Don Follis: Church leaders need to be more honest early on

Don Follis: Church leaders need to be more honest early on

A few years back I heard a fellow pastor ripping on another pastor. I didn't say anything and let it churn in my stomach. I don't have a good excuse for not speaking up, other than fear of upsetting the apple cart.

There was another occasion when a pastor I knew had a troubled marriage. I had earned the right to be heard and to confront both husband and wife but I didn't. I remember thinking, "Who am I to confront them? They are Christians. Good Christians. Maybe better Christians than I. What do I have to say to him? I'm sure they will work things out."

Now that I've counseled a couple of hundred of pastors, I have heard so many stories of not being confronted early on when issues initially arise. The pain, which should have been faced on the front end, often gets put off for months. By then it's infinitely worse for everyone.

Some pastors are abruptly removed from their posts without any warning. One day they thought things were going along just fine and the next they are told, "The deacons (or trustees, or elders) met Sunday evening and decided it's time to bring in fresh leadership."

Sadly, there was little or no discussion and often not much effort to find a solution to what sparked the removal. "Well, pastor, we prayed about it. We've made our decision. We just need to get on with things at this point."

You can imagine how pastors feel about this. Betrayed? Often. Angry? You know it. Puzzled? No kidding. Frustrated? Unbelievably. And you had better believe their spouses feel those same emotions 20-fold. A few years ago a disillusioned pastor told me, "I've been fired for the last time." He took a job mowing grass in an apartment complex and quit attending church entirely.

To be honest and fair, though, every story is unique. Sometimes when I hear these stories it does appear that it is time for a leadership change. Even so, I often cringe when I hear of the ill-timed, disrespectful and insensitive way the process was carried out.

I see a common factor in nearly all sudden removal of pastors. The church leaders failed, in a timely, candid manner, to discuss bad behaviors, personal slights and other deficiencies.

Sometimes early on those church leaders merely overlooked the offenses, thinking, "Surely our pastor's behavior will change." And that pastor thought, "Surely this church board will change." Sadly, church counsels often lack the courage, and the love quite frankly, to bring hard issues out in the open. I've seen churches leaders allow tensions and disappointments to build. These pressures inevitably overflow into demoralizing personal rejection rather than loving and humble discussions.

I have a solution: Don't overlook every offense; don't cover every wrong. Unless, of course, you truly and sincerely can let it go for good. Good for those church boards (too few, sad to say) who have candidly discussed troubling issues with the pastor and honestly laid them to rest.

But if a church board, or church elders, can't resolve personal or leadership issues, they should courageously ask for assistance from the outside. There's no shame in asking for help. I wish more would. Many denominations have resources that can help individual congregations. Peacemaker Ministry is an organization I like who specializes in helping churches resolve conflict, especially within its leadership ranks. This highly regarded group has a good track record in helping churches resolve conflict (http://www.peacemaker.net; click on "Institute for Christian Conciliation").

The Peacemaker group says when a major transition needs to take place it is good to seek what they call the three P's of satisfaction.

Process satisfaction requires a fair process where people believe they have been fully informed of the issues in an honest, even-handed and timely manner. Everyone involved gets a reasonable chance to discuss the issue and is given opportunity to present their side of the story. It's like when the Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth, "Everything should be done in a fitting and cordial way." People must be given the chance to talk and to openly share their feelings if there is going to be any hope for genuine unity.

Personal satisfaction requires treating everyone with the kind of respect you would want to be treated with if the roles were reversed. It's the Golden Rule put into practice. Even though we may profoundly disagree, you treat me with great respect, and I offer you the same.

Product satisfaction requires a final solution that is as prayerful, reasonable and equitable as is humanly possible. The idea here is from the Prophet Micah who says what God requires of us is to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

When people do not agree with the final outcome (product) of a hard decision, they will find it easier to accept an undesired ending if they believe those in power (elders, deacons) have given them both process and personal satisfaction.

Unfortunately, too many congregations have put their pastors through a hard, painful, and drawn out process. More church leaders need to admit their wrong (Please do this, leaders!) and initiate a process today that could perhaps bring healing and forgiveness.

The pastor you released, or the one you are about to release, may need your help to feel safe in the church, to let go of the past and to move ahead in figuring out God's next call. That's reasonable, isn't it?

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at donscolumn@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.

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