The church closed its doors.
The pastor moved out of state.
The website shows an “error”.
The timeline, however, was a steady decline, and revealed a pattern within the pastor himself which started from the very beginning.
While this example is extreme in the outcome, it is actually common in the source: pride.
The church’s original founder was based out of Sunnyvale, yet San Francisco had a small plant which eventually grew to about 200 in attendance (125 officially reported by the denomination) when he sought a lead pastor.
After Sean gave his first sermon, the leadership and church gathered, and were initially opposed. The sermon was unclear, rambling, and as one person said, “wasn’t entirely clear it was the Gospel.”
The founder gave his notes, and encouraged the church to evaluate a second sermon.
The result was the same.
In a meeting with the founder, someone asked, “Did you give him the note?”
The founder nodded.
“So...why was it the same?”
The founder then shared, “He said that was his style.”
That was the signal for a repeated pattern which plagued the church from that moment till it died.
He didn’t take a note to reflect on what others were counseling him on.
I understand that you can’t please everyone. And sometimes clear Godly wisdom will trump human precedence.
But clarity in the power of the Gospel seems to be a minimum requirement. And humility to be “less of oneself” and more of Christ is a model to follow.
25%-30% of the church left within the month, and the confusion and frustration continued.
However, rather than responding, the founder sent in another pastors from other churches to come in and speak.
The first one had a pastor preach that if the teaching isn’t clear....it’s your fault.
He continued to state that if the teaching isn’t clear, the responsibility for getting clear teaching lay not with the pastor, but with each individual congregant. “Read your Bible.”
This is an example where power of the church — the fending of those in power by those in power — that is limiting the church rather than responding with empathy.
The Willow Creek Board, for example, when multiple reports of sexual misconduct by former the lead pastor Bill Hybels, including by former board member, surfaced, the board did not take a balanced, truth-seeking approach.
The board defended their lead pastor, and instead, accused those coming forward of wrongdoing.
This is not unlike the Catholic Church shuffling pedophiles from one church to another.
Power protecting the powerful. This is the opposite behavior that Jesus represented.
He came to challenge the religious professionals of his day for using this power and giving spiritual burdens to others.
The decline of the church continued. The volunteer elder board advised the pastor several times over the ensuing years to make adjustments, not just to the manner and effectiveness of his sermons, but to his leadership direction.
In frustration, some left the church.
The numbers continued to decline, hitting around 30 people in average attendance ten years later for a few years before finally closing.
The death of a small church happens slowly over time, especially when it starts out with a large surplus and annual giving to support a staff of three. But the decline was markedly inevitable, not just in the declining numbers but in the fruit of the body and the language of the pastor.
When asked what he thinks is going on, his response was, “Those who left weren’t submitting.”
When questioned — not as in doubting, but actually seeking clarification in some confusing aspects of his teaching — his response was that to stay in the church one needed to submit to the pastor. When asked to support this, he said this is found all over the Bible. When pressed further, he pointed to the David in the cave with a sleeping Saul.
This passage above has nothing to do with the requirement or even the Godliness of a congregant submitting to a pastor.
And while this explicit statement of submitting was never stated, the manner and side comments revealed that this theology seeped into the depths of his ministry, if not his soul.
I feel sorry for him in large part because much of this behavior is driven by a need to perform, which means he hasn’t fully embrace the Gospel. While he definitely has an emotive appreciation for God as Father and was a nice person, this is not the same as facing the reality of one’s sin and realizing Christ has done the work.
When a spiritual leader is genuinely freed from the need to perform, he won’t let the power of pride color his ability to face those weaknesses. Facing those weaknesses in Christ may be the only way to turn around a sinking ship.
However, even in the final years as the church continued to decline, he still said, “I think I’m right,” as he embarked on another, subtly misguided approach to ministry which forced an already inward-facing church to turn further inward while also steering away from the only true thing one can find looking inward — our sin.
This experience informs a project I am running in parallel with my primary teaching to help both congregants and their leaders avoid this “spiritual abuse” trap.
It’s called The Esther Protocol.
And it builds on theology and teaching of very seasoned pastors to protect congregants from spiritual abuse and to enable spiritual leaders to be coached out of their blind spots and even find even deeper freedom and rest in Chrst.
Posts like this which explore what happened at the church will probably not be the best written.
I just want to get the word out.
Much of my desire to teach clearly and to also speak with emphasis on Christ as the liberator from religion and the burdens of misguided spiritual leaders draws from this experience, and sometimes it is emotional.
But there’s truth buried in it.
And I believe many people don’t even have the voice for their own similar experiences.
As troubling as it has been with him, he’s not as bad as others; and unlike many others who do encounter bad teaching, I was not in a vulnerable pace, getting guidance from other seasoned pastors and having a strong Scriptural foundation.
Yet even these pastors said, “Run. As fast as you can,” when I described the approach to teaching and the actual practices.
And even I still feel shaken and bothered and angry by the behavior (which I haven’t dug into yet).
So I can’t imagine what goes on when someone is in a worse situation, where there’s pride with greater power (he had diminished power since he had no staff and a dying congregation) or greater malice (I do credit him with trying to be a nice person and seeking to be Godly despite what became clear over time to be his own confusion).
This is an important topic to me.
I will still continue teaching on other areas — experiencing breakthrough, becoming a strong leader, being a marketplace influencer through work or entrepreneurship — but this is the heart of it all.
Over time I will retell this story because I know it’s not as coherent as it could be.
It’s not dense with Scripture as I usually am.
But this is the story.
Christ is far more against “spiritual abuse” than he is against the sinners. His death was to take the wrath for failing to meet God’s performance standards, so there’s no reason to endure the “wrath” of man for a similar failing. He sought truth and deep reconciliation, including that between the abuser and abused.
There is a clear path, however, one that can bring fruit to life, even to a dead and dying church, if one is willing to take those steps.
My thoughts on the Esther Protcol, however, is entirely preventative. I do believe the prescription is the same and can help a dead and dying church; but like any medicine, sometimes taken too late is too little.
The healthy church, the early plant, the fast growing start-up, the established institution — all can use this because the tragedy of “spiritual abuse” grows like yeast. It starts in the prideful heart of men, especially the religious professionals. But it also needs maturing in the body, and a critical ingredient that I see sorely missing in churches today.
Yet without it, there’s simply no remedy.
I believe the early church had a different structure, but definitely the element, that the Esther Protocol has, and I seek to share this with you.