Saved from church seems like a real twisted statement, but it happened to me. It doesn’t make sense to most minds. The truth is that many people get saved in a church. The Bible defines salvation as one who surrenders their life to Jesus Christ and repents of their sin. In one local church, I made an innocent attempt to help the people there and it quickly turned into a near disaster for me.
I served God for over 40 years in various churches, mostly in New York State. I was a pastor, assistant pastor, worship leader and even a business administrator depending on the need. In 2013 God led us to Mitchell, South Dakota to be near our aging parents. Of course, I wondered what kind of opportunities there might be to serve Him here.
This is part of my series “Behind the Curtain“. It gives the reader insight into things that happen in the organized church out of the sight of the general “membership” of the church. The point of the series is to bring light to the darkness that is prevalent in these situations and to provide more evidence that the institutional church is seriously defective. Jesus wants to build His assembly of believers into a force that even the gates of hell cannot stand against. The man-made church system that has evolved since the 4th century is not even a shadow of what He started on the day of Pentecost. It’s time for radical change.
*Since I’m going to share some serious issues, the names of all individuals and organizations mentioned here are fictitious. I don’t want to offend the people involved but I need to tell the story. I know that some readers can learn and benefit from my experience.
Leading Worship Again – A First Step
The first couple of years we were hanging out at a local church to see if that’s where God wanted us to be. Eventually, we heard about a denominational church in town that needed a worship leader. They were singing with recorded music. I’ll call it the First Church of Many or FCM*.
My wife and I left a denominational church in 1977. We never went back to one again. Our major connection was always to non-denominational, independent, Spirit-filled churches. So we found ourselves considering the possibility of committing to one. The Firm Foundation Denomination (FFD) appeared to be a safe organization to get involved with. We hoped we might even make a positive contribution to their local church.
Bob, the pastor of the First Church of Many was a really kind, passionate man. He filled a vacancy that had lasted for more than two years. Many people left almost immediately after the previous pastor departed and others were gradually absorbed into other area churches.
At the time, the church seemed adequate for us, so in spite of some reservations about the control exercised by denominations, we decided to continue there. I waited a couple of weeks and told the pastor about my past as a worship leader and offered to lead live music with my guitar and my wife would play her flute. He accepted so I started exercising my fingers at home and worked to build up some callouses on the fingers of my left hand so I could play again. It had been many years since I last played guitar and I hoped it would be easy to get back to it.
The Unexpected Change and Opportunity
I adjusted quickly to the old guitar. Leading the people was going well. For over a year we took care of worship and participated in the church. I also preached a few times when Pastor Bob was out of town. The congregation didn’t grow numerically during that time and the finances were just barely adequate to pay the bills, so Bob took a secular job to help support his family.
The months went by and the situation did not improve. Bob decided to take another position at a church in Minnesota. A few weeks later he bid us farewell and began his new adventure. So the First Church of Many was without a pastor again. I began to wonder if this was an opportunity the Lord was opening to serve them. The need was real. I felt bad for the people because they had been without a pastor for so long in the recent past. I thought I could step in and move things forward. My big advantage was that since I had retired and was drawing Social Security, they wouldn’t need to pay me, at least until things changed financially.
Thorns on the Roses – Prickly Issues to Face
There were two big issues regarding FCM that I had to consider before taking that step. One was that since the church was a member of the Firm Foundation Denomination (FFD), I would ultimately need to become credentialed with them. Now I wasn’t thrilled with that idea but was willing to start moving in that direction so the church would not be left without a shepherd.
The other issue was that Pastor Bob told me about some problems he had with the people on the Financial Council. According to the By-Laws of the Firm Foundation Denomination, their only real authority was to advise the pastor on matters related to money. Since the church had no pastor for so long they took it upon themselves, out of necessity, to act like a Board of Directors, even though the denomination didn’t authorize that in any of their local churches.
The people on the council did not relinquish their self-acquired authority when Pastor Bob came to serve the church. They were very resistant to change and viewed themselves as being in charge of most of the aspects of church life. Bob didn’t push them for much change right away. He wanted to give them some time to see if their attitudes would get better. He also didn’t want to rock the boat too much because he needed that small salary for his family needs. The finances of the church were so precarious that if just one more “tithing” family left, there wouldn’t be enough cash to meet the monthly bills. He didn’t want to create a situation where that might happen.
