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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Things pastors do not know

As a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, faithful pastor, you know a great many things.  “We know that we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren” (I John 3:14).  “We know love” (3:16). “We know that we are of the truth” (3:19). “We know that He abides in us” (3:24).

But there is so much we do not know.  Here is a partial list….

1) You do not know what people in your congregation are going through.

You know some of what several are experiencing. But even with those closest to you, so much of their personal lives is hidden from all but God.

2) You do not know what God is doing in each life.

It’s like the wind which blows, said our Lord to Nicodemus. “It blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8).

3) You do not know the plans the Lord has for each one.

“What about him?” said Peter to the Lord, pointing to John.  “What is that to you?” said Jesus. “You follow me” (John 21:21-22).

4) You do not know exactly who is sitting in your congregation.

In one church, before I stood to preach, the pastor introduced me to each member of his congregation.  Perhaps there were thirty present.  I said, “When the church grows to 200, I want to see you do that!” He vowed that he would.  But most cannot.

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How to grow a small church

“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or by the many” (I Samuel 14:6).

Depending on a number of factors, growing a small church may be one of the more do-able things pastors can achieve.

Those variable factors include…

–the health of the church.  You don’t want a sick church to grow; you want it to get well first!  I once told my congregation, “There’s a good reason no one is joining this church.  I wouldn’t join it either!” Believe it or not, those words were inspired and they received them well, and repented. Soon, the church began to grow.

the attitude of the congregation.  If people are satisfied with the status quo, they would not welcome newcomers.  I’ve known Sunday School classes composed of a small cluster of best friends who felt imposed on by visitors and new members.  No one wants to go where they’re not wanted.

and the location of the facility.  A church situated five miles down an isolated road, at the end of the dead end trail, can almost certainly forget about growing.

The great thing about pastoring a healthy, small church is you can make a big difference in a hurry.

My seminary pastorate had run 40 in attendance for many years. The day the little congregation voted to call me as pastor, I overheard a man saying to another, “This little church is doing all it’s ever going to do.”  I was determined to prove him wrong.

Within one month, we hit 65 in attendance.

What had happened is this…

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5 things the lazy pastor does not know (but is about to find out)

What is the number one complaint I hear from church members about their pastors?

Brother Joe, what do you suggest be done about a lazy preacher? Our pastor preaches two times a week, and is trying to turn the Sunday night sermon over to someone else. He’s quit doing Wednesday night church, and he refuses to hold staff meetings. We ask him to make a visit to someone and he may or may not do it. No one seems to know what he does with his time.

My suggestion in every case is the same: Each pastor needs an accountability group. Without one, you are asking for trouble. An “accountability group” is two or three or more laymen who meet with him from time to time–not weekly, and maybe not even monthly, but definitely more than annually; perhaps quarterly–as his sounding board, to hear his needs and concerns, and to let him know if there are problems.

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The top 12 things for the pastor to do before he gets up to preach

This is the moment the preacher has had on his mind and heart all week. We will assume he has done this for years, and by now he’s got it down to a science and can lead worship, read scripture, offer prayers, preach the Word, inspire the congregation in his sleep.

But not so. This is a huge thing he is attempting.

This man is attempting to speak for God. Not from egomania. Not from an inflated sense of self. Not even because he wants to.

He was chosen. Hand-picked. Called.

Chosen and called and sent.

Sometimes the preacher tries to bolster his confidence as he enters the sanctuary by remembering the caution God gave Jeremiah at his call: Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them (Jer. 1:17).

God will have no weakling speaking for Him. No coward afraid to be bold, no milquetoast fearing to be strong, no sycophant who cowers before the rich and powerful among the congregation.

Again and again, the Lord told Joshua, Be strong and courageous. That admonition is found in Deuteronomy 31:6-8,23 and Joshua 1:6,9,18. Evidently, Joshua was a lot like us in that some things he had to be told again and again.

All right. Pastor, you’re about to walk into the sanctuary and do what God has told you in the quiet of your study (as well as in the car as you drove, in the neighborhood as you walked, and in bed as you tried but were unable to sleep).

This is the most important hour of your week.

