Note: This article was originally published in Leadership Journal, Fall, 1987.

 

THE PASTOR AS LIGHTNING ROD

written by Dr. Richard Bergstrom
President, ChurchHealth

In Steamboat Springs, the small mountain resort where I live, the highest buildings have atop them a series of lightning rods. One such building is the Thunderhead Lodge, atop Mount Werner. The lodge serves as the upper terminal for the famed high-speed, eight-passenger Silver Bullet Gondola.

As I paced the parking lot outside the condominiums at the base of Mount Werner on August 11, 1986, I was sure I wouldn’t see the completion of the gondola, which was being installed over the summer. But that wasn’t the only thing I didn’t expect to see completed. Following just twenty-one months here, I had resigned my church and was planning to leave the ministry.

Now, just seven days away from pulling out of town in a moving van, I was struggling with a continuing sense of God’s call to reach this mountain community with the gospel. Following an hour of intensive prayer, I climbed the stairs back up to the condominium where my family and I were staying for our final week of ministry. I couldn’t help but notice an ominous electrical storm brewing over the nearby peaks. It reminded me of the stormy nature of my ministry as I had attempted to lead a historic congregation through a process of revitalization.

Two Stormy Years

I had arrived in Steamboat Springs in October 1984, just in time for the ninety-fifth annual meeting of the congregation. My ministry at Euzoa Bible Church began with an innocent-enough question: “What kind of church do you believe God wants you to become by the time you are 100 years old?”

Euzoa was a church poised for a giant leap forward. On the agenda that evening were two items of monumental significance: The continuation of the listing to sell the 93-year-old facility, and the implementation of a plan to revise the constitution and administrative structure of the church.

I knew there were inherent risks in any process of change, but for a couple of reasons, I believed Euzoa was ready for those changes. First, five years earlier the church had made the decision to relocate, had purchased property, and had deposited $50,000 in the bank toward that goal. Second, it had been studying the possibility of a major overhaul of its administrative structure for the previous three years. During my candidating visit, I clearly stated my agreement with these new directions. I came with the obvious assumption that I was to lead the church through these important transitions. I had no idea of the problems I would encounter along the way.

Our first priority was to rewrite the constitution and restructure the ministry of the church around a single board of elders. During the next eight months, our committee worked through six drafts of a document before we felt we had a finished product. We sought to bring all aspects of the ministry into accountability. We held open forums and attempted to incorporate every suggestion into the final document.

Nonetheless, in spite of our efforts to gather input from everyone, signs of opposition were growing by early summer. When the congregational meeting took place on July 31, a well-organized opposition party was ready to defeat the motion. An indecisive vote resulted in a six-week lesson in church politics. The battle lines were drawn. Only after an intensive campaign by the church leaders did the measure pass on September 8 by a 77 percent majority. Several families walked out, never to be seen in the church again.

Then, in the process of bringing all aspects of the ministry into accountability, I had uncovered an ugly embezzlement scheme on the part of the youth pastor (see LEADERSHIP, Winter 1987, “Stunned by an Inside Job”). At the anniversary of my first year of ministry in Steamboat Springs, I moderated the annual business meeting at which he confessed his crime. For the next eight months, we walked through a complex maze of legal, psychological, and spiritual ramifications.

By the time I left on vacation in June 1986, my youth pastor was behind bars, and I was exhausted. These events had caused me so much emotional upheaval that I didn’t know whether I could handle any more. The prospect of leading this church through an emotion-laden relocation seemed certain to finish me off. Rather than growing, the momentum to build was shrinking as discontented members removed their membership and their contributions.

The lightning rod atop Thunderhead Lodge seemed to symbolize my ministry up to that point. The role of a lightning rod is to protect a structure from major damage by taking the strike and diverting the voltage. During the last two years, I had taken a lot of voltage from other people. I didn’t know if I could handle any more.

