For Those Who Still Want to Try the Church, Look For the Pastor Who is a Peacemaker and Leaves Love and Closure in His Wake

The question pops up from time to time. What would you look for in a church if you were going to try one? If I were going to try evangelicalism again it comes down to finding a church led by a pastor who is loving, humble and who is a peacemaker. To make my point while I have interacted with multiple pastors over the years there are three that stand out. R.T. Maldaner, Dale Harris and Eddie Cole. This is why I am saying this and what people should consider if they are going to try a church.

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

Albert Einstein 

“I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.”

Helen Keller

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9 NIV

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

R.T. Maldaner 

This blog writes often about issues and problems in evangelicalism. Not long ago I explained the reason why I have pushed back from evangelicalism in, “Reflecting on My Decision to Reject Evangelical Christianity. Its Too Corrupt, Political and Intellectually Shallow.”  One question that pops up from time to time when I speak with people is what would you look for when it comes to a church? If you were going to try an evangelical church what would you consider? For me it would come down to honesty, transparency but most important in my view is a commitment to love and being a peacemaker. One of the problems with evangelicalism in my view is that it often lacks love and the peacemakers are absent. Many churches and those in ministry can leave a lot of devastation in their wake. When a pastor is committed to peacemaking or has the integrity to speak out of love, in my view then you have the real deal. In my lifetime I have dealt with a lot of pastors form California to Wisconsin to the Washington, D.C. area. Let me explain three pastors who in my view have been solid, and what separates them from others. Its important to state not to put a person on a pedestal which evangelicals do frequently. That said there are a couple of good people out there who deserve credit. Its important to write posts like this so as to not be too jaded and offer another perspective. 

 

R.T. Maldaner at City of Joy in the Chicago area.

Considering R.T. Maldaner

When I started to write about the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal an interesting thing started to develop. I was interacting with a growing number of people and some of them asked me if I had spoken with R.T. Maldaner. A lot of people from Harvest left and ended up at R.T.’s City of Joy church. Before I even interacted with R.T. people told me of what happened with him inside Harvest Bible Chapel. He later explained some of it at Julie Roys Restore Chicago which I attended in November of 2019. R.T. saw the issues in Harvest and eventually reached out to Julie Roys at the time. He was upset when Luke MacDonald called Harvest Bible Chapel a family business. He and his family sadly suffered because of how the Harvest system operated. Julie Roys wrote about what R.T. went through in her World Magazine article called, “Hard times at Harvest.”  Despite the Harvest machine which this blog considers the Mars Hill of Chicago, R.T. created an environment that allowed people to leave Harvest at City of Joy.

At some point R.T. followed me on Twitter and we started to exchange communication. I found him to be loving, kind, full of energy and more after a couple of phone conversations. Even after the Harvest scandal City of Joy has had challenges. I know, I have heard about them. Some people left and went elsewhere. But even in a difficult season R.T. listened to people and did not act authorterian. He let people go even when it was frustrating. When I had lunch with him last November outside Chicago I was struck by his observations and what he had to say. He acknowledged the challenges that existed and how he was trying to move forward. There was no bad talk, just kind words to say even if R.T. was hurt. And I could see some of his frustration. Even in that season of City of Joy church R.T. showed his restraint and did not have anger. He did not try and pressure people to stay. His previous experience from Harvest taught him quite a but and he learned many lessons from it. And all this is why I have a deep amount of respect for R.T. Maldaner. In the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal by going against the grain out of love for people being hurt he took a stand. And after that season when he had another difficult season he responded with love and kindness. From my perspective that is rare and I have not encountered that very much. 

