Battered Pastors (3)

In which I ask some questions of elders...

Every organization has leaders and followers. While this structure is sometimes informal, normally it is a deliberate arrangement. Because of this, not everyone is or can be a leader. Organizations are as dependent upon good followers as they are upon good leaders. In an organization, if everyone is the leader then no one is. This is certainly true for the church. God gave his people a structure of leaders and followers and accountability for both. The church is to be led by a plurality of elders with those who labor in preaching and teaching (pastors) being given "double honor" (1Tim 5:17). These God-called, congregationally-recognized leaders are to be followed obediently (Heb 13:17).

It seems obligatory at this point to mention that men like Hitler, Jim Jones, and Willy Wonka (the creepy factor) ought to not be followed obediently. But we must be careful to not disobey the biblical command by killing it with a thousand qualifications. Certainly, churches ought to have proper accountability for their elders in order to keep wicked or unqualified men out of that office. This is yet another way in which proper denominations and well-functioning presbyteries serve the church well. But I digress.

Much ink has been spilt examining what happens when pastors fail to lead, lead poorly, or behave wickedly as leaders. So much has been made of the failure of pastors that I fear an assumption of pastoral guilt has been established to explain every problem in a church. What is easily forgotten is just how influential followers are within the church.

The authors of the helpful book Handbook for Battered Leaders, which I've previously referred to in this series of posts, identify the sorts of problems that arise when followers become toxic. In chapter three they refer to six assumptions about followers taken from Barbara Kellerman's book Followership:
1. Followers constitute a group that, although amorphous, nevertheless has members with interests in common.
2. While followers by definition lack authority, at least in relation to their superiors, they do not by definition lack power and influence.
3. Followers can be agents of change.
4. Followers ought to support good leadership and thwart bad leadership.
5. Followers who do something are nearly always preferred to followers who do nothing.
6. Followers can create change by circumventing their leaders and joining with other followers instead.  (52-53)

All of this means that followers are quite powerful. I suggest that this is particularly true in a church. The leadership of pastors and elders is highly contingent upon the willingness of the followers to follow. Certainly, there are times when dissent is necessary. Leaders within the church must understand that theirs is not an autocracy. Sometimes needed change can be delayed or missed entirely when good followers fail to confront poor or ungodly leaders. But, as the Balda's point out, there are times when followers "simply act in a contradictory manner, frequently without considering the impact of their misplaced loyalty and misguided behaviors" (p. 53). This is when followers become toxic and pastors are battered.

In the chapter entitled "These People Can't Be led," The Balda's write:

A classic follower response in certain situations is the palace coup. This is the point when the mutiny begins flexing destructive muscles and everyone but the leader realizes a corner has been turned. We all know of situations where a powerful and evil despot abused followers...We are less convinced that simply misguided, or even evil, followers can bring down an otherwise competent leader on their own. However, there should not always be a presumption of innocence when confronting followers who have an agenda, as they can eventually destroy leaders and organizations" (p. 59).

The church seems to be wired to lay most if not all of its dysfunctions at the feet of the pastor. It makes sense. "The buck stops here" Harry Trueman famously claimed. Because of this, many pastors seem predisposed to believe that every failing in the church is somehow their fault. If the staff stages a "palace coup" then, it is usually assumed, there must be something wrong with pastor. Perhaps. But what if this is not the case? What if a church is truly experiencing a mutiny on staff?

The Balda's, describing the case of a leader named "Warren," offer insight that is frighteningly close to my own experience in the past:

The hornet's nest situation Warren faced resulted from pre-existing cliques, the removal of a fomenting former executive who then remained within the organization, ambivalent leadership further up the food chain, and continuing irresolution. The entrenched toxic clique perceived that lack of directive leadership higher in the hierarchy permitted their ongoing behaviors (p. 59).

The first time I read that paragraph a chill went up my spine. It reads like a firsthand account of the situation in which I once found myself. If you are serving as an elder in a church where the pastor is embattled then do not rush to the conclusion that the problem must be his. Perhaps it is! But it may not be. You may be witnessing a palace coup. You may have a battered pastor in your midst.

