(This is our account of a difficult three years in our lives–‘ours’ referring to my wife and me–when we pastored a divided church in North Carolina. The article ran in the Winter 2001 issue of “Leadership,” a publication of Christianity Today. At the conclusion, we have a few postscripts which may be of interest to some.)
How could I lead a congregation that was as hurt as I was?
My calendar for the summer and beyond was blank. I usually planned my preaching schedule for a full year, but beyond the second Sunday in June–nothing. I had no ideas. I sensed no leading from the Spirit. But it was only January, so I decided to try again in a couple of months. Again, nothing. By then, I suspected the Lord was up to something.
A member of my church had told me the year before, “Don’t die in this town.” I knew what she meant. She didn’t envision Columbus as the peak of my ministry. Columbus was a county-seat town with three universities nearby, and, for Mississippi, cosmopolitan. I felt Columbus, First Baptist, and I were a good match. The church grew. We were comfortable together. My family was settled. Our sons and daughter had completed most of their schooling, and after twelve years, they called Columbus home. My wife, Margaret, and I had weathered a few squalls, but life was good–a little quiet, perhaps even stagnant, but good.
And suddenly I could hear the clock ticking. Did God have something more for me?
First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, called in March. I ended my ministry at Columbus the second Sunday of June and began in Charlotte one month later.
After I’d been in Charlotte about a month, the man who chaired their search committee phoned. “I have some people I want you to talk with,” he told me. He picked me up and drove me to the impressive home of one of our members. In the living room were a dozen men, all leaders in the church and in the city. Another man appeared in charge.
“We want to offer you some guidance in pastoring the church,” he said. “There are several issues we feel are important, and we want you to know where we stand.” He outlined their position on the battle between conservatives and moderates for control of our denomination and on the role of women in the church. He wanted women elected as deacons, one item in a full slate of changes he wanted made at the church.
I was beginning to see what I had been told: a handful of very strong lay people had called the shots for more than two decades, and this was part of their plan.
My immediate predecessor had run afoul of this little group and after three tough years had moved to another church of his own accord. The pastor before him had stayed over 20 years.
“Those were the 20 most miserable years of my life,” the retired pastor had said to me at a conference while I was preparing to move to Charlotte. “A small group organized against me and fought everything I did. When I proposed something, they would burn up the phone lines to get it killed.” I heard his warning, but I was convinced that this was God’s will for me.
Now I was looking them in the face. The future of the church–and my future with them–was riding on my response.
“I was told before I accepted the call,” I said, “that this church had some very conservative people and some very liberal people. I took an informal survey at a recent meeting, and that assessment seems right. The church is divided theologically, about half and half. So the quickest way to tear it up is to go with a fundamentalist agenda or a liberal agenda.”
The group decided to meet monthly to think through the issue. We reached no conclusions in the second meeting. There was no third meeting.
The drama backstage
I am convinced that there are no bad guys in this story, but it was evident from the beginning that we had different ways of doing church. The congregation had broken ground on a $5-million sanctuary just before I arrived. Preaching three times each Sunday morning, I was eager for the larger auditorium to be completed. But the church was hurting financially because of it. So I preached on stewardship and frequently mentioned the financial need. I started receiving anonymous letters. “We’re not used to our pastor harping on money all the time,” one said. “Would you please stop?!”
I began to hear criticism because we weren’t meeting the budget, but I wasn’t allowed to speak about it.
“Will you go to the Sunday school departments?” I asked the finance chairman. “Write the figures on the chalkboard. If the people see the need, they will respond.”
He was adamant. “We don’t do that. We’li borrow money in the summer when we’re behind, and make it up in the fall and winter. We do not disturb the congregation with such news.”
The membership, I discovered, had been shielded from “such news” for years. This large congregation with a storied past had no written constitution or by-laws. The members knew very little about how the church operated or who operated it.
What they did hear was mostly about the relationship between the pastor and staff. That must have sounded like a soap opera.
Several staff positions were open when I arrived–the church had been without a pastor for 18 months–so we started filling the spots right away. But no one stayed. I had enjoyed long relationships with my staff in Columbus, but not in Charlotte. Two associates came and then quickly left. One I visited in the hospital after he’d suffered chest pains. “Joe, I’m going home,” he said, and returned to the church he had come from only three months earlier.
