CASE STUDIES IN SYSTEMS ANALYSIS,
PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS, ACCOUNTABILITY
Severity of Problems: Stage 4 – Raze/Shut Down
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Stage 4 – Raze / When Hope Fades or Fails
The shift from Stage 3 Reclaim to Stage 4 Raze involves the organizational equivalent of hospice where the damage goes so deep and is so widespread and has gone on for so long that the organization is barely hanging on with the aid of life support. It has hardened into a closed system where the toxicity cannot be reversed. This means hope for survival is faint, and even if it survives it would not be strong or last long.
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System Solutions Case #7
A “Hostile Takeover” and Resulting Trauma
One church I was involved with in a university town endured a three-way split in the process of trying to find a new pastor. The previous pastor-teacher, who’d been there over 10 years, was a very firm leader, a highly trained exegete, and strongly systematic in his theology.
In fact, it would be termed more a “Bible doctrine church” than just a “Bible church.” When the church was at its apex, the pastor-teacher presented one or two verse-by-verse and/or theological classes each weeknight, plus four or five more on Sundays – totaling as much as 13 hours of Bible/theology per week! And though there was no overt requirement to go to every class, many people felt pressure to do so, and so they did.
He left to plant a church, and the deacons had the responsibility of acting as a pulpit committee to search for pastoral candidates. The congregation had a lot of dysfunction going on underneath the surface. And when the pastor-teacher left, those issues emerged, especially in contentions over the meaning of spiritual growth and living a balanced Christian life. Surely, so much teaching with no time for family or friendships wasn’t healthy. So, while people in the pews were expressing a variety of views about what the next pastor should be leading them to do, the deacons were officially the ones with responsibility and authority to conduct the search. And they were getting a lot of push-back about it.
The first split occurred when a group left, months before “The Takeover,” as it came to be called. This group strongly emphasized authority and truth. They could see the handwriting on the wall about the ultimate trajectory of the church. This first-wave Split-Off Group had just a dozen or so people. One of the former deacons of the church was its leader, and he continued to teach and pastor those in that small group.
Under his leadership, people in this group imposed “separation” in the fullest sense of the term, even if it used the severest interpretation of church discipline. They would not speak to those still in the church, except to reiterate the evil influences going on there, plus the lack of authority being listened to. They’d confront those still there about their choice to leave. So, this “ban” existed between the time of their departure from the church and The Takeover. After The Takeover, the separation issue was moot for those who were no longer there, and separation was therefore no longer in effect with them.
There was a pastor from a nearby town who had gone to this church a decade earlier. He was close friends with a number of the families, including those of several deacons. To help provide some continuity, he commuted to teach regularly, alternating with a protégé of his who’d also gotten his start at the church. The first time the pastor came, he publicly berated as “too big for their britches” a number of young and older adults who had asked questions about the whole pastor search process and philosophy of balanced ministry in the church.
Meanwhile, after a first candidate failed to be elected, just due to lack of experience, a second candidate came and taught. He ended up being voted on twice and each time very narrowly missed the required two-thirds majority to be “called” as the new pastor. He came across as authoritarian, doctrinal-detail-oriented, and warm to those who’d been positive toward him but cold to others.
When the deacons were supposedly going to present plans for new candidates, something unexpected happened instead. A group that included most of the deacons said they’d called the failed candidate as the pastor for the church, he’d said yes, and those who didn’t like it could just leave. Then they confiscated keys to the building, changed locks overnight, and barred the parking lot so it could only be used when they unchained it. (It was rumored later that “guns were present in case things got out of hand.” This being a regional stronghold for NRA advocates, that was perfectly believable and in no way a joke.) This group strongly emphasized authoritarian leadership and in-depth Bible doctrine.
