When I lost the support of my congregation's leaders, I was completely caught off guard.
I had been with the church for a couple of years. We were a rural congregation (about 200 people) with many different programs in place. I had started a small groups ministry and revamped our benevolence and youth ministries. Everything was going great. Or so I thought.
There's an old joke about a minister coming back from vacation to find an eviction notice hanging on the parsonage door. Well, my experience wasn't quite that bad, but it was traumatic.
The previous summer I'd taken a church growth course for my M.Div. My course project was to assess our congregation's abilities and potential for growth. After I studied our congregation and community, I concluded that while we were mission-minded, our opportunities for growth and expansion were limited due to the low population and the high-church culture of our area. As a result, my recommendations for the future—while by no means ignoring conversion—focused on discipleship and expanding our benevolence ministry, neither of which traditionally result in baptisms. This was the direction I believed we needed to go, but the congregation's other leaders did not agree with me. Almost immediately, tensions rose in my relationship with the leaders. I felt a bit like a lightning rod—attracting vague, negative energy.
The holidays rolled around. My family and I spent Christmas with the in-laws, and returned to ring in the New Year with our congregation. I had spent an entire Monday (usually my day off) planning that year's activities and programs. I'd printed off copies of my vision for the year, and polished up my presentation. I walked into our leadership meeting with a plan for a great year. I shook hands with everyone, and swapped pleasantries about the vacation.
We opened with prayer, asking God's presence to be with us as we met. Then every eye in the room turned to me.
"We have decided not to continue with you as our minister."
At first, I thought I had misheard. Didn't they shake my hand? Didn't they just ask me about my trip and my family? I was shell-shocked. The next few minutes were an emotional blur as one leader outlined my failings as a pastor. Later, I'd find out that an influential family in our congregation did not like my preaching or that I spent a great deal of time mentoring younger leaders.
Unfortunately, this was not the first time I had an unpleasant conversation with a congregational leadership team about my future. When I was in seminary, I served as yoiuth pastor for a congregation that was (in the words of the seminary president who arranged it) "extremely difficult to work with." About two weeks into this new ministry, the church's leadership came to me as I was working late one evening and informed me that they were "going to fire [me] as soon as possible." They had never wanted to hire a youth minister, they said, and did so only to quiet the younger families in the congregation.
Ever since I have struggled with doubts about my ability to lead and minister. More than once, I considered leaving the ministry. And eventually, my ministry shifted. I moved into full-time teaching at a university about three years ago. I still serve local congregations, although I do it on an interim basis now—as well as assisting the ministers of the congregation that I am currently attending with teaching and pastoral care. And the difficult experiences of my pastoral life have made me spiritually bolder, professionally stronger, and a little wiser. I know others can learn from my experiences—and hopefully without enduring as much pain. So here I offer my five warning signs that your leadership has quit on you.