When is a pastor to defend himself?

Mostly, the pastor should let others defend him.  But sometimes, he is the only one able to tell the whole story. His staunchest supporters can do only so much, and he has to take it the rest of the way. Here is an instance when I did this…

In cleaning out some files the other day, I ran across a letter I’d written to our congregation almost exactly half-way through my 14 year ministry at the last church in which I was answering some critics.

Following is the letter in its entirety….

“When I came here as your pastor in September of 1990, I told you the details of my leaving my last church (named here).  In one lengthy message since then, I went into detail about that experience.

“It has come to my attention that a little group is now spreading the word that ‘Joe was fired by his last church and given a year’s salary to leave.’ Nothing could be further from the truth.  I loved that church and the church loved me.  Had I taken the matter to a vote, I would have had 90 percent of the church to support me.

“For thirty years, a few self-appointed leaders ran that church. No sooner had I arrived than they invited me to a meeting in which they said ‘We thought you would need some help in pastoring this church.’ When they saw I did not go along with their liberal agenda, even though I’d been there only two months, some of them set out to get me out.  At the end of my third year there, in an effort to heal the schism in the church, we brought in an outside consultant.  This was a mistake, in retrospect. This man made many promises he did not keep and used some extremely faulty methods, but he concluded:

–no one could pastor that church (as things then stood).

–the church had no written by-laws or constitution spelling out how things were to be done, creating a vacuum for strong lay leaders to fill and to run the church

–Joe is not this church’s problem, he said, but he has become the focus of the problem, so I’m going to recommend he leave so the church can work at getting its act together.

“Only when the congregation voted to do everything he suggested did I agree to leaving.  While his suggestion was that I stay in the pulpit until I find a new church, I told the leaders if they wished to pay my salary (until I found a new church; up to one year) I would leave.  The church was in shock. Many wanted to vote out that bunch who had instigated this, or to start a new church.  In all we did, we conducted ourselves as we believe Christ would, loving each one and trying to bless that church.

“During those twelve months we preached several revivals and enjoyed some much-needed peace and quiet.  The Lord kept closing doors for a new pastorate. I turned down several fine churches because those were not where God was leading.  We came to Kenner in September of 1990, exactly 12 months after we left the previous church.  God’s timing was incredible.

“I still remember the Kenner search committee saying ‘One thing we appreciate about you is you did not force the issue in (that city) to a vote, which could have torn up the church.’ The previous pastor here at Kenner had done exactly that.

“Now let me end by stating firmly what I said in a recent sermon.  A few church members desperately need to know this:

1) There is nothing new about this opposition.  It has been here for seven years, involving the same people.  It’s only more public than previously.  So, please don’t let this frighten you.

2) This is a fine church.  Seven people made professions of faith in our services last Sunday. God is at work here.

3) I love this church and this church loves me.  I know this.

4) I’m not going anywhere.  Write it in big letters.  This is the Lord’s church and He sent me to do His work here. I will stay until He says go.

“We will love everyone. We will demonstrate Christ’s love to all we meet.  We will respond to opposition with kindness and graciousness.  That’s my promise to the Father and to you.”  (signed)

A few observations on the issue of writing a letter to the congregation to defend oneself…

1) Some of our leaders encouraged me to do it. Without that, I probably would not have done it.  (I think they grew tired of the slander and needed something stronger with which to answer the critics.)

2) I had been pastor here 7 years.  Almost anyone would agree I had been extremely patient with the trouble-makers and had endured their constant undercutting long enough.  It was time to do something.

3) Notice there is no attack in it.  I did not name names or issue ultimatums, but dealt with the issue.

4) Do not miss the firm resolve: God led me to this church and I’m not going anywhere until He says.  The leadership asked me to make this plain. The little group would not be running me off.

5) Notice the affirmation of love toward the end.

The aftermath…

I remained as pastor of this church another 7 years, then became director of missions for the association.  To date, my wife and I have been members of this church almost a quarter century, almost one-third of its life.  The church has had two pastors since I left, Dr. Tony Merida and Dr. Mike Miller, who is now in his seventh year, I think.  It’s a wonderful church in a hundred ways, although–to no one’s surprise–it’s a far different church in 2015 from what it was in the 1990s.  (Just as during my years, it was vastly different from the church of the 1960s or the 1970s. Churches are always transitioning, particularly as they change pastors.)

Our last 7 years of pastoring this church were wonderful.  Finally, it seemed the “little group” (for want of a better term) tossed in the towel and ceased to operate. The Lord gave us a body of deacons who wanted only to serve (and not to control). The monthly deacons meetings became a joy.

None of this would have happened, however, had the lay leadership–the true leaders, not the would-be controllers!–not been strong and faithful, supportive and consistent.

When should an embattled pastor defend himself to the congregation?

Short answer:  Only after other remedies have failed.

When it becomes necessary to go public, I suggest the following order:

First, start with selected leaders in a private meeting.  Get the counsel of those you trust and whose wisdom you respect.  In many cases they can handle matters with the congregation while you go forward preaching and ministering as though nothing was going on.  So, this may be all that’s necessary.

However, if after a time, the leadership asks you to go public in your own defense, before doing so, get the advice of a couple of mentors as to a) whether to do so and b) how to do it.  If the consensus is that you should do this, then get their assistance in preparing the best approach.

Go forward in all these things on your knees, servant of the Lord. Do nothing in the flesh, and seek to please the Father in all you do.  Your goal is to honor Him, exalt Christ, and to bless His people.

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