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.
Problem One: A little group of unelected lay leaders is running the church behind the scenes.
In most cases, the new pastor learned of the existence of this cabal only after he had arrived, set up his office, began his ministry, and then tried to initiate something. He was told there was a small group of people–almost always it’s a group of men–who would have to approve this before he could proceed.
How those few people came to occupy this lofty perch of “The Church’s Board of Directors” is irrelevant. The question is what to do now.
If you are the pastor, go slow. They are in the driver’s seat and you are the new kid on the block. If you force them to a showdown, the congregation does not know you well enough to back you. So you lose.
If you are a layperson in the church, you are in a stronger position–at least at first–to do something about this group. So, let’s approach it from that position, that you are a layperson wishing to put a stop to the control of a small group of unelected church members. Here are my recommendations…
a) Be naive. Do not meet with other concerned members and plan an attack. You will be more effective if you simply act on your own at first.
b) Stand up in a business meeting and ask (about something pulled off by that group), “How was this decision made?” Then, sit down.
If the pastor is moderating the meeting–and if he is being victimized by the group–he will appreciate the question. This is what he has been hoping for, that some church member or members would finally begin to question the behavior of that bunch.
At this point, the pastor should turn to any member of the (ahem) ruling group and say sweetly, “Would any of you care to respond to this question?” And wait. As long as is necessary, pastor. Wait.
They do not care to respond to that question, I can tell you. The group’s power has been predicated on the passivity of the congregation, on the unlikelihood of anyone holding them accountable. They work best undercover and cannot exist long if that cover is removed.
c) Regardless of the answer you receive from the church’s self-appointed czar, be ready to respond to him. You will be expected to explain whether this answer satisfies you or not.
Therefore, be praying for the Father to lead you, to put the words in your mouth. Whether your response is “No, this does not satisfy me. I thought we had a pastor to make that decision” or “I’m sorry. No, this is not satisfactory. What about the church constitution and bylaws? Why weren’t they followed?” or something else, listen to the Spirit and speak or be silent as He leads.
Church czars want to end all accountability for their actions. What you will want to do is to make sure structures are in place for each leader at every level to be accountable. Without accountability in anything–school, stores, churches–nothing good will happen. The saying goes, ‘People do not do what you expect; they do what you inspect.’
d) Do not expect this to end the problem. Be prepared to repeat as often as necessary. Oh, and don’t be surprised if they soon recommend that monthly business meetings be curtailed to quarterly or even annually. Do that and they will have succeeded in keeping the church in the dark.
Problem Two: A little group meets in the foyer before and after the services to blast the pastor or another minister.
They are unhappy with the pastor or a staff member and would love to get him/her terminated. There are structures in place for dealing with any minister failing in his/her responsibilities, but the little group prefers not to go that route. They may be planning to take actions to bring down the leader or not. It’s possible this is nothing more than a griping session.
In either case, our proposed remedy is the same.
Go over and stand beside the group. Don’t say a word.
Silently insert yourself into their little gathering.
Just your presence will be sufficient.
They will do one of two things: either disband and guiltily slink away, or turn to you and insist that “this is a private meeting.” Your response is to say sweetly, “Sorry, but it’s not. You’re in the foyer of our church and you are attacking our minister. There is nothing private about it. I could hear you all the way over there.”
Then, they will slink away. Don’t be surprised if they are now angry at you. But the problem is not between you and them. It’s with them and God. The group is working to create havoc in the Lord’s church and that is a huge matter to Him. (So, continue to be sweet and gracious. That’ll further irritate those who want to be angry at you.)
I am amazed at the brazenness of those who think they can do anything they please–no matter how disruptive it becomes to the work of the Lord or how destructive to someone’s ministry–and feel no personal responsibility for their actions. Those people will have a surprise awaiting them at Judgement. Do not envy them; pity them and pray for their souls.
Again, repeat (walking over and standing beside the small group of nay-sayers) as often as necessary. It’s even better if several (not just you) do it.
