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Journal of a Relationship Breakdown

By Anonymous.

The following article was received from a known source, but is published anonymously in order to protect the integrity of everyone involved. For the same reason, it has been edited from the first person into the third. We publish it because the story is sadly not as rare as it should be and because it may help readers to reflect on their own ministries.

Jack and Ruth's late summer holiday in the Mediterranean had been good with hardly a cloud in the sky. Little did they know that, almost before they had unpacked, a huge storm would begin to break and would end with them being required to leave the Church of which Jack was pastor.

On the evening of their return from holiday the Church Officers told them that, in their absence, a prayer group had been started by those who said that first, they were deeply concerned for the life of the Church and second, by their estimation about one third of the members no longer supported Jack's ministry.

This was both worrying and very distressing, especially in the light of the very positive developments and growth within the Church in the comparatively short time Jack had been serving as pastor. Despite the usual erosion as some moved away and others who died, the membership had grown. There had been the regular systematic exposition of scripture; encouraging baptismal services; several evangelistic projects; an increase in the number of house groups and four times the number of house group leaders; and a broadening of mission interest. The church had engaged in exciting harvest projects through which an overseas pastor had purchased a new house and a clinic had been rebuilt in Asia, and Alpha groups became a regular part of the Church programme and were proving successful. So what had happened and where had things gone wrong?

Over the next three months the Deacons increasingly expressed their discontent about the way in which the Elders were working. Matters grew decidedly worse when, after working on the project for many months with the consent of the Deacons and Church members, the Elders invited someone to come and preach with a view to becoming an Associate Pastor. The man presented himself and preached well, with the result that the Elders unanimously recommended that he should be invited to take up the post. However, the Deacons informed the Elders they would unanimously oppose any positive recommendation because of their concern for the present state of the Church. Soon after that the Deacons met with the Elders, at which they presented a list of concerns about the way in which the Elders conducted their business. They claimed to be presenting the views of a majority of the members.

The Elders arranged a Meeting of the Church Members to be chaired by a mature Christian of proven leadership ability from outside the Church. The Deacons objected strongly to this and immediately served notice of their intention to call a vote of 'no confidence' in the Eldership as a whole on the grounds that they were showing poor leadership, poor communication and giving too little encouragement. Two of the four Elders immediately resigned.

A series of difficult meetings followed. At one Members' Meeting, it was suggested that the Church seek the help of a professional Christian arbitration organisation, but this motion was narrowly defeated. With the Eldership now substantially weakened, the Deacons, claiming the support of the majority of the members, immediately called the vote of 'no confidence' in the pastor and the other remaining Elder. At the last minute (and quite understandably) the remaining Elder resigned, so the vote became a vote of 'no confidence' in the pastor.

As the storm clouds gathered, Jack felt that it was increasingly hard to preach, especially knowing that the Deacons were unanimously opposing his ministry. For a while he withdrew from the pulpit and began going for long prayer walks and fasting for maybe three or four days each week. As Easter approached, he was feeling stronger and decided to resume preaching. By God's grace it was a particularly good Easter Day, followed a week later by a lovely baptismal Service.

The Dismissal

By now, however, the final curtain was not unexpected, but it was abrupt. A vote was now imminent when the Church Members would vote whether to keep or dismiss Jack from his ministry. After a Sunday evening service the votes were counted, and later that evening Jack was informed by telephone that he had lost the vote of 'no confidence' and would no longer be employed by that Church.

Although Jack was the main sufferer in this sorry tale, the problems had begun before he arrived as pastor. Prior to taking up his post, he had not been advised of the extent of the disharmony caused by changes in Eldership personnel. He had been assured that he would have no difficulties with the Church Trustees (although at least one influential Trustee had previously caused great heartache). An invitation from Jack for six-monthly meetings with the Trustees was refused. There was an unhealthy attitude of independency which permeated all levels of Church life, undermining accountability. Perhaps Jack should have known better. The Church Profile he was sent before his appointment said, '...the church has no affiliation with any denomination, an independence which has been jealously guarded down the years.' The result was that dominant characters in the congregation were able to exert far too much influence on the running of the Church, and were accountable to no-one.

As the crisis deepened, totally unfounded rumours surfaced that Jack had left his two previous appointments either under a shadow or been obliged to leave. Both former employers provided letters vigorously denying such allegations, but the damage was done.

