The “church conflict” question that will get you laughed out of church

“Why do you not rather suffer wrong?” (I Corinthians 6:7)

A dog can whip a polecat, the saying goes, but it’s not worth it.

Some fights you need to walk away from.

We’ve told here of the time in 2004 when a small group of members of a local Baptist church was taking the pastor and trustees to court over what they perceived as breaches of scripture, ethics, and good sense.  As their new associational leader, I was invited to sit in with them one evening and hear the reasons they were taking such serious action. Toward the end of the evening, the leader said, “So, what do you think?”

I said, “I think you should walk away from this. No one is going to win on this thing except the lawyers. Everything about this is wrong and bad.”

He said quietly, “We can’t. It’s gone too far for that now.”

He was wrong. They could have stopped that train in its tracks by a phone call to the lawyers. In doing so, they would have saved a church from going out of existence (within a year, the church “gave” itself away to another church that would take over its indebtedness), saved themselves and the church a ton of money (both sides hired teams of lawyers from high-priced New Orleans firms), and saved the cause of Christ a lot of bad press (the media jumps all over these things).

It’s never too late to back away from a fight.

It’s just hard. And takes more strength than most people can muster.

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Rethinking divorce: What if we started believing Scripture?

“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:11).

Many churches have in their bylaws a statement that divorce disqualifies a member from being considered as a pastor or a deacon.

I’m suggesting we need to start believing God’s word and quit making divorce the unpardonable sin.

In the qualifications for deacons (I Timothy 3:8-13), verse 12 says, “Husband of one wife.”  That “one wife” business has been interpreted in a dozen ways–everything from a deacon must be married (no unmarried person, whether single or widowed, can be a deacon), to no divorced person at all (no matter how many years ago and what kind of record of faithfulness you have achieved over the decades), to no one in a polygamous relationship, and so forth.

Likewise, some churches have women deacons because, while verse 11 says “the women also”–traditionally interpreted to mean wives of deacons–no similar statement is given in I Timothy 3:1-7 which gives qualifications for pastors.  If this refers to the deacons’ wives, shouldn’t there be something about pastors’ wives? But there isn’t. So, many have decided verse 11 refers not to wives of deacons, but to women deacons.  (Argue if you wish, but Paul is not here to tell us what he had in mind.)

The point is: Since these verses are not clear, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ interpret them in various ways.

Why then do our churches insist that I Timothy 3:12 prohibits a divorced person from becoming a deacon?

I suggest the answer is found in Matthew 19:9. “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”  This seems to state very clearly that unless a person has “grounds” for divorce, remarriage amounts to adultery.

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Word studies can bless those who study God’s Word

What made me want to study Greek and Hebrew in seminary was faithful preachers during my college years who sometimes gave us the meaning of a word in their sermons.  Not too much, of course.  It’s easy to overdo this.  And nothing very technical.  The guy in the pew does not care a whit about the aorist tense or pluperfect whatever, or that Josephus used this in one way and Herodotus another.

Pastors should do this sparingly, but when they do it wisely and well, a word study can enrich Bible study and inspire the hearers.  (I suggest no more than one word meaning from the Greek or Hebrew per sermon.  The average worshiper can absorb only so much, and we must not presume upon their kindnesses.)

Here are a few from Pau’s Letter to the Philippians…

“…so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10).

The word “sincere” here is rich in meaning.  Our English word comes from the Latin “sin” meaning “without” and “ceres” meaning “wax.”  Without wax.  We’re told this refers to the shoddy practice of sculptors in the past.  While working on a piece of art, the marble might develop a crack.  Rather than discard the piece or try to repair it, the unscrupulous artist might fill it with wax.  It looked great and fooled the buyer….until he built a fire in the room where the piece was being displayed.  The heat melted the wax, and the fraud was discovered.  A truly sincere person is someone without wax, we would say.  Someone who can take the heat.

We used to speak of certain people being “plastic,” meaning a cheap imitation of the real thing.

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The preacher said something I disagree with. Horrors!

“…they received the Word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

When I asked where he went to church, the man working on my house said, “I used to go to church across the river.  But the preacher said something I disagreed with.”

It was all I could do not to laugh out loud.

But he was serious.

After giving him a moment to elaborate, which he did not do, I said, “Man, I would hope so.”

He seemed interested.

I said, “Wouldn’t it be terrible to have a preacher who said only the things that I know and taught only what I believe? What would be the point of going to hear him if I already knew what he was going to say? There’s so much more to God than what little I already know!”

Lord, make us teachable.

It’s a mark of maturity to welcome correction, to recognize and appreciate constructive insights to make our lives better. The godliest person comes to church hoping to hear something that blesses, something that corrects him, something that inspires her, whether they had previously known it or agreed with it or not. 

A quick scan of Scripture produces a long lineup of people who heard God calling their name, who made themselves available to Him, and then were told something they didn’t want to hear!

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The pastor feels under-appreciated. What to do.

Give honor to whom honor is due.  –Romans 13:7

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.  –I Timothy 5:17

In my denomination October is “Pastor Appreciation Month.” I suspect most of our churches work at observing it. In social media I see where pastor friends are expressing thanks for being recognized and honored.

It’s good to be appreciated.

But what if you aren’t?

What is a pastor to do when the time of appreciation comes and goes without one word of affirmation from his congregation? The denomination suggested everyone show appreciation to pastors and ministers on staff and the silence was deafening.  The anniversary came and went without any recognition from the church.

Should he take the slight personally?  Should he be offended?  Take it as a sign that he should be looking for his next place of service?

