No one wants to hear you gripe about how unfairly the church members are treating you. You’re the pastor, the leader, the one out front. Take the heat. Be a man.
The morning paper tells how the basketball coach at our largest state university is receiving jeers from the fans. His team has just lost its seventh consecutive game in the young season and they’ve been blown out in contests against weak opponents. The fact that he has taken his teams to the NCAA Final Four in previous years looks good in the history books, but does nothing–nil, nada–to placate the fans. They want a winner now.
That’s how fans are. Ask any coach on the planet.
Is it unfair? Sure. Are they being unreasonable? Absolutely. Does that protect the coach’s job? Not in the least.
The coach knew it would be like this when he signed on. When his teams were doing well, he was a hero and could do no wrong. Fans held up signs suggesting he run for governor. The trustees voted him a contract extension with a sizeable raise. Season-ticket holders called in to talk shows praising his decisions.
These days, that coach is experiencing the dark side of his profession: the fans can turn on you in a heartbeat.
At a community prayer breakfast, I spotted the head coach (at the time) of the New Orleans Saints, Jim Mora. I hastily sketched out a cartoon for him, I forget what it was, and presented it to him. While he was chuckling at it, I said, “Pastors understand what coaches go through. You give your all on Sunday and some people pick it apart during the week.”
Mora said, “Yeah, but do they call in to the radio shows and criticize your sermons in the newspaper?” I had to admit they didn’t.
Later I thought of an answer: “This is why they pay you the big bucks, coach.”
Lately, I’ve been reading through Exodus and seeing again the trials of Moses as he tried to lead a vast multitude of impatient, unspiritual people from Egypt’s slavery into Canaan’s glories. Like the chorus of a bad tune, we keep finding this refrain: “And the congregation of Israel murmured against Moses in the wilderness.”
Now, the first time that happened–that would be Exodus 14:10-12–Moses responded well. “Don’t be afraid. Stand here and you will see the salvation of the Lord.”
A few days later, the murmurs rose from the crowd again. “Oh, what’s going to happen to us? It would have been better to have died in Egypt where at least we had food to eat! You’ve brought us out here to perish of starvation!” (Exodus 16:3)
They needed food; was that so hard for Moses to understand? The babies were crying, everyone was growing weak, people were falling out. And–as every leader learns sooner or later and usually the hard way–if you do not give them a legitimate means of registering their complaints, the people will meet in clusters and feed off one another’s misery.
By this time, a tired Moses was losing his patience. “Who are we that you murmur against us? Your griping is not against us, but against the Lord!” Then he said, “Come near before the Lord, for he has heard your murmurings.” That was the day God gave them the manna from Heaven.
Who are you, Moses, that they complain against you? You are the leader, sir. It’s true you were drafted for this position and did not volunteer for it, but every leader of God’s people since has been able to say the same thing. God calls His leaders; we don’t run for the office. And having become the leader, we share in the glories and successes but we also bear the pain of the failures and needs.
It’s the price of leadership.
Right now, at Louisiana State University, football coach Les Miles can do no wrong. He has just led his team to the national championship. He’s on the top of the world, and among the two or three highest paid coaches in America. Fans love him. Invitations to address banquets are flooding his office. He has received a contract extension and a raise. If he wants to be the new president of LSU–they just started looking for one–he can probably have that too.
But all of this glory will last only until the next football season starts. After that, all bets are off. He has to produce a winner next year. Now, being a smart man, Miles knows all this and therefore takes the adulation in stride and does not let it go to his head. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s goat.
Leadership is never achieved cheaply.
1) Quit your belly-aching, leader. Keep your eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ and do not focus on your congregation or your official board or the latest critic to invade your office as though he had just come from Sinai.
As the saying is, “Never let them see you sweat.”
Well, okay, once in a while you can sweat. And in certain settings–with your mentor or accountability partner maybe–you can gripe and let off steam.
My wife and I were going through a tough time in our church and came up with a rule that worked well for us: we did all our griping on the back porch. We could say anything out there we pleased, but we would not bring it inside the house.
