Posts Tagged ‘disagreeing with a pastor’

Even though the event happened thirty years ago, I still remember it like it was yesterday.

I was in my second pastorate.

As a young pastor, I was trying to put a new twist on some old practices … so one Sunday morning, I did communion differently.

I substituted pita bread for those small wafers, and used Styrofoam cups instead of the tiny plastic ones.

In my mind, it was just an experiment.

After the service, many people told me how much they enjoyed communion … especially the young couples.

As I recall, nobody voiced any objections … until the following Sunday.

At 10:55 that morning … five minutes before the service began … I stepped into the men’s room.  The church’s 77-year-old songleader joined me.

While standing where men momentarily stand, the songleader told me:

“I didn’t like the way communion was done last Sunday.”

I replied, “Well, many people told me how much they enjoyed doing communion differently.”

When I asked him why some didn’t like it, he responded, “Too unsanitary.”

And then he added, “And many people agree with me.”

I asked him, “How many?”  He replied, “Five.”

I then asked, “What are their names?”

He replied, “I’m not telling you that.”

My well-meaning friend … who has long since gone to be with Jesus … could have handled the situation much better.

In fact, let me share with you three tips for disagreeing with a pastor:

First, never confront a pastor right before or right after a worship service.

My friend had one full week to discuss his feelings with me.

He could have called me on the phone or set up an appointment.

Had he shared his concerns during the week, we could have had a relaxed discussion.

But right before a service, pastors are intensely focused on their message.  Their entire week culminates with their sermon.

Because pastors are usually sensitive individuals, one stray comment can negatively impact their feelings and thus their sermon, impacting an entire congregation.

After a pastor preaches, he’s drained … especially if he has to speak more than once.

Although pastors work hard to be gracious after they preach, they’ve emptied themselves spiritually and emotionally … and if people criticize him, his reactions can be unpredictable.

It’s far better to write the pastor an email on Monday or give him a call during the week … but let him go before and after he speaks.

Second, choose an optimal setting for dialogue.

I can’t speak for women, but men don’t have substantive conversations in a restroom.

The pastor’s study might be a good place for a discussion … or a restaurant … but not a place where men tend to get in and then get out.

I realize that some people see their pastor on a Sunday and think, “Oh, I meant to call him this past week, but he’s right there, so I’ll talk to him now.”

But the heavier the issue, the more time it requires … and the church patio is not the optimal place for discussion.

It’s better to say to the pastor, “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you this next week.  When would be the best time to talk?”

Then let the pastor tell you how to approach him … and I guarantee he’ll listen better.

Third, always speak for yourself when you have a disagreement.

My friend thought that if he told me that others agreed with him, it would add weight to his argument, but it had the opposite effect.

Because if you don’t tell me who you represent, I can’t verify the truthfulness of your claim.

All he needed to say was, “I didn’t like the way you did communion last week.”  Now the two of us can dialogue one-on-one.

But when you bring phantom individuals into the room … and you won’t tell me their names … what am I supposed to say?

“You’re right … I’ll never do that again?”

After that encounter, I learned to make an additional statement to anyone who called upon phantom witnesses:

“Please tell anyone who is upset to speak with me personally.  If they do, I promise to listen.  If they don’t, then I will assume the issue isn’t that important.”

Over the years, know how many phantom witnesses later came to me?

That’s right … not one.

That should tell you something.

Pastors are not popes or angels.  They make mistakes … and it’s all right to discuss their mistakes with them.

Just avoid sermon time, bathrooms, and phantom witnesses.









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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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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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