What to do when your pastor stirs the pot

“….according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal….”  (2 Timothy 2:9)

Pot-stirring: To take a stand on a controversial issue.  Known colloquially as “opening a can of worms.”  Rocking the boat. Rubbing the old cat’s fur the wrong way.  Upsetting apple carts.

Expect it.

It’s a poor pastor who doesn’t stir the pot from time to time.

They didn’t crucify Jesus for sweet-talking the 23rd Psalm, for explaining the symbolic meaning of items in the Tabernacle, or for spending six months on the Greek verbs.  He took a stand on what matters most, and when people didn’t like it, He held His ground and paid the ultimate price.

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You’re the pastor of a church. Speak out or not on these cultural hot potatoes?

Man, who made me your judge?  Take heed and beware of covetousness.  A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.”  –Our Lord, when asked to settle an issue dividing a family  (Luke 12)

The issue dividing our families today is the “take the knee during the National Anthem.”   The NFL is ground zero for this firestorm.  No one seems neutral, and some on each end of the spectrum are going ballistic.

Listen to the pros and cons.  Does kneeling during the National Anthem dishonor the flag and insult everyone who fought for this country? Don’t those millionaire football players know they’re driving away the people who are paying their exorbitant salaries?

Stuff like that.  It’s burdensome,wearisome, and then some.

Symbols are everything to some people.

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People who need to tremble

“The devils believe and tremble.”  –James 2:19

The devils shudder, my NASB says.

I know some people who need to be shuddering and shaking in their boots.  They are going to stand before the Lord and give account–as we all are–for the deeds and words they have used as weapons. They’re going to be called to account for the disrupted churches and destroyed lives in their wake.  Harvey and Irma have nothing on these people.

The prospect of that ought to leave them trembling and shivering in their boots.

I think I know why they don’t.

“By God’s Word at last my sin I learned; Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned, Till my guilty soul imploring turned, to Calvary.” (Hymn by William Newell, 1895)

Asked for the greatest thought he’d ever had, Andrew Murray is said to have answered, “My accountability to God.”

That’s what is missing in the minds and hearts and lives of some of the fiercest of troublemakers who wreak havoc in the Lord’s churches.

They do not believe in God.

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Those frustrating times with church members

Any pastor can tell you about that.  Even when you do your best to serve God by ministering to His people, some church members are not going to forgive you.  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 people more than the precious times.  Perhaps it’s because the strained connections and hard words feed into my own insecurities.  Or maybe it’s because there are so many more of the blessed times.  It’s human nature, I know. Help us, Lord.

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

First, the church member who is mad at you needlessly

On returning from an out-of-town engagement, a staff member told me I needed to call Selma, that she was angry about something.  Selma was married to a deacon, a  good guy, and they were not high maintenance but generally supportive.  I could not imagine her being angry with anyone. I called her immediately.

“My sister is in the hospital and none of you have come by to visit.”  That was her complaint.

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When church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times some 20 or more years ago.

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, without doubt I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflicts with church leadership and carping 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.

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Why do church people hang on to their jobs too long?

“Diotrephes who loves the preeminence…”  (3 John 9)

In one church I served, the assistant pastor had been there for over 25 years and was long past retirement age.  After I learned he was working against my leadership, when our people started talking about his retiring, I jumped on that bandwagon.  We set a date, with his complete involvement, and the congregation gave a generous love offering.  Then, just before the big day, the personnel committee informed me that they were asking him to remain in place.  He would not be retiring.

Yes, they “informed” me. They didn’t ask.

He gladly stayed on, seeing himself as the savior of the church against this young whippersnapper of a pastor.  (I was 46, not exactly a kid.)

And no, he did not return the love gift.

Why would he want to hold onto the job?  It seemed to give him a sense of prestige being a prominent leader in the city’s most storied church.  That and a dollar would have bought him a cup of coffee.

If you conclude I had more problems in that church than just the assistant pastor, you would be correct.  I ended up leaving after only three years on less than ideal terms.

What’s funny about that–sad funny, not ha-ha funny–is that two years later, I heard the new pastor was trying to get him to retire and having a time of it.  I had to smile.

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What is a pastor to do when a church kicks him out?

The headline from an online preacher magazines says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll not be reading that article, thank you.  But a lot of people will.  Looks to me like he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher walks away bitter, that does concern me.

No one deserves to pastor the Lord’s church.

Your bitterness feels like you no longer trust the Lord.  Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes.  But the one thing He requires to pull that off is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever He has chosen.

