‘Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
but the Lord will take me in.’ –Ps. 27:9-10
It took all of three days of meetings, sine pastore, between the CVs and the council, to make the following, the Article 17a, ready for ‘presentation’ to my dad. More than one parishioner wrote to the council and/or the CVs, weighing in after the 1 November announcement, challenging or questioning the suspension. My dad wrote a letter to 21, per Matthew 18, telling him that as a fellow pastor, he’d let him down and betrayed his trust—that he hadn’t heard him or listened to his take on the situation at all. I’m not certain whether my dad ever got any kind of response to this. The CVs offered to ‘meet’ with him to find out ‘how he was processing all this’. As you have seen for yourself, it is doubtful how helpful this would have been. At any rate, it most likely would not have changed the outcome of the series of meetings—which all happened in such a short space of time that it could hardly be called an ‘outcome’. I believe the meetings ‘were entered into’ on 2 November, with all parties (sine pastore, again) knowing full well that they were going to draft and request an Article 17 termination, contrary to the council’s claim that they had no idea 1 November what they would do. That’s right—I am saying that claim was not true. There was too much pressure on even those uncomfortable with the decision to oppose it—and the reason given me, more than once, was: ‘We can’t afford to lose any more people.’
Over the course of the week of 1 November, my dad had an inkling of what was coming. I was petrified about what it would do to him. And I was furious with the CVs, and with the council members with whom I’d spoken, whom I believed had admitted to me that this was wrong. It was under this impression that I had written the following to them after I returned to the UK in October, on the 26th, the day before the meeting at which my dad gave his response to the List (only one day before he was suspended):
Dear 12 & 11,
First, let me thank you again for your time week before last. I really appreciate you sitting down with me and being so frank. I’m taking you up on your offer to get back in touch, and hope you don’t mind.
I’ll try to keep this brief, because I know you’re both busy. I’ve been reflecting a lot on what we talked about, and on my meetings with other people while I was home, trying to make sense of things. There were a few thoughts I’ve had that I’ve wanted to share with you.
Predominant is a jarring inconsistency. With more than one person I talked to, the theme of compassion in sermons, and the quality of A. as a loving, accepting church came up. Those things, compassion, love and acceptance have been swirling around in my mind, and crashing up against several events. In your church interviews, A.ns apparently said that the church’s loving and accepting attitude was what kept them coming. Some people claim to want Christ’s compassion preached from the pulpit (which they had every week in the Matthew series, but it seems that wasn’t what they really meant), but in my opinion, the church is not living it—the following things come to mind, and don’t seem compassionate, spiritually mature or accepting to me:
–to ignore or enable bullying behavior in a church, or ignore God’s Word on human sexuality, while resenting a pastor for 7 years for not having attended school board meetings in the months following his wife abandoning him, or finding it unacceptable and irritating that he doesn’t read the newspaper
–to extort a church council, saying, “Do something with this guy or I’m leaving”, while admitting the pastor’s preaching is biblical
–to threaten a pastor who has served a small local body faithfully through such personal trials (many people can’t continue in ministry with those sorts of setbacks) with loss of his job and his home, without biblical grounds
–not to hear out a church leader if he has a serious concern about satanic threats to the church, or to threaten Christian brothers or sisters with ostracism if they speak out about something unfamiliar
–to refuse to acknowledge or return the greeting of my autistic kid sister at the “Fall Fun Fest”
–to take out frustrations with the pastor on his child. The situation of the worship committee is downright scary—it looks like someone’s service is being blatantly valued more highly than another person’s, and without explanation to herself, a young adult member of the congregation, with special needs, is getting the boot. And the questions are not asked, “Is God calling people to serve on this committee? What does He want out of this situation?” Jesus is compassionate—how does he see this treatment of my sister? To treat my dad the way people have is one thing; to punish my sister is a “whole ‘nother level of nasty,” to be blunt
–to demand a pastor “be out in the community and meet people in their workplaces” while cutting him off from the youth Sunday school with no discussion (this is inherently contradictory). The former, I would conclude from Acts 6 and the pastoral epistles, is more the duty of deacons, while the latter is as natural way for the pastor to cultivate relationships with people in his congregation, as in church-managed small groups and Bible studies and as a source of Christian counsel (for which he’s always been available, and of which opportunity some have availed themselves). And the pastor’s involvement in youth education is actually a role of his job outlined by the denomination.
Even if a pastor were to be able to step into the position of going to people’s jobs (this has never happened in any church I’ve been in), it would be awfully hard to meet this hitherto unexpressed expectation once he’s felt alienated and cut down the way my dad has. How can he possibly expect that people would want to see him socially if a parent demands he be “kept away” from the Sunday school room? This is the local church’s shepherd, and shepherds are God’s gift to the Church! In the “green” political arena, there’s a lot of talk about “sustainability”. How can this kind of nonsensical treatment of a pastor be sustainable? It’s interesting that people apparently talk so much about what a pastor does or doesn’t do—the apostle Paul talks more about who and what elders and deacons are, their personal qualities and commitment, rather than getting into minutiae of what the roles entail (for pastors and elders, there’s not much besides prayer and teaching).
