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Failure and Loss (My Old Church in the NY Times) *UPDATED*

John on December 29, 2008 at 1:45 am

A couple years ago I wrote a series of sermons for my church titled “A Christian Reads the Newspaper.” The point of the series isn’t important, only something I recall about it. I wrote at the time that it’s hard to make the news. The higher you go up the news food chain the less chance you have of appearing there.

Unless, that is, you do something really awful.

Two days ago my old church made the news in a big way. Here’s the article from the NY Times titled Forclosures Don’t Spare the House of God. The article actually talks about the financial situation of churches in general, but there are two pictures of my old church. One shows the building where I used to work (which Scott and I also helped finance). The other shows a rather forlorn looking man who used to be my pastor and boss. Here’s the relevant portion of the article:

After years of renting makeshift quarters, Seabreeze Church finally bought a permanent home in 2004 — a five-acre former tennis club in a beachside Southern California town.

I was the person who led the search team for a year, though as it happens not the person who first learned the tennis club was for sale. It continues…

The price was high and the building plans ambitious, but Seabreeze secured a $5 million loan from a credit union that caters to evangelical churches and raised several million more. The congregation moved in last year, just as credit markets froze, and now the church finds itself struggling to pay its bills as weekly expenses outpace weekly giving.

I don’t know if the reporter who wrote this story really did much news gathering. We moved into the building in the Summer of 2007. The credit markets weren’t frozen then, but it hardly mattered. Between buying the property and building the first phase of the site plan, the church had about $8 million in debt. This is — or rather was — a congregation of about 850 on an average weekend. No one was going to give us more money, at least no one outside the church itself.

But the real gimmick in this paragraph is everything that goes unsaid. The senior pastor (forlorn man) spent four months at the end of 2007 talking about his authority. We heard about it at a men’s retreat, then in sermons, then in leadership meetings. He made it clear to everyone that he was the sole decision maker for the church. Then he preceded to fire the church secretary, the youth pastor and the worship pastor. I quit shortly thereafter. Others quit too. About 150 people left the church over the next three months. And, surprise, the church began to struggle financially.

If you were to make a graph of when the financial trouble started, it started the very week they announced that the worship pastor (full disclosure – my close friend) would not be returning. That was in January of 2008. Since then, the church has not met a monthly budget and only met the weekly budget a couple times. In short, the financial crisis at the church started long before the financial crisis that started grabbing headlines in October.

“We were kind of like that young married couple that really stretched for their first home,” said Bevan Unrau, the church’s senior pastor. “But I don’t think we’re completely unique.”

Yes, we stretched but we were making it okay…right until the firing spree. Not so much since then. But it’s not as if he can claim ignorance. I was one of probably a dozen people that begged the pastor not to do this and for exactly this reason. He was convinced it would all be okay. I think that’s called hubris.

The church reduced its monthly payments by switching to an interest-only mortgage with its lender, the Evangelical Christian Credit Union. Pastor Unrau and his staff now work out of home offices or the Sunday school classrooms instead of separate office space. Each week, he posts the church’s expenses and the amount of donations. Last week, giving totaled $14,066 and expenses were $29,693.

In other words, they had to let the lease on the offices the church had rented for years lapse. And for the record, that week was the lowest giving of the year. In fact, I’m fairly sure that’s the lowest in the last three years, and in December no less! This is a time when churches are usually well in the black.

Pastor Unrau said people at churches are sometimes not realistic enough in their thinking. “ ’Well, maybe God’s just going to make this go away,’ ” he said. “But, actually, we have a responsibility for the situation.”

That’s the end of the Times’ story, but it’s really a gloss on a much bigger story. This church’s failure has nothing to do with the financial situation the nation is in. It has everything to do with poor leadership. When the mass exodus began, the church blamed the music pastor first, then this blog…and now — all of a sudden — it’s the economy that’s to blame! Never at a loss for an excuse, these folks.

My favorite part by far is this: “WE have a responsibility…” Who is we? You made it clear that you and you alone were in charge, pastor. You and you alone made the decisions that put the church in jeopardy. Doesn’t that make you (and you alone) responsible? I kinda think it does.

Congratulations, pastor. It’s not an easy thing to get your picture in the NY Times…

Unless you do something really awful.

Addendum: The Orange County Register notes the Times story and adds:

A Huntington Beach church that celebrated its grand opening a few months ago was featured this past weekend in a New York Times story, “Foreclosures don’t spare the House of God,” about religious institutions facing financial hardships and trying to avoid foreclosure.

Again, the attempt to shift blame is just stunning. This is not about the weak economy. It just isn’t.


