How to recover your church after a pastor leaves, even in a fall
"Since an overseer manages God's household, he must be blameless-not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it." Titus 1:7-9
Matthew 6:41; 18; 1 Corinthians 10:7-13; 1 Timothy 3:1-75:17-20; Titus 1:5-9; 2:12; Hebrews 13; James 3:1
The statistics for pastors who fall is about 20%. Nearly 50% of pastors starting out will not last beyond five years in ministry for reasons of burnout and frustration. Just 1 out of every 10 pastors will actually retire as a minister in some form. Now, compare that to that 4,000 new churches beginning each year, while 7,000 churches close. We have some rebooting and rebuilding to do!
Are we being trustworthy with the Message, and playing that forward?
Good coaches seek to build effective and winning teams; they focus on the basics, and they drill. I coach a kids' basketball team. I didn't play basketball beyond high school; I'm not an expert. However, I had to learn in order to lead others. I was blessed to spend time with the great John Wooden. (I had him as a speaker for a youth conference and spent the day with him at UCLA. I also had the privilege to spend many sessions with him for an unpublished book we did on character.) This is what I learned:
- "If you do not know how to dribble or do a layup in your sleep, you can't play, no matter what height or talent you have."
- "If you have no character, you have no game."
- "You can't make talent; all you have to work with is work."
- "If you work hard and do your best, you will be your best; then, you are a winner."
- "Success is not when you win. Success is when you do the best with what you have."
Coach Wooden emphasized the importance of the basics of the game even with the seasoned players. Thanks to his teaching, I can now coach kids and recognize how and why errors are made and wins/losses occur.
Why is this so important? Well, Coach Wooden's advice applies to managing a church congregation, too--especially a church in crisis! When we are building our collective faith, we are building a church that can withstand anything. We are in the game of life to be our best for Christ's glory! For the church leader and pastor, our basics are to be in daily surrendered prayer, devotions and reading the Word. These are our drills. These basics are fundamental for discipline and leadership in our professional and personal study.
By practicing these basics, these drills, we can rebuild a congregation for the Lord. This starts with the leaders (even if a pastor has left). Do the basics:
- Get back to worship and prayer.
- Build your spiritual life.
- Encourage and empower your congregation to do so, too.
If we cannot know these basics in our sleep (as the coach instructed his players to know layups), what good are we? We will not know where to lead because we have not been there; we will not know the destination ourselves. Additionally, by practicing such discipline, we are kept real and grounded. This discipline with the grace of God helps prevent sin from getting us and our congregations off track. We are disciplined for the glory of God, and we will keep away from temptation and depravity.
When the temptations become bitten, have a plan to restore
What happens when a pastor has been led astray? What happens when there is breach of trust? What happens when a leader has been caught and has confessed? No doubt, this is a time of crisis and chaos. People will be shocked, grieved, angry, and wounded. For some, this will trigger their own crises of faith. Feelings and emotions will run the gamut and will run high. It is imperative that the remaining leaders and members of the church hold on to God's Word, surrender themselves in humble prayer, and rely on the Truth. It is imperative the remaining leaders are sensitive, positive, and really operating in the Fruit of the Spirit. This is an opportunity to refocus, replant, and grow in Who Christ Is and What He Has Given. Stay grounded in the Word and be in prayer. This is the time to stay to Christ the LORD, not the time to stress or fret.
Stay honest in all communications and dealings. Read and keep the passages at the start of the article front and center. Keep confidences. Stay focused on the mission of the church for Glory of God, not the glory of the pastor or reputations whatever they may be.
What should you do when you hear that a pastor or leader has engaged in sin?
- Be in Prayer! Do not be quick to judge. Be quick to pray, and remember Matthew 18.
- Do Not Gossip. Gather facts and strengthen good leadership.
- Be Wise and Listen! I have known many pastors and leaders who were set up or were falsely accused. Make very sure you have credible witness and watch for character issues from all involved.
