Posts Tagged ‘criticizing a pastor’

When a pastor is under attack inside the church where he serves, it is amazing how quickly many people choose a side.

No matter what, some churchgoers will automatically back their minister … even before hearing any evidence against him.

Conversely, some attendees will believe almost anything bad about their pastor … even if every accusation amounts to smoke.

I was a solo or senior pastor for 25 years, and spent 10 1/2 additional years serving as a staff member in 5 different churches.

In every one of those churches, people approached me to criticize the pastor … one of the unknown hazards of working on a church staff.

I never took the side of the pastor’s critics.  I couldn’t.  He hired me and trusted me, and I could not betray that trust … even if I thought some people’s complaints had merit.

But over the years, I learned that it was smart to be on the side of four practices whenever the sheep attack the shepherd:

First, be on the side of Scripture.

The New Testament is full of admonitions to submit to church leaders.  There aren’t any verses that advocate rebelling against a pastor or trying to force his resignation.

For example, Hebrews 13:17 counsels us to “obey your leaders and submit to their authority.”  1 Peter 5:5 adds, “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older.”

Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:13 to “hold them [those who are over you in the Lord] in the highest regard in love because of their work.  Live in peace with each other.”

But what if someone suspects the pastor of sin?

1 Timothy 5:19, speaking of those “whose work is preaching and teaching,” says, “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder [the context includes paid pastors] unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.”

This means that if someone suspects the pastor of sinning, they (a) have seen or heard him commit an act of sin, (b) consider the sin serious enough to merit investigation, and (c) are willing to go on the record about what they’ve seen or heard … even in front of the entire congregation (implied in verse 20).

But when a pastor is under attack, how often do his critics search for, cite, and observe biblical parameters?

Hardly ever.

A church with a weak view of Scripture may understandably have a weak view of pastoral leadership.

But a church that espouses a strong view of Scripture should never permit people to bypass God’s Word in the interests of emotion or expediency.

Second, be on the side of patience.

The New England Patriots destroyed the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game last Sunday.  I watched the game until it became unwatchable … and that didn’t take long.

But the next morning, there were charges circulating that 11 of the 12 footballs that the Patriots used in that game were under-inflated … presumably so that Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady could grip the ball better during wintery weather.

Four days later, this controversy is still in full swing.  Coach Belichick and Quarterback Brady both deny that they had anything to do with deflating those footballs.

If they didn’t reduce the pressure in those balls, then who did?

We … don’t … know … yet.

If you’re interested in this story, how much does it bother you that we don’t know who under-inflated those footballs?

Can you live with the ambiguity … the mystery … the anxiety?

Judging from what I’m seeing in the news and sports media, many people want to know what happened RIGHT NOW!

The same attitude hovers over churches when pastors are under attack.

People want answers RIGHT NOW.

They want to know what their friends think RIGHT NOW.

They want to know if the pastor is staying or quitting RIGHT NOW.

They want closure … RIGHT NOW.

When church leaders exude calm during a sheep attack, that calm filters out into the congregation.

However, many members can’t handle the anxiety … so they talk … and email … and gossip … and text … and speculate … because they want matters resolved RIGHT NOW.

But unfortunately, it’s this RIGHT NOW attitude that makes conflict worse.

Galatians 5:22 says that patience is a fruit of the Spirit’s work in a believer’s life.  When believers begin to become impatient during a sheep attack, more patient believers need to calm them down rather than rouse them up.

During a sheep attack, some members post nasty things about their pastor on social media like Facebook or Twitter, which only makes things worse.

When I experienced a sheep attack more than five years ago, someone who habitually criticized other church leaders online began ripping into me on social media.  Thankfully, a church leader who knew this person contacted them immediately and told them, “Take it down!”  Fortunately, they did just that before the innuendos could spread any further.

While some people angrily take several steps toward the pastor, take several steps backwards and patiently survey the entire situation first.

Third, be on the side of a fair and just process.

This process needs to be biblically-based and conducted with patience.

Many times, that process has already been spelled out in the church’s governing documents … usually in the church bylaws.

That process may also be delineated in a separate document … or a contract/covenant the pastor signed when he was called to the church … or in denominational polity.

But sadly, some factions inside a church either aren’t aware of these documents, or could care less about them … so they resort to mob justice.

This is where a church’s governing leaders need to take charge.  Whether through a verbal announcement on a Sunday … an all-church email … or a letter to the entire congregation … the leaders need to let God’s people know that they (a) are aware of what’s happening, (b) are planning a fair and just investigation, and (c) will let the church know when they have something solid to share.

I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that more than half of all pastors under attack would be able to stay in their churches if the governing leaders used a fair and just process to investigate people’s complaints and charges against their minister.

A fair and just process would include:

*Telling the pastor what the charges are against him.

*Telling the pastor who is making the charges.

*Letting the pastor face his accusers in the presence of the governing leaders.

*Letting the pastor respond to each charge against him as it’s made.

