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.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • I was the target of a church coup back inn1989 when I was serving as a Director of Christian Education in Neenah, WI. Unbeknown to me it had been brewing for several years. When the pastor who started the church retired and a new Pastor came on board that’s when the coup took place. They gave me 6 months to find another position. Fortunately God was good and I was able to relocate with a month to spare and the house sold. Next stop was Omaha and it was a great place to raise a family and conduct ministry.
    Craig Mathews
    Bradenton FL

  • I’ve been through it. I stayed even after the coup participants threatened to embarrass my family from the church floor. It was the worst situation I have ever been through in 20 years of restorative church work. I think you get it right. I would like some evaluation on the issue of power shift in the congregation. I think power is identity and control – these are the two sides of the power coin. When power changes, identity or control, people respond emotionally – without rationale in many cases. I was a new pastor in, and very different from my predecessor.

  • Welcome to the fellowship. It’s tough. But don’t let yourself become cynical.

  • Lillian Carpenter says on

    It is also very sad when you see ex-church members or members who have chosen to go elsewhere try to destroy a pastor from the church they left because he made some very hard, unpopular, but necessary steps in leadership. The stories get changed, the yarns get wound, and like a slow bleed you see people try to destroy the pastor and the church family they left. When they leave the least they could do is just keep their mouths shut there are still people there who really care and love each other. They have already made it pretty clear they don’t care. My philosophy about leaving a church is the following: Doctrine is in error or there is something illegal or immoral going on that is not being dealt with. It isn’t about the rumor mill, the choir, the music style, the fellowships, the entertainment, the new bright and shiny, or staff members coming and/or going because it seems many times there are underlying reasons for people wanting to leave that they will not face up to themselves. It is heartbreaking to see this happen to your church family. Often the ones leaving say they felt betrayed, but you know the church family they left can feel the same way.

    • What gets me is, the same people will often pay a visit to your church after they’ve helped destroy it, and they’ll say things like, “Wow, the attendance here has really gone down, hasn’t it?” I always want to tell them, “Yep, and you deserve a lot of credit for it.”

    • Tom Brown says on

      Pretty much every word you have said are the same things I have thought or said over the past few years. A new pastor arrives and replaces a pastor who served the congregation for over 25 years. Certainly a transition issue for us (and the new pastor), but should not create the ugliness and profound lack of civility that was directed towards her. The dissenters finally leave, but they still must utter ugly, hateful comments towards her and those of us that remain. It’s not a wonder to me that those who are not in a relationship with God have serious doubts about the church and its ministry, and why discipleship is such a difficult part of ministry.

  • Budd Dunson says on

    Sometimes it is necessary to remove a pastor. I was a member of a growing church and after a certain point the pastors priorities got confused. He started missing services to attend sporting events, he continually needed more money, when he was probably exceeding 90% of the church members in income. Efforts to talk with him were rebuked. Finally the congregation left.
    So please dont make it always the lay persons fault and never the pastors

  • Generational sin seems like a common denominator in many of these coup attempts. When a church has had few if any long term pastorates (independent churches mostly) it’s like there is unconfessed sin somewhere. Prospective and perceptive candidates should be aware that “if they ate your predecessor, they’ll probably eat you as well.”

  • Patricia Pinfold says on

    I am all in favour of prayer ministry for the spiritual protection of leading ministers, their families and all ministry teams to be embedded in all Christian church cultures on a regular weekly and at times daily basis. We live in times of other competing Faiths and cultures. To keep our Christian voice visible we need to protect it.

  • yeah…no one told me about this “rite of initiation” when I signed up for this.

    • Lillian Carpenter says on

      Unfortunately there seems to the rite of initiation like you say, but there also seems to be a honeymoon period. But then if things get changed up – look out all over again. I am an observer and not the wife of a pastor.

  • Lee Cooper says on

    Yep, my church just concluded their coup yesterday, resign or get voted out by the remaining few… They already ran off all the others who desired to restore the church… including 2 couples that hard been there over 30 year’s each.

  • By the grace of God, I’ve never endured anything like that in my 25+ years of pastoring, but I know people who have. The question is, should the pastor fight it out, or should he simply exit graciously? I know that’s a complicated question, and once again, I highly recommend a book called “Leading Your Church Through Conflict and Resolution”, edited by Marshall Shelley, I especially recommend the chapter titled “Wars You Can’t Win”. The author gives some helpful insights on how to tell if your conflict is winnable. If it’s not, then it’s no disgrace for the pastor to cut his losses and get out. The author notes that these church wars can have a devastating impact on your marriage and family, and I agree with his assessment: that’s not a price I’m willing to pay.

  • I personally experienced much of what you mentioned in your article.
    The congregation where I served for nearly 3 decades severed ties with me after two young pastors teamed up against me and convinced the lay leaders that I am the problem.
    Almost halve the congregants left because of the way I was treated and the congregation still suffers today for lack of spiritual and biblical teaching.
    It was a hard blow to my self image. I think the wounds will heal eventually, but the scars remain.

  • Bullet point by bullet point, this happened to me. The only addition to this, was the coup leaders resurrected the church member rolls and called in members that haven’t attended in YEARS in order to vote me out. And it happened on Father’s Day 2018. The coup leaders had ‘guards’ at all the entrance doors and refused entrance into the church to anyone who wasn’t a member. My heart shattered, and I’ve been attempting to put the pieces back together ever since.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jim –

      I could have added your point. They coup architects often bring in people who have not attended the church in years.

    • Jim,

      I’m so very sorry. It is devastating, I know. I found my best solace and comfort in the psalms of lament, of which there are many. May the God of all comfort restore you to even greater depth and purpose. He will fulfill his purpose for you (Psalm 138:8).

    • I was the victim of a coup on the very same day, Jim. It happened in a church I had planted and had been leading for 30 years.