What are the costs of transforming a church? They can be steep … very steep. I got word this week of a church that engaged a pastor to help them grow and transform has essentially imploded … no, it’s really an explosion that may be responsible for killing a career and perhaps tainting the lives of new Christians who have been severely wounded in the blast. The denomination was called in to do an investigation of the pastor’s alleged misconduct at the church.
This week the investigation of the pastor’s conduct came to an end. The over 60 charges of breaches of pastoral ethics were primarily dismissed, with the exception of a couple. Those charges are now formalized and being sent to the denomination’s ethics and discipline committee who will most likely find the pastor guilty of at least one of those charges and will probably slap him on the hand and stick a note in his records for the world to see. It will be difficult for this pastor to effectively serve another church anywhere.
Here’s the kicker … the pastor’s primary “sins” are all related to his good work of leading a congregation into the transformational process. He worked very hard at bringing in new families. He appropriately worked through his board and his elders to ensure the church was onboard with his plans. When the old guard of the congregation realized that they were fast becoming a minority and that they were losing “control” of the church, they started a $&*+storm. They reactivated old members, they began surreptitiously tape recording meetings, and they made allegations – allegations that the pastor was trying to take the church out of the denomination (a battle cry in this tribe), that he had fallen into the clutches of the “conservatives” and had “stacked” the board with his cronies – never mind that the congregation had elected them into those positions. Those who opposed the transformational efforts (that heathen music, the new-age projection, the new requirement that all leaders attend adult faith formation groups … or else they would be asked by the board to take a sabbatical until they had time to participate) organized and brought over 60 charges of pastoral malfeasance against him.
When the investigation began, the pastor was warned not to retaliate nor to tell his board or elders the nature of the investigation. He abided by that. So, when the investigative team asked for congregants to come and speak with them, the board and the elders were blindsided about what was going on. Across the aisle, so to speak, the opposition had no such gag order and they lined up a long queue of complainers. Not surprisingly, the investigators got a slanted story.
I wish I could tell you this kind of treatment is rare … but I can’t. The unChristian vociferousness of this church has gone to atypical heights, but pastors who dare to lead a transformation effort are putting their jobs, their futures, their livelihoods, and sometimes even the pensions on the line. Is there no wonder that we’re closing over 3,000 churches a year in USAmerica and the number of successful transformations are rare.
The cost of leading a church transformation is high. I know pastors who have literally had heart attacks, suffer clinical depression, have been physically attacked, have lost their marriages, and in some cases lost their faith because they attempted to lead a transformation. Oh, I didn’t mention how many choose to leave the ministry, but there’s a slew of them too. Burn out is the norm for pastor’s leading church transformations … and success is rare. We often cite the 80 percent rule … that’s the number of church transformation failures, but that’s probably an optimistic number.
Are transformations possible? Absolutely. I’m in the process of coaching a congregation through one right now and the pastor is fairing quite well. It’s a slow process and we spent almost eight months with the church’s council in developing congregational expected behaviors and a leadership covenant (that includes an expectation that all leaders will attend adult faith formation groups). There has been little fallout … so far … and because they’ve taken their time it looks like the new direction the church is about to embrace will “take.” It’s not a sure thing and the pastor is aware of the potential consequences, but so far so good. However, this congregation is a rarity. They have a long-tenured pastor who is well trusted and respected. They invited a consultant not only to coach the transformation process, but to do ongoing training with the church leadership so there are no surprises. They have taken the necessary time to process changes and have been serious about adult spiritual transformation as the bedrock on which all of this has been built. And most promising of all, they’re not only talking about the transformation process, they’re embracing, living, and modeling the behaviors of a transformed community.
If you’re considering taking on a transformational project as a church leader, consider carefully. You’re needed out there in the trenches, but be VERY selective about what church you choose to hook up with. Many of them contain Sirens singing from the rocks.