Since the Financial Council acted outside the scope of their authority regularly and put up many roadblocks to what Pastor Bob wanted to do, he ultimately decided to move on. After pondering it a few days, I offered to take his place as pastor, even though I realized that the council was firmly entrenched in their views. I thought it might work out different for me because I was older and more experienced.
Taking the Plunge
The people on the Council were receptive to my offer to serve. They liked the way I led worship and the way I preached. Pastor John, the district leader (DL) of the denomination, was responsible for FCM, so he came to the church to discuss the situation with me. We had a great time of fellowship, but he decided that he actually wanted the pastor of a small FFD church in Sioux Falls to be responsible for both congregations. The council of FCM did not like that idea because it meant that they would have to move their service time to Sunday afternoon. Doing so would allow the Sioux Falls pastor to have a service at his own church in the morning.
After brief consideration, the council voted to approve me and the denomination accepted their decision. My position would be as the Interim Pastor with the full authority of Firm Foundation Denomination. As such, I was to function as their pastor until someone else took the position or I got FFD credentials. On that day, I jumped right into the deep end of the pool with no lifeguard. I thought I could swim safely because I assumed God was involved in this situation.
Curious but Cautious
A few weeks before I was approved by the FFD I started studying the denomination’s website. There I learned how things were supposed to function in the member churches. The procedures I would need to follow to become an official FFD licensed minister were also outlined. I didn’t really see any problems with the doctrine but I wondered how headquarters would handle a disagreement between the local church and the denomination.
The District Leader, Pastor John, and I were in regular contact. I told him about the control issues with the people on the Council and the precarious financial situation of the church. I wanted him to be fully aware should there be problems that erupted.
One issue that I knew would come up almost immediately was the Council’s refusal to let the pastor be one of the three people who could sign checks on the bank account. The FFD by-laws require it but they felt they needed to “protect the church” from Pastor Bob, the new guy. I knew they would do that to me, too. When I told Pastor John about it, he instructed me to demand to be put on the account at the next meeting and inform them that it was not debatable. I knew that was going to irritate them; it was a direct challenge after all. But, I thought it would be interesting to see how they would respond.
Security is No Concern
Another issue that concerned me, regarding the council, was the poor attitude about the security and safety of the building. One of the members, Adam, had some strange reactions to things I brought up about that.
The front door lock was very difficult to unlock and open. It had been like that before I ever started attending there. It was very difficult to unlock. I had to tug and pull on the lock with the key in “just right” to get it to work. I’m trying to deal with that lock and bring in my guitar, a songbook and a Bible. That was especially frustrating when the wind was blowing and it was 10 degrees. I asked for it to be repaired. Adam said, “It’s been that way a long time. We don’t need to fix it.”
His next comments totally surprised me. “It’s actually better to have no lock on the door because people who want to get in will break the door and that will cost money to repair. If they want to get in they will find a way. Just let them get in, so they can get what they want and leave.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. No one else challenged his comments either. Now I had been involved with the inner workings of churches for 40 years. I never saw or heard anything like that.
In the church building were thousands of dollars worth of equipment that could be stolen. Vandalism of the property should also be a concern. Why would anyone on the Financial Council think they had no responsibility to keep the building secure? Considering the financial condition of the church there was certainly no money for repairs or replacement costs if anything happened. It was such a bizarre attitude.
During the week, one of the council members, who was becoming a personal friend, decided to fix the lock himself, which he successfully accomplished. The problem was solved but it sure made me wonder what kind of weird things were going to come up in the future. I was already stepping on the toes of some council members. I was starting to find out just how sensitive they were.
Lock the Office – Unlock the Fury
To make my appointment official at the church, the Firm Foundation denomination scheduled an installation service. My wife and I spent the week just prior to it reorganizing the offices, throwing out useless things and putting things in order. My background as a business administrator made me competent to see exactly what had to be done. Some serious changes were necessary.
I also did something that to me was critical since the first day I attended the church. I locked the office door so no one could go in there without authorization. The council members all had keys to the office, but the door was never secured. Since the office was in a location right next to an entrance that no one could see during a church activity, I knew it was a disaster waiting to happen. Even people off the street could walk in there and no one would know unless they happened to use the restrooms that were in the same hallway. The computers, the copier, and the church files could easily be compromised or stolen.
Adam and his wife Susan came into the building about 20 minutes before the start of the installation service. The first thing they did was make an attempt to go in the office. The door was locked. I was in the sanctuary so I didn’t see their reaction. Adam came to me and expressed his displeasure. The people who had already assembled for the service heard his anger and wondered what was happening. He told me that the office had never been locked before and that the “Board” didn’t authorize me to do it. He just could not understand that the Financial Council was not the Board of Directors for the church.
