Pastor James (not his real name) had been at Christ Church for over twenty-four years. You’d think by then his church would be immune to controversy. But when James started introducing changes to boost the church’s outreach, an unseen fault line under Christ Church burst wide open. “We tried to change the culture of the church and it couldn’t be done,” James told me. “It created inherent tension in the body.” Overnight, it seemed, Christ Church took on the air of an intense presidential debate, and James was the political football. The rift unfortunately coincided with the resignations of all five of James’s elders. One elder was having marital problems. Another felt he was too old to continue serving. Another resigned to take care of her ailing husband. A fourth elder was diagnosed with bipolar disease and needed hospitalization. The fifth could not abide the changes James was making. So when things were at their most desperate, James had only one person on the governing board besides himself: his assistant pastor.
An influential family in the church agreed with James that the church needed to turn its focus outward. For too long, they said, Christ Church had ignored the needs of the community. But when they saw a church fight looming, they wanted no part of it; they’d been through that before in another church. So they told James they were leaving. Problem was, that family contributed nearly a third of Christ Church’s offerings. So now, James had not only a congregation in turmoil, but little money. The budget had to be slashed; the assistant pastor had to go.
The tension took its toll on James, emotionally and physically. He caught a cold that he could not shake. His teenage daughter said, “Dad, you’re under stress!” James knew it but didn’t know what to do about it. He managed to recruit three new elders from the congregation. They agreed with James theologically but not philosophically. Every board meeting pitted James on one side against the three elders on the other.
“You’re taking Christ Church in the wrong direction,” they told him.
“You’re not listening to the gospel,” he replied. It was a stalemate.
Finally James told his elders what he’d been thinking for months. “We’re not a team. It’s not good for any of us, and it’s not good for the church. Either you need to step down or I need to. If we stay together things are only going to get worse.” The elders took offense, as though James was accusing them of fomenting division.
“We’re not going anywhere,” they told him. So the following Sunday, James announced his resignation.
Three months later, despite their promise to stay, the three elders also left. Absent leadership and with declining membership, Christ Church fell apart and was dissolved by its denomination.