Those frustrating times with some church members

Pastoring God’s people can be exhausting.

Even when you do your best to serve God by ministering to His people, some are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt on anything nor forgive you for not living up to their impossible expectations.

You didn’t do it their way, weren’t there when they called, didn’t jump at their bark.

Those are the exceptions, I hasten to say to friends who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of members to focus on the 2 percent who drive us batty.  It’s the 2 percent of drivers who are the crazies on the highways and ruin the experience for everyone else.  It’s the 2 percent of society who require us to maintain a standing army to enforce laws.  Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent will kill you.

I say to my own embarrassment and confess it as unworthy of a child of God that I remember these difficult moments with God’s headstrong people more than the precious times with the saints.  Perhaps it’s because the strained connections and harsh words feed into my own insecurities.  Or maybe it’s because there are so many more of the blessed times.

Even so, here are two instances from my journal that stand out….

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When church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times in a church I served some years back.

Consider that the church was still recovering from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation but an all-consuming debt.  Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during the fight, while others nursed hurts and anger from the same tragic event.  I’d not been around during that catastrophe, I’m happy to report, but the Father had sent me in to help the congregation pick up the pieces and return to health and usefulness.

It was hard.

I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd another congregation that was divided.  So, I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflicts with church leadership and the demoralizing griping from church membership.

Naïve, huh?  Probably so.  People are going to look and act like who they are.

Daily I was being undermined by the angry, criticized by the hurting, ostracized by the pious, and scrutinized to the nth degree by leaders, self-appointed and otherwise.  When I tried to do a few things I considered normal and healthy, these also were thrown back in my face.

The journal records my efforts to bring in community leaders for a forum during which the guest would speak and be questioned.  Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.

I was stunned.  They don’t see the need? Aren’t they citizens who vote and who are affected by the actions of political leaders? Do they not care?  Where have these people been?

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Church members who practice atheism

All these things they will do to you for My Name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.  (John 15:21).

The problem with preacher-haters and trouble-makers in the church is that they do not believe in God. That statement might require a little clarification.

Those members who are determined to have their way regardless of the cost to the fellowship of the church, the unity of the congregation, the continuance of the pastor’s ministry, or the sacrifice of programs of the church are not without religious convictions.

They may have even had religious experiences. Of a sort.

Regardless of what they believe, most are atheists in the purest sense.

Whatever belief in God they possess is theoretical. God was in Christ, yes. He was in the past. And He will be in the future, they confess, when He takes them and others like them to Heaven.

As for the present, alas, they are on their own.

What, you may be wondering, would lead me to say such outrageous things about some people who are members of churches and who frequently get elected to high positions of leadership in those churches?

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The abrasive Christian

“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance, leading to the knowledge of the truth…” (Second Timothy 2:24-25)

In Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, I found this interesting depiction of Harold Ickes, a member of FDR’s cabinet during the Second World War:

“According to T. H. Watkins, Ickes’ biographer, ‘a world without something in it to make him angry would have been incomprehensible to him.’ A disgruntled Republican senator who had been the target of one of Ickes’ verbal assaults called him ‘a common scold puffed up by high office.’ To one cabinet colleague, Ickes was ‘Washington’s tough guy.’ To another, he was the ‘president’s attack dog.’”

Olsen tells how an assistant secretary of state once refused to shake hands with Mr. Ickes and described him in his diary as “fundamentally, a louse.”

Having such an irritating person in high government office is one thing; having them in church leadership is quite another.

She had a reputation for being a strong witness for the Lord, even to the point of teaching classes on faith-sharing.

One day I called her office following up on something her boss had told me.

I was amazed by her reaction.

“He did not tell you that!” she said.

When I insisted gently that this is precisely what her employer had said, she grew stubborn and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was badly mistaken.

The conversation ended quickly.

I never told her boss about that, but the memory lingers with me to this day.

The incident has remained as a reminder that sometimes the Lord’s children who have a reputation as strong and effective witnesses for Christ are driven less by His love than by an abrasive and domineering personality.