When the pastor in question arrived, he did indeed accept the calling to be hired. He and the remaining deacons also called a number of individuals into a conference room separately. These were the men and women who had made any kind of public opposition to his being accepted, or had been teaching adult classes. They were declared persona non grata for “conduct unbecoming a Christian” and removed from church membership. The pastor hid behind such generalities and refused to be any more specific about the supposed offenses. That apparently was just fine with those who stayed behind with him. He fit the mold of what many were looking for – someone who could continue feeding them reams of biblical and theological information, but who expressed no value on fellowship, service, evangelism, missions, or worship. That form of fundamentalism had more in common with Gnosticism than with orthodox Christianity.
After The Takeover, a second group gathered from former members and attenders. This was perhaps 60 people or so, and included many people who had initially wanted the man who had been voted on twice to call as pastor. However, they could not accept the conduct of the Takeover Group and the pastor. So, this group was primarily those “ejected and orphaned” by the split. They had stayed at least four to six months longer than those who left earlier on and formed the Split-Off Group. This group strongly emphasized grace and relationships.
Many in this second-wave group were severely traumatized by the events leading up to the split. Quite a few were university students who were graduating, so they intended to move on soon anyway. Those remaining were mostly long-time area residents. There were not many local options for evangelical, Bible-teaching churches, and the group eventually decided to attempt becoming a church and finding a pastor. They had several regional pastors come in to teach on a weekly basis, to keep their community going.
Although the group seemed to want to move toward a better balance between teaching, worship, and outreach, some of the more outspoken members seemed very reactive about the form of government. After being traumatized by hyper-authoritarian leaders and their cruel words and deeds in the church takeover, these members advocated a more congregational form of government or acquiesced to the idea when they formally started a new church.
Within a few years of the takeover, here is what shook out for the different groups:
The Split-Off Group eventually dissolved as some people joined other churches in the area, graduated and moved, or, sadly, even dropped out of church life completely.
The Leftovers Group eventually hired a pastor to teach them, but apparently he did not really lead (or was not allowed to lead). Within two years, the church of the leftovers folded because they could not financially support their pastor. He and his family moved, and the church people mostly got absorbed into about three other theologically conservative churches in the area.
The Show-Up Pastor apologetically acknowledged in public a few years later that he’d been deceived by people he’d trusted. They’d lied about the pastoral interviews, lied about the finances, and lied about people who’d opposed the hiring of this hijacking pastor. He also said he’d misjudged those who had questioned the integrity of the deacons and of the search process.
The Takeover Group that quote literally stole the church building eventually folded because they could not support this man they considered their perfect pastor. He had limited appeal because his doctrinal approach was hyper-fundamentalist, and his approach to leadership was hyper-authoritarian. They simply did not attract new members, and because the emphasis was dedicated to teaching “Bible doctrine,” there was little (if any) outreach of any kind, and they didn’t seem to care.
Also, some of the central people in The Takeover eventually came to their senses and left the church, removing their tithes from the income stream. News filtered out eventually that one of the tipping points to closure was when the wife of one of the most prominent take-over deacons realized the pastor was over-controlling. The event? She served as his secretary and brought him coffee, and he required the mug to be set in a specific spot on his desk with the handle turned at a particular angle to make it convenient for him. But one day, she happened to place it wrong … and got royally chewed out. She finally got it, because of coffee mug misplacement.
Eventually, the financial reserves ran out, the pastor left, and the church folded, and the building was boarded up. A few years later, transients broke in and set fires. The burn damage was never repaired.
From the time the original pastor left until the split was about a year. From the takeover to demise of the Split-Off and Leftovers Groups was another three years, and the death of the Tookover Church occurred sometime after that.
POSTSCRIPT: A MIXTURE OF LEGACIES
Perhaps surprisingly, many of the college students who went to this church during the era of the split have gone on to participate in churches wherever their careers took them, and have used their spiritual gifts to serve and benefit others. It wasn’t that they were unaffected by the conflict, but they grew despite it by overcoming their woundedness from it.
But, there also were spiritual casualties as part of the fallout from the splits and takeover. Some young adults especially were so traumatized that they couldn’t set foot in a church because of the anxiety it caused. For one couple where the husband had gone to seminary, his wife’s ongoing struggles from the situation led to his shifting to a business career field.