There’s an old saying among pastors that the person from the search team that picks up the pastor from the airport will be among the first individuals to turn against him.
That saying certainly proved true in my first pastorate.
The person who met me at the airport was also chairman of the deacons. (I’ll call him Dave.) The board – which functioned as the search team – made their way through a pile of resumes.
Mine was the final one.
I was 27 and Dave was 74. At first, our 47-year age difference didn’t seem to matter. We went to ballgames together. We visited the rescue mission regularly. I visited him and his sick wife on multiple occasions.
At first, I could do no wrong in his eyes. Dave loved me as a person. He was proud to call me his pastor.
But several years later, I couldn’t do anything right … and Dave attacked me with every bullet in his arsenal.
Why does this deifying/crucifying dynamic occur in churches? Let me offer a few ideas.
First, the candidating process can never fully reveal a pastor’s character or values.
When I first met the deacons, I emphasized what we had in common. We agreed doctrinally.
Looking back, that was about it.
We didn’t agree on the use of music during worship … or leader qualifications … or the use of Christian liberty … or how to reach younger couples for Christ.
And that was my charter: to reach younger couples.
To be charitable, the board was legalistic … and rigid … and resisted innovation.
But we didn’t discuss those issues. As I recall, we spent our time together discussing theology and practical ministry matters.
This is just my theory, but I believe that pastoral candidates and search teams assume that they agree on any issues they haven’t yet discussed.
But the truth is that we didn’t agree on most issues.
I knew who they were because I knew lots of Christians just like them … but I don’t think they knew who I was because they didn’t know many pastors my age.
My wife and I were scrutinized for about 30 hours when we first visited that church … and that wasn’t nearly enough time for the leaders to know me.
So when I came to the church, they knew Public Jim … and only came to know Private Jim over time.
But when this happens … as it does in every church … there are always people who are convinced that the pastor fooled them … and want him gone for that reason.
But that’s not really the case. They just didn’t have enough time with the pastor to know him personally … and pastors, like most people, are complex individuals.
Second, some people become surprised when the pastor doesn’t agree with them on certain matters.
Dave wanted me to give altar calls at both services on Sundays. I resisted. (I wrote my Master’s thesis on the altar call.)
Fred – a second board member – was a closet charismatic. We didn’t agree on the role of the Holy Spirit in the church.
Bruce – a third board member and former pastor – became angry with me if I stated a theological truth in language he wasn’t used to.
And John – the final board member – perused the notes in his Scofield Bible whenever I taught. (He literally had his head down during most of the sermon.)
Both Bruce and John became visibly angry with me at different times during the midweek Bible study. Bruce got up one time, walked out of the room, and slammed the door. John became red-faced another time when I mentioned that God sometimes hides His face from us.
Dave didn’t like any innovations … Fred would never tell me when he was upset … Bruce was angry all the time … and John was as rigid a legalist as I have ever met.
I inherited a group of leaders who had fired their previous pastor. These were not easy people to please. It was just a matter of time before they came after me.
Third, we disagreed on how to reach people for Christ.
I came to the church in 1981. I wanted to bring the worship services into the 1980s, but they wanted their services to go back to the 1950s.
Dave was the song leader – and he waved his hands as he led. The piano player was a prima donna who loved to show off her abilities.
They sang “Victory in Jesus” about once every two weeks.
And before my first Sunday night service, a guest “musician” showed up unannounced and played – I am not kidding – the musical saw.
I was sick inside. But they loved it.
And they loved it every time he came … unannounced … and sang the same songs and told the same stories.
I was sensitive enough not to criticize the way they did things. But every time I tried something new, I’d get criticized for it.
One time, we served a flat loaf of bread for communion. Dave came to me the next week and claimed that many people told him it was “unsanitary.”
Because I was a young pastor, I was successful at reaching some younger families. But when the groups achieved parity, the pioneers started complaining that the younger people didn’t attend all three services … dressed too casually … liked weird music … and on and on.
Like most churches, those leaders didn’t want to reach people for Jesus. They wanted to live in a Christian cocoon to keep the world out instead of penetrating the world for Christ.
And I was the one who most threatened their cocoon.
Finally, many churchgoers aren’t used to a strong pastor.
I believe that most Christians want a pastor who is (a) strong in the pulpit, but (b) weak in private.
If you can preach well, you’ll be deified.
But you better be flexible in private as well or you’ll be crucified.
The people liked my preaching. An older woman – a former missionary – used to stop me at the door and tell me that my preaching was “clear.” Even John once told me that I was the best preacher in the whole area. (While that was nice to hear, I knew it wasn’t true.)
But I was a man of conviction in private.
One time, two board members came to my house on a Saturday night. I climbed into their car so they could confront me with some issues. They made their case. I refused to budge … and I’d handle things the same way today.
I’m a theologian. Name a church issue, and I’ll give you biblical and theological reasons why I hold the position I do.
If I can flex, I will. But if you ask me to do something that violates my conscience, I won’t do it.
On several occasions, board members asked me to do things I could not do. I could tell they weren’t happy with me when I refused.
In fact, Fred and his wife quietly left the church. He did the right thing.
And just as we were ready to become polarized, a sister church invited us to merge with them … and three of my board members wanted me to be the new pastor.
But after the merger, they all left.
John and his wife left abruptly and never returned.
Dave made multiple charges against me to the new church board. (The real issue was that Dave was too old to lead worship music anymore.) The board backed me to the hilt, which caused Dave to leave the church angrily. The next time I saw him, Dave was lying in a coffin … but his wife did ask that I conduct his funeral.
And then there was Bruce. In his late sixties, Bruce wanted to get back into pastoral ministry, but as a double divorcee, nobody showed any interest in him. He finally assisted in leading his Bible class out of the church. I think he hoped he would become the pastor of the renegade group … but they wanted somebody else.
To their credit, Fred and John left the church relatively peacefully. They may have been disillusioned with their pastor, but they didn’t attack me as they left.
But Dave and Bruce left loudly and insinuated that I should be removed … but they both left instead because they knew they lacked the support to push me out.
We find a great example of the deify/crucify phenomenon in Acts 14.
Paul and Barnabas visited Lystra and healed a man who was lame from birth. The crowd declared that the Dynamic Duo were really gods: Barnabas was Zeus, while Paul was Hermes.
Paul and Barnabas rightly resisted being worshiped, stating, “We too are only men, human like you.” And then they pointed the crowd upward to God Himself.
But the crowd still tried to deify them. Dr. Luke writes, “Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them” (Acts 14:18).
But how quickly things can change.
In the very next verse, we’re told that some Jews from Antioch and Iconium came to Lystra “and won the crowd over.” And then they stoned Paul outside the city and left him for dead.
One moment, the crowd acted like God’s leaders were divine. The next moment, they wanted one of them dead.
I cannot understand the mindset of Christians – especially leaders - who choose to gang up against a pastor who is innocent of biblically impeachable offenses.
Like Fred and John, it’s better to leave a church than it is to try and push out a pastor.
To what extent have you witnessed this deifying/crucifying dynamic in churches?