be published, which is eventually what happened.

One day, I was speaking by phone to the president of our denomination, and he suggested that I put together a group of pastors in my area for support.  Our first meeting was at a Sizzler in Hayward, and over the next few years, our group of five met nearly every month for lunch.  AA was in that group.

For several years, those pastors and their wives met at AA’s home in early December for a Christmas dinner.  He and his wife were very hospitable.  We enjoyed other social events with those couples over the years as well.

I invited AA to speak to our leaders at my church in Silicon Valley, and he in turn had me speak at a men’s breakfast and a stewardship banquet at his church.

In the summer of 1997, I knew I was going to be leaving my church in Silicon Valley, so AA invited me to speak to his church on a Sunday morning.  The time went well, and AA said he wanted to hire me as his associate pastor, but things didn’t work out at the time, and I ended up at a friend’s church in Arizona instead.

But in the fall of 1998, AA began sending me emails, wanting to know if I’d consider becoming his associate pastor.  He planned on retiring and wanted to choose his successor.  After combing through 85 resumes, AA and the board couldn’t find anyone suitable.

I sent him five reasons why it would be good to work together, and five reasons why it wouldn’t work.

He answered all five objections.

Kim and I flew to Oakland on a Friday.  That night, we went out for dinner with AA and his wife, and we had a great time together.  But one of the board members was so upset about the possibility of my coming (he never even met me) that he instantly resigned.  (He wanted a Union Seminary grad instead!)

My wife and I met with the board the following morning, and things went well enough that I soon returned and spoke on a Sunday.

The board offered me the job of associate pastor, and I eventually accepted.  I did not call myself to that position … God called me … because I initially didn’t want to go.

Because our daughter Sarah was in high school, I agreed to start my ministry on June 1, 1999, so she could finish her junior year in Arizona.

In January 2000, AA announced to the church that he would be retiring the following December.  By this time, I had served at the church seven months, and except for one critic … a board member … I felt I got along great with everyone.

The following April … nearly a year after I came to the church … I asked the board to have the congregation vote on me as senior pastor-elect.  The vote was 76-4 … 95% approval.

AA began to pull back on his ministry a bit, and I began to assert myself more.  One day, as we walked past the open field on the church property, AA told me, “That’s where you will build a new sanctuary someday.”

In the fall of 2000, AA and his wife took a trip to New England, and while they were there, my primary critic resigned his position at the church and openly took shots at me.  When he returned home, AA fully supported me, which made matters disappear quickly.

That same critic began spilling board secrets in public, including the fact that the board had agreed to give AA a generous financial gift upon his retirement.  The church was holding its annual congregational meeting in November, and AA was worried that some oldtimers would publicly object to the gift and that he might not receive it.

I shared with AA and the board how to nullify any objections with the congregation, and the meeting passed without incident.

During the eighteen months that we worked together, AA and I got along very well.  We may have disagreed about certain issues … we’re very different people with very different styles … but I don’t recall one time where we had even a single unpleasant conversation.

And during the fourteen years that we knew each other, I considered AA to be one of my closest friends.  In fact, had I died before him, I wanted him to conduct my memorial service.

After he left the church and moved to Arizona, I did my best to maintain contact:

*Whenever I referred to AA in public, I spoke of him in positive terms and with gratitude.

*Whenever I spoke with his friends within the church … including four staff holdovers … I was conscious that anything I said might get back to him … and it sometimes did.  In fact, AA once told me that a certain individual called him all the time to complain about me.

*Since AA had family in our community, he visited the area a few times a year.  At first, he’d contact me and we’d get together, but after a while, he’d come into town and meet with people from the church without telling me, which made me suspicious.

*He and his wife visited the church a few times after he retired, and things seemed to go well … until the Sunday when I stood up to preach and noticed that AA and his wife were sitting by themselves next to a couple who were angry with me about an issue that had no resolution.

*I interviewed AA about two incidents that happened during his tenure as pastor that led to conflicts and included them in my doctoral project for Fuller Seminary.

*AA became president of a parachurch organization.  Our church supported him financially as a missionary and hosted one of their meetings in the church library.

*I invited AA to speak at the dedication of our new worship center in October 2005.  I also presented him and his wife with a letter of appreciation and a plaque for all they had done for the church.

But during his message, AA made a derogatory comment about me … one that most people wouldn’t have noticed … and I knew something had changed.

Then one man inside the church sent a bizarre email to one of our staff members stating that I needed a mentor and that AA should come back to the church as my associate pastor.  I called the man and tried to set him straight, but it began to dawn on me: AA is telling at least some people that he regrets leaving and wants to come back to the church.

After he retired, AA and his wife lived in Arizona … then Southern California (ironically, in the same city my wife and I live in now) … then in a city in Northern California.

Somewhere along the line, I knew I was being undermined and that anything I did or said that AA’s friends didn’t like would end up being shared with him … and quite possibly, be wrongly interpreted.

I had three options:

*Engage in an investigation into AA’s conduct.  But who would do it?  How would anything change?  What good would come from it?

*Confront AA about his behavior.  But what if he denied everything and then told people I was insecure and paranoid?

*Ignore his behavior and continue building the church … which is what I did.  But what if the undermining gained critical mass?

The church was doing well.  The attendance and giving nearly doubled during my tenure.  We built a new worship center where every vote by the congregation was unanimous.  We were the largest Protestant church in our city by far and had a great reputation in the community.

Fast forward ahead four years.

In the fall of 2009, I heard that AA and his wife were living in a house owned by former church members on weekends … only 500 feet from our church campus.

Only AA never told me.

Intentional or not, he now had a base of operations near the church to hear any complaints against me … just like Absalom listened to complaints about his father David at the gates of Jerusalem.

Only people weren’t bringing any complaints to me, so I didn’t know what they were or who might be upset with me.

I didn’t know it at the time, but AA not only had his fingers in the congregation … he had his fingers in the church staff, and especially in the church board.

In October 2009, a conflict broke out with the church board, and a few weeks later, I chose to resign.

The night I told church leaders that I was going to leave, I was told by the church consultant I had hired that AA had been meeting with the six members of the church board about me.  I don’t know who initiated contact, or how many times they met, or whether the board wanted AA to be their next interim/senior pastor … although a top Christian leader told me that was the plan.

That consultant exposed the plot and wrote a report stating that AA should not be allowed to return to the church in any capacity.

After years of friendship, my good friend had completely flipped on me.

_______________

I never learned what I did or didn’t do … or said or didn’t say … to cause AA to conspire to force me out of my position and eventually end my pastoral career.

Although I can venture some guesses, I’m not very good at mind reading.

I can’t recall our final conversation, but found it telling that he never contacted me after I resigned and left the church, even though I wrote a book about the conflict (Church Coup) and have written more than 500 blogs … most of them about pastor-church conflict.

Several years ago, I went to his Facebook page, and noticed that he was friends with nearly every single person who stood against me in my final days, including former board members and staffers.

In England, they call that a Shadow Government.

I have no idea when or where AA’s memorial service will be held … or if it’s already been held … and I’m certain that I won’t be asked to speak.

So I thought I’d write a blog about the man I knew.

I’ll always be grateful that he wanted me to become his associate pastor and eventually succeed him as pastor.  By every measure, the church did quite well over the next nine years.

And I’ll always be grateful for his friendship … his counsel … his support … and all the good times we had.

Rest in peace, Andy.  I forgive you.

See you in glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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