The Decapitation Strategy

 

My first spiritual mentor was a recent seminary graduate serving as the youth pastor of my first church. He spent a lot of time with our little youth ministry team teaching us how to study scripture, introducing us to the great classics, and challenging us with intellectually difficult homework assignments.

He had an affair with one of the high school counselors.

He was out.

The rest of us scattered.

I scattered to a church closer to the campus where I was attending university. The pastor was a little older and more experienced. I’d say he was stable. After two months of Sundays, he stood at the pulpit and announced his resignation. He had had an inappropriate relationship with one of the women on staff.

He was out.

The rest of us scattered.

I scattered to places around the world, returning a couple of years later. I got married and started attending a church close to our home. The pastor was a young guy, a former tennis pro, and he liked to coach people whether they liked it or not. I was one of those people, but don’t jump to any conclusions. There was nothing tawdry going on. But he was troubled. After six months, he told me he had stopped praying. The next Sunday he announced his resignation.

He was out.

The rest of us scattered.

We scattered to a larger and more established church across the freeway. The senior pastor was highly respected as the face and voice of the congregation. At that time, I was into making videos, and so I offered my services. He asked me to produce something appropriate to the post 9/11 trauma we were all feeling. So, I did. It was fine.

He then asked me to do something for Easter. I agreed.

I really struggled. The video wasn’t turning out the way most people would expect an Easter video to turn out. In fact, it didn’t seem right at all, but I followed my instincts.

When I was finished, I went to meet with the senior pastor and present the video. I walked into his office and found him at his desk. His face was fallen, a little ashen. I asked him if something had happened. It was the first thing I said … the very first thing. He looked at me, took a deep breath, and said, “Yes, I suppose you can say that.”

I waited. He didn’t say anything else, and I knew not to ask. I showed him the video. It shook him. When it was over, he turned to me and said, “Good timing.” He then said he needed to think about it and we would talk again.

The following Sunday, he stood in front of the congregation and confessed to an impurity, and said that he would be moving into a restoration process … immediately. A line of congregants formed … hundreds of people walked up the stage stairs to hug him, comfort him and encourage him. When I stepped up, he looked at me with a tear and said, “Oh, Debra,” hugging me as if to offer a strange kind of acknowledgment. I knew the video had triggered something.

But, despite the plan for him to move into the restoration process, someone on the elder board got cold feet. After the Easter service, we never saw him again (yes, they had the nerve to ask him to preach on Easter; he was very popular).

He was out.

And many of us scattered.

Then things shifted.

The Decapitation Strategy phase was wrapping up. I didn’t see it right away, but now I think I got it. We’re now entering The Expulsion Strategy phase.

We moved to another county and began attending a church recommended by some friends. And we, or rather I, was not welcome. I didn’t fit the mold of the traditional stay-at-home mom. The mother of the pastor’s wife literally turned her back and walked away when I told her my husband was a stay at home dad.

Thirteen times we tried to get involved (yes we counted), never receiving a return email, a call, or a meeting. Except once. We were invited to an elder’s home for a fund-raising meeting. Apparently, the only thing they’d paid attention to was the dollar amount on our tithe checks. Other than that, we were shunned.

There was no room for us.

We were boxed out.

In effect, expelled.

We began attending another church. The teaching was good and they seemed friendly to newcomers. But over time, I noticed that the women on staff were setting up roadblocks to my ideas, keeping me contained and out of the way. Eventually, the pastor was honest, telling me that I had been put into a box. When I asked why he told me that “they” couldn’t figure me out. “They” weren’t too sure about me. “They” didn’t think I really fit the mold.

And as he was telling me this, I thought back to a short period of weeks when the women’s ministry leader had decided to make me her “project.” I didn’t know it at the time. I thought she just wanted to be friends. I got my first clue about the “project” when she tried to counsel me on body language (using Oprah as her reference, no less – I’m not kidding), how to be friendlier to others between services, and what I would need to do to become acceptable for leadership.

I listened to her with some kind of supernaturally imbibed patience, chuckling to myself. Here we go again. Honestly, I didn’t care. She didn’t know anything about me, nor had she ever asked, but I had spent decades traveling the globe running large-scale systems development projects and training programs for one of the largest international firms in the world. I would not have been placed in that position if I didn’t know how to lead and how to “behave.”

