Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:16 ESV)
It’s now 9 years since I came out of the pastorate.
I hesitate to use the word leave – it wasn’t my choice. It was an odd situation.
God called us.
We’d moved to a Dorset village to a thriving charismatic independent baptist church and I’d taken a pastoral position as an assistant to an older pastor. I’d previously left the RAF 1996 after nearly 11 years service and spent the next four years in theological studies, placement churches and even as a full-time volunteer with a Christian charity working with international students. All this added and built upon our lay involvement in previous churches.
We took the invitation to the church knowing it would be a stretch to our changing circumstances. We had just conceived our first child and we were looking at a future with a different income plus a costly house move to a more expensive area. None of this mattered to us though and we did not hesitate and never counted the cost – we still don’t. We’d heard the call of God and that was enough.
(Un)Amazingly, all fell into place when we answered the call. And that was it. Called to serve and serving the call. What could go wrong?
Well everything . . . . and it did.
The beginning of the end.
It wasn’t long into our first year that the pastor and his wife went abroad – part holiday, part sabbatical – to the country where they had once served as missionaries. When he arrived back, he announced to the leadership team that he was stepping down in order to focus full-time on this overseas work.
I was stunned. Prior to accepting the position that was a question I’d specifically asked. One of my good friends and prayer-partners from college, Martyn, (then a pastor at a Bournemouth church) had counselled me on that very issue. “Ask if they have any intention of returning to their mission work” he suggested. I did. The answer was an emphatic “No!”
He announced this to the church body, gave them a year’s notice and things went steadily down hill for us from there.
My role had been to oversee certain areas of the church and lead it when the Pastor was not there. That was fine while ever he was returning, but now that he had announced his departure, forces sprang into action to engineer mine.
Although I wasn’t immediately aware of the fact, the offensive came from another member of the leadership team. An older man and ex-minister, who had always been publicly affirming, supportive in the language he used, but privately he had started scheming my exit. He began telling certain individuals that I wanted to be in control of the church.
In reality, that was what he wanted for himself.
Welcome to the world’s biggest helter-skelter.
My relationship with the pastor began to wane. During his final year, he decided to drop off our weekly meetings, deeming them unnecessary and we would only meet as needed. He also became very distanced in his relationship with me, making it very difficult to operate effectively together. It was only later that I found out the other leader had started lobbying him.
Steadily, changes were effected that began to undermine the role I had undertaken and the position the church had asked me to fulfil. A small but vociferous minority had formed, emerging with the support and encouragement of that particular leader.
Things were getting bad. Leadership meetings became tense and often hostile. All confidentiality was lost from the team and I was increasingly presented with demands that were not in line with my role and I was further undermined. More frequently I was asked to arrive late at leaders meetings or leave early so that my position could be discussed.
Needing to get away, we escaped to South Korea . . . if only for two and a half weeks! Martyn and Sarah Gibson were leading a church in Seoul and we just ejected ourselves from the situation as a pilot would from a burning aircraft. All the while, we knew that meetings were taking place that would have bearing on our future. On the part of those trying to manipulate my situation, there was no regard for me or the family, what we had given or what we had given up. As I have observed subsequently, with these types of leaders, it is always the case. Control is key. Nothing else matters. They seem numb of feeling, emotion or sympathy, yet perversely they articulate this publicly as some sort of crowd-pleasing spectacle.
When we returned from South Korea, I attended a leaders meeting. The atmosphere was quite charged and I was presented with a new twist and also a question. The leader who was engineering my departure was now presented to me as ‘Acting Pastor’. Would I submit to his authority?
These words wounded because they were from the mouth of the man who had asked me to be his assistant, from the man who had asked me to lead the church when he was absent, from the man who had told my parents on one visit that he wanted me to lead the church when he left – now undermining me and diminishing my call just about as far as he possibly could. The one man who should have been fighting my corner in that room didn’t.
The day came when the pastor left. Things continued to spiral down for us and then my position came up for review. The original agreement was that the leadership team would make a decision on my continued future. This was always going to be tricky (for the guy trying to get rid of me at least!) The odds were, if that were allowed to happen, I would have been invited to stay. However, he persuaded the majority that the best course of action was to put it to a church vote.
