Even in the difficult years, it wasn’t all bad.
My journal records a conversation with a deacon almost 25 years ago.
At one point he said, “Pastor, you know that I voted against your coming to our church. But God has shown me that I was wrong. You have meant so much to me and my family.”
We were talking about the church’s response to my first two years there. In a word, let’s just say it was lacking. Lukewarm. Tepid.
It was a Sunday night and we had just completed a weekend revival with a preacher friend of mine who was as fine and godly as anyone I ever knew. His messages were anointed and straight from the throne. I had so wanted our people to hear God’s message through him. But so few had turned out.
The problem was his style. He was low key. He would often stand with his hands in his pockets and talk in a conversational tone.
The congregation could not abide that. They had been conditioned to believe that powerful preaching is loud and bombastic, accompanied by guilt-inducing tirades and finger-pointing assaults. (They would have been so surprised to learn that Jesus sometimes preached sitting down in a boat!)
As we discussed the church’s lack of response during my first two years, I said, “Sometimes I wish God would send someone here whom they would respond to.”
If that sounds like discouragement, it was.
The deacon said, “I don’t know why the crowd wasn’t here tonight and no one joined today. But, Pastor, this is far superior to the days when we used hook or crook to pack them in. I was conditioned that way for 15 years, and you don’t break that overnight. But I’d rather have the group that was here tonight than a houseful who came to be entertained.”
Then he said, “My wife can spot a pulpit committee a mile away. She comes home and tells me when we’ve had them. And Pastor, it would break my heart if you were to leave.”
The journal records my reaction: “Wow.”
This conversation came at a low time in the life of my lengthy ministry in that church. As it turned out, the Lord led that deacon and his family to move across the state within a couple of years. And He left me there for another eleven years as pastor.
When I left, it was a far different church. Was it better, or stronger, or more faithful? We will have to leave that to the Father to sort out (as we do everything else in this life!).
I had forgotten this brief conversation with the deacon. At home that night, I wrote it out in volume 13 of my journal of the 1990s, an enterprise that would eventually fill over 50 hard-bound books. They are an invaluable treasure of remembrances (family and church), of stories (personal and otherwise), church history, and every sermon I preached during that decade.
Looking back, I wish something.
I wish that deacon had done something far more valuable to the church and to me personally than to say how he felt.
I wish he had gone in front of the other 23 deacons and told them.
I wish he had had the courage to stop a runaway train that was doing all it could to wreck what God was up to there. To speak against the little group of vigilantes that would meet in the church foyer before and after services to feed off each other’s gripes and discuss how to get rid of the pastor whom God had sent.
I wish he had taken a public stand.
That he had been more courageous.
The church at that time had a motley collection of deacons. They were a holdover from two previous administrations (you’ll understand the term) and seemed to have been elected and re-elected automatically by an unthinking congregation that felt since this man is already ordained, he must be qualified. Some were; at least half were not.
The majority of those deacons were anything but servants and did nothing in the church that I could see. Their sole function seems to have been to show up at the monthly meetings to pass along the gripes and complaints of the members whom they saw as their constituency. And since that group was wed to the ways of the past (see above reference to “hook or crook”), little I did met their approval.
The deacons meetings were painful. Dissension was the order of the day.
Some deacons kept insisting that Scripture puts the deacons in charge of the church (since Acts 6 says the seven were chosen to “take care of this business”). Those who felt otherwise were silent.
When I said the deacons needed to be serving the needy of the congregation, you would have thought I was speaking in a foreign tongue. Even the best among them sat there in silence.
When the deacons bring recommendations to the church, I told them, common courtesy dictated that they should all be supportive. And, if they could not support the recommendation, they should keep quiet and not attack it, as this is disruptive to the church and fosters disunity. You would have thought I had urged them to take up a life of crime. “I fought in Korea for the right to speak my piece!” “I’m an American and no one is going to shut me up.”
The good guys sat there in silence.
Most seemed not to get the concept of humility and submission and service. They thought being deacons meant they were in charge of the church and that the pastor should preach his sermons and leave the decision-making to them.
I find myself wondering.
What would have happened had my deacon friend gone one step further and told the deacon body what he said to me?
Wonder why he didn’t?
–He didn’t think of it?
–He thought of it but didn’t have the courage to stand apart like that and then endure the reaction his words would have provoked?
I don’t know. He was a good man and remains a great friend to this day. So, this is not to criticize him, but to make a point for pastors and church leaders today who are dealing with similar situations.
What I do know is this:
–a) to stand before a runaway deacon group and call them down takes real courage;
–b) for a deacon to do this is far more effective than the preacher doing it, as he (the pastor) would be seen by some as being defensive and combative;
–and c) even if the deacon’s affirmation and confrontation did not end the opposition, it would still have an effect. Some would listen.
Nothing encourages an embattled pastor like a leader standing up for him before his critics.
Lord, give us leaders who love Thee and want Thy church to be healthy and strong and who will honor the shepherds You send their way.
Lord, give us courageous leaders who are unafraid of their peers and who are willing to stop an out-of-control group in the church even if it means they get run over in the process.
Dear Lord, raise up a few who will do the right thing. For Jesus’ sake.
I was reading the minutes of church business meetings from the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, from the first decade of the 20th century. In one meeting, General Stephen D. Lee took the floor to resign. “These deacons don’t want to do anything,” he said. He told how when he was in the military–he was a West Point grad, a leader in the Army of the Confederacy, and the founding president of nearby Mississippi State University–his favorite command was “Charge!” But he did not want to be part of a group content to sit and do nothing. He was asked to hold off on his resignation until some could talk with him. The next month’s minutes indicate that General Lee had reconsidered and was remaining. The next year or so, the pastor resigned, a new preacher came in, and when the decision was made to tear down the 1838 structure and erect a new modern sanctuary, the man chosen to lead the effort was General Stephen D. Lee. A man of courage.
We need more deacons like him–unwilling to sit and do nothing, to fold their hands while the world goes to hell, to remain silent while the enemy holds the field. To stand before the misguided and ill-informed of their own group and call them down.
We may not make a difference by speaking up. But one never knows.
One thing we do know: By remaining silent, our life counts for nothing, and the enemy wins.