I knew, of course, that taking direct hits comes with the territory in ministry. But by this point, I had decided I no longer wanted the territory. When we returned from our June vacation, I had decided to resign my church and leave the ministry, at least for a sabbatical. I submitted my resignation letter to the board on July 15. They reluctantly accepted it. I sensed a feeling of disappointment, even betrayal, for leaving them so soon.

The weeks that followed were the usual mixture of good-byes and garage sales. In spite of the pain I felt in leaving this unique place of ministry, I questioned whether I would ever take the voltage of ministry again. Going to bed that night of August 11, I was thinking the coming Sunday might be the last time I would ever preach.

A Bolt Out of the Midnight Blue

That night the clock on the sanctuary wall stopped dead at 11:36 P.M. Eyewitnesses reported later that a bolt of lightning had struck a transformer behind the Euzoa Bible Church. Fire marshals determined that the strike had produced a surge in the building’s outdated wiring, which in turn caused a fire to begin just below the steeple. By midnight, smoke was billowing out as fire raced through the roof. Firemen worked through the night. In the morning, however, it was painfully evident that this old, Gothic structure would not be a part of the church’s centennial celebration, just three years away.

My family and I had risen early on the morning of August 12, totally unaware of the fire that had razed the church. As we drove into town, a friend pulled up beside us and asked, “Have you been to the church? There’s been a fire!”

My wife and I were overcome with emotion as we walked into the fire-gutted sanctuary. “What do you want me to do, God?” I cried in confusion. We retreated into my smoky study for some prayer and reflection.

My wife and I quickly came to the same conclusion. As she said, “We can’t leave them now.” In those desperate moments, the Lord gave us Isaiah 61 to cling to: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me . . . to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion-to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes . . . and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. … They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”

We called for a meeting with the elders that night to discuss with them the developments of the previous twenty-four hours. I told them the nature of my struggle on the mountain the night before, and I offered to consider withdrawing my resignation. They unanimously voted to rescind the action by which they had accepted it less than a month earlier.

The moving van was to have arrived on Saturday. We called to cancel it. The word began to spread that we had decided to stay, and the affirmation was overwhelming. I realized then that by focusing on the discontented minority, I had become blinded to the support that existed for my ministry in Steamboat Springs.

The Sunday that was to have been my last in the pulpit at Euzoa Bible Church instead, in a sense, became my first. That day represented a whole new beginning not only for my ministry, but for the church as well. With no building in which to meet, we held a victory celebration under the tents that had been put up for Vacation Bible School on the new property. By the next Sunday, we were able to begin meeting in the local junior high school.

In the little more than a year since those events, the old church building has been sold (the new owner plans to convert it into a bed and breakfast inn), and the church is moving forward with its plans to build new facilities on the property overlooking the ski mountain. And I’ve found a new energy and ability to minister in this place.

This year has also been a time of reflecting on ministry, especially on the pastor’s role as a lightning rod and how to withstand the inevitable strikes.

Elements That Attract Lightning

Whenever a church moves through major changes, as we did, the pastor is going to be a conduit for criticism, whether or not he was responsible for the changes. And there are certain areas that tend to attract lightning, particularly in the early days of one’s ministry with a given church.

Sociology of ministry. There were a number of sociological pressures building in this mountain church, tensions of which I was unaware. Steamboat Springs is distinctively divided into two sections, “Old Town” and “The Mountain.” The church had not escaped that dichotomy. It was a classic example of what Lyle Schaller calls the “pioneers” and the “homesteaders.” Established families in the church were tied to the ranching and mining community going back several generations. But since the early seventies, the community had been invaded by business and professional people in search of a quality of life not found in the large cities.

The conflict between these two groups had reached a boiling point by the time I arrived. The church was on the verge of a major schism if some resolution wasn’t found. Some of the more progressive elements within the church were already playing with the idea of starting a new church if there weren’t some changes made soon, such as those proposed in the new constitution. But not everyone was in favor of restructuring the ministry.

