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09 Jul '13

A leadership fable

Posted by T.J. Addington in church leadership
"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears."
-Paul in his farewell address to the elders of Ephesus, Acts 20


'Pastor Bill' moved to Pennsylvania as the first pastor in a church plant. Soon after, staff members from the larger 'mother' church stopped by for a visit. Before they left, they said, "We're really praying for you."

At first Bill assumed that they were simply praying for ministry success. Soon, though, he began to realize that they knew something he didn't.

Bill noticed that at the leadership board level in the new church, an individual who was one of the founding members seemed to have veto power. He also noted that when decisions were made that "Chris" didn't like, Bill started to hear the board's confidential discussions become common knowledge among Chris' friends in the congregation, a violation of board policy. These friends would then lobby Bill and others to move in a different direction.

Over several years, Bill watched the elder-board meetings become increasingly difficult and sometimes downright ugly, with language and attitudes from several of the members that shocked him. As well, some on the board who had been close supporters began becoming distant and critical as Chris moved in on those relationships Bill could only conclude that his leadership was being undermined behind the scenes, slowly but surely. He came to deeply dread board meetings after becoming a target on numerous issues.

Pastor Bill was in a conundrum. The church was growing rapidly from a group of about 60 to well over 300. Most members had little idea of the pain behind the scenes, but Bill was increasingly discouraged. He began to see Chris as an arsonist who lit fires all over the church but was never around when the firemen came to extinguish them.

At one congregational meeting, after a vote to overwhelmingly support Bill against a group of dissidents headed by Chris, one of those who wanted Bill to leave loudly stated he was going to withdraw all financial support from the church because of its decision. He then stalked out of the auditorium.

Bill started to ask questions of pastors at the mother church and found that Chris had a problematic history there as well. In fact, the pastor had vowed that Chris would never serve in leadership there again. Chris and his friends were no longer even attending Bill's church but continued sowing seeds of discord and dissension among friends and acquaintances still there.

Eventually, Bill and his wife made the painful decision to leave. His board was not ready to place the two main dissidents under discipline, although board members had been strongly encouraged to do so by many from whom they sought counsel. Bill left, discouraged and clinically depressed.

The congregation was increasingly becoming aware of the underlying power issues. In response to Bill's leaving and the lack of resolution to those power plays, more than half of the congregation left after a series of congregational meetings even as Chris returned to the church and reclaimed a leadership role.

A new pastor was called, and he was out of the ministry within a short number of years. A third pastor was called, and he, too, left amid power issues within a short number of years.

Finally, the local bishop intervened on the same issue where the church board had not acted, insisting that Chris could no longer serve in any leadership position in the church. The church had churned up three pastors and left numerous wounded members it its wake. One individual who had watched the destruction observed that this church had hurt more people than it had helped.

How many of us have watched similar situations where leaders have not had the courage to confront toxic, divisive individuals who wound the sheep and divide the bride of Christ? Even those who hide behind a mask of 'spirituality' and 'concern' for the church. One of the primary roles of a shepherd is to protect the flock from harm. David actually fought lions to protect his flock, but we are often unwilling to confront divisive individuals who do as much damage as a lion loose among the sheep!

Those leaders' reluctance to confront was an egregious but common failure. Amazingly, church leaders often allow behavior to flourish that would not be permitted in the secular business workplace.


Conflict will occur in the church, even those with attentive shepherds. So how we handle conflict is important. The scriptural principle (see Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 and Galatians 6:1-2) is to start gently and with prayer in the hope that we can persuade those causing harm to move away from their sin. If this is not successful, we are to apply successive steps of pressure, always seeking resolution and a restoration to fellowship. When all else fails, Scripture calls for the individual to be put out of the body - again, with the hope that this action will cause him or her to turn back to God. All confrontation is to be done in love, accompanied by firmness.

Most people do not like conflict and confrontation (beware of those who do). We live in a day of political correctness, where it is not popular to label behavior as "wrong." We are told that it not right "to judge" others. None of us sign up for leadership to deal with sinful people and ugly situations.


The question is: Do we love God's flock as much as He loves His flock? When we confront false teaching, sinful behavior or division in the body, we are simply acting on His behalf as shepherds of His flock and in obedience to His command in order to protect His sheep for whom He gave His life. Are we willing to put up with momentary discomfort in order to protect people for whom Jesus was willing to die? This is an unwelcome but necessary part of the leadership calling.