On the resignation of the Assemblies of God’s current superintendent, Rev. Thomas Trask, and the chaos that is in its wake. Wherein I opine on matters explicitly not my business.
I’d like to make it perfectly clear at the outset: I am not a credentialed Assemblies of God minister. I’m not a credentialed anything really. I’m blogging on this matter because it’s of interest to me as an Assemblies of God churchgoing Pentecostal who loves his Fellowship and because it’s also of interest to you, my faithful readers.
Oh, also because I tend blog on this sort of thing, and I promised you that I would.
What you are about to read (if you read it) is opinion mixed with some facts. I will try to source the facts where appropriate, and they’re a matter of easily findable record via Google and such. My opinion and and layman’s speculation, however, you can only find here. Well, elsewhere, too, but mostly here. Or, at least, officially here. If here can be in any way official.
I hope you find it an enjoyable, if lengthy, read. And I invite you to interact in the comments section.
According to the record set forth by fellow PneumaBlogger, Darren Rodgers at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage blog, Tom Trask first announced his intent to quit at 9:00 am on Tuesday, July 10, 2007. The audience was the General Council’s Board of Directors, which includes all the executive leadership at the A/G headquarters. Then, after all the staff had trickled back in from lunch, when sugar comas were well underway, and just before the early-birds left for more enjoyable after-work activities, Trask read a brief statement over the headquarters PA system. It was 2:30 pm. One HQ staffer wrote to me, “The day that Trask made the announcement over the loudspeaker of his retirement, the general reaction of my department was shock.” By 4:00 pm an email went out to the “AGMinister” newsletter. I got my first “heads up!” at 3:59 pm that day.
Within minutes the newsletter discussion groups I participate in were abuzz. I mean, literally abuzz. If you put your ear close to my laptop keyboard you could have heard it. Sure, maybe it was the noisy fan or the flickering monitor or maybe the coffee I spat when I read the email. But I like to think it was all the nervous, excited, and worried electrons my friends were firing back and forth. Within a few hours — before Tom Trask’s email had grown cold, before the troubled echoes in the carpeted halls of the Blue Vatican had faded away, even before the Gray Mecca’s ex-chef Stan Horton even had a chance to look up from his faded menus, names were already being tossed around for consideration, examination, and excoriation.
The first name I saw: executive presbyter John M. Palmer. What recommends him for the post? According to one list-member: “John Palmer teaches at Evangel — so at least he wouldn’t have to move.”
After that, the names flew fast and thick. So fast, and so thick, that I could hardly follow the discussion. But just as quick were inquiries from curious minds wanting to know the rationale for the resignation. Sure, Trask wrote in his announcement and has reiterated in subsequent interviews that he had been fasting and praying for several months, “seeking the Lord as to His will for my continuing to serve.” But, nooo, that’s not enough for some folks. This was the first query posted to the discussion group:
“One of you HQ guys reading this subscribe to the list under a pseudonym and tell what’s really going on!”
Guess what? That came from a credentialed minister. Somehow, Trask’s explanation didn’t satisfy at least one faithful servant of ministry. But that was just the beginning.…
Later, a former minister with the A/G (who no longer fears stepping on toes, apparently!) wrote that such a sudden and unprecedented acquittal of office demanded a clearer explanation than a vague displacement of motivation to “the will of God.” He wrote:
“In my opinion, whatever the political fallout, and I mean whatever, it is irresponsible to not disclose things fully in the light. Personally, I want answers. If it involves corruption, abuse of authority, illegal activities at the highest levels of the Assemblies of God government, I don’t care. I believe it to be a sin to hide accountability and silence the prophetic voices which call for righteous conduct toward others from religious leaders.”
