How to Frighten a Preacher

“Pastor, some of our members are concerned.”

That gets his attention, believe me.

You can say all you want about how the minister is God-called and God-protected and that sort of thing, but he would not be human if he did not want the people he’s serving to be supportive and responsive. After all, since he’s sent to help them, he will want some kind of evidence he’s accomplishing his purpose, otherwise, he feels that he has either failed them or God. Or both.

He is vulnerable as a result.

What makes him more vulnerable to negative influences from the congregation is that he has a family to feed and look after the same way you do if you work at the post office, drive a delivery truck, teach school, or extract teeth. The fact that he needs this job means he opens himself up to pressure from his constituents.

As a result, he reacts–at least emotionally–when he hears some of these lines that have been used on preachers since the beginning of the church.

“I know we ought to be reaching all these people and it’s good they’re being saved, but I miss our church the way it used to be.”

Yesterday, the church I visited had 140 in two services. When the pastor came, 3 or 4 years ago, they had 40. In the last 3 Sundays, he has baptized 11 people. Before the benediction, the pastor called on me for (ahem) a few words. I said, “My friends, I am thrilled at the growth your church is having. These are wonderful days in this church. But I need to caution you about something. The devil will not take this lying down. He will raise up people to criticize and oppose, and he’ll do it from within the congregation.”

I said, “Sooner or later, you will hear someone say, ‘I wish our church was the way it used to be.’ When that happens, do not wait for the pastor to address it. That’s your job. You turn to them and say, ‘Are you out of your mind?!'” They laughed, but I hope they got the point.

“I’m not being spiritually fed by your sermons.”

This is a common ruse that accomplishes two things: it puts the preacher down while leaving the impression the critic is super spiritual with a taste for the red meat of the Word. And may I say, such criticism is almost always off base.

I once had a chairman of deacons say, “Preacher, they say you’re not preaching the Word.” I said, “Mike, I just got through preaching through the Gospel of Matthew. What did they mean by that?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Please go back and ask them.” That was the last I heard of it.

“Pastor, some of us have been talking and we feel there is a malaise in the church.”

The answer to this one–those are the exact words I once heard from a group of nay-sayers in my congregation–is a simple one: “Yes there is, and you’re it.”

Why do people think they can spend their days criticizing the pastor and undercutting him, and then fire him because “there is a malaise within the congregation.” There ought to be one; they made it! (Webster defines ‘malaise’ as an unfocused feeling of general unease or discomfort. Yep. That’s exactly what a constant barrage of criticism and non-support builds within a church body.)

“Preacher, we were here a long time before you and we’ll be here after you leave. Don’t tell us what to do with our church.”

This ungodly approach is usually directed toward the pastor of a small church, particularly a first-timer who doesn’t know any better. But its cousin lurks in the hallways and classrooms of the larger churches where members-with-seniority-and-clout (MWSAC) resent the changes the pastor is bringing in.

“Pastor, some of us think it’s time for new leadership.”

This one is also a camouflage for the real reason they are attacking you, pastor. They have no answer for what you preach and the way you are leading. They want you out and the best they can come up with is this nebulous, foggy, smoky reasoning.

The answer to it is, “You’re right. I think you’ve been chairman of deacons long enough, don’t you?”

“Pastor, there’s a delegation of deacons here to see you. Now.”

Nothing strikes terror into the pastor’s soul like this one. He knows the boom is about to be lowered. Even if he stands up to them and carries the day and keeps his job, the fact of the confrontation itself will leave him shattered and unnerved for the rest of the day. No one enjoys this.

My hunch is that fully half those in the pastoring business despise confrontation. They feel called as healers and blessers. They will put up with a lazy staffer, a critical member, or a rebellious leader far longer than they should simply because they hate to call someone on the carpet and have to deal with the consequences. Maybe they’ll move to another church, they think to themselves.

But the worst confrontation of all to a pastor is when they themselves are the subject of the meeting.

What makes it worse is if the preacher has served any length of time, he knows he has failed some people, he has preached some lousy sermons along the way, and he has left undone work he should have pulled off. In other words, he knows he is not guiltless.

Anyone who has been married for three years or more has grounds for divorce. That’s my philosophy. What it means is that if one were keeping account of every slight, every put-down, every harsh word, he/she could convince some judge somewhere of grounds for divorce for incompatibility.

In a sense, a pastorate is like a marriage. The only way to make it work past the honeymoon stage is for both sides to agree for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

The spouse or the church leader who is committed to the mate or the preacher so long as everything goes well will soon be headed to the divorce courts.

There is no way to say this loud enough or sufficiently forcibly: Every pastorate that endures–that is, every church that keeps a pastor for any length of time–has to make up its mind to weather the storms that blow through from time to time.