As soon as heard those words, I knew deep down that my fate was sealed. I recall a conversation with after that meeting with my close and faithful friend, Mark Coppard. “The hustings will be out now!” I said, and sure enough, within a week rumour and accusation towards me started to work it’s way around the church. Apparently, I was now the reason the Pastor had left, or, he just couldn’t work with me. I had declared that I wanted to be the next Pastor at any cost. And there were many, many more. Painful at the time, but almost funny when you look back at them.
Little by little, people whom I had worked with, trusted, been friends with cooled toward us and all the while, the main protagonist and chief-engineer in the affair gave a public face of supporting us and wanting us to stay.
Eventually the church meeting came. I stood in front of the church and from certain quarters faced raw hostility. I answered the questions the best I could, but they were not listening because they’d trusted a silver-haired old gentleman who was (publicly) my biggest supporter.
We were loved.
I don’t want you to get the idea that the whole church was against me. It wasn’t. The majority were for us, loved us and were heart-broken when the required 67% majority in the vote was missed by 3%. Even many of the ones that voted out were not against us. I remember a number of them contacting us, sharing painfully that they hadn’t realised that vote meant we would have to leave the church. Others shared, just as painfully, how they hadn’t bothered to come and vote because they thought it was a foregone conclusion that we would stay. In our pain, we still had to be strong for many others who were in just as much pain. Old men weeping on your doorstep is enough to break anyone’s heart.
And so, two days after the birth of our second child, June 2003, my ministry there was ended for me.
And that was that episode.
Why did it go wrong?
For a long time I questioned whether I had brought this on myself. I can now, quite confidently state “No, I didn’t”.
What this boiled down to at the end of the day was one man, one leader, one retired minister who had decided that we would leave so he could have control and with his scheming wife, he set his mind to manipulating the situation in the most ungodly fashion. He’d lied, deceived and beguiled enough of the flock to do this and he had no qualms about slaying a shepherd or destroying a flock.
Men of courage and faith.
I am extremely thankful to God for the support of Godly men who stood with us at the time. Colin Mitchell, a good and wise college friend and church leader, who stood in the breach for me and facilitated all of my exit details. He ensured that I left well and guarded me from having to deal directly with the man who sealed my departure and for also welcoming us into a good nest in which to recover for the last 9 years. To Colin, I owe a great debt of gratitude, not only for this, but for the numerous times he has stood with since our Bible college days. Mark Coppard a Godly leader and a man of truth and great integrity. Mark stood with me throughout this ungodly situation and always had my back. He spoke truth into situations where truth was not welcome and prophesied faithfully into that church until the last. He and Charlotte took care of us more than anyone could know. He is a true pastor with a true pastors heart. Both these men and their wives have been a great source of comfort, support and encouragement to both of us.
These were painful times for us. It’s not easy to get over something like that, but not impossible either. We made it through and I am glad to say that I have been reconciled with the majority of the people that were involved.
Dredging up the past?
So why bother going through this all again some 9 years later?
Well a number of reasons:
1. To testify to the providence of God. As painful as it was at the time, I see now that to have stayed would have been far worse for us. It would have finished us off completely and God did not allow that to happen. It was painful to leave, but to stay would have been worse.
2. To write this as a parable as it were. Why? Because I am not (by any small means) an isolated case. This has happened to at least four other guys who were in my year at bible College. It happened to my father, it happened to another local minister not long after us and I it happened to numerous other ministers, young and old, up and down the country.
In every situation that I know about, each of these men were manoeuvred out by other leaders or elders through lies, scheming and deceiving the flock. As in all battles, the victors write the history.
3. I write this as a ‘prophesy’. This will happen again. Even now, as I write, similar stories are unfolding. While ever there are church leaders whose motivations are power and control, not Truth and the Gospel, this will happen and is happening. These are men who may look like they’re following God. In truth their end is altogether different and to reach it, it will often involve removing men who really are.
Jesus called them ‘Hypocrites’.
When I look back at my own situation, I don’t feel bitterness or anger . . . not any more anyway. I do feel sadness though, because in most of these situations, it is the churches that have suffered and that affects the Gospel witness in a village, town or city.
I know that a good number of people who were part of the church at the time will read this. Most of you loved us, cared for us and wept with us. Remember this, the church has a future. But not like this.
Finally, to you men of Truth who are enduring this. God will not be mocked. Persevere. Endure. A crown of life awaits. Trust that God is rescuing you from one situation so that he can use you more effectively in another. One day I hope you can say with Joseph:
“You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good.”