- Elders are to act! When there are reports or signs of trouble, it is the responsibility of the church governing body to pray, seek the Word, investigate, and have a conversation with the leader or pastor in question. Give the pastor or leader a chance for a defense, unless the situation is so bad he/she need not be there.
- If the allegations or accusations are true, ask the leader or pastor to step down. This is necessary when breaches of trust have been made. If there is refusal to step down, take legal action. A true pastor, one called of God, will gladly place the congregation ahead of personal pride. A true pastor will be concerned that Christ is glorified and will not want to be a burden as that would be of no benefit to anyone. If a pastor refuses to leave, the calling is perhaps invalid; involve any denominations or oversight, including the body for their ordination. Write out a formal separation and engage a lawyer who specializes in human resources. Surprisingly, very few churches do this; the problem escalates. Get rid of a bad apple or the entire barrel with be contaminated! Make sure the family and victims are helped during this time.
- Begin the process to restore. This must happen any time a pastor leaves whether by call, retirement, or death or when a fall has occurred.
- Revisit the Vision and purpose of your church. The purpose of any church should be to glorify God, not bow to an earthly personality. A real purpose or mission statement must be done through Scripture and in prayer and agreed upon by the governing body and the congregation. Why? This is the way we let others know Who and what we stand for and why we do things. If people are not on board, let them know the mission of the church congregation. "This is what we are about." If a group, a faction does not adhere, will not help build, or if they gossip, release them from the church. It is better to let a dozen go from a church of 50 than having disunity and factions among the total 50. If the mission statement is just about the pastor, you are on the wrong course. (See our Church Growth page for how-to's.)
- Be patient. This is a time to process and reflect. One of the worst things to do is ignore the problem and/or hire a new pastor immediately. As with any loss for any reason, it takes time to work through the loss of losing a trusted shepherd.
- Allow people to grieve. Most pastors are loved by most of the congregation. The pastors are important in the lives of the congregants as they perform the marriages, funerals, baptisms, personal counseling, teaching, preaching and are the spiritual leaders. (In research, usually only a small faction is against them, usually less than 10%, many times less than ten people in a larger church of 500.) Losing a pastor can be much like losing a family member. Honor their time and memory, keep in mind the positive, and do not allow gossip.
- Celebrate! Yes, have a party for those who are leaving well. Show the love and gratitude for pastors who have done their jobs well and who must leave you. Invite people to share stories and testimonies. For retirements and moving to another church, allow as much time is needed for transition. For matters of a breach of conduct, this step should be skipped. In any account, make sure the pastor's family is taken care of and provisions are made.
- Beware of personalities. Keep people on track. Do not let the wolves or strong personalities bully people or cause others to lose focus. If your church is all about the pastor, you have at best a pope or a pop star; at worst, you have a cult of personality--none of these reflect a biblical or Christ-centered church. Even when a pastor is great, what happens if he/she goes somewhere else, retires, is ill, or dies? Does your church die, too? Even if there seem to be no moral failings, how is the matter of pride handled?
- Commit to serious real prayer. The prime call for any church is to be an offering to God a sacrifice of praise and to be fruitful, openly professing Christ as Lord. Call for a congregational prayer meeting. The focus is prayer. Briefly state the issues and the mission of the church. Field questions in an orderly way, allowing three minutes for each response. The elders recommend action, and the congregation votes. The person or persons in question should not be there! See your church piety in this manner.
God has given us the power to live for Him victoriously and with excellence! He feeds us the spiritual food, pays our spiritual debt, and gives us the knowledge and the assets to be godly and good. If we truly trust in Christ, not just as Savior, but also as LORD, we are given the power and the ability to live a life of fullness, distinction of character, and spiritual maturity so He is glorified by our lives and living testimony.
Christ is the One Who gives us the resources. They are here for us, and they are at our disposal.
Do not fret of despair. Remember what a church is about and for. We are not alone or cut off from what we need! But, there is a catch. We have to go for it; we have to appropriate His plan with our gifts and opportunities in our collective lives, as in finding and engaging them. We take a firm hold of our faith when we trust and obey what Christ has for us. If we do not, we live a life of waste and even sin, missing out what is good and precious for us. Why would anyone forsake His love and gifts (Deut. 31:6; Phil. 2:13; 3:13-14; 4:13)?
