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I don’t understand what one person could possibly do to help in this midst of this terrible church conflict!

Q: I don’t understand what one person could possibly do to help in the midst of this terrible church conflict!

A. You can be God’s instrument in redeeming your church’s conflicts by humbly depending on the Holy Spirit and following the biblical principles revealed in Scripture.

Every church conflict can be redeemed because every church conflict can be used for genuine spiritual growth, both individually and corporately within the body of Christ. Christ can use you to redeem your church’s conflict—regardless of how other people respond, even if you are only one lay member out of hundreds or even thousands, even if you are only one leader out of many. You can be God’s instrument in redeeming your church’s conflicts by following the biblical principles revealed in Holy Scripture—in humble dependence on the Holy Spirit.

Church conflict is complex. The various causes of church conflict, the personalities involved, the church’s polity, and the level of spiritual maturity among leaders and members will raise questions that no one book or biblical model could possibly address with specificity. Therefore, be careful and pray as you seek counsel from church leaders and members about the application of this book and various Scriptural passages to your church’s specific situation. By seeking counsel from wise and spiritually mature Christians, all of us will hopefully avoid using any part of this book as a weapon to hurt others or fulfill any sinful demands we might have. Plenty of biblical peacemaking principles have been taken out of context and forced on others in loveless and selfish ways. We pray that will never be the case with this Acts 15 model. Instead, we pray that our efforts in this book will encourage and guide Christians and their churches in redemptive responses to conflicts—responses that are based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Theologian Dr. Dennis Johnson hits the nail on the head when he writes:

 In Scripture the starting point of instruction on right behavior is not a list of our duties, but a declaration of God’s saving achievement, bringing us into a relationship of favor with him.

(c) Tara Barthel & David Edling, “Redeeming Church Conflicts” (Baker Books, 2012)

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Megan Hill’s Endorsement of “Redeeming Church Conflicts”

Our family has been profoundly blessed by Megan Hill’s book on prayer:

Praying Together – The Priority and Privilege of Prayer

So I was profoundly blessed by her recent endorsement of Redeeming Church Conflicts (copied below).

Thanks so very much, Megan!

For the glory of the Lamb,
Tara B.

*************

 

To someone in the middle of a church conflict, the complex knot of spiritual and material issues, contributing factors, and personalities can appear impossible to understand, let alone untangle. As emotions rise and hope sinks, everyone in the church experiences distress, and, amid the confusion and hurt, a positive path forward often seems unclear.

In Redeeming Church Conflicts, experienced conciliators Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling offer a warm, biblical, and careful roadmap for navigating church crises. Through exposition and application, they bring the truth of God’s Word to direct suffering churches toward healing. Through practical case studies, they illuminate the way with specific examples. Perhaps surprisingly for a book about sin and its fruits, these pages are also filled with hope. Through the words of Barthel and Edling, church members and leaders will begin to see their conflicts as opportunities for growth, grace, and the glory of God. And whether your church is currently in the midst of strife or proactively seeking to avoid it in future, this book is an excellent guide.

-Megan Hill, pastor’s wife, pastor’s daughter, writer, speaker, author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway, 2016)

 

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Other Things You Can Do Rather Than Fire Your Pastor

Week after week the most frequently searched topic that lands people at this website is “How to Fire Your Pastor.” If you are a regular reader of this site you may recall that I wrote a three part series under that title several months ago. My reaction to this traffic coming to our site because of that search terminology is one of both sadness and revelation. Sadness because we desperately need faithful pastors in our churches, and revelation because apparently some people believe the best (wisest, most God-glorifying) step to take would be to fire their pastors, so they are looking for that advice.

Today, I would like to encourage you to pause and take a step back from your plans to fire your pastors and instead, consider how you might help them to become the faithful shepherds God has called them to be.

The truth is, barring some sort of overt, heinous sin (which sometimes, yes, appropriately leads to the immediate firing of a pastor), most pastors are “let go” (really, fired) for reasons that could have, and should have, been addressed by many more people than just the pastor. For example, you may be ready to fire your pastor because he is disorganized and often drops administrative details. Did you hire him for his exegetical, scholarly, preaching/teaching skills and then make plans to surround him with people who are strong administratively? Has he asked for an assistant and have you denied him that year after year? What about personality clashes? Have you observed a growing conflict between your pastor and another influential person in your church—and done nothing about it? Have you been a faithful peacemaker to assist these Christians in conflict? Or have you stood back, shook your head and said, “Too bad!”; while you waited for the explosion that recently happened?

