I was putting away my sermon notes one night after the evening service when I noticed a light under the door of an elder's office. I wasn't surprised. As a volunteer staff member, this elder often put in long hours at the church. I decided to pop my head in to say good-night.
When I opened the door, I was left speechless. There sat the entire elder board, meeting in an unscheduled, secret session.
"Uh, hi," I said, groping for words.
Equally unnerved by my chance discovery of the meeting, the elders' faces blanched, conveying both embarrassment and guilt. After a few moments of awkward small talk, I excused myself and hurried out of the church. I knew my days in that church, and maybe in ministry, were coming to an end.
Beware of Sheep Dismissed from the Fold
I had accepted the call to this church with zeal and optimism. Recovering from the devastation of a pastor's moral lapse, this church, by the time I arrived, had shrunk from 800 to 175 members.
I threw myself into the work. My wife and I soon fell in love with the people. Emotionally I was on a high. The church began to reverse its course. Within four years, attendance reached 400, and the past wounds appeared to be healing.
About this time, two families began visiting from another church. They were candid about the fact that the board of their previous church had asked them to leave. I didn't ask any questions. Looking back now, however, I wish I had.
At first the new families were supportive and enthusiastic. They seemed overjoyed to have found a church home-a congregation that would love and accept them. They quickly volunteered to serve. Within one year both men were elected to the elder board.
I had felt a vague discomfort with each family. They seemed to have trouble accepting other people's shortcomings. They displayed little patience or tolerance with those not meeting their standards.
One of the men in particular seemed to have trouble staying in the same job. A pattern of conflict seemed to appear with each of his employers. He would have an initial confrontation with a supervisor over what he claimed were ethical short-cuts or compromises. Refusing to yield to his boss's authority or company policy, he would eventually resign and move on. It was always their fault he left the company, never his. Later I discovered he had a similar pattern with pastors in the churches he had attended.
As these men gained influence, the church atmosphere seemed to be marked by suspicion and tension. My wife was the first to see the implications of the rigidity creeping into the congregation.
"Jim, we're not going to last very long in this climate," she observed.
I shrugged off her comment, believing I could work out any problem that might arise. After all, we were all reasonable people committed to doing God's work in God's way.
During this time, a couple from our church had separated, and, despite our efforts to bring reconciliation, filed for divorce. The wife left the church; the husband stayed on. Hurting and in need of fellowship he turned to our singles group.
Immediately, one of the new elders objected.
"Our singles ministry is for people who have never married or are widowed," he argued, "not for people going through a divorce.
"Furthermore, I don't think he should be allowed to sing in the choir. If we expect God to bless our church, we've got to maintain our standards."
"Frank," I replied, "this person neither committed adultery nor deserted his spouse. I don't believe in divorce any more than you do. But he's a member of the body, and we need to reach out to him at this critical point in his life."