*Insisting that those who make false accusations against the pastor repent and ask his forgiveness.

*Insisting that the pastor be rebuked publicly for any serious misconduct (1 Timothy 5:20)  and/or letting the pastor resign instead.

Once again, the only way the governing leaders can carry out such a process is if they are first on the side of Scripture and on the side of patience.

In fact, when charges against the pastor begin circulating, I believe the first thing the governing board should do is to meet and agree on a deliberate process.

But too many boards become anxious and start asking themselves, “Is the pastor guilty or innocent?”  Then they make a quick decision … and blow their church apart.

Finally, be on the side of truth.

For a believer, the boundaries of truth are set by Scripture, but I’m thinking here about two things in particular: facts and accurate reporting.

Several years ago, I had lunch with the staff supervisor of one of America’s largest churches.  He told me that two women in the church had recently accused a staff member of a serious charge.

The staff supervisor did not immediately take the side of the women.  He conducted his own investigation into their charges.

His conclusion: the staff member did not use his best judgment, but was not guilty of a major offense, and could continue to serve on the staff.

However, the women were not satisfied with this exoneration.  They continued to share their charges with others, hoping in some way to harm the staff member.

The staff supervisor heard about what the women were doing and put an immediate stop to their actions.  In fact, he told them that if they continued to criticize the staff member, he would institute disciplinary action against them.

They stopped.

Please notice: the staff supervisor wanted to know two things:

First, how truthful were the charges the women made?

His determination: the issue was not as serious as they made it out to be.

Second, how accurately did the women handle the staff supervisor’s decision?

His determination: they were now spreading lies rather than speaking the truth.

I haven’t watched the original CSI program in years, but in the early days, Gil Grissom used to tell his forensic team to “follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

Those six words well summarize the idea of “being on the side of truth.”


This Sunday morning, imagine that you enter the worship center of your church, and one of your friends pulls you aside and says, “There are people who are saying that the pastor has been misusing church funds and that he should resign immediately.”

Please, don’t take the side of those who say, “The pastor is guilty and must fry.”

And don’t take the side of those who say, “The pastor is so godly that he’d never do anything wrong.”

Don’t let immature, dysfunctional, and overly-reactive people destroy your pastor and church.

Instead, take the side of Scripture, patience, a fair and just process, and truth.

Do your best to encourage your friends … your family … your ministry colleagues … your church staff … and your governing board to follow these principles as well.

God will smile upon you.























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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?

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Imagine that you attend your church this weekend. You’re in a great mood: your family is healthy, work is going well, and all is right with your world.

You vibrantly sing the worship songs … take notes during the pastor’s message … and feel great about your church.

Then at the end of the service, your pastor stands and reads a letter: he’s resigning … leaving your church forever … after many years of productive service.

He tells you he’s tired … that he’s looking forward to future opportunities … but you wonder what the real story is.

In my last article, I mentioned three reasons why pastors suddenly disappear:

*They’re tired of fighting a handful of antagonists.

*They’re frustrated in their efforts to reach their community for Christ.

*They are tired of being so lonely.

Let me add just two more reasons … even though I could add many more:

Fourth, their family members are hurting because of relentless criticism.

While all pastors believe that God has called them to ministry, many pastor’s wives did not receive that same call.  They believe that God has called them primarily to love their husbands and their children.  They are willing to attend services and serve in a ministry as long as it doesn’t negatively impact their home life.

But when a pastor’s wife sees her husband unfairly attacked … and she sees the toll it takes on his health and his joy and his walk with God … she begins to pull back from church people and church work.

This scenario alone can cause a pastor’s wife to beg him to quit church ministry.

And inevitably, as a few critics focus on the pastor’s shortcomings, they will target her with attacks as well.  They will criticize the way she dresses … whether or not she works outside the home … and how she performs her ministries, among other things.

As these criticisms float back her way, she will be deeply hurt … and such criticisms are meant to hurt.

She’ll pull back even more and strongly suggest that her husband resign.  Some may even threaten to leave him if he doesn’t.

But when people start attacking their children … and if the pastor hasn’t left by now, some will … she will shift into protective mode and insist that her husband resign to save their family.

Pastors going through such situations are torn.  On the one hand, a pastor once took a vow that he would stay married to the same woman forever.  On the other hand, he also went through an ordination process recognizing God’s call upon his life.

When the vow and the call clash, a pastor feels pulled in two directions.  If he goes with the vow, he may lose his ministry career.  If he goes with the call, he may lose his wife … and possibly his career … anyway.

To save their families, many pastors choose to resign from their positions instead … and the pastor normally won’t acknowledge this factor publicly.

My guess is that when pastors vanish, this factor probably plays a role more than 50% of the time.

Finally, they have been asked or forced to leave by official church leaders.

This problem is now at epidemic levels in the Christian community.  Although I’ve read that 1,300 pastors per month are forcibly terminated, it’s safe to say this is true of at least 1,000 pastors per month.