How does a church move on from a pastor leaving?
- Get an interim pastor. Before hiring a pastoral replacement, hire an experienced seasoned pastor--one who specializes in healing. This position should be for at least one year to two years. They will focus on the mission statement, prayer, having counseling available by a qualified person. Of course, the interim pastors will provide quality preaching to refocus on the worship of God, praise Christ as LORD and delve into the Word. A short sermon series like Johnna and Micah, or James or Colossians works great. Get people worshiping and learning and growing!
- Set aside a weekly Prayer Meeting and a forum for public repentance. This is the primary healing venue. If we skip this, you skip your chance to move on. Remember, the church belongs to Christ. We are the stewards of it. He grows the church, we pray, we serve; we worship, and we disciple. Stay focused and allow Christ to move you forward.
- Communicate. Be transparent, do not cover up, and focus on the mission. There will be questions, like, Why did the pastor leave? If a retirement of a move that is an easy answer. For breaches of trust you will have questions like, Why did you allow this? Why did this happen? What will be done to make sure it does not happen again? Why did God allow this?
People will be confused and want to know what is going on. The leadership must emphasize the reason for the church: worship Christ and glorify Him. It is not about us, it is about Him. However, not addressing the issue or not giving information fosters another kind of wound. So, hold a "town hall"-church hall-meeting. Be discreet with the information given and received; share as few details as possible, but share enough so that questions are answered in a way that is acceptable for unity. Real Christian leadership is not a force of will or what people are doing for us, or what they did to us. Real Christian leadership is what Christ has done for us. We take our cue from Christ and do for others in humility for the glory of God.
The simple solution to healing a wounded church is to do as Jesus taught and modeled. When this is done, everything good follows-healing, effectual growth, outreach, commitment to Christ for God's glory.
- Ease people. Prepare for change. Embrace this as an opportunity for growth and development. People will want to jump ship. Have elders assigned to all members. Elders should phone, visit and communicate each member's value and how we can work together and rebuild. It is our church in Christ, not an individual's. Get feedback and reassure congregants of the mission of the church. If you do not do this, people will leave, and they will not come back. If you have trouble with some, let them go so long as they are in another good church.
We are called to endure and not give up. During these times, it is imperative we are committed to seeking Christ and practice patience with fortitude. Churches go through difficult situations; we are called to accept them without making demands or setting conditions. We are to learn and grow in faith and in Christ. This comes by being in possession of inner strength to remain in Christ along with staying power in order to accomplish God's will. We can have confidence in Christ, as it is His Church, and we are the servants and stewards of it. Therefore, we cannot be faint with our call or situation; we are strong in Jesus, and we are able to persist and continue to deal with stress in order that we can accomplish that to which God calls us (Matthew 27:14; Romans 12:12; James 1:3).
It is imperative that the church leadership encourages the members to continue in the faith and not give up, to follow Christ; if the leadership fails, dire consequences will come. A divided church, a fractured community, gossiping neighbors, congregants without a home…this is what follows if leadership will not do what is required.
We are building our church from the call of Jesus Christ: love, lead, grow, disciple, pray, and worship for the Glory of the God the Father.
If you have a fallen leader, do not have the pastor or leader in question be at the church. The fallen need healing, too, and they must be repentant; this must take place away from the church building for the good of all involved.
Communicate that we build on the Foundation of a faith In Christ. The authentic knowledge of Christ that is revealed to us is the foundation of our faith. We are being directly called to make every conceivable effort to put into practice our faith and the Fruit that is given and is at our disposal to use. Our faith is the benefit we have as Christians, just like working for a company and having health and life insurance, a retirement account, and various other benefits. Employers are not always obligated to do so, but in order to make a healthier and more productive work environment, employers offer benefits. The employees are responsible to sign up and use the benefits. If they do not, those benefits are available but worthless. Their use is not mandatory, but needed and necessary for life. The parallels are similar to what God has given us. He is not obligated to give to us out of His love and grace, but He does so because of that love and grace (2 Pet. 1: 1-11).