You’re Not the Pastor
Adam then declared that I was not the pastor of the church and could not just do what I wanted. In his mind, an interim pastor did nothing more than preaching on Sunday. He did not believe I had any authority to lead. However, the district leader, Pastor John, told me to function as the pastor of the church. The whole point of the installation service was to make it official until further notice. I tried to explain that to Adam before but he couldn’t process it.
Adam left his office key in his vehicle and didn’t want to go get it. I unlocked the door so he and his wife could get in. Then I went back to the sanctuary to finish preparations for the service. Just a few short minutes later Adam was back in my face again. His wife, Susan, was the church secretary and the Treasurer. She was extremely upset over the changes made to the offices.
Now Susan had very limited knowledge of the procedures and systems necessary to run an office. She had no bookkeeping skills either. She could write checks to pay bills but was incapable of creating the financial reports necessary for leaders to make decisions concerning the church. Susan was the wrong person for the job, but there wasn’t anyone else available. She was firmly entrenched in this “position”. She and her husband both enjoyed the perceived authority they had.
The By-laws of the Firm Faith Denomination clearly stated that the secretary served at the pleasure of the pastor. It would have been possible to release her from it and do things myself until someone else came along. But my desire was to work with her and teach her how to develop the skills she was lacking. As a volunteer, she was only there on Sunday and once a month for the Financial Council meeting. In my mind, the office was not her domain because she was rarely present. The changes I made were to create an environment that I could work in since I planned to be there almost every day. Well, Adam came out to the sanctuary again and told me the “Board” did not approve changes to the office. It was another power grab outside their authority.
Forsaking their Responsibilities
There’s another interesting twist to the story. Adam and Susan also had some other important responsibilities during the service. They operated the sound system, audio/video recording equipment, and the projector. The projector displayed the lyrics of the worship songs on a screen so the people could sing them. We were all grateful for their efforts.
A guest minister and his wife came to conduct the installation service. Some of my family members were there. It should have been a special time together. Instead, they abandoned their responsibilities and stormed out of the building because of what I had done leaving us without coverage for that equipment. Their actions revealed that they were not committed to the mission of the church, but only to their position.
They also managed to stir up some of the other council members on their way out. The full force of their fury was felt throughout the church that morning. Most people didn’t know what was going on but there was measurable tension in the air, which is a very poor atmosphere for something as important as an installation service.
A Controlling Spirit
All afternoon that day the phone lines were buzzing and the text messages flying between the council members. It was war. They were not going to tolerate these things. They called a meeting, even though they had no authority to do that. The by-laws grant that power to the pastor as president of the council. Pastor John, told me to go to the meeting, discuss the issues and preside over it. I thought that would be interesting because these folks had invented their whole concept of governance outside the framework of the denomination. They were struggling to maintain control.
One of the female council members had previously told me at a prayer meeting that she meant no offense to me but she liked it better when there was no pastor. As I thought about the situation I realized that the council didn’t want a pastor. They wanted a preacher they could control. I didn’t sign on for that.
Discussing the situation with two other pastors, including DL Pastor John, they both told me the same thing. “A controlling spirit” was active in the church. A demonic force was influencing some of the people leading the church. Its purpose was to hinder the development and mission of the church. There is only one solution for that. Submit to God. Resist the devil. He will run away (James 4:7). Demons have no power in that environment. But their desire to rule was stronger than the desire to yield to Him. There would be no deliverance from that spirit.
After pondering that situation for a couple of days and of course praying about it, too, I came to my senses and realized that this was not a God thing. He wasn’t calling me to violate my principles and participate in the weaknesses and hindrances of the denominational system. I knew that I would struggle in that kind of environment, but I compromised my beliefs thinking this situation would be different. It was different alright. It turned out to be much worse than I had imagined.
I Finally Made the Right Decision
I told one of Council members that I was not going to continue. After 3 days as the official interim pastor of the First Church of Many, I finally made the right decision and disconnected from the craziness. I didn’t need to subject myself to that stuff. I informed Pastor John of my decision and he was sad it didn’t work out. But he fully understood. He was aware of things that took place with the council when Pastor Bob served there. With a sense of relief, council member Adam called DL Pastor John and told him approving me had been a big mistake. The council members were glad that I left. I was very glad to be free. I had been saved from church.