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The five most frustrating things pastors do

I’m pro-pastor, but I’m not blind.

These men (in our denomination, pastors are men) are called of God and assigned some of the most difficult work in the universe, and for the most part they labor well and long and you never hear a complaint out of them. They are my heroes.

Most of them.

The typical pastor in our denomination serves a church running 100 or fewer in attendance, which tells you the offerings are insufficient to provide much of a living for him. In some cases he holds down a second job or his wife works. Or both. Or, most amazing of all, he manages to live on what they pay him.

I believe in these guys. They are my brothers and my admiration of them knows no bounds.

Most of them.

But there are times when some of these ministers do the most self-defeating things. Not all of them, thankfully. But enough to warrant our addressing the issue as a caution to the rest of the Lord’s stable of shepherds.

Here is my personal list of the 5 most frustrating things pastors do.

FIRST: It’s frustrating to see preachers cut corners on sermon preparation.

What is bizarre about this is that the Sunday sermon is 50 percent of their job, as far as most of the congregation is concerned.

I grant you that in the more liturgical churches that isn’t so, with the ministers’ homilies often appearing as 5 minute reflections thrown together just before he entered the sanctuary.

But in the world I live in, the only time 90 percent of the congregation sees the pastor is on Sunday morning. If he does poorly there, he has just about sealed his fate with the membership as a whole.

And yet.

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To succeed in ministry, make a mistake

In his book, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg makes a confession. You get the impression that it was not easy in coming. (The story is dated because the book was printed ten or more years back.  It’s still a great story.)

The church where I work videotapes most of the services, so I have hundreds of messages on tape. Only one of them gets shown repeatedly.

This video is a clip from the beginning of one of our services. A high school worship dance team had just brought the house down to get things started, and I was supposed to transition us into some high-energy worship by reading Psalm 150.

This was a last-second decision, so I had to read it cold, but with great passion: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!” The psalm consists of one command after another to praise, working its way through each instrument of the orchestra.

My voice is building in a steady crescendo; by the end of the psalm I practically shout the final line, only mispronouncing one word slightly:

“Let everything that has breasts, praise the Lord.”

Ortberg tells what happened next.

A moment of silence. The same thought passes through four thousand brains: Did he just say what I think he did? In church? Is this some exciting new translation I can get at the bookstore?

Then, everybody in the place just lost it. They laughed so hard for so long, I couldn’t say a thing. It was zygomatic. I finally just walked off the stage, and we went on with the next part of the service.

I have been teaching at that church for eight years. Of all the passages I have exegeted and all the messages I have preached, that is the one moment that gets replayed before conferences and workshops. Over and over.

That moment forever endeared Pastor John Ortberg to the congregation of Willow Creek Church.

In fact, in my humble opinion, the power of that moment was so strong, it would have been worthwhile for him to have planned the flub.

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Pastor, don’t lie to us

“Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Colossians 3:9).

“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22).

Lying is unattractive in anyone, but almost unforgiveable in a pastor.  If anyone should set the standard for truth and righteousness, it’s the pastor.  And yet, some seem to have not gotten the word on that.

1. Do not lie to us about your resume.

If you say you went to school there or pastored that church, we want to believe you.  If you earned a degree, say what it was. If the degree was honorary, but not earned, say that also. What you must not do is give the impression you attended a school which you did not or served a church which you did not serve or possess a degree you don’t.

Why would anyone lie about their resume? Obviously, to enhance their prospects for a job. But any position acquired as a result of a falsehood is worthless in the long run.

Regularly, we hear of high-profile executives, educators, and coaches being caught for padding their resumes, for claiming degrees they did not have, for professing honors they did not earn.  Perhaps the most shameful is the man who claims to have been a war hero, who wears the uniform and sports the medals, but who, it turns out, is a consummate liar.

Tell us the truth, pastor.

2. Do not lie to us about your testimony.

I heard a certain pastor’s testimony on more than one occasion. It was so moving that when he went to Heaven, I paid tribute to him on these pages by telling his story.  Sometime later, his brother found the eulogy by googling his name, and called me. “You know there’s not a word of truth to it, don’t you?”

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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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