Her interest was only in finding a way to control me … to subordinate me. It was an “I feel threatened by strong women” thing. It was an “I need to keep my power position” thing. Again, apparently, the only thing they had paid attention to was the dollar amount on our tithe checks. Other than that, we were passive-aggressively shunned.

There was no room for us.

We were boxed out.

In effect, expelled.

Sorry to be repetitive, but I’m trying to show a pattern.

Once again, we began attending another church. During our first day of orientation, we learned that the guy who usually led the sessions was serving out his last day on staff. Later, my husband asked him where he was going. He said he didn’t know.

There was no room for him.

He was boxed out.

In effect, expelled.

A few months later, another associate pastor (I’ll call him Joe), whom we’d met over coffee, stepped up onto the stage alongside the pastor. The pastor was holding up an oversized pair of jeans and making some kind of speech about Joe putting on his big boy pants, and that he would be leaving. It was chillingly inappropriate and diminishing. Joe had to go through it four times that day, one humiliation for each service. Not only that, Joe didn’t have another job lined up.

There was no room for him.

He was boxed out.

In effect, expelled.

I took note. But I still wanted to give the church a chance, so I volunteered for a couple of service roles. It turns out that these roles gave me a behind the scenes look at things. It didn’t take long to see that the lead pastor was a tyrant, a narcissist, a bully, and a stone-hearted man consumed with promoting his own image and reputation. He insisted on highly rehearsed services and required staff to follow rigid scripts when engaging with congregants (which made for some really stilted conversations). There was no questioning him … on anything. If you did, he sent the daggers of diminishing retorts your way, putting you in your place.

A perfectionist performance-oriented tension filled the air where mistakes were not tolerated and the staff members regularly blamed others for minor mishaps, probably out of fear of retribution. The spirit of judgment reigned, leaving no room for authenticity or true connection between staff members, nor between staff members and attendees.

No grace.

No humility.

It was a weekly show centered around the pastor, he himself accountable to no one. Yes, there was an elder board, but as the elder who interviewed me for membership said, “He calls all the shots. We are there only to ensure he is preaching from scripture.”

This particular elder was like so many I’ve met; quiet, compliant, and agreeable. Milk toast. Narcissistic pastors pick people who won’t get in their way. Real leaders would never do that.

As for the preaching, this pastor frequently referred to himself as a former professor (amongst other things), which I read as an offensive tactic to dissuade anyone from questioning him. On Sundays, he always spoke extremely fast and presented more information than anyone could effectively process. He knew he spoke too fast and for too long, and yet was unapologetic, often even laughing about it. He didn’t care. It was about him, not anyone else.

One morning before the first service, I was in the tech booth getting ready with the rest of the team. It was my first day. The pastor came back to the booth and asked if there was anything we needed.

I smiled and said, “Steak and eggs!”

He stopped dead in his tracks, looked me in the eye with a glare, and said, “Ah … sarcasm. I like it.”

Uh … no. He definitely didn’t like it. That was the moment I knew, at least subconsciously, that this was a guy who took himself way too seriously. Zero sense of humor.

Anyway, when the pandemic hit, the church started offering daily online devotional times, most of them hosted by one of the associate pastors. I’ll call him Mickey. Mickey, one of the nicest staff members we’d gotten to know, showed up online every day despite the low numbers of viewers and the incredibly awkward script he had to follow. It was pretty painful to watch.

The daily devotionals eventually became weekly as businesses and churches started to open up, and we decided to resume attending in person. Outside after one of the services, we had a chance to chat with Mickey. By the change in his overall demeanor and the weariness in his eyes, I knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer.

We found out a few weeks later that he too had resigned without another job to go to.

There was no room for him.

He was boxed out.

In effect, expelled.

That was the straw for us. We haven’t been back since.

But that’s not the end. There was one more associate pastor still working at the church. I’ll call him Terrance. Terrance was the pastor who took over the orientation sessions after the very first guy was expelled. He and I connected during our own orientation and tried working together to improve some of the church processes. The effort didn’t get very far; the operations were closed off from me, an outsider, and I couldn’t get any information about the current processes. I thought the problem was that Terrance wasn’t organized enough. But that’s not what it was. His efforts were being blocked … and he couldn’t tell me.

Anyway, when we decided to leave, I gave him a call. I had a hunch he was on his way out too, but it wasn’t until then that I knew for sure. He has since left.

