In my ministry, there have been three times when I’ve reached the point of writing a resignation letter. In all three instances, I was (a) out of gas emotionally, (b) concerned about my base of support with the silent majority, (c) under severe attack. I can also remember that every situation was, unfortunately, staff related. I once asked a leader in my denomination, for the single most important bit of advice he could give. He said, “Michael, 95% of the problems you will have, as a pastor, are staff related. It will either be a lack of competence or a lack of loyalty.” I’ve discovered the painful truth of that statement.
In my first pastorate, I inherited several staff members. The Pulpit Committee told me in advance that none of the staff were doing their jobs. I made the fatal mistake of buying into their suggestion that, “Once you show them what’s expected, they will leave on their own.” They didn’t. One staff member actually read magazines while I preached. I don’t consider myself a great preacher, but I think what I have to say is more important than Field & Stream. This particular staff member had been serving the church for eight years when I arrived. On top of that, he had family in the church. For many reasons, we had to come to a parting of the ways. He did not leave quietly. Basically, he resigned saying, “I’m for God, country, apple pie and Chevrolet. The pastor is for communism, prune juice and imports.” When he left, his relatives in the church made it their goal to make my life miserable. It took a long time for me to forget what some people said in that heated business meeting.
On another occasion, we had a staff member who infected the rest of the staff with the spirit of second guessing. He played one staff member against another. He played me against staff members and I was too dumb to see it at first. One day, it all hit the fan. In a matter of 48 hours, our deacons voted unanimously to terminate the man. Because he had a family, we gave him a generous severance and provided health insurance for up to six months. He left telling a different story. He told church members and a few other churches we left him destitute. He convinced two churches to pay his medical bills because we supposedly had no health insurance. When we provided those churches with the cancelled checks, they realized what had happened. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that after leaving us, he played a part in dividing or splitting at least five different churches. Of course, not one search committee or pastor ever called us for a reference (until they were in trouble).
The third experience involved a former Headmaster at the school our church sponsors. This individual tried to build his own kingdom and nearly brought an entire church down. A word of caution to those of you who have schools, never let the tail wag the dog. That one took months to overcome. We lost several families in the church and it negatively impacted school and church for a long time. I had to take a tough stand and it wasn’t easy.
A few weeks ago, I talked with a minister dealing with a former employee who was undermining his ministry. He’s been hurt and wounded by someone. If it hasn’t happened to you, trust me, it’s not been easy to get over. Whether you are a staff member, traveling minister or pastor, you either know someone who has gone through similar situations. You most likely have your own horror story to tell.
Based on my own experiences (call that mistakes) and from listening to other ministers dealing with similar situations, I would like to make several suggestions. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way.
One, Take Your Burden to The Lord. Ron Dunn says, “Anything that makes you pray is a blessing.” When I’m in the middle of conflict, I don’t feel like I’m being blessed. I do know that in times of conflict and power struggles, it’s important that your focus remain on the Lord and not the problem or the person. Roll your burdens on the Lord.
Two, Be Careful Who You Talk to. People love to quote the pastor. “I was talking to the pastor about this situation the other day and he said . . .” I’ve learned not everyone has my best interest or even the best interest of the church at heart. Your circles of those to confide in must be very small. If you need to blow off steam, do it with a small, select group of people.
Three, Deal With the Problem, Don’t Attack the Person. People tend to take sides in a church conflict. If you attack the person, you will find yourself barking up the wrong tree. The enemy is Satan. He is the divider, the author of confusion. This is no time for character assassination. Take the high ground. Stand above the fray. Let it out with the Lord, cry on your wife’s shoulder, but don’t take it into the pulpit. Ninety percent won’t know what you are talking about. Those who are against you will use it to fan the flames. Most will not understand what you are going through. Unfortunately, some won’t care.
Four, Pray Them Out. If someone is hindering the ministry, take them before the Lord. Pray that God will move them out. This does not mean you should dump your problems on another church. I remember one staff member who I knew was ineffective. He needed to leave. His resume found its way into the hands of a friend. I didn’t in any way try to undermine the man, but I told my friend that this particular staff member would not be able to work at the level he was expecting. Don’t dump your problems on another church. At the same time, don’t torpedo a guy with another church over a personality issue.
