Working on staff in certain churches,
and with certain people,
can be a soul-bruising experience.
Early in 2015, after 18 months on the job, I abruptly resigned my “interim” position as pastor for children, youth and family in a Bradenton area congregation. The position was supposed to last through 2016 (and maybe beyond), but I needed to get out of there with my personal integrity and mental health intact. The relief started the moment I resigned.
I originally wrote this post after several months of reflection to record my thoughts for myself, as well as, family and friends. (I have the annoying habit of trying to learn from things.) If this helps you, that’s a bonus. I’ve since heard from several people who’ve had similar experiences. I’ve also since noticed more articles about pastors who’ve had bad church experiences. It’s not uncommon.
Working on a church staff can be wonderful, but it can also be soul-bruising. No wonder 57% of ministers say they would leave church work if they could find something better, and half will within ten years. It’s a statistic I can now personally understand. Fortunately, I had my work with Sunday Software and Rotation.org to fall back on (forward?), and in fact, maybe it is BECAUSE I had other ministry irons in the fire –that it was easier to walk away from a bad situation that was getting worse. That’s something else I’ve heard from many pastors, they’d leave if they could afford to.
Sometimes you need to shake the dust from your sandals, not only for your own good, but for the good of the dust.
My Version of the Story
(Since originally posting this, I’ve expunged the gory details in an attempt at grace. Healing sometimes requires a lack of reminders.)
It was a 20 hr/week job
for which I was paid 15 hours
at $11 an hour.
I went in knowing that they were going to pay me HALF of what my predecessor had been paid, and there would be no benefits. I was trying to do them a favor and they promised to “address” the pay issue in my second year (a promise they reneged on). I think they assumed that since I had an outside job, I wouldn’t mind making less than the nursery worker. I agreed to the pay as a favor to the pastor. We had been worshipping there for two years already when she asked me if I would take the job that had been left open by a departure and budget crunch. I said “yes” on the condition that after the first year they would get serious about respectable compensation and write a realistic job description –about which they did neither even after 18 months.
The first year on the job I had to invent a Sunday School from scratch for a new building they had moved into. New rooms, new teachers, furniture, supplies, signage, paint, new curriculum. new committees. Everything. We also started a new children’s fellowship and family fellowship that same year. All these improvements were well-received. It was fun.
By the time the second year rolled around, some weird shit had started to happen (see below). Then I was informed that the promised salary review was not going to happen. I resigned the following week, but not entirely over money. Their reneging on the compensation promise was simply the last straw in a series of unfortunate events and encounters. It was time to go. And when it’s time to go, GET.
If they truly did not have the money, I would have stayed. But they had the money flowing in. They were growing and were paying their full-time staff quite well. They had just started their second building campaign in 3 years -taking in a million dollars both times.
Their broken salary promise was simply the last straw.
(1) Being lied to, and having my requests for budget data repeatedly questioned or ignored. I put this first because integrity and honesty are really important to me, and on that score, several people let me down. My committee and I were treated like children when it came to our needs and expenses. They questioned everything, even though we were given a budget and told that the committee had the authority to spend it as they saw fit. Every expense was budgeted, approved in committee, and submitted with receipts. In fact, we came in UNDER budget during a year where we had to outfit the entire new Sunday School, …but the finance people treated us like children. I asked for quarterly reports and they wouldn’t give me one. They questioned me about college retreat expenses which the pastor had authorized and I had no prior knowledge of. And then I was asked to “not to bring up” the issue of some $1500 that had been donated to the children’s program and been “appropriated” by the pastor for other church purposes without our input. I had never experienced such issues in any other church.
(2) Real Spiritual Attack. I know that sounds dramatic, but I finally came to the conclusion that it was happening. When you are on staff, there are certain members who will come after you in ways you don’t expect, -even people you thought you had a good relationship with prior to coming on staff. (See my description about four of them below.) I confided in a friend what these people did and said, and she called it “a spiritual attack.” At the time, I thought she was being a bit dramatic, but later I realized, she was absolutely right.
(3) Run-ins with people who were big givers.
⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with the church’s big donor who described himself to several people as “a benevolent dictator.” He thought he was in charge of the building and others were afraid to challenge him or do anything without his approval. He once asked me to fire-proof a hallway display, and then asked me to show him the bottle as proof.
⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with a retired big donor who called a special meeting to tell the pastor that I should work for free, and whose husband was on the Personnel AND Finance team. The meeting began with her talking about her therapy and psyche-med, and then about her former volunteer youth work in another church where they had been asked to leave. I once had to physically step in front of her to interrupt her yelling at our youth group and their parents(!) for not doing enough to clean the church kitchen at the end of a long church dinner. In retrospect, I should have seen her coming, …for me.
⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with a retired lawyer and big donor over what kind of shirts I should wear when asked to be the pastor at the Communion table, and how I should pray during the pastoral prayers. Lovely older gentleman (most of the time), but he called himself one of the congregation’s “defenders of tradition” and didn’t mind telling you what you had done wrong.
⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I should be pilloried as a “gender bender” by a retired, gun-toting, right-wing, big donor who became upset when I had a woman (my daughter) read the part of Adam in a creative Bible reading for a sermon I was to deliver. She came unglued and sowed discord with others. Pastor had warned me about her past episodes, but the thing about explosions is you don’t see them coming until they hit you.
Kids today would call them “bullies.”
Some people think you work for them, not with them.
They think their tone doesn’t matter.
Many don’t have filters.
And some pastors are afraid to say “no” to church bullies, especially those with checkbooks.
Where was the pastor in all this? Trying to smooth feathers and raise money. Let’s face it: the pastor wasn’t going to offend well-established older members who were big donors. Once I saw that, I saw the handwriting on the wall. She herself had experienced turmoil from some of the same people I had encountered. Being around her at times was like being around a boiling pot with a loose lid.
Being “over 50,” and having been around the block in a few churches, and not being in awe of ministers or bullies with money, you might think I would have bolted loudly. And I do admit that I have an inability to hide my incredulity.™ But I personally met with each person I was having issues with and warmly apologized for the anxiety I had obviously caused them, …without accepting their version of reality. (I’m an adult, not a sycophant). But the hand-holding and heartfelt apologies didn’t much help. Why? Because I didn’t see things their way. Bullies don’t look for reconciliation, they look for more bullying opportunities.
Looking back, I realize they didn’t view me as a peer, but as a younger(!) person who works with children and wouldn’t wear a tie in their church (almost none of the other men did). I also realize these older folks probably didn’t take me seriously because I am pretty happy-go-lucky and rather playful and creative, and that didn’t fit their formal image of a “pastor.”
I also didn’t agree with their points of view, and was not afraid to politely disagree. I thought I was the one doing them a favor, but I think they felt THEY were the ones doing ME the favor by letting me work for them.
Churches talk about being “families.”
And truth is, some families suck, especially if the family has bullies.
(3) Senior Pastors do not always have your back. They have their own agendas, priorities, and stresses. They are loath to offend donors. My pastor-boss was friendly but seemed anxious about a lot of things, particularly the building campaign and money. She flip-flopped on some things she and I agreed on, made some decisions I thought were ill-advised, and let certain people ride roughshod through the church and staff. I never understood why the music director kept saying she couldn’t stand working there until I couldn’t either. When you no longer trust your boss, you need to do them and yourself a favor –and move on.
(4) Optimism and “the flattery of being asked” can lead you to the wrong decision. Prior to starting on staff, my family and I had already considered “moving on” to another church for a number of reasons, mostly related to the long drive. We enjoyed many of the people, but were also feeling that the worship, sermons, and music weren’t meeting our needs. Furthermore, each of us had experienced interactions with certain people that left us feeling uncomfortable. I knew I was more “informal” than what many there liked. I knew the pastor and I had different ideas about some things. Yet when the pastor asked me to take the job I couldn’t say no, and we decided to stick it out. In retrospect, I definitely should have taken a pass.
(5) Leaving isn’t easy, no matter why, or how fast it happens, or how you do it. You can feel it coming. And you know something will probably happen to precipitate it. And even after I quit, it was still weird and my heart was still torn.
Even after I told them why I was quitting –it was strange. The pastor asked me to stay for 6 more months! And when I said “no,” I was then asked to continue in the job as a volunteer! That’s a pastor in denial.
Short of a crime being committed,
I believe that staff people should leave quietly, and that’s what I did.
I put on a brave face,
let the pastor come up with the face-saving reason why I was resigning,
didn’t tell more than three close church friends the gory details,
choked down the going-away cake,
and literally left by the back door.
(6) And finally, I have also learned (once again) that family members should be listened to.
My wife and daughter felt things getting weird at that church a FULL YEAR before I did. And when I told them that “so and so” was upset about something, they asked me why I continued to put up with things. The cost to THEM was almost greater than it was to me. They saw and heard what was happening to me, and it mentally drove them from the church before I left.
(7) It’s easier to leave if you have something to GO TO.
The day I decided to quit that church, I called the ministry I had been working with part-time for a number of years and told them I was ready to step up to the new work they had wanted me to tackle. They were thrilled, as was I. Now…. had I needed the paltry paycheck from the church, I might have stayed a few more months while I looked elsewhere. That’s the truth. But I also realize that the bad job was keeping me from doing the great job that was waiting for me. I love my new job and the SEVEN Christian educator-bosses I interact with on a daily and weekly basis! Super creative, lots of debates, Zero Drama.
Fast Forward to 2018: It’s been almost 3 years now since I left that church, and they have yet to fill my position. But they are breaking ground for a new sanctuary. Enough said? I do wish them well, and pray that they have learned something from all this, as have I.
A year after leaving that church, we ended up moving to Tampa to be near our grandkids. So at most, I would have only stayed there a little while longer. We are now happily attending a neighborhood church’s contemporary worship.