 

Dale Harris at the EFCA’s Range Community Bible Church in Hurley, Wisconsin 

Considering Dale Harris

Before the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal occurred as fate would have it I heard about Dale Harris. And for me it was another reminder as to how the world is both small and how evangelicalism is even smaller. Dale and I have a mutual friend who lives in the Kansas City, Missouri area and this mutual friend made a couple of comments about their time at Moody Bible together. At the time I didn’t think much of it. When the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal was raging I got an email from Dale. He was upset over what was going on with Harvest and wanted to tell his story and perspective of James MacDonald. When he learned that we had a mutual friend he felt much better about publishing. He worked on an article and conveyed to me in his communications his anxiety over how some people would react. How would his elders respond? How would people in his church respond? How would some of his friends respond? After all Dale went to Moody which had close ties to Harvest Bible Chapel. I gave him wide leverage to say what he wanted or did not want to say, as I respected this was a sensitive issue for him. He then published an article here which became one of the most read articles in the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal. You can read that in, “Guest Post: Dr. Dale Harris, A Former Harvest Bible Fellowship Pastor Shares His Experience With Harvest Chicago and his Thoughts on James MacDonald.”  That post was like a boulder in a pond in a disturbing scandal involving James MacDonald. After that was published Ryan Mahoney who James MacDonald went after in a lawsuit and who writes The Elephant’s Debt reached out to me and said that Dale Harris’ words would helpful to the ongoing scandal and was grateful that I published them. 

After that happened as the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal continued to rage Dale remained outspoken. He analyzed sermons, talks and provided community and was very prolific on Twitter. For speaking out against James MacDonald he also paid a price as well as some people unfriended him on social media or blocked him. When he told me that I was heartbroken. But in observing Dale Harris’ character in the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal I greatly admired him and have a growing respect. As time passed there were others things that I observed about Dale. One of them is his genuine concern for people. Not long ago I reached out to him and got a text in response. Someone that he was close to sadly committed suicide. It weighed heavily on him and I briefly heard the story. He loved and cared for his friend so much that even in difficult times he hung out with him and even went fishing which he was not into. I was touched when I heard this and I remember thinking to myself, “This is love.” When his church, Range Community Bible Church, was considering joining the EFCA he asked me on my impressions on the EFCA. How would I characterize the organization? What are its strengths and weaknesses? We chatted about it and I shared some stories and impressions based off of interacting with people in EFCA churches from California to Pennsylvania. During the decision making process I suggested he speak with Bill Kynes who is well known in the EFCA. You can read more about Bill in, “Bill Kynes From the EFCA’s Cornerstone Writes About Job at The Gospel Coalition.” When I approached Bill Kynes and explained to him that I was interacting with someone who was considering joining the EFCA, Bill reached out to Dale Harris and they talked about the theology and questions Dale had. After Dale realized that the EFCA was the best place for his church and his elders discussed it, it was decided that Range Community Bible Church should join. At the recent Forest Lakes District Conference in Wisconsin, Dale’s church was welcomed into the EFCA as one of the newest churches.  I still need to write about his church joining the EFCA. 

Dale Harris for me is someone that I have come to respect. His speaking out and challenging Harvest took courage. I remember working with him and thinking to myself “most pastors don’t call out corruption or issues in evangelicalism.” Dale was bold in doing so and he did it because he worried about people getting hurt. In my view he is a peacemaker, in that he knew justice needed to occur for those hurt from Harvest and that impressed me. He is also very loving and pastoral. And some of the stories I have heard have left me with a deep respect for him in how he tries to help and be with people in distress or suffering. For me Dale is one such example of a healthy pastor that a person should look for. 

 

Eddie Cole and his wife Jessica at the EFCA’s Salem Church in Staten Island, New York. 

