23 May Saving a Church in Crisis, Part 2 By Pastor Richard Exley
Recently, I began sharing with you how in my early 60’s I accepted the call to lead pastor a church in crisis. This was a challenging situation with high levels of mistrust, not for me but for the office I held, and it was difficult to do all I needed to do in my position because of the roadblocks the church had set before me in an attempt to ensure they would not experience ministry betrayal and abuse again.
Rebuilding trust is never easy. You have to be strategic in your leadership, preparing in advance for the things to come. When we took over a church in crisis, our first goal was to rebuild that trust. Often, the relationship between a pastor and a lay leader is nothing more than a communication of vision, budget and current issues. It doesn’t make for a robust relationship. Like marriage, the reason they survive long term is because the parties involved are committed to working on their relationship so that it is always stronger than the problems they face.
Lay leaders and pastoral leaders are going to face problems. They need to work in advance – or continually, really – to build a spiritual relationship on mutual trust that will enable them to negotiate successfully whatever kind of crisis they might run into. Soon after I became lead pastor of that church in crisis, I scheduled a 3-day, 2-night retreat for lay leaders, elders and their wives to meet with me and my wife. I wanted to build relationships. And I continued doing that while I was there. These events provided a more intensive time to build trust based upon communication and transparency. I also wrote an email to every lay leader every Saturday morning to bring them up to date not only on what was happening at the church but what the Lord was speaking to me and what we were strategically planning. As things developed, they never felt blind-sighted.
By the time I took on this church, I had a little experience and understood how to approach lay leaders. I would come to them and say, “I don’t know, but I think God is saying this to me, and I want you to pray about it.” At the same time, I would have breakfast with one of them, coffee with one of them, talk to them on the phone. I invested. Then, we’d come together sometimes 6 weeks later, and I’d say, “You know what? I can see that wasn’t a good idea,” or if it was a God-idea, they’d be on board with it because they had been processing it out with me. That kind of transparency is what begins to rebuild and strengthen trust.
Every congregation I have served has had its challenges. That’s life. One of the enemies’ tricks, and we see this in Scripture, is to use your friends, not enemies, as unwitting tools of confusion. This happened when Peter rebuked Jesus, and Jesus responded, “Get thee behind me, Satan, for you don’t savor the things that be of God, but of men.” It’s critical that we don’t see those who oppose us as the enemy. That moment of opposition may be done unwittingly. They are not our enemy.
You know, when you are serving a church in crisis, the first question is usually, “How are we going to pay for it,” or “How much is it going to cost?” That is all they are thinking about. They are trying to survive. In vision mode the first questions are always, “What does God want us to do? What is God’s vision for our church?” At some point we will have to consider the cost, but the cost is not important until we know what God wants us to do.
Don’t let your resources determine your destiny. Resources follow vision. It’s rare for God to provide resources before vision. It’s rare that He supplies the need before we step out in faith. If you don’t step out in obedient faith, the resources will not come. Don’t let your resources determine your destiny!
Our church was an older congregation. When the church had a crisis and split, the younger group of people left. They were gone. When you are working with an older congregation with a long history, you’ll find they tend to focus on the past, whether they remember it accurately or not. But when they look back, what God did looks huge. Their past is often bigger than their dreams, bigger than their vision. One of the real challenges I had was helping them realize that if they were to move forward, their dreams and vision had to be greater than their past. God impressed on me to talk about how He has called us honor our past but not live there. If we live in the past, we are going to die. But if we forget our past, we will lose our way. I wanted our church to be a congregation where heritage meets destiny. I wanted to honor what God had done in the past, but I also wanted the congregation to see it as preparation for their God-given destiny.
Transparency is critical. I don’t know of a perfect pastor. We all make mistakes, and it’s critical that we own them. I made one of the biggest mistakes of my entire ministry when I was in my early 30’s. I called a couple to serve as our praise and worship leaders. They were good friends of the family. They had a successful music ministry – more successful than my ministry. My wife said, “Please don’t call them. It’s a mistake. If it doesn’t work out, we are going to lose friends.” When I talked to the elders of the church, they said, “You’re the pastor, and if you feel like God’s telling you to call them, then go ahead, but we don’t feel good about it. We feel like it’s a mistake.” But hey! I was young and I knew more than anybody, so I called them. It didn’t even last a year, and when things got so messy that I was forced to ask them to resign, we lost their friendship.
That Sunday morning, I said to the congregation, “I want to tell you the mistakes I’ve made. My mistake was not in asking this couple to resign; my mistake was asking them to come. They were primary leaders, and I’m a primary leader. You can’t have two primary leaders trying to lead a church. You need primary leaders and support leaders. Number two, I refused to listen to the council of my godly wife. She begged me not to do this, and I ignored her. I refused to listen to the elders of the church. They said they would go along with me if I really thought this was what God wanted, but they didn’t feel good about it. I wouldn’t listen to them. I didn’t call my spiritual mentor. I knew he would oppose it, and I didn’t want to hear him.” I stood before them and said, “I confess my sins to you. I’ve asked God to forgive me. I know it has caused pain. I know it hurt that couple. I ask you to forgive me. Now, I know I’ll probably make more mistakes, but with God’s help, I can promise you I’ll never make this mistake again.” The congregation forgave me. The problem was solved. We didn’t have a single family leave the church over it. But if I hadn’t been transparent, if I hadn’t owed my part, it could have been a real mess.
Pastor, keep yourself humble and be transparent. Admit when you make mistakes. This is a key principle for many situations you will find yourself in, and I want you to learn from my experiences, not through your own mistakes where possible.
I invite you to visit my website here if you would like to connect, listen to my podcast or read my blog. It would be my honor to encourage you, counsel you, or have you join us for an upcoming retreat. We’ve been where you are, pastor. We know the road is hard. But God is with you and will prepare you for any challenge you face. He has called you and set you apart. He will provide the grace, wisdom, favor and strength you need to fulfill His mission. If you are hurting right now, know that I am praying for God’s healing hands to touch your wounded areas to heal, restore your joy, renew your vision, and refresh you with His Holy Spirit. You are important and seen!