I attended the induction service for a new pastor recently, and found myself filled with mixed emotions. I sensed the excitement of a new pastor and a new church, but I also knew that the church had a reputation for being hard on its pastors. It would only be a matter of time before that church turned its sights on the new pastor, who once joined the church full of promise.
I keep seeing this happen. Churches develop patterns, and these patterns repeat themselves over decades. It’s like reading the book of Judges, except less extreme, but the damage to pastors and their families can be severe. Tom Rainer says that conflict and complaining church members is the number one thing that pastors dislike about their roles. “No surprise on this one,” he writes. “These issues are a way of life for most pastors.”
I have a few suggestions.
Pastors: Develop a theology of pastoral suffering. Ajith Fernando says this well: “If the apostle Paul knew fatigue, anger, and anxiety in his ministry, what makes us think we can avoid them in ours?” Note that a lot of this suffering came from fellow believers. Fernando writes:
Several people have sympathized with me, saying it must be hard and frustrating to serve in a country wracked by war and hostile to evangelism. Indeed, we have suffered. A few months ago, one of our staff workers was brutally assaulted and killed. But I think the biggest pain I have experienced is the pain I have received from Youth for Christ, the organization for which I have worked for 34 years. I can also say that next to Jesus and my family, Youth for Christ has been the greatest source of joy in my life. Whether you live in the East or the West, you will suffer pain if you are committed to people.
Pastors: you will suffer at the hands of your people. You will be blamed, criticized, attacked, and misunderstood. It’s part of the calling. Don’t be surprised. Check the papers: it was mentioned when you enlisted. Acknowledge the hurt, but refuse to throw a pity party. You’re in good company too, by the way. Jesus knows more than a little what this is like.
One of the most important things I try to do when preparing couples for marriage is to give them a realistic picture of what to expect. I worry most about couples who are starry-eyed about how their marriage will be blissful and problem-free. Don’t make this mistake as a pastor. Expect that it will be hard (and that it will be joyful too). Read books like The Pastor’s Justification so that you don’t look to people’s opinions for your validation.
Church leaders: Confront the dysfunction. If you are a leader in a church, you can help to confront some of the harmful patterns in your church in ways that the pastor can’t. Help deflate the expectations of what one man can do, especially a man who, as Paul Tripp says, is in the middle of his own sanctification. Refuse to tolerate gossip and a critical spirit. Be the first to repent, and gently but boldly lead others to repentance as well while remembering that it’s ultimately the Holy Spirit who grants repentance.
Everyone: Pray. I love what Bill Hogg says:
It’s not about coming up with a plan. The first order of business is to surrender to Jesus. The idea is not to work a plan but to hear from the Lord, and then from dependance upon Him walk in obedience to what he speaks into the life of the church.
We play a role, but only God can break some of the deep-rooted patterns that hold churches captive. Neither pastors nor church leaders can solve this one by themselves, but we serve the God of this universe who is more than able to break through and more.
In the end, I’m hopeful for churches when these three things are present, even when there has been a history of conflict. If pastors know what to expect, church leaders confront the dysfunction, and together they seek God, there’s every reason to expect that things can change. It will be hard, and you will pay the price, but it can happen.
Ed Stetzer says that church revitalization is possible but rare. Learning to deal with churches that attack pastors is, I think, one of the key pieces we need to address if we’re going to see it happen more.