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Dealing with "Trojan Horse" Transfers

John Marshall Crowe, M. Div.,  D. Min.
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 168

An ancient story is told of the city of Troy being captured. One day the people of Troy saw a gigantic wooden horse outside their gates. Thinking that it was a gift, they brought it inside. That night, while everyone was sleeping, the soldiers hidden inside the wooden horse climbed out and defeated the city of Troy.
 
Sometimes, but not always, people who transfer into a church can be a "Trojan Horse Transfer" ("THT's") who will bring defeat into a church. Paul's warning to the Ephesian Elders of "ravenous wolves" may very well apply to pastoral ministry to THTs.
"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 19:28-30 NIV).
New Members: Not Always A Blessing
 
Often pastors and members expect new members to be helpful to their church. Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) speaks to this expectation not always being fulfilled by those who join a church by transferring from another church or denomination:

"New members, especially those transferring from other churches, often have personal agendas and preconceptions about the church…People who transfer their membership to [another] church carry cultural baggage from their previous church, and they may have certain expectations that [their new] church has no intention of fulfilling" (PDC, p. 92).

To allow anyone to join any Christian congregation without understanding its purpose is only asking for problems and conflict. New members who transfer to a new congregation may possess a different vision for ministry. Oftentimes they may involve the church in a power struggle. This means, as Rick Warren observed,
"the best time to discover anyone's conflict with this church's philosophy of ministry is before they join" (PDC, p. 93).
How to Spot Trojan Horse Transfers
 
Virtually every pastor has experienced THTs. A newly transferred member suddenly begins an effort to force the church and the pastor into his or her own selfish perception of what the ideal church and pastor should be. Beforehand, most church members and the pastor welcomes their leadership.
 
Like most THTs, they have been helpful to the church in some regards. However, when the THTs unveils themselves, people begin to question whether their motives are pure and Christian. Some begin to wonder if the THT's motives are not rooted in ignorance of church history and church growth principles. Such a perception of the THT increases as the THT  displays an arrogance that they--and they only--perceive God's will for the church.
 
As time passes on, it becomes apparent that THTs involvement with the church comes primarily from the basis of their own personal unhappiness and unmet needs, as they project their frustrations onto the church.
 
Initials Signs of THTs
 
1. THTs are masters of disguise who present themselves as very dedicated, active church   members who want to "help" this struggling church.
 
2. They hide among their "allies of opportunity." Theses "allies" are the congregational  powerbrokers and disgruntled past and future powerbrokers who become their friends and  support the hidden agendas of the THTs. This will often lead to their unquestioned nomination to a leadership position.
 
3. THTs spend much time "hanging around" the pastor, doing favors and ingratiating  themselves to the pastor as if this behavior somehow validates them as important persons.
 
4. THTs will request that the pastor push their favorite agenda or program. When the THTs request is either denied or put off, the THT's arrogant spirit rises to the surface.
 
5. THTs overly involve themselves in the activities of the church. Such super church   membership appears to be driven more out of personal pain than born out of love, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit. If they are married, there will be an obvious lack of   marital intimacy.
 
6. THTs may make incessant contact with the pastor with an inexhaustible listing of "great" ideas from their previous church. In extreme cases, some may contact the pastor and other members as many as 3-4 times per day.
 
7. THTs further reveal themselves by talking publicly and in church business meetings about their former church ad nauseum.
 
8. Listen carefully for THTs not seeing any problem with unacceptable church procedures. It may something as harmless as having one's membership in two churches at the same time. Or it may be something more serious such as denying--and defying-- denominational guidelines and mandates. THTs don't mind bending, breaking or making rules up as they go along. as needed to suit their agenda! Of course, anyone else who does the same is severely chastised for such "outrageous" conduct.
 
9. Watch for comments at church board meetings and other church functions that express a lack of respect for the pastor or appear to cast doubt upon the pastor being right for this church. This is a favorite tactic of THTs.
 
10. Pay close attention to a suspected THT's personal history. An important signal is that THT's have had membership in several different churches the same or different denominations in the same locale over the years. Listen especially for any disparaging remarks about their previous pastor(s) or pastors in general. The most aggressive THTs may also have a record of being in trouble with denominational executives.
.
11. Another favorite THT ploy includes disrespectfully ridiculing the denominational book of  church order. THTs may call it that "clergy union book" or an "antiquated document". Denominational staff may also "enjoy" the same disrespectful treatment.
 
Advanced Signs of THTs
 
1. THTs demand private meetings with the pastor to share concerns that sound more like   commands that the pastor do something about the "problem".
 
2. Having made friends of the church's powerbrokers, THTs express exaggerated "grave" concerns over the struggling finances or some other hot issue in the life of the congregation.
 
3. THTs use their elected office as platform to go beyond the boundaries of their office to instill fear in the church membership. It is a short step for the THTs to demand the removal of the pastor as the solution for that fear.
 
4. THTs then convince some naive church members that raising the "plea of poverty" and the idea of changing pastors or some other solution are legitimate issues. THTs play well into a church's current pain and anxiety over some past and current expense or experience.
 
