For two brief years, I served as senior pastor of a megachurch. Then quickly, unexpectedly, and mercifully, it was over. This article tells my story.
Months before being appointed to the church, my bishop indicated it might happen. Their pastor, after a brief and difficult tenure, abruptly took a leave of absence, and I was the leading candidate to replace him. Several months later, the bishop made the final decision to send me. The decision brought mixed emotions.
On one hand, I loved my current appointment. During my decade-long tenure, the church grew into a large, vibrant and healthy congregation. I was content and in no hurry to move.
On the other hand, moving to the megachurch seemed like a good opportunity to grow and stretch myself vocationally. Although I had much to learn about leading a huge church, I felt I had the core skill set to thrive in that setting, so I accepted the appointment with gratitude and enthusiasm.
A difficult beginning
The first few days proved exciting. The church had an impressive facility, a massive budget, remarkable programs and ministries, a huge staff, and I even got a company car. However, my initial excitement was short-lived. By short, I mean less than one week.
Well over 3,000 people gathered for worship on my first Sunday. After being installed as the new senior pastor, I preached my first sermon on the “Great Commandment” to love God and neighbor. However, I did not preach from the pulpit.
This was nothing new. I had not used a pulpit in decades. Plus, the pulpit was massive. For me it was a communication killer, turning me into a talking head, high in the air, completely cut off from the congregation. I knew I could not be an effective preacher in that pulpit.
I vetted this decision in advance with more than 20 people, including large church pastors and respected leaders at the megachurch. All encouraged me to be myself and not use the pulpit, and they assured me the congregation would accept this. I happily agreed with their advice.
But we were all dead wrong. The congregation, at least a vocal minority of them, never would accept it.
Over the next few days, during my first week on the job, I received more than a dozen critical emails from the congregation over not using the pulpit. They said I had “banished God from the sanctuary,” that I was “a disgrace to the ministry,” that I “would not last a year,” and “we are going to get rid of you.”
As it turned out, this was a fairly minimal week of criticisms. Things got much worse in the weeks and months ahead.
“I wish I could tell you things got better, but that would not be the truth.”
After two weeks, I had received more than 20 critical letters on numerous fronts, so I met with key leaders of the church. I said, “In two weeks I’ve already received more critical letters than I did in 10 years at my last pastorate. Am I already in trouble here, or is this just the culture of the church?”
Regardless of their kind support, both of my concerns proved true. I was already in trouble, and this was the culture of the church, at least a vocal minority of them.
I wish I could tell you things got better, but that would not be the truth. For decades I loved my vocation as a minister of the gospel. I felt called and gifted for this work. On almost a daily basis, I felt overwhelming joy over the privilege of serving in pastoral ministry.
However, during my two years at this megachurch, joy was nowhere to be found. During a particularly bad week, I told a good friend, “I’d rather be a dogcatcher than the pastor of this church.”
A poor pastor-church match
Why did things go south so quickly? Not because it’s a bad church. In fact, the church is mostly full of fine people. Many complicated factors converged to make my experience there so painful. Perhaps the most significant contributor was a poor pastor-church match. For example, we were a bad match:
- Liturgically. I prefer worship that blends both traditional and contemporary elements of praising God. A significant percentage of the congregation wanted only high-church, traditional, liturgical worship. Although I made few changes to the order of worship, many feared I would alter their beloved liturgical traditions.
- Homiletically. I am a Fred Craddock disciple who preaches narrative, storytelling sermons. Many members of the congregation despised narrative sermons and let me know about it every Monday morning for two years.
- Theologically. I am theologically left of center. Most members at the church were theologically conservative, so many were suspicious of my theology.
- Politically. Although I keep partisan politics out of my work as a pastor, I’m a Democrat. Most members of my congregation were Republicans, many were Tea Party members, and some of them deeply resented that I was not a member of their political tribe.
- Economically. I work best in an economically diverse congregation. This church was overwhelmingly made up of exceptionally affluent people.
Other examples could be given, but the point is clear. This was not a good pastor-church match. That was not the church’s fault, nor was it my fault. It’s just the way it was.
However, a poor pastor-church match was only part of the problem. The sad truth is that the congregation included a group of people that, according to a retired pastor in the congregation, “were chronically unhappy and a cancer in the church.”
“These folks took criticism to an extreme sport.”
I soon learned that for decades, every senior pastor had mightily struggled in that role. One had to go back many years, when the church was far smaller, to find a happy pastorate.
Although this “chronically unhappy” group was a fairly small minority, they were powerful people who condemned me (and those who preceded me) relentlessly and without mercy. No doubt, I deserved some of the criticism. Serving as pastor of a megachurch for the first time brings a huge learning curve, and I certainly made mistakes. But these folks took criticism to an extreme sport.
Challenging megachurch dynamics
Other factors also affected my difficult experience, factors I assume are common with most megachurches. I’ll briefly mention four of them, what I call “The Four C’s.”
