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

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Curtis Bond says on

    Good article. You are correct in that many coups are led by staff and church lay leaders. I have just experienced my second coup in 20+ years of ministry.

    My first coup occurred in 2007 in a 200+ member church. I was there three months when a small group of progressive leaders made their move. I was not progressive enough for them and they just did not want me there! It was ugly but I was fortunate to navigate the land mines until another church was found for me to pastor.

    I just experienced a second coup in a 500+ member church. I was finishing up my second year of pastoring. As far as I knew everything was good and running smoothly. I still do not know what the issues were, only I was told that “things” were just not working out. Although I am a member of a large denomination which has rules and procedures to address issues, my denomination did not stand behind me and allowed the perpetrators to succeed. My district superintendent said the leaders of the coup had no “real” complaints or substance behind wanting me gone. They just wanted me gone. Unfortunately he facilitated their wishes and out the door I went. After 20+ years of faithful service I was thrown out to the wolves with no denominational support. I lost my health insurance, additional pension credit and salary in one giant swoop with no parachute or soft place to land. Perhaps as a consolation prize I was given two small part-time churches to pastor. The prospects of pastoring another full time church is doubtful because I am close to retirement. Sadly in another two years I would have retired so now am scratching my head wondering what just happened?

    When the sparks start to fly you cannot count on any friends you have in the local church to come to your aid. You cannot count on your denomination’s leaders support either. A denominational hierarchy is more of a business model than a spiritual model (including the Catholic church). Their main concern is to keep the church pacified so the money keeps coming into the denomination. In my denomination there is a saying, “pastors are expendable, churches are not!” I know other pastors who experienced the same fate.

    As one church leader told me in my first coup (he supported me) “when you leave I still have to live with these people!” Perhaps this is how they justify their inaction and unwillingness to stand up to evil. I call it evil because those attacking the pastor have no fear of God and little if any spiritual concept of who and what a pastor is in a church. They have a secular model of we can hire and fire instead of God sends whom he has chosen. I know of no church that has recovered after a coup. Most are already on a downward spiritual spiral and are not spiritual enough to see what the consequences will be. When a church raises its hand against their pastor God is not pleased. Jesus said that if a church did not repent that he would remove their candlestick. The first church I experienced a coup in has dwindled to a small part time church. Before the coup it was a thriving vibrant church. It has been in a state of decline ever since.

    My experience in church coups tell me that the ringleaders work behind the scenes. You will not receive any advance warning of things to come. You will discover (after the coup begins) there were good people who knew what was being whispered and plotted yet these same good people failed to give you a heads up. As the saying goes, “all it takes for evil to succeed is to do nothing.” That is the sad reality of a church coup. DO NOT expect the cavalry to suddenly appear and rescue you. A church coup indicates the church is spiritually sick and is on a downward spiral. Satan has infiltrated the church and is devouring the flock.

    As pastor God wants you to stand fast and be a witness against them. Be brave and firm because God has your back. Don’t allow yourself to think these coup leaders are just misguided or don’t understand how things work. They will see your olive branch as a sign of weakness. These people are full of the devil. They will lie, misconstrue, slander, and even try to set you up. Put on the whole Armour of God and stand fast.

    If the coup is successful God has chosen you “as a lamb fit for sacrifice.” It is a high honor to be sacrificed on the alter of service for God. This does not negate the pain and the feelings of failure, but in time you will experience God’s blessings and the light of the glorious gospel will once again flood your soul and you will experience God’s grace in even greater ways. GOD HAS YOUR BACK. DO NOT PUT YOUR TRUST IN HUMANS! Humans fail, God never fails.

    I could write a book (as can many other pastors) on the dynamics of a church coup. The bottom line is simply when a church experiences a coup, it is in trouble. Only Satan would dare lift a hand against God’s chosen messenger. Finally if you are successful in putting down the coup you are now a wounded leader. The church is probably polarized and it is unlikely that you will be able to restore it to its former place. It is unlikely it will ever completely recover. I’m speaking from experience.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Wow. Thanks for sharing these painful experiences, Curtis.

    • Wow, Curtis! You have explored nearly every dynamic that is involved in a church coup and put it into proper perspective. Those who have suffered a coup have, indeed, been invited into the “fellowship of his sufferings.” Moving forward, you will “lead with a limp,” which, in itself is a grace to those that you will lead. Thanks for opening your life to others.

  • Excellent article, Thom, as always. I’ve seen this happen and talked to other pastors who have experienced it. Your points are spot on

  • Same here Lothar. Except it happened to me at the age of 56. I guess many of us still struggle with self esteem issues even as we grow older. Not certain there is ever an optimal time for this to happen to you. I find comfort in knowing that The Lord knew it would happen to us long before we accepted the call. I would love the opportunity to help pastors in Revovery when these types of things happen.

