Three difficult church situations and what to do about them

I am not a professional counselor, not an official adviser of churches or denominations or pastors as such, and not acclaimed as an expert on problem-solving or conflict management. What I am is a veteran  preacher–now retired– and a writer who sometimes gets asked, “What is your take on this? What do you recommend we do about that?”

Out of that experience, and spurred on by two recent situations–one by phone last night and the other from an email this morning–here are three “case studies” or problem scenarios that occur with alarming frequency in our churches. And my suggestions on what the leadership should do in handling them.

As always, I do not claim to have the last word on any of this. But if it turns out this is the first word, something that gets readers to thinking deeply and acting courageously, it will have been worth the effort.

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Lack of integrity in a pastor is a deal-breaker

I was the student minister in a fine church many years ago.  We had a wonderful ministry. The single negative about the entire experience was the pastor. You never knew what he would do next.

Case in point. One night in a church business meeting, the pastor announced that the property the church owned, including the former pastorium, was being offered for sale. At the time, my wife and I were living in that house! And now we learn they’re selling it. This was the first we had heard of it.

That night, my wife was angry because she thought I had known about it and not told her. But that was the way this pastor worked.

Staff members were nothing to him. Just pawns to be manipulated.

I sat there listening to longtime friend Will tell of that experience from some years back and thought once again that the number one trait a staff member is looking for in his/her new pastor–employer, supervisor, and hopefully  mentor–is integrity.

Without integrity, nothing matters.

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What if Jesus had not died?

If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  –I Corinthians 15:17

“What If?” is a series of best-selling books put together by Robert Cowley, in which historians look at key events in history and try to imagine what if things had not happened that way.

What if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus?

That is the title of the chapter by Carlos M. N. Eire, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. The subtitle reads, Christianity without the Crucifixion.

Eire imagines Pontius Pilate heeding the warning of his wife whose sleep had been disturbed that night by thoughts of “that righteous man.” Her message to the governor said, “Have nothing to do with him.”

So, he asks, what if Pilate had done the right thing and resisted the religious leaders and the rabble who were crying for Jesus’ execution; what if he had released Him?

On one page, underneath a 13th century painting of Pilate with the Jewish leaders is the caption: “The Decision That Made a Religion.”  (We can insist that it was the resurrection that “made” the Christian faith, but we won’t quibble over the importance of the crucifixion.)

Eire asks, “What if Jesus hadn’t been nailed to a cross at Pilate’s orders? What if he had lived a long, long life? Or even just ten more years? Or one? What if his person and message had been interpreted differently, as they surely would have been?”

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While her Son was dying, Mary was thinking…

“But there were standing by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25)

Why am I here? And why is He there?

There seem to be no answers other than “God knows and we trust Him.”

Thy will be done. “I am the bond-slave of the Lord. Be it done to me according to Thy word.”

Sometimes you cry and cry until there are no more tears.

Your heart aches until it no longer feels anything.

Your mind grows exhausted from events happening all around, none of which you were prepared for.

If anyone had told me a year ago I could experience the suffering of this day and live through it, I would have thought it impossible.

There are no words to describe this kind of heart-break.

You are surrounded by people, yet more alone than at anytime in your life.

Friends come over, want to make sure I’m all right. They ask how I’m coping. No words come.

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The friendliness factor: How to make your church friendly without encouraging cliques

A young pastor tossed a question my way.

“My small church is growing, and our people do not want to lose the family spirit of a small church. But how do we maintain that without becoming a clique?”

By clique he means a closed group of friends, accepting no new members.

We’ve all seen Sunday School classes where the members have been together for years and know everything there is to know about the others, and where the intimacy is deep and lasting. They know birthdays, the names of each one’s grandchildren, and they relate to one another like sisters.

Yes, sisters. It’s almost always a women’s class that does this.

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How to change the culture of a church

When Jim went to his church as the new pastor, he told me, “They have a bad history. Every two years they run the preacher off.” He paused and said, “Let’s see if we can change that.”

He didn’t.

Two years later, in spite of the wonderful growth the church was experiencing, a little group informed him that his work there was done and it would be better if he left.

