Posts Tagged ‘criticizing pastors’

While going through some old church files recently, I stumbled upon a folder I forgot I had.

The folder contained documentation related to a couple who had once left a church I pastored.  I’ll call them Harry and Mary.

Harry came to Christ under my ministry.  A while later, I married him to Mary, a long-time Christian.  They attended several small groups that I led.

I even invited Harry over to watch the Super Bowl with me one year.

During premarital counseling, I discovered that Mary struggled with a particular issue.  While I made suggestions on how to manage things, there didn’t appear to be a long-term solution at hand.

Then one Sunday morning, I made a strong statement from the pulpit that reflected a value I held dear.  I could have said it better, but I explained it and moved on.

But I had hit a nerve with Harry and Mary.  They were incensed at what I had said.

Harry and Mary were part of a group that met after the first service.  When they entered the room, they immediately began criticizing me to a new couple.

That new couple never returned.

I don’t remember receiving flak from anyone else after making my statement, but Harry would not let me forget it.

He made an appointment with me in my office and wanted me to apologize for the statement that I made while preaching.

If he had said, “Jim, I appreciate your ministry.  I enjoy your preaching and have learned a lot about the Bible from you.  But that statement you made really stung, and here’s why,” I probably would have said, “Harry, I still believe in what I said, but I admit to you I could have said it better.”

But that’s not what Harry did.  He demanded an immediate apology.

Some pastors would have apologized on the spot.  Others would have stood their ground.

I tend to come from the “stand your ground” group.

And all I could think of was, “If I apologize this time for something I said while preaching, is he going to demand more apologies in the future?”

If I apologized, I was extremely concerned about the precedent I would be sending.

So I tried to explain rather than apologize … but that wasn’t enough for Harry.

He and his wife wrote a letter to the church board.  The chairman listened to the recording of my message.

The board’s conclusion: I hadn’t said anything wrong.

The board unanimously stood behind me, and Harry and Mary fired off another letter to the board, letting them know in detail why they were leaving the church.

Pastors would rather gather sheep than drive sheep away, but when sheep begin to threaten the shepherd, the shepherd must enforce boundaries.

Let me make four statements about people who threaten to leave a church:

First, making threats is a power move, not a love move.

Several years ago, I traced the English words “threat,” “threats,” and “threatening” throughout both Testaments and could not find a single instance in which those terms were used in a positive manner in Scripture.

When someone threatens us, they promise, “If you do A, I will do B” or “If you don’t do A, I will do B.”

Using a threat implies that the person making it (a) is superior to the person being threatened, and (b) views himself or herself as being indispensable.

While our world often operates by threats, that’s not the picture we receive in Scripture of how relationships operate in the body of Christ.

If I could do it all over again, I would have told Harry, “When you threaten me, I feel defensive and resistant.  If you’ll calm down and rephrase how you feel, I can hear you better.”

Second, making threats damages innocent people.

I once served on a church staff and was approached by someone who told me, “If the pastor doesn’t start doing Such-and-Such, ten percent of the people in this church are going to leave.”

That wasn’t a warning … that was a threat.

Based upon our attendance at the time, ten percent equaled 25 or 30 people.

That’s a lot of attendees … a lot of volunteers … and a lot of givers.  If they all left, it might take several years to replace them, and that can cause a pastor … or staffer … to panic.

My experience tells me that only a handful of those 25-30 people really felt strongly about the issue.  In fact, the likelihood is that most people agreed to join the cause simply to support their friends.

Knowing what I know now, I would have told the person making the threat, “This isn’t the best way to handle this situation.  Can you identify for me the two or three people who are most upset by this issue?”

If given their names, I would have said, “Chances are this is just their concern.  If this is a personal matter, I encourage someone to go and speak with the pastor directly.  If this is a policy matter, I encourage someone to go and speak with a board member directly.  But I encourage you to stop speaking for anyone who is unwilling to go directly to the pastor or the board.”

Suggesting a wiser course of action may not always work, but it’s worth a try.

Third, making threats works all too often.

This is why people do it … at least, at church.

People would never make similar threats at work, or at a government office, but they’ll do it with God’s people.  Why?

Peter Steinke writes in his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times that when some people use aggression and anger at church:

“Peace mongering is common.  With tranquility and stability reigning as premium values, congregational leaders adapt to their most recalcitrant and immature people, allowing them to use threats and tantrums as levers of influence.  Malcontents’ complaints never seem to cease.  Unwilling to confront the constant critic, leaders set the table for the unhappy souls to have a movable feast of anxiety.  By appeasing rather than opposing, leaders give control to reactive forces.  Feed them once and leaders can be sure they will be back for more.”

Of course, that’s the problem when threats work: it’s guaranteed those same threats will be used again.

Finally, making threats should never be rewarded.

Once Harry went to power … and refused to shift into love mode … I knew what the outcome was going to be: he and his wife were going to end up leaving the church.

For a few weeks, they sapped the energy out of the congregation, the church board, and their pastor.

More than 95 percent of our congregation liked the church the way it was.  People were growing spiritually and excited about our future.

But the more the board and I engaged with Harry and Mary behind closed doors, the less effective we were in ministering to the rest of the church.