On the other hand, I have known ministers whose wives could not deal with the stress they were going through at church and have had to counsel them not to burden the women with all their situations. Each case is different. A wise husband will know whether he needs to share something with his wife or protect her from it.
2) Keep saying to yourself, “It’s not about me.” The elation over the mountain-peaks was not about you and the complaints about the down-times are not about you either.
Every fan has his own unseen and usually unknown needs. Rooting for his team fills some inner void and cheering for a great victory gives him a shot of an emotional drug that temporarily makes him feel well and whole and strong. Alas, it wears off and he soon requires another victory and another after that. That’s why football fans grieve at the end of the season: where will they get their medicine?
In the church, it’s not about you either, pastor. I’m not certain what all it is about; humans are complex organisms with conflicting desires and competing needs. We do well to leave the ultimate question of their behavior to the Father who alone can sort all things out, and who promises to do so eventually.
Pastors might get a little solace from observing Moses’ handling of the murmurings of the Israelites, but I’m not sure they will learn anything. Moses did not have the patience and sympathy which a great leader needs.
Let’s just leave that point there. I’m not sure any of us would have behaved any differently from Moses had we been drafted into service at the age of 80, then required to spend the next 40 years squiring a million headstrong people around a barren land. He deserves every accolade God or we give him.
3) Keep your prayer life strong, filled with faith, and painfully honest.
The old gospel song said, “Are you burdened? Are you heavy-hearted? Tell it to Jesus.” It continues, “You have no other such a friend or brother. Tell it to Jesus alone.”
Moses is a good role model for us. When the people pressured him, he ran immediately to the Lord and reported on them. But he didn’t stop there. He put in his request for what he felt was missing at that moment.
During the six weeks Moses spent on Sinai receiving the Law, at the base of the mountain the congregation fell into the worst kind of sin. Then, after dealing with that matter, Moses prays.
“Lord, you said to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ And you said you know me by name, that I have found grace in your sight. Well, that being the case, show me your way, that I may know you and find grace in your sight.” (Exodus 33:12-13)
Moses went on to plead for God’s continuing presence. “If you’re not going with us, don’t lead us out of here. After all, how shall we know that we have found grace in your sight except by your presence? Furthermore, unless you go with us, we will be like all the rest of the people on the face of the earth.” (33:15-16)
Moses did indeed gripe to the Lord–always a safe place to do that–but he never left things there, but prayed constructively.
4) Learn what it means to “rejoice anyway.”
Anyone can brag on the members when the numbers are up, the offerings are high, and the deacons are pleased. It’s natural to feel elated when all the markers we humans have erected for indicating progress are being reached. But can we still rejoice in the Lord when none of those things are happening?
Jesus told the disciples, “Do not rejoice because the devils are subject to you.” He knew full well that there would be times when the disciples would return from mission trips with no such good reports. He wanted their joy to be more constant and less dependent on the latest numbers from the field.
“Instead, rejoice because your names are recorded in Heaven.” (Luke 10:20) That way, their joy would be solidly anchored and undiminished by circumstances.
If the last three verses of Habakkuk have not become part and parcel of your life, you’ve been missing out on something absolutely wonderful. No comments from us are required. Read and enjoy.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom,
And there be no fruit on the vines.
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food.
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold,
And there be no cattle in the stalls.
Yet, I will exult in the Lord.
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength.
He has made my feet like hinds’ feet.
He causes me to walk on my high places.”
5) Leave the scoring to the Scorekeeper.
Watch your favorite running back. He carries the ball, does the best he can, gets pulled down to the grass, the referee blows the whistle, he drops the ball, and runs back into the huddle.
Notice what the runner does not do. He does not pause on the sideline and whip out a little notebook from his back pocket and mark off the number of yards he had run off, add the total, and report the number back to the other players. Or to his mom in the stands. Or to the television cameras.
He does not do this for a hundred reasons, but chiefly these two: he knows the yards he gains was not achieved alone; he has had blocks thrown for him and the path cleared by teammates who took great risks so he could be successful. And, he knows that far above the playing field is one who keeps the records. That one sees everything on the playing field and knows more than he ever could. His accurate, complete records will be announced at the end of the game. In time, everyone will learn how he has done.