Another staff member was found lying on the floor of his apartment in a fetal position. He seemed to have suffered a nervous breakdown, although he made a full recovery after moving back home. We terminated one staff member–and his replacement. And it took two attempts for me to find a competent and trustworthy secretary
The atmosphere was toxic and the pressure to perform was tremendous. I tried to support and protect my staff, but I wasn’t handling the situation well. The pressure I felt from those in leadership I passed on. The staff felt little support from me or from the lay leaders, and all the church heard was “Joe can’t keep a staff.”
Mostly what I heard was “Joe can’t preach.”
In love with another
My messages and my style had been well-received in my previous churches. At the only church in Columbus with a live televised worship service, I had become well known–almost like the city’s pastor. The Charlotte pulpit had that same prominence, but soon after I arrived, the comparisons began: “He’s no Charles Page.”
My predecessor–the one who left after three years–was an excellent orator. He returned to the state occasionally to preach at revivals, and my church members would come back from his meetings aglow.
I found out how much this was becoming an issue at our the denomination’s annual convention. It was held that year in San Antonio. At dinner with a couple who were there representing our church, the conversation turned to preaching.
“Joe, we really like you,” the wife said.
“Things seem to be going better for the church,” her husband joined in. “But you’ve really got to do something about your preaching. Some of your sermons are just failures.”
That was like a blow to the stomach-and to my confidence. One thing I thought I did fairly well was preach. My preaching had been significant–I thought–in the church calling me to Charlotte. After that my ears were tuned to the criticisms.
In my second year, a couple wrote me a note as they were being transferred to another city: “The first year you were here we hated your guts because you had taken our beloved pastor’s place.” The remainder of the note was kind, but I began to understand the situation. A few of the more liberal leaders were glad to be rid of Page, but the people as a whole missed him and were still grieving.
This church was still in love with her last pastor and his preaching.
My confidence waned, my confrontations with those few leaders erupted more frequently, and my wife and I were becoming strangers. I was at church all the time, prepping for sermons and trying to stamp out brushfires. By the time I came home at night, I had no emotional energy left for her. Nothing in our relationship was satisfying.
Margaret and I had endured a rough spell about five years earlier. We had even discussed divorce, but we sought counseling, and it worked. I didn’t want this mess to spill over into our family life any more than it had. Our boys were grown, our daughter was in college, and with all the turmoil, they were finding reasons to stay away from church.
At home, Margaret and I designated the back porch as the place where we would talk about church. There we would discuss any nasty thing anybody said or did, but we refused to bring it into the house.
One night when I told her about a visit I’d had that day, I expected Margaret to say, “We’re out of here!” She surprised me, but so had my visitors.
“You need to be making plans to leave,” one of the two men informed me. They weren’t leaders who had opposed me, but I soon figured who was behind their threat. “If you leave quietly, there’ll be no trouble. If you don’t, there will be a public move to have you fired.”
In retrospect, I wish I had given them a choice: they could resign their leadership positions or I would expose them to the congregation the next Sunday. The congregation would have been horrified to learn of such backstage shenanigans. By then I’d been there over two years, and although my predecessor’s shadow still lingered, the people were beginning to accept me. But I have never been comfortable with confrontation, and I told them, “I’ll let you know in a week.”
Margaret was furious when I replayed the scene. “Who do they think they are!” she demanded. She was digging in her heels. We were both hurting, but we drew strength from each other after that.
I told the pair the next week, “I know of a couple of churches where my name has been submitted, but I’ll go only if the Lord leads me to another church.”
I heard nothing more.
Three months passed. Spring came. All was quiet. The staff situation seemed to settle down. My new secretary was a jewel. Even the man who hung around our office trying to ferret out dirt had given up. (“I like working for the pastor very much,” the secretary confronted him, “so if you’re looking for gossip, you won’t find any here.”) And though I still fretted over every sermon, I had hope things would work out.
Until the deacons’ meeting.
The midnight train wreck
The first hour of that Monday night deacons’ meeting had been pleasant. We talked about the usual business of the church. A couple of initiatives had been well received. I thought the next motion would be to adjourn and go home.
“I move we go into executive session.” The motion came from a deacon who had regularly opposed me.
“What’s that?” another asked. “We never had that before.”
“It’s where only the deacons talk. We ask the pastor and the staff to leave.”
A chill went up my spine. In a church without by-laws, they were making up the rules as they went along, but I knew where this was going. We were about to witness a train wreck.
