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Time after time, we hear of a pastor leaving his church (and, yes, it is always a he who does such a thing) to plant another congregation in the same neighborhood and, in the process, a significant percentage of the first congregation goes with him.

I am not referring to pastors that are sent out with the blessing of their congregations to plant new congregations in their communities. Many congregations have found that an effective strategy for extending the Gospel. Nor am I referring to pastors terminated by their congregations for standing up for the Gospel, such as Martin Luther, perhaps even Jonathan Edwards.

I am referring to the pastor who, without the support of the congregation and/or denomination, voluntarily decides to leave the congregation with whom he has promised to serve as pastor in order to start a new congregation in the very same community, and who, in the process, takes a significant percentage of the congregation with him. I am referring to the pastor who chooses a course of action that divides the very flock he was called to unite under the headship of Jesus Christ. 

Anyone familiar with Scripture wonders how such conduct has become commonplace in America. Do we need more references than Proverbs 6:16 & 19 where we read that there are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him, the seventh being a person who stirs up conflict in the community?

In the light of such behavior, I am wondering if it is time to include non-compete clauses in the calls issued by congregations to clergy. Clearly, biblical injunctions against sowing dissension don’t seem to deter divisive deeds. Plus, church discipline and denominational structures apparently lack what is necessary to keep these pastors from bludgeoning their congregations.

Maybe it is time to try a legal option—a non-compete agreement.

A non-compete agreement is a legal contract between two parties whereby one party agrees not to compete with the other for a period of time. It is designed to prevent someone who signed it from competing directly with or from working for a competitor.

Non-compete agreements are standard practice in the business world. Before beginning work with a company, many sales men and women are asked to sign a statement promising that they will not leave the company, with their clients, to start their own businesses. Similarly, when one person sells his or her company to another, the seller promises that, for a given number of years, he or she will not start a new business providing the same services as the business he or she sold. 

With respect to calling a pastor, then, a congregation could add a non-compete clause to the call letter. By accepting such a call, the pastor would enter a legal agreement with the church to not leave, without the congregation’s blessing, in order to start a new one in the neighborhood. If he does, he would be subject to prosecution.

Or, maybe, it is best to keep doing what we have been doing: lament such behavior, pray for those who practice it, let the Lord deal with them, and press on. Maybe that’s a better option than airing our dirty laundry in civic courts—which could be interpreted as just piling one sin on top of another.


Really?  Fear of competition is going to restrict what God may be doing?  Isn't there one God that we're working for?  Isn't there really only one church?  Let's get past ourselves and look to what God is about.  We are becoming more and more worldly in our approaches.  Let's seek first the kingdom.  If a church cannot remain viable because a neighbouring church is opening, then we have to wonder about the viability of the original church to begin with...

THanks for feedback, Tim.  I can see where my use of the non-compete clause led you to conclude that I was addressing competition between churches. Sorry about that.  My point, however, was not about competition and, therefore, I agree with your statement. We all need to keep our eye on the priize and seek first the kingdom.

My concern is with pastors who break their vows/promises and, in the process, divide congregations. (It is hard for me to see God at work in such behavior.) Plus, as you know, the unfortunate fruit of such actions is often divisions which, as Jesus warned, hinder, rather than advance the witness of Christ to the communities they seek to reach. 

Assuming this is not a joke, no we should not have pastors sign non-compete agreements.  This from a lawyer.

If we did, I doubt the courts of many (any) states would enforce them anyway, non-competes being disfavored by courts even in the business context.

I like the idea in many ways.  Ecclesiastical piracy is a problem in the United States (Canada too?).  However, I suppose that every pastor that splits a congregation in order to plant a "better" church will say "I'm just like Martin Luther!  Those curmudgeons and lagards in the old church were harming the gospel by insisting on their own way and threw me and others out!  Etc."  I can't imagine one saying "Well, the truth is, I'm an egomaniac and I can't stand dissent and I really, really, wanted to see a church bring the gospel the right way--MY WAY".  Can we discern the Martin Luthers from the Jim Jones'?  Maybe, but even if we could, what are our options?  I like your suggestion at the end, about prayer.  I would ad "warning" as well.  Even if we can't judge the pastors present in every church split, one day the Chief Shepherd will judge.  And woe to any of us pastors who have been "shepherding" out of our own needs and desires rather than those of Christ!  

Another thing we can do is with the help of the Candidacy Committee encourage the righteousness of candidates for ministry (and screen out those who how obvious tendencies to break up and dominate groups) and we could possibly help search committees develop some criteria to avoid calling "that kind of pastor".  

Thankfully, Christ still governs His church and those who lead from unholy motives will only get so far!  Thanks for the article!

It is not likely that the departing pastor woke up one day, and said to himself: "I think I'll start a new church down the street". If we want to be proactive about this problem, perhaps we have to look into new ways to mentor pastors, or recapture the intent behind an old concept: classical church visitation. Creating safe spaces for people to talk together may help prevent the sort of divorces of which you speak.

You are right on.  I just learned of a situation where a pastor spent six months working behind the back of the leadership on his departure. I concur that mentoring and visitation could help. Perhaps those practices could speak to the deceit and duplicity in the heart of those who sow dissension and divide the church. 

....or the visitors could listen to the pain felt by all parties involved, and encourage dialogue and mutual understanding,  which may, in the end, bear witness to the hope that is within us,  that reconciliation is possible, and love wins...

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