Posts Tagged ‘confronting your pastor’

Imagine that someone approaches you at church and says, “I’m upset with the pastor.”  This individual then proceeds to tell you exactly why they’re angry.

What should you do about their complaint?




Walk away?

I recently shared a meal with a friend who once served as board chairman in a church where I served as pastor.

He reminded me that whenever churchgoers approached him to complain about me, he told them:

“Let’s go see the pastor.”

My friend was seeking to carry out Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15 by bringing the complainer directly to me.

I asked him, “How did people respond?”

He replied, “They said, “No, no, we don’t want to see him.'”

I asked, “Did this happen during my entire tenure or just at the end?”

He said, “No, it happened at the end.”  (That church went through some stressful times that were beyond our control.)

Over the course of my 36-year pastoral career, I estimate that less than a dozen people ever sat down with me in a loving, biblical fashion and shared a grievance with me.

Some complained through letters and emails … others through response cards and phone calls … and a few accosted me before or after a worship service.

But very few ever made an appointment … met with me one-on-one … and then shared their heart with me.

So when someone did that, I commended them for their courage … and listened very carefully.

But the more common approach in churches is for someone to bypass the pastor and broadcast their feelings/complaints/grievances about him to their network.

I wonder how many did just that over the years?  50?  125?  250?  Only God knows.

Why don’t most people speak directly to their pastor about their concerns?

*They don’t know the pastor personally.

*They can’t predict the pastor’s reactions.

*They don’t want to be labeled as complainers.

*They don’t want to take up the pastor’s valuable time.

*They aren’t sure the pastor will take them seriously or make any changes.

One time, a new couple made an appointment to see me.  They didn’t like our small group format and wanted it overhauled to their liking.

I listened.  I understood what they were saying.  But I didn’t agree with them … so they left the church … but at least they came to me with their suggestion.

But a long-time member used to stop by my office every year and ask me, “Pastor, would it be all right if I made a couple of suggestions?”

Great approach, by the way.

When I assented, he’d make several observations … and I almost always agreed with them.  I valued his views.

If you’re upset about a church policy, speak to any of the policy makers …  usually members of the governing board.  You don’t have to share policy concerns exclusively with the pastor.

If you’re upset with someone personally, though, you need to speak directly with them in a loving fashion … even if that someone is your pastor … or let it go.

Above all, avoid spreading any discontent to others.  Those kinds of complaints are infectious and divisive … and have been known to destroy both pastoral careers and entire congregations.   Churches that permit verbal assaults on their pastor sow the seeds of their own destruction.

Remember the words of James 3:5 in relation to the tongue: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”

But if someone walks up to you and says, “I want to complain about the pastor,” there’s an effective, biblical way to handle that.

Simply tell that individual:

“Let’s go see the pastor.”

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*True or false: pastors are infallible.

That’s false.  I grew up in a pastor’s home, married a pastor’s daughter, and became a pastor myself, so I know better than most that pastors are sinners saved by God’s grace, just like every other believer.

*True or false: pastors need other believers to help them grow.

That’s true.  No matter how close a pastor is to God, he is still an imperfect being, and will be until he becomes like Jesus in the next life.  Pastors need mentors and friends and family just like anybody else.

*True or false: pastors sometimes need to be confronted about an issue in their life.

That’s true.  We all have our blind spots, pastors included.  Pastors can be lazy, or bitter, or insensitive, or arrogant – just like non-clergy.  If someone who loves a pastor confronts him about a possible sin, and that pastor changes, then he will grow more quickly to become like Christ.

*True or false: a pastor’s wife is the only person qualified to confront him.

That’s false.  While she may be in the best position to do so – living with him all week long – she may become so accustomed to his faults that she’s learned to overlook them.  Because my own wife has been so positive toward me and my ministry over the years, when she has taken the risk of confronting me, I know she’s usually right.

