Thought #1 ~ For Current and Recent Mars Hill Leaders:
“You may only think a new race is beginning. Finish the old one well, or its consequences will continue to follow you.”
It doesn’t seem that either the Mars Hill theology or its organizational system take kindly to the idea of “mutual submission” of leaders to others, especially to subordinates and members. Are leaders above questions, above challenges, above scrutiny? Or will they take time and effort to listen to the voices of concern, and resolve what is as yet unresolved?
On very rare occasions, I’ve personally been called on to deliver difficult, discomforting news to men who’ve turned out to be spiritually abusive leaders. Sometimes that was as a church member (situation #1), other times as a peer leader (#2), sometimes as a subordinate staff member (#3). Here are a few instances to show what happened and reflections on lessons to be learned about our considering how consequences affect our legacy.
At a church business meeting in the process of finding a new pastor, I asked some honest but hard questions about the theological balance of a candidate we’d had, and what it would mean to vote him in. The deacons running the meeting were obviously upset by my questions, maybe because this candidate was decidedly their man for the job. They were the “pastoral search committee,” but it was a congregational government, so they couldn’t hire him. Also, they were strongly authoritarian and certainly couldn’t condone some young Christian whipper-snapper challenging their discernment and decisions!
The candidate lost two different congregational votes to call him as pastor. But the deacons called him as pastor anyway, took over the church, confiscated keys, and changed the locks. When the man came to claim the job of pastor, he and his deacons kicked out about six people, using the vague justification of “conduct unbecoming a Christian.” I was one of them, and the youngest … only 23 years old.
As it turned out, the church isolated itself, couldn’t recruit enough tithers to keep it going, and eventually closed its doors.
Better to face the questions and survive, than to avoid them and silence the questioners, because the consequences of keeping on the same Titanic trajectory will crash and bury us.
Once I worked with a younger pastor as a volunteer consultant. I’d known him over a year and observed his dealings with me and others closely. Eventually, I told him that if he didn’t follow through on his many promises to people, in effect he’d told them lies. He went into an intimidating rage, saying I’d called him a compulsive liar (which isn’t what I said, but may have been true anyway), but my statement stood.
When I felt “released” and free to leave my role there months later, I also sensed I was supposed to push back on his continued patterns of controlling behavior. I told him that his reputation would follow him, and that I was prepared to tell the truth about what I’d observed and that I would not protect him. Again he raged. He insulted me, and also insinuated that my ideas had been worthless all along (despite his having implemented many of them). And he issued what I interpreted as veiled threats to talk about me as a way to keep me from saying anything about him – ever. Actually, I hardly ever had to say anything about him, because, as it turned out …
A few years later, the church he pastored seemed to be barely treading water and then declining as volunteer leaders left, tired of waiting for his promises to become reality.
And a few years later, he left to be senior pastor in a bigger church.
And a few years later, I received some inquiries about his prior ministry and how that might relate to a current “situation” they had with him.
And a while later, I found out he’d left that church and, oddly enough, all references to him on that church’s website had been erased.
And a few years later, it seems the same thing happened and he left the next church he served at, to start one of his own.
I’m not sure I have to know exactly what went on in each of those other situations. Seems to me that something in the pattern speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
That’s what a reputation is – it’s the real tale of what follows us, regardless of the persona we try to put in front of us.
Another time, I was a paid consultant to an older pastor who was nearing retirement. He was concerned about turning over leadership to the next generation. I felt led to share a message of hope, suggesting that he needed to function from a place of the Father’s love instead of from fear of losing his legacy in the congregation.
At first, the positive choice seemed to stick, but he ended up acting in ever more erratic and controlling ways over staff, volunteer leaders, and parishioners. He pushed aside my message and the opportunities locked within it. It was clear he was trying to get things to work out the way he alone saw best, instead of listening to who the congregation had become and seeing how the Spirit was now working in different ways among them. As it turned out, he hurt many with his chaos and control, he left the organizational infrastructure in a mess, and his legacy corroded into something far more negative than it had been.
Later, a denominational executive was considering hiring this now-retired pastor as a “church transition coach,” and asked me for my opinion. I had to be honest: This man had no business coaching or consulting about how to work well with next generation leaders, as I had witnessed him pull back any authority he initially gave them to be future-friendly. He’d left them hanging, and reverted to his own conventional, program-oriented default. I also noted that his spiritually abusive behaviors could be verified by multiple witnesses. And, I told this executive that if he did hire this man, I’d consider myself under spiritual obligation to protect others from probable harm by publicizing both my opposition to the executive and his hire, and providing evidence to back up such push-back.
He didn’t hire the ex-pastor. And I’ve had to tell other people similar things about this pastor other times.
Even when others don’t respond to our attempts to intervene for their own welfare, we can act as needed to prevent future abuse by them for the welfare of others.
FINAL THOUGHTS …
Our legacy is affected by both our activities and our passivities, and how both insiders and outsiders view them. If you happen to be from a leadership role in Mars Hill, I’d urge you to think through the patterns of how this system has treated parishioners and the public, and consider the longer-term impact of the consequences thereof …
Next segment: Thought #2, for current and recent Mars Hill leaders – Restitution: If you do not now show genuine pastoral care for parishioners harmed in your past, why should anyone think you will do anything different or better in the future?