In the summer of 1985, when we had prepared a revised draft of the constitution, I placed copies in the fellowship hall for members of the revision committee to pick up. As I rounded the corner one Sunday morning, I saw several of those who opposed the changes trying to confiscate copies of the document. Not wanting to have them warring over a preliminary version, I had to ask them to give the copies back. They did so, but not happily. That was our first clear sign of trouble.

Structure of ministry. The existing structure of this congregation placed me as pastor in the role of church moderator. As a result, I had to publicly represent all the issues that came before the church body for a vote. With its congregational polity, I in effect had to “sell” the ideas to the congregation. To many members, it appeared that all these “new ideas” were coming from the new pastor, even though they had been three to five years in the making. I was in the most visible and vulnerable role in the church. Thus, when people disagreed or felt uncomfortable with the changes, I became their target.

As I was moderating one of the meetings to discuss the constitutional changes, one of the elderly ladies said to me, “If you didn’t like our church the way it was, why did you accept the job?” I realized at that point that all this talk about “change” was beginning to intimidate some of the members.

Controversial issues. The issues I was asked to tackle in my first year of ministry were of a highly political nature. The constitutional changes represented a shift in power from the congregation to the elders. Many times I wished I had not been asked to handle such a controversial task in the early days of my ministry. I wished the lay leaders could have shielded me more in the decisions being made. In a nearly 100-year-old congregation, change does not come easily to many.

The discipline of the staff member who embezzled church funds further divided the congregation and resulted in several families leaving over the way it was handled. Some felt he should have been kept on staff. Others felt the matter should not have been reported to the district attorney’s office.

I had carried the matter single-handedly up to the point of his confession. I needed to learn to release the enormous burden of his discipline and share it with my board, but as his supervisor, it had been difficult to escape the role of disciplinarian.

The dispute got so bad that one young woman called and told me I was “Judas, turning Jesus over to the Romans.” Somehow the tables seemed turned on me. The woman’s family later came before the board to discuss their grievances. I had determined before the meeting that I would resign if I were made the goat in the matter, but the board took a strong position and backed me.

Leadership style. My predecessor had tended to many of the physical needs of the church building and parsonage. In the winter, for example, he would stoke the church’s coal-burning furnace every day and keep the walks clear of snow. I, on the other hand, had resisted such an all-inclusive job description. I told the board I didn’t want the position unless they were willing to make some changes. They did, but some members resented it because to them I appeared to be “above” such tasks. I realized later that the tradition of merging the tasks of ministry with those of maintenance went back several generations.

My direct role was more in the area of providing leadership for growth and change. I personally wrote the new constitution of the church. I preached on issues of church polity and leadership as we moved through the constitutional revision process. Thus, it became my product to represent and sell to the people. That high level of involvement, coupled with the structure of ministry described above, placed me in a highly visible and vulnerable role from the outset.

Passing Along the Voltage

After learning how these elements attract church lightning, I concluded that if my ministry were to be successful in the future, I would have to pass along some of the voltage rather than absorb it all myself. Here are three ways I discovered to help ground a ministry:

The first approach is structural, and within that area, I learned there are two important lessons.

-Share leadership with others. One of the major changes brought about by the revisions in our constitution was a genuine sharing of leadership authority and responsibility. Rather than have all program and people needs funnel through the pastoral staff, lay leaders carry much of the weight of the ministry. That also tends to disperse the voltage when lightning strikes. The pastor still functions as the primary spiritual leader, but with the support and backing of a group regarded as peers in ministry.

A staff member recently came to me with a request to open a charge account for gas for the church van. Whereas previously the church would have acknowledged the pastor’s right to authorize such action, I no longer own such a responsibility. I referred him to the elder over finance.

-Let lay people articulate changes and defend controversial decisions. The new constitution contained an important difference in the way in which business was conducted. Instead of the pastor serving as church moderator, now the chairman of the elder board directs congregational business meetings. This allows the pastor to step out of the role of spokesperson for the business of the church.