There are so many possible scenarios at work here:

*Sometimes a pastor becomes frustrated with the board because board members focus more on maintenance and money than taking risks to reach people for Christ.

*Sometimes the board becomes frustrated with the pastor because he seems to be tone deaf toward their suggestions and needs.

*Sometimes a board member is personally offended by something the pastor did or said … but never talks to him directly … and gets back at the pastor by leading the charge to get rid of him.

*Sometimes the board becomes convinced they can run the church better than the pastor, so they take shortcuts, trump up some charges, and attack him with every weapon in their arsenal.

*Sometimes the board forces the pastor to resign because they’ve lined up the associate pastor or an interim pastor to preach … while they run the church their way.

Whatever the real reason why pastors and boards stop working well together, when their relationship starts to break down, the pastor will probably be the one who ends up leaving … even if he gets along with every other person in the entire church.

When the pastor stands up to announce his resignation, he probably won’t mention his problems with the board … especially if it affects any separation package he may receive.

Just like baseball managers, elected politicians, business CEOs, and rock bands, few positions in this world come with automatic lifetime appointments.

But for some reason, many of us assume that our beloved pastor will stay at our church forever.

When he leaves, we may grieve for a while, but in the back of our minds, we wonder:

Why did he really leave?

I’ve shared five possible reasons with you.

But if you really want to know, there’s one surefire way to find out:

Why don’t you ask him?

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My first few years as a pastor, I wanted to quit every other Monday.

And there were some people in my second church ministry who wanted to help that process along.

One Saturday morning, our church held a workday.  We had a small gymnasium, and at the front of the gym were two rooms used for storage.  One room contained several boxes of hymnbooks that were so old even the rescue mission wouldn’t take them.  They were at least three generations old … and nobody, but nobody, wanted them.

So I took the boxes and threw them in the church dumpster.

I should have thrown them out after the workday, however, when no one else was around … because my all-time greatest church nemesis (I’ll call him Phil) discovered the hymn books in the dumpster even though I thought I had covered them up pretty well.

Phil went around and told everybody … not that I had thrown out the old hymnbooks … but that I was throwing out the old hymns!

Phil’s charge simply wasn’t true.  I grew up on hymns and love many of them to this day.  While our church was learning new praise songs at the time – this was the late 1980s – we still sang hymns all the time.  Phil wasn’t comfortable with the changes I was making with our worship service, so he needed some issue against me.

So he did what many pastoral antagonists do.

Phil gathered a group around him, and they began writing down all kinds of things they didn’t like about me.

For one thing, they didn’t like the short dresses worn by the wife of a band member.  One critic demanded that I put a stop to her sleazy attire.  But this woman was struggling with her faith and her marriage … and I wasn’t about to drive her away from the church by telling her how to dress.

The group also attacked my wife, my nine-year-old son, and my six-year-old daughter for the flimsiest of reasons.

But the coup de grace occurred when they read the church constitution and noticed that I recommended that the constitution be null and void after five years.

Their conclusion?  After five years, I planned on taking over the church and running it as a dictatorship.  In other words, I would become the constitution!

The truth is that I just wanted to force us to update our governing document every few years … an idea I borrowed from Christian management guru Ted Engstrom.

The group came up with a lot more charges against me … most of which I mercifully cannot remember.

But here’s what I want you to know: they were almost all exaggerated.

When an antagonist decides to attack a pastor, that person usually takes a flaw in the pastor’s character or a mistake the pastor made and blows it up so the pastor looks evil.

And one of the tipoffs is that the antagonist along with his/her group never talks to the pastor directly about their issue(s).

What would happen if they did?

Most likely, the pastor would offer an explanation that would neutralize or negate the charges.

Because the antagonist cannot let the pastor interfere with his/her plan, the antagonist goes around the pastor and shares his charges with others as if they’re fact … and he/she has to exaggerate the charges to make the pastor look as bad as possible.

And wonder of wonders … a few people actually believe the overstated charges.

This is the devil’s modus operandi.  Isn’t this the same tactic Satan used against Jesus?

Jesus was accused by the Jews of blasphemy (because He called Himself the Son of God … which He was) and by the Romans of sedition against the state (because Jesus admitted He was a king … which He was) because they had only one king: Caesar.

And the sad thing about exaggerating charges against someone is that it often works … even though it’s evil.

Paul writes his ministry protege Timothy and urges him in 1 Timothy 5:19: “Do not listen to an accusation against an elder [includes pastors; see verse 17] unless it is confirmed by two or three witnesses.”

In other words, if you’re going to charge a pastor with wrongdoing, you better get it right … because all of heaven is watching the process very carefully (5:21).

Whenever you discuss someone’s misbehavior, make sure you are as accurate as possible.  While you don’t have to minimize misconduct, make sure you don’t maximize it, either.

And if you’re ever going to get rid of the old hymnals, load them in the trunk of your car and throw them out at home.

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