Considering Eddie Cole

In the fall of 2015 this blog got a disturbing email from someone involved with a church called Community Evangelical Free Church of Elverson, Pennsylvania. That led to a phone call and I heard the dark story of Steve Estes church. The senior pastor’s son allegedly raped his wife while drunk and pointed a loaded gun at her. She knew should could be dead in the domestic abuse situation. When she filed for divorce the EFCA church practiced church discipline and considered the son of the senior pastor repentant. The church discipline of an alleged domestic abuse abuse victim who knows she could be dead split this small town about an hour outside Philadelphia. Since this blog writes about the EFCA I was approached and that was how I got involved in this story. You can read the original narrative in, “Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania: A Painful Story of Domestic Abuse, Inappropriate Church Discipline, and Failed EFCA Polity.” Meanwhile at the time the new EFCA District Superintendent for the Eastern District, Eddie Cole just came to the position from Salem Church in Staten Island, New York City. What started to happen is that people from Salem Church Googled Eddie and found this blog. I started to receive some emails from a few people who told me about how much they respected him. They told me that Eddie was a good guy and very pastoral. I was hearing this as the Community Evangelical Free Church scandal of Elverson was taking off. And I kept that in the back of my mind. Eddie Cole and the EFCA worked hard at trying to resolve the situation. Meanwhile I developed sources inside the EFCA to write about the situation and drilled down into the rogue EFCA church and was being provided some internal communications while I interacted with members and ex-members. One day I heard something about Eddie Cole that amazed me. Eddie Cole went to the house of a mother of an alleged sexual assault victim in the center of the story one morning and apologized. On behalf of him and the EFCA he was sorry for what this rogue church did to her daughter. I heard it was one of the most moving apologies that a person witnessed.  In addition it also lined up with what I was hearing from individuals from Salem Church in Staten Island. Some time after that one of my sources called me up and we chatted. She spoke about her discussion with Eddie and said, “Why don’t you call him?” To be honest I was not expecting to hear that at all. But I did call up Eddie and we briefly discussed this rogue EFCA church situation and he explained how congregationalism worked from his point of view. But the way Eddie responded to the Community Evangelical Free Church mess was helpful. For me it was interesting to watch people and talk with them on the phone to hear their view go from jaded to a more positive view of the EFCA. In traveling up and down the East Coast I heard Eddie preach at a couple of different churches with one being in Virginia and the other being in Pennsylvania. And having respected him him in how he tried to resolve this EFCA situation with Steve Estes as I interacted with more people my respect for him grew. One EFCA pastor told me that Eddie’s nickname in the Eastern District was “Bishop Eddie.”

But there is another thing Eddie did which was stunning and is rare in evangelicalism. Eddie reconciled with one of his former members from Salem Church. There was some unresolved conflict and Eddie sought out the person and he and his wife met with this couple. They talked over the conflict that existed and they worked it out. Eddie apologized and cared about what happened. I heard about it after it happened but I got another perspective while up in Staten Island last fall. The married couple took me out to a pizza place in Staten Island. And they talked about it in detail. This man’s wife told me over dinner as to how their marriage was healthier and more at peace because of the Cole’s forgiveness that took place. They explained to me how much they loved Eddie and for forgiveness helped them find peace. After the dinner I drove away back to my motel and I recall thinking to myself the following. Here I am I write this blog that looks at the problems of evangelicalism and how one of the biggest issues is that evangelicals don’t apologize. They don’t say they are sorry and try and help the person who was hurt. Instead they often walk away. And in contrast here was this pastor who did the very thing I criticize evangelicals for not doing. He apologized and sought forgiveness and help out this married couple and in the process again illustrated his heart and compassion. In my view Eddie Cole is a peacemaker and as a pastor one who I would deeply respect. Today Eddie Cole is higher up in the EFCA. But when I contemplate some of the stories heard this blog is grateful that he is under the President of the organization Kevin Kompelien. I wish there could be more Eddie Coles in evangelicalism, if there were I think it would be healthier. 

 

They Are the Exception and Not the Rule

For those who want to try the church I hope this gives you some ideas of what to look for in a pastor. The R.T. Maldaner’s are out there, the same is true with Dale Harris’ and the Eddie Coles. Here is the problem though. They are few and far between as they are the exception and not the rule. There is one other thing R.T. Maldaner and Dale Harris taught me. They both taught be that out of a corrupt evangelical machine there can be some good guys. Before Harvest Bible Chapel because of my mess with a former Sovereign Grace Ministry church and now Acts 29 church I immediately dismissed people coming from a like minded organization, and viewed them with suspicion. R.T. Maldaner and Dale Harris through their actions taught me how important it is to have an open mind and to realize there can be some good people caught up in a scandal on the inside. Both R.T. and Dale taught me the importance of seeking truth and not painting with too broad a brush. This was a good lesson for me to learn – and a needed one if I am going to be honest. So my advice to you is that if you want to try an evangelical church try one with an R.T. Maldaner, Dale Harris or Eddie Cole at the helm. While it may not be perfect it will also allow for humility, discussion and more. After all didn’t Jesus say on the sermon on the mount about blessed are the peacemakers? In many ways that is why I respect them as they are peacemakers in many ways in their own way. They have earned their trust and respect and that is why when they speak with me or more, its why I will accept and listen more closely. In my view they have proven themselves. But those are the people you should look for in my view.  The challenge is its hard to find them. 

