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How One Board Member Ended a Church

By Raul Rivera

After seven consecutive years of growth, the church finally hit the 500 mark. It wasn’t easy getting there. It took a little over 10 years to reach that milestone, and outgoing board member Kian Jones was there for all ten of those years.

Now that his employer was transferring him to another city, Kian felt it was in the best interest of the church to resign from his position on the board.

One of the remaining board members recommended James Phelan to fill the open position. James had an excellent reputation as a business leader and was favorably looked upon by the remaining board members, which made it an easy decision. Pastor Ryan Simmons was a little reluctant to vote yes. However, because of the numerous recommendations, he decided to go against the still small voice he heard in his heart and voted yes.

Easter Sunday and the day after

Easter Sunday services were the best the church had ever seen. Both services were filled to capacity with overflow seating set up all the way to the foyer, and there were 17 first-time confessions of faith in Christ. Pastor Ryan should have been on top of the world. But was he?

With the new board member in place, a special board meeting was called to celebrate his acceptance to the board and discuss the plans for the summer projects ahead. It was immediately noticeable that working with James might prove to be difficult.

Pastor Ryan was concerned that the unity of the board might be disturbed as James challenged and often pitted one board member against another in an attempt to persuade the board in a direction contrary to the vision and mission of the church. One issue was that James felt the church gave away too much money to missions.

Since day one, Pastor Ryan and the board had decided to designate 25% of all church income to support Christian missions at home and abroad. James, on the other hand, thought it was not in the best interest of the church.

Many churches today find themselves between a rock and a hard place as they deal with a divisive board member.

The beginning of the end

When used as God had intended, James had a powerful gift of persuasion. Over six months, James worked hard to win over two board members to his side, which Pastor Ryan knew would one day lead to a decisive showdown.

Pastor Ryan tried to lead the church while also dealing with a growing problem. He began to receive text messages and emails from James pressuring him in the “name of the Lord” to change the church’s policy of wasting the “people’s money” on things that did not benefit them. Pastor Ryan was dumbfounded.

How could a pastor be on top of the world one day, and just six months later have a knot in his stomach every time he thought about the church?

The showdown

It was a crisp Autumn Wednesday evening when the board met again. This time it was because James called a special meeting of the directors. On the agenda were missions giving and the church budget.

The air in the room was thick. Pastor Ryan and the other four board members sat uncomfortably as the meeting was called to order. Pastor Ryan led with a prayer and called the first item.

James immediately stated that missions giving was preventing the church from building up the savings needed to purchase land and build new facilities for the church. He brought attention to the fact that the church had given $251,000 to missions last year and was on track to give away nearly $300,000 in the current year.

Pastor Ryan pointed out that because of the church’s giving, 137 orphans in South America were well-fed each day, and numerous people in other countries were hearing the gospel and receiving discipleship.

Knowing that the conversation was going nowhere, James made a motion to dismiss Pastor Ryan from his position as pastor. After a brief silence, it was seconded by Gilbert, which forced the board to a vote. As the votes were cast, three voted to adopt the motion.

Pastor Ryan was dismissed from the very church he and his wife had started 10 and a half years ago. James had succeeded in convincing the two other board members in advance of the board meeting, that the church would be much further along, as well as better off if it focused more of its resources on buying land and building new facilities. He told them the youth group could have its own dedicated space and said a better children’s program could be the way to exponential growth.

The next eighteen months

Pastor Ryan was devastated. He was forced out of his church without knowing where to go or what to do next. What could Pastor Ryan have done to prevent being ousted from his church?

Later, I'll tell you more about him. Meanwhile, the church began the search for a new pastor, which proved to be significantly more difficult than James believed. Attendance immediately began to dwindle as many in the church believed Pastor Ryan was unjustly treated.

Each week the church became smaller and smaller. Even when a new pastor was found, the church continued its decline until the newly-found pastor decided to call it quits.

Exactly eighteen months to the day that Pastor Ryan was dismissed, the church shut its doors.

A situation like this one begs a critical question: What could Pastor Ryan have done to save his church?

Saving Pastor Ryan

Saving his church from a coup should have begun when the church started. 100% of the battle he faced was in the bylaws he had originally chosen to govern his church.

