We were living in my uncle’s rental house that he was so graciously allowing us to use rent free for a time. Things at the church I had been pastoring hadn’t ended well, and my wife and I found ourselves in the most difficult spiritual and financial season of our marriage. In hope of sparing both the church and my family as much pain as possible, I chose to resign my position in June 2010 after the Deacon Board gave me the ultimatum, resign or be voted out by the church.
Two years later in September 2012 right before we moved out of the rental house, something seemingly symbolic happened. We were packing up boxes one evening when three-quarters of our bedroom floor fell in! It was an old farmhouse, and the termites finally got the best of the floor joists. I couldn’t help but think of how the “floors” of my ministry had “fallen in” just two years prior.
Resigning from a church you shepherd because of schism is one of the most painful experiences of ministry. I have known several pastor friends and read about many more who have gone through it, and now I had experienced myself. But I can say, God uses such pain for glorious things. Most of these come from my personal experience, but the principles apply to many circumstances.
1. Personal Sanctification: At that time, I feared man more than God to the point that I sometimes worried about getting “fired” or having to resign if I were to speak out on all my convictions. Now, I’m a bolder and better pastor, a better husband, and a better father because of God’s sanctifying grace. Now my theology of the Church (ecclesiology) is more sound and clear.
2. Repentance: A part of my personal sanctification is repentance. I don’t write this article out of bitterness but out of the realization that I could have been a more personable and loving pastor to that local church of God.
3. Wisdom for Others: I have a story to share that can be of encouragement and help to other pastors who are in calloused or otherwise difficult churches. For example, I learned that just because a small group of influential people says the majority of the church wants you gone, it’s not necessarily true. Since 2010, I have heard from other pastors that experienced this same thing.
Add to this, I have a story to share with churches as to how to go about addressing major differences they have with a pastor. I actually agree with the deacons of the church I was pastoring that it was probably best that I leave. That’s a big part of why I resigned. The issue was the way they went about the process. (To be clear, the schism was over particular theological points and not any unrepentant or disqualifying sin on my part).
Here are a few words of wisdom for a church having issues with her pastor:
1. Be sure to address disagreements, sins, or perceived sins privately. Jesus commands us in Matthew 18 to address one another privately before getting multiple people involved. Give the pastor the respect of a proper hearing in private. This will help clear up any misunderstandings that might be leading you toward the wrong conclusion. When you give that hearing, be clear about the perceived problem.
2. Be sure to involve all witnesses that are accusing a pastor of sin. Beware of entertaining “hearsay” or “secondhand” accusations. Don’t pass along accusations from others by saying things like, “There’s a family in the Church that said that you said. . . ” Instead, simply say something like, “There’s a family in the Church that believes you have said . . . I suggested that they talk to you about it. Perhaps you should go ahead and reach out to them.” This is approach is a much better way to guard against gossip, slander, and miscommunication.
3. Be sure there are no “secret” meetings of select leaders. Whether an Elder Board or a Deacon Board, there should never be secret meetings held for the purpose of amassing “evidence” against any leader in the Church.
4. Be sure to follow the guidelines outlined in your church’s by-laws. Some churches fail to realize that the by-laws are a legally binding document.
5. Don’t use threats to intimidate a pastor. Avoid threats like “resign or we’ll vote you out” or declarations like “everybody wants you to leave”.
6. Realize it usually takes many months for a pastor to move into a new pastorate. It took 18 months in my case. In the meantime, your pastor will likely loose his family’s health insurance, and because church’s don’t pay into the unemployment system, there are no unemployment benefits to lean on.
In the end, resigning or being fired from a church as a pastor because of schism is bitter-sweet. It’s bitter knowing I could have been a better pastor to that flock. It’s bitter knowing that the church could have done a better job of handling the situation. It’s bitter being separated from people with whom you had grown close.
But, it’s sweet to know God gave me an opportunity to repent and grow in spiritual maturity. It’s sweet knowing my intentions to preach the gospel, see people saved, and disciple men were true, though I fell way short of what I could have been. My intention in pastoring that flock was true. It’s also sweet to know that the church I pastored has the opportunity for repentance and growing in spiritual maturity too. And this is a cause of praising God for His patience and grace demonstrated in His glorious providence!
Soli Deo Gloria,