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Why they hate the pastor

But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.  (John 15:21)

They seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them.  The king was enraged and sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.  (Matthew 22:6-7).

Whenever I find a church member who loves and honors their pastor, I feel so good one might think I was their shepherd. But no, I’m just rejoicing that they get it right.  But on the other hand…

There is among us a large contingent of members who are forever unhappy with their ministers and are constantly warring against them.  A number of these I have personally pastored.  Or tried to.  There is no shepherding of people who are not “of the Lord’s flock” (see Psalm 100:3).

They sit in the congregation on Sundays staring a hole through the pastor.  Before and after the service they meet with others to complain and often to plot how to rid their church of such a problem.  Some will slander him, abuse him, and oppose everything he proposes.

Everything is about them.  They want a certain kind of sermon, want programs of a particular nature, want the preacher to shape his ministry in the way they are comfortable with.  And because he doesn’t, they are making sure he knows it.

A pastor told me why he resigned the church he has pastored the last half-dozen years.  The stress of the opposition was killing him.  “I refused bribes and endured threats.  My wife and children were photographed, stalked, and harassed.  They left messages of profanity in my home mailbox, and tried to vote me out several times.  We lost a few members and others boycotted my sermons.”

Why did they do this, I asked.  “What would those people say were the reasons for their behavior?”

His answer was a familiar story.  I cannot tell how many times I have heard this.

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Turning sarcasm into “sic ’em!”

“Jesus said, ‘No doubt you will quote this proverb to me, “Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” No prophet is welcome in his own hometown’” (Luke 4:24). 

John Fogerty’s group Creedence Clearwater Revival is unforgettable to anyone who has owned a radio in the last 50 years.  Several years ago, in an interview with newsman Dan Rather, Fogerty was remembering a key moment in the 1960s.

The group was one of many bands to perform at a particular event.  As the final group to warm up, and thus the first band to appear on stage, suddenly CCR found they had been unplugged.  John Fogerty yelled to the sound man to plug them back up, that they weren’t through.  The technician did so reluctantly, then added, “You not going anywhere anyway, man.”  Fogerty said, “Okay.  Give me one year.  I’ll show you.”

One year later, the group was so hot with hit record after hit record (“Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising”) that “we were too big to play in that place any more!”

Turning sarcasm into a healthy sic ’em!  Something to spur you onward instead of allowing it to crush your spirit and keep you down.

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When a pastor is called to an ignorant church

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

“By this time you ought to be teachers, but you need someone to teach you again the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

The pastor had been called from his rural church to another part of the country. He was excited about the new challenge, as he well should have been. In a parting comment to a friend, he assessed the state of spirituality of the church members he was leaving behind:

“There is enough ignorance in this county to ignorantize the whole country.”

What happens when a pastor gets called to a church like that? A church where the members and leaders alike do not know the Word of God and have no idea of how things should be done (what Paul called “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God”–I Timothy 3:15), or why it all matters.

A church that exists to condemn sin and sinners, that knows only slivers of Scripture, that sees ministers as slaves of the whims of the congregation, and that is ready to reject as a liberal any minister who wants the church to feed the hungry in the community, take a stand for justice, or invite in the minority neighbors–the ignorance takes all kinds of forms.

We wish we could say such congregations are few and rare, but they aren’t.  Veteran preachers have stories of those churches, tales of run-ins with those leaders, and scars from the battles they have waged to set matters right.

–One pastor told the group of ministers meeting in his fellowship hall, “This building is actually owned by a member of the KKK. We rent it from him.”  The rest of us were naive and thought the Ku Klux Klan had died out ages ago. Here they were living among us in our own southern town.

–One lady visible in church leadership told her pastor, “I don’t know what the Bible says but I know what I believe.”

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How to awaken a sleeping church. 20 suggestions.

“Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14).

A pastor I know has a problem.  It’s not unlike that experienced by a large group of his peers, I imagine.

