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Posts Tagged ‘confronting church members’

The first time I interviewed to become the pastor of a church, I met a church crank.

He remained a thorn in my side for years.  Know anyone like that?

The deacons of a small church in Sunnyvale, California, received and reviewed my resume, and one Sunday night, the chairman called and asked me if I could preach at their church the following Sunday.

I said yes.

So my wife and I flew to San Jose and were picked up by the chairman, who drove us to the elementary school where the church met.

Inside a brown classroom, I met four deacons … all of them at least sixty years of age.  The chairman was 74.  The others were all over 60.

And I was just 27.

A deacon I’ll call Warren stood out because of his booming voice and his burly appearance … and as I would soon find out, he had quite a temper.

The sermon went well the following day … the people loved us … I preached a candidating sermon the following Sunday … and the church voted to issue me a call, which I accepted.

Little did I know it, but over the next few years, I would have many off balance encounters with Warren, even though his wife … twenty years his junior … was a delightful person.

For years, Warren had been a pastor in a small coastal town in Northern California.  He once told me that tapes of his sermons were circulating around the world.

But Warren wasn’t in church ministry anymore because he had been divorced.  I never learned the circumstances.

Every Sunday morning at our church, Warren made announcements before everyone went to Sunday School.  But one Sunday, Warren acted and spoke bizarrely … and I noticed his wife wasn’t with him.

When I got home from church, I called her … and she told me she was divorcing Warren … and shared with me some startling information.

When it became evident that Warren’s wife was serious about divorcing him, I couldn’t let him remain a deacon.  While I didn’t know why his first marriage had fallen apart, his second marriage was crumbling right before our eyes.

I spoke with the other deacons, and they reluctantly agreed with me: Warren had to step down from the board.

That was one of the hardest meetings of my life.  Warren was more than twice my age.  He had been a pastor for years.  And now I had to go to his house and tell him that he needed to step down from the board where he served with his friends.

To his credit, Warren seemed to understand.

But six months later, his deacon friends lobbied for me to reinstate him, telling me that he had “suffered enough.”

Although I didn’t want to, I reluctantly permitted Warren to return as a deacon … and lived to regret it.

Over the next few years, Warren did the following things:

*One Wednesday night, I taught on the resurrection of Jesus, and stated that it couldn’t be proven scientifically, which is true.  Warren stood up and yelled loudly, “Then we’re all wasting our time here!”  And he opened a heavy classroom door and slammed it … hard … and then left the school.  We all sat there in shock.  When we spoke later, he confessed that I was too good a theologian to make a reckless statement.

*Another time, I was reading a book on discipleship by British theologian David Watson, and included a quote from the book in a newsletter article.  Warren called me at home and lit into me about my use of that quote.  I had to calm him down before explaining what I meant.

*When our church rewrote our doctrinal statement, I included a section about the death and resurrection of Christ.  Warren angrily confronted me after a service because I had left out Christ’s burial!  (I left out the appearances as well … but only for brevity.)

*One Sunday night, our church held a business meeting, and Warren thought a certain woman had just criticized him publicly.  He stood up and yelled at the entire congregation when he was really upset with her.  Later that week, I had to tell him that if he didn’t apologize to the entire congregation the following Sunday night, he couldn’t be on the board anymore.  He apologized … sort of.

*The former deacon chairman was also the song leader on Sunday mornings and evenings.  He became angry with me over a petty issue and asked to come to a board meeting to complain about me.  He brought along a witness: Warren.  (The next day, the song leader left the church, but Warren stayed.)

*Although Warren eventually stopped being a board member, he did teach a Sunday School class for seniors.  One Sunday morning, I was sitting in the church office and could hear Warren teaching through the wall.  He was ripping things our church was doing … things I had full board approval to do … but Warren didn’t like them, and let his fellow seniors know what he really thought.

