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Seek to stay or go...? Deciding the future of a ministry facing difficulty.

By Martin Thorne.

In a recent sabbatical study1of the factors affecting the ways in which British Baptists come to their decisions to seek a change of pastorate or ministry it became clear that at least one fifth of all such decisions were prompted to a significant degree by opposition to the pastorate from a ‘group’ within the church, by conflict surrounding that situation or by simple criticism of the pastor.2 However in only 7% of the ministries surveyed did such factors become the controlling reason for a change of pastorate. Thankfully this appears to be rather less common and much less severe than in a similar recent study of some American denominations, including Baptists. This report by David Goetz3suggests that, of the American ministerial readers of three magazines surveyed,423% of them had either had their ministry terminated by their church (6%) or had been forced to resign (19%).5

Does lightning regularly strike a minister twice?

According to Goetz, ‘one in four of those had had the experience more than once’ and 34% of these were aware that their predecessor had also been ‘forced out’. Again the situation amongst British Baptists does not seem so bad in that only 12% of all ministers adversely affected by opposition, conflict or severe criticism, were subject to a recurrence of similar difficulties. In addition the study by Goetz already cited above indicates that even amongst those American ministers forced out of pastorate the experience was in an overall sense POSITIVE to faith and ministry in 66% of all cases! True enough there was a degree of harm to the individual family’s ‘ability to trust the denominational church’ and to the minister’s ‘confidence as a pastoral leader’, but there were also highly significant gains in prayer life, ability to be a loving spouse and in their confidence in their sense of call from God. What Satan means for ill God can and does redeem for good.

Why is disturbance of ministry through conflict so common?

Goetz suggests that the ‘cultural upheaval’ of the last thirty years (in Britain surely, as in the USA?) ‘contributes to the complexity of contemporary church leadership.’ To say the least! Quoting H.B. London and Neil Wiseman,6Goetz agrees that ‘contemporary pastors are caught in frightening spiritual and social tornadoes which are now raging through home, church, community and culture.’

Similarly he quotes George Barna: ‘Many pastors are doomed from the day they join a congregation because the congregation’s expectations are unachievable by any human being.’7

Derek Tidball in his perceptive analysis,8agrees that the instability and questioning to which many ministries are constantly subjected is a function of our age, such that ‘this ferment takes place against a background of widespread questioning of institutional authority....authority now has to be earned and verified by personal experience rather than by institutional labels.’9

Goetz suggests three major reasons for ministers being forced out:

  1. Who controls the direction of the church? ‘Conflicting visions for the church’ between minister and a small group within the church is the greatest cause of disagreement, conflict and opposition.
  2. Who ‘owns’ this church? A party or group of well established members whether part of the official leadership team or not, can come effectively to ‘rule’ the church by outright opposition, censure, criticism etc, or by more subtle tactics planned to undermine. In some cases withdrawal and belligerent non co-operation is enough to force resignation, perhaps through financial pressure. Goetz discovered that there are a considerable number of ‘repeat offender’ churches: ‘Sixty-two percent of forced out pastors said that the church which forced them out had done it before....of those 41% indicated that the same church had done it more than twice....the conclusion seems self-evident: churches that force out their pastor will likely do it again. What animates a repeat-offender church is the power of the few. Forty-three percent of forced-out pastors said a ‘faction’ pushed them out, and 71% of those indicated that the ‘faction’ forcing them out numbered ten or less. These tiny wolfpacks often horde the inside information. Only 20% of pastors who were forced out said the real reason for their leaving was made known to the entire congregation.’10
  3. ‘Normal’ differences over ‘bread and butter issues’ such as worship style, time spent in pastoral activities, days off, doctrine and money.

The Denomination, Supervision and 'In the Next Pastorate'.

In his article Goetz makes some trenchant comments upon his observations as regards the American experience. We would do well to take heed for in ministry as in so many other areas of life the American experience quickly affects British attitudes, albeit in modified or diluted form.

Firstly he says that in circumstances of conflict the ‘denominational supervisor’ is frequently not apprised of the situation early enough to be of much help. If they do get involved, Goetz reckons that very often they and the church are only too aware that there is a considerable ‘oversupply’ of ministers compared with available church vacancies. Furthermore there seems to be a general denominational assumption, says Goetz, that it is easier for a minister to ‘mess-up’ with a congregation than vice versa. Finally he notes that in his study about half the ministers in conflict situations feel that their pastoral superintendent ‘didn’t understand the real issues.’ Goetz is probably correct when he suggests that most denominations do not have structures in place for monitoring the reasons for departure of its ministers and hence has no robust method of identifying, far less actually making constructive proposals for working with the repeat-offender church on its recurrent problem.

Although it is too late for any of us who might be moving as a result of conflict Goetz does offer some practical suggestions for action ‘in the next pastorate’.