How well have you loved your pastor? Really loved him with a faithful, abiding, prayerful love?

Before you take steps to fire your current pastor and then hire in a new one and treat him the same way … perhaps you should consider the following four responsibilities all church members bear toward their pastors:

  1. Members owe their pastors love (despite their pastors’ weaknesses). Too many churches place unreasonable expectations on their pastors. Those expectations become the standard of performance rather than the Scriptures. Nowhere in the Bible do we find perfection manifested in humanity except in our Lord Jesus. Unfortunately, many people expect their pastor to be as perfect as their Savior. Rather than realizing a pastor’s role is to point people to their only true hope in Christ, too many people look to their pastor for that model of perfection. While pastors are to be models of holiness and live lives reflecting the character of Christ (as we all are!), it is unrealistic to expect any human to fulfill what only Christ can do. Church members have a responsibility to love their pastor by seeing him as a fellow follower of the Lord dealing with the same struggles and life challenges they do as a fallen creature redeemed solely by grace through faith in Christ.
  2. Members owe their pastors honesty. When disappointment surfaces over any aspect of the pastoral role, be it personality, preaching or teaching performance, leadership or character, members are called to be faithful friends by going personally, quietly, quickly and gently to their pastor with their specific concern. Before going, members are to remember to “get the log out of their own eye first” (Matthew 7:5), remembering that their goal is to be a friend and fellow pilgrim with their brother of faith (Hebrews 11:13-16) and not a critic bringing a message of discouragement. Members have a responsibility to help their pastor change just as they need to change by allowing God’s Word to be “more loud and vivid than previous life experience” (to quote Dr. David Powlison). They do that by not having an attitude of the judge or critic, but by coming alongside as a fellow servant with gentle and honest concern. Church members have the responsibility to come to their pastors with any concern only when they come ready to pray for and be part of the solution as a faithful partner in ministry.
  3. Members owe their pastors respect. Every church member owes every other member respect because they are image bears of The Father, their creator. We each, as believers in Christ, know we are different because we have been given a new heart, a renewed heart enabled by faith to both see the created things of this world as evidence of God’s love, and to read, believe, and trust his Word in the Scriptures as eternal truth displayed so that we might know more fully His faithfulness in Christ. As new creatures we are, therefore, “compelled by the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14) to see our pastors with eyes of compassion for whom Christ died and to respect the unique demands placed on them; those who have been called to bring His Word to our ears and hearts remembering that God’s Word is, at times, difficult for us to hear because it convicts us of our own sin…our guilt and shame. But pastors also bring us hope in Christ that our sins are forgiven and our guilt and shame no longer the bondage capable of holding us in personal condemnation.  The role of being a messenger of conviction and freedom is incredibly demanding and we owe our pastors a special measure of respectfulness as they balance this difficult task.
  4. (And I, Tara, would add that …) Members owe their pastors prayer and encouragement. Both of my children, since they were three years old, could go right down the list and name our shepherd-overseers because they have prayed for them over and over again. (“And God bless Pastor Alfred, Pastor Jason, Elder Schaner, Elder Feralio, Elder Petsch …”) And they have regularly sent hand-made cards, pictures, and notes to them (as have Fred and I–well, cards and thank you notes, but not hand-made). Why? Because shepherd-overseers have a very serious and important job to do. It is not a light thing to take on the responsibility for the souls of sheep. These are busy men with jobs and families and many duties in addition to their shepherding responsibilities—surely the very least we can do for them is to be regularly praying for them and thanking them for their care! Plus, God forbid, if any of our hearts ever become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and one of our pastors has to “leave the 99” to come after our wandering heart with the (loving, painful) ministration of the rod and staff … well … their redemptive ministry has a much higher likelihood of “success” if we have a relationship established with them. As Ken Sande says, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” So we are all called to build relationship now so that we can have the accountability and discipline of rules as needed.

The next time you find yourself considering whether to side with the group who is calling for the pastor to be fired, please remember that you have a responsibility to him that is consistent with the responsibility he has to you: love, honesty, respect, and prayerful encouragement. That is what God calls us all to do as his eternal children:

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12

Many churches recognize an annual “Pastor Appreciation Month” in October. How might you take tangible steps to show your pastor love, honesty, respect, and prayerful encouragement this month—and every month?

For the Glory of Christ’s Church,
Dave Edling (with Tara Barthel)

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When “Peacemaking” Causes Even More Conflicts

Q. I am afraid to go directly to the person who has seriously sinned against me as it says I should do in Matthew 18:15. I am afraid because I think by going it would make matters worse between us. What should I do because I want to follow the Bible and be reconciled?