He has deacons who are undisciplined, church members who do not take care of the hurting in their midst, and in general, a congregation of unmotivated people.  When he preaches evangelism or discipleship or ministry in their community, the way they sit and stare makes him wonder if the language he’s using might be a foreign tongue to them.

Sound like your church?  Sounds like some I’ve pastored and a whole lot I’ve known.

The pastor of that unresponsive bunch asked for my advice.  Had I written anything on how to revive a comatose church?  Does our website have any help for him?

I asked him to give me a day or two to reflect on the subject and seek the Lord’s guidance.  (More and more, I keep thinking: This is an uphill task, wakening a sleeping church.  If it were easy, every pastor would do it and no church would be stagnant or declining. )

Here are my suggestions on how to transform a collection of comatose do-nothing members into a thriving, caring, loving church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, since every church is both similar and different, we will use a lot of generalities and broad-sweeping statements.  Pastors should take anything that fits their situation and skip the rest.

One.  The bad news: You will encounter this same problem to one degree or another in every church you serve.  No church is without the sleeping, the dormant, the complacent.  It’s the human thing. In high school physics we learned that a body at rest prefers to remain at rest, while one on the move wants to keep traveling.  So, the question is how to arouse the church that seems cemented to the floor, how to get it up and going.

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In the world, tribulation. But from within the church? Oh my.

“In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

We were expecting hostility from the world.  But certainly not from the Lord’s people.

Church is where we get blindsided.

The Lord wanted His people to know what to expect.  The road ahead would be rough.  They should prepare for turbulence.

The Lord would not be bringing His children around the storms but through them.  We will not miss out on the tempest, but will ride it out with Jesus in our boat, at times standing at the helm and at other times, seemingly asleep and unconcerned.

The lengthy passage of Matthew 10:16ff is the holy grail on this subject, as the Lord instructs His children on what lies ahead and what to expect.  His disciples should expect to encounter opposition, persecution, slander, defamation, and for some, even death.  So, when it comes–as it does daily to millions of His children throughout the world–no one can say they weren’t warned.

But what about the church?  Should we expect opposition and persecution there also?

Jesus said, “They will scourge you in their synagogues” (10:17), and that’s where the faithful were meeting to worship.

He said members of our own households–parents, siblings, offspring–would lead the opposition at times. They will “cause them to be put to death” (10:21).

He doesn’t specifically say “the church,” but surely all of the above includes it.  And that’s where the typical believer runs into a buzzsaw.

Church is where we get blindsided.

We knew opposition would come from the world.  Scripture makes this plain.  But in the church?

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10 signs your church is unhealthy

Recently, when an online magazine sent me an article on “5 signs you’re part of an unhealthy church,” I opened it eagerly. This subject is dear to my heart.

I am passionate about strong, healthy churches.

The writer’s five signs were good, as far as they went. No argument. I did not leave a comment one way or the other in response.

What I felt, however, is that my experience seems to be of another nature from the writer’s.

First, from that article here are “5 signs you are part of an unhealthy church”–

1) Leadership has no clear vision.

2) Leadership can never be challenged.

3) You are comfortable but never challenged.

4) Members are content with being pew warmers.

5) Outreach is never planned or preached.

All of these are true. But there is so much more.

Here, then, is my version of “10 signs (evidences, indications) that the church to which you belong is unhealthy”–

1. Prayer, if offered at all, is a formality, an afterthought, a burden.

While spending a long weekend at a pastors/wives retreat in Italy, I was struck by something. By the time I rose to speak, the service–by then a half-hour long–had experienced at least five prayers. The worship leader had followed a couple of songs with prayer, the presiding leader had prayed, and at least two more people with roles in the service had prayed. Each prayer had been spontaneous, heartfelt, and a joy. I knew then we were in for a rich time of Christian fellowship.

On the other hand, it pains me to remember the Sunday morning worship services where I was the guest preacher and noticed that by the time I stood to preach, not a single prayer–not one!–had been offered.

There is no more accurate indicator of a Christian’s spirituality or a church’s health than the vitality of our prayers.

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