Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17
I don’t remember anyone in seminary saying anything about this.
And I don’t recall reading about this issue in any ministry books I read before I became a pastor.
And I don’t have a memory of any of the pastors I served under bringing this problem to my attention.
What am I talking about?
Just this: when you become a pastor … whether you’re a solo pastor of a smaller church or the senior/lead pastor of a larger church … you must create and enforce certain rules … both to obey Scripture and to protect your church as an institution.
I’ll never forget the first time I had to do this as a young pastor.
I was called to become the pastor of a church in Silicon Valley at age 27. The deacons were the governing board, and all four were at least 60 years of age. (Doesn’t seem all that old anymore!)
One Sunday several months after I was called as pastor, a deacon (I’ll call him Jay) came to church one morning without his wife. It was obvious by the way Jay spoke that something was seriously wrong with his family.
When I got home, I called Jay’s wife, who told me that she was going to divorce her husband.
Ours was a small congregation, and the news that a prominent couple were splitting up traveled fast.
But more than that: the woman’s decision meant that I had to speak with Jay and ask him to step down from the deacons.
I didn’t want to meet with Jay alone. He was gruff and possessed a volatile temper, but how could I let him stay on the board? He was about to become biblically unqualified for his role.
I somehow convinced the other deacons that Jay needed to step down … and thought I had convinced Jay as well.
But my decision had consequences.
Three months later, the deacons told me, “Jay is our friend. He’s suffered enough. We want him back on the board.” Even though I protested, Jay returned.
Over the ensuing years, Jay exploded with anger at me once or twice a year … and I was never sure why.
Several years later, Jay was involved in leading a group of people out of our church. Was it payback for my decision from years before?
Here are seven things I’ve learned the hard way about the pastor’s role as ecclesiastical enforcer:
First, the role of enforcer is not in the pastor’s job description.
Written job descriptions will say that the pastor “is the leader of the church in all its activities” or that he is responsible for “managing the staff.”
Few job descriptions … if any … ever say, “The pastor is expected to enforce biblical standards and protect the church legally.”
But if the pastor fails at enforcement, he can jeopardize his congregation … or even lose his position … so he has to be an enforcer, even if it makes him cringe.
I never liked being an enforcer, but soon discovered that certain people … especially the governing board … expected it … because they were at work during the week, while I was on the church campus continually.
Second, sometimes enforcing rules falls to the pastor by default.
I once pastored a church where the campus was frequented by skateboarders.
They loved to go up and down a small flight of stairs on the edge of the property with their skateboards.
If I was the only person around, I’d go over and gently ask the guys to find another place to do their skateboarding.
The skateboarders became a chronic problem, never going away for long. I finally had to bring the issue up to the staff … the only ones on campus in the afternoons … because I needed broader help with enforcement … but I received pushback from the youth staff, who didn’t want to offend the skateboarders.
I didn’t want to offend anybody, either. I just didn’t want the church to get sued because we didn’t warn the skateboarders to leave.
Why did the others leave enforcement to me?
I will never know.
Third, sometimes the pastor has to enforce rules because certain people will only listen to him.
I once had a youth director who held regular youth meetings in the multipurpose room … but he always left the room a mess.
The following morning, when the next group came to use the room, it was trashed.
The office manager would tell me, “The multipurpose room was once again a disaster after last night.”
She tried talking to the youth guy, but he didn’t listen … and he wouldn’t change.
I finally had to get involved, but I didn’t want to, because it was just one more distraction from the ministry the church called me to do.
But sadly, certain people won’t listen to anybody but the pastor … and if he doesn’t get involved, nothing changes.
Fourth, sometimes the pastor is the only person who is willing to confront someone on a destructive pathway.
I once worked with a married staff member who was spending too much time with a single man.
Her “innocent” encounters with him were becoming more frequent and less indiscreet … negatively impacting both her job and her marriage.
Even though she had many friends … and they knew what she was doing … nobody had the courage to say anything to her.
Things were getting worse, so I lovingly spoke with her about the matter … and she became very upset … assuring me she wasn’t doing anything wrong.
A short while later, with another couple present, I spoke with her again.
