I’ve been thinking about this post for well over three years.
I remember when a pastor friend gave me the analogy. He and I were both having a difficult time working for the church we were in. I’ve never forgotten his comments and I’ve rewritten my thoughts down several times…rewriting each time. I guess I’ve come to the point to where I just have to say what I’ve been thinking and know that many people won’t like it and there is nothing I can do to change that. So here is what my friend shared with me that day:
The church is like a nuclear power plant.
When it is used correctly, it has unimaginable power. Some nuclear power plants can power entire cities. When the plant has been built rock-solid, when all the rods are in place, when the employees understand their jobs, when the system is working correctly…the energy created is mind-boggling. When operating at maximum efficiency, it can create an amazing force of power that is difficult to quantify. Many people may not even know where they are, but they can feel the impact it has on their life. When it is working the way it is supposed to, lives become dependent on it. It’s an amazing resource for the surrounding community. It’s quite impressive, really.
When it is used incorrectly, it also has unimaginable power. It can be incredibly destructive. It can level entire cities. Handled by inadequately trained people, nuclear power plants can kill people. They can tear families apart and destroy businesses. They can leave a wasteland that is difficult to clean up for many, many years. Many people may not ever know where the plant was, but they can feel the impact it made on their daily life. Just like when a power plant is used for its intended safe purpose, a poorly run nuclear power plant can be equally impressive, but in a completely different sense.
The local church is like a nuclear power plant.
When it is working the way it is intended, it can do far more good than any of us can imagine. When run poorly, it can do unimaginable damage that lasts for a long, long….long time.
Pastors (and any other church employee for that matter), are like the nuclear power plant employees. They’re responsible for the daily operations, the inner workings, the production of energy and movement…its intended purpose. Like any organization, power plants have different levels of employees. They have a CEO or plant manager, a board of directors, various engineers, administrative assistants, custodians, maintenance personnel and possible other variants of employees. And many churches have the same.
The Flashing Light
Life happens. People come and go and many eventually leave employment for somewhere else. They might leave for any number of reasons. Sometimes they simply got a better offer of more money or want to try something new. It happens. I’ve been there. This is not about those times. It is about when something goes wrong…horribly wrong.
What if a little red light in the nuclear power plant starts flashing and some young engineer sees it? He tells his boss, “The red light is flashing! Something is wrong! We gotta get this fixed or we might have a nuclear meltdown!” Many would applaud his young man’s astuteness and ability to speak up and notify the authorities of impending destruction.
But instead, his immediate boss says to be quiet. “Let it be. It’ll handle itself. You’re too young to know that everything is just fine and you’re being too touchy.”
The engineer goes back to his desk…but the little red light keeps blinking.
Weeks go by and it is still blinking and nobody says anything.
Then months. Maybe even a year or two! Nobody is talking about the blinking red warning light.
Over time, the engineer starts to notice there is not just one red light blinking, but several.
He has gone to his supervisor several times…even to his bosses boss, breaking the chain of command rules…and each time told everything was fine and being handled by upper management.
“Keep it to yourself, or you’ll be fired.”
He loves his job, but can’t stand that nobody is listening to him. Eventually he decides to move on, get another engineering job somewhere else, hoping to move his family to a safe environment that understands the purpose and impact that a well-run nuclear power plant can have on a community.
In the process of notifying his employer that he is leaving, he is told by both his supervisors and fellow employees to keep all this “nonsense” about the blinking red lights to himself. He shouldn’t rock the boat. He needs to leave quietly, making sure his new employer knows he is trustworthy and not a snitch or hot-head or gossip. He is convinced that not telling anyone about the red light is the right thing to do because it will no longer be his concern or responsibility.
Regardless of whether the engineer receives a parting celebratory party or not, he leaves “quietly” for his new employment…always wondering about the little red flashing light…..
The Pastoral Challenge
For pastors, there is a balance….a struggle…an opportunity…to merge both calling and employment. It is both a great benefit and burden. It is a benefit because pastors are privileged with the opportunity to make an eternal impact in the lives of people. It is a burden because the rest of the congregation fails to understand the struggle that accompanies the challenges of pastoral work.
When considering the “job” aspects of the pastorate, I think the previous generation of church leadership has been telling the “outgoing pastors” how to handle their departure all wrong. By this I mean, when a pastor is leaving the church for other employment (whether that be for another church or anything else), the general consensus has been to leave peacefully without being critical of the church you are leaving.
“Just leave quietly.”
“Don’t rock the boat.”
“Keep your thoughts to yourself and don’t make anyone mad.”
“You need to make sure you keep all your frustrations quiet, move on to the new job, and let the chips fall where they may.”
“If you are leaving, no one will believe you anyway!”
“Play it safe and keep everything calm.”
There has been articles about this very topic. Blog posts. Even denominational memos passed around that encourage church staff to “leave quietly” so that there is no disruption and no disunity in the church. I get it. The premise behind this is to keep from being disruptive, to prevent gossip and to “love one another.”
