It’s precarious to be a pastor in our day. According to the latest research, 70% of pastors are leaving ministry before they reach their fifth year out of seminary.
Why is this?
I could cite many possibilities, but my guess is that well-meaning pastors eventually wear down under a relentless barrage of criticism.
There are times when a critic is right … but much of the time, the critic means well but only represents his/her own ideas, not those of the majority of the congregation.
When I was a pastor, there were times when people accused me of doing something wrong and I disagreed with their assessment.
I heard their criticism … weighed their charges … but didn’t take their side … and in some cases, it made them angry.
*When I wrote my personal doctrinal statement for my district’s ordination committee, a committee member – a megachurch pastor and author – told me that my statement lacked warmth.
But isn’t a doctrinal statement supposed to be about truth and accuracy instead?
*When I met with a denominational executive many years ago, he told me, “You went to the wrong seminary.”
But should I have checked with him before applying to the school?
*The relative of a recently-deceased person from my last church called me up and chewed me out for preaching the gospel at his father-in-law’s memorial service.
But should I have mouthed pious platitudes and sentimental mush instead?
*A board member once chided me for preaching on “political issues” after I preached from Matthew 19 on Jesus’ view of marriage.
But aren’t the words of Jesus in Scripture both normative and relevant for Christians today?
*A couple once became angry with me for refusing to marry them.
But isn’t Scripture clear that a believer is not to marry a non-believer?
Sometimes a pastor knows that his critics have made a valid point. There’s a little phrase I learned long ago for such situations: “Maybe you’re right.”
But there are times when a pastor’s critics fire bullets at him and the pastor knows they’re wrong … even if the critic believes they’re right.
When Paul appeared before the Roman governor Felix in Acts 24, Tertullus the prosecuting attorney accused Paul of being a “troublemaker” guilty of “stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world” and that Paul “tried to desecrate the temple.” Acts 24:9 adds, “The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.”
But were they true? In Paul’s mind, he was merely preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. But in the minds of his critics, Paul was inciting public violence and attempting to destroy Judaism.
How did Paul handle this situation? Agree with his critics? Throw himself upon Felix’ mercy? Head straight for jail?
No, Paul answered each accusation, and then says in 24:16: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”
Paul said, “I know my heart. I have examined my motives. I’ve mentally reviewed my actions, and before God, I am not guilty of the charges brought before me, and I haven’t done what you’ve accused me of doing.”
It takes a lot of courage to be a pastor today. The verbal attacks against pastors are often cruel. (Ever read an online story about Rick Warren? He preached for the first time in months after his son’s suicide last weekend … and the critics were waiting with sharpened knives. Check out this article from Time and read some of the comments afterward: http://swampland.time.com/2013/07/28/rick-warren-preaches-first-sermon-since-his-sons-suicide/)
Why bring this up? Three reasons:
First, because when some churchgoers criticize their pastor for an alleged offense, and the pastor disagrees with their assessment, they become irate. And from that moment on, they turn on the pastor. But should a pastor surrender his integrity and agree with critics just to keep them happy and in the church?
Second, because when some board members criticize their pastor for an alleged offense, and he disagrees, they claim, “The pastor is stubborn and doesn’t listen to us.” Most likely, the pastor heard the criticism loud and clear … he just doesn’t buy it. When I was a pastor, if I had done everything my critics wanted me to do, I would have come off as a weak and ineffectual leader who was easy to push around.
Finally, because when some churchgoers criticize their pastor for an alleged offense, they want him to apologize and repent for hurting their feelings. This presumes that a pastor has the ability to control the emotions of others – but he doesn’t. Have you ever read the Gospels and noticed how many people Jesus offended? For example, if you compare Mark 3:6 with Luke 6:11, you’ll see that when Jesus healed the man with the withered hand in the synagogue, the Jewish leaders became so furious that they began to plot His execution. But they were responsible for the way they felt, not Jesus.
It is my job to control my actions and my feelings. It is your job to control your actions and your feelings. I cannot control your actions … and I cannot control your feelings … only you can do that.
If pastors had to ask themselves, “If I say this or do that, whose feelings might I hurt?”, they would never do anything.
Many years ago, when I was a pastor, I was accused of doing something that I didn’t do, and the charge really bothered me. I knew before God that I had done nothing wrong, but that didn’t seem to be enough for a few people. They wanted blood.
I happened to speak with someone from another profession about the charge, and she said something I’ve never forgotten: “Just because somebody accuses you of something doesn’t mean that it’s true.”
Yes, all pastors sin. Yes, most pastors are deeply flawed. Yes, there are times when a pastor steps over a line and needs to apologize and even repent for something he said or did.
But my guess is that the great majority of the time, a pastor cannot agree with his critics … unless they show him from Scripture that he’s wrong … and most critics operate on the basis of their own preferences.
Both Jesus and Paul were accused of doing many things wrong, but they ignored their critics and pressed on. If they had agreed with their critics, we wouldn’t have a New Testament or a Christian church today.
I believe that the more a pastor focuses on his critics, the less he’ll advance the kingdom of God. But the more he focuses on God, the greater impact he’ll have on expanding Christ’s kingdom.
And here’s the kicker: God usually doesn’t speak through critics … yet they assume they’re the voice of God … but they aren’t.
During my 36 years in church ministry, God spoke to me most often through (a) Scripture, (b) my pastoral instincts, and (c) my wife.
Critics held place #348 … and that was still too high.
Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and information about upcoming seminars.