    • Scott,
      I made reaching out to wounded pastors part of my mission after it happened to me. One of the things I did not see mentioned is that when a pastor is under attack, most other pastors avoid him. Strange. Vocational ministry problems are not contagious but they are awkward.

      • Locky McNeill says on

        That is unfortunately very true based on my experience, even after many years of serving the other leaders in my town as the Pastors Leader. 50% turned either dismissive or in one case publicly maligned me to other leaders.
        I still live in the town but currently not in ministry as before.

  • Larry Teasley says on

    Thom, I’m a United Methodist pastor in Alabama. I’m asking for a new appointment this year, though I had not planned to do so. Based on your presentation, I think this has just happened to me. However, I’m not really concerned, I made the decision to ask for a change before the “coup” could be executed. And I’m good, because I know I will be leaving with integrity and with a reasonable record of accomplishments. Nonetheless, I think you are spot on with your observations. I also think that the financial blow brought to many churches because of Covid contributes (or as you say, exacerbates) the tension obviously and already present among the leadership. The pastor’s “absence” may be a perceived “absence” due to social distancing and fewer people returning to in person worship. Just my thoughts. Thanks for your keen insights.

    • See my reply above. I am a UMC pastor and it is sad to experience the pettiness and witness the carnality in church leaders. Although in their eyes they are more spiritual than you and know what is best for their church. God help them in their delusional thinking. Stay strong in the Lord. God will help you through it. Curtis Bond

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Great thoughts, Larry. Blessings on your new assignment.

  • I suppose I experienced a coup. As you say, each one is different. At the time, I did not have the emotional strength to endure the attack and, if I had, I’m not sure I could have withstood the vote. The previous pastor’s family was behind the coup I experienced.

    While I’ve mostly recovered after five years, it is sad to observe what has happened to the church. Your observations are correct. Most of the people were and remain confused. Many of the main perpetrators have left. And with those that remain, they are demonstrably unhappy with their new pastor. Five years later, they are less than half the size they where when I was the pastor. Their future looks dim for what was once an influential and thriving church.


  • Eric Morrison says on

    I have just been the victim of a church coup. I was not called back for another year in a business session where at least half or more were not aware of what was coming. I was told that I did not visit enough in this pandemic and was not listening to the advice of others. Unfortunately, the advice had come from a place of fear and not faith. My family is going to be fine. The Lord has already provided the perfect home. I am bi-vocational and my wife has a steady and well paying job. We are praying for the lord to provide us with another ministry. The church, however, is in a bad situation. Many are upset about my leaving. I am encouraging everyone to stay and support the church but the trust between members is badly damaged. When I came eight years ago, there were trust issues and these issues have never been resolved.

    I am 52 and this was my first pastorate. But I had been active in leadership in the church my entire adult life. I have learned two things worth sharing. First, God’s love never fails. I am called to preach the gospel to all and not tickle the ears of a few. Second, without strong spiritual lay leadership that seek the Lord first in prayer, the church will struggle to grow spiritually and numerically, regardless of the giftedness of the pastor. Please pray for Branon Friends Church, Yadkinville, NC.

  • Went through this almost exactly. It ended up decimating the forward motion we were having. It was my Worship leader and his wife and a new family that had started coming to our church. They had ended up with over 40 people all of the top givers of our Church.
    It hurt. The loss was worst than losing someone to death. I never thought our church would experience this, I was so naive.

    We have since recovered. We are still not as large as we were, (thanks to Covid) But we are healthy. Not all who go through such a thing will recover. I am a bulldog, I was not going to let this destroy our church and the purpose in which God has called us.

  • Steve Thompson says on

    The “Anatomy of A Church Coup” is an accurate reflection of what too often happens within churches. I did have a thought, though … Could this strategy for evil potentially help facilitate good? What if we utilized the “flow’ of the coup process to promote and usher into the church’s context something that is good for God and His Kingdom. Something to think about!

  • It happened to me. Half the church council, the church secretary and treasurer, as well as some other key leaders were in on it. They failed, and every single one of them either left the church or died within a year. It wreaked tremendous havoc on our congregation, and we have yet to recover. Thanks for sharing. I sometimes felt like I was the only one having to endure such a terrible thing.

  • Having had to help defend a pastor against a coup attempt, I would agree with all these points, especially #6. The church never really did recover from this, and is now selling its parsonage and vehicles in advance of a financial restructuring.

    Having said that, though, I have come to conclude over the past year that a pastor can lead a coup every bit as much as be the target of one.

  • Corey Sanders says on

    James 3:16

    For wherever there is jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry and selfish ambition), there will also be confusion (unrest, disharmony, rebellion) and all sorts of evil and vile practices.

  • When I was in my first church this happened to me. I still sometime have to sit and forgive them in prayer because something like that is a HUGE blow to your confidence, especially in your twenties in a small community. And yes, the one hurt the most were the lay leaders. Good article

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