I spoke up. “Gentlemen, I’m the pastor of this church. I have no plans to leave the deacons’ meeting. If you want me to go, you’ll have to vote on a motion to send the pastor from the room.” They discussed the question for some minutes. Finally, two-thirds voted for me to remain.
Then the one-third began to speak. One by one, they lodged their complaints: preaching, or staff problems, or a “malaise in the church.” There was no rancor, but they made it clear that I was not leading the church the way they wanted.
For four hours I watched this tableau: “I like Joe, but…” followed by complaint and discussion. Then the next one would take his turn. I said nothing.
Finally, the youngest of the deacons stood up. “You men say, ‘I like Joe, but…’ I’ll tell you one thing: I sure hope none of you like me.”
Then he opened the Bible to 1 Timothy and began reading the description of a pastor. After the first qualification, “Now the overseer must be above reproach,” he said. “That’s Joe McKeever.” He read the next qualification and said, “That’s Joe McKeever.” Through the whole list he read, concluding each time, “That’s Joe McKeever.” When he finished, he sat down. The room was silent.
It was midnight. No one knew how to conclude the meeting, so it was decided we would come back the following Thursday to wrap it up. It seemed the coup had failed.
The next morning one of the two men who had tried to force my resignation months earlier was in my office. “I want you to have mercy on me,” he said. He knew they were defeated. “I’ll resign my positions. Can I at least keep my Sunday school class?”
I did not accept his resignation. He was a good man who meant well, and as far as I was concerned, it was all over.
My circle of friends and advisers was split in their opinions. “You’ve won, Joe,” my brother, a pastor, told me.
“It’s over. That’s the end of it” was my mentor’s assessment.
A couple of people were cautionary, including our local denominational official. “Take the high road, Joe,” he advised. “Call in a mediator.”
Back in the winter, I had suggested that we bring in a mediator to look at our situation and tell me and the church the truth about ourselves. I was convinced that the polarization of this church went back several decades. The battle over Joe was only its latest manifestation.
When the ouster failed in the deacons’ meeting, my phone started ringing. “Joe, we need to bring in a mediator.”
“I suggested that six months ago.”
“Yes, I did.”
“What did I say?” my caller asked.
“‘It’s gone too far for that now.'”
Another leader approached Margaret and me after the Wednesday evening service. “Joe, we need a mediator,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I suggested that, but I think we’re beyond that now.”
He stared. “Joe, we’ll never be beyond this. This thing will never be over.”
“That was a threat, Joe,” Margaret said later. “No matter what happens, he will make our lives miserable.”
On Thursday I agreed to call a mediator.
An indecent proposal
The congregation as a whole did not know about the mediator. All they knew was they received a questionnaire in the mail asking their opinion about the church’s ministries. Of all the questions on the three-page form, the mediator was interested in the responses to one: “What do you think of the ministry of Joe McKeever?”
The mediator was not from our denomination–that was intentional. We contacted a Christian organization that specialized in congregational analysis and arbitration. The mediator interviewed many of our leaders. He told me that whatever recommendations he had about me he would deliver to me in private. It was not his intention, I understood, to end my ministry but to facilitate it.
I was stunned when, in another deacons’ meeting two months later, he passed out a fifteen-page report, five of those pages about me. His assessment was lengthy, its impact was swift.
Yes, the church was polarized theologically. Yes, a percentage of the congregation opposed the pastoral leadership, but the vast majority were supportive and had little idea what was happening. He confirmed that, without some written structure, powerful lay leadership had filled the vacuum and called the shots for many years. “The most perfect pastor in the world could not have pastored this church.”
About my preaching, he said, “Joe’s no pulpit giant, but he can preach.” That was cold comfort. The report also included some misinformation about my family and a deacon task force supposedly formed to work with me, but I never got to respond to the charges, because he soon delivered the coup de grace. “I am recommending that Joe McKeever leave because he has become the focus of the church’s problems.”
Two power brokers had taken me to lunch not long before the report came out. They offered me $100,000 to leave. I refused it. A large church in Texas seeking a pastor had contacted me during that time. I refused them. How could I leave this mess to the next pastor who would get victimized by this process and by some of these people?
Now I had no choice.
“How soon are you leaving?” a deacon asked cheerily the morning after the report.
Several days later, I responded. “If you will take this report to the church, if they vote to accept it and do everything it says, then I will leave.”
