“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.
Those who work against a pastor do their sinister sniping behind the scenes where their shenanigans go unnoticed by the congregation. So, the all-trusting, clueless membership keeps installing those troublemakers in leadership positions year after year. They keep electing the church’s worst enemies, people who care little or nothing for the will of God.
And because these are the elected leaders, the pastor has no choice but to try to work with them.
No pastor can pick and choose the decision-makers for the church, as much as he might like to. And, since a pastor knows that God can use the abrasiveness of some to sharpen him, to refine his heart, and to drive him to his knees in prayer, he tries to make the best of a difficult situation.
But there comes a time when the pastor decides enough is enough and he makes the tough decision to go before the congregation with the whole story. He is well aware that in doing so he elevates the conflict to a new level, and that anything can happen. As every child knows, you turn over a board in the grass and all the slimy things that love darkness start running for cover.
Today, the pastor is turning over a board.
The alternative is to let a few people destroy a church, and while that still may happen, the minister decides not to be a party to the death watch.
Today, the pastor will stand up and speak out.
A case study of one pastor who threw down the gauntlet…
Pastor Joe H. Tuten had been serving a large church here in central Mississippi for nearly a quarter-century. With a Ph.D. from one of our seminaries, he was as fine a Bible expositor as I ever heard. In the late 1960s, when I pastored in the Mississippi Delta we brought Dr. Tuten up for an intensive Bible study involving a large group of pastors. He was well received and highly regarded.
Dr. Tuten’s “Pastoral Letter”–the smoking gun–was shared with his church on Sunday morning, November 3, 1985. Its theme is as current as this morning’s newspapers for far too many preachers. (This week Dr. Tuten’s daughter sent me the letter with permission to use his name.)
Here are some excerpts, with a bit of editing for clarity.
Dr. Tuten began: I wish to make a statement this morning and request that it be filed in the minutes of the church. It will also be published in the (mailout bulletin). That a pastor feels compelled to come before a church and make a statement like this is a disgrace to the Kingdom of God.
He began by informing the congregation that recently he had come close to resigning and walking away. He was then 63 years old, he said, and “I have no intention of being a broken-down old preacher on your hands.” But a time of rest, prayer and reflection had renewed his determination to pastor this church and infused him with the courage to take this drastic stand.
He affirmed the church. “This sanctuary from Sunday to Sunday is filled with Godly people who are good to the marrow of their souls. So many of your hands continually are filled with good works. May it always be so! I am very proud to be your pastor.”
And then he got right into it: “One thing that saddens me is that some of you hold a stubborn dislike for me, and nothing I do seems to help. I have hoped so long that if I tried to be faithful to my task…eventually your attitude would change and you would…look upon me in a different way. That seems almost hopeless.”
“Several of the same people who have held such long-time animosity toward me also disliked my predecessor. The identical harsh and malicious things that are being said about me now were said about him–even the exact terminology. That means that for at least thirty years some few of you have not had a pastor whom you trusted and respected. Folks, that is sad! That is sick!”
As is so often the case, the deacon council harbored the trouble-makers…
“I want you to know that I reject the concept that deacons are any kind of board of directors in a Baptist church. It is my opinion that about 95 percent of the 110 deacons in this church agree with me. Some six or eight of you, however, appear to be on a different wave length… When this church called me as pastor, they did not hire me as a sharecropper to work under your supervision or according to your likes and dislikes.
“God almighty called me to preach. I answer to Him with fear and trembling. I do not and will not answer to you. You can fire me, but you cannot hire me…. This idea that some few self-appointed individuals have the right to control the pastor may go back into the history of this church no less than fifty years.”
He called on the church to ‘man up’ and do the right thing: “It is time that you as a church make a basic soul decision that will deny individual members the right, as they assume, year in and year out, to publicly, severely and sometimes maliciously, criticize the pastor, the staff, and the program of the church. By your silence…and by continuing to place these persons in leadership within the church, do you not realize that you are holding their coats for them to continue hindering and damaging the very church they profess to serve?”
“I believe God will hold you accountable for the way you have allowed your pastors to be treated. (And since you continually re-elect these people to places of leadership) they think they have a mandate to straighten the preacher out and (get their personal agenda adopted).
He concludes: “Though I have been deeply hurt…I hold no malice toward anyone.” He called on the church to “commit ourselves anew to our Lord Christ, to the edification of His church, and to our responsibility to witness to the unsaved and provide a caring ministry to all.”
My post scripts to this…
One. I’ve asked Dr. Tuten’s daughter to share any repercussions of the letter that she might recall. If she has some, I’ll return here and post them. (see below)
Two. The daughter tells me that some years after her father’s death, she and her family were back for an anniversary celebration. One of the very men who had made her father’s life so miserable paid a glowing tribute to him. “Now, they’re making him a saint,” said the widow.
It reminded me of that adage: “The church in the wilderness praised Abraham and persecuted Moses. The church of the prophets praised Moses and persecuted the prophets. The church of the New Testament praised the prophets and persecuted Jesus. The church ever since has praised Jesus and persecuted God’s preachers.”
Three. As one who did something similar in 1997 at the church I’d been serving some seven years, I could have wished that Pastor Tuten had left the congregation with concrete suggestions on how to remedy this situation. At the least, he might have named a blue-ribbon task force to confer with him and bring recommendations to the church, and named a date for a church-wide business conference when these would be brought. To do this, he would need to have talked privately with those individuals ahead of time, and not spring this on them. The task force would be made up of men and women, deacons and otherwise, all of them people with pure hearts and the interests of the kingdom of God foremost.
Some who read this will be facing the identical circumstances. If the Lord leads them to throw down the gauntlet, they should have specific recommendations in mind on how to make the church healthy again. (But read on. Perhaps not. The Lord raised up a key layman who made all the difference.)
Four. The daughter of Pastor Tuten read the above and answered a couple of my questions. Her father stayed on at that church for two more years and retired at age 65, when he and his wife joined another church in the area. “And how were things after her father confronted the troublemakers with this letter?” I asked. Short answer: The congregation rallied and stood up for their pastor and the final two years were wonderful.
One thing in particular made the difference and probably deserves an article all its own. A lay leader came to the forefront and took the ball and ran with it. She calls him “Mr. Pete.” He went to those trouble-makers and “snuffed their flame.” She explains, “I think he told them that he would expose them in front of the congregation if they continued their activities. Kind of like the Harper Valley PTA. It’s on youtube, if you’re unfamiliar.”
Five. According to the daughter, that church now is alive and well. Its neighborhood is undergoing vast changes requiring significant adaptations. The present pastor is a woman, Linda Smith, who grew up there, was led to Christ in the pastor’s office by Dr. Tuten himself, and who has her college and seminary degrees. The church is deeply involved in outstanding mission works. Pastor Linda was chosen by 100 percent vote.