Recently, as vice-chairman of the building program, I found myself having to represent the new building program to the congregation because the chairman was out of town. I was reminded again of the volatile nature of such a role, as people expressed differences of opinion on everything from the rugs to the roof. I was able to deflect criticism and defer questions, however, as I recognized that this was not my project, but the church’s.

The second key lesson I learned was about the nature of personal trust and confidence. Having been at the church such a short time, I hadn’t had time to develop a relationship of trust and confidence with the people before attempting to introduce such dramatic changes and deal with such difficult issues. Terry Muck, in his book, When to Take a Risk, states, “The axiom proves true: Don’t make major changes in your first two years of ministry; establish trust first.”

One needs to learn that lightning tends to come in seasons in a ministry, just as it does in the Rocky Mountains. The first year or two of ministry is perhaps the most vulnerable time. With three years of ministry under my belt, I have a greater degree of credibility with my congregation. Tackling the same issues now would not be so destructive.

A third lesson I’ve learned has been in matters of personal style, and this has affected three specific areas.

-I’ve become more sensitive to personalities. It is almost impossible in less than two years of ministry in any given setting to know how people will react to different situations. In a previous ministry, I alienated an entire family by failing to thank publicly my volunteer secretary (who had told me she never wanted recognition from the pulpit) after two years of faithful service. My successor ran into the same problem with the same people two years later.

As pastors, we must realize that God has called us to minister even to those who are generating the voltage in our churches. And I’m learning the ability to read people’s feelings, not just their words.

-I’ve begun to discuss my burdens with the elders. An important element in my sense of satisfaction in ministry is the feeling that I am understood, at least by my primary leadership board.

During the early days in Steamboat Springs, I struggled immensely with feelings that were difficult to communicate. How could anyone understand the sense of alienation gripping me as we moved through the political process of the constitutional revision? How could I express the anger and disillusionment I felt in uncovering a major crime within the staff?

I have since discovered that I can put my observations as well as my emotional reactions in writing as a part of my monthly pastor’s report to the elders. Then, the board is aware and can address these matters openly with me and deal with problems before they reach crisis proportions.

Recently, I realized we didn’t have consensus within the church about whether we should build a multipurpose building or a sanctuary in the first phase of our building program. I shared in my report my concern for the church’s unity and its responsible stewardship of the Lord’s resources. That helped me to unload, and it brought the issue in writing before the board.

I am also careful to put in writing all areas of ministry in which I am involved or working presently. This helps the board understand the extent of my involvements and protects me from criticism for failing to communicate my priorities and goals for the ministry.

I’m growing better at handling criticism. A pastor friend puts it this way: “I keep two separate mental manila folders in which to file criticism: one for justified criticism and the other for unjustified. I read through and clean out the former periodically, the latter immediately.”

Admittedly, criticism doesn’t always fit neatly into one or the other category, but by not allowing a backlog of criticism to accumulate in our mental files, we are less likely to develop a negative perspective toward people.

In the final analysis, no matter how much we may want to avoid the lightning-rod syndrome, we cannot do so entirely. Anyone who seeks to lead the church in a bold and creative manner is going to be the target for a certain amount of lightning. By implementing some of these principles into my leadership style and ministry structure, though, I’ve found I can get others to share the voltage.

Thanks to a thunderstorm and aged wiring, I didn’t have to fight the relocation battle. On this issue, at least, I was spared the dangerous thunderbolts because the building itself became the lightning rod. Even though I’ve gained the capacity to handle more voltage, I’m glad the Lord decided to take the heat on that one.

Richard L. Bergstrom, D.Min.

Richard Bergstrom served as senior pastor of Euzoa Bible Church,
Steamboat Springs, Colorado from 1984-1988.
He is President of ChurchHealth and co-directs the ministry of Re-Ignite.
He has written several books and articles about ministry and leadership
©RichardBergstrom 1987
© Leadership Journal/CT 1987