Now, to be sure, this former A/G pastor feels victimized by how the executive leadership (specifically Trask, Crabtree, Bridges, and Wood) failed to properly handle a personality and authority issue that rapidly escalated into a terrible battle with allegations of death threats, potential law-suits, district and national leadership involvement (I’ve seen correspondence attesting to all of this). That fracas ended with a minister defrocked, abandoned by leadership, and a victim of the “tyranny of a centralized ecclesiastic government” (his words). (And this former pastor is apparently not alone in his experience. See how my defrocked friend’s former District Superintendent Saied Adour relates his own ousting and the reports of Trask’s personal involvement.)
This minister’s personal experience of a failure of authority at best (and an abuse of authority at worst) leads him now to question if there aren’t deeper issues at stake in Trask’s sudden and ill-timed resignation.
Personal Caveat Lector
While I’ve certainly seen documentation and accusations attesting to Trask’s (and others) abuse of authority and power, I have to remain agnostic about this because I am not a minister, I am not an employee of the General Council, I was not privy to Trask’s private announcement to the HQ Board, and I am not a close personal friend who calls our Supe “Tom.” I’ve never even been kissed or patted on the cheek. As one friend said, “I don’t have a dog in this hunt.” But having witnessed Trask in one public outburst of semi-anger and frustration I’m therefore not able to dismiss out of hand the claims that I’ve seen.
In Trask’s defense, I know many pastors whom I respect and who have worked closely with Trask who have nothing but praise for him — and who have nothing to gain for their praise. As Bob Braswell (a good friend who stood with me at my wedding who is now serving as missionary to Africa and previously served as special assistant to the executive director of DFM) relates:
“That man exemplifies a servant-leader who tried to follow his conscience in every situation … Trask’s vision was different. It’s the title of a book he did with Wayde Goodall called Back to the Altar — I don’t know if that communicates to our generation, but that was his vision.”
A call for Leadership Transparency
Please understand: I’m not asserting nor am I even implying that I believe some sort of ethical or moral wrongdoing is prompting Trask’s resignation. I truly believe if that were the case, it could not be hidden, and I don’t believe Trask would be so underhanded as to lie and claim God’s leadership if he were resigning due to some pending scandal. I reject that theory. I primarily bring up the defrocked ministers and their claims of abuse at the hands of authority because it seems they’re among the few that demand the same transparency from Trask that they offered him.
If the apostle Paul could model this kind of transparency (more on that below), and we expect our pastors and district leadership to answer difficult questions without appealing to private revelation, then it simply seems reasonable that the top leaders of our Fellowship should aspire to a similar standard.
I’d rather leave when they’re saying ‘why’ than saying ‘when.
And so, along with names tossed up for consideration, there came the inevitable discussion and speculation on true motives. Ministers and non-ministers alike were divided on the issue. Most held out that in the absence of any further explanation, it would be improper to question or speculate on Trask’s explanation beyond what he’s already, tersely, provided.
Others, however, argued that since this is the first time in the history of the Assemblies of God that the top officer of the Fellowship has vacated his position without a divine send-off (E. N. Bell and Wesley R. Steelberg both died in office) then a better explanation is in order — if only to demonstrate accountability and transparency.
Oh, and it’d be nice to simply quash pesky questions and speculation and put the kibosh on magnum e-cartas like this one.
The Sour Grapes of Wrath?
Before we dismiss our defrocked minister’s call for transparency as mere bitterness, recall that I first saw this question raised by a minister in good standing. Truly, we Pentecostals have a long history of alluding to, claiming, and sometimes abusing claims to special revelation when making difficult or unpopular decisions. (For example, why does God often seem to call pastors to larger churches with more generous compensation packages? It might be refreshing to hear a departing pastor actually admit, “Well, I’m leaving because you guys are cheap and my children need to eat.” But that’s a different blog entry.)
When Paul the Apostle Changed Course
But even Paul the Apostle, who had a better claim to special revelation than any of us do, made no secret about the developing plan that God was unfolding in his heart months before he stated that it was definitely God’s will that he go to Jerusalem. (See Acts 21.)