The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Questions for elders to consider when a pastor is under attack:
1. Do we have a history of relatively brief pastoral tenures? If so, why?
ƒ?› Run the numbers. If, for instance, five years is the second longest tenure of a lead pastor in your church's history, then you may have a problem within.

2. Do we have a reputation as a tough place to work?
ƒ?› Very early into my tenure at a previous church, a kind elder took me aside and said, "Todd, if you can survive your first five years I think you'll have a good tenure here." Another elder said to me on more than one occasion: "[This church] is a meat grinder for pastors." One man who served on the staff before I arrived said to me, "[This church] can be a mean place." However, the elders who said those sorts of things to me in private steadfastly refused to say them to their brother elders. The reputation was there. It was simply not spoken of among those who could actually do something about it.
ƒ?› It's not easy to admit that you are an elder in a church that batters pastors. It's a grievous sin after all. But, as they say, the first step in dealing with a problem...

3. Does this pastor have a good track record? In other words, did he have these same problems in a previous church?
ƒ?› If he is being accused of things by members of the staff that seem out of keeping with his past performance then perhaps the accusations are false or exaggerated. It is not easy to be a good follower. As sinful people we typically resist leadership. Consider this reality when evaluating criticisms of your pastor. If he does bring with him a reputation for the sorts of things he is now being accused of, why did you hire him? If you don't know, why not?

4. Do you truly know why previous pastors and associate pastors left your church?
ƒ?› You know how this works. A pastor or associate pastor leaves and offers wonderful sounding reasons as to why the Lord called him elsewhere. Now, why do you think he really left?
ƒ?› Contact these men and plead with them to be honest about why they left. Tell them you are sincerely seeking ways to make your church a healthier place in which to serve. With those assurances, they will probably be honest. If you have suspicions about why they left then pursue those issues in your conversation.

5. Is this a situation of a closely knit staff simply refusing to follow the leadership of the new pastor? If so, do they perceive that the elders are ambivalent about supporting their pastor?
ƒ?› Again, following well is tough. It requires a lot of spiritual and emotional maturity. The reality of toxic followers ought not to surprise us. We ought to expect it in fact. Are your pastor's struggles the result of a staff simply not wanting to follow the new guy? Do you understand that hiring a new pastor has required the rest of the staff to change the way they do things? Do you understand that they may not like this? How are you communicating to the staff that this new pastor has your full support?

6. Are those who are opposing the pastor being led by a disgruntled member of the staff?
ƒ?› Who seems to be at the center of the opposition? This is not always easy to discern. The leader of the opposition will usually be careful to hide any evidence of a coup.
ƒ?› Ask your pastor if he has had particular difficulties with any members of the staff. Perhaps it is time to allow this pastor to begin building a staff team of those who will cheerfully follow his leadership. This should not be done autocratically as though the pastor owns the staff. The associate pastors and ministry leaders are not his. They belong to the Lord and must be committed to serving the church. But if you have hired a lead pastor and given him substantial responsibilities in leading then it is vital that the associate pastors and staff cheerfully follow his leadership. Are you requiring him to lead those who will not be led?  

7. Is there an associate pastor on the staff who wanted the job as lead pastor?
ƒ?› If so, you have probably just answered question number six.
ƒ?› When a church is seeking a new lead pastor it is not unusual for a currently serving associate pastor to desire that he be considered for the position. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But the potential problems in these situations are substantial. It must be understood from the outset that if he puts his name forward for the job and is then turned down he will need to seek employment elsewhere. Does that sound harsh? It is meant simply to recognize certain realities in a fallen world. Chief among those realities is that you will be placing the new lead pastor in a position of leading a man who resents his presence.
ƒ?› Also, by leaving this associate pastor on the staff you are placing him in a position that is too great a burden for him to bear. Unless he was somehow born without original sin he will not be able to overcome his disappointment. His will become resentful of the man who, in his mind, took his job. It will not go well. I repeat: It will not go well. "But if you only knew so-and-so. He's not like that." I repeat again: It will not go well.

Part One 

Part Two