Problem Three: The church has a problem of ingrained, entrenched leadership. That church secretary or finance chairman or deacon officer loves his/her position and refuses to be retired.
Church members wishing to removed entrenched leaders absolutely must have the support of the pastor and a few key leaders. Otherwise, nothing happens.
If you are the pastor wishing to remove a long-standing officer, again you will not be able to pull this off by yourself. Unless key leaders stand with you, it’s best to leave the matter with the Lord and bide your time.
If you are a new pastor and have a death wish, try to replace that longtime leader on your own. Then, get your resume out because you will soon be job-hunting. Cool it, friend. This problem did not happen overnight and will not be remedied this week.
However, assuming you are the pastor and have the support of a good group of leaders, here are some suggestions:
–Compile your reasons for wanting him/her replaced.
–Gather your forces (i.e., pull your team together to make sure everyone is on board).
–Prayerfully choose the best person(s) and way to approach the individual. You will not want to send in a dozen people, which can be intimidating, antagonizing, overwhelming, and self-defeating.
–Honor the worker. Unless he/she is guilty of gross malfeasance, presumably they have done some things right and deserve some suitable recognition for their longtime service.
–Plan for an appropriate way of showing appreciation, assuming the individual is willing to be retired.
–Do not expect them to be excited about it. Do not wait until they are happy. As soon as they agree that the time has come, move!
–Afterward, set in motion plans to prevent a recurrence of this situation from ever happening. Check the church’s constitution/by-laws to see if they require annual election of leadership; if not, amend them.
Question: What if he/she refuses to go quietly? That happens frequently, and it’s never good. One would think each church worker sees their ministry as a privilege, themselves as servants, and their time as limited. In a perfect world, that’s how it would be. But egos–pride on steroids, aka malignant self-esteem–can sometimes call the shots.
What to do if the entrenched leader refuses to go quietly and begins to raise a ruckus:
–Be Christlike. Do not retaliate, do not respond in kind, do not get angry.
–Bring in a Godly advisor to hear both sides and suggest a path to resolution.
–Stand firm. Do not give in to threats or abuse.
–Expect some members of your leadership team to weaken. Some people have no stomach for conflict and will jump ship the first time the targeted person explodes in anger or breaks down in tears.
–Expect to hear dire warnings. “I have a lot of friends and family in this church. If you fire me, they’ll all leave and take their money with them.”
If the individual does not speak those words, do not be surprised if a member of your leadership team does. “You know, Pete has a huge family. And they have many friends and supporters throughout this church. If we fire him, they’re going to be angry and leave. And we can’t afford to lose that many people and that much offering.”
–Therefore, there’s one more suggestion: “Bring one of Pete’s closest friends onto the leadership team.” Find the friend or family member with the coolest head and sweetest spirit and help them to see the situation, and get them on board. Help them to see that what’s at stake here is the ministry of the church and its reputation for Christ in the community. We cannot afford to have this turn into a disaster. “So, Bob, we need you to help us on this. Help us find the best way to retire Pete so as to honor him and to bless the church.”
You should never ever give in to the threat that someone will leave and take their family and all their tithes. This is a form of blackmail which only the weakest of pastors and leaders will bow before.
You’re either the God-sent shepherd of that congregation or not. If you are, be strong.
I started pastoring in 1962 and served seven churches, six as senior pastor. Over these decades, I heard those very words on several occasions: He will leave and take his tithe and we can’t afford that. And, more than once we watched as the disgruntled members walked out the door in a huff. However….
Never once did the church suffer financially as a result.
Not. One. Time.
It was as though the Lord took it as a matter of personal pride not to let that little bunch of “workers of iniquity” damage His church.
So, be courageous, leader of the Lord’s congregation. God is not honored, His church is not blessed, and His people are not helped by weak and cowardly shepherds who refuse to stand up to those who would use His church for their personal satisfaction.