I served one church where a small group of leaders–some elected and some not–met from time to time to make important decisions for the church. The poor pastor had little or no say. When I, the new preacher, suggested that this is the type of thing a congregation needs to know about and make the decision, the spokesman said, “We don’t like to upset the congregation about these things.”

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What a pastor’s heart is like

As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.  (Isaiah 66:13).

A young pastor who wonders if he is  out of place trying to lead a church sent me a note the other day. With the constant demands upon his time and the unending situations which call for infinite wisdom, divine patience and supernatural strength, he’s feeling like the fellow who was eaten alive by a school of minnows. He wonders if he’s cut out to be a pastor.

He said, “I hear people talking about those who have the heart of a pastor. What exactly is that?”

Great question.

Perhaps it’s like the fellow said of art (and a lot of other things!): “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”

My friend Chris was grieving over the loss of their church’s associate minister and his family, who had moved to another church several states away. In the church hallway, as she and a staff member passed, the minister said, “Good morning, Chris. How are you today?”

Chris burst into tears.

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Some treasures are in Birmingham, some in Chicago…

Tragically, in most churches the pain of change is greater than the pain of ineffectiveness. — Thom Rainer in “Simple Church.”

Longtime friend Max Youngblood of Bessemer, Alabama–now in Heaven–sent me a delightful thing from the Birmingham area. At the time, the Jefferson County Commission was proposing a “non-user fee” for residents who do not use the county sewer system.  That’s what gave restaurant owner Tasos Touloupis an idea. The owner of Ted’s Restaurants — one at 328 12th St. South and the other at 1801 4th Avenue South — took that to its logical conclusion and proposed a “non-diner’s fee.”

Ted promised to maintain a record of his customers. At the end of each month, his bookkeeper would send a $12 NDF invoice to all residents of Jefferson County who did not eat at Ted’s during the month.

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Yes, it does matter who gets the credit!

Sitting in front of the television as Hollywood was handing out its annual Oscars, I wondered something.

Who decides who steps to the microphone to acknowledge and receive these coveted awards?

When a movie’s name is called as the winner of “best picture” or some other category in which a number of people have collaborated, who decides which member of that crowd stands, walks to the front, accepts the kiss from Penelope Cruz, and addresses the billion people who are tuned in?

Do they work this out in advance? Is it spontaneous? Do people get their feelings hurt when the wrong person steps up and takes credit?

Michael Curtiz directed “Casablanca,” the incredible movie which took home several Oscars from the 1944 prom. He was named best director and the movie best picture of the year.  The film was done by Warner Brothers.

There were three Warner Brothers–Albert, Harry, and Jack. It seems to be the universal assessment that  Jack was the rascal in the bunch. Once Jack talked his brothers into selling the studio to a Boston firm, then the next day repurchased it so it would belong exclusively to himself. The rest of the family never forgave and never forgot.

An executive who worked on “Casablanca”–I’ve forgotten his name–tells  what happened at the awards ceremony when “Casablanca” was announced as best picture of the year.   “I was rising to my feet when I noticed Jack Warner already on his way to the front. He accepted the Oscar like he had had anything to do with this movie. It was my movie. I’m the one who made ‘Casablanca’ happen!”

A generation later, the man still had not forgotten the offense or forgiven Jack Warner.

A line attributed to Ronald Reagan says, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit.” (Other people, including Walt Disney, also get credit for saying that.)

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Beware of wanting everything too simple

A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. –Everett Dirksen, Republican Senator from Illinois (1896-1969).

Watching our nation’s politicians as they propose, dispose, impose, expose, compose and, of course, suppose regarding the economic crisis this country seems to be constantly facing, I find myself wondering how many actually know what they are talking about.

I hate to be skeptical, but common sense — forged by a half-century of dealing with churches, finance people, and my own situations — informs me that most people do not relate to budgets, debts, and deals in the millions of dollars, much less billions and even trillions.

That, however, does not prevent the lowliest politician from sounding forth on the matter, usually to tell the world all that is wrong with whatever the nation’s leaders are proposing at the moment. And what is his own solution to the quandary we face? He never says.

A long time ago another senator, Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton said, “The worst disease afflicting my constituents is a thing called ‘the simples.’ The folks back home want me to come up with simple solutions to their complex problems, answers that resolve all their difficulties without it costing them anything.”

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.

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