I arrived at my new church as the AM. It wasn’t my first role in full time ministry; I had previous roles before. So, I had some experience. My areas of responsibility in my new church were the young adults evening congregation and the senior youth ministry (years 10 to 12). It was a big church with multiple congregations.
The church and ministries were discipleship focused and they had a good culture. The leadership teams were strong and there was a good history of training. I enjoyed working on the staff team and the SM was very supportive. He gave me lots of freedom to plan and run the ministries for which I was responsible. However, I knew before arriving that the SM was about to retire.
My wife and I formed some great relationships, and we began to really enjoy the ministries that we were running. We had managed to start up some new ministries that were running well. People were appreciative of what we were trying to do. We felt like there was a lot of opportunity to do some great gospel work.
A new Youth Minister was hired, and he took over all the youth ministry. I focused upon the evening congregation and I started to form a vision for what the next few years would hold. I started to get people on board and formulate a plan of how things would take shape. But during this the SM told me that he would be retiring at the end of the year. I was sad to hear this, but not surprised. I wasn’t sure what would come of my plans.
A new SM arrived in the parish and had similar theological convictions to the previous one. However, his style was very different, and I came to realise later that in some theological areas he was more radically conservative than what I originally thought. Very quickly he began to put his stamp on the parish. One area that he focused a lot upon was the evening congregation. He believed that the evening congregation was central to the health and growth of the parish and he wanted much more direct control and involvement in the evening congregation.
I encouraged this and we worked out the preaching calendar so that the new SM would be doing the bulk of the preaching including the congregational weekend away. Yet he wanted more control over the week-to-week running of the evening congregation. I noticed that he really wanted to be the central figure in the congregation to whom people would look to.
The SM started to meet with his staff several times throughout the week. He instituted a staff Bible study that went for an hour. However, it was less of a Bible study and more of a monologue from the SM about a passage from the Bible. There was little discussion. I felt like most of the staff was afraid of saying something that would disagree with the SM. There was another staff meeting that went for two hours to talk general business. Then each of the staff was to meet with the SM fortnightly one-on-one for an hour to discuss their area of ministry. In my meetings with the SM he would often instruct me on what he thought I should be doing with the evening congregation.
I noticed that the leadership style of the new SM was very different to the previous SM. I believed that the new SM’s leadership style was to exercise a strong level of authority and he sought to make the majority of decisions across the parish and in each of the congregations. He had a particular way of doing things that as a staff we were generally expected to follow and there was very little room for difference or disagreement.
My leadership style was different. I sought to train up lay people and form leadership teams allowing for discussion so that we could work together. The SM did not believe that this was a very effective model. During a car trip we took together one day he said to me that he thought the best leadership model was authoritarian and the other alternatives were not as effective. This is the model he established by trying to use the staff as the conduits through which his authority would be exercised. This I believe was one of the main reasons he instituted one-on-one meetings with the individual staff members.
This leadership style was also evident in his theology. He had very radically conservative theology which at times was quite black and white. He gave lots of time to teaching us. However, if we disagreed with his conclusions and tried to discuss the matter with him it would often devolve into an argument.
For example, during a staff meeting the SM had a disagreement with the Senior Assistant Minister over focusing on local mission compared to overseas mission. The SM thought that the Senior Assistant Minister was too focused on overseas mission. The SM was on the verge of yelling at the Senior Assistant Minister in the disagreement. It was a very uncomfortable moment.
This pattern would repeat itself in my own theological discussions with the SM. He would teach on a certain topic and for a few of them I disagreed with him. Some examples of things that he taught, with which I disagreed, were that children baptised as infants are automatically saved if they were to die; that the Lord’s Supper in Scripture is not commanded; that the Bible teaches limited atonement; and that remarriage for a divorced Christian is not possible. When I tried to discuss these disagreements with him, he would often become aggressive and would start arguing. I became very uncomfortable and backed right down.
The problem I found was not so much that we disagreed but what that meant for our relationship. I felt that it was not possible to disagree harmoniously. So, I decided fairly quickly that either I change my convictions and agree with him or I don’t say anything at all. I chose the latter. He noticed this and began to resent it. I believe that he thought I should just agree with him and he didn’t like that I wouldn’t. There was significant tension in our relationship, and he noticed I was more withdrawn.