Her friends didn’t say a word, while I spoke with her twice.
She quit her position and watched her marriage crumble. It was painful to watch.
But I had to do it, even though she never spoke to me again after our second meeting.
The pastor can’t be the only sheriff in a church. He needs some deputies.
Fifth, sometimes the pastor needs to share enforcement duties with other leaders.
One of my mentors used to tell me that whenever I had a difficult decision to make, I should take it to the governing leaders and “hide behind the board.”
Sometimes I would do just that, especially if I was uncertain how much authority I had to address a certain issue.
But if I already had the authority … like with church staff … I usually didn’t tell the board anything.
Maybe this is just my experience, but over 36 years in church ministry, I discovered that most church leaders cannot be counted on to enforce rules and policies, either because they are afraid of losing friends, or because they don’t know how to use their authority.
One time, my wife and I went to a restaurant after church one Sunday, and the youth directors were having a planning meeting there with their adult volunteers.
While that was commendable, I had made it clear to the youth leaders that all adult volunteers were expected to attend the first service, and engage in youth ministry during the second service. (You can’t have your adult volunteers … who are to be examples to the youth … not attending services.)
Well, the volunteers were skipping the first service and coming just for youth ministry … a definite no-no.
By this time, the youth directors were reporting to a different staff member, but he refused to enforce our policy.
So I had to speak with the staff member, as well as the youth directors … but as I learned later, nothing changed … and then matters became even worse.
This is the kind of stuff in a church that wears a pastor down. I don’t know how many times I tried to get someone … a board member, a staff member, a lay leader … to help me enforce certain guidelines, only to watch them wilt in the end.
That’s why many pastors stop asking other leaders for help and just enforce matters on their own.
Sixth, the pastor needs to address issues that concern him sooner rather than later.
I once heard Pastor Bill Hybels say that it’s the job of a leader to “intercept entropy.” That is, when a leader notices that things are going south, he has to go to the right person, describe what he’s seeing, and ask that changes be made.
When I was a young pastor, I would notice that certain things were wrong, but I’d sometimes let things slide.
But the older I got, the more quickly I addressed concerns, because things don’t get better when you fail to address them … they only get worse.
I tried to be gentle yet firm … but it wasn’t always easy for me to do.
Many years ago, I had a three-hour dinner with a nationally-known Christian leader. He was asking me questions about how I managed the church staff.
He said to me, “Jim, are you a responsible person?”
I said, “Yes, I’m very responsible.”
He replied, “Do you only have to be told to do something once?”
I said, “Yes, if you tell me to do something once, I do it right away.”
He responded, “Well, everyone is not like you.”
That exchange might not seem all that profound, but it opened up my eyes to the fact that some of my attempts at staff enforcement simply weren’t working because I naively assumed that everyone was like me … but they weren’t.
So the one thing I could control was to address issues quickly … as they arose … rather than wait for a “perfect time” that never came.
Finally, every church needs an enforcer other than the pastor.
I have a friend who served many years on the staff of one of America’s largest and most impactful churches.
He told me that the senior pastor … a name people know worldwide … always wore the white hat around the church campus.
People came to view him as their father … their uncle … and their friend. He was greatly beloved.
But the executive pastor was the one who wore the black hat. My friend would tell me stories where the executive would tell people to leave the campus and never come back.
If the senior pastor had become involved in enforcement issues, it would have resulted in a lot of bad blood between him and others … so he had somebody else do it instead.
This arrangement works well in a megachurch, and maybe even in a large church … but the smaller the church, the more enforcement duties fall directly on the pastor.
And the more times the pastor engages in enforcement, the more certain people resent him … and want to pay him back for taking them on.
I don’t know what percentage of conflict in a church occurs because a pastor tries to enforce rules/policies, or what percentage occurs because some people resent his interference.
But I do know this: enforcement issues sometimes kept me up all night.
When you pray for your pastor, toss in a prayer every now and then that God will give Him the wisdom to know when to enforce the rules … and when to let somebody else do it.
And if your pastor ever needs to speak with you, please … listen to him and cooperate.
Because, as Hebrews 13:17 tells us, someday he will have to give an account to the Ultimate Enforcer.