A. Thank you for respecting the authority of God’s Word. That, I believe, is the core issue confronting Christianity: Is God’s Holy Word as found in the Holy Bible worthy of absolute authority because it is our Creator’s binding revelation to us? You seem to have settled that question in your own mind by how you have asked your question. You indicate that it is binding on you and you do want to obey it. Again, I commend you for this view. And because you desire to honor God by following his principles laid down on the pages of Scripture I will attempt to do the same by speaking truth in love to you.

“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace” (Amelia Earhart, Aviator). I am quite sure that Miss Earhart, not especially known for her theological acumen, did not write those words in the context of your question. She was, however, an extremely confident and brave person. Her words capture an important biblical principle central to an answer to your question. That principle is that the fear of man (the controlling power of the opinion or actions of others) cannot be allowed to override your holy and awe invoking fear of God.

Psalm 27:1 asks rhetorically, “Whom shall I fear?” “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?” All of Psalm 27 calls us back to that eternal perspective that frees us to be confident and courageous, with the hope of encouraging peace.

The prophet Isaiah, called to serve God as a covenant prosecutor bringing God’s charges and his condemnation against a people who had turned from him, issues the same call as Psalm 27 to people of enduring faith; those needing hope and encouragement as the faithful remnant who would survive God’s judgment: “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you’” (Isaiah 35:4). Verse 51:7 also seems appropriate because you have God’s law in your heart: “Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults.”

One thing that we can certainly say of the Christian faith is that it is not a faith for the timid or cowardly; the Lord changes such people into confident warriors by placing in their hearts an awesome and rejoicing fear of God that dwarfs the fear of any man. You can be strong and courageous because you are “in Christ,” the spiritual reality of your faith given to you through grace, so that you can know for certain the source of all strength.

At the same time, however, God calls us to be wise. It is right for you to carefully examine the reasons why you are fearful of this confrontation. Is this person in a position of authority over you; are they socially more powerful? Is that other person known for anger, violence, or irrational behavior? By pinpointing exactly what you fear (loss of the relationship, tainting of your own reputation, your physical safety or the physical safety of others, etc.), you can make a decision that both honors God and displays wisdom.

For example, taking another person with you to fulfill Matthew 18:15 does not necessarily mean you have overlooked the requirement to go personally to the one who has sinned against you. Taking another person along for this first encounter not as a “witness” as used in the sense of Matthew 18:16 but for wisdom’s sake does not violate the spirit of the biblical process. We must remember that that process is designed to reclaim the one whose sin has hurt you and broken fellowship with you and with God.

(And a note from Tara … We must also remember that there are limits to what we can accomplish in the peacemaking process. Romans 12:18 states that, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This means that we cannot “make peace.” All we can do, and all the Lord requires of us, is to do what is possible, so far as it depends on us. When teaching on this topic, I like to use a phrase that one of my blog readers gave me when I asked a similar question to yours:

“How far should I go in this peacemaking process? I want to be reconciled, to be sure. But I don’t want to be a reconciliation stalker.”

God will honor your efforts to boldly speak the truth in love and you never know how your courage to confront in love may be used by God to deeply affect others. But you never want to be a reconciliation stalker.)

Instead, remember what Ken Sande has so cogently stated in The Peacemaker: “Our only job is to be faithfully obedient; God’s job is to bring the result. Keeping those responsibilities separate and clearly before you will lead you to a right and God-honoring action, even if things get a little “messier” in the short-run.

Blessings to you—
Dave Edling & Tara Barthel

(This article was originally posted in 2011.)

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Redeeming Church Conflict is Not an Event—But an Unfolding Process of God’s Grace

In just a few days, we will be gathering in Denver with peacemakers from around the world to study, pray, and fellowship together at the 2012 Peacemaker Conference. This will be the first time we have co-taught together since Redeeming Church Conflicts was published last May, but it is certainly not our first time serving together. Back when we were on staff at Peacemakers, we could pretty much finish each other’s sentences during Peacemaker Seminars because we had heard each other’s teaching illustrations so many times. (We’d have to be careful to not laugh before the punchline too.) Good times. And we’re looking very forward to even more good times this coming week.

