The Role of the Pastor: The Protector
John Dorhauer printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Feb 27, 2006 at 11:11:07 PM EST
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I have served in our Conference's judicatory office for three years now, and shortly after my arrival I began circulating information to our pastors about church takeovers. Many of the churches in the Conference were currently under attack, and my colleague - Rev. Sheldon Culver - had done years of research on the nature of these attacks. Her work has been invaluable.

Pastors, upon encountering this information, would typically go through a series of reactions: denial, off-handed interest, disbelief, curiosity, recognition, and finally a demand to know more. At first, there can be the appearance of grand conspiracy theories thought to be fed by a perceived paranoia. Few want to believe that their church could intentionally be targeted for a takeover. But we have been persistent with our message, thorough with our research, and before too long the preponderance of the evidence leaves no doubt as to the intentions and tactics of those who target churches for attack.

We have become dependent on the cooperation of the Pastor to save, to preserve, and to protect their church once they have been selected for such ignominy. As I have written in past weeks, there are times when the pastor is at the eye of the storm and is orchestrating the attack. (See article on the Pastor as Aggressor, Feb. 13) There are other times when the pastor's own needs or internal composition make it hard for the pastor to do anything at all as the church decomposes. (See last week's article on the Pastor as Pacifier).

But in many churches, we find pastors willing to be coached, willing to defend their congregation from external aggressors and internal malcontents, and willing to muster enough courage to stand up in order to protect and preserve the integrity, the heritage, and the health of their church. And what always happens when they do this is they empower a host of allies in their church who come to the aid of their pastor and their congregation, and who help silence, remove, or defeat those intent on destruction or disaffiliation.

Rev. Dan Wilson, pastor of Ivy Chapel United Church of Christ in Chesterfield, MO is the perfect example of this. Last July, members of his church began to conspire to orchestrate an attack. Remembering a pamphlet we circulated two years earlier that listed the early warning signs of an attack, and a request to involve the Conference Office as soon as any of the early signs were detected, Dan called my office asking for advice about how to deal with the attack.

Members of his church, including one man on the Council of the church, had been having clandestine meetings and talking about resolutions to bring to the council, who would then call for a vote of the entire church. Dan was able to name the attack, and the men involved. He was coached to do a number of things, each of which he did: name to the council the players involved; name this as an attack on their church; stand in the pulpit and talk about his clear commitment to the United Church of Christ, its mission and vision; and state with the clearest possible conviction that if this congregation ever votes to leave the UCC, the church of his heart, they would have to find a new pastor.

The reaction was immediate. I remember Dan's wife calling me the day after he preached that sermon. She asked what I told him - that she had never seen him speak that way before. She was so proud of him. Almost as one, members of the church and the council voiced their support of Dan and his ministry, and their full support of the denomination.

Rick Meyer is the pastor of Carondolet UCC in South St. Louis city. I have been to his church a number of times in the past year to help him as his church has been under attack. Rick is another great example of a pastor willing to do whatever it takes to protect his church. Rick is in constant conversation with our office about the actions and machinations of those members who have threatened to remove him and remove the church. He has responded to every invitation we have offered him to defend his church.

At the end of last summer, Rick was getting a number of harassing phone calls from one particularly abusive member of his church, who was also working behind the scenes to stir up controversy among the members of the church around the UCC's openness to homosexuals. Rick was sick about this, and at a loss as to what to do. He was coached to name the behavior at the next Council meeting. As this man was on the Council, it would mean doing that with him present. He was coached to speak out loud the nature of the abuse he was receiving at the hands of this man, and to say to him in front of all the others that while he might not like what the pastor thinks or says, that kind of abuse would never be tolerated in this church. Rick won the immediate support of his council, and so enraged the gentleman that he resigned his membership on the spot and left the church.

Dan and Rick are both humble, gentle, quiet spirits. They are pastors in the fullest sense of the word. Entering the fray of battle and conflict is not something they do with ease, with comfort, or with any kind of bravado. Doing this kind of work causes them great stress and anxiety - it takes them far out of their comfort zones.

But when asked to stand up and defend their churches, they did it without hesitation. I know how incredibly difficult that was for them, but they counted not the cost to their own psyche and soul and spirit. Their love for their church, and for the integrity of the congregation they were called to serve, compelled them to honor their baptismal vows and ordination promises by standing in the fray in order to protect their church. In both cases, they did it not knowing who stood by them or what the result would be. And in both cases they were relieved to know that they had a good deal of support; that their members were proud of them for doing so; and that they had empowered others join them in the defense of their church.

One last word about this: both of these churches quieted down for some months after this initial attack. Both churches in recent days have reported new attacks. Both pastors have returned to my office to report the attacks, and both have been coached again on strategies to defend their church. When does this end?

I suspect, when the church falls, or when it no longer appears to be vulnerable. Given that these issues often move through deeply entrenched families, that can take a long time.

by pastordan on Tue Feb 28, 2006 at 03:53:37 PM EST

The Conference often provides substantial funds for new church starts and revitalization projects for existing congregations. Can't we begin building loyalty into these agreements such that congregation who leave the UCC must reimburse us the lost assests? Shouldn't there be a "cost" to such discipleship? We'll give you loans for your building project but if your congregation pulls out of the denomination, then the loan is called and the congregation is assessed financial fees for lost investment opportunities.

Is it possible to protect our congregations more aggressively in these areas?

I know a church in Illinois which received a bequest that included a parsonage. In receiving the gift, the congregation had to promise not to join the UCC. If they did join the UCC, they forfeited the property to another non-profit organization named in the will. There were also clauses in the gift that prevented the congregation from selling the property for 99 years! The Church is still affiliated with the CCC.

by An UnGodly Pastor on Wed Mar 01, 2006 at 12:31:06 AM EST

Obviously, church polity has some bearing on how the IRD targets denominations for "renewal".  Denominations with a congregational polity -- like the UCC, DOC and ABC -- are extremely vulnerable to having their congregations picked off one by one.  An additional challenge to pastors in these denominations in protecting their churches is the vulnerability of their jobs.  In more connectional denominations -- like the PC(USA), UMC and ECA -- not only does the denomination own the church property (so the members can not simply take their property and leave) but pastors cannot be fired easily by their congregations (sure it happens, but the power of Bishops or Presbyteries makes it more difficult).  I know that's a huge generalization.  But I am curious about what kind of power denominational staff in the UCC have to assist your pastors, beyond offering strategy, to fend off IRD orchestrated takeovers.

by Rusty Pipes on Wed Mar 01, 2006 at 03:38:59 PM EST

What John is describing in this article happens probably hundreds of times a year in churches across all denominations. Ten years ago, we called it "clergy abuse". It's aweful and unhealthy for the church and the pastor, but it doesn't automatically mean that there are outside forces conspiring to take over a church.

The EMR resolution (which I supported) was raised in my church after General Synod and it provided a great deal of meaningful discussion and it came from genuine concern, not the IRD or some outside group. I am in consultation with two other pastors whose congregations seem pretty set on withholding OCWM funds from the Conference and by all accounts, this came about from a grass roots concern after the EMR resolution was approved. In our polity, this is acceptable if still regrettable and becoming more common. Many churches simply aren't equipped to manage conflict, which is really what this is all about.  John's advice on this good - conflict management calls for open discussion with specific issues and concerns raised while avoiding the ad hominem. "Clergy abuse" crosses a distinct line and again, John's advice is really good.

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