I saw him at a church conference. He lit up the stage. He was one of the most electric worship leaders I had ever seen. Young, handsome, talented…
I went after him. I had to be a bit discrete - it felt a bit like "stealing."
In the end, I got him. I was elated. Buckle your seat-belts, church-growth world, we're taking off. I had just nagged the up and coming worship leader at the one of the nation's most prestigious megachurches.
In less than twenty-four months, he had been removed from ministry and placed under church discipline. He eventually left the ministry, and has never served in a church since Not long afterward, I interacted with the senior pastor of the church from which I had procured my wunderkind. He graciously asked how my new hire had worked out, and I had to sheepishly tell him that, well, he didn't.
I told him the whole story.
He said, "I'm not surprised. We had been having issues with him for months. Just before he left, we had entered into some pretty serious conversations attempting to confront the very kinds of things you have had to deal with. I was deeply concerned that he simply fled to another church."
And then he said words that have haunted me, and instructed me, ever since.
"Why didn't you just pick up the phone and call me?"
Good question. Why didn't I?
I didn't like my answers:
- Because I thought I was pulling off a coup on another church and getting some top-notched talent and didn't want my effort botched.
- Because I had quietly bought into the idea of other churches being the competition, and this was just the blood and sweat of the contest.
- Because I was blinded by the person's talent and never bothered to explore their character.
- Because I wanted to bottle up that particular church's success and add it to our own.
- Because the person in question told me things that were derogatory about the church he was leaving, and its leadership, and flattered me about the differences my leadership provided in contrast.
So I didn't call.
And no one calls me, either.
I have seen individuals at Meck who were confronted with character issues, and subsequently removed from leadership, simply flee to another church. Within weeks, they are platformed or placed into leadership.
I have seen staff who were within a hair's breadth of being let go for incompetence quickly leverage Meck's reputation and lobby themselves into a new position at another church.
If this seems petty to you, it shouldn't. A single poor staff hire can devastate most churches, squandering Kingdom resources and setting back progress for months if not years.
And if the issue at hand was sexual, such as someone engaged in serial affairs, then the damage allowed to move to another church is unthinkable.
It goes beyond staff, of course. The husband and wife approach you following the service and tell you how much they enjoyed the service. They inform you that they had been attending another church in the city, but tell you how much better your church is, how much better the service, teaching, children's ministry, music, community, is….
By now you are hyperventilating with perverse excitement.
"Yes, welcome to our church! We are all of the things you noticed and more! Sorry to hear about that other church and pastor, (And yes, I've heard that about them - we have other people here who feel the same way.). Come and enjoy perfection and bliss!"
And then you find out that the disgruntled ex-member of the church down the street you were so happy to have join becomes the disgruntled ex-member of your church now sharing their opinion of you to the church down your street that the next pastor is only too happy to see join.
Somebody needs to say it, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how out of synch it is with the culture of church-world:
Pastors and leaders of churches, please call the pastors and leaders of other churches.
When you want to hire one of their staff, call the pastor first. No, they don't want to lose their key players, but most will tend to be honest about those that aren't. And most will also welcome a true God-calling of someone away from their church, knowing that it means God has something in store for them as well.
Call them when new members come your way, particularly those who spew venom or criticism on their previous church situation, before you fast-track them into leadership or put them on a platform.
The other pastor may very well say, "We tried very hard to work with them on some very difficult issues, but in the end, they just fled. The issues remain unresolved. You may be able to serve them and redeem them in ways we could not, but you need to know the cloud under which they left." Or they may simply say, to your relief, "Great folks. Hated to see them go. You've got some real winners there - you should feel comfortable moving forward with them in any way needed."
I know the rules about what you can and cannot say regarding employee reference calls. This isn't about violating federal guidelines. Yet the point remains: we must talk to each other.
Because the church matters. Not just your church, but every church. If what we are leading truly is the hope of the world, then let's treat it that way. And I think that means it's worth at least a phone call.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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