Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Honesty is the Best Policy

(from Pastoral Ministry class)

When a pastor has the opportunity to dialog with another church about a potential transition, the conventional wisdom is that it should be done secretly. There are several advantages to doing it this way. First, there is concern that if you announce the possibility that you might be considering a move, you will become a "lame duck" and lose the right to lead in the present church (even if the move doesn't happen). Second, there is the idea that the present church may not appreciate you considering that opportunity and therefore vote to terminate your ministry there. Third, some pastors are concerned that if the present church is aware of a potential move, some trouble-maker in the congregation may call the potential new church and "poison the well" by telling them all of your faults and shortcomings. Fourth, there is a fear that the announcement that a beloved pastor may be leaving will create panic and disorder in the present church. These are all legitimate concerns, and should not be dismissed without caution. However, I found by experience and scriptural consideration that honesty is always the best policy.

Telling the truth may, in fact, get you fired. But consider this on the other hand. What if you decide that the move is not right for you and you stay put. Then later on, word gets out that you were a candidate for the other position. Might that news not also lead to your termination? Wouldn't it be better to get fired for telling the truth than for hiding the truth?
Consider the ethics of "springing the news" on the present church. Popular wisdom says to keep the talks with the new church under wraps until the matter is settled, and then announce it to the old church simultaneous with the resignation. I think this is questionable ethically. My policy has always been to tell the truth from the beginning. I have not always told the church initially about every time my name was dropped to a search committee, or every contact from a search committee. Most of the time, those are premature contacts that never lead to anything. But, once a committee is serious about engaging in discussions and we commit to dialog, I go to the church leaders and let them know and ask their opinion on making the information public. I have had experiences where the leadership was in agreement with making it known, and experiences where the leaders thought it was best to keep it confidential until it develops into a strong probability. If you invite the wisdom of leadership, you need to accept the wisdom of leadership. But, it should be agreed among the leaders that if an issue arises concerning this, that all will acknowledge that you were willing to disclose the information but were abiding their requests to keep the matter concealed.

Throughout the process, from the beginning, I am also committed to answering any questions from members honestly. Recently, a search committee visited our church. I knew that they had my name, but had received no contact from them prior to their visit. They came unannounced, unsolicited, and unexpected. The following Wednesday night, a member asked me, "Pastor, was
that a search committee here on Sunday? Are you going to leave us?" I answered honestly. "It was a search committee, however, we have had no conversations and there is no indication that this is a possibility. I have no desire or sense of divine direction to leave here and go there, and if I ever do, or if talks begin, I will let you know." I feel that this answer was received and appreciated well.

Here are some examples:
I left my first church to go to seminary, not to take another church. In God’s providence, I did take another church, but that was not my reason for leaving. I decided to go to seminary in September of 2002. As soon as I made that decision, I told my chairman of deacons and let him know that I wanted to share it with the whole church. He agreed. We set a timetable for my departure in May, 2003, with a provision for leaving in January 2003 should I be called to another church. I asked their blessing for seeking other church positions. We were able to work together toward the May date and make a smooth transition. It was a blessing for me to share that with the church so that they could work with me and pray for me as we moved toward that transition. Not only did the church pray for me to find another church to serve, it was a member of that church who passed my name along to the church I eventually served while in Seminary. Members of the first church even volunteered to move us when the day came. This would not have happened if I had decided to spring this on the church at the last minute.

During another pastorate, I faced much conflict. Some of it stemmed from a sad departure by my predecessor. Though few expressed it, there were many hurt feelings and much damaged trust when I arrived. After approximately two years there, I had the opportunity to express interest in Immanuel. I did not do it because I felt that there were conflicts that needed to be resolved. Praying through it however, I felt inclined that the Lord wanted to move me in the near future. Therefore, I began working through a process of intentional conflict resolution and transition. Five months later, the opportunity to talk with Immanuel resurfaced, and we had gotten to a more stable place with the other church. I began talking to the committee, and announced to the whole church that we were talking, and that it was a possibility, but that it was far from certain. We committed to pray together as these discussions took place, and I assured them that I would not leave them unless I was certain God was calling. I also assured them that if God was calling me elsewhere, it meant that God was raising up someone new to lead that church. I did accept the opportunity to serve Immanuel, but I gave the former church 6 weeks notice to finalize things there. I believe that my honesty and intentionality in transitioning out of that church enabled my successor there to have a better beginning than I had.

Why is it best, in my opinion, to tell the truth?
1. Because it is a sin to lie, and morally questionable to be sneaky.
2. Because I am a member of the church I serve. They are my faith-family. I should feel like I can share my burdens and prayer concerns with them.
3. It opens the door for conversations that need to be had within the church about our present and future state.
4. It enables conversation and input from a variety of counselors.
5. In the tech-world we now live in, word will get out. Someone will blog about it, post it on Twitter or Facebook, or put it on a church website. I would rather my brothers and sisters whom I love in Jesus to hear it from me first.
6. If you should decide to stay put, you will have enhanced the trust of your people by showing them that you are a man of integrity.
7. Because people have a hard enough time trusting pastors as it is. Leaving them on short notice only strengthens their distrust and makes your successor's job more difficult.
8. The only gains I can see in being sneaky are selfish ones, and as I understand the Scriptures, selfishness is something I should be dying to, not living for.

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