The congregation of historic First Church was very optimistic when Grant was called to fill the hole left by Dr. R. S. White, who had led the church with a steady hand for three decades. The congregation chose the new pastor because he was well educated, personally warm, an excellent public communicator, and a capable organizational leader. He had a wealth of experience and a youthful enthusiasm.
Twenty-one months later, Grant unceremoniously resigned, leaving First Church and the pastoral ministry altogether. Physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and spiritually depleted, both he and his family had gone as far as they could go. Certainly Grant made some missteps, but to many in the congregation he represented everything wrong in the church. Some complained it was his preaching. Some said it was his leadership. Some identified it as defects of character. As one powerbroker put it, "Pastor Grant is a cancer, and it's time to cut the cancer out."
A predictable pattern
I refer to pastors like Grant as "Unintentional Interims." That's probably too euphemistic. In casual conversation we call them "Sacrificial Lambs." Like the substitute sacrifices of the Old Testament, iniquities are transferred onto one lamb that bears the wrath on behalf of the many.
It's a messy scene for anyone watching, and it's always profoundly painful for everyone involved. I have observed this phenomenon up close, twice: once I was the pastor who followed after the Sacrificial Lamb, and once I was the Sacrificial Lamb. In the latter instance, I followed a pastor who had led his church for nearly its entire 25-year history. He was a local legend. I did my best to hold on for a few years, but by the time I left I felt like I had been put through a shredder. I had honest disagreements with many congregants, but I was perplexed by the raw and unbridled passion directed against me.
Sacrificial Lamb Syndrome follows a very predictable pattern. The Sacrificial Lamb always follows the departure of a "hero" pastor with a long and successful ministry. The successor is almost always well qualified. Churches recognize the large shoes that need filling, so they usually pick from the cream of the crop. Usually the members of the congregation, even the lay leaders, have little awareness of the broader pattern and the ensuing crisis takes most of them by surprise.
Some criticism always coalesces within the core of the congregation—something in the pastor's style, philosophy, or fitness for ministry—that becomes dramatically urgent. I know one Sacrificial Lamb who was a world-class preacher but came under severe criticism because he did not use the term "blood of Christ" regularly. Another Sacrificial Lamb used a hands-on management style with her staff. This was classified as "toxic leadership." Another was "reckless with changes," and yet another was "dictatorial with church finances."
There may be a kernel of truth in these criticisms, but to any impartial observer the intensity of the criticism is unwarranted. Newer church attendees are befuddled by the emotional opposition of long-term members.
The grieving church
A couple of years into my stint as the Sacrificial Lamb, I asked our grief counselor to guide our church staff through a discussion of our recent losses. He graciously agreed.
Drawing a simple timeline on a whiteboard, he asked the staff to think of significant people our church had lost and how that loss impacted them personally. He marked the first, obvious loss—my predecessor. Quickly, others were added: the long-time associate pastor who departed in the same month, the founding board chair who died of cancer a year before, his replacement who moved to another state. As my staff rattled off more and more losses, I could see tears streaming down their faces. In that moment, I realized this emotion was not a result of our struggles; unprocessed grief was driving them.