To help us to prepare for our two workshops together, we recently reviewed the fact patterns for some conflicted churches we have both been helping. (That’s one of the reasons why our blog has been quieter than normal for the last few weeks … sometimes we just have to prioritize actually serving conflicted churches over writing about serving conflicted churches.) Of course, we keep all identifying information confidential, even from each other, whenever we are not hired together. But the broad brushstrokes of our experiences were so similar, that we thought they might be of encouragement to you too. So here are just a few stories:

Two Pastors, then Two Families, then Their Church Leaders, then Two Entire Churches in Utter Conflict
Recently, we had the joy of spending time with some experienced church leaders. We respected so many things about these men, their love for the Lord and His Word; their commitment to their families, churches, and communities; their love for the lost; their intelligence and humility (always an attractive combination). But, like all of us at times, they were facing conflicts in their churches.

These conflicts were complex and included substantive matters that needed addressing. But their substantive matters had degraded the personal relationships among these men. And their fellow leaders. And their wives. And their church members.

So what did we do? We turned to the Lord anew. Worshiped Him. Studied His Word. Prayed. And we did the hard work of much discussion/debate (just like Acts 15 requires of us!). We remembered all of those “good listening skills” we had ever learned. We didn’t forget the temptations to a “stage mentality” associated with complex group dynamics. Basically, we walked through each of the four sections of Redeeming Church Conflicts: Perspective, Discernment, Leadership, and Biblical Response. Of course these “steps”did not guarantee a fully reconciled result, but in this case, God graciously granted one. Hearts were pierced and humbled in repentance. Men were eager to confess to one another and forgive one another.

As is always our goal as Christian mediators, soon we weren’t even needed because these men—who just a few days earlier were unable to even look at one another more or less converse civilly—remembered they were brothers, on the same side, fighting the same enemies (Satan, the world, the Old Man). And that they were not, in fact, each other’s enemies.

Yes, it was a joy. And a privilege. And a great reminder that God’s Word really does pierce the hardest of hearts—we know this from personal experience regarding our own oft’ stony hearts, and we had an opportunity to observe it again during this conflicted church intervention.

Not an Event–But an Unfolding Process of God’s Grace
In another conflicted church, we had the privilege of helping a large group of godly, mature Christian men who had sacrificed their personal relationships on the altar of a substantive decision that the church was needing to make.

Initially, the men were extremely concerned with getting “their” individual stories (and memories) “on the record.” (Not that there was a record. We were not acting as arbitrators. We neither received nor authenticated evidence. There were no court reporters. It was just us. A room filled with Christians, talking about what happened and what didn’t happen.)

As is usually the case in these situations, the memories and perspectives from the various men were radically at odds with each other. Initially, it seemed as though we would never get anywhere; there was an indomitable barrier between the conflicted parties labeled, “TRUTH.” (But really what it said was, “MY TRUTH.” My perspective. My evidence, memories, testimony. My my my. Me me me.) Yes, we could have gotten completely bogged down right there, but we didn’t.

Instead, we helped these men to see that while it is helpful and even necessary to try to understand a basic outline of what has brought them to this point, there is nothing to be gained by dying on the hill of a best memory contest.

Instead, we called them to do what God calls all of us to do:

“Be reconciled!” (Matthew 5:24).

Once they decided it didn’t really make any difference how vastly different their respective “takes” were on the facts, they got down to business repenting, confessing, forgiving, remembering God, and started thinking more about healing their sheep.

Their personal reconciliation led them to work hard to develop a reconciliation plan to take back to their fellow leaders, families (because if you don’t think the wives are involved when their husbands are embroiled in church conflict, then you probably have never actually intervened in a conflicted church), and their church members.

The bottom-line of their reconciliation plan? That redemption of conflict is not an event, but an unfolding process of God’s grace.

Amen to that!
That’s what we’ll be saying (over and over again) in our workshops this week in Denver.

Hope to see you there!

For the glory of the Lamb,
Dave & Tara

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, HOPE in the midst of conflict | Leave a comment

Res Ipsa Loquitur: Destructive Church Conflict Reveals Worldliness

A few weeks ago I wrote that the most frequently used search term that brings people to this site is “how to fire your pastor.” I lamented that fact because we desperately need God’s supernaturally gifted and theologically trained leaders who are so committed to God’s kingdom that people in the pews are left with a sense of awesome respect for what God has done in raising up a mere creature to be a proclaimer of God’s faithfulness to his people, his chosen race.

The second most frequently used search term for our site is a phrase: “causes of church conflicts.” People are apparently trying to understand why their church conflicts are happening and what they should be wary of as their church conflicts unfold.

Tara and I address this topic (causes of church conflicts) at length in Redeeming Church Conflicts, but I wonder if perhaps this search term is pointing to a different question; not just factual patterns and examples, but “the core dynamic.” Something that goes beyond the various presenting symptomatic issues to reveal one commonality. One root cause.

