Anatomy of a Church Coup

There is nothing new under the sun, including church coups.

The impetus behind this article is the greater frequency of the coups taking place. It is, I guess at least in part, yet another consequence of COVID. They have been around a long time; they are just more frequent now. 

For certain, no two coups are identical. Any type of examination or anatomy of a coup will always have exceptions and outliers. Our team at Church Answers has, however, seen patterns that are common to most coups. Here are some of the patterns: 

  •  The target is the pastor. Whether perceived or real, those engaged in the coup think they can do a better job than the pastor. If the pastor does not go along with their “suggestions,” the plan to remove him begins.
  • The coup participants are usually church staff and lay leaders. The staff often report directly to the pastor. They are convinced the pastor is bad for the church, and that they offer better solutions. The staff often collude with key leaders or a key leadership group like the personnel committee or selected deacons or elders.
  • The coup often includes contrived charges against the pastor. In fact, it is not unusual for the charges to be vague and purportedly confidential for the sake of the pastor’s family. The congregation is often confused and hurt when a coup takes place.
  • On several occasions, the coup begins in earnest when the pastor is gone for a while. The pastor may be taking an extended vacation or a few-months sabbatical. The coup participants seize upon the perceived power void and begin to make their moves. The pastor comes back shocked that a group in the church is trying to force him out.
  • About half the time, the coup succeeds and the pastor leaves. Many pastors know that, in a congregational vote, they would not be forced out. But many pastors don’t want to put themselves, their families, or their congregants through the ordeal of a no-confidence vote.
  • The church and the coup participants are often hurt the most. Some churches never recover from a pastoral coup. It is like they have an unrepentant sin among them, and the blessing of God is removed. It is not unusual for the coup participants to leave the church ultimately when they are not given the power they expect after the pastor leaves. The coup participants commonly then go to other churches where they wreak havoc again.
  • The majority of pastors will face an attempted coup at some point. My words are not meant to be fatalistic. It is simply the sad reality of congregations today. When the motive for being in ministry becomes power rather than service, there is clearly sin in the camp. 

For years, I have advocated that churches have prayer ministries specifically for their pastors. Your pastor is in a battle, a real and powerful spiritual battle. You as a church member can have a pivotal role in providing prayer cover for your pastor. 

Coups to oust a pastor are real and common.

Posted on February 21, 2021

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53 Comments

  • Shalom
    I am writing this to affirm Thom’s article. Feels like I am sharing the skeleton in the closet 🙂
    It has been over a year and we are still on the path to healing. The righteous rebels made their move right at the start of the various covid isolation recommendations. They made their move following my/deacon decision to shutter the church to help protect our largely senior membership. About 80% are in the at-risk group. Without going through all the details.
    • I chose to resign before the conflict peaked.
    • About 10 days later at a special called business meeting, the church confronted the rebels.
    • Because of the verbal and in the light opposition, those unhappy souls resigned at that meeting and left.
    • Denominational leadership was marginal at best and left the church confused. The recommended pulpit supply was not
    helpful. All this actually helped move the church to a greater position of faithful trust in God. Prayer increased and
    continues at an increased level.
    ( as an aside for those who count nickels and noses …our attendance crashed and offerings increased)
    • During this interim. I had contact only with Deacon Chair.
    • About a month later the Church renewed my call to ministry.
    • The post mortem has been painful yet revealing.
    • The double impact of coup and covid has left a scar on the faithful. It is difficult to identify markers of covid impact
    and/or coup impact.
    • Fiery darts are delivered via social media
    • All the signs of the coming storm were artfully concealed and the church felt betrayed.
    • Trust is the greatest relationship victim.
    • Attendance is returning to pre-covid levels (Florida 🙂 – Last Sunday highest attendance in a year with 8 guests)
    • Healing is slow
    • God is Good.

  • When this happens the ministry of the church comes to a grinding halt and takes years to repair. Everyone suffers!

  • I witnessed a blatant coup attempt my first year in seminary. What was normally a 1-hour annual parish meeting turned into a 5-hour shouting match where everything including the pastor’s pay was called into question. Three things I noted:
    1) There is usually a pretext, an issue that the malcontents can use to rally around; in this case, it was a decision on whether or not to install air conditioning in the nave.
    2) Denominations with hierarchies are not immune to parish coups; they can play out differently depending on the support one receives from his hierarchy, but they can still be just as effective in the long run. In this case, the congregation could not dismiss the pastor themselves but they caused all sorts of trouble for him with his bishop.
    3) Just as with any workplace conflict, even if one survives a coup attempt, it may be a signal that it’s time to start looking for an opportunity elsewhere. In this case, the parish and the pastor were just not a good fit for each other. The pastor lasted there about a year after the coup attempt and was transferred to another parish where he’s been happily for the last 15+ years.

  • Thom, you nailed it regarding church coups. One dimension in my experience is that the new, young guy on staff labeled my disagreement with how he thought I should run my ministries as “creating toxic conflict.” This was the catalyst that triggered every point you made in your blog.

    It’s been a struggle for me to find another ministry when those who participated in the coup are the same ones giving inaccurate and even vicious references. Any suggestions for people like me trying to move forward?

  • Bob Richter says on

    church coup article all too familiar.

  • Thom
    Thanks for highlighting this issue.
    Rose summarises Heifetz as follows:
    “We tend to look for leaders who will make hard and complex problems
    simple.
    We want things fixed (equilibrium).
    We want the leader to do the work.
    The problem is, only a few problems respond to this approach.
    Most problems require everyone’s work and change (adaptation).
    People resist adaptation because of the distress that the changes require.
    They resist the pain, the anxiety, and the conflict.
    They hold onto past assumptions, blame authority, scapegoat, externalize
    the enemy, deny the problem, jump to conclusions, and find distracting
    issues.
    These are work avoidance mechanisms.
    Solutions that quickly lower the threat, make people feel good, or jump to
    another problem are rarely adaptive.
    Stress leads to inappropriate strategies, such as:
    Focus on distracting issues more easily addressed to make people feel
    good,
    Scapegoat and fire the authorities we expected to solve things….
    Severe distress can make people cruel.
    Empathy, compassion, and flexibility of mind are often sacrificed to the
    desperate desire for order.
    Leaders are always failing somebody.
    Leaders and authority figures get attacked, dismissed, and even
    assassinated because they come to represent loss, real or perceived.”

    Sadly I think that sums it up.

  • Rev. Morris A. Scott, Esq., M.A. says on

    As usual, this is great stuff. I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of your podcast (Rainer on Leadership and others). Great rewards await you from the Master, for all the seeds you have planted in church leaders. May you never be discouraged! Blessings!

  • Locky McNeill says on

    Thanks so much for great little summary!
    As someone who lost my Church last year this is very real for me and my family. In hindsight we saw it brewing but it still took us by surprise especially from our team leading the charge. I have learnt many things about myself and leadership than needs growth along with recovery.
    Sadly this issue affects not just the leader but the entire family and beyond.

  • Thank you I was one that was taken over in my first year of Pastoring my church the same lady ran off thw Pastor before me and then she later left the church! So your facts reflect my story!

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