As usual, John did a great job expressing the truth and getting to the heart of the matter.  But there were a few other things that I wanted to add…

As mentioned by John, the senior pastor of our old church (the above mentioned “forlorn man”) spent MUCH time beating the church about its collective head with teachings on his authority, on submitting to his authority, on the importance of being loyal to the man God placed in the top leadership position of the church (him), etc.  We heard about this in sermons, at retreats, at budget/financial meetings and at meetings of the larger church “leadership” (which included anyone who was involved in active ministry).  It became apparent that he was laying the groundwork for big moves ahead, namely the firings John mentioned above (secretary, youth pastor, worship pastor, etc) as well as the systematic elimination of anyone from leadership that he deemed to be a threat.

The senior pastor was warned time and again about his course of action and was asked at times various questions based on the same theme – What if he was wrong in the choices he was making?  What if firing the worship pastor and/or the youth pastor were the wrong decisions.  What if the authoritarian and controlling manner in which he was treating the staff and church membership was wrong?

The pastor’s flippant response typically went something along the lines of – I guess we’ll know by who is blessed.  If the church continues to grow, then we’ll know that I made the right decisions.  If not, then I guess I wronged some good people.

Well, Pastor, judging by the dubious honor you hold of having your church’s dire financial straights (and your picture) splashed across the pages of the NY Times, can we make a pronouncement yet as to who is being blessed and who isn’t?  Can we extrapolate some conclusions as to how “right” your decisions have been over the last year or so?

Unfortunately, this pastor now seems to believe that he has found the perfect scapegoat for the debacle he has created at the church, which was entrusted, to his care by God.  The troubles at the church cannot be his fault.  It can’t be that he made a series of wrong decisions rooted in pride, arrogance and deep-rooted insecurities.  It must be something else like the economy.  THAT’S THE TICKET!  THE ECONOMY

When he began to make his move, the pastor made sure everyone knew that he was God’s man for the church, and thus his decisions must be God’s will for the church.  Anyone who disagreed was standing in God’s way and needed to “get off the bus” (the pastor’s analogy) in order to make way for God’s (the pastor’s) vision and to make room for new people who bought into that vision.  When his decisions created far more of a stir than he anticipated and when people began to voice their concerns and/or leave the church, he looked for somewhere to place the blame for the troubles and he found a group of people.  He called those people the “faction” (his word choice) who he claimed were more loyal to other staff members and to the church body than they were to him, and according to the pastor loyalty to him is EXTREMELY important and is a key criteria when selecting people for positions of church leadership.  The pastor called this group of people, this faction, the “chaff” and “dross” that God was removing from the church in order to move it to the next level.

When blaming “the faction” for the increasing troubles of the church wasn’t enough, he looked around and found a new target to blame – this blog.  He and his small group of leaders spent a CONSIDERABLE amount of time talking about the evils of this blog and how Verum Serum was created (according to them) for the sole purpose of bringing down the church and destroying the pastor.  (Forget the fact that the blog existed for more than two years before any of this started, or that the church has been discussed in only a few posts out of the thousands we have put up, and even then neither the church or the pastor was ever mentioned by name.)  Unfortunately, the pastor and his leaders got people at the church to believe what they were saying about the blog.  There were people, good people who John and I know and worshipped along side and served with, who never read this blog and never even tried to investigate what we were saying here, but who spent their time and energy telling anyone they knew to stay away from this blog because it was a tool of the devil (their words).  We were responsible for the mass exodus from the church.  We were responsible for the giving going into a tailspin.  We were responsible for the church’s decline in every way, shape and form.  We caused it all.

I know that John said this earlier, but I have to mention it again.  The church was fine financially until 12-16 months ago when the pastor kicked off his authoritarian reign of spiritual abuse into high gear.  18 months ago, the church had a solid and growing membership that backed the church financially.  People gave until it hurt, but they did so gladly.  Now the church is in a deep financial hole because most of those who gave and who supported the church left, and many (if not most) of those who stayed behind are wary of giving any more money to this man whose decision making is questionable.

The last line in the story, which is a quote from the pastor, stuns me every time I read it – “But, actually, we have a responsibility for the situation.”

NOW he uses the word “we.”  NOW he wants it to be “we have a responsibility.”  For months and months people were told that the church needed to follow HIS (the pastor’s) vision.  But when there was huge blowback against his decisions, he was all about blaming THEM (the disloyal, the faction, the dross/chaff, this blog).   Finally, when the church is hanging like a stone around his neck, he wants to take everyone down with him saying, “we have a responsibility.”

Well, pastor, this last 12 months or so have been all about you and your vision for the church.  Is this REALLY how you saw it playing out?  How much longer do you need to wait before you and your leaders begin to admit how wrong you were and begin to make things right with all the people you hurt?

FYI – Here is the letter I sent to the church leadership back in the summer.

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