In thinking through the various conflicted churches I have helped over the decades, and also after reviewing the fact patterns and case studies we included in our book, I see one clear commonality: worldliness. Our churches are wracked by destructive conflict because we are too often “mere infants in Christ”; more concerned with the pattern of this world than of God’s eternity to come. Paul, when addressing the divisions that racked the church at Corinth, identified this very problem as the root of church conflict:

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 1 Corinthians 3:1-3

This is the heart of the matter: God expects His eternal children who inhabit His church to be more than mere men! And that means to not be worldly. Rather than being driven by narrow passions, God expects us to live on an entirely different plain and not bring the divisiveness that defines the world into His church. Are we still worldly? That is a question that every church in conflict should be carefully asking itself. And if your conflict is destroying the unity of the saints, promoting divisions, backbiting, slander, factions, anger, rage, bitterness, and malice? Then the answer will always be (shamefully), “Yes.”

It’s been years since Tara or I were in law school, but we never forget certain Latin phrases from our legal training and one supports this assertion perfectly:

Res ipsa loquitur: The thing speaks for itself.

That’s Paul’s argument: if you are “biting and devouring each other” in your church conflict (Galatians 5:15), then you are still worldly. The thing speaks for itself.

Consider the conflict your church is facing. It may have started from impure motives and an intentional focus on doing harm. But that’s not usually the case. Usually, there is a disagreement. Or someone becomes personally hurt. Then what happens? Do we listen to the loud culture around us? Are our minds so attuned to the materialistic, self-driven, pleasure-oriented, short-tempered, envious message of the world that even we who call ourselves Christians respond just like unbelievers? Does our worldly conditioning manifest itself in graceless, loveless, words and actions? Do we pour into the church destructive venom and sinful bitterness whenever our personal desire (or our group’s desire) is not satisfied? If so, then we act exactly like those of the world.

Worldliness is the root cause of church conflicts. So what is the cure? Listen to God’s Word:

Do not deceive yourselves. If anyone thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 1 Corinthians 3:18-20

When we have conflicts in the church we merely prove that the wisdom of the world has become our standard, our level of wisdom. From God’s perspective, that is just foolishness. And such foolishness reveals that we have been deceived:

Do not be deceived. 1 Corinthians 6:9b

When we fight in the church just like those of the world fight in the world, we are fools who have been deceived. But God gives us the way to guard against such deception:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2

How are we transformed by the renewing of our mind? How do we guard against deception? We believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ alone transforms us. He renews us. He gives us true wisdom. He graciously protects us from deception. But remember! Believing means acting. If you really want to see what you believe, consider how you live. Are you dying to self? Forsaking the treasurers of this world (fame, comfort, ease, pleasure)? Do you engage with the hurts of others? Live a life that is heavenly-oriented and not worldly? Do you love, pray for, bless … live at peace with even the most difficult people in your church (or do you just avoid them)?

When we are transformed by the renewing of our minds; when the finished work of Jesus is manifested in His gracious, continuing work of conforming us to His likeness; when Jesus renews and transforms us by His grace … then we will root out this foundational cause of church conflict (worldliness) because the things of earth will hold no power over us. We will pray and serve and bless and live all for the glory of the Triune God and the building up (the edification) of His children.

Just as we desperately need pastors who are supernaturally gifted leaders in our churches, even more so we need Christians in the pews who are supernaturally gifted church members who have intentionally rejected the world’s philosophy and influence. Then, and only then, will destructive church conflicts be seen for what they really are: mere deception. And we will see clearly that the way of the Lord is different:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18

In the Lamb,
Dave Edling (with Tara Barthel)

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict, Disappointment in the church | 1 Comment

Trust is shattered when a pastor is caught in deception and overt sin.

All pastors are sinners, just like the rest of us. But some pastors sin in particularly brazen ways. These sins sometimes stay hidden for a certain period of time, but sooner or later, the truth will come to light. And when that happens—when a pastor is caught in deception and overt sin—trust is shattered:

  • The sheep no longer trust their shepherd. How could they? He has been standing before them, preaching the Word of God, exhorting them unto faith and righteousness, administering the Lord’s Supper, baptizing… and all the while, lying and deceiving them by living in a hypocritical manner.
  • Other church leaders no longer trust their fellow church leader. Why should they? He has been with them at meetings, ostensibly working hard to administer the Lord’s resources to people in need … and all the while, stealing from the church (misuse of time and money).
  • His wife no longer trusts him. His children no longer trust him. Every person he has ever advised in his career of ministry no longer trusts him because he has preyed on and abused a vulnerable young woman in a counseling session. She no longer trusts him. And she is also now struggling to trust God.

