Friday, August 11, 2006


My fellow Nashvillians are by now familiar with the woes of our friends at Bellvue Community Church. For those unfamiliar, BCC is a local mega-church whose pastor was fired very suddenly several weeks ago (click here for the Tennessean story). I've tried very hard to avoid being judgmental of the church and the pastor, because no matter who is at fault, everybody loses by having their conflicts displayed very prominently in the media. But one thing about this incident has been really bugging me, so I need to speak up.

As part of the pastor's severance package with the church, he had to agree to a non-compete clause. Basically, he had to sign a legally binding document saying that he wouldn't go start another church for at least a year. Businesses use these kinds of things all the time and it makes sense for them. Businesses operate in a competitive marketplace where everyone assumes a limited amount of resources and a fixed client pool. I would argue, however, that this makes no sense for a church to operate this way.

Now, I'm not naive enough to just say "churches shouldn't compete with each other, we're all on the same team" and leave it there. I know that some people hop from church to church, attracted by the latest program or the Starbucks in the church lobby. It's an unfortunate fact of life that churches compete with one another, and the best I can do is not to obsess over defining who is "winning" the competition simply by numbers. After all, when it came to first-century messianic movements, Jesus' group was pretty small.

What bothers me about the non-compete clause is not the idea that churches compete with each other for members (that fact bothers me regardless), but that the church board felt that the pastor going off and starting a new church would be a threat to them. It makes me wonder what it was that drew people to this church in the first place. Each member has to answer that question for him or herself, of course, but if someone is more loyal to a particularly charismatic leader than they are to a church community, they have a real problem.

There are too many churches and other ministries that are more focused on following a particular leader than they are on worshiping God. I once met a woman who works for a Christian media-watchdog group who freely admitted that she was more committed to the leader of the ministry than she was to Jesus. I can't help but wonder how many mega-churches would fold the second their founding pastor left.

If the glue holding a church or a ministry together is the public persona of a particular leader, then you're putting all your eggs in one basket. If this person is found to be having an affair, is mismanaging their money, gets fired, or dies, the whole thing more or less falls apart. If, however, the glue that holds a church or ministry together is a bond between all the people in the community based on trust, affection, and a common devotion to Jesus Christ, then the comings and goings of individual leaders won't make or break the success of the community.

To his credit, the ousted pastor of BCC is encouraging his former parishioners to remain loyal to God and to the church, and not to him. I don't doubt his sincerity at all. But I wonder what will happen if he does end up starting a new church in the Nashville area. Then we'll see where people's loyalties lie.

Sidenote: The situation at BCC was part of a sermon on Christian unity I preached on August 6. You can find the audio of that message here, if you're so inclined.

1 comment:

Conrad said...

This is a great example of why I am a United Methodist. Our churches are not founded upon the pastor.

Admittedly, I have seen people join a UMC based on an individual pastor & leave when the pastor left, however, unlike the "non-denominational" churches, we know that our pastors will change every few years.

Although I have almost always missed my old pastor, I also look forward to getting a new one when the time comes.