As you both admitted, people are getting nitpicky. Last week at our church Bible study (we’re doing a series on Christian ethics), we talked about the value of human life—and how respecting it the way God respects it goes beyond just not killing people. We were reminded from Matthew 5:21-26 and 1 John 3:14-15 that hating your brother is murder. And while some at A. may protest that they “love” or “like” my dad personally, it’s by one’s actions and fruit that his or her priorities and attitudes are known. In the Bible, and in our criminal justice system, people are permitted to answer allegations against them. For people to demand change or dismissal of a pastor, anonymously or through another person, because of their feelings, with no chance for the person criticized to defend himself, is neither loving nor fair.
I know some say they did “talk” to my dad about “things”, but that’s not what he says—what’s the truth? The only way to clear the air is to bring parties together face-to-face, like the Bible says people ought to do in the first place, as soon as there is offense or an issue. And that doesn’t mean mentioning things in passing in council meetings. It means meeting privately, one-on-one, to address the issue. If this doesn’t happen, people fall into traps of bitterness, resentment, and then perhaps gossip. We’re supposed to bear with one another; sin we address, but quirks and idiosyncrasies we tolerate, and love people despite them (this might include people in the church who actually do have “control” issues, though perhaps we ought to challenge those who demand unquestioning conformity to their expectations even when they’re not biblical and not told to the pastor when he first takes the job). How do we distinguish between the two?
I guess I’ll say just one more thing and leave it there. In talking to all the folks I did while I was back, certain things were said by A.ns like, “There are people in the church who bring bad attitudes and negativity with them, and they affect the whole church”, and also to the effect of, “Immature people are holding the rest of the church back”. I have a couple of unchurched friends in the community: they have shared about some interesting experiences with several A. members outside of the church context, and one word characterizes these interactions: rudeness. And Love is not rude. Of course, someone from A., upon hearing this, might say, “Maybe there are explanations, or extenuating circumstances.” Shouldn’t a pastor get that kind of benefit of the doubt? If any or all of these things are true, shouldn’t they be acknowledged and addressed? After all this, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think A., as a group, isn’t as loving as it thinks it is. Of course, there are several exceptions—real, committed and spiritually mature believers in the church, but who is, or are, in the driver’s seat at present, demanding “something be done”?
I got the impression you both believe that my dad’s preaching is balanced, and that all the other issues are things people have simply tacked onto the list to make it longer. I believe that, and so do others I’ve spoken to. If it’s true that there’s something wrong with the way people hear God’s word, and if it’s true that the spiritually immature are holding the church back (and it’s biblical to say that some people are responsible for their immaturity—see Heb. 5:12-14), and if it’s true that people want “love” preached but don’t understand it or don’t live it, then maintaining the numbers, and giving folks what they want so they’ll stay, may just lead to stagnation. If people want the “abundant life”, but don’t want to hear the full counsel of the Word of God, can’t bring themselves to treat their pastor like a brother, and can’t abide teaching on the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, what does “abundant life” mean to them? Is it worth challenging people to meet the pastor halfway? Is the church in the hands of the Lord, or in the hands of man? Indeed, if all these things are problems, ongoing problems which go unaddressed, why would God bless A. with growth, especially numerical growth?
I know this can sound preachy, or like overkill, or could be things you’ve thought about already, and I know what you two are dealing with in the council room and outside of it—a lot of pressure and some very strong personalities, among other things. But at bottom, the biggest issue in this situation can be summarized like this: my dad is being told to change because people don’t like being told they may need to change. He’s supposed to repent of calling people to repent (if you buy the narrative—he hasn’t been hammering repentance—we hear the r-word much more in my church here!). Even if repentance is present in the preaching, it’s as a call to take our spiritual growth seriously in response to Christ’s love, and a promise that the Holy Spirit helps us to do that. It’s exhortation and encouragement, but I think plenty of believers just don’t like being reminded that they haven’t “arrived”, or that even though God does love us no matter what, He requires something of us—our lives should reflect Christ. That attitude doesn’t keep a church healthy—if they won’t hear it from one preacher who preaches the “trustworthy word as taught”, they won’t hear it from the next, especially if the church building itself doesn’t have the protection of the Holy Spirit.
I’m sorry to add to your burden, but I really felt I had to send these latest thoughts to you. I welcome your feedback if you have time, and in the meantime I’m praying for A., and for you and the rest of the council. May the Lord lead you by His Spirit.