In fact, when I read and study cases like Pastor Ryan’s, the disputes and outcomes are nearly always resolved by what the bylaws say, or fail to say. In Pastor Ryan’s case, the church’s bylaws stated that a pastor could be removed by a majority vote of the board of directors.

When Pastor Ryan started his church, he did not know what he should have known. It did not seem important at the time to give so much consideration to the details in the bylaws because the attorney he used never mentioned any other alternatives and spent very little time discussing the details. This is very common in churches and even more common in non-church ministries.

How to avoid being voted out on a whim and maintain accountability

Tragically, there are untold numbers of churches in America whose bylaws do not give the pastor and founder real accountability. On the contrary, an equally disturbing tragedy is the score of pastors who do not have any protection from membership accusations or runaway boards. They serve their churches wholeheartedly, unaware that their bylaws are either silent on these matters, or that they dictate something that places their futures on the whims of their members or board.

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

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While voting memberships and boards may be a form of accountability, under which many churches have existed for years, after surveying many of these church types of governments, the list of injured and heartbroken pastors is endless. Let me give you four steps to take to “Save Pastor Ryan” while also keeping a great deal of accountability.

  1. Examine your bylaws. Many pastors and boards often go years without looking at their church’s bylaws. This usually results in the church engaging in practices that violate the bylaws. Look through them. What do they say about how the pastor is removed from office? In a previously written article, I fully detail how to take a bylaws audit journey.

  2. Create an accountability board. The accountability board is a special board created by the pastor in which he or she nominates three individuals who are neither members of the church nor of the church board. The nominees are usually ministers of other churches/ministries or individuals from which those ministries comprise their boards.

    The accountability board is not a board like the church board of directors (elders). They are not a part of the day-to-day activities of the church. They do not vote on church matters. Instead, they serve to give the pastor comfort, aide, counsel, correction, protection, and discipline. Their service to the pastor can come in the form of phone calls, visiting, vacations together, prayer times, and more. But the most valuable service they can render to the pastor and church is their availability and involvement should the pastor ever be accused of wrongdoing. 

    You see, under the accountability clause, neither the board nor the membership can discipline or remove the pastor. Instead, the board hears the accusations against the pastor and then votes on the merits of the accusations to decide if they will report it to the accountability board. If they are unanimous in their vote to report it to the accountability board, then the accountability board goes into session; they weigh out all the facts and circumstances and decide if the accusations are true along with what discipline is necessary.

 What makes the accountability board so powerful is that it strips the devil of his precise ability to divide and conquer. The accountability board has nothing to gain or lose except to know the truth.

  3. Amend your bylaws. Many churches amend their bylaws but often forget that amending the bylaws requires certain steps to be taken.

  4. Resubmit to the IRS. Once the bylaws are amended, the IRS requires that the changes be resubmitted as part of your 501(c)(3) process. This step is important because it ensures that your public record with the IRS is consistent with your church’s current organizational structure. Every year we help many churches with this process. We call it the reconsideration process, or the KeepRIGHT Service. Call us at 877-494-4655 if you want us to help you.

As a matter of due diligence, every church should review its bylaws annually and make sure they contain the latest provisions. All it takes is one provision or sentence change and it may save your whole ministry.

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Pastor Ryan Today

For the next three and a half years, Pastor Ryan worked for an insurance company in Indiana. Initially, the days were heavy. Attending church was hard and often led him to mourn the loss he had experienced. His dream was taken from him, and he had not seen it coming. 

Over time, Pastor Ryan found a way to assimilate with the next church he and his family chose to attend. Eventually, an opportunity came for him to start a new church in Indianapolis. This time he knew a little bit more about how to wisely set it up. He knew that a proper structure for his church would be a safe haven to run to whenever storms came.

After using our StartRIGHT Service, he made sure that the accountability board was a part of his bylaws. Today, they are a church of about 230 strong and growing. We can learn from Pastor Ryan that, “some things aren’t important until they’re important.” The problem is that we often learn too late that they are important.

If you want to strengthen your bylaws, or if you want to know more about how you can create an accountability board, I encourage you to call us today at 877-494-4655.

And receive Book 1 of our Grow Trilogy FREE today! This series gives you the strategies you need to get started growing your church plant today!