Frankly, I find this to be bad advice and unbiblical. Here is why:
When the nuclear power plant finally has a meltdown, people will be angry. Astonished. Worried. Frustrated. Confused. There will certainly be a lot of finger-pointing.
How could such a thing happen?! Did nobody observe something was wrong?!
Did anybody notice the warning signals?
How come the staff who were there every day never said there was a problem on the inside?
Were there any warning lights?
Sadly, there were warning lights…but the people who noticed them were convinced they needed to leave quietly. In their attempt at not disrupting the organization, in their attempt at being nice in their departure, in their attempt at not being bold for what they knew was right, they contributed to a nuclear disaster.
Because of their omission that the red light was flashing, they participated in what would eventually lead to a widespread devastation of people’s lives.
The local church is like a nuclear power plant. It has all the same potential.
Why do we encourage church staff to leave without informing the upper leadership of the issues they know to be problematic? The same goes for members of the congregation. So many leave a church they are unhappy with, and never tell the pastor (or elder board members) why. They just “up and go” without any explanation. I’m at a loss for why so many people think we cannot call out bad leadership within the church. Jesus called out the Pharisees several times, and he wasn’t really very nice about it.
As Christians, we are implored, no…REQUIRED to follow Matthew 18:15-18 when someone has sinned against us. This can certainly be applied to the work and church environment when we feel a dangerous issue has been created by those in leadership. In short, we should approach the person in question first. If that doesn’t work, then bring along another who can validate your concerns. If that still does not change the situation, then make it public!
I am not suggesting we post our grievances on social media for all the world to see. It’s just not helpful and it can lead to additional uncontrollable chaos. I am not suggesting we bully the powers-that-be. I am not suggesting we make sure every single person in the church knows the issues. I am not suggesting we keep rehashing the same issues over and over again in an attempt at forcing the change desired. But failing to notify the top level of leadership (whether it be a pastor or elder board) is equally not helpful. If you are uncomfortable meeting in person, then write a letter or email. If the top level of the church is a board or group of directors, include all of them in the letter in order to make sure they all get the same information.
Have the guts to tell the correct people the issues you see that are bothering you and give them the opportunity to respond. If you still disagree or you cannot come to an acceptable resolution, then move on, tell them why and leave it at that. By not informing them of the problem, you are contributing to the diminishing of something much greater…the family of God, the Bridge of Christ! People cannot make the necessary changes if they do not know what changes are needed.
In my experience of talking with many people who have left a church, I find a vast majority feel that sending a letter would make no difference because they are just one person or family. And generally this thinking is correct. When one person protests about their boss, the employee is generally perceived as being the issue. “They’re just unhappy with whatever the supervisor is doing.”
When two people leave and send similar letters, “Huh. That’s weird. What are the chances?”
When a dozen (or many more) leave and all share the same experiences, “Hey! A red light is blinking!”
Instead, we leave without informing anyone of impending catastrophe and wait for the church to slowly implode because nobody is warning the people at the top about the red blinking light.
A Personal Experience
I can’t find a single reference of Jesus knowing there was a problem with one of his disciples or the religious leaders of his day and not addressing it. In fact, he addressed their issues head on and very publicly! I get that none of us are Jesus and the circumstances and context of today are very different. But we are to emulate Jesus as best we can given the context with which we live. Why are we afraid to acknowledge and discuss, even privately, the issues we see within the church?
Again, I am not condoning a divisive spirit. I am condoning that people who are leaving the church tell the upper-most leadership why they have chosen to leave.
Admittedly, I myself have fallen prey to this kind of thinking. A couple years ago, I left employment with a church and attempted to leave as quietly as I could. A few of my closest friends understood the issues that I faced, but I worked hard to “keep the spirit” and unity of the staff and church. For a long time, I watched from afar as the issues I faced with my superiors continued to drive deeper into the rest of the staff and church and went unchecked (and mostly unknown) by the elder board.
As a result of my failure to truly explain what I saw and what I had experienced, several other people ultimately faced the same fate. Many families left. There were a lot more hurt feelings. More destruction occurred. I often wonder…If I had shared with the highest level of leadership what I knew to be going on in the staff, could the problems have been dealt with much sooner? Could other people’s horrible experiences been minimized if I had spoken up and told the powers-that-be what was really going on? Honestly, there is a bit of guilt that creeps up every once and a while about whether I made the right decisions about being quiet and leaving without telling anyone about the red flashing light.
But…it is now in the past and there is nothing I can do to change my past actions. However, I fear too many others are in the position I have found myself in.
After all this…if you plan to leave or have recently left your church (whether employed there or are a member), tell the highest level of authority why you are leaving. Give them the opportunity to know how decisions they or their staff made have shaped your decision to leave. Without your input, none of us can get better. None of us can fix our mistakes. None of us can grow the Kingdom more.
In the meantime, the red light is blinking….