  1. Initiate relationship with the denominational supervisor before you need them. However it is helpful, says Goetz, to keep in mind that supervisors are more likely to function as referees than personal trainers, officiating for both sides.
  2. Keep close links with at least one pastoral ‘buddy’ who, if conflict erupts, can be your unequivocal loyalist. Goetz says that these ‘deep-water relationships never seem to develop naturally - they demand intention.’
  3. Be aware of and if necessary involve specialists in mediation before the conflict has matured into a full-blown crisis. In the UK, the Mennonite Cultural Centre, 14 Shepherds Hill, Highgate, London, N6 5AQ, 0181 340 8775, are able to arrange ‘conflict’ seminars and mediation.
  4. In the process of making a move, make a personal inventory before getting involved with church profiles as these can seem all too attractive once the different location (away from here!), fresh opportunities etc. begin to tell. George Fraser and Ted Pampeyan11 and Arthur F Miller12 suggest that ministers should list:

    • Strengths and weaknesses. Miller very helpfully illustrates how each pastor possesses a distinct ‘mode-of-action’ in which each of us is most productive and most fulfilled. He suggests that prior to applying for a move we should carefully and with the help of a perceptive friend or colleague, tease out those ‘special times’ of great fulfilment, talk them over in detail and conclude about them in terms of, for example, subject matter, abilities, circumstances, relationships, motivational ‘payoff’ etc. Miller thinks this would aid us in definition of a likely ‘ideal church’ in which we could be most used of God, all other factors being equal.
    • Cultural preferences so that you can identify individuals who share your interests and lifestyle. Without some common perspective, conflicts are inevitable.
    • Non-negotiables. What issues would cause you to walk away?
    • Your tolerance for conflict and opposition. Troubled churches require leather-skinned leaders.

Developing this profile before you become emotionally involved with a new situation will allow you to evaluate realistically your potential suitability for a proposed ministry.

  1. Ask what previous pastors say. Every church which has forced out a pastor felt the deed was justified. You will probably never get the whole story from the deacons or the search committee. Ask probing questions. Listen for emotion or insinuation, then ask questions until you get answers. The more you discover about the church’s former pastors the more you will learn about the church. In his helpful Alban Institute article R.N.Bolles13 suggests that ‘the microcosm reveals the macrocosm. Hoping you can reform them even with God’s help may be a most forlorn hope’.
  2. Ask whether there are discipline procedures and assess these carefully. A healthy church will have or want to have a process for confronting, disciplining and restoring fractious parties. It must be spelled out in the church rules in order to avoid any possibility of lawsuits. In my own personal experience of a recent pastorate the foundational church covenant was of enormous potential utility once the membership had come to appreciate its content in detail and had affirmed their loyalty to it in a modernised form by literally signing up to its conditions in a formal way.
  3. Enquire whether the people are truly reconciled to the past. Before a church can become healthy members must face the truth of the past. Like jilted lovers, troubled churches are prone to marry on the rebound. There is no renewal without repentance. Fraser and Pampeyan suggest that three questions will reveal whether this process is nearing completion;

    • What do you want to preserve in this church?
    • What do you want to avoid in this church?
    • What do you want to achieve in this church?

If not then one aspect of the new ministry, however unpalatable it might seem, will have to be working with this unfinished business. Failure to do so would probably mean that it will all rear its ugly head some way into the fresh start!

To stay or to leave in the face of opposition and conflict?

No doubt all this sounds very depressing and it will be scarcely believable to those who have not (yet!) had to face opposition, criticism or conflict on a significant scale. It may be tempting to think that those who do so suffer have somehow been negligent or ineffective in their ministries and therefore ‘have a thing or two to learn’ from our shining example. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The power of oppositional forces, and the vast destructive potential of relatively small cliques in our churches is such that even the best prepared ministers are largely at their mercy, at least for a while. We need to be aware of this and realise that a good number of us will encounter such forces at some point in ministry. Donald Bubna14 suggests that ‘opposition is not a sign to leave - only that we are in a spiritual fight.... Pain in ministry is probably inevitable. We are called not only to believe the gospel but also to suffer for it. (Phil 1 v.29).’

As leaders we are marked women and men. A significant figure or figures in the leadership of a church may begin to oppose and attempt to thwart a minister’s every attempt at leadership. Bubna says that even in these cases of extreme difficulty we may not be free under God to seek another pastorate. There are times, he suggests, when it is up to us to ‘stop a rebellion, sometimes it is up to us to correct a situation before someone else can follow on in ministry.’