5. Despite the best efforts of denominational executives and church development persons, THTs often lead a church on a continuing plunge into the business model of operation. Driven virtually exclusively by the "bottom line," they self-righteously sift through all means of reducing expenses to make the church run as cheaply as possible. Pastoral compensation, denominational support, and significant ministry items also fall under their budget axe.
 
6. If the church has never viewed the pastor as anything but their employee, the actions of these THTs make things worse. Their disrupting influence, based upon a business model, may lead a church to request removing the pastor immediately or drastically reducing the pastor's income to effect the pastor's resignation.
 
7. If the THTs fear-mongering influence is unsuccessful, they will personally share their anger with the pastor in a most explosive manner. When these threats don't work, they will raise the issue of lowering the pastor's salary again at the slightest hint of a decrease in the church's finances. This issue is often raised in the fall of the year after the summer slump in attendance produces low contributions.
 
8. If the church has a sizable amount of money stored away, THTs will want the money hidden or stashed away. When denominational executives seek support, THT's will answer with pleas of poverty.
 
Dealing With Full-Blown THTs
 
1. Get to know well the members who recently joined the church by letter of transfer under  the last pastor. These new members can be your greatest ministry assets or liabilities. Make your own assessment of the members who have transferred in regardless of your predecessor's recommendations. Each member has an unique personality chemistry with each of their pastors. The chemistry which your predecessor had with members may not be that you will experience with them.
 
2. Keep your ears open. Generally, people are consistent in their behaviors in and outside the church even when covered with a veneer of hypocrisy. Without prying, you may be surprised how much information you can glean from other people's observations. Skillful use of  interviewing techniques is extremely helpful. Remember, the best interviewers "play dumb"  and don't do all the talking. They just listen. Don't fill the silence...as tempting as it may be. Let others (like the THTs) fill the silence and, in so doing, give what may be necessary information to uphold the ministry.
 
3. Disciple a team that will resist such THTs and their allies from pushing the church all over the map. This happens by cultivating and deepening your strategic relationships with your staff, elected officers, and influencers. By continuing to grow in your relationship with each other, your church's team spirit can strengthen the bond of mutual respect and trust.
 
Accomplish this goal by increasing your efforts to help each staff person be effective in both their personal discipleship and in their public ministry. Give your elected officers more affirmation and spiritual nurture.
 
4. Listen more to the church's influencers, elected or not, who church members turn to for wisdom in making important decisions. Get them to talk about their vision for the church and how they want to work toward making it happen. Remind staff, elected officers and influencers of your common loyalty to Jesus Christ, His church, and the common core values and philosophy of ministry. Encourage them to continue to embrace those and adopt them for themselves and the church.
 
By taking this higher leadership profile, members will start seeing you lead from the higher ground. They will know your real life testimony of Christ, who you are, and what you stand for. When--and only when--you are certain that this bond of mutual respect and trust is strong can you challenge the THT most effectively.
 
5. Involve the church's staff, elected leadership and influencers in some leadership training  such as dealing with antagonists, effective assimilation, communication, healing those who hurt, etc. Studies of Biblical encounters with difficult people and situations (e.g. Acts, I Corinthians, Galatians, Jesus' Ministry, Revelation, et al.) can be informative and spiritually enlightening.
 
6. Judiciously share your observations of red flags with trusted members of your pastor-parish relations committee and administrative council's chairperson. Especially in the case of THTs with a track record, keep the District Superintendent or other helpful denominational executives informed as needed.
 
7. It is very important to keep a personal, confidential file of letters and documentation of the  THTs behavior over a period of time. Also, keep a record of your own behavior and the facts that pertain to events and issues related to THTs . This may include notations and journal entries. No one--repeat--no one except you and the Lord should know the existence of this. Keep it at home in an absolutely secure place. Guard it with your life.
 
8. Don't leave a paper trail. Letters, notes, etc. should be avoided. If a response is required, avoid attacks and specifics. Instead, indicate things which will help your position in the eyes of those with whom the THTs share the letter. Such things include: "I appreciate your concern in these matters...," "I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these further with you...," etc.
 
By all means, don't document your enmity or anything that can be used against you. Instead, document your pastoral approach. Be friendly, inviting and pastoral and in so doing you will heap coals on their head (Romans 12).
 
9. When such people insist on their own way, then for the good of the flock, telling them they will be happier in another church where they fit in better may be necessary. Considering how "important" to the church they feel they are, they will not easily leave. After all, it's the pastor that's the problem not them. Be aware, however, that these words directed to a THT will almost always boomerang. If done too quickly and indiscriminately, they can boomerang on the pastor.
 
The most common boomerang is the "victimization strategy." Common boomerangs include "Pastor is unfair," "The Pastor is kicking us out," "The pastor is a dictator who asks anyone to leave who disagrees with him," "The pastor is not Christian," "What kind of pastor is this who doesn't love the sheep," etc. are all typical THT responses.
 
THTs are skilled and devious in spreading these responses among the church membership. The resulting perception is that the THTs are the victims and the pastor is the antagonist. This happens even when the pastor suggests changing churches is suggested in the most gentle, evangelical manner. Such words are the equivalent of a challenge to battle for most THTs. It's dangerous--even for the bravest and most competent and most experienced pastor. This strategy can alienate the undecided members among the silent majority.
 