Caught in the firestorm of their own making, many disgraced pastors simply resign and run as far away as possible from the people, families, churches and denominations they have loved. This response is tragic for two reasons:

  1. The pastor loses out on the opportunity to demonstrate what godly repentance looks like; to bear up underneath the consequences of his actions (relationally, professionally, financially, criminally, ecclesiastically); and to do the hard work of making restitution, rebuilding trust, and restoring relationships with the people he was called to love.
  2. The people he has wronged lose out on the opportunity to pray for their pastor, do good to him, bless him, and forgive him just as in Christ they have been forgiven. They also lose out on the opportunity to help the pastor grow in his sanctification through redemptive church discipline and ongoing accountability.

It is possible for a disgraced pastor to be forgiven and restored—maybe not to the pulpit, maybe not to an ordained position—but restored to God, family, and community. The blood of Christ was shed for pastors too! And in that, we rejoice. But we also rejoice in the countless pastors who have taken wise steps to avoid these temptations and guard their churches from the utter destruction that often befalls the church when a pastor has been taken captive by sin.

To encourage everyone involved (the pastor, his family members, his fellow leaders, and all church members), we would like to focus the balance of this article on the three most prevalent areas of temptation that pastors give in to and then how these destructive sins can be avoided:

  1. Telling untruths (often to defend the need to be proven “right”).
  2. Misuse of church funds (commonly a personal expense account that is abused for arguably “righteous” reasons).
  3. Sexual sin (use of pornography or prostitutes, at the extreme; or very commonly, a pastoral counseling relationship that turns inappropriately intimate emotionally and then physically).

The latter temptation is such a huge topic, we really want to save its treatment for an entire post of its own. But let it suffice to say that because God has created us as sexual beings for his good purposes of fulfilling the creation mandate and providing intimate human companionship, any sexual release or relationship outside of the marriage relationship is both a heinous sin against one’s own body and one’s spouse, and also against the Lord because it flaunts his law. Surely, no Christian pastor stands on his own wedding day, vowing to be faithful to his wife, but secretly thinking:

“One day, when I’m tired and lonely and feeling ostracized and unappreciated; one day when a beautiful woman sits across from me in my church office, hanging on my every word, affirming me as being brilliant and caring and handsome and witty; one day, I will cross a line emotionally with her. And the next time, I will cross another line…a physical one. Until, one day, in a fog, blinded by my sinful heart, I find myself in bed with her. I will keep up the charade of preaching. I will lead Bible studies and tuck my children into bed at night. And all the while, I will violate my wife and join my body with another.”

No. No pastor ever expects to say those things and do those things—but every day, pastors sin in this way. This dysfunction leads to profound wreckage in the lives of the many. That is why we must help to guard our pastors and do all we can to protect their marriage relationships. (More on this topic in a later post.)

The other two areas of prevalent sin for pastors also reflect a dysfunction, but in a more subtle way. The deceit is just as harmful, however, and thus, church members and leaders must take steps to guard their pastor from these temptations by creating a culture and environment where boundaries have been carefully set and communicated. In doing so, they will serve the pastor and the church well, and they will help to protect the reputation of Christ and the church.

Money issues, particularly those dependent on the discretion of a single person, require careful monitoring. While most churches provide a pastor with a church credit card for his use, failure to establish clear spending guidelines (limits and categories) can lead to unintended misuse, confusion, and even a temptation to “push the envelope” that frequently leads to accusations of pastoral greed and deceit. Wise church leaders put in place a system where a monthly audit confirms appropriate use and requires the pastor to personally reimburse the church for any questionable expense. “Trust but verify” is appropriate in this matter because the temptation “for the sake of convenience” (“I knew the deacons would authorize this expense but they were unavailable when my decision had to be made”) has led to the dismissal of many pastors. Unfortunately, some pastors may feel undercompensated in their positions and will thus “justify” spending money from their expense account on personal pleasures in sort of a hidden way to “make up for” their sense of being underpaid. This area of temptation, all areas of temptation, reveals a misplaced sense of identity as a pastor and as a Christian, and misplaced trust. Pastors are called to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3) and what they model should be and will be viewed from a strict perspective.

