I can’t believe I had forgotten this detail.
That night twenty years ago, when my elders sat in the parsonage kitchen and demanded my resignation, one of them made an odd statement before we were done.
He said, “We’ve had a lot of former ministers go on and do very well for themselves. You’re not going to talk bad about us after you leave here, are you?”
I promised him I wouldn’t. Of course, who could have predicted the rise of the blog-o-sphere back then!
Seriously, though, the last thing I want to do here is air dirty laundry. We all make mistakes, and we grow from them, hopefully. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for those events so long ago. Part of growing is seeing God’s hand in your life, even in those difficult times.
If God has taught me anything (in spite of myself), it is grace. This post is written in full appreciation of that. It’s also written with experience of offering support to several fired ministers in the past decades.
In the Third Year of My Ministry Things Had Begun to Sour
This was when the personality conflicts began to present themselves. There were a few heated board meetings and some follow-up leadership meetings. I recall looking into a few new opportunities, but I was naive enough to think we could ride this out. We were all friends, after all.
A tragic death that year knocked our little church for a loop. It also served to strengthen some ties–if only temporarily. It was almost a year to the day after the death that I sensed this wasn’t going to end well.
The tension was horrible. My own stress was off the charts. Starting one week before our monthly board meetings, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, and my digestion was a mess. Then, after the board meeting, I would ride the calm for the next three weeks before it hit again. I’m surprised I stayed as healthy as I did.
Unbeknownst to me, secret meetings were taking place. This was a small town, and I got a lesson in small-town politics–literal politics. One night I attended a local political meeting and witnessed the officials organizing how each person would move, second and then vote to get their agenda pushed through. Many of the same people were at the center of our church conflict. I have always assumed the meetings I wasn’t invited to were orchestrated much the same way.
It would be easy to name the laundry list of complaints that led to my termination, but I don’t think they really mattered. This wasn’t about what I did or didn’t do. This was about what happens when conflict isn’t handled appropriately with the goal of healing. The easy answer was simply getting rid of me and moving on to the next preacher (who lasted two and a half years).
I’ve had twenty years to consider the details
As I look back, this is how I see it. In the interest of fairness, I’ll own up to my own failures first.
Where I failed
1. I rushed into leadership ministry too fast.
There’s no other excuse but that I love to preach. I didn’t want to serve as a youth minister and work my way into it. I thought I could just start out as a 23-year-old and launch into preaching. Maybe some guys can, but those guys aren’t me.
If I may respond to my own fault, I have to ask this: What kind of church hires a 23-year-old and throws them into a leadership position? Most likely, it’s the kind of church that doesn’t want to grow.
2. I should have seen myself as a facilitator of the elders’ vision for their church.
Instead, I viewed myself as “one of them” on equal footing. In fairness, I was encouraged to do this (they even gave me a certificate that said “ELDER” on it!) I think the right thing to do at that age and in those circumstances is to approach ministry from the perspective of, “What can I do to facilitate your vision for this church?”
I’m not sure we train ministers to do that anymore though.
3. I did not mend bridges like I should have.
I now know better. If there are hurt feelings, I will go to a person and work through them (provided I’m made aware of them).
4. Like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so I was silent.
I honestly thought that’s what I was supposed to do; I thought it was Christ-like. If I sat there and didn’t defend myself but simply took on the pain of the rejection, I was doing the right thing.
I know better now. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16 I now understand that Jesus’ silence before his accusers was a sacrifice on our behalf, not a call to roll over and play dead.
5. I should have seen the writing on the wall.
It would have helped to ask the former minister about how they handled conflict with him (poorly). I should have listened to my friend in the community, who later told me, “They always fire ministers. When will they realize that the problem is them?”
Where They Failed
(I mean besides in hiring me)
1. Believing they needed a full-time minister.
They didn’t–many churches don’t. It wasn’t until years later, after I took one of the ministers who followed me there out to lunch (I do that a lot), that I really saw it. He asked me, in all honesty, “What do you do all day?” It wasn’t in the old, “ministers only work on Sunday. Haha!” vein; for him, it was a legitimate concern. There just wasn’t enough to keep him busy.
Suddenly struck me–I wasn’t lazy! I simply wasn’t needed! They would have been better off taking on someone who needed to supplement their income. But instead, the church frowned upon me taking on a part-time job to make up for what I lacked from the $288 a week they paid me (that was gross…in more ways than one), even by 1989 standards, that was pretty much poverty level.
2. Their governance system was appalling.
While there was an elected board of elders and deacons, the board meetings and votes were open to any member who wanted to show up. Everyone had a voice. So, all it took was stirring up enough people, showing up to a board meeting with your mob, and you got your way.
3. They avoided confrontation.
No one likes confrontation, but you had better be willing to go toe-to-toe when necessary when you sign on for leadership. In all fairness, it was probably a defense mechanism they had learned (I think their wives taught them that). To my own shame, as their minister, I should have been holding them to a higher standard and teaching them about boldness.
4. Let’s just call it what it was. They Lied to Me.
This church had an amazing number of very godly deacons. They were good men who took their calling to serve seriously. Over the years, I forged wonderful relationships with several of them and still call them friends and visit with them.
The night we met in the kitchen, I asked about the deacons. They were also at the meeting, where they decided to fire me. Knowing the friendships I had with these men, I asked, “How did the deacons feel about this?” I was told, “real good.” That they were in full agreement with the elders’ decision.
That turned out to not be true. Within a week, one of the deacons contacted me and even sent me his own notes from the meeting, which told a very different story from the cut-and-dry one I was given. A couple of weeks later, another deacon came to the apartment where my family was then living, asking for permission to leave the church (I told him to stay). Another sent me a check for another weeks’ pay. I don’t think any of those men still attend that church.
Cats and Collies
Lyle Schaller wrote in his book, “Looking in the Mirror,” about the dichotomies that play out in churches of different sizes. He compared them to cats and collies.
Churches under 35 members are like cats, Schaller says. They’re very independent–you can’t own a cat. They want to be fed and cared for, and they expect the pastor to do that. They want food in times of crisis but otherwise stay out of their personal space.
Churches from 35-100 are collies. Collies are affectionate to members of the family but bark at strangers. These dogs enjoy being loved. They like to return the affection, but there’s nothing more stubborn than a hurt collie. They want to see the Pastor and expect him to come in “their yard” to play with them. These churches pride themselves in their “friendliness” but fail to see that they are friendly to family members only. They are happy that “everyone knows everyone else.”
One of my harshest critics at this church later commented at one of the pulpit committee meetings to hire my replacement, “All I want is a little church where my family can go to church, and I don’t have to know anyone else.”
This was a collie church and this collie threw Timmy down the well.
(I was Timmy)
(I mean . . . you picked up on that, right?)
In my next installment, I’ll wrap it up with what they did right and what I did right. It should be a much shorter post.