We had a houseful on the Wednesday night the report was presented. The congregation was surprised by it all. I chose not to name names or expose their machinations. The recommendations to put in writing a constitution and bylaws, I hoped, when adopted would put them out of business.
In the end, the church approved the recommendations, gave me a paid, one-year leave of absence with benefits, the car I had been driving, and a farewell reception.
It was over.
And Margaret and I withdrew to the back porch.
Holy fire still burns
We started taking day trips into the mountains. In the thick of battle, I could rarely spare an hour’s drive into the hills beyond Charlotte. Now I had nothing but time.
We often went to Pilot Mountain (Mount Pilot they called it in the “Mayberry” TV shows). It was, as one old preacher had told me, a high, refreshing place to meet with the Lord. He described a ledge on the mountainside where he sat for these meetings, and I went looking for it.
“Do you really believe we were called to Charlotte?” Margaret asked on one trip.
It was a good question. My process for investigating prospective churches was not sophisticated–I made a few phone calls–but I figured if we were following Jesus, he would lead us to where we were supposed to be. As the clock ticked on my leave of absence, and our income, I revisited that belief many times.
A friend called at one point and said a church not far away was considering me. We drove over there. The church was about half the size of the one I had pastored. They never called. It was then that I began to realize that people might never want anything to do with me. In the eyes of pastor search committees, I was damaged. I might never pastor again. My nightly walks around the neighborhood had been prayerful. They turned tearful.
Twice during this period I was admitted to the hospital with panic attacks–chest pains and hyperventilation. I had no idea how great the stress had been until my body tried to release it.
One evening Margaret and I were sitting together, rehearsing some minute plot point in this saga, when I felt drawn to Scripture. As I flipped the pages, a psalm caught my eye. I read aloud:
“Who keeps us in life,
And does not allow our feet to slip.
For Thou hast tried us, O God;
Thou hast refined us as silver is refined.
Thou didst bring us into the net;
Thou didst lay an oppressive burden upon our loins.
Thou didst make men ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;
Yet Thou didst bring us out into a place
of abundance” (Ps. 66:9-12 NASB).
Margaret said, “OK, Lord, there’s your promise. You will bring us out into a place of abundance.” So we began to pray and thank the Lord for the place he had for us.
My body, broken, for you
First Baptist Church of Kenner, Louisiana, split five ways in two years following the departures of two pastors. The preacher they fell in love with pastored there 13 years, grew a small church into a big church, made a name for himself in metropolitan New Orleans, and built a new $5-million dollar sanctuary just before he was called to a larger pastorate in Arkansas.
His successor was a dynamic preacher, too, but he had a more exuberent worship style than most at this traditional Southern Baptist church. That made some uncomfortable and they left. Revelations about his personal life sent hundreds more fleeing.
Seven months after his arrival, a majority of the congregation voted to terminate him. Soon after, worship attendance was less than half its peak, and more than 50 percent of the budget was obligated to debt service. The building program, begun during Louisiana’s oil boom, went bust with the oil crisis and the church crisis.
The treasurer laid unpaid invoices on the table in the vestibule. “Take ’em if you can pay ’em,” he told the congregation on several occasions. This church was so broke that the interim pastor would not accept a salary; so broke that the pastor search committee was told they could travel only to those places to which they could drive and return home in a single day; and so broken that some members feared they might never call a pastor.
A match made where?
I started writing my “network” as soon as my one-year hiatus began. I made letterhead with all their names–a dozen friends I started collecting in seminary–at the top.
“Keep us in prayer and remember me to any open churches you think appropriate,” I asked. Every month or so I sent an update. Their replies were my lifeline.
I preached several revivals. I needed to know that I could preach. Some Sundays we watched First Charlotte’s televised service. And church members called us periodically, at first urging me to start a church, and when I declined, just to encourage us. Mostly, we wanted to put the whole experience behind us.
The year was almost over when one of my network friends asked me to preach for him while he was on vacation for three weeks. “You and Margaret can stay in our home. It will be good for you, and the church will be glad to see you,” he urged. I had served on staff there many years earlier, and the current pastor and I had become friends during my pastorate in Columbus.
That’s how it happened that I was preaching in Jackson, Mississippi, when the pulpit committee from Kenner, a three-hour drive away, visited.
My leave of absence ended the last week of August, and the following Sunday I preached my first sermon as pastor of First Baptist Church of Kenner. I’ve been there more than ten years.