We had a staff retreat where I presented my plans for the evening congregation. The SM largely passed over what I had presented. I had a feeling from that experience that he had a very different idea as to where he wanted the evening congregation to go. I decided to shelve my plans and let him make the decisions about where he wanted to take the evening congregation.
Another area of tension was around the number of hours’ staff were expected to work. The SM had very high expectations in this area. He would often work on his day off, and before coming to the parish in his previous role, over a 4-year period, he had never taken leave to go on holidays. His wife made it a condition of him coming to this church that he would take holidays. As a staff member I felt constant pressure that I needed to be working longer hours and I constantly felt that I was never quite matching up.
During one of our staff meetings there was tension over a particular issue. Afterwards he called me into his office and asked me to leave the church. He said to me that he wanted me to leave at the end of the year because he felt I was withdrawn from the church and that I wasn’t a very good leader, because I only influenced a few people rather than the whole congregation. I was shocked by this even though I knew our relationship was not in good shape. I was immediately concerned for my family because my wife was due to give birth in a couple of months. He went on to explain that he wasn’t very happy with the whole staff team. He thought it was a dysfunctional team and he confided in me that he was planning on asking another staff member to leave.
I was sent into an emotional tailspin because of what happened. I found it incredibly difficult to be at meetings where we were planning for the future when I knew that I was not wanted as a part of that future. At this stage I had no plans for my future and was trying to come to terms with what we were going to do with our family and our new baby longer term. I didn’t really know to whom I could turn.
As time progressed it became clear that the SM wanted me to hide that he had asked me to leave. He wanted me to find another job so that he could suggest to everyone that the reason I was leaving was because I had gotten another job. I told him that I wanted people to know that he had asked me to leave, because when I originally came, I gave the lay leaders of the evening congregation a commitment that I would be there for at least four years. I was only coming up to the end of my second year. When he discovered that I wanted to tell people this he became very angry and accused me of being unloving and uncaring towards him and the people of the church.
I wanted him to give me a written letter that said he had asked me to leave. I told him that my three-month notice period would begin at this point, which is a requirement under the Assistant Ministers Ordinance. He refused to do it on the first two occasions. On the third occasion I had to point out that doing this is a requirement under the National Employment Standards. He then sent me a very brief letter which still didn’t make clear that he had asked me to leave but implied that it was a decision we agreed to together.
I offered to have a farewell on a Sunday so that we could say goodbye to everyone in the church. I didn’t hear back from him for a number of weeks. On a Saturday he held a vision meeting for the parish where he spelled out how wonderful the future of the church would be and announced the appointment of a new staff member. This new staff member was to be my replacement, but this was not how it was announced. He then sent me an email saying that he was willing to hold my farewell the next Sunday. I felt manipulated by this because it looked like to us, he was trying to present the image of a wonderful future despite us leaving. I felt like he didn’t consider how this would make us feel. My wife was also deeply hurt at this point and was struggling to be at church. So, I refused to have a farewell on the following Sunday and I said that I would hold a number of small informal farewells with those that we were close to.
In God’s grace I managed to find another ministry role and a new home for my family to move into. I emailed the SM to ask for my MEA account to be paid out which had thousands of dollars in it. I didn’t receive a response for a week. So, I sent another email and again received no response. A number of weeks later I emailed a third time, asking for my Ministry Expense Account to be paid out. Again, I received no response. I decided to call the bishop who agreed to contact that parish. A couple of days later I was paid.
When we were forced to leave it left us in a lot of pain because we loved the people that we were ministering to and the ministry that we were doing. I didn’t end up just losing my job. We ended up losing our church family, our ministry, our home, our local community, our kid’s school and we didn’t know what was next.
About a year later I received a call from another staff member who was deeply distressed because he had been asked to leave by the SM in very similar circumstances. He confessed that if he stayed any longer, he felt that it would’ve put his marriage in jeopardy because of the expectations that were being placed upon him for the number of hours that he needed to work. But he believed the circumstances in which he was asked to leave were unfair. In the following years four more staff members left.