There was no room for him.

He was boxed out.

In effect, expelled.

That’s four associate pastors, all amazing men who love Christ, who were treated like members of a star’s entourage, horrendously overworked, and then expelled within a 12-month period. And that’s just one church! Each of them, their confidence shaken, have left the ministry. I understand. They have families to support. That doesn’t mean it’s okay. It’s not okay.

This hurts all of us. Those with hearts for Christ and a will to serve are being expelled, neutralized, and their sense of calling diminished.

I had lunch with one the four pastors a couple of weeks ago. He has spent almost a year digging deep, trying to understand what happened, studying spiritual transformation, and waiting for God.

My take? He’s spent far too long blaming himself for what happened … too much time discounting his own gift for ministry … too much time floundering around in the conventional thinking of the church academics and those who think they know how to remain relevant in today’s culture. It is the blah blah blah of church speak and pastoral networks that takes up too much of a pastor’s focus.

At the end of our lunch meeting, he pointed to a local hotel building and said, “I had a panic attack in the parking lot of that hotel.”

“You did? When?” I asked.

“It was the day I flew in to start the job. I couldn’t get the picture of the pastor’s wife out of my head. She was on stage talking to the congregation … and ….” He made creepy spell-casting motions with his arms as he ran out of words.

I immediately understood. Do you think my description of the pastor is damning? He doesn’t hold a candle to his wife, the pastor of children’s ministries. I think the words “demonic spirit” fit perfectly. Maybe I’ll write more about that in another post.

“That was the big clue,” I said. He nodded as if recognizing the subtlety of malevolence for the first time. The signs are obvious if you know what to look for. But “they” don’t teach people about good and evil anymore.

One day I’m going to write about how the standard indoctrination of seminaries and the pursuit of reputation within the theological and pastoring community don’t do anything to prepare people to serve Christ. I think it can actually ruin them for ministry. True ministry … where you get your hands down into it and come out with your ass whooped for the glory of God.

All right, I’m almost finished. I have just one more thing.

Please pray for my friends, the four expelled servants of Christ. There are millions of souls out there who long to know who God really is. And we need more people like these guys to help them see the truth.

P.S. This post received several comments focused more on my personal experience than what I had intended. Here is a response to a comment received that may help clarify my intent in writing this. The comment asked about the pattern of my attending “church after church.” Here is my response:

As for the “church after church” I attended … (first of all, I’m old). The essay doesn’t give a good sense of the timing. Before this most recent experience, we were at our previous church for 11 years, the one before that for four years, etc. We were at this most recent one, the one with the revolving door, for about a year, the shortest time in 25 years.

I wrote the post to share my observations gathered over a few decades. Most of the time, I was only a bystander watching a situation unfold. And, in most cases, the sheep first stood bewildered for a bit before the scattering began. Losing the head created a “directionless” church, and many “scattered” as a result.

It’s only been more recently that I’ve observed the expulsion pattern, which is basically if you don’t fit the mold preferred by the leadership (both formal and informal), you’re boxed out at best, and pushed out at worst. Sometimes the leadership is the true source of the problem. I find myself wondering if this is the new way of attacking the Bride of Christ and rendering her ineffective.

In regard to my post, I noticed most of the comments focused on my personal experience – that’s not what the post was really about. But I suppose I asked for it – I often use my own experience as a framework for writing about something broader or deeper. It seems to help people connect with the topic.

I hope this helps clarify.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. Amelia Peabody Inactive
    Amelia Peabody
    @Amelia

    There are some people who just shouldn’t serve in ministry. It baffles me why people who are so ill-suited choose that vocation.  When they drive people away, how many of those people never come back to the church?  Truly a tragedy for the Kingdom.  

    I have served as an elder at my church, and our authority structure sounds very different than the one you described.  The elders set the priorities and strategy for the church.  The pastor worked for us.  And the elders were chosen by the congregation, so the pastor couldn’t choose an elder board of yes-men.  At times, I thought our elder board got too involved in the operations of the church, but it kept the church from being a “one man show” like you describe.  

    I hope you’ve found a church where you’re welcomed and can use your gifts to grow the Kingdom!  I can’t understand an unwelcoming Christian church.  

