There are always clues, if you look for them.
One church I pastored had a vivid illustration of what happens when a member holds a position so long they begin to “own” it. Behind the sanctuary, on the same block, sat the synagogue, a lovely brick building that serves the scattered Jewish congregation in monthly services. Across the street from the synagogue sat the funeral home, owned by one of our church’s deacons. One day that deacon told me, “Preacher, we could have bought the land the synagogue is sitting on for a pittance 40 years ago.”
He said, “When the house that used to sit on that property came up for sale, the people wanted $30,000 for it. I was willing to raise the money and buy it. I knew we would be needing that property in the future.”
“The trouble was that old Mr. McDougal, the church treasurer who had held that job for decades, vetoed it. He said that was just too much money for that piece of land and we would not pay it.”
The treasurer vetoed the purchase.
The deacon said, “No one, including the preacher, wanted to stand up to McDougal, so we let it go.”
“And now,” he said, “We can’t touch that piece of ground for a million dollars.”
He was right. I had asked discreetly about our church purchasing that property. It was not for sale at any price.
One church where I preached was in the act of trying to dislodge a church secretary who had held that office since Noah was a little boy. Even though she was in her mid-70s and long overdue for retirement, the woman would not budge. As the unofficial church boss, she would not change her way of doing things, would not concede that the pastor had the right to employ an administrative helper who would do what he asked, and would not agree to go away quietly. (Sorry, I have no idea how it turned out. These things rarely go smoothly.)
Let’s look at this. How to tell when a pastor or staff minister or key leader has been at a church too long and needs to leave.
1. They resist change.
Now, change is hard for most of us, but in the Lord’s work, it’s the order of the day. The only constant is change. The Lord’s parable of “new wine in new wineskins” fits here (Matthew 9:17).
As she left the church to join another, the unhappy member told her young pastor, “I know when we brought you here 2 years ago, we said our church needed to make some changes. But I didn’t know they would affect me personally.”
2. They become territorial.
“This is my area. Keep out.” “This is what I do and I don’t do anything else.” “This is my job and not yours. So don’t try to take it from me.”
No member owns a desk, no official owns a job, no preacher owns a ministry. It all belongs to the Lord. Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It’s His church and no one else’s.
A staff minister told me how the pastor’s secretary was misbehaving during the time the church was between pastors. “She refuses to help any of the other secretaries. She says it’s not her job; she is the pastor’s administrative assistant!”
3. They forget they were put in that position to serve. They are no longer servants.
If anyone could have lorded it over others, it was Jesus Christ Himself. Yet, He said, “I am among you as one who serves.”
Pastors are sent to serve. Staffers are to serve. Church officers and committee chairmen are sent to serve. I Peter 5 cautions pastors not to lord it over the congregation, but to serve as role models.
A servant works to make other people successful. The congregation led by a staff of servants is blessed indeed.
The clue to whether we are a true servant is in how we react when someone treats us like one.
Half the parables in the New Testament deal with servanthood in one way or the other. The key to greatness, Jesus said, is servanthood.
The day you forget that is the day you have become irrelevant and outlived your usefulness.
4. They offend co-workers, church members, and outsiders by their attitude.
Crabbiness is often found in direct proportion to one’s rebellion against God. The Lord Jesus sweetens the spirit like nothing else. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness….” (Galatians 5:22-23).
In time, the nice people who work with the crabby, entrenched individual find themselves tip-toeing around them. The office atmosphere is toxic. Someone needs to step in and rescue the Lord’s work from this one who has forgotten who they are, what the church is, and why they were saved in the first place.
5. They cannot take criticism or suggestions.
The reason such tyrants manage to dominate a church (or a ministry within the church) for long periods is that, because they are so resistant to criticism and intervention, the Lord’s people–by definition the nicest humans on the planet–would rather do anything before challenging and upsetting them. The despot delights in this passivity and is allowed to run his own little kingdom. Meanwhile, the church suffers.
No one wants to beard this lion. In the children’s story, no mouse wanted to bell the cat.
One of the first and best indications of Christlikeness is teachability, which among other things means an openness to outside help and the ability to take criticism. It is to our shame that we in church leadership sometimes harden our hearts and grow resistant to anyone with a suggestion on how we can improve.
When a leader becomes resistant to outside interference, proper supervision, godly guidance, and helpful suggestions, the time for making wholesale changes is long past. Those making personnel decisions must be people of courage, because nothing about this is easy, fun, or without cost.
