My lawyer said, "Just follow my lead and answer the questions he asks, and everything will be okay." I clung to his advice as I entered the smartly decorated boardroom lined with towering bookshelves. The first thing I noticed was the videographer and stenographer setting up their equipment. Then the opposing counsel, who to me represented evil incarnate, walked into the room.
"Please state your full name for the record." His tone and mannerisms suggested this was strictly routine. For the others in the room, this was just another work day. They pushed buttons on the camera, they typed on the stenograph machine, they served coffee, they represented their clients—this was a 9-5 job for everyone in the room. Everyone, that is, except me.
I cleared my throat and said, "Ralph Webster Neighbour III."
"I am sure your lawyer has explained to you the deposition process, but let me explain it again for the record …"
There was that phrase again—"for the record." I thought: This is high stakes. The church's reputation and my future are on the line here! I also knew this deposition was just the beginning; we would walk at least another year through this legal maze.
I couldn't believe this was happening to me—a seventh generation pastor. But here I was, giving a deposition in a sexual misconduct lawsuit. This was not what I signed up for!
With the help of the Church on Brady (now called Mosaic), my wife Pam and I planted Inland Community Church in Chino, California, in 1984. Within five years we averaged 200 attenders, and then we went into overdrive.
At a "How to Break the 200 Barrier" conference, I heard John Maxwell say, "I'm praying for 1,000 churches to reach 1,000 in attendance." Immediately I knew that was my goal—I wanted to lead one of those churches reaching 1,000 people for Christ. I started doing the necessary things to grow the church.
Step one was to "staff for growth." My first hire was a high-octane organizational genius. He had a knack for identifying a trend, programming to it, and rolling out events for our target group. He did an amazing job.
Soon our Awana ministry was attracting more than 200 kids, the youth ministry was almost that size, and we attracted thousands of seekers with special events like the drama "Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames." We brought in speakers such as Oliver North who spoke to a packed house and helped create a positive buzz about our church in the community.
By 1998, we reached a peak attendance of 1,000. We added more staff and planned for a new building. The sky was the limit. I was living every church planter's dream, or so I convinced myself.
Dream turned nightmare
During the summer of 2000, one of our staff members was having problems at home, and we mutually agreed that he should do something other than church ministry. What I didn't know then was that within the next seven months, we would have to dismiss two other staff members, and one of them was the executive pastor who'd done so much to help us grow.
Looking back now, I realize I had ignored the warning signs. But his productivity was so high that I overlooked them. Yes, he got a lot done, but he did it, in a large measure, by running over people.
Eventually even my son noticed. "Dad," he said, "I can't keep coming to church here if you continue to let that man hurt people the way he is." Only then did I learn that much of the staff was ready to leave because of this man's approach. I knew then that the confrontation couldn't wait. So I had the difficult conversation and let that staff person go.