The temptation for many pastors to be “right” drives some to telling less than whole truths. We have never met a pastor who has admitted to outright lying. Many, however, have had to confess they were less than completely transparent and forthcoming with every aspect of the truth. This form of pastoral temptation is deceit that is grounded in pride. Unfortunately, many churches create such an “ivory tower” mentality around their shepherd that for him to fail to live up to their high expectations is tantamount to an admission of failure. The need to always be right brings evidence of trust in self and not in the risen Christ; again an issue of misplaced identity. Church leaders and church members must be realistic about what a fallen human being can and cannot do, even one called and ordained to the role of pastor. Pastors are frequently lonely people simply because they, too, even though set apart for the special calling to be God’s voice in our midst, need compassion, friendship, intimacy, and the freedom to be wrong from time to time.

Peter, writing of what sort of people we should be as we await the “Day of the Lord,” asks, “What kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Peter 3:11). His answer comes a few verses later:

Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 2 Peter 3:14

Making such effort means, of course, first finding ourselves totally unable to do that what is called for. Only as we are “in Christ” (that is, our identity and trust is not in self or any other person) can we meet the call to “make every effort.” The same holds true for your pastor so be wise and compassionate as you make that effort to guard and encourage your pastor’s marriage, protect him from the temptation of money by paying him a salary that is worthy of “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17), and creating a realistic church environment in which pastoral freedom to be wrong promotes truth telling to the fullest extent. We do that best by remembering we are all part of God’s family walking through this life as “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13) longing for our true home. We do that best in respectful partnership with each other as we honor one another as image bearers of the One who has called us.

-Dave Edling and Tara Barthel

(This article was originally published in 2012.)

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Church discipline, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Disappointment in the church | Leave a comment

How to Fire Your Pastor (Part 3 of 3)

Q. Sometimes, even in a mature church, a time comes when a servant-shepherd pastor must be let go. In this situation, how should the pastor and his family, and the other church leaders and members respond so that they can all work together to redeem this difficult situation?

A. My last two blog entries in this short series have distinguished between two types of pastors/situations:

  • Those in ministry for career employment (“hired-hands” as described in John 10:12-13) who are “fired” from their position just as any person in a secular job is fired (Part 1); and
  • Those “servant-shepherd” pastors who are called to a life of humble sacrifice and suffering for their service, who are then persecuted for the sake of Christ’s righteousness (as described in Matthew 5:11-12) by being maltreated (and ultimately “fired”) by immature Christians in their churches (Part 2).

Today’s post addresses a third type of situation—one in which a servant-shepherd pastor is appropriately  let go by mature (wise, loving, God-glorifying) Christians.

A few notes before I begin …

First of all, I fully recognize that these three groupings of people and situations may seem too restrictive. I readily admit that most situations are actually somewhere in-between on the spectrum: many pastors truly desire to serve as servant-shepherds, but they also recognize that their calling is also their “job” in that they provide for their families through the income they earn through the pastorate. I also recognize that many church members and leaders likewise fall somewhere in between “mature” and “immature” on the spectrum—they may (immaturely) be persecuting their pastor for worldly reasons and using secular causes and means for firing him; but often, there is a mix of godliness and maturity in the situation that causes these situations to be far more “gray” than I am describing in this series.

But a blog entry can only be so long! And the focus of Tara’s and my book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, is the painful division engendered by the reality of conflict in the church. Thus, we hope that you will read all three of these blogs from a perspective of grace and “wisdom from Heaven” which we know from James 3 is “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit.” Seeking wisdom is particularly important today, as my personal observations and convictions about this topic will undoubtedly bring up many questions and ideas that I can’t possibly try to address. There are simply too many variables present when a pastor is let go from a church. To paraphrase our own words in Redeeming Church Conflicts by applying them to this blog series (rather than to our book):

Church conflict is complex. The various causes of church conflict, the personalities involved, the church’s polity, and the level of spiritual maturity among leaders and members will raise questions that no [blog series] could possibly address with specificity. Therefore, be careful and pray as you seek counsel from other church leaders and members about the application of [these posts] and various scriptural passages to your church’s specific situation. By seeking counsel from wise and spiritually mature Christians, all of us will hopefully avoid using any part of [this series] as a weapon to hurt others or to fulfill any sinful goals we might have. Plenty of biblical peacemaking principles have been taken out of context and forced on others in loveless and selfish ways. We pray this will never be the case with [these blog posts]. Instead, we pray that our efforts in [these blogs] will encourage and guide Christians and their churches in redemptive responses to conflicts—responses that are based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theologian Dr. Dennis E. Johnson captures the heart of our concern when he writes: “In Scripture the starting point of instruction on right behavior is not a list of our duties, but a declaration of God’s saving achievement, bringing us into a relationship of favor with him.”