 

7 thoughts on “For Those Who Still Want to Try the Church, Look For the Pastor Who is a Peacemaker and Leaves Love and Closure in His Wake

  1. Full disclosure, I’m the husband of the married couple who was able to reconcile with the Coles.

    While my experience may be anecdotal, I would assert that in my experience, the vast majority of pastors are indeed good ones who are peacemakers and genuinely God-fearing men & women who want the best for the congregations they serve.

    Most of the problem pastors are in the mega-churches, which, in my estimation, is a broken paradigm, a scourge on Christianity, and not even closely resembling the structures found in the book of Acts, many of which were small groups who cared for each other and often gathered in people’s homes.

    From what I’ve observed, I believe that most mega-church pastors started out with great and sincere intentions, but the human sin of pride can’t help but kick in once a church gets to a certain size. I could pontificate for many paragraphs about the reasons why and the ramifications, but I believe that once a church gets beyond 300-400 people, it needs to split into two churches, not a satellite that revolves around a larger orb, but two healthy independent church families that care for each other.

    Anyway, my point is that these small churches are actually the vast majority of churches, served by wonderful pastors. However, given the nature of this blog, Eagle ends up far more exposed to the mega-churches than the many small ones, thus, he has understandably come to the conclusion that pastors like Dr. Cole are the exception.

    I would humbly assert that it’s the opposite, and that the rogue prideful mega-church preachers are the exception — but sadly they get far more press and attention.

    Having said that, if I was looking for a church, I completely agree with Eagle on what to look for in a pastor. I just believe they’re easier to find than Eagle does.

    But what I would really look for moreso and put a bigger emphasis on is the size of the church. Rather than going for the hip happening super-large show, take a look at the small church that functions as a family, where each of them know each other and the pastor knows each family by name.

    The best pastors know you well during the good times, so that when the bad times hit, they know how to counsel you.

    I’ve been fortunate to have known a number of wonderful pastor-shepherds (not mere preachers) in my life, Dr. Cole among them. And I’m grateful for having known each of them. None are perfect; all human, but all faithful, and as one of my late pastor-mentors once counseled me: “I’d rather be faithful tham right.” I argued with him at the time, and only understood his wisdom way later.

    Eagle, I pray that you will find a good church family and a solid pastor-shepherd to serve and worship with. Regardless, don’t let the horizontal people affect your vertical relationship with the Lord. Keep after God, even if it’s a wrestling match at times.

    God bless you, my friend, you’ve been a tremendous life-giving force who loves and cares deeply for people, and I’m grateful to know you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have long believed that there is an optimum size range for a church congregation. Don’t know what it is, other than Mega/Gigachurches are too big and “twelve guys doing One True House Church in the living room” is too small.

      I suspect it has to do with the human “troop-size limit” of 100-150, the maximum size where you can see the people in it as individuals (and know something about them) instead of one collective mass. (If that 100-150 is households or families, that could push the upper limit to 500-700 individuals.)

      “Gigachurch — when Megachurch is too small for Head Pastor’s ego.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you are on the right track here. Lately I’ve been thinking about how church size interacts with covid, and how we can get the benefits of smaller church without losing the benefits of larger church. The benefits of larger churches are more funding for bigger charity projects and a larger mass of people, so you can find enough people with specific issues to have targeted support groups, like Celebrate Recovery or Grief Share; you have a larger pool of talent as well. If your church has a denomination, though, then through that you could do a bunch of the larger projects.

        I’m also a fan of Saturday night services, which are hard to do without a bigger pool of volunteers. Lots of people can’t make it to a Sunday morning service for various reasons.

        I was listening to a podcast by a church planter recently who was asking, why do we even have paid positions like worship pastor or youth pastor? These have only existed for a few decades. He is currently doing “table church” where you have 20-30 people over for dinner and do church together that way. Now that large gatherings are being frowned upon due to covid, that seems like a viable model. It also has the benefit that maybe you don’t have any paid staff at all, which eliminates a lot of issues.