- The Pastoral Search. After a minimum of six months, begin a search. When you look for a pastor, you want a person of character, humility, the ability to communicate the Word of Truth. You are not looking for a 'personality,' or a postcard. You are looking for a pastor of real faith. What most search committees look for is not what God looks for. Be in prayer and open to the Holy Spirit. If your church is small, consider merging with another church. If you decide to merge with another congregation, meet, pray, and agree on the vision and essential doctrine. Mergers work best if one has facilities and an elderly congregation and the other church is young and vibrant with facilities or one has a good pastor and one does not. This saves kingdom money and keeps aging churches going, without reinventing a wheel.
- What about restoration of a fallen leader or pastor? Yes, Christianity is all about forgiveness! As we also know, there must be sincere repentance. There must also be some healing with time away from the church building and congregation and the responsibilities that are entailed. Consider a minimum healing period of 10 months with this time used for employ outside of the church, biblical counseling, and prayer. When or if humility is present, consider interviewing the leader again before moving on in the restoration process.
God is the Author of life and goodness. He desires us to be good. The question for us: Do we seek God's sovereignty and His Will for us, or do we seek the will of our desires? The Bible tells us to be good (Psalm 103:17; 131; Prov. 8:13; Col. 3:12-17; Phil. 2:14-18; 4:8; 1 Timothy 4:12; 5:22; Tit. 1:15; Heb. 10:5-10; 2 Peter 1:3-5; 2:9)!
Do not be short sighted concerning your faith and the opportunities Christ has and will still bring. If we do not have a desire to pursue the will of God, we have to ask ourselves why and what is in the way. Most, if not all of the time, it is the desire of sin that blocks us. Sometimes we may not recognize sin and or even rationalize it away. This happens especially when sin is dumbed down and shown as OK in the media and entertainment. Our election is proven by our obedience and growth in Christ!
People will complain that they are not happy.
Change is hard for most, exciting for some. As a leader, set the example, even when you feel unhappy; be positive not negative. Keep in mind that true happiness is like joy; it is not constrained to our circumstances. Rather, it is determined by how we choose to respond in attitude and will. How and why can we be happy? Because God loves us and cares for us, we can respond to His precepts and apply them to our lives. Abiding in His Will brings happiness; living outside of His Will brings doom and gloom. God does not bring any bad thing. WE bring bad things by our disobedience, by being self-willed and not Christ-willed. The results of realizing we are approved by God will bring perseverance that builds our maturity, character, and faith.
When people are complaining they are not happy, listen. Make sure they are heard and look how to solve problem and potential problems. If it is just grumbling, take them to James 1. Blessed is or happy is, refers to an emotional state of satisfaction, well-being, and contentment that results from being approved by God, by our fulfilling of our duty. God is happy when we do not give up. Encourage them to persevere and learn that Christ is happy when we do not give into grumbling and sin. We need to work on our devotion, enjoying God's special favor and His Grace working in us. It is like being told by our parent/father that He is proud of us (Psalm 1; 32:2; 34:8; 84:12; Isa. 56:2; Matt. 5:3-11; 17:7).
When you lead, remember that Christ's followers are called sheep for a reason. They need a real leader to lead. They can get so excited about a charismatic personality who gives non-convicting messages, quaint stories and what think are marvelous sound bites without a single bit of biblical and effectual teaching.
Remember, God does not send temptations to break us; rather, He gives us good gifts and abilities to fight them off!
To transition right, remember the importance of praying and living honorably so God may produce even more in your church. Be positive. Encourage your fellow members and pray for and support them.
May the God of peace, who saved you, continue to equip you. May you produce effectual fruit for the glory of Christ, our Great Shepherd. To God be the glory, forever and ever!
© 2015, Richard J. Krejcir, Ph.D. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership, www.churchleadership.org