What are the storms pastors endure and which blow through every congregation periodically?

Criticism. Disaffection. Mass exodus, with members taking their tithes. Sinful rebellion against godly leadership. Worldly philosophies. Carnal failures.

Here’s are questions that ought to be discussed in every church committee meeting:

What would it take for me to leave this church?

How committed am I to seeing this church’s mission through to completion?

Do I really believe God calls pastors to churches and that He alone decides when one should leave?

Am I part of my pastor’s support team or one of those who make it difficult for him to do the work God sent him here to accomplish?

I’ve left unaddressed something the premise of this article assumes: that preachers are frightened at the idea of losing their churches. The answer to that is severalfold….

1) Let the preacher look to the Lord as His employer and not to man. (II Corinthians 4:5)

2) Let the preacher understand, too, that the leadership of his church are mortal, have clay feet, and can make serious errors. In other words, he can be fired and his ministry severely wounded by church members.

3) When that happens, his responsibility is to shake the dust off his feet and go on to the next assignment. If he grows embittered, it’s a sign he had his eyes on men and not on the Lord.

4) A pastor will spend his entire ministry walking that line between taking great joy in his congregation but looking only to the Lord for his affirmation and guidance. Sometimes he will veer from one side to the other, but both are essential. Paul called the Philippians “my joy and my crown” (Phil. 4:1), and yet he knew the only crown that mattered would be one from the Lord (II Timothy 4:8).

Frightening words to preachers? Nothing will give him a heart attack more than walking up to him five minutes before the morning service and saying, “Uh, pastor, I thought you’d want to know. The pastor-search committee from First Church Bigtown is here today. All twelve of them.”

Oh my. Watch him sweat now.

9 thoughts on “How to Frighten a Preacher

  1. Dr. Joe you hit another homerun! In 30 years of serving the Lord in SBC churches I heard them all! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you, Brother Joe–thank you, thank you, thank you! Reading this article was bitter sweet. ‘Sweet’ because EVERY example has been experienced during my 27 years in the pastorate, and it encourages and comforts me that someone else knows what I’ve been through and understands. ‘Bitter’ because each example brought to mind and memory those faces and personalities that represented them. Your insight on being bitter toward these personalities has challenged me to continue and try and focus more on the LORD and His calling, leading, and supply–rather than on man. Thanks again for your spiritual–and practical–insights of the pastorate. Your being able to communicate them in such a consoling way can positively re-ignite and redirect us pastors–at least that’s the result it is having on me.

  3. As a Pastor of a small rural church in New Zealand I too have been through a lot of what you have shared here and thank you for your insight and understanding. This has been a source of encouragement for me as I read this today. Again Thanks and may God continue to bless your ministry in abundance.

  4. Those words are point on bro Joe! The accounts of behavior you list in your articles are so encouraging as we encounter them in our congregation. We realize the tricks of the enemy are not just in our church. The result for me in reading your writings is an uplifting of my spirit in continuing the spreading of the Gospel under these circumstances that my brothers in ministry also endure. Bless you my brother and thank you again!

  5. Joe, it is sooo good to hear you lay all that out. I am in a church plant where I work bi vocationally, live in my own house, and get paid (sometimes) a little (very little) petrol money… and when I hear this sort of emotional blackmail now have the ability to ignore it and to realise that my security and significance are no longer wrapped up in the performance trap that such folk set. Psalm 56 Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; 2 my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. 3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.

    “Let the preacher look to the Lord as His employer and not to man”… Amen!!

    I think its also a good idea to understand that much of the criticism reflects unconverted people who seek to find power and security and significance by dominating a church. What they really need is to discover the grace and love that there is in Christ, so that they don’t try and find significance by breaking a pastor or by breaking a church.

  6. You probably don’t remember the Sunday morning at FBC Kenner that I was visiting with you in your office when one of your men came in and said, “Preacher while you were away last week we called a meeting.” I recall the long silence before he said, “I was just kidding.” And I will never forget what you said as you told him how he had better never ever do that again because things like that are not funny to a pastor. That to often happens and is to often the beginning of the end for God’s men.

    Joe, keep on keeping on. There seems to be a lot more Joe where that came from.

  7. Thank you Brother Joe for this; I laughed and cried as I read it. Our short decade of ministry has been full of these statements and situations and it is so good to be understood and encouraged. Thank you for the list of questions at the end; I think that the complete disregard of accountability for church members, which destroyed church unity, has been so key for our apparent lack of ‘success’ in ministry. Your comment about half of the pastors despising confrontation – my husband and I would agree on this one. He is a gentle shepherd and has been walked on/over with devastating consequences. He’s been working on being more assertive which will help him with confrontations in the future.

    Thank you for writing from your beautiful heart.

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