Because of the energy sap, and because most people who make threats are never satisfied, I believe that most pastors and boards should handle similar situations swiftly but firmly by saying:

“We have listened to your complaints.  We have made a decision, and we cannot support the way you have handled things.  You have a choice: either stay at the church and support the ministry, or feel free to leave.  The choice is up to you.”

Pastors should never make threats, either, and those that do should be given the opportunity to rephrase their threat.  But if a pastor consistently says, “If you don’t do this my way, I will resign,” then a church board may reluctantly have to say, “Pastor, we don’t reward threats, so if that’s your final decision, we’ll accept your resignation.”

As a pastor, I hated it when people left the church, and tended to take it personally.

But sometimes, the best possible outcome is for unhappy people to walk out the door and never return … especially if they unwisely use threats.

And when people who use such tactics leave, throw a party!

I always did.













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How do you handle harsh criticism that is directed at you personally?

Most people don’t handle criticism very well.

Some people lash out at their critics.  Others engage in swift retribution.  Many turn to drink or drugs.  Some rush into counseling.

But when pastors are personally attacked, they tend to go into hibernation … especially if those attacks result in a forced exit.

By hibernation, I mean that the pastor holes up somewhere: in his house, a hotel, his car, or even at a friend’s house.

When a pastor hibernates, these phrases go running through his mind:

“I can’t believe what they are saying about me.”

By the time most Christians start attacking their pastor, they have been upset with him for some time.  They’ve probably shared their feelings with family members, good friends, or co-workers.

But the pastor remains unaware of those latent feelings until they surface … and when the pastor hears what is being said about him … or to him … he goes into a state of shock.

Many years ago, someone at my church accused me of a serious charge to my face.  I had received zero training on how to handle such an accusation.

I quickly brought over a staff member … called an attorney … then called the leader of the church board.  I repeated the charge to them and assured them of my innocence … and I was innocent.

My instincts led me to go home for the rest of the day.  I could not believe … and still cannot believe … that someone would make such a charge against me.

Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and in league with the devil, even though neither charge was true.  He often withdrew to desolate places to think and to pray … but I wonder if there were times when His spirit was so wounded by the charges some people were making against Him that He chose to hibernate.

“I can’t believe my friend has turned against me.”

It is difficult for most pastors to form close friendships inside their church family.

The larger a church grows, the more likely it is that the pastor spends most of his time with key members of the ministry staff or governing board.  So by default, most pastors select their friendships from the staff or the board.

After the pastor has carefully selected someone to be a friend, he still remains wary of them.  He wonders, “Can I trust them with information about my background?  About my home life?  About my feelings?  About my future plans?”

Some leaders fail the test right away, and while they remain a co-worker, the pastor doesn’t choose to pursue friendship with them.

But a few leaders seem to pass every test, and after a while, the pastor gradually learns to trust them with an increasing amount of personal information … and this process can take years.

So when one of the pastor’s few friends attacks him … or doesn’t support him when he’s under attack by someone else … the pastor is devastated … and all he wants to do is hide.

Judas’s betrayal wounded Jesus, but at least Jesus knew what Judas was going to do ahead of time.  Most pastors have no idea that a friend has become a traitor until it’s too late.

“I no longer know who to trust.”

I’ve been in hibernation mode before, and it’s downright scary.  You feel like the disciples right after Jesus was crucified … hiding out, afraid for your own life.

During my last church ministry, my wife and I were both attacked by people we thought were our friends.  During that time, I was advised to go into hibernation mode by someone who had been through what I was going through.

People from the church wrote me emails, wanting to know what was going on.

Some people called.  Some came to the door.  A few sent flowers.

But I couldn’t be transparent because when you’re in the middle of an attack, you have no idea who is for you or against you.

Put a little too much information into an email, and it could be circulated all over the church.

Reveal too much on the phone or at the door, and it will be repeated to others … often inaccurately.

I even went through my Facebook friends and “unfriended” anyone I suspected might be against me … or was good friends with those who were.

You choose to stay away from others … for a while … until it’s safe to go outside again.

So you hibernate.

“I have to stay safe until I can think straight.”

Imagine that you have a dream job.  You love the work and the people you work with.

Then one day, your boss calls you into her office, and without any warning, she fires you … ordering you to clear out your desk immediately.

How would you feel?

Confused … hurting … fearful … frightened.

You don’t know who to see … where to go … or what to do.

So you do the one thing guaranteed to keep you safe: hibernate.

That’s how pastors feel when they’re under attack.

In my case, I spent much of my time on the telephone speaking to people outside the church: Christian leaders, fellow pastors, ex-board members, close friends, and family members.

Just the interaction on the phone helped keep me sane.

I also spent time writing out what was happening to me and how I felt about it … which became the genesis of my book Church Coup.

I had many theories as to what was happening, and I was able to test those theories with people outside the church … who often gave me critical insights into what they thought was occurring.

When I was under attack, I discovered that the safety of hibernation helped me make better decisions … put things into perspective … and make wiser future decisions.

If you’re a pastor who is presently under attack, that instinct to hide out may very well be from God.

Let others investigate the charges against you and who is opposing you.  Learn all you can but stay out of sight.

And view that time of hibernation as a gift from a God who will eventually right all wrongs.









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