Falling Seed: When churches and pastors part: A bad goodbye, Part 1

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I want to look at common ways I have seen pastors say, “Goodbye,” to ministry in 2019, focusing on three seasons in ministry when pastors said, “Goodbye.” I will do this in three parts.

While I’ll look at actual cases—with identifiable information changed to protect the innocent—each case reflects a common scenario that makes me conclude it would be fair to call these trends in pastoral exits.

Getting to know you

I’ve been known to say, “More lying goes on in a church during the search process than at any other time.”

My point is both the search team and the pastoral candidate tend to be less-than-forthcoming.

The search team inquires, “We know about your strengths, but tell us about your weaknesses.”

The candidate stalls until finally admitting, “Sometimes, I spend so much time in prayer and Bible study, I don’t get all my household chores done.”

What a saint!

Then, the pastor reverses the question and asks, “If I agree to come, what issues will I be faced with?”

The search team hasn’t talked about it, but everyone knows, instinctively, not to mention you-know-what or no one will come. So, they say, “Oh, my, we don’t have any problems.”

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Better yet, the search team might believe the last pastor was the problem, and he’s gone. So, maybe they aren’t lying overtly.

Case study one

During the interview process, a pastoral candidate failed to mention he was a Calvinist. He ended up accepting the church’s call, but his position was not held by the church, nor had it ever been. In fact, the church didn’t know such theology even existed within Baptist circles.

Once the pastor began to press for polity and theology changes matching his desires, conflict emerged, grew and ultimately destroyed the church over the course of a year.

First, there was the departure, one by one, of half the church’s families. They rejected the pastor’s push, but they weren’t interested in fighting about it. They mainly moved to other churches. Some, however, likely left church life forever.

Those who remained in the church were divided equally between those who were determined to “get our church back” and those who followed the pastor. Both sides engaged in full-out warfare.

The issue in this situation was not one of Calvinists versus non-Calvinists. The issue was pastors and churches need to be a good match before a call is extended or accepted.

None of the conflict in this church had to happen if the search team and candidate had said, “Goodbye,” to each other during the search process.

Both parties acted in haste due to anxiety. The pastor needed a job, and the church members felt like something was broken without an installed pastor. Neither researched the other nor asked the important questions.

Search teams and prospective pastors need to be honest. They also need to do their homework. “Trust but verify” applies both ways and very well to the pastor search process.

Case study two

First Church was made up exclusively of senior citizens. They had lost 75 percent of their members over the last two decades, but they had kept their ample buildings and property in superior shape.

A small, unofficial group began to pursue a merger with a nearby church. They talked it up and got a groundswell of support from other members. The search team set their established search process aside, wondering if God was laying a miracle at their feet.

The other church, the Rising, had a sizeable congregation of young adult families. Due to the shortage of finances, they had spent five years of Sundays jammed into a rented public school auditorium.

If the Rising joined First, it would bring First’s attendance back to what it had been in “the good ol’ days.” It would also provide First with the promise of a future and an end to the interim period—since the Rising’s pastor would assume that duty. The Rising, on the other hand, would gain property, income and seasoned spiritual mentors.

Initially, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Then, First’s search team began to examine the worship practices, theology, mission giving and governing practices of the Rising.

The search team of First and the elders of the Rising examined a side-by-side comparison in “the Big Meeting” intended to work out the final details of a merger. There was no way, however, to deny what was staring them in the face. After accepting the truth, the two churches called off the merger and parted as friends. They simply did not match in a single important criterion.

Learning from others

When I compare the two case studies, the second one is clearly the winner.

It is not a failure to not come to an agreement if ending negotiations clearly is the best solution and God’s will.

It reminds me of the best man and maid of honor who never had met before the wedding. It was “love at first sight.” Within the year, they got married. Within another year, they got divorced.

“We knew it was a mistake, but we were just too embarrassed to admit that to our friends or ourselves,” they both acknowledged after the divorce.

The first lesson: A courtship goodbye is better than consummating a mistake.

Karl Fickling is the coordinator of interim ministry for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

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