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Church Leadership

Session 11:

What happens when it all goes wrong?

Welcome to session 11 – probably the most difficult of all to deal with. Sadly, there are, all too often, times when things go wrong in church and I want us to think about some of those today. This is never going to be a comprehensive treatise on these matters – but I hope it will be helpful to those leaders going through difficult times and for those in churches where leaders are causing problems.

There are two main areas that I want to consider – those where the leader has served to the best of his ability but things have not worked out or illness has been a part of the situation – and those where the leader has not acted in a way that befits their office and thus damaged their calling and brought the Name of Christ into disrepute.

I have taken some “case studies” that I have been involved with to illustrate some areas where things have not turned out well – either for the individual or the church concerned.

The Minister was struggling. His sermons, while theologically sound, were more like lectures and his pastoral skills were not the best – and the numbers coming to church were shrinking rapidly. But he really believed he had been called to pastoral ministry. I was asked to talk to him and eventually he accepted that, perhaps, he had misheard his calling and ought to look for something else that would use his obvious teaching ability. In due course, he found a post as a lecturer at a university and, the last time I heard, he was doing well. The church was supportive and sent him on his way with their blessing. But this “knocked him for six” and it took a while for him to recover. If it is not working for you as a leader, seek counsel from someone you can trust and don’t be ashamed to say “I got it wrong”. God is in the restoration business!

Sometimes a church leader is good at what they do, believe they have a genuine calling to this type of ministry – but the rest of the leadership team don’t see it that way. I was asked to “referee” a dispute between the elders of a church and their pastor. Some of the elders had been in the church for a very long time and were strong characters and they persuaded the rest of the leadership team that the pastor was not “vibrant enough, nor did he have an exciting vision for the future”. In the end, I advised the pastor that it was time to go because once you have lost the trust, confidence and support of the other leaders, it will be impossible to achieve what you want to do in God. This sort of activity grieves the Holy Spirit and hinders the growth of God’s people. Incidentally, that church went through a very lean period for some years – but God used the pastor in significant ministry in other churches. The command of Jesus to “love one another” was aimed at all of us – and applies to leadership teams also. Seek God’s face always – and even more so when the course you seem to be taking looks as if it is not one that the Spirit of God would endorse.

It seems to me that stress is more prevalent than it used to be (probably because we didn’t recognise it so clearly back then – we called it a “nervous breakdown”) and “burnout” has become an accepted physical/mental/spiritual condition. Church leaders are not immune from this and I have witnessed the devastating effect that this has had – both in my ‘day job’ and those called to full-time ministry. I am not qualified to discuss the medical details – but I have found a book I have referred to earlier (Freedom to Lead – see session 9) very helpful in this area. A young man was full of enthusiasm for the children’s ministry he was involved in – he worked hard and long and seemed to thrive. He was invited to join the leadership team in his home church, even though most of his ministry was with other churches. Soon he was being asked to do more and more – eventually he succumbed to the pressure and had to come to dead stop and cease doing anything. His family and church were supportive but some others were less so – after all, he had “let them down.” Asking him why this had happened he told me that he thought that, in God, he could do anything and everything – he forgot that he was a frail human being and that he was not superman. He didn’t blame God for this – he now understands the importance of rest, good time management and having the common sense to say “no”. As fellow leaders we need to watch others on the team that they are not getting overburdened and as churches we must not expect too much of our leaders.

The devastation that sexual immorality causes to the leader him/herself, to their families, to the church where they lead and to the wider Christian community is enormous– but it is not the only reason why leaders do not maintain the standards expected of them.

Sexuality is a powerful force and, when not confined to the marital state, can be devastating, damaging and ‘reputation-killing’. Much has been written about this and I don’t have time to say very much here – but leaders must be always on their guard against this temptation.

Then there other addictions that damage the people of God, including leaders, such as gambling, pornography, substance abuse etc.

When discovered, or confessed, there must be an acceptance that that leader has “disqualified” him/herself from office and must stand down immediately. With true repentance, counselling and prayer, such a one can be restored to fruitful ministry after a period on the sidelines. Paul said: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1).

Let me repeat what I said in session 3: “Most of the saints of old got it wrong from time to time – Abraham lied about Sarah, Noah got drunk, Moses lost his temper, David committed adultery, Elijah was suicidal, Jonah ran away, Thomas doubted, Peter denied Jesus, Paul persecuted Christians – need I go on? The amazing thing is that God forgave them as they repented and He continued to use them. All of us, as leaders, are constantly in need of the grace of God as we battle with sin and failure. Praise Him – He is the God of the second (and third and fourth and fifth etc etc) chance as we submit to Him.”

I’m conscious that this has been all too brief and there is so much to be said – but all of us must remain on our guard against the wiles of the devil. Keep short accounts with God, seek help from those you trust and maintain regular devotional times.

Today, I’m going to leave you with a prayer (based on Psalm 31) that I used when I and my family went through a very difficult time.

  • O LORD, we trust in You – may we never be disgraced.
  • Save us because You do what is right. Listen to us and save us quickly.
  • You are our rock of protection – a strong fortress to protect us. For the honour of Your Name, lead us and guide us.
  • Set us free from the trap that has been set for us because You are our protection. We give you our lives. Save us, LORD – You are the God of truth.
  • We trust only in the LORD. We will be glad and rejoice in Your love, because You see our suffering and You know our troubles. You have not handed us over to our enemies but have set us in a safe place.
  • LORD, have mercy, because we are finding life tough – our eyes are weak from so much crying and we are weary from grief. Our life seems to be full of sadness and our days are spent in crying. Our troubles are sapping our strength – provide strength to our bodies.
  • We trust You and we affirm that You are our God. Our lives are in Your hands. Save us from our enemies and from those who are chasing us. Silence their lying lips. Show Your kindness to us – we are Your servants. Save us because of Your love. LORD, we call to You – so do not let us be disgraced.
  • How great is Your goodness that You have stored up for us because we fear You – protect us by Your presence from what people plan against us and shelter us from evil words.
  • Praise the LORD! His love to us was wonderful when we were being attacked. In our distress, we said: “God cannot see us!” But You heard our prayer when we cried out to You for help.
  • We love the LORD, because we belong to Him. The LORD protects us because we truly believe. We put our hope in the LORD and we will be strong and brave.

  • Amen

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