Some friend reading this may think I’m revealing a confidence. But the fact is I have much of the same conversation almost weekly. Pastors call or visit to tell of the stresses they are facing, the opposition threatening their ministry, and various crises their church is dealing with, each one more than they can bear. One said, “The strain is killing me.” That is the background to this piece….
You’re the pastor of the church. Things have gone well for the first couple of years (or longer) in this ministry. You have loved a hundred things about serving here. But lately, things have slowed down and you’re now hearing a rumbling in the congregation. It’s like footsteps in the night.
They’re after you.
A few people have lurked around the edges of the fellowship since you arrived as pastor. They seemed to be searching for something to use against you. They spoke pleasant words but the sinister reports you heard made you guard yourself around them. And then, something occurred in the church to ignite the opposition against you. The “something” could have been trouble with a staff member, a moral problem with a leader, a heavy contributor dying or moving away causing financial hardships, anything. It doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite a fuel dump.
Members who had been on the fence about your leadership now jump onto the bandwagon opposing you. Finally, they found something they could use against you. The nay-sayers come out of the woodwork. Some withhold their offerings and then they say, “The church finances are hurting, proving the pastor is failing.”
Nothing about this is fun.
All of this is all complicated by one overriding fact: God called you to this church and He has not released you to leave. You’re going to have to ride out this storm or they’re going to terminate you. One or the other.
What to do, what to do. It keeps you awake at night. Interferes with your relationship with your wife and children. Nags at you all the time. Blocks your enjoyment of simple pleasures. Like a flesh-eating bacteria, this is wearing you away.
What to do to stop the erosion, to silence the opposition, to calm your spouse’s fears, to reassure the church staff. Here is my counsel to you…
One. Lose the idealism. Your troubles do not necessarily mean the church is dead or evil, although that may be the case. It does mean the devil is alive and well and has you in his crosshairs. It means some leaders of the church are caught up in the world’s way of running things. If the team is in trouble, fire the coach and bring in one with a winning record. If some in the church are unhappy, that means the pastor is failing. If the finances are hurting, the pastor is failing to lead. That kind of foolishness.
Read Matthew 10:16ff again and again. Now, go out and pastor your church.
Two. Do nothing rash or sudden. Make no impulsive decision, either to stay or go, to fire someone or confront someone else. Be quiet and still for a time every day and listen to God, while thinking things through.
Three. Stay on your knees. The Lord who called you into this work and sent you to this church knows what’s going on. Nothing about this has caught Him sleeping. He knows. He needs to do whatever it is He wants to do here. Whether that means healing a diseased church, rebuking a sinning church, killing a diseased, sick church, or blessing a faithful church is up to Him. You want to stay with Him, to remain in place, keep steady on His agenda.
No one knows better than you that you do not have what it takes–the patience, the wisdom, the skills, the Christlikeness–to do this right. You are so capable of reacting in the flesh. You will abide in Him or you will make a royal mess of things. Without Him, you can do nothing.
Four. Stay with what you know to do in pastoring your church. Work hard to preach the best sermons of your life. Stay close to your leadership team, giving them guidance and support in order to produce the best program of ministry it’s possible to give. Visit in the homes of your people, be there in the hospital at critical moments, and keep witnessing to the unsaved. Call the visitors from Sunday and encourage them to return to your church, answering their questions.
Whatever you do, do not pass along to your staff the stress and pressure you are receiving. They need you at your best.
Five. Model good leadership skills and brotherly love before your staff. There will be times when you will want to update the other ministers and key workers on what’s going on. But keep your cool. Do not let them walk away wondering about your Christianity, your self-control, or their jobs. No temper, no profanity, no ugliness. One reason the Lord allows leaders to endure the stress of opposition and unfair criticism is to train the next generation of leaders on how to deal with the same kind of junk. They will be facing it shortly. Show them how.
Six. Keep close to your spouse. Ask the Lord for wisdom on how much to share, what would be too much to share, and how to find a great time to talk about these things. Make sure you listen to her, and hear her heart. A good approach is to find a safe place to meet and chat each day. If you have a back porch or patio, that could be the place. Share your hearts, listen to each other, and pray together. (My wife and I had an agreement that the back porch was our safe place. We could say anything we wished out there, but could not bring it in the house!)
Seven. Read Matthew 10:16-42 repeatedly. That amazing passage is your charter, your assignment on what the Lord expects from you and what you can expect from Him. He promises no easy street and no soft cushions in ministry. Rather, He gives the assurance that whatever happens He is using you, He will be there in the mess with you, and at the end there will be rewards aplenty awaiting you. Living in this passage will keep you from false expectations (“I thought everyone was supposed to act like Christians!”), unrealistic disappointments (“Where was God? Did He see how we were treated?”) or the temptation to withdraw and quit (“I can’t take it any more.”).
Keep telling yourself, “This is how Jesus was treated. And I’m certainly no better than Jesus.” So, hang in there.
Eight. Identify the key leaders who are arrayed against you and practice the four commands of Luke 6:27-35. We are to love those who make themselves our enemies (who are hating us, cursing us, threatening us, taking what is ours, etc) by doing four basic acts: we are to do good things to them, to bless them, to pray for them, and to give to them.
Nine. You should have three or four good mentors, faithful veterans of ministry who can a) counsel you and b) intercede for you. Keep them informed. When you can, drive to their town and meet with them for an hour. Listen closely to what the Lord may say to you through them.
Ten. Don’t ever be afraid of apologizing when you have failed to do something, erred in something you did do, or misunderstood. An apology–that is, a genuine admission of what you did–followed by the actual words, “I hope you will forgive me,” can be mighty instruments for healing. It’s a rare congregation that will not offer such a spiritual leader its love and support.
Eleven. Get plenty of exercise. Find a walking path in a park and go there several times a week. Walking is a great time to talk with the Lord. Personally, I’m not one for going to the gym and working out on machines, but if that works for you, do it. Swimming is also a great tension-reliever.
Twelve. You need some laughter. During the decade of the 1990s when I was trying to pastor a struggling congregation that was recovering from a devastating explosion 18 months before I arrived (explosion is a church split that resulted in numerous splinters), what kept me sane more than anything else was time spent with my young grandchildren. My son erected a swing in the tree in the front yard and said, “This is Grandpa’s place with the kids.” My journal tells of a hundred times I dropped by to spend 30 minutes with those three jewels. Often, I didn’t even go in the house, but they ran out the door and ministered to the embattled preacher whom they adored and who loved them as much as it’s possible for one human to love another.
Do whatever you have to do for some sanity and balance in your life.
Thirteen. Recognize that this may turn out badly. You could indeed lose your job. But that does not mean the Lord failed you. (Read Matthew 10:16ff again if you need to see that. Some of His hearers would be beaten with cords inside the synagogues. And some would be killed. That has not happened to you. Not yet, anyway.)
Our next article will deal with “What to do when the church kicks you out.” (I thought about phrasing it gentler and nicer, but that’s how it feels. Ask any pastor who has been the victim of these vigilante groups. We might call it a leave of absence with pay, a sabbatical from which we are not returning, or an investment in our continuing education. But the effect is you are out of the church and out of a job. What to do now?)
Thank you for your deep insight!
My husband and I have been at the same church our whole ministry life (31 years). I agree with every point you make here. So much encouragement and wisdom. We have lived out so many of the things you mention through ups and downs, trial and error. My husband truly had God’s grace in him to keep the right perspective over all these years. Although we have never faced a church split, there have been discouraging times and people. We learned and grew, and God has blessed our faithfulness. Thank you for this article, and I hope someone out there will find hope and heed your practical advice.