What To Do, Pastor, When You’re the Victim of a Rumor

Sooner or later, you as a pastor will be the victim of a vicious rumor.
Sooner or later, you as a pastor will be the victim of a vicious rumor. (iStock photo)

In 1990, after a preacher had served only seven months and tore the church up twice, I arrived as the new pastor.

I was not the excited new kid on the block as with my previous moves. This was different.

I had endured a brutal three years in my former pastorate and thought perhaps the Lord wanted this broken church (to which I was coming) and this bruised pastor (moi!) to help one another heal.

Some years later, I learned a preacher in our area was telling people that I had torn up this church because of some serious immorality.

I sought him out and asked if he were really saying this.

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"Brother Joe, I got this from Pastor Runoff, the guy that preceded me in this church." His mentor and role model was gossiping.

He gave me the man's phone number and I caught him at his church in another state.

I said, "My friend, let me tell you what I am hearing. Years ago, after I had survived a difficult three years in a church in another state, God sent me here to help this church recover from a pastor whose immorality had damaged it severely. My first years in this church were some of the most difficult in my life. And now, I hear that you are telling people that I caused this church's problems, that I tore it up."

I said, "Is that true? You're telling people that?"

He was quiet.

I said,"My brother, I put up with years of harassment in this church trying to get it healthy again. And now you are accusing me of being its problem?"

Finally he said, "Brother Joe, I am as sorry as I can be. I hope you will forgive me."

I said, "I want you to call everyone you told that to and set them straight on it."

He assured me he had told only the one pastor, the young man who followed him. I had no reason to doubt that.

One day recently, while going through my journal of the 1990s—I wrote for a half hour each night for the full decade, eventually filling 46 hard-bound volumes—I found where my next door neighbor, a profane and angry man, had said that I had torn up this church by my immorality. Since it barely registered on my meter at the time, but evidently enough for me to note it in the journal, when that pastor began spreading the lie, I had not made the connection. However, my next-door neighbor and that pastor had grown up together as boyhood friends. So I know where it came from.

By this time, the neighbor had died. So, hopefully, that ended this matter.

Most lies and rumors are not that easily run down nor that quickly addressed.

Case in point.

In the late 1970s, my wife and I went through a year of marital counseling. This was a painful time for us both, and involved three hours of driving twice monthly for two-hour sessions with the counselor. Briefly, her expectations and mine regarding marriage were poles apart and we needed a friend to help us untangle 15 years of offenses, slights and misunderstandings.

In early 1981, at the encouragement of our church staff, Margaret and I took the entire Sunday evening worship service at First Baptist Church, Columbus, Mississippi, and told the story of our near-divorce and the hard work of reconciliation. It was a painful story, told to a packed-out house. I thought that was the end of it. But God had other plans.

That week, the Office of Communications with our denomination called from Nashville. "By an odd coincidence, a person from our office was in your church Sunday night and heard your testimony. We would like to send a reporter down to interview you and your wife and publish the story for Christian Home Week in early May."

I was hesitant. What preacher—particular in 1981 before news of marital problems among the clergy had become so commonplace—wants to tell such a story. When I called Margaret at home to get her thoughts, she said, "Oh good. I knew God was going to use this."

Gail Rothwell spent two days with us, interviewing, taking photos, etc. Her article was published in the SBC "Facts and Trends" in May, 1981, and ran in most of the state Baptist weeklies. Even some dailies such as the Houston Chronicle ran the story. Somewhere I still have a file with over 40 letters from people thanking us for telling the story, with two or three saying it saved their marriage.

Now, fast-forward a few years.

By then, we had moved to a church several states away. To our surprise, several members of the church were unhappy about us. To this day, I do not know what was going on with all of them. One of them, a dentist almost disbarred (I was told) because of dishonesty, began trying to dig up dirt on us in order to discredit us and drive us out.

Some who reads this will be surprised that church people could be so cruel. But they are there. Thankfully, they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by God's faithful, but even one or two can do great damage.

Soon a rumor began to circulate that "somewhere in their past, there was a newspaper article about a divorce and some kind of scandal involving Joe and Margaret."

It was just that nebulous.

The rumor circulated for months before I learned of it. As I began trying to trace it down, everything pointed back to the dishonest dentist.  When I called him, he gave me the name of a denominational worker in Memphis as his source. So I called him.

He said, "Joe, I simply told the man I did not know the details, but that the Baptist papers had written about your marital problems. That's all I said."

That was sufficient for a man with a mind set on mischief. There was no running down and ending such a rumor.

My mistake, I realized, was not telling the pastor search committee of that church of our year's counseling and the newspaper article from five years earlier. Honestly, I was hoping to put that behind us. It never occurred to me that someone would stoop so low as to use it against us.

I stayed at that church only three years. (It's the "difficult church" referred to in our first story above.) As I was leaving the church, I managed to ask a few members whom I thought of as our closest friends, "Had you heard the rumor about us being divorced?"

They each had. I said, "Why did you not ask me about it?"

To a person, they said, "I was afraid of your answer."

I said, "Margaret was 19 when we married and I was 22. When could we have divorced? Where is the logic in this?"

Rumors require no logic. They do not need to make sense. They do their wicked work like termites, eating away at the foundation of trust.

"Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers" (Eph. 4:29).

In the first story, the gossips were preachers. In the second, church members were the ones intent on undermining a pastor whom God had brought there.

I suspect neither group had a clue how seriously the Father in heaven takes such acts against His messengers. Such behavior makes me think such people are practical atheists. They believe in God in their theology, but not in their lives, not in their heart of hearts.

When you are the target of such rumors and gossip, servant of God, you do what you can to run it down and deal with it. Beyond that, you give it up to the Lord and leave it with Him. If you are brought down by innuendo and false testimony, remember, servant of the Lord: You are not the first.

"A disciple is not above his teacher; nor a servant above his master.... If they called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household?" (Matt. 10:24-25).

Be faithful, friend. Stand strong in the Lord.  Remember to love the culprits too. "Do good, bless, pray, and give to those who hate you, who curse you, who threaten you, etc." (Luke 6:27ff).

By doing so, you will heap coals of fire on their heads (Rom. 12:20).

After five years as director of missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, where he's working on three books, and he's trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way.

For the original article, visit joemckeever.com.

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