Paul’s decision to travel to Jerusalem — effectively resigning from his missionary journeys — started with a decision. But he didn’t just ponder it. He declared his intention to his traveling companions. Naturally, then, the issue was debated, discussed, and examined over several months. Opinions and emotions were laid out “through the Spirit.” And Agabus, a card-carrying, certified prophet, described what would happen to Paul, with encouragement to cease and desist!
Yet after all that public examination, after all the debate, after all the counsel, Paul remained firm: “When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’” People other than Paul were definitely hearing from God on the matter: the prophecies prove that. But it took the community of Paul’s fellow saints to discuss it with him before they all came to a settled understanding — and acceptance — of God’s will as it was first revealed to Paul.
Private Revelations Publicly Tested
My point in highlighting this one (of many) examples of God’s leadership through private revelation is simply to say that even when the Spirit compels us, and even when faith is required to obey, it would seem odd that the best course is to spring a last-minute surprise upon the people we’re ministering with. If it’s God, what he’s laying on our heart to do will be made clear, not only because (as is biblical) it will be confirmed by fellow saints but because private revelations must be tested and discerned publicly by fellow, Spirit-filled leaders.
How else do we “test the spirits?” (1 John 4:1)
But Trask’s sudden announcement surprised even those ministering closest to him — his traveling companions, if you will. The public announcement didn’t come after months of clarification and discernment with the executive leadership. It came suddenly and is a fait accompli.. Even James Bridges, one of the “fab four” leaders elected into office simultaneously with Trask in 1993, was taken unaware:
“Trask’s announcement was a surprise to Bridges, but he said he respects his friend’s decision.”
And it probably came as a surprise to John Bueno, too, (Executive director of the Assemblies of God World Missions), who delayed his retirement as a favor to Trask. According to one insider:
“Just six months ago, [Trask] all but begged John Bueno to stay on for two more years after John announced his retirement … and then came back with a reluctant announcement that he would stay. (John said that Trask had pressured him to stay because Trask didn’t want to have to deal with ‘new blood in that department’ in his last two years.)”
So, what happened four to six months ago to precipitate Trask’s fasting and praying in order to consider terminating his current journey?
The Pressure of Change and Relevance
“ …effectively bring about change in a culture that is changing constantly so that the church remains relevant to the need both here at home and worldwide.”
Coming a scant four weeks before a business meeting literally years in the planning this resignation certainly does introduce change.
“Question was raised concerning increased centralization of authority for providing for and changing Headquarters ministries and structures. Upon the adoption of the complete document, including amendments, General Superintendent Trask spoke to the delegates, assuring the intent is not to diminish the authority and rights of the Council. It is to provide the Fellowship with a viable constitution and bylaws, freeing it to address the needs the church will face as the new century dawns, to continue its service to and for the Fellowship.”
(From: “Revision of the General Council Constitution and Bylaws“, 1999)
In all fairness, Trask did effect a lot of change within the A/G, helping to position it for greater relevance and greater (possible) influence the best way he knew how. To do this, he successfully led efforts to marshall greater authority with the resident executives between executive presbyter meetings and between the less-frequent general presbyter meetings (for example, see the creation of the General Council Policy Manual resolution and revision to the Constitution and Bylaws passed in 1999). He led the “Vision for Transformation” reform, which is attempting to reorganize certain aspects of headquarters business for greater speed in responding to ministry demands. Under his watch the AG Loan Fund became the A/G Financial Solutions group, which he chairs and which currently has $2.5 billion in funds under management. He wiped out a $5 million deficit. He instituted or revitalized the Commission on Discipleship, currently chaired by Charles Crabtree, in an effort to examine and repair critical problems with our Fellowship’s discipleship failures. Under his watch, sovereign churches can once again credential ministers for local ministry (we used to have this in the form of “exhorter’s papers”). And under his watch women and minorities are invited to enjoy greater positions of influence.
What Kind of Change?
But some have criticized Trask for changes that may be detrimental to the future of the A/G. As one friend lamented:
“[Trask] has been possessed with gaining complete control and complete power since day one.”