During my follow up e-mail correspondence with Pastor John I made a recommendation that the denomination should close the church. I knew any other pastor would face the same problems and there was no indication the council would ever cooperate with anyone. Why subject a new pastor, who would probably be young, have a family and have to relocate to Mitchell, to such a contentious situation. Pastor John also contacted Pastor Bob, who was really enjoying his new position at the Minnesota church and asked for his thoughts about closing the church. Bob fully agreed that closure would be the best decision.
A couple of weeks later, Pastor John informed the Financial Council that representatives from the Firm Foundation denomination were coming to meet with them. As they gathered together the following week the FFD officials informed them that the denomination was closing the church immediately. The “controlling spirit” that ruled the church so freely was now dethroned. The church was dead.
The Truth Lies Below the Surface
The whole situation was so sad. The church facilities were really nice. There was so much room for future growth. On the surface, it appeared a small group of people in the church were very dedicated. However, in truth, under the surface was a darkness that would destroy them. They were a people desperate for power.
The denomination owned the property and all its contents. It was sad to see them empty the bank accounts and give away the equipment to other churches. The people of FCM sacrificed to pay for all those things over the years. They lost everything they worked for in just a week. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t like the whole concept of a denomination in the first place. The local church does all the work, pays all the bills and yet they own nothing. It just doesn’t seem right to me.
A couple of months later an independent church in the city made arrangements to rent the building. Since then they have grown numerically. They made some nice changes to the property. It is obvious that they feel happy and made a good move.
When I drove by the building in the weeks that followed I would think about what could have been. But, before my next breath, I immediately shook off that thought. Instead, I rejoiced in God’s grace. I was saved from church by His great grace. He rescued me just in time before I got into the mess any deeper.
Learning His Lessons
After going through this set of circumstances I knew God was working in me. Being the pastor of the First Church of Many was not His plan. However, I learned some valuable lessons from the experience. I am so grateful that He loves me enough to redirect me, rescue me, and discipline me. He is an awesome Father.
Let me summarize what I learned from this adventure. I’m praying it will be helpful to you. Carefully consider these points and ask Him how to apply them to your life.
- Don’t assume that because there is an open door God intends for you to walk through it. It might be a distraction from the devil or it could just be your own “great idea”.
- Resist compromising your principles in order to get something you think you want. I knew God did not call me to work in the denominational church structure. Somehow I thought that it would all work out, but God didn’t wire my brain to cope with that kind of environment.
- Do not pray halfheartedly for something because you really want to do it. Aggressively seeking God is so much more important than walking in your own desires.
- When you discover God is not behind your circumstances, avoid trying to force the bad thing to become a good thing. Recognize His absence and get out.
- Never be afraid to take a stand for what is right, no matter how people react.
- Stop trying to connect with institutional churches just to have something to do.
Unplugging from the System
Disconnecting from the institutional church was a big adjustment for me. My life had been part of it for decades. I know there are many good churches out there and a lot of good people, but the system does not work for me. Certainly, the experiences I had at the First Church of Many proved that beyond doubt. The things that happened “behind the curtain” at this church were not right. Jesus received no honor and the Kingdom of God did not benefit from any of it. If anything, those attitudes and behaviors hindered His work and proved there must be a major change in what we call “church”.
The institutional church system breeds this kind of activity. Being a corporate entity you have to have a board. Sometimes, many times, people in the church get power hungry and seek to dominate. So the environment becomes political. People begin to think more highly of themselves than they should (Romans 12:3). The quest for dominance can often destroy the Biblical mandate to make effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. How is this done? We must be completely humble, gentle, patient and bear with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2-3).
Then there is the need for property. You can’t be an institution without that. Many think you can’t be a church without it. You need a place to gather! So buying property, improving it, and repairing it becomes a priority. You also have to have insurance. There are utilities to pay for, equipment to maintain and usually salaries. It’s a giant whirlpool of needs that can suck a church down the drain or force it to compromise standards to attract people who will pay for it all. This is all such a distraction to the call we all have to be the Body of Christ in the earth.
So this situation strengthened my God-given resolve to leave the institutional church. You can find out even more about that here. I am not alone. Multitudes of people, including leaders, are leaving churches today because they are looking for more. They know what Jesus said He was going to build is far different than what they have seen or experienced. We are seeking genuine Christian community that compares with what is recorded in the New Testament of the Bible. You can learn more about this topic on this website and in the resources I recommend.
– Randy Hartwig
(c) 2017 Randy Hartwig Ministries