Not being into psychoanalysis–or for that matter, not being into picking up on subliminal vibes from people even a little–I do not know all the reasons why good people do some of the dumb things they do.
Take church people and how they relate to their preachers, for instance.
Sometimes members of the flock do nice things for their shepherd in cruel ways. They offer good gifts but on looking closely, you can see the hooks attached. They offer sweet praise with barbs on the end.
Do they know what they are doing? Are they aware that in doing these things they only add to the burdens of their spiritual leaders? Do they know they’re being cruel?
I expect most of us would disagree with our answers on that. I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Here are several “gifts” no pastor wants or needs or should ever receive from those who value his ministry and wish to encourage him.
1. Anonymous criticism.
“Pastor, could I have a word with you? Pastor, you need to know that some members of the congregation are upset about that sermon you preached last Sunday.” Or, that program you started. Or that staff member you are bringing in. Or that family you singled out for praise.
Some members of the congregation. Or even worse, a lot of church members. Translation: “My wife and I.”
Rudy Hough, chairman of deacons in the Columbus, Mississippi, church I served for a dozen years, had a wise word for every new deacon ordained in that congregation. “Now that you are a deacon, church members will be calling you from time to time with criticism of one of the ministers. I want to tell you how to handle it.
“Listen to them, then say, ‘All right, come on with me and we’ll go see him.’ If they will, fine. But if they say, ‘No, you do it,’ then you say, ‘All right. But I’m going to use your name.’
“If they refuse to let you use their name, then say, ‘Then that’s the end of it. I refuse to take anonymous criticism to my ministers.’”
That’s maturity. Wisdom. It’s doing the responsible thing. How we ministers could wish every lay leader of every church subscribed to that philosophy.
2. Manipulative gifts.
“Pastor, I know you like to dress well. So, this gift card is for Reed’s Men’s Store. They’ve been told to give you whatever you want there. Price is no object.”
Most pastors have not had that happen. Some of us have. What do you do then? Answer: it depends on many things.
Are you new in the church? Do you know these people? Can they be trusted? Are they trying to buy your approval for what they are doing? or your silence from the pulpit? Will they tell others what they did for you?
If you’re uncertain, ask two of the most trusted leaders of the congregation. Pay close attention to their words as well as what they do not say.
On one occasion a family approached my wife and me with an offer hard to refuse. As their new pastor, we had moved from an apartment into the church’s parsonage, which had lots more space than we had furniture.
“We would like to furnish your living room,” they said.
That would be a gift of several thousand dollars.
After praying about it, we said, “Thank you very, very much. I wonder if you would let us decline it for the moment? After all, we’ve just arrived, and we want to get to know you for who you are, not for the wonderful things you have done for us. Would that be all right?”
And because they were the wonderful people they seemed to be, they were fine with that. For the next couple of years, our young sons used the spare living room as a playground. Then, when we decided it was safe (and time), we called the couple and said, “Remember the offer you made to furnish our living room? Could we take you up on it now?”
We still have several pieces this precious couple bought for our home.
I know a minister of music who was given a new car. The men making the gift were thanking him for his extraordinary work in holding their church together over an interim period. The minister thanked them, then said, “I need to ask you a question. Does this obligate me in any way for the future?”
They assured him it did not, that if God called him to another church the next week, he had earned their undying gratitude.
3. Critical praise.
Sometimes called “back-handed compliments,” they look like this:
“Oh, pastor, that was an outstanding sermon. Far better than what you’ve been preaching.”
“Preacher, you’ve really been giving us inspired messages. I told my wife I bet you’ve been studying.” Or praying. Or whatever.
“My neighbor was bragging on her preacher the other day. I told her our preacher is great too….no matter what some are saying.”
“Finally, pastor, a great sermon!”
Wonder where members of the congregation ever came by the notion that their primary ministry is to critique the pastor’s sermon. You get the impression that some feel if they have bragged on you, they’ve fulfilled their assignment for the Lord that week.
