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Sunday, May 18, 2014

"The Almost Perfect Church: How It Happened and What Happened to It" chapter 1

“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed”
“Speaking the truth in love we are to grow up in all ways unto Him”

Although my dismissal from Trinity Alliance was shrouded in silence, I am fully convinced that the time for secrecy is over. Not all agree. As I share my story in the days to come, I will also share my reasons for insisting on openness and transparency by all. As the full tale comes out, I believe it will prove to be very helpful for pastors, active church members and lay leaders in many churches today and tomorrow.

My tone may be contentious, but, contrary to some accusations, contentiousness does not have to be evidence of anger or bitterness. I was bitter for well over a year after leaving, God healed me of that during two weeks in Alaska in July 2011, thanks in large part to the prayers of our hosts Bill & Edie Riesinger. I will still express strong disagreements with the elders, both individually and corporately. I believe they were wrong both in their understanding of the church and of the role of the pastor. But I do not believe that they were insincere or mean-spirited. I believe they were misguided, that they had blindspots that lead them to a wrong course of action. And ultimately, I believe that this is my fault for not identifying these blindspots and doing a better job of mentoring and discipling these leaders over the years. I foolishly assumed way too much and as result failed to develop my leaders as I should have. They may have some guilt before God for not grasping certain key principles that are clearly and emphatically taught in the Bible (cf Luke 16:31) but I should have known better than to assume that they grasped the New Testament’s teaching and emphases to the same degree as someone like myself with 5 years of seminary training. I should have taught them better. More than anything else, the crisis that ensued was due to my own failures in leadership development. In the end, if they did not sufficiently grasp the biblical teachings about the church and what those imply about the role of the pastor, that is not only their fault but mine as well. 

Nevertheless this is not a story about good guy vs bad guys but a tale about a group of sincere Jesus-followers who, each and every one of us, in various ways bungled our stewardship of the charge God laid upon us as leaders of His church. I will omit names in case this circulates beyond TA. Many will still be able to identify who I am referring to, that is unavoidable. These are all good people, I admire each of them, have been blessed by their friendship in the past and wish that we were still friends. This just makes what happened all the more painful. I will be frank about my perceptions of where I believe they erred. I will judge their behavior where I think it was wrong. I do not judge any of their hearts as significantly worse (or better) than my own. As we will see, the mistakes that were made were primarily made because we all have blindspots and it was largely a failure to fully and humbly compensate for that fact that lead to the costly mistakes documented in this story. I hope that this will lead to true reconciliation. For that to happen both sides will have to acknowledge the mistakes that were made.

 “As far as is possible, be at peace with all men.” Reconciliation may not be possible. I have some core convictions which I can and will not compromise. Those who disagree or deny these convictions will find that a division remains between us. The division may run between many at TA, even between spouses. Jesus warned that His teachings, if genuinely lived out, would bring a measure of division that would cause problems even in families and churches. Martin Luther divided the Church, though he would have preferred a different outcome. AB Simpson found himself divided from his church’s leaders and forced into a position where he must either compromise his convictions about evangelism and the church’s mission or resign. The Christian and Missionary Alliance grew out of the aftermath of that division.

After leaving TA I wanted to write a letter to friends, family and congregation about why I am no longer the pastor of TA, the church that we, by the grace of God and with the help of many friends, planted in Redding in 1991 after a year of planning and preparation and many more years of praying and dreaming on my part. I always believed it to be the main work in life I was called to by God and expected to be there “forever”. For a long time I was simply too emotionally devastated to write that letter. Deep sorrow and pain, especially when inflicted by those we considered dear friends and colleagues, easily morphs into anger. But with sufficient time God can transform even this type of suffering into emotions other than anger. Jesus, after all, was a man of suffering and sorrows, acquainted with grief, betrayed and let down by his closest friends. It has taken almost this long for my emotions to heal to a point where I would dare to attempt to confront the issues head on. For a long time my main desire was to avoid any situation where I would feel like once again I was the guy "with a target on his back".

Today I feel a deep peace and confidence about facing everything and everyone involved. Yet even now we still experience sleepless nights and I sometimes find my wife weeping over what happened. She deeply misses her friends and feels like they have largely avoided her but she also knows that even when she is with them she has not been free to talk to them about what really happened and the emotional turmoil it caused her. In the midst of the crisis she went to the Board on her own initiative and with tears begged them to reconsider what they were doing.  They didn't respond to her then or ever. Even today she, the best Christian and happiest person I know, struggles to forgive them.  At least if she was offered some word of explanation, it would have been easier for her to deal with. Then, at her time of deepest need, she was effectively banned from talking about it lest she be seen as the person who created a firestorm by saying things that the leadership wanted unsaid. In the Bible, the harshest form of punishment given to the Church for dealing with unrepentant sinners is shunning- cutting them off from the fellowship of others in their congregation. This was imposed, in effect, on Jeanie, though all knew that she did no wrong. We now understand why shunning was such an effective punishment as we have fully experienced the pain of isolation.

But my goal here will not be to vent or justify, but to minister and bless. The lessons of this story can and should serve to teach and prepare church members, board members and pastors for the challenges they too will face. The people in this story were all good people who meant well. The church got off to a great start and had a great run. But that was not enough. Our blindspots brought us down. I pray that others may learn from our story and, by God’s grace, do better.

Click here for Chapter Two.

1 comment:

David Haddon said...

Mark, I observed early on in the transition into a focus-group based church that some leaders didn't share your vision and even seemed to be dragging their feet. So I appreciate that in this first chapter of your book--crack out of the box--you recognize your responsibility in failing to have brought your fellow leaders to share your vision. I, for one, believe that your vision for discipling and ministry to be carried out in the focus groups instead of through centralized programs was from God.