How A Church Implodes

Growing up, when a phone would ring during the middle of the night, it meant someone was either sick, dying, dead or drunk (you’d be surprised at the number of people who want to absolve their soul in the midst of an all night binger). For any of the three former options, it often meant my dad, a pastor, would get out of bed, throw on some clothes, and rush out the door to a hospital or house.

To me, death and dying just seemed like a normal part of life. Who was sick and in the hospital was a frequent topic of conversation at the dinner table. Even today, if I catch a whiff of a home cooked meal, I long for pleasant small talk about health prognosises. That was just the norm in our house. 

But I can only imagine my dad’s burden underneath the matter-of-fact dinner discussions. If I know one thing from farming, I know death weighs heavy. Watching animals die that are in your care and husbandry is tough. Being a shepherd of a human flock means facing the grim reality of decay and death, often of friends. Like most traditional baptist churches these days, his congregations skewed older, with more gray hair, with funerals greatly outweighing baptisms and weddings. There were no miraculous healings. People died, and my dad was often by their bedside when they did. 

We now live two hours from my parents, so we attend a Baptist church here locally, which is as equally old and gray (my beard now included) as the one I grew up in. Although I’ve grown up with an insider’s view of the church, I’ve never witnessed or experienced a church split. Now I have. Really, as is the case with most church divides, it was a mutual running off, with both sides playing a game of church chicken to see who would leave first and be the last one standing. First, some staff members bucked the new pastor and resigned. Then many families followed them to another church. Then a few weeks ago, the deacons, fearing another large revolt of families, pressured the lead pastor to resign, at which point he did resign, at least until his final farewell sermon, after which an impromptu church conference broke out with lots of finger pointing, some screaming, and little resolution. The final farewell sermon resulted in our pastor temporarily rescinding his resignation, only to resign again, and in so doing causing another revolt of families leaving the church in solidarity with him. 

Part of the issue was our new youngish lead pastor was, understandably, a new school pastor–a unilateral CEO, TED TALK type who preaches in skinny jeans sitting on a stool. He had the worthy goal of trying to appeal to millennials and young families, and his focus was on leadership and discipleship, not old school flock tending. Needless to say, it was a tough transition, as evidenced by the implosion of the church.  

My dad always said people need to get to know and trust you before they’ll follow you. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, especially if you wear skinny jeans and preach from a stool in rural western North Carolina. That said, the focus on discipleship, on creating lay people who can minister to one another in lieu of the pastor at times is a worthy goal. A pastor is merely one man (or woman), and a regular diet of death and dying takes its toll, not only on the pastor, but his family.

For my part, I remember regularly sitting in the backseat of the car for what seemed like ages as my mom and dad went through long visitation lines at funeral homes. I remember the hospital lobbies and the pungent nursing home hallways with the senile old ladies pushing walkers. I remember going on vacation, only to have my dad return home early to preach a funeral. I don’t begrudge it now, but I remember it now, likely because I begrudged it in the moment as a child. But what child doesn’t begrudge their parents’ work, stealer of time, energy, and attention?

So, I suppose there are pros and cons to both the old school shepherd pastor and new school CEO pastor. How a church smoothly transitions from one to the other is a different story though. 

10 thoughts on “How A Church Implodes

  1. I sat on a pulpit committee once. The paster we chose wasn’t very liked by the congregation. He was black. The church became very divided with the old and young squabbling. No “race” comments were ever made, but it was obvious to all that that is where the majority of the problem lay. This all happened maybe 28 years ago. I stayed with the church for just less than a year as I moved from the area.
    I just don’t know what happened then.

    1. Yeah, I think it does get personal, and people use all types of surface issues to hide the real underlying issues causing the divide. Our pastor who got run off was wanting to focus on ministry to poorer areas and migrant communities. Churches have always been some of the most segregated places in America, and I think these days it’s even worse.

  2. Great post! I can’t imagine being a minister’s son. I haven’t been through a church splitting, but it happened to us church right before I came back here. I remember when I lived here before, our church was dwindling in size because the faithful members were dying off. 75% of the congregation were over 65. Now, it is still that way and maybe 30-40 come every Sunday, sometime less. When I came back in 2013, they were looking for a new pastor. Instead of hiring an interim minister, they has a different speaker every Sunday. We finally decided to ask this one fellow if he would be our pastor. He was a well known retired mortician from a town 18 miles away. I remember when he had his first baptism… He had the girls certificate of baptism and said, “I present you with your death certificate.” Of course, everyone laughed. He is now 71 and everyone in the congregation really like him and his wife. They have done a lot for the church. He has become one of my best friends. Death is certainly a part of any older church in a small community, and keeping the church going can be a challenge. Take care always and thanks for sharing!

    1. A mortician and pastor, lol–he definitely has hands full with death. But it sound like he is a good one and is trying care for the congregation, which counts for a lot. And, well, in a way a baptism is supposed to be like a death to an old life 😉

  3. Thank you for this great post. I’m sorry about what’s happened within your church. There’s always been strong factionalism across denominations when it comes to worship styles and the like. The church we’ve been attending since the beginning of the year is small and grey, and apparently we came in after the dust settled from a fairly recent church split and mass exodus. We may be a tiny, aging and dwindling congregation now, but honestly it’s the best congregation I think I’ve ever been part of.

    1. That’s awesome–I’m glad you’re able to find that congregation. I wish we could find a place like that. I’m not sure what we’ll do next. We’re torn. The idea of church shopping again feels so daunting and tiresome, but at this point I don’t really feel motivated or very excited about the direction of the place we’re currently attending either, which we’ve being going to for seven years. There are no children left at our current church that are Thomas’s age, so that is factoring into it too. It is all rather sad, and I’m not sure what we’ll do.

  4. The trend in the US (decades behind Europe) is away from church so that the congregations are getting more and more elderly and it’s hard to attract young families. However, since we retired, our church community has become key to our sense of belonging and long-term commitment. Perhaps in 20 years there will be very little of it left, so savor it while you can.

    1. I know. In some ways I wish I could back in time and rediscover that sense of community and belonging that was so prevalent just a few decades ago. That sense of community is disappearing rapidly

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