4. Intrusive friendship.
I struggled a bit trying to decide what to call this. Presumptive friendship? Assumptive? It goes like this:
“Pastor, welcome to our church. My name is Gene Hawkins and I want to be your best friend. I’ll be coming by first thing tomorrow for coffee. I want you to feel free to call me whenever you need to know anything about the church or our people.”
No, thank you, Gene. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.
Whether he knows it or not–as I said above, I’m not good at reading people’s motives–Gene is being manipulative. He wants to be known around the church as the pastor’s alter ego, as the one in the know, as the big frog in this little pond, for reasons of his own.
Because the chairman of deacons of that church had also chaired the search committee, he felt a responsibility to make sure I did well. One day he said, “Pastor, what if I come by every day at noon and we can pray throughout the lunch hour.” Oh my. That felt oppressive, but because I was 27 and he was twice that, as well as a man of great personal magnetism, there is no way I could turn that down.
We prayed every day during the noon hour for a few weeks. Then, he said, “Pastor, someone has been saying, ‘There goes Lawrence down to the church to give the preacher his instructions.’ So, I guess we’re going to have to quit these sessions.”
I was not unhappy, even though I had great appreciation for him.
Lawrence and Gene no doubt had great intentions. But their proposals were unwise. The pastor must know how to thank them and stall for time. “Please let me talk to the Lord about tthat, and I’ll get back to you” works well. Then, pray and do as God leads.
5. Unrealistic expectations.
“Pastor, we just know you’re going to do wonderful things at our church. Why, I tell everyone I see that a year from now our church will be running 800 on Sunday morning!”
“Preacher, I sense the presence of God in your life. I have no doubt He is going to use you to bring revival to this city. Watch out, devil–Reverend Cornshucker is here!” (Okay, found a use for that name. 🙂
“As you know, preacher, our church has had money problems in the past. But your reputation as a fundraiser precedes you. Our financial woes are a thing of the past, I just know. Praise the Lord.”
Hey. Don’t do me any favors. The last thing I, as your new preacher, need is people putting standards of perfection upon me.
Rather, there are other gifts, better ones, stronger and godlier, which preachers need from those who would value their ministry.
What the new pastor needs from his members–particularly the lay leaders–is understanding that he is human and the freedom to make the occasional mistake.
He needs time to adjust, to learn the members, to find his way, and to receive God’s vision for his ministry in this place.
He needs encouragement with no strings attached, from people whose eyes are fixed firmly on the Lord and not on this flawed human who has been sent to shepherd them.
He needs resources to attend the occasional conference, buy a needed book, subscribe to a valuable periodical, or bring in an outside consultant whose insights and wisdom he would find critical.
He needs your love and prayers above all.
“Father, thank you for this minister. He is yours, but he is also ours, at least for a time. He did not volunteer for this ministry but you called him into it. He did not offer to come to our church on his own, but you sent him. So, help us to value him as a gift from Heaven, although in human form. To love and encourage him, to understand and value him, and to free him to be all you had in mind in sending him here.
“And Father, when those difficult days come–when the pastor makes proposals that are not popular, when he suggests changes which I didn’t want, when he preaches messages that step on our toes–Oh, especially then, give us hearts set on Thee to accept this man’s leadership and to be found faithful. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
This is an afterthought. If you want to make a gift to the pastor, one with no strings at all attached but which would bless him, consider making it anonymously.
This is definitely not a suggestion you write him an anonymous note and enclose cash. If he’s like some of us–who have learned the hard way after being burned by unsigned letters–he might tear up such notes without reading them.
The way to do this is to make the gift to the appropriate committee (finance, personnel) or through the treasurer, with the understanding that the donor wishes to remain unknown. Tell him it is a gift from the Lord. This assumes, of course, that your church’s financial people are faithful stewards of such responsibility and can keep confidences. If that’s not the case, your church has bigger problems than we can address here.
Scripture teaches that when you help a servant of the Lord along the way, even for something so simple as a cup of cold water, you do it unto the Lord and share in that servant’s reward. (See the end of Matthew 10)
Potent stuff, those gifts to God’s servants.