Some power clique in the church is on your case. Some church member is leading a movement to oust you. The church has a history of ousting pastors every so often and it’s time, and some members are getting restless.
Or, perhaps, as the pastor, you did something wrong and it blew up in your face. People are calling for your head.
Or, you failed to act and some cancer has gained a foothold within the congregation and your job is in jeopardy.
What to do now?
It would be foolish to try to offer a panacea here, a cure-all for what ails the church. And I don’t mean this to be that. But here are 20 steps which many pastors can take to right the ship and set it back on track (to mix metaphors)….
1) Don’t hesitate to apologize if you need to.
“I blew it, folks. I’m sorry.”
Apologies should be as public as the act was public. If you did one person wrong and it’s known only to that one, go to him/her and admit what you did and ask for forgiveness. If your mistake was churchwide, stand in the pulpit and take your medicine.
2) Don’t hesitate to seek advice from the best Christians you know.
Ideally, you already have a mentor or two, older and wiser veterans whom you call on from time to time, and whom you can call for counsel now. The advantage to your having a continuing relationship with mentors is that they will know your situation and will not require a lengthy background when you call them.
3) It’s high time to get serious in your prayers.
“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).
If you have never fasted while praying, it’s time to start. If unsure how to fast, call someone who does and ask them.
4) Stay close with your wife. Discuss everything with her; pray regularly with her. Listen to her. Help her deal with feelings of anger or frustration or fears. Do nothing disruptive without her being in on the decision. (I write as a Southern Baptist where our pastors are men, but if the pastor is a woman, bring your husband into this discussion.)
5) Get a leadership team to help you. Identify four or five of the godliest, most mature and trusted leaders of the church, and seek their wisdom as to what to do next. Understand, you’re not asking them to make the decision, but to give you their best counsel. The decision on what to do will still be yours.
6) Stay in the Word. I recommend the Psalms in particular, but in all your Scripture reading, ask the Father to speak to you, to give you direction or a promise or whatever He wants you to have. Read slowly and thoughtfully, not to cover chapters hurriedly but to hear HIs still small voice.
A practice I’ve used is to get alone with no interruptions and read scripture for a bit, then lay it aside and kneel and pray, then sit quietly for a time, then repeat again and again. Be quiet and wait on the Lord. He will tell you when you’re through.
7) Ask someone who knows the church. If the former pastor is someone you know and trust, consider traveling to his church for a session of an hour or so. Tell him the situation, then ask for his counsel, assuring him that you will quote him to no one.
8) Ask someone who knows conflict. There are among us people who specialize in church conflict, in leading congregations through difficult times. Your denominational office will have someone on staff who either does this or knows someone reliable who does. My friend George Bullard does this and I recommend him highly.
9) Ask someone who has been through what you are experiencing. It’s not necessary for you to reinvent the wheel. Once you locate a consultant who knows church conflict, chances are good that person can put you in touch with a minister who has experienced what you are going through and has emerged whole and intact. Call him up and pick his brain, and get his prayer support.
10) Work on your sermons. Preach better than you have ever preached in your life. This will keep the congregation on your side and go a long way toward silencing your sharpest critics.
11) Do not neglect your pastoral work, or those wanting you out will use that against you. Be diligent in caring for the sick and troubled, in your home visitation and hospital calling. I’ve known of times when a church committee demanded the pastor be fired, but the membership rose up to testify of the minister’s faithfulness when they needed him; he kept his job.
12) Stay healthy. This means eating right, taking your vitamins (as well as anything else your health requires), and get regular exercise. If you’ve not seen a doctor in a year or more, do this. Stress can be a killer.
13) Love your critics. Go to Luke 6:27-35 and live in those instructions from the Lord from now on. Every time you think of your worst critics, those who are lying awake at this very moment scheming to get you out, pray for them. When you see them, bless them. And when you get a chance, do something nice for them.
Most of all perhaps, when they need ministering from a pastor, you be there. If you aren’t, you are just handing them ammunition for their shooter. Even if your heart is not in it, go in obedience to the Lord.
14) Ask three of your best friends in the church to critique you. Get them together, tell them what you are dealing with, and ask them this question: “What am I doing wrong? I want to grow and improve. Help me.” Lighten up somewhat, and assure them you will still love them, but read Proverbs 27:6 to them and ask them to be that kind of friends.
15) When this is over and things are going well, ask your leadership team to do a congregational evaluation of you. There are books on how to do this (and how you can survive the experience!), but the simplest way is for a team of perhaps six people to formulate some questions and poll the membership. The deacons did this for me some years back, going far beyond anything I anticipated. They went down the membership rolls and visited in the homes of every seventh member, and did confidential interviews involving several pages. I think each visit took 30 minutes. The results were favorable, I’m glad to report, but not one we repeated.
Do we need to say here that many pastors do not want to receive any negative news about themselves or their ministry? No one enjoys it, of course, but this can be most beneficial.
16) Keep your life balanced during the stressful period. Take your child to a ball game, your wife on a date, and your family on a short vacation. When at work, work hard. When at home, rest well. When you sleep, sleep deeply (good luck with this!).
17) Keep your relationship with your preacher colleagues strong. You need the fellowship, the laughter, their prayers, and their recommendation if things take an ugly turn.
18) Study your situation, your history. Is there anything some enemy (let’s call them what they are–see Luke 6:27) would find in your past and use against you? If so, do whatever you can to clean it up. Someone emailed me in the last week of a group in his last church that went to great lengths to dig up dirt on him, and discovered a youthful indiscretion which now, a half-century later, they used to smear him. There are no limits to what a wicked person will do with a righteous cause.
19) Watch for the hand of God in the unlikeliest of places and people. The Lord is truly “the God of surprises.” So, expect Him to speak through someone you barely know or would never suspect as being His mouthpiece. Expect God to send help from the most unlikely of sources.
20) Work on your resume’. After all, sometimes we don’t survive church fights even when we are in the right. Some skirmishes the devil takes, at least temporarily.
As I write this, later today a congregation will be voting on whether its pastor, a friend of mine, will continue in the pulpit. From my observations in preaching for him earlier this year, he has the support of the congregation and only a maverick committee in the church is the problem and should receive their comeuppance from the membership this afternoon. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.*
My friend Mike Broadwater, director of missions for the Valdosta (Georgia) Baptist Association, says a pastor will be called to a church by 95 percent of the congregation and ousted by 3 percent. Ain’t it the truth.
*Late report from that church: The congregation rose up and did the right thing. They rebuked the committee, asking them, “Who gave you the right to speak for the congregation? We love our pastor.”
Score one for the Master!