6. They believe the policies and rules apply to others but not them.
When Jim and Tammy Bakker fell from PTL’s lofty perch in the late 1980s, it was some time before they could talk dispassionately about what had caused this massive blowup of their ministry. Jim Bakker said, “I thought the rules that applied to other people did not apply to me.”
Pastors and ministers must set the standard for Christlike behavior, sweetness of spirit, and servanthood. The prideful minister is a contradiction in terms.
7. They make decisions without going through proper channels.
They bypass those–committees, ministers, whoever–put in place by the church to make these very decisions.
I’ve seen firsthand how this begins. At first, it’s unintentional. The pastor phones the chairman of finance and says, “We could purchase that property this week. But the owner needs to know today.” The chairman says, “Go ahead and do that, pastor. It’s too good to pass up.”
What happens next is critical.
At this point, the pastor must say, “Bob, thank you for that. I completely agree. But let me say, dear brother, I’m not asking for your approval, but for the committee’s as a whole.” Bob is not the committee. If the preacher allows Bob to speak for the committee, the seeds for tyranny have been sown. Bob goes on acting for the whole committee and in time believes his word should be law. Not good.
One pastor told me of a church he once served where a certain family called the shots. In a deacons meeting, it was announced that the family had determined a revival was in order and they had proceeded to invite the evangelist, without even checking with the pastor. I wonder about an evangelist accepting such an invitation without the involvement of the pastor. What he should say to the inviter is “Please ask the pastor to call me.”
8. They become defensive.
Subconsciously knowing they need to leave, the individual erects a fortress around their position and proceeds to fire salvos at anyone who appears on the horizon and looks suspicious. It makes for a terrible work environment.
The defensive person makes excuses, lays blame, rationalizes, and attacks. None of this is even remotely close to the accepted behavior for followers of Jesus Christ.
The first qualification for joining any church staff should be Christlikeness. Anything less and the individual is disqualified. No talent or giftedness will overcome a lack of Christlikeness. Likewise, continuing to serve on the staff should require nothing less.
9. They think they are irreplacable.
Pastors fall into this trap more than others, I’m thinking. Once they stop to consider that a) this is the Lord’s church and b) it was there before they came and will be there when they leave, they will see how indispensable they are.
No one cannot be replaced. Say that to yourself repeatedly, pastor, and you’ll find it liberating. This awareness will allow you to take a day off, or a full vacation and let someone else fill the pulpit and minister to your flock without worrying about whether your position is in jeopardy. It’s not your position.
It’s not your job.
It’s not your church.
You belong to Christ and He sent you here and when He’s through, He will reassign you elsewhere. So, relax.
It’s our insecurities that drive this false sense of our own indispensability.
10. Worst of all are those willing to divide or even destroy the church in order to get their way and hold on to their position.
This may be the biggest indicator of all that this person’s employment is seriously past the termination date. When any church worker becomes bigger than Jesus, they need to be put to pasture and sent there immediately.
Ah, but there’s a little problem.
This individual has friends and family in the church and many people who have been touched by and genuinely helped by him/her. If they are mistreated–or if it even appears they’ve been dealt with unfairly–a major eruption will occur within the membership.
So, the typical pastor tiptoes around these disasters-in-the-waiting. And that gives the tyrant free rein to do as they please, to continue their bullying tactics.
How to keep this from happening to yourself or your church. Briefly…
1) Rotate leadership on a regular, planned basis. That way, no one becomes possessive and secretive.
2) Put courageous people in leadership. When someone becomes difficult, they do not hesitate to take appropriate steps.
3) Constantly test yourself. “Could I walk away from this job?” Give yourself minor tests by taking vacations and leaves as needed and appropriate.
4) As much as possible, train your own replacements. That way, you are constantly reminding yourself that another will soon have this position.
5) In your mind, and if possible, with others also, set a date for the end of your work at this position.
Winfield Rich served numerous Southern Baptist churches as interim minister of education, and did so wonderfully. An interim can take quick action without people getting overly upset, since it was known from the first that his tenure would be short. Windy, as he was known, helped one of my churches.
“I’ve come to leave,” Windy would announce as he began work. And sure enough, three months or six months later, he would be on his way to another assignment.
It applies to you. It applies to me. We have all come to leave.
Let’s do it in God-pleasing, church-edifying ways and on God’s schedule.