When Margaret Poloma, church sociologist and historian, wrote her ground-breaking book, The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads, she noted that the A/G was heading toward increasing ossification and centralization. That we were well into moving away from our earliest days fires of revival and were turning from a cooperative fellowship of like-minded ministers into a centralized priestly class of bureaucracy. Unless the trend were addressed and reversed, the Assemblies of God would go the way of similar previous revivalistic movements: we would become respectable, mainlined, and institutionalized. And stagnant.
“Centralizing” power and authority in Springfield was probably not what Poloma had in mind as a way of reversing that trend. And that strategy has produced its own unique pressures, including the foretold stagnation (in America, at least).
Not Your Grandaddy’s Hierarchy
Note: The resolution linked to in this paragraph — without a hint of irony — re-defines “voluntary cooperative fellowship” as “voluntary obligatory cooperation and participation.” Know your terms!
What Poloma didn’t know back in the late 80′s has since become clear: the CEO-driven hierarchies of the 80′s and 90′s have flattened. Thanks to the Internet, postmodernism, and the Emergent conversation, what was once old (a voluntary cooperative fellowship of like-minded ministers banding together to escape ecclesiastical despotism) is becoming new once again.
And the pressure of the new is stressing the fault-lines in our CEO-driven model of ministry. It’s surely been stressing Trask, too.
The current crop young ministers and candidates for ministry in the A/G have been dyed in the wool on the flattened anti-hierarchical structures of the Internet age where respect is granted based on abilities, gifting, and real leadership skills rather than resumés, positions or titles. Leaving aside the theology of a flattened hierarchy, young ministers today (under 40, if you must draw a line somewhere) are heavily influenced by the Emergent conversation, Blackberrys, iPhones and iPods, prolific social networking technologies, instant and ready access via VOIP and IM and WiFi, loosely-joined networks of virtual relationships and short degrees of separation via networks like FaceBook, LinkedIN, and MySpace.
(Raise your hand if you have no idea what all that means. You’re not alone. And if the young guys keep fleeing we won’t have anybody to mentor you in the new culture!)
Young ministers like Mark Batterson, Paul Stewart, Brad Leach, Jeff Leake, Tory Farina, Bryan Koch, David Crosby, Jr. and Daniel McNaughton aren’t going to wait for the 50-and-older set to tell them who to follow after the General Council vote: they’re going to find out now who the best candidates are, what the top issues are, and what the larger A/G world is thinking without having anything filtered by headquarters. How, you ask, do they do this? Easy. Note: I stand corrected regarding the “I want to be George Wood when I grow up” FaceBook group. That group was actually created by Laura Wright because she simply loves George Wood (as do I!). She wrote: “I actually created the group back in April and it had nothing to do with the run for GS. I actually just liked the man when I met him in my Princeton days at the conference for A/G students at non-A/G seminaries. I also found groups entitled “AG Worldwide” annoying because they take themselves entirely too seriously.” They create a blog (FutureAG, AGLeadershipChange) or they set up whimsical FaceBook groups like “Eric Treuil for General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God,” “I want to be George Wood when I grow up,” or “Dan Morrison for General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God.”) and within days get thousands of unique visitors stopping by, hundreds of comments and contributions, and some interesting poll results.
At least these guys aren’t leaving: they’re trying to effect change by using the tools of influence and leadership (yes, leadership … using technology) they intuitively understand and have already mastered.
Meanwhile other frustrated young ministers are abandoning the Assemblies of God and have done so in reaction to this increasing trend toward centralization and denominational authority. As one young minister friend of mine from Michigan wrote:
“Under Trask’s leadership, there seems to have been more of an emphasis on building the Assemblies of God than the Kingdom of God — this is the primary reason I left the A/G. … [And] there are many other ministers and churches that have left the A/G under his leadership (even many larger churches).”
Pastor Phil Steiger, fellow PneumaBlogger, agrees:
“[T]here is change brewing in the Assemblies of God, and … there are a lot of people, especially younger ministers, who are wrestling with what it means to be part of this denomination.”