Recently on a visit to the Illinois statehouse in Springfield, I picked up a souvenir book on Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t expect it to have such an impact on me, puffing these events, now more than a decade past, into perspective.
In The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, author Michael Burlingame depicts Lincoln’s midlife crisis. At age 40, Lincoln retired from public life. At the time he was described as “an honest, capable, but essentially self-centered politician.” He was self-doubting and underdeveloped, a man of “largely unsuspected talents.” He emerged five years later “speaking with a new seriousness, a new explicitness, a new authority, and thus he grew into a statesman.” His sabbatical was one of crisis. Lincoln buried a son, had two sons born, and buried his father. These events were life-changing.
One analyst said it is in a man’s midlife that he lets go of some of the attachment to the external world and comes to terms with his own mortality. This crisis prompts individuation, in which a man defines his true calling and fully engages his true gifts.
I seem to have emerged from my own crisis a little tougher. Sometimes when I find a deacon has scheduled an appointment, I think, What have I done now? But I’m sure of my motivations, and whether certain people like me doesn’t matter so much anymore.
I’ve taken things more slowly here than I might have earlier. At times I’ve told the church, “Let’s not do this if we can’t have unity on it. We don’t need the conflict.” I was especially careful during my first four or five years here. We spent a lot of time addressing the issues of guilt and disappointment. Many felt guilty for their actions. The rest were disappointed–in their friends, their pastors, themselves, even God.
Those I had left behind in Charlotte must have been experiencing those same emotions. I had been called to Kenner to do the same ministry that my successor would undertake in Charlotte. My successor, by the way, was Charles Page, the same man who had preceded me. First Baptist of Charlotte called back the pastor whom they had grieved, the one whose ministry had seemed cut short. He has enjoyed a long and successful tenure and still serves there today. By all reports, the church is thriving.
And I am grateful to say that the Kenner church has survived its crisis, too. The church has healed from its deep pain. We paid off the debt in 1998. Burning that note was like being let out of jail. The staff received raises, including our music minister of nine years and our education minister of seven years. And though it has taken ten years to reach this point, we can truly say that God–who has tried us and refined us–has brought us to a place of abundance.
It is now over a decade since this article was published. When it first came out, before the mail had brought my copy, the phone was ringing and email was pouring in from pastors who had read it. A pastor from Missouri phoned to say he read it, then called his wife and read it to her over the phone, and they wept, because it described so perfectly what was going on in their lives. I wept with him.
In time, I must have heard from 30 or 40 ministers with similar stories.
HOW DID THIS ARTICLE COME ABOUT?
In my experience, preachers do not automatically sit down and write about the worst three years of their lives. What happened was this. The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (my school) asked me to lead a group of pastors each semester, with “church conflict” being one of the topics to deal with. So, in the course, I would share my story with them, the one above. One semester, Eric Reed, pastor of Gentilly Baptist Church, was among the students. After graduating, he took a job as one of the editors at Leadership magazine in Chicago. Eric phoned one day to say they were producing an issue on church conflict and he wondered if I would be willing to write my story.
I said, “I don’t know. It’s painful enough to think about and share with a few people in a classroom, but I’m not sure I want to lay it out there before the world.”
Over the next few weeks, Eric and I went back and forth on the phone, he helped me a great deal, and the result is what you see here.
IS IT ACCURATE? DOES IT TELL THE WHOLE STORY?
It’s accurate, but it does not tell the whole story. It couldn’t. And I may have fudged on one thing. I said, “I am convinced there are no ‘bad guys’ in the story.” However, it’s clear some people did some unkind things to their pastor and divisive things to their church. Since Scripture teaches that “what we do to the church, we do to Jesus; He takes it all personally,” I conclude that some individuals have been penciled in on the Lord’s appointment calendar at Judgement for what will literally be a “come to Jesus” meeting. I pray He will be merciful to them, as I will be needing mercy also.
A FRIEND FROM CHARLOTTE WHO WAS NOT IN OUR CHURCH HAS READ THIS AND ASKED, “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO GET OVER WHAT HAPPENED HERE?”
I’m long over it, I tell him. But one never forgets the lessons.
You forgive the people, but you remember the experiences. It all heals, but the scars remain. And, since the Lord does not like to waste suffering, there are insights and lessons for the Lord’s people presently in church leadership positions.
That’s why the article is being posted on our website.