Being too impatient will work against you. Pastoral aggression, no matter how justified, is always risky and virtually never productive with a THT. Sometime confrontation, such as in clear-cut doctrinal errors, is unavoidable and necessary. In the majority of cases, however, it should be avoided. Such aggression may cost you valued support. It could mean termination of your ministry as well.
 
Patiently enduring the painful attacks gives time for God working in lay supporters to rise up and defend the pastoral cause. Don't fight the "holy war" by yourself. It's a church struggle; let those in the church defend the Lord's church. It will be a source of unparalleled joy to watch God raise positive supportive leaders from the most barren conflict-burned congregations.
 
10. Continually reinforce the church's mission. If the church lacks a clear vision and a sound identity, then develop one. The best means for doing this is to get an outside "prophet" or consultant. Don't unnecessarily make yourself the target. Denominational specialists and para-church consultants may add a legitimacy that the attacked pastor does not have. It also takes the pastor out of the limelight so that it won't be seen as just the "pastor's" program.
 
Of course, the workshop won't convince the THTs. It's not their agenda. But it will do at least three things.

* First, it will frustrate the THTs further as they are confronted with a truly biblical agenda contrary to their own. The more leaders they see taking hold of that biblical vision, the more frustrated--and desperate--they become.

* Second, it will energize others in the leadership to support the mission and the pastor who represents it. In the midst of a very conflicted, negative environment, the vision will be a light of hope toward which the leaders can aspire.

* Third, God may use it to teach the THTs the biblical vision. If they "take hold," it's a victory for the Kingdom. Unfortunately, such instances are rare. When THTs do take hold of the vision, often they do it for other more self-centered reasons.

 
11. Require a new member orientation series for all new members including transfers. Often THTs will resist any such innovations with responses such as, "But I've been a member of the denomination all my life. Why should I have to do it?" "I've never been forced to do that in another church, why here?" etc. The net result is that those who have a power agenda will generally be repulsed by this "requirement." Those, however, who really want to grow and make a positive difference will welcome the opportunity to grow and, in humility, learn how they can build the church. In this series include topics such as:
 
* The history of the church and its present vision for mission;
* A review of key doctrines (e.g. prayer, giving, how to study the Bible, etc);
* Overview of ministries and how to get involved;
* Involvement methodologies (e.g. Spiritual Gifts, assimilation strategies, et al);
* Introduction to key leaders (e.g. Chairpersons, Finance, Bible Study leaders,
auxiliaries, etc.);
* Information about various programs and procedures (e.g. how to give memorial gifts, how to put flowers on the altar, how to contact the pastor for ministry, etc.);
* Whom to turn to if there are questions, concerns or disagreement; and
* Other specific information helpful to promote the ministry of the church.
These new member orientations may be most effective when led by a team of trusted lay leaders who can give feedback to the pastor each week and help identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and potential problems. Since the lay leaders are face to face with the new members, this begins building necessary long-term pastoral support and awareness of new member strengths and weaknesses.
 
Explain in detail your and your church's vision of ministry with potential transfer members. Such pastoral teaching will not only reduce the probability of a Trojan transfer takeover attempt, but also help some people realize they will satisfy their personal taste and philosophy elsewhere. Of course, this strategy is not foolproof because they may comply since the THTs want initially to please the pastor and influence potential allies for their cause.
 
12. Be careful of new members who want to be your "friends." People who seek power for themselves do so by associating with the pastor with immediate, abnormal and enmeshed attachments. They will offer you gifts (read "bribes") such as lunch, special favors, etc. and shower you with attention, compliments, etc.
 
It is imperative that the pastor maintain healthy boundaries with all church members and especially with THTs. Avoid the dysfunctional enmeshment. Keep your principles. Don't reveal confidentialities even though they reveal them to you. It's a trap. Paul's advice to Timothy is excellent for this situation. "Guard your doctrine and life closely."
 
13. Spread the credit around. Celebrate the ministry of a wide variety of members in the congregation--not just a select few. Resist the temptation to be overly gracious or trusting of such people because they could or are already doing so much good for the church.
 
14. Pray daily for the THTs. Your heart needs to be "right before the Lord," empty of hostility toward that THT, and able to have a spiritual discernment about what is going on. THTs also need to learn what love and forgiveness are really about. Behind their controlling facade, they daily struggle with issues of inferiority, rejection, and self-esteem. They will, however, deny this and project these issues onto others, specifically pastors and any other leaders whom they target.
 
The bottom line is that they need your prayers. Pray that God would strengthen you and give you insight and discernment to minister to them in a patient, proper and loving manner.
 
15. Finally pray that through the pain that you may experience with THTs, God will transform the church into a healthier, more energetic Body of Christ which sees the great possibilities for ministry beyond the conflict. There is great opportunity for the church which is able to get beyond the THTs and experience the joy of a ministry vigorously aspiring in love and unity to the vision which Christ places before it. Pray daily for this blessing and watch God work through your church!
 
John Marshall Crowe
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:15 PM