- Corporate. When you’re the pastor of a megachurch, you forfeit most of your pastoral identity. When I arrived at the church, I had to shift from a pastor to the CEO of a large religious corporation. The new role proved a difficult fit.
- Complex. In a church with many thousands of members, a multimillion-dollar budget, a huge staff and massive programs and ministries, complexity is the rule. Although I was familiar with systems theory, this was systems upon systems — on steroids!
- Conflict. Although all churches experience some degree of conflict, it’s the norm in a megachurch, even healthy ones. My congregation had at least a dozen different constituency groups, all with different agendas that often conflicted with one another. For example, we had groups in the church with polar opposite opinions on LGBTQ issues and Christian-Muslim relationships. Every day brought some degree of conflict.
- Criticism. As mentioned above, this was the most difficult dynamic. In my former pastorates, I had been mostly loved, appreciated and affirmed. So I was not prepared for the endless criticism that comes with the job of being a megachurch pastor. For two years, I rarely led a worship service, preached a sermon, wrote a newsletter article or led a meeting that was not severely criticized. One person even went after my wife. She received an anonymous letter saying her husband would die, leaving her emotionally and financially destitute. I have no idea if other megachurch pastors endure this much relentless criticism. My guess is that my previous church is somewhat atypical on this front. Still, in any huge congregation, constant criticism of the senior leader is inevitable, regardless of his or her skills.
In spite of all these challenges, I did my best to press forward and lean into the situation. We hired a topflight consultant to walk alongside us, we created an excellent senior staff team, we better aligned the staff, we put together a more efficient process of church governance, and we set core foundational principles and guidelines.
On top of that, we stopped the serious decline the church had experienced the previous three years. We began to slowly grow, giving increased, we paid our denominational support in full, and we attracted large numbers of new members. I also had strong support from many laypeople and staff members.
In spite of my struggles, which sometimes overwhelmed me, I felt we were making progress. As appointment decisions were being made for year three, our staff parish committee unanimously requested that I be reappointed, and I concurred. Although a large part of me wanted to quit, I believed it was in the best interest of the church to stay the course and press on.
However, unexpectedly, our new bishop decided it would be best for the church and me to make a pastoral change. So I was appointed to another large (but not a megachurch) congregation.
An unexpected ending
It’s hard to fully explain my feelings over that decision. On the one hand, I felt enormous relief. I was daily dying in that appointment — in every way. For two years, I had a knot in my gut 24/7, almost never got a good night’s sleep, and cried often. Being released from such pain was like getting a “get out of jail free” card.
“In the end, the bishop’s decision probably saved my life: emotionally, spiritually and maybe even physically.”
On the other hand, I felt overwhelming grief. All my dreams for that appointment were shattered. I felt like I had failed. I was embarrassed to face my peers. And while they were pagan concerns, I knew I would miss the status, staff resources and salary that come with being a megachurch pastor. But in the end, the bishop’s decision probably saved my life: emotionally, spiritually and maybe even physically.
I want to emphasize clearly that I do not condemn my previous church. Although a small but vocal group of abusive people made my life miserable for two years, the vast majority of the members are good folks who try their best to love God and neighbor. I wish the church nothing but good things in the future.
I also want to emphasize that I am not down on megachurches. Huge churches are able to do remarkable ministries that smaller churches cannot duplicate. In the overall life of the church, there is an important place for the megachurch.
I’d love to tell you that my experience had a happy ending, that I grew from the experience, and that I am a far better person and pastor for it. But I cannot say that with integrity. The hard truth is that my experience there had little redeeming value. If I could change one thing in my life, I would delete that miserable chapter from my story.
Given who I am, and who they are, and the small but powerful group of “chronically unhappy” people there, my appointment was doomed before I even arrived. I still carry wounds from the experience and will always have a scar. Sadly, I never recovered my vocational joy after that experience.
I’m also more cynical about institutional religion and my denomination. As a pastoral care expert told me, “It sounds like you leave this megachurch sadder but wiser.” I hope I’m wiser. I know I’m sadder, at least about the realities of congregational and denominational life.
When the news broke that I was departing, I received more than 500 letters and emails of love, support and appreciation from the congregation, which meant a lot. I also experienced God’s strength, presence and sustaining grace throughout those two awful years — mediated primarily through the love and support of close friends and a wonderful wife and family.
After leaving, I managed to press on fairly well, in spite of everything. After he heard about my departure, the previous pastor of the church, who also had a horrific experience there, wrote me and said, “There is life after _____ Church!” Thankfully, that proved true. It took a while, but life eventually became sweet again.
I’m not sure what the “takeaway” message of my story will be for you. If nothing else, I hope you found the story of an ex-megachurch pastor interesting. If I have any message to give pastors in my post-megachurch life, it’s to fully appreciate your current ministry and not be consumed with ambitious desire to go to a “bigger and better” church.
Sometimes bigger is just bigger. And sometimes bigger is just brutal. So my parting suggestion to you is to fully live out these words of Jeremiah in your current pastorate:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have called you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
Martin Thielen is a retired minister and writer. He’s the creator and author of www.DoubterParish.com.