    • #1
  2. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Amelia Peabody (View Comment):
    I have served as an elder at my church, and our authority structure sounds very different than the one you described. The elders set the priorities and strategy for the church. The pastor worked for us. And the elders were chosen by the congregation, so the pastor couldn’t choose an elder board of yes-men.

    Yes, that’s the structure I expected too. When the elder described the roles, a major alarm bell went off, but we didn’t do anything at that point. I think we were impressed with the four associate pastors, and subconsciously we may have felt that they could offset the negatives of the one-man-show.  It was not to be!

    We are flawed beings … some pastors recognize it and put in safeguards to protect themselves and others. But unfortunately, most don’t. It’s like a frog in a kettle thing. Ego issues are really powerful.

    But this guy … he’s something else. In my mind (and I didn’t write this in the post), he’s an example of the “replacement” of the former head that had been set up and cut off. We’re dealing with real dark forces here.

    Ephesians 6:1212 For our struggle is not against [a]flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

    • #2
  3. CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker
    @CarolJoy

    People are often so set on the idea that to be a practicing Christian, one must be part of a Church.

    Yet a Church where one is warmly welcomed and accepted as a  member can be a difficult thing to attain.

    Your story is noteworthy for revealing your inner strength and persistence. I have lacked the ability to go through all those hurdles. (Of course, you did have the opportunity to seek out more churches than most of us who are more firmly glued to one locale, so there are far fewer venues available.)

    Also Christianity itself can be a very mind conforming experiment.

    Not too long ago here on Ricochet, I mentioned how it is that I conceive of God: as an intense and powerful, totally  Compassionate Oversoul.

    Immediately I was chided for the statement on account of my having re-constructed Jesus into my own imagined version.

    Apparently the person doing the chiding had never heard of The Holy Spirit.

     

    • #3
  4. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    It may not have been the issue in your case, but my standard on interviewing a church includes that the sermon be about Him crucified on the cross for you. A minister can go all over the place and throw in personal anecdotes or current affairs, but if there is no Jesus and no exegesis of scripture then the pastor is off mission.

    And I will walk out immediately over the playing of Hillsong music or the making of a tithing demand. I gave been lucky in finding good churches.

    Maybe getting involved in ecumenical volunteer opportunities you might find a better fit.

    May He guide you where you need to be and are needed.

    • #4
  5. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Have you ever found a church where you were comfortable and didn’t ultimately have to leave?

    • #5
  6. Juliana Member
    Juliana
    @Juliana

    I hope you have found what you are looking for. This is so disheartening. I worked for five different priests in seven years in a small parish. I finally had to leave when I realized the last one was a pathological liar – he literally looked me in the eyes and lied to me on more than one occasion. Once I made the decision to leave, I also found out that he was ‘counseling’ his girlfriend every week. After I left he was reported for receiving child pornography over email. The secretary who reported him left. The Faith Formation director was asked to resign, and he hired an alcoholic yes-man to replace my position. The deacon, whom this priest had requested, also was able to request another posting. The archdiocese, even with formal complaints from the congregation, did nothing to change his behavior until he reverted to his own alcoholism and was sent to treatment. He was then returned right back to the same place. Half the congregation thought he was wonderful. The other half thought he was the devil incarnate. Although in our hearts we try to maintain our true reason for attending church – our love for Christ Jesus – it is sometimes very difficult to find that spiritual peace when you have to push through the thorns and brambles that can surround it.

    • #6
  7. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Have you ever found a church where you were comfortable and didn’t ultimately have to leave?

    Yes, I certainly have! All of the churches I attended prior to our move (to a different county) in 2005 warmly received me and my family. Before I was married, I nearly always served in a leadership role. After I was married, both my husband and I always served in some kind of leadership role together. I’ve even been asked to preach for vacationing pastors.

    My desire to serve remains as strong as ever, but I’ve found our new community of the past 16 years to be less open to allowing me in. I’m a direct person, which some find off-putting.

    • #7
  8. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker (View Comment):
    Also Christianity itself can be a very mind conforming experiment.

    So true. Humans get in the way of God far too often, imposing our need for control, power, etc. It’s a human condition and all of us are vulnerable to the frog in the pot syndrome.