*Before I knew it, that seniors class began making demands … and their primary demand was that I should no longer be the pastor.  The board at that time all stood behind me, and the seniors left the church and started a new church in a school a mile away … with Warren as their pastor.  (He wasn’t their pastor for long, and the church disbanded within a year.)

But what Warren really wanted to do was return to some form of paid ministry, either as a pastor or a missionary.  He applied to many Christian organizations, but they all turned him down.  He married for the third time, but those two divorces, which he had to disclose on any application, killed his chances for employment.

Since he was out of options in the larger Christian community, I wonder if he wanted to take me out … hoping that somehow, people would turn to him as pastor.

Warren wasn’t necessarily a church bully, but he was a church crank.

And church cranks have the following characteristics, among others:

*They become known for their incessant, uncontrollable complaining.

*They become irritated over issues that don’t bother anyone else.

*They view themselves as leaders while few others do.  (Who wants to follow a crank?  You’ll just have more crankiness.)

*They have no idea how they sound or look to others.

*They make people anxious and even afraid.

*They sometimes make complaints that become contagious.

*They don’t intend to undermine their pastor but end up harming him anyway.

*They apologize enough to maintain their standing in the church.

Without doubt, Warren was a church crank.

What should pastors do with church cranks?

Let me share four ideas:

First, pastors should let cranks know how to register complaints.

Charles Spurgeon used to tell the cranks in his church to write down their complaints so he could better deal with them.  Of course, nobody wanted to do that!

Over the years, I devised a simple policy about complaints:

*If your complaint is about the pastor personally, then speak to him personally before you do anything else.

*If your complaint involves church policy, then speak to anyone who makes policy … usually members of the official board.

A pastor can’t command cranks not to complain, but pastors can insist that a crank’s complaints be directed to the right person.

And if the crank won’t follow the complaint policy, then he or she must be confronted and disciplined … or the crank may someday try and take out the pastor.

Second, pastors should encourage mature churchgoers to confront cranks about their behavior.

When I was in my late twenties, I was correcting a church leader twice my age … and it wasn’t easy or natural for me.

I needed church leaders and Warren’s friends to sit down and speak with him about his behavior … but either they were too afraid of him or they were afraid a confrontation might end their friendship with him.

So it fell to me as the pastor by default.

My father-in-law told me many times, “Jim, if there is any confrontation that needs to happen in your church, you’re going to have to do it.  Laymen won’t confront laymen.”

But they might … if their pastor asked them to do so.

When an older man keeps making a fool of himself inside his congregation, it may be because nobody had the courage to confront him earlier in his life.

But by the time a crank is in his sixties, how much he is really going to change?

Third, pastors need to watch their backs when cranks are around.

Because Warren usually came to me personally whenever he was upset about something, I never suspected that he would go underground and try to take me out as pastor.

But in the end, that’s exactly what he did.

Pastors can give cranks some attention, but you can’t give them too much because they’ll just want more … and because they’ll drain a pastor of energy.

Since a pastor can’t be omnipresent on a church campus, I should have asked a board member to monitor Warren’s behavior on Sundays.

We could have confronted him proactively from a position of strength rather than defending ourselves against him from a position of weakness.

Finally, church cranks usually leave a mixed legacy.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about Warren recently, but while I can easily remember tough encounters with him, I can only recall a couple of times where we really got along.

I tried spending time with Warren.  One time, I visited the elementary school classroom where he served as teacher.  Another time, we drove to Mount Hermon together for a men’s retreat.

But I never knew when he would explode for no reason at all.

When Warren died, I was not asked to conduct his funeral, and I’m glad I wasn’t asked.  I don’t know what I would have said!

Maybe he said some encouraging words to me at times.  Maybe he told me that he was praying for me.  Maybe he told me, “That was a great sermon” after I preached.  Maybe he put his arm around me and said, “Jim, I’m so glad you’re our pastor.”

Maybe he did all those things … and more.

It’s just that I don’t have any recollection that he ever did.

 

 

 

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