I'm so thankful that we live in an age in which churches are able to investigate the background of candidates for pastoral office so thoroughly. Churches can and regularly do perform criminal background investigations, credit investigations, driving investigations, and the thorough questioning of provided references. Here at First Baptist Church of Farmersville, when they called me nearly ten years ago, they asked my references to provide the names of people who knew me, and then asked those people to provide the names of people familiar with my ministry, going three levels deep to investigate my background.
What a great idea, since all pastors are not alike, and since there are some predators and bad apples out there who can do major damage to a church!
Some have suggested that the Southern Baptist Convention set up a database of sexual offenders in the pulpit, reacting, I'm sure, to the fact that the vast and rapid improvement in resources to investigate pastors still has not eradicated the problem of clergy abuse. What remains to be demonstrated is not that a problem still exists, but that any of the proposed solutions would actually accomplish more good than harm.
So, not all pastors are alike. But neither are all churches alike. I'm keenly aware of that fact, being blessed as I am. First Baptist Church of Farmersville, having been founded here in 1865, has never terminated a pastor and has never split. The congregation has faced good times and hard times, seasons of growth and seasons of challenge. We have weathered all of the storms of over 140 years and have done so, so far, without acting abusively toward those whom she has called to serve. Not every pastor, I have come to realize, enjoys the blessing of serving at a church like this one.
But the government does not maintain a database of abusive churches. No national bureaus report whether churches pay what they have promised to pay or deal fairly in their conduct of business or follow the rules of their own governing documents. Where do you turn when a Pastor Search Committee lies to you? Are you certain that the local Director of Missions will tell you the truth? Will he risk alienating a contributing church to give the honest truth to a rank stranger? Some will and do, and we all thank God for them. But sometimes pastors walk into abusive situations with no fair opportunity to learn all of the facts.
Here's hoping that the onward march of technology will result in some system that holds rogue congregations accountable for their actions. I would much rather that it be an informal system than a formal system. The staggering decline in the number of people interested in pastoring existing congregations is, to some degree, influenced by the abuses of these bad-apple congregations. There are fewer of them than we suspect, I am convinced, but the difficulty in identifying them poses a frightening prospect for pastors. The stories of pastors and their families brutalized by congregations may not outnumber the stories of good things done for pastors, but they certainly stick in the memory and move the heart. A great many pastors have had their zeal for ministry and their love of the church beaten out of them by cowardly bullies masquerading as Christians.
Ideally, churches and pastors should find one another in a free and open exchange of critical information. But it needs to be a two-way street. And it needs to be centered around the conviction that God brings pastors and churches together, and that He rewards the actions of anyone who deals honestly and justly in submission to His will and with respect for His children.