The other night, I caught the tail end of an episode of Little House on the Prairie. A faith healer comes to Walnut Grove and wins over many of the townspeople, leaving Reverend Alden with a dwindling congregation. He thinks about quitting, but after the faith healer is exposed, his flock returns. Laura Ingalls’ final narration declares that the good reverend is “a simple man” and “a shy man” but that the people loved him very much.
When a pastor first comes to a church, he’s chasing a lot of ghosts. Sometimes the shadow of a predecessor hangs over that church for a long time. And when newcomers move into town, they bring with them mental images of their favorite pastor from the past. And some people watch Joel Osteen or Charles Stanley on television before coming to church and compare their pastor to those superstars.
So it’s not easy for a pastor to come to an established congregation. But when he does, there is one thing above all that he must do.
He must let the people know that he likes them.
Notice I didn’t say love. That will come in time. When I left my last church, I told the people how much I loved them because I did. But I couldn’t have told them that during my first few months because I didn’t yet know them. You have to know people to love them.
But you can let anyone know that you like them.
It has to be communicated in various ways:
*By greeting everyone you meet on the church campus, regardless of age, attractiveness, or temperament.
*By learning the names of as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
*By stopping to chat with people as often as you can.
*By smiling as much as you did on your wedding day.
*By approaching people rather than waiting for them to approach you.
*By accepting and understanding the traditions of the church before you try and change them.
*By taking the time to explain who you are as often as is prudent.
My son Ryan attends a church in Orange County with a pastor just like this. On the many occasions that I’ve visited the church, if I walk anywhere near Pastor Terry, he sticks out his hand, gives me a warm smile, and says hi to me, even if he can’t remember my name. He makes me think that he likes me.
So it’s easy in turn for me to like him.
However … there are pastors who just aren’t built this way. They are more introverted, or reserved, or scholarly – and that’s okay. Some of the most impactful pastors in our culture are not “people persons.” I stood near Andy Stanley last year minutes after he gave a talk at my church and he looked awkward and uncomfortable as he sought a space away from people.
But great pastors continually give off vibes that they like the people in their church – and that feeling is reciprocated.
A pastor friend once recounted a conversation he had with a seminary professor, who told his class to “love the sheep and then lead the sheep.” My friend was so impressed that he told the professor after class, “That was really great: lead the sheep and then love the sheep.” The professor corrected him, “No, that’s love the sheep first, then lead the sheep.”
If a pastor leads the sheep and only later tries to love them, people will feel manipulated and distance themselves from that pastor.
But if the pastor loves the sheep first, the people will follow him almost anywhere.
However, no matter how kind or gracious a pastor is, there will always be someone in the church that doesn’t like him. Maybe he reminds certain individuals of an abusive father or an ex-husband or a cruel boss.
I don’t like pastors who scream at their congregations. When I was a kid, I heard a traveling evangelist speak at my church, and when he started yelling at everybody, I thought he was yelling at me. Ever since then, I have recoiled from pastors who verbally assault their hearers. It’s all right to become angry with sin – but not with sinners.
A pastor needs to let everyone know that God loves them – and so does he. In fact, people have a hard time believing that God loves them if they think their pastor hates them.
So what do you do if you’re in a church where you don’t like the pastor?
Ask God to change your heart. Try and get to know the pastor better. Focus on his good qualities. (There has to be some reason why he got the job.) You might like him once you get to know him.
But if you’ve tried everything, and it’s just not working … then leave the church. Find a pastor you do like.
Above all, avoid all attempts to join forces with those who want to get rid of him.
Try not to feel guilty about it. Try not to blame the pastor. There are undoubtedly people that do like him.
Just shop around and find another church. Quietly vote with your feet.
It’s a short life, and we can’t afford to be miserable when we go to church.
Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.