A pastor said to me, “Is it all right if I feel hurt?”

I’m perhaps not the right one to answer this, as my pastorates all did a fair job of showing appreciation when it was called for.  One church celebrated my tenth anniversary with a huge dinner at the city auditorium where the featured guests were people from my past who had influenced me–Sunday School teachers, my college president and his wife, classmates.  Then, they presented my wife and me with all-expense paid tickets to the Holy Land.  (I served only one other church more than ten years and don’t recall what they did. But I’m sure they did something.)

To the pastor who called me feeling under-appreciated, there are three points to be made.  I offer them here humbly.

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Church staffs: Rules to live by

I asked some of my minister friends for their advice concerning church staff relationships.  Here in no particular order are their responses.

1. Jim says, “Be very careful whom you trust completely.”

In over 3 decades of ministry, Jim says he has been brutally betrayed at least 3 times. It has made him wary about trusting anyone with anything confidential.

I’m recalling a time two churches ago when the personnel committee and I were dealing with a sensitive issue, long since forgotten. I said, “Can I say something in here and it not go any further?” The chairman said, “Pastor, I wouldn’t say anything in here you do not want to get out.”

That was a courageous thing for him to do. As subtly as he knew how, the chairman was warning me off from trusting some of the people in that room. In time, I learned he knew whereof he was speaking.

2. Andy says, “First, pastor the staff. Be their shepherd.”

Something inside us wants to protest, that, well, the staff are all ministers and they don’t need pastoring. They do. In fact, preacher, so do you.

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Those frustrating times with some church members

Pastoring God’s people can be exhausting.

Even when you do your best to serve God by ministering to His people, some are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt on anything nor forgive you for not living up to their impossible expectations.

You didn’t do it their way, weren’t there when they called, didn’t jump at their bark.

Those are the exceptions, I hasten to say to friends who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of members to focus on the 2 percent who drive us batty.  It’s the 2 percent of drivers who are the crazies on the highways and ruin the experience for everyone else.  It’s the 2 percent of society who require us to maintain a standing army to enforce laws.  Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent will kill you.

I say to my own embarrassment and confess it as unworthy of a child of God that I remember these difficult moments with God’s headstrong people more than the precious times with the saints.  Perhaps it’s because the strained connections and harsh words feed into my own insecurities.  Or maybe it’s because there are so many more of the blessed times.

Even so, here are two instances from my journal that stand out….

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When church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times in a church I served some years back.

Consider that the church was still recovering from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation but an all-consuming debt.  Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during the fight, while others nursed hurts and anger from the same tragic event.  I’d not been around during that catastrophe, I’m happy to report, but the Father had sent me in to help the congregation pick up the pieces and return to health and usefulness.

It was hard.

I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd another congregation that was divided.  So, I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflicts with church leadership and the demoralizing griping from church membership.

Naïve, huh?  Probably so.  People are going to look and act like who they are.

Daily I was being undermined by the angry, criticized by the hurting, ostracized by the pious, and scrutinized to the nth degree by leaders, self-appointed and otherwise.  When I tried to do a few things I considered normal and healthy, these also were thrown back in my face.

The journal records my efforts to bring in community leaders for a forum during which the guest would speak and be questioned.  Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.

I was stunned.  They don’t see the need? Aren’t they citizens who vote and who are affected by the actions of political leaders? Do they not care?  Where have these people been?

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How to grow a small church

“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or by the many” (I Samuel 14:6).

Depending on a number of factors, growing a small church may be one of the more do-able things pastors can achieve.

Those variable factors include…

–the health of the church.  You don’t want a sick church to grow; you want it to get well first!  I once told my congregation, “There’s a good reason no one is joining this church.  I wouldn’t join it either!” Believe it or not, those words were inspired and they received them well, and repented. Soon, the church began to grow.

the attitude of the congregation.  If people are satisfied with the status quo, they would not welcome newcomers.  I’ve known Sunday School classes composed of a small cluster of best friends who felt imposed on by visitors and new members.  No one wants to go where they’re not wanted.

and the location of the facility.  A church situated five miles down an isolated road, at the end of the dead end trail, can almost certainly forget about growing.

The great thing about pastoring a healthy, small church is you can make a big difference in a hurry.

My seminary pastorate had run 40 in attendance for many years. The day the little congregation voted to call me as pastor, I overheard a man saying to another, “This little church is doing all it’s ever going to do.”  I was determined to prove him wrong.

Within one month, we hit 65 in attendance.

What had happened is this…

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Turning sarcasm into “sic ’em!”

“Jesus said, ‘No doubt you will quote this proverb to me, “Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” No prophet is welcome in his own hometown’” (Luke 4:24). 

John Fogerty’s group Creedence Clearwater Revival is unforgettable to anyone who has owned a radio in the last 50 years.  Several years ago, in an interview with newsman Dan Rather, Fogerty was remembering a key moment in the 1960s.

The group was one of many bands to perform at a particular event.  As the final group to warm up, and thus the first band to appear on stage, suddenly CCR found they had been unplugged.  John Fogerty yelled to the sound man to plug them back up, that they weren’t through.  The technician did so reluctantly, then added, “You not going anywhere anyway, man.”  Fogerty said, “Okay.  Give me one year.  I’ll show you.”

One year later, the group was so hot with hit record after hit record (“Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising”) that “we were too big to play in that place any more!”

Turning sarcasm into a healthy sic ’em!  Something to spur you onward instead of allowing it to crush your spirit and keep you down.

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