It is often necessary to resist wrong headed thought and action within the church no matter how powerful the group advocating this or that course of action. However many of us will encounter the situation where the wrong in our churches is not a relatively easily eradicated, highly visible set of ‘gross sins’ but a far more subtle but probably more damaging set of the sins of pride (spiritual and emotional), bitterness, gossip, backbiting and criticism etc. amongst the settled members. We will probably be asking ourselves how this church can prosper when it is so far from gospel standards of holiness and right living. Surely then is the time for patient pastoring, including the costly love of church discipline and longsuffering confrontation of wrong. As many of us will know only too well, the focus of dispute (worship style etc.) is often far removed from the real issues which may have to do with power, personal prestige, ownership, personal preferences, attention seeking and self-interest. It is these which need to be confronted and if possible ministered through, at least to the point of making them public within the body of the church members in order that a group or clique in a repeat-offender church cannot go on perpetrating their particular form of manipulation again and again. Richard Baxter made ‘church discipline’ (extending from ‘private reproof and leading’ through to excommunication) the seventh of seven vital tasks in church ministry. To him, negligence here was as serious as negligence in preaching and in both cases the negligent pastor deserved to be dismissed from office.15

To stay or to leave? Is the long term pastorate the answer?

There is a stirring call to stay at the ‘coalface’ of local pastoral ministry despite much opposition from the Adventist pastor David VanDenburgh in that denomination's pastors magazine:

‘The fifth year of a pastoral term is often a plateau. The honeymoon is over, all the easy problems have been solved, and what remains are the hard problems with roots entwined around the congregation's core identity. Now what the pastor is made of will become apparent. To stay or not to stay, that is the question. Calls to go elsewhere will come in. New and more alluring positions beckon. Most pastors succumb and abandon their posts. If they stayed, they would break through into the most fruitful years of ministry; the years after the seventh year. Sadly most pastors never see these years.’16

Conventional wisdom has it that after five years of preaching and teaching the refractory nature of certain people's characters is so resistant to a particular minister’s efforts on their behalf that it takes a virtual miracle of God’s grace for them to be changed significantly at that stage. By that time, so it is said, such refractory characters will almost certainly be at the stage of discipline before the church meeting and unless the sin is highly visible to a large number of members simultaneously it is very difficult to obtain the necessary confession and repentance upon which restoration may be based.

I am not saying it cannot happen, but in practice it seems to me to be rare and a very careful evaluation of the value of extending a ministry in the face of such conflict and opposition is always necessary. I suggest that a decision to stay could only be relatively easily, clearly and firmly made in circumstances where there were clear avenues of approach to the difficulties remaining unexplored.

The fact is that all pastors lose on important issues from time to time and there comes a point when too many have been lost or they have been lost with such finality that it is impossible to continue.

Hopefully the gospel has been preached even if it has not been fully heeded. Thus we depart, retaining a proper measure of our self-esteem and continuing to draw comfort from the hope of the Lord’s commendation (even if no-one else’s!).

1. "Seek to stay or go..."- an unpublished sabbatical report by M.G.Thorne, 30 pages -including tables and data from over one hundred pastoral moves amongst Baptist pastors, available at £4.00 photocopy cost inc. postage from the author (contact via email:  Return 2. See chapter 3, "Seek to stay or go....", above.  Return 3. "LEADERSHIP" Magazine, Winter 1996.  Return 4. "LEADERSHIP" Magazine, "Christianity Today" and "Your Church".  Return 5. The differences between the sum of these figures and the total given above is constituted by those who were both forced to resign and whose contract was officially 'terminated'!  Return 6. H.B.London and Neil Wiseman, Pastors at Risk, mentioned in Goetz (above), no publisher given.  Return 7. George Barna, Today's Pastors, No publisher given.  Return 8. D.Tidball, Skillful Shepherds, An introduction to pastoral theology, Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishers, Ministry Resources Library, 1986, 338pp.  Return 9. Tidball, ibid, p16.  Return 10. David Goetz, "LEADERSHIP" Magazine, Winter 1996 p.42.  Return 11. Of Titus Task Force International, Bakersfield, California, in D. Goetz, LEADERSHIP Magazine, Winter 1996 p 44.  Return 12. Arthur F. Miller, Chapter 2 in Your Next Pastorate, Starting the Search, by Richard N Bolles, Russel C Ayers, Arthur F Miller and Loren B Mead, The Alban Institute, 4125 Nebraska Ave, NW, Washington DC, 20016, USA. (1990).  Return 13. R.N.Bolles, Chapter 1 in Your Next Pastorate, Starting the Search, by Richard N Bolles, Russel C Ayers, Arthur F Miller and Loren B Mead, The Alban Institute, 4125 Nebraska Ave, NW, Washington DC, 20016, USA. (1990).  Return 14. Donald Bubna, "Is it time to leave?", LEADERSHIP Magazine, Winter 1996, p51.  Return 15. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor - for the Worcester Association of Minsters, 1656, Abridged edition, with introduction by J.I.Packer, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1976.  Return 16. David VanDenburgh, "Lashed to the mast", Ministry Magazine, May 1997, p.10.  Return

Martin Thorne was until recently Minister at Blackheath and Charlton Baptist Church.

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