Five, Don’t Play ‘He said’ ‘I said.’ People don’t come to church to fight (they shouldn’t). They come to church with their own baggage and problems. They are looking for encouragement. They need to hear there is hope. This needs to be done by example. They don’t need a pity party from the pulpit. Nor do they need slings and arrows from the pulpit. I’ve never won a battle by throwing rocks. A bulldog can whip a skunk, but it’s not worth it.
Six, Remember That Time Is on Your Side. Paul didn’t try to defend himself. He let God be the final judge. God is writing the only record book that matters. The truth doesn’t need defending. If you spend your time trying to defend your motives, you will lose. Stand on the Word. Kneel before the Lord. Let Him be your defense.
Seven, Failure Doesn’t Have to Be Fatal, Or Final. Sometimes we want to quit in the middle of a crisis. Keep your back to the wall and your powder dry. Don’t cave in or wave the white flag. In reality, all of us make mistakes. Some we can salvage, others we have to move on or they have to move on. Life’s too short to spend it in battles with God’s people. Don’t let anyone put a tag on you or label you. They will anyway, but that doesn’t mean you have to wear it.
Eight, Be a Peacemaker When Possible. Don’t go looking for a fight. Learn to work with people you disagree with. Learn to recognize the giftedness of others. Don’t expect everyone to be like you. Give those around you the freedom to do their jobs in the context of the church’s mission statement and your vision. If there’s a problem, keep your key leadership informed. Nobody likes surprises. As much as possible, keep open lines of communication with the other person. Don’t wait until you are ready to explode. Dynamite can be productive or deadly, it all depends on the context in which it is used.
Nine, Learn to Let It Go. Don’t become paranoid, suspicious or insecure. I have a pastor friend who has never been able to trust staff because he’s been burned so many times. The result is, he has had staff members who wanted desperately to love him, but he would never let anyone get close again. It seemed his mentality was, “I’m never going to be hurt like that again.” If you are going to love people, somewhere, somehow, someone is going to hurt you. I recall the day one of my key laymen, now on our staff, put his hands on my shoulder and said, “Pastor, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. But we need to move on.” Those simple words gave me permission to lay it down and move forward.
Ten, When Appropriate, Restore Your Brother. Through the years, we’ve had a few leave that didn’t leave on the best of terms. They weren’t terminated, but there was a fracture in our fellowship. Communication broke down. Feelings overruled rational thinking. In the 70s I was dismissed from a church by a pastor. We had an issue we could not, or would not resolve so we parted ways. I’m grateful to say that former pastor has preached for me on two separate occasions. The former staff member and I now communicate on a regular basis. In both cases, we avoided the scorched earth policy. Friendships have been restored. Time and the grace of God have healed old wounds. You’ll never teach your people a greater lesson than when you are able to restore someone with whom there has been a breach in your fellowship.
A Biblical example. Remember Paul and Barnabas? They came to a parting of the ways. Paul didn’t want John Mark on the staff any more and Barnabas did. God never says, “Paul was right.” Or, “Barnabas was the most Christ-like.” God chooses not to comment on the issue. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree, part company and pray for one another. In the case of John Mark, Paul later said, ‘he is useful to me for the ministry.’ Maybe Paul saw the error of his ways. Perhaps Barnabas mentored John Mark and made him into a valuable staff member. Whatever the case, it’s nice to know there was restoration. Don’t spend your life pushing a win/lose mentality. Do all you can, without compromising the Word working toward win/win situations. They won’t always turn out that way, but it should be the intent of our hearts.
One Final Thought. Just to let you know God is sovereign and still on the throne. Four days after one of these painful incidents, we had a huge evangelistic emphasis planned. We were reeling from the emotional stress and trauma. The last thing I needed was a big event that required me to get myself up emotionally. We only had four days to regroup. We thought about canceling the event. We decided to move on and trust God. At the time, I felt we were closer to riot than revival. I had no idea how the day would go and expected the worse.
Our God is a good God. His mercies are new every day. To the glory of God, that day yielded fifty-four professions of faith. We baptized over forty of those who came. It was the largest one day evangelistic harvest in our history. I believe God moved in on us, to remind us, I’m in control and you aren’t. Trust me folks, I’ve never forgotten that lesson or that day. In the shadow of chaos, God proved to us He was in control.
©2002 MCC This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use.
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Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.