Repeat:  Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes five years!

Sure it’s hard.  It’s very hard.

In fact, most people won’t be able to pull it off.  They will grasp their hurt to themselves like a prized possession and refuse to give it up.  Only those who truly trust the Savior can keep their eyes on Him, keep abiding in Him, and keep on trusting and loving and giving.

“The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor….”

What other things can the ousted pastor do, now that his status with the church is no longer in doubt?

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What I told the embattled pastor

Some friend reading this may think I’m revealing a confidence.  But the fact is I have much of the same conversation almost weekly.  Pastors call or visit to tell of the stresses they are facing, the opposition threatening their ministry, and various crises their church is dealing with, each one more than they can bear.  One said, “The strain is killing me.”    That is the background to this piece….

You’re the pastor of the church.  Things have gone well for the first couple of years (or longer) in this ministry.  You have loved a hundred things about serving here.  But lately, things have slowed down and you’re now hearing a rumbling in the congregation.  It’s like footsteps in the night.

They’re after you.

A few people have lurked around the edges of the fellowship since you arrived as pastor.  They seemed to be searching for something to use against you.  They spoke pleasant words but the sinister reports you heard made you guard yourself around them. And then, something occurred in the church to ignite the opposition against you.  The “something” could have been trouble with a staff member, a moral problem with a leader, a heavy contributor dying or moving away causing financial hardships, anything.  It doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite a fuel dump.

Members who had been on the fence about your leadership now jump onto the bandwagon opposing you.  Finally, they found something they could use against you.  The nay-sayers come out of the woodwork.  Some withhold their offerings and then they say, “The church finances are hurting, proving the pastor is failing.”

Nothing about this is fun.

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The noise of wolves in the night…and a few church members

You’re getting scared.  Your enemies are making fierce noises.  There are so many of them. You  are shaking in your boots, your time may be up, the end may be near, and as pastor, you have nowhere to go.  Whatever will you do? This is so awful.

Or, maybe not.

In the mid-1840s, Ulysses S. Grant was a Second Lieutenant in the war between the U.S. and Mexico, with the prize being Texas.  Grant’s “Memoirs” make fascinating reading.  We’re told that Grant was the first former president to write his memoirs, and these are generally conceded to be the best of the lot.  (Before reading the Memoirs, I read “Grant’s Final Victory,” an account of the last year of his life when he penned his story to earn enough money to provide for his wife after his impending death.  Great story.  He was a far better man than he is often given credit for. )

At one point, Grant and some troopers were in west Texas, which was sparsely settled except by the Indians and plenty of varmints. One night, they heard “the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front.”  The tall grass hid the wolves but they were definitely close by.  “To my ear, it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all at a single meal.”

The part of Ohio where Grant had been brought up had no wolves, but his friend Lt. Calvin Benjamin came from rural Indiana where they were still in abundance.  “He understood the nature of the animal and the capacity of a few to make believe there was an unlimited number of them.”

Benjamin began moving straight toward the wolves, seemingly unafraid.  “I followed in his trail, lacking moral courage to turn back….”

After a bit, Benjamin spoke. “Grant, how many wolves do you think are in that pack?’

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When enough is enough: The pastor throws down the gauntlet.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  –a line from “Me and Bobby McGee,” an iconic song of the 1960s written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster

There comes a time in a pastor’s ministry….

The Lord’s servant has taken all he’s going to take.  He has reached the point where getting fired from this church would be a relief.  And yet, he knows the Lord who called him into the ministry assigned him to this particular congregation, and he has no intention of walking away.  However, the time has come to speak out and tell God’s people what is going on.

A small but determined group of members is waging warfare against the preacher. They want him subservient to them, they want him different from who he is, they want him “out.” Snipers work in the darkness to undercut him.  A little group conspires to oust him.  Others simply detest him and are constantly voicing their displeasure with him.

Their work is crippling the ministry of the church and destroying the effectiveness of this minister.

And these are all leaders.

The trusting congregation loves the pastor and believes all is well.  They don’t have a clue.

God help your church!

(NOTE:  Whenever I post an article on the mistreatment of God’s servant, invariably someone will message me about some hot-shot preacher who mistreated a church, stole its money, and ran off with a deacon’s wife.  Please spare us.  We are well aware there are hypocrites in the pulpit as everywhere else in life.  But no one has a license to dishonor God by shaming the ministers He sends to lead His church.)

“The Holy Spirit makes the pastors the overseers of the church.”  That’s in Acts 20:28.  So, let’s establish this up front.

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