So, while the A/G and its current crop of leaders — with Trask at the helm — has become more bureaucratized (despite the Vision for Transformation) and hierarchical, the culture at-large has flattened. Because of this “authority vs. leadership” gap (or “driven vs. drawn,” if you prefer) some of our younger ministers are feeling left out in the cold, abandoned, ignored and, in some cases, ostracized because they have challenged the hierarchy or simply don’t get it.
What’s ironic is that this leadership-style chasm is not primarily driven by age. This becomes clear when elder ministry leaders of super-mega-churches like Maury Davis and his mentor J. Don George start weighing in on personal weblogs while the A/G headquarters doesn’t even offer one itself … well, it becomes clear that it’s a “paradigm” thing, not an age thing.
Change Is for the Young and Nimble
And so maybe, just maybe, Trask is feeling the pressure of this cultural gap — acutely. He is, after all, a self-confessed advocate for change and he’s admitted publicly that his effectiveness may be on the wane:
“I’ve watched men want to hold positions and offices and their effectiveness has waned … I don’t want that for this church. I’d rather leave when they’re saying ‘why’ than saying ‘when.’”
That same article mentions that Trask had recently gone on what must have been an exhausting tour, “conducting five Young Ministry Forums across the country where he has heard about the needs of the generation.” One commenter on a newsgroup noted that her pastor had been working with Trask on this task and that:
“[He] was working hard to understand, find out why and keep our fellowship’s younger pastors and preachers from leaving the A/G.”
And what did Trask conclude at the end of conducting these fora?
“It was enlightening. … For the church to be effective, it has to be willing to change.”
It seems likely to me that this resignation may have been partly catalyzed by this disappointing realization. Rather than just a “Back to the Altar” program for the man- and woman-in-the-pew, perhaps Trask is realizing that the church’s leadership itself needs to alter in some fundamental way. It wouldn’t seem to be a stretch to me that the Holy Spirit used these Young Minister fora to help Trask realize this epiphany. And perhaps, too, the timing for this leadership shift is perfect and perfectly divine. George Wood’s term is up. Charles Crabtree has announced his retirement. Bridges has been rumored to be considering retirement. And John Bueno was pulled back from the ledge (with Trask leaving that may change).
If Trask stayed on the only continuity would be provided by Alton Garrison, the newest member of the team.
Plus, Trask does seem to be sending a message in some of his interviews. For example, at this General Council delegates will have the opportunity to vote into reality a seat for not only a female minister but also a seat for an under-40 minister on the 17-member executive committee. When discussing this new opportunity, need for change and the for qualified younger leadership, Trask seemed to imply that his successor might well come from this same field of candidates:
“There are many, many capable men who are not on that 17-member board who are eligible. … One of those could surface.”
Perhaps Trask is hoping for (or foresees?) a non-sexagenarian pastor with national visibility to be tapped for the top slot. If so, he isn’t alone. Nearly every announcement of Trask’s resignation is accompanied by seemingly hyperbolic and high-strung phrases like: “pivotal moment” (John Maempa, AG Prayer Center), “significant turning point” (Bob Mitton, pastor of Red Oaks AG), “a watershed event in our fellowship” (Pastor Chip Sanders), and “time for significant change” (Gary Bruegman, National Institute of Marriage).
If it tells you anything, James Bridges has a contrary view:
“We don’t feel we are in a leadership crisis.”
But in all fairness, maybe Bridges didn’t get the memo sent around by AGTS and reported on by Brad Leach:
According to a recent email … from AGTS, only 8% of the 33,000+ credential holders in the AG are under the age of twenty-nine. And only 24% are under the age of 40. That means that unless we see an increase in young men and women being credentialed, we could be looking in the mirror in a few years at some tired faces.
Perhaps there is a crisis after all, the hyperbole ain’t such an exaggeration, and it truly is a good time for the current crop of leadership to step aside?