However, a pastor has interactions with many people when his spouse isn’t around, such as staff members, board members, counselees, ministry leaders, and people in the community.  A pastor’s wife can’t possibly witness all of his relationships.

*True or false: God may choose to use you to confront your pastor about an issue.

That’s true.  He may use you.

Imagine that some men from your church invite you to play basketball, and your pastor comes along.  You’re excited because you’ll have a chance to see who he really is away from the church.

But it doesn’t take long to discover that your pastor is extremely competitive.  He travels with the ball but won’t admit it, fouls other players without owning up to it, and throws in a few profane words at inopportune times.  And besides, every time his team scores, he engages in trash talk.

You’re hurt, disappointed, and even a bit angry.  What, if anything, should you do about it?

Your options:

You can let it go and treat his behavior as an anomaly.

You can ask other players what they thought about the pastor’s behavior.

You can go home and pray for your pastor.

You can write a letter to the church board and tell them how he misbehaved.

You can throw the ball at the pastor, or give him an elbow on the next rebound, or …

You can talk to the pastor yourself.

I recently saw the film We Bought a Zoo starring Matt Damon.  (Great film, by the way.)  In the film, Damon’s character has a talk with his son and refers to the importance of “twenty seconds of insane courage.”

In other words, if you have something important to say to someone, but you’re afraid, you only need “twenty seconds of insane courage” to say it.

Why should you be the one to say something?

Because you witnessed his behavior … which is why you can’t pass this assignment off on someone who didn’t experience it.

Some tips:

*Talk to him directly.  Jesus said in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you [and your pastor is your brother, too], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”

Instead of pronouncing judgment upon him (“May God strike you dead for using foul language!”), ask him a question, like:

“Why do you use those words out here but not in the pulpit?”

“Why can’t you admit that you’re guilty of fouls like the rest of us?”

Even if the pastor is in a competitive zone and brushes you off initially, if he’s truly a man of God, he’ll eventually grapple with your questions.

I have a theory: in the majority of cases where a pastor is involuntarily terminated, those who are angry with him (staff members, the church board, others in the congregation) have never shared their concerns with him directly.  They tell everybody except the pastor … a clear violation of Jesus’ words.

*Talk to him privately.  Nobody likes to lose face by being reprimanded in public, including pastors.  Jesus says to “go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”

If you’ve trained yourself to confront other believers, then you could wait until after the game and ask the pastor if you could speak with him for a moment.  During those “twenty seconds of courage,” let him know that you love him but that his behavior stepped over a line.  Next:

*Talk to him lovingly.  Jesus says, “If he listens to you …”

Let me be honest here.  Many pastors are not good listeners.  They love to hear themselves talk but aren’t quite as generous when others are speaking.  You need to use a tone that compels your pastor to hear you.  I’d opt for a gentle tone (not a judgmental one) as mentioned in Galatians 6:1.  Finally:

*Talk to him redemptively.  What’s the aim of any confrontation?  Jesus encourages us to win our brother over.

We’re not trying to harm our pastor, but restore him.  He’s temporarily become fragmented.  We’re trying to help him become whole again.

Let me end today’s article with a quote from Ken Sande in his book The Peacemaker:

“Your responsibility to go to someone who is caught in sin does not vanish just because that person is in a position of authority over you (e.g., an employer or a church elder).  Since these people are as human as you are, they will also sin and need correction (see 1 Tim. 5:19-20).  Of course, you may need to exercise special care in choosing your words when you talk with such a person.  Speak in a respectful manner, and do all you can to affirm your regard for that person’s authority.  In doing so, you may not only encourage needed changes, but also increase that person’s respect for you.”

Next time, I’ll discuss various ways that pastors respond when someone confronts them.

Have you ever confronted your pastor about an issue?  If so, how did it turn out?

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.