    As for me, I find peace in His presence regardless of where I am. He speaks to us all the time through impressions, circumstances, scripture, something we read, something we hear, etc. These days I try to listen and see things clearly with an attitude of compassion and grace, although it’s often difficult. I get so frustrated at times. Even so, I try to pray regularly for the leaders who are struggling against the pressures put upon them by the culture both inside and outside the church.

    Like the great Apostle Paul, we must be discerning, noting and calling out those who seem motivated to grab power and control for personal gain, which in the case of the church, is usually at the expense of others. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. And he shows up wherever he can find a way in.

    It’s a scary time, and we must remain close to Him.

     

    • #8
  9. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    Wow. You are one persistent person of faith. Whenever I get discouraged because no church feels like a perfect fit, I’ll remember this post. Also, “put not your trust in princes” applies to pastors, too.

    • #9
  10. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Juliana (View Comment):

     it is sometimes very difficult to find that spiritual peace when you have to push through the thorns and brambles that can surround it.

    What a story. These are the kinds of circumstances that turn many away from God. I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through that, but I admire your faith. Keep looking up.

    • #10
  11. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Suspira (View Comment):

    Wow. You are one persistent person of faith. Whenever I get discouraged because no church feels like a perfect fit, I’ll remember this post. Also, “put not your trust in princes” applies to pastors, too.

    Well said … I’ll remember your words as well! “Put not your trust in princes!” I have in the past and left very disappointed… but wiser for the experience. :)

    • #11
  12. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    This is why the pastor is considered the shepherd.  If he fails at shepherding, then the sheep scatter.  It’s rather unfortunate this seems to happen to church after church you attend.  Is this a particular denomination?  

    • #12
  13. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Manny (View Comment):

    This is why the pastor is considered the shepherd. If he fails at shepherding, then the sheep scatter. It’s rather unfortunate this seems to happen to church after church you attend. Is this a particular denomination?

    EXACTLY MY POINT! Thank you for zeroing in on that.

    As for the “church after church” I attended … (first of all, I’m old). The essay doesn’t give a good sense of the timing. Before this most recent experience, we were at our previous church for 11 years, the one before that for four years, etc. We were at this most recent one, the one with the revolving door, for about a year, the shortest time in 25 years.

    I wrote the post to share my observations gathered over a few decades. Most of the time, I was only a bystander watching a situation unfold. And, in most cases, the sheep first stood bewildered for a bit before the scattering began. Losing the head created a “directionless” church, and many “scattered” as a result.

    It’s only been more recently that I’ve observed the expulsion pattern, which is basically if you don’t fit the mold preferred by the leadership (both formal and informal), you’re boxed out at best, and pushed out at worst. Sometimes the leadership is the true source of the problem. I find myself wondering if this is the new way of attacking the Bride of Christ and rendering her ineffective.

    In regard to my post, I noticed most of the comments focused on my personal experience – that’s not what the post was really about. But I suppose I asked for it  – I often use my own experience as a framework for writing about something broader or deeper. It seems to help people connect with the topic.

    I hope this helps clarify.

    • #13
  14. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    This is why the pastor is considered the shepherd. If he fails at shepherding, then the sheep scatter. It’s rather unfortunate this seems to happen to church after church you attend. Is this a particular denomination?

    EXACTLY MY POINT! Thank you for zeroing in on that.

    As for the “church after church” I attended … (first of all, I’m old). The essay doesn’t give a good sense of the timing. Before this most recent experience, we were at our previous church for 11 years, the one before that for four years, etc. We were at this most recent one, the one with the revolving door, for about a year, the shortest time in 25 years.

    I wrote the post to share my observations gathered over a few decades. Most of the time, I was only a bystander watching a situation unfold. And, in most cases, the sheep first stood bewildered for a bit before the scattering began. Losing the head created a “directionless” church, and many “scattered” as a result.

    It’s only been more recently that I’ve observed the expulsion pattern, which is basically if you don’t fit the mold preferred by the leadership (both formal and informal), you’re boxed out at best, and pushed out at worst. Sometimes the leadership is the true source of the problem. I find myself wondering if this is the new way of attacking the Bride of Christ and rendering her ineffective.

    In regard to my post, I noticed most of the comments focused on my personal experience – that’s not what the post was really about. But I supposed I asked for it – I often use my own experience as a framework for writing about something broader or deeper. It seems to help people connect with the topic.

    I hope this helps clarify.

    Yes, and it was well written.  Thank you for sharing.

    • #14