Other Tiring and Re-Tiring factors
According to scuttlebutt (but not verified by news reports, sorry), Trask recently underwent surgery around May of this year and one staffer reported that “It seems like it took a little longer to heal than they thought it would,” while another reported that Trask has exhibited some fine motor control with tasks like replacing the cap on a pen. It’s impossible to make an armchair diagnosis, but I’ve heard the speculation regarding deteriorating health so frequently that it may well be a looming concern.
And as with happens with Presidents and Prime Ministers, the stress of top leadership seems to accelerate age. Compare these two photos of Trask. The first is a portrait taken earlier in his leadership, which I found on the A/G website about two years ago, but I recognize it as dating from at least 1995. The second is from a recent interview given to the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Missouri.
Being the target at the top of the A/G food-chain wears you out, man.
Ever wonder what the Superintendent does? Apart from being the subject of wandering blog posts like this one? Here’s what pastor George P. Wood had to say about the job (this from the son of George O. Wood, the General Secretary):
I get the impression from reading some of the posts and comments that many are not familiar with what the general superintendent actually does.
Is everyone aware, for example, that the general superintendent is chairman of the board of AG Financial Services, which has $2.5 billion in funds under management? That he is the denomination’s liaison not merely to other American denominations and parachurch organizations (such as the National Association of Evangelicals), but also to over 200 international churches through AG World Fellowship (and similar trans-national organizations)? That he exercises a sizeable influence on national ministries (children, youth, adults), publications (GPH, Pentecostal Evangel, Enrichment), and our institutions of higher learning (Evangel, CBC, AGTS, etc.)?
Additionally, he is our primary spokesman in the national media as well as liaison to political organizations (the parties, the Congress, the White House)?
And, honestly, that barely covers the job description. Trask also has to put out fires — or avoid the fires — when issues from local churches rise to the level of national leadership attention (as I mentioned earlier). Good or bad, like it or not, even avoiding getting involved adds stress. Pile on committee meetings, policy meetings, presbytery meetings, conducting fora, preaching, infinite administrative tasks, hosting visiting dignitaries and General Superintendents from abroad, scandalous NAE fallout (read: Haggard), and on and on, I’m surprised he hasn’t visibly aged more than he has.
Must be all the jowly greetings with a “holy kiss” that keeps his cheeks baby-skin smooth.
So, why, again, is he leaving?
Well, he’s not really leaving leaving. I’m not sure how many or which of his board memberships, chairmanships, and other organizational entanglements come with being the Superintendent, or which ones come with him simply being Tom Trask, International Man of Pentecostal Intrigue. According to the reports, he’s involved in leadership in at least the following:
- Chairman of the World Assemblies of God Congress
- Sits on the board of administration for the National Association of Evangelicals
- Sits on the board of directors for the National Religious Broadcasters
- Chairman of the board of AG Financial Services
- Sites on the Board of Directors of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
- Sits on the Board of Directors of Central Bible College
- Ex Officio member of the Board of Directors of Evangel University
- Chairman of the Board of Directors for Global University
- Sits on the Board of Directors for the Global Pastors Network
- Serves on the Commission on Discipleship
And Trask has stated his desire to be an interim pastor for churches in transition. So, he plans to stay in active ministry, and he definitely plans to keep working.
If he’s really serious about that, I can recommend a church in the New York district that could use his personal attention.
But, ultimately, everything you’ve just read is pure speculation, because the Reverend Thomas Trask isn’t saying. I tend to agree with one of my non-minister friends, Doug, who wrote:
“Trask’s resignation before the end of his term begs the question ‘why’. … as an interested observer I agree that the question ‘why’ is a salient one. Saying ‘follow the Lord’s lead’ is indeed a non-answer to the question ‘why’.”
And since Trask has said he sought out “the Lord as to his will,” the question remains: what led him to seek the Lord’s will about quitting early? Maybe, after this week and Trask’s reading of a statement, we will have satisfactory answers.
Who will succeed Trask?
If you’re not fed up with my random and shaky speculations yet, stay tuned for the next post.
Comments are open. You are free to take me to the woodshed now.
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