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I was once the pastor of a church where we were building a new worship center.  The church was located in an extremely unchurched community (less than 5% of the population went to church anywhere) and our leaders believed that God wanted us to reach out to the spiritually lost around us.  Demographic studies showed that the community preferred an intellectual approach to the Christian faith (as opposed to an emotional approach) and that they preferred a presentational worship style (as opposed to a participative style).

Six months before the building was completed, I encouraged the worship team to improve the quality of our Sunday services, including using more video and improving our music while singing fewer songs.  One of the women on the worship team, who had always been a friend and supporter, took issue with my vision for our services.  She wanted the congregation to sing for at least half an hour because this approach was meaningful to her.  She began to lobby for her position to the point where I had to call a meeting with her and our worship leader.  We all listened to each other’s viewpoints and she left the room agreeing that if she had any further problems with me or my policies, she would speak with me personally.

But soon afterwards, she was at it again.  She vehemently complained to the chairman of the board (who was a friend of both of ours) about me and used language that was so full of anger that the chairman believed she was ready to launch a serious conflict.  The chairman reiterated my position to her (the board had already approved it) but she was determined to have her way.  After causing heartache to many people, she ended up leaving the church, an outcome that I did not welcome because I genuinely cared for her.  But I couldn’t let her – or anyone else, for that matter – stand in the way of the ministry that God was calling our church to do.

When a believer in a church is upset with the pastor, how should that person handle their feelings?

According to Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Timothy 5:19-21, if I as a believer sin against you personally, you as a believer have the obligation to come and discuss it with me in private.  Neither Jesus nor Paul mention exclusions for pastors.  As a pastor, I have sinned against people on occasion.  When I’ve been aware of it, I have tried to take the initiative and make things right on my own.  But sometimes I’m unaware that I’ve hurt someone.  In the great majority of those cases, the individual who is hurt never comes to tell me how he or she feels.  In fact, I can count on both hands the number of people who have had the courage to come and tell me that I’ve hurt them over 35+ years of church ministry.  I suspect that most pastors have had similar experiences.

Instead, when the pastor hurts someone – consciously or unconsciously – that person usually tells their social network what the pastor has done rather than tell the pastor himself.  A few years ago, a friend told me that a woman in our church was angry with me.  I asked, “How many people has she told?”  Using his hands to count, he concluded, “Ten.”  Then I asked him, “What did I do wrong this time?”  He said, “You didn’t say hi to her one Sunday.”  I told him, “Go back and tell her to talk to me about it.  If she does, then this is really an important issue for her.  If she doesn’t, then it must not be that crucial.”  Of course, she never came and spoke with me, and over time, she collected a plethora of offenses that I had committed against her and shared them with anyone who would listen.

Although many Christians are aware of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, we need to distinguish between personal offenses and policy offenses.  If I personally offend you – whether I’m a pastor or not – then you need to contact me, tell me how you feel, and let me have the opportunity to work things out with you.  Most Christians choose to tell their family and friends instead which just spreads discontent throughout the church.  Sometimes these harbored offenses build up to the point where believers who have been collecting them share them with others, and before long, as believers pool their hurts, the pastor becomes guilty of scores of offenses – and those offended become determined to get rid of the pastor at any cost.

But if a pastor commits a policy offense – that is, he makes decisions about the church’s ministry that attendees don’t like – I don’t believe that Matthew 18 applies.  The pastor hasn’t sinned against anyone personally.  You may feel that he has, but he’s simply making a decision that he believes will advance the ministry.  If you don’t like the decision, you should be able to speak with the pastor or any official church leader (i.e., board member, associate pastor) and let them know how you feel.  They may or may not agree with you, and the policy may or may not change, but at least you’ve gone on record as to how you feel, and that’s the mature way to handle matters.

Of course, if the pastor offends you personally, you may choose to instantly forgive him, and you may also choose to pray that God will help him see the light.  But if you’re upset with your pastor for some reason, please don’t spread the virus of complaining to others.  Either speak with the right person or keep it between you and God.

And if you’re upset with what I’ve written for some reason, you know what to do …

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.

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