So, with all of those caveats in mind (my lawyerliness is really showing today) … how ought we to respond when we (wisely and lovingly) discern that it is time for a pastor to leave a specific church?

We ought to embrace God’s agenda for change and allow that change to produce holiness in all of us.

Will that change be easy? By no mean. There will undoubtedly be uncomfortable moments in leadership meetings when new ideas are discussed or information is analyzed and everyone involved (including the pastor) will begin to have that uncomfortable sense that God may be leading their church in a way that is not a good fit for the current pastor. Hopefully, everyone involved will be prayerful and careful (full of care) as small discussions begin to grow into larger discussions. Communication with other leaders (for example, elders to deacons or council members to bishops) will be intentional and clear. At all times, people will hold firmly to the standard set for speech in Ephesians 4:29—edifying, bringing God’s grace. There will be no gossip or slander. Love for God and neighbor will be the defining mark of every meeting, announcement, and decision. The pastor will never be gracelessly criticized. Instead, every person will guard him, build him up, and help him (and his family) to transition to his new pastorate.

That sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? But we know that there will, of course, be bumps in the process. Immaturity and even outright sin will arise. But the pastor, his family, and every mature leader and layperson will embrace even those difficult and painful situations as opportunities ordained by God for growth in holiness. As Drs. Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane state in their must-read book, How People Change:

Making us holy is God’s unwavering agenda until we are taken home to be with him. He will do whatever he needs to produce holiness in us. He wants us to be a community of joy, but he is willing to compromise our temporal happiness in order to increase our Chrislikeness.

Wise and mature pastors, leaders, and members will recognize that this pastoral change is part of God’s plan for producing holiness in His eternal children. They will respond with light—truth, healing, beauty, compassion, and care—because their life goal is to reflect all of the characteristics of their Lord and King, Jesus Christ. But others? Sadly, they will respond with darkness—lies, distortions, relational injury, ugliness, judgment, and betrayal—because even though they claim to live for Jesus and His glory, they are ultimately motivated by their own selfish desires. They are willing to sacrifice the unity of the saints to fulfill their agendas. They do not pick up their cross and lay down their lives for their friends.

But even then, the wise and mature Christian will see even these attacks of darkness as opportunities to model Christlike humility and love because how we fight in the church differs significantly from how the world fights. Or it ought to.

I will close with just a few questions that you might consider in order to walk through your pastoral change with holiness:

  • How can we please and honor the Lord in this situation by respecting and honoring His under-shepherd, our pastor, even though we agree he should leave this church and continue his ministry elsewhere?
  • How do we guard our own hearts and minds through all of this so that our trust in God for our church (His church) is evident to everyone?
  • How can we continue to fulfill our duty to render “double-honor” (1 Timothy 5:17) to our pastor by meeting all of his and his families’ worldly needs during the transition period?
  • How can we best work with our pastor to help him continue his ministry during the transition period and into his next assignment in the Church (note the capital “C;” the Church is much larger than any one local congregation)?
  • How can we utilize pastoral change as an opportunity to help our immature brethren grow in Christ?
  • How can we guard the pastor’s family from harmful gossip and speculation?
  • As needed, how can we best use God’s plan of accountability (church discipline) to build his church by correcting the sinful behaviors of those acting in a manner inconsistent with their own profession of faith?
  • How can we bless our present pastor by ensuring that we call another true servant-shepherd pastor to follow in his steps building on the foundation he has faithfully laid?
  • How can we craft our pastor’s legacy of godliness as a model for future pastoral relationships?

Over the past two decades I have witnessed how both “hired-hands” and true servant-shepherds respond to dismissal from their pastoral office.  The thing that has surprised me (and inspired me!) the most has been not only how the latter personally responded but how they also prepared their fellow church leaders for the trial. I have not seen servant-shepherds respond with anger (although frequently with a degree of sorrow), and not with self-justification (although frequently in defense of God’s Word).  As they have led other church leaders and members into an understanding of what being “called to the ministry” means (a life-long quest for God’s glory wherever their unique contribution to God’s Kingdom can be made) they have imparted an understanding of the cost of redemption. While we use the word “redemption” frequently and in different settings, are we remembering that the cost was the death of Jesus, the Son of God? Church leaders and church members tutored in the message of the “cost” have been equipped to see God’s much grander plan for his Kingdom when they face even the loss of a beloved pastor who is being unleashed for even greater Kingdom service and sacrifice. To quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Praying for peace as we await “The Day” of The Shepherd’s return (Hebrews 10:25; 2 Peter 3:10)!

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Excerpts from "Redeeming Church Conflicts", How to Fire Your Pastor