If you are a pastor or evangelist, please: spare us the details on the vast numbers you have rung up. Keep the records your church or denomination or board asks of you, but keep them close to your vest.
I’m going to venture something here which I cannot prove but believe strongly. Anytime a pastor or evangelist announces to an outsider–a member of another church, another pastor, a reporter, any person from outside his own congregation–the great numbers of people his church has served, reached, won, baptized, taught, clothed, housed, counseled, or whatever, it is registered inside the other person’s mind and heart as bragging. I know and you know you are bragging on the Lord, and you might even say so, but it does not alter the fact. It feels like boasting.
Is that fair? Probably not. Is it jealousy? It may be or may not; God knows. But even to your dearest friend, the one who remembers you as a dirty kid in the projects and prays for you and rejoices in your victories, something about it registers as boasting.
The Lord does not compute victories in the same way we do. He announces wins even before the game is played and awards trophies whenever He pleases. While we were staring up at the scoreboard to see only the tally under each team’s name and ignoring everything else, He is far more interested in other aspects of this contest.
Some of us are going to be surprised when we stand before our Lord to discover the game we were playing was not the one he was coaching. Times when we thought we had failed, He saw as a great victory and a tremendous lesson learned. And, alas, some of our greatest achievements we shall discover to have been thrown out because we were out of bounds, were going the wrong way, or had committed offsetting personal fouls, all of which nullified our greatest achievements.
“My ways are not your ways,” God told Isaiah, and keeps telling us. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are mine far above yours.” (Isa. 55)
We would do well to pray as Moses did: “Lord, show me your way.”
You are the leader. You did not volunteer for this position, but God put you here. The people are looking to you, and even if they aren’t, God is. Lead the way. Get on with it.
Recognize that sometimes the congregation will follow you gladly and sometimes they will kick and scream every step of the way like a herd of 4-year-olds. In either case, lead out. You are under orders and have a responsibility to God.
Sometimes the people will adore you and honor you. They’ll give you a Holy Land trip or a new car and a raise. Don’t let it go to your head, because they may just as quickly fire you and demand you leave the parsonage by the end of the month.
These people are not your Lord. They are not your salvation, your protection, your shield or your foundation. You were sent to serve them at the command of God. Whether they thrill at your words or balk at the sound of your voice, be faithful.
It’s not about you. It’s about Him. Labor to hear one thing and one thing only: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many.” (Matthew 25:23)
Hang in there, friend.
God bless and keep you!!!!!
I still remember the deacons’ meeting. Harry (not his real name) had pretty much chewed up one side of me and down the other. I sat for 45 minutes as he teed off on me about several trivialities. While not one to do much more to support the church than attend deacons meetings, he castigated me for what he perceived was poor leadership, comparing me (unfavorably) to a former pastor of his at another church.
It hurt. It hurt badly, very badly. I felt as though my soul had been mugged. The meeting was on a Sunday afternoon, and at its conclusion I had only about 45 minutes before the evening service started. I went to a local scenic creek and park area to cry and to pray. I told God that I was hurting, and He said, “I know.” I told Him it was unfair, and He said, “I know.” I told Him I wanted to quit and do something else. He said I couldn’t – not that He would let me, but really, I don’t know how to do anything else. I am a dumb preacher.
But what God reminded my of next has stuck with me ever since. I told God that I didn’t think it was fair for me to go through all this, and He reminded me that although I had suffered, that my suffering did not BEGIN to compare to what Jesus went through for me . . . and for Harry. I broke down . . . and I shut up. And went back to church.
You’re right. It’s not about me.
Thanks Joe. And Jim. I needed to read this tonight.
I’ve been heavily criticized in the local news media for taking a stand against the upcoming liquor referendum in our county. I’ve received phone calls and e-mails and personal comments today from church members letting me know they support me. I should not be discouraged, because the attack is coming from outside my church, not inside. But it’s still painful.
Funny, I was just preaching about Moses this month. Thanks for reminding me of his struggles.