        One of the risks of the many-small-churches model involves accurate teaching. It’s easier to accidentally fall into a wrong belief if nobody in your 30 person church has formal theological training. And on the flip side, if someone is a gifted teacher, it would be a shame if only 30 people get to hear them.

        One way to maybe reduce the pastoral pride problem is to have a teaching team of pastors without a “head pastor” in charge of everything.

        In a smaller church, I think you could still be at high risk for pastoral pride, because there are fewer pastors and you have a greater chance of one particularly talented person wearing many hats.

        Maybe the solution is for each pastor to have a jester follow them around making jokes at their expense. I may have found my ministry calling.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That 150 or so level beyond which yoU can’t see people as individuals makes a lot of sense. For a long time I was part of a church that hovered around that size. Sometimes it would get higher, and then something or other would always lead to the number being reduced again. At one point the church leadership began studying material specifically dealing with “breaking the 200 barrier,” which seemed to be the upper range at which a small/medium size church became a large church. It was some time ago, so my memory is a little fuzzy, but I specifically remember the mention that when you approached 200, you were getting beyond the point where everybody could know everybody, and so you had to be intentional at implementing programs or opportunities for people to be part of a smaller group where they could know everybody.

        Long story short, we never did break through the 200 barrier (in fact, the church ended up going through significant times of conflict, much of it self-inflicted, and it probably has 60 or so attenders these days). But it has stuck with me that perhaps there was a good reason that “200 barrier” seemed so difficult to naturally grow beyond, Perhaps going beyond that number disrupts the interpersonal dynamics that are an important part of being part of a church “family.” Perhaps that does argue strongly for planting a second church at that point, as ejj recommends. I tend to think it does. Right now I am attending a much larger church, but I am not connected at all, and I agree with most of the criticism leveled against the megachurches. To be honest, largely because of lingering hurt from the previous church, I am at the larger church precisely because it is so easy to remain an anonymous attender in the background, unnoticed and unrecognized. But I acknowledge that those are not good long-term reasons to be in a particular church. Short-term necessities, yes, but not long-term reasons.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. @Peter,

    I believe that the perceived “advantages” of a larger church are vastly outweighed by all the problems, many of which Eagle reports on well in this blog. 🙂

    While I understand your desire for it, I would maintain that the answer — for situations when a larger “pool of people” may be desirable for a particular community outreach project or creative (Christmas/Easter?) endeavor for instance — is for two or more churches to act in an ecumenical manner and work together for a common purpose for a time, or for a specific project. Perhaps in the context of a local disaster relief when something like a hurricane hits, or coming together to help a cause such as a local crisis pregnancy center, or for a children’s summer camp or youth basketball league, or such.

    This fosters local community involvement, interaction, and cooperation (rather than competing with each other), without all the baggage and pride that comes from the mega-show.

    Think about it.

    Like

    • Absolutely true; a local group of churches working together can definitely collaborate in these areas. And if you follow the “plant a new church at 300 people” model you’d probably have a network of churches with similar theology near each other anyway. Not that you need similar theology for most of these things. (If you’re WELS you do, lol.)

      One of the things that I like the most about my too-big-to-know-everyone church is that we have a ministry for almost every way that the church is supposed to minister to hurting people in the community. I don’t see any reason why a network of churches couldn’t do the same thing… but for some reason, I don’t think they have. Probably there is some territoriality going on there (“why should we fund something that’s going on at that other church?”)

      If you had 5 suburban churches of the same denomination all within a 20 minute drive of each other, people would probably gravitate to the one that had the best preaching. I think that’s what happened to the church I attended in college. A multi-site church can avoid that, but doesn’t avoid the pride issue that is the whole motivation behind keeping things small.

      I suspect, though, that even keeping churches small wouldn’t solve the pastoral pride issue. It might even exacerbate it, if there were a larger number of “head pastors”. I like the idea of not having a head pastor, and instead having a teaching team that you rotate between… which is easier to do with a bigger church. Maybe a smaller church could do that, if they were intentional about developing the teaching abilities of the elders.

      Like

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