A couple of days after the outcome of the 'vote of no confidence' was known, a delegation of Deacons visited to ask what kind of settlement Jack had in mind. He asked for something in writing, which was agreed. However, it soon became clear that the Deacons were in consultation with a solicitor. Jack concluded that although this course of action (and the expense it inevitably incurred) could so easily have been avoided, in order to protect his own interests he had no option but to do the same. Eventually, after many unfounded allegations and much pain, a grudging settlement was reached: a lump sum in cash and nine months to find somewhere else to live.

Although this settlement was in fact unacceptable in law, Jack, to his credit, never once entertained the idea of trying to take his employers to Court.

Lessons learned the hard way

At this time, Jack is still out of pastoral ministry. He and Ruth now live in a borrowed manse. The whole experience has taken its toll on their health, but a number of lessons have been learned en route.

First, they remembered that the decision to accept the call to that church had been a very difficult one. Commenting to a friend that Jack had smelled a rat at the time, the friend commented: "If you smell a rat, it usually means there is a rat!"

Second, Jack is now at an age when obtaining a new position is difficult. Related to that is the fact that many congregations are totally unrealistic in their expectations of a pastor. Some, for example, have remained very traditional in style and, although they would probably resist any modernisation, they now want someone 'to bring in the young people'.

Third, far too many Churches seeking a new pastor simply do not have the financial resources to adequately support one (one offered Jack and Ruth £7,800 per annum for a full time appointment!) and seem to believe there are gifted, experienced ministers available with private means! This is usually disguised in the information sent to prospective pastors by the comment that details of salary are 'To be discussed'.

Fourth, Jack will be more cautious if he is called to work in a Church which is independent and unaffiliated to any accountability group.

Fifth, Jack now knows more clearly than ever that gossip is a ministry-killer. Even when the allegations are known to be false, far too few people speak up for the minister or stand with him or her.

Sixth, even well-intentioned words of support can feel empty and sometimes can even hurt. Jack had people say to him things such as: "After all you have been through, I know God must have something very special for you." And even for ministers who wholeheartedly accept, enjoy and believe the words of Romans 8.28, its repeated and often thoughtless usage can at times grate.

Seventh, Jack has discovered that his experience of crisis in ministry has led to a much deeper understanding of forgiveness. He has discovered that it is often a process. He finds he can forgive today, then be unforgiving tomorrow. He has also discovered that the fact that he cannot forget what happened, or how he and Ruth were treated, does not mean that he has not forgiven. For example, some wrongs have such a devastating and long-lasting effect that every day is a reminder of the wrong that was done, making it impossible to forget. As long as we can follow the advice of our Lord Jesus to go on forgiving as often as it takes (Matthew 18:21-22), we will be getting closer to the point of total forgiveness.

Of course, it is right to say 'sorry', but we need to be as wary of 'cheap forgiveness' as Bonhoeffer urged us to be of 'cheap grace'. Simply to say 'sorry' or to send a brief note of apology can all too easily be 'cheap forgiveness'. Jack now believes that our Heavenly Father wants us to go beyond forgiveness and to seek genuine reconciliation and restoration of relationships.

Where does Jack go from here?

This is a strange, bewildering and draining phase of Jack and Ruth's pilgrimage and often they wake up in their borrowed manse and ask themselves, 'What on earth are we doing here?' Yet they are grateful to God for the many praying and encouraging friends they have, some of whom are still members of the Church that dismissed them and who for various reasons cannot leave, others of whom are from all over the world. As the crisis erupted, Jack and Ruth received so many flowers that for several weeks their lounge looked like a florist's shop, and there were cards, letters, e-mails, phone calls and visits, and the assurance of prayers.

They are grateful to God for the way (often through the very kind friends just mentioned) he has met, and still meets, their financial needs. It has been an important reminder of God's care for them.

Finally, Jack and Ruth would say that one of the greatest struggles of their Christian experience has been when Christian people let them down. They don't quite know why that should surprise them: after all, they are Christian and are conscious of many occasions when they have let people down too! But they are confident that their heavenly Father has never let anyone down and he will never fail them. 'Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.' In these painful and difficult days, Habakkuk 3:17-18 have become two of the most important verses in the Bible.

Ministry Today

You are reading Journal of a Relationship Breakdown by Anonymous, part of Issue 34 of Ministry Today, published in June 2005.

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