When to submit, when to insist

(In leading church conferences, I often present Ephesians 5:21 as the secret key to a thousand good things in a church fellowship.  See what you think.)

“Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

I leaned over to my grandson in church and whispered, “I remember when Brother Ken brought the drum set into the church. Some almost died. Now look.”

On the platform sat a dozen musicians–pianist, keyboard, several guitars, two or three drummers, one violin, a couple of horns, and this time, for a special emphasis, a mandolin and banjo.  The church music that day was absolutely outstanding.

I sat there thinking, “What if we had given in to the naysayers? What if Dr. Ken Gabrielse and I had feared the criticism and buckled?”  (Note: At that time, in addition to being our minister of music Ken chaired the Music Department at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  Later he headed the Fine Arts Department at Oklahoma Baptist University. These days, he is a professor of Truett-McConnell University in Georgia.  As fine a colleague as I’ve ever served with.)

There are times when church leaders need to pay attention to the criticism, and times to ignore it.

Knowing “what time it is” is the hard part.  For God’s children, that’s a function of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit of God is the Great Time-Teller.

Please note that I am not saying having more musical instruments in church is necessarily better or godlier than limiting the accompaniment to a piano and organ.  But for our situation it was a giant step forward, and I merely mention it here as an example.

We could have yielded before the fears of the nay-sayers, but where’s the faith in that?  By putting the welfare of the greater church ahead of the criticism of the few, we blessed everyone, including those who griped. And yes, in time they managed to get past their complaining and to love the full instrumentation. Not that they would ever admit it.

A young pastor sat in my office to bring me “up to speed” about his ministry.  “Two years ago,” he said, “I sat in this room with you wondering whether I could pastor a church.”

The congregation had dwindled to 16 by the time Dan took the leadership.  These days, he said, they were running 50.  “However,” he said, “not a single one of the original 16 have remained. They’ve all left.”

Hey.  It happens.

Knowing the history of that church, I was confident that the loss of those people was not a bad thing. Over the previous quarter of a century, I had seen a succession of pastors attempt to lead that church but eventually throw up their hands and leave. The building and grounds were attractive and the neighborhood appeared stable and prosperous.  For a long time I thought if the right pastor came, that church would do well. What I had not known, however, was the tight control a few negative people were exercising on their pastors.  And let us never lose sight of this:  Tight control on the pastors is a death grip on the church.

Pastor Dan decided to major on loving the people, he said.  And when he made changes, he stuck with them. What changes? The church reverted to mission status and put itself under the authority of a larger healthy church in the area. They changed the name of the church in an attempt to shed the old image and dysfunctional reputation. As these and other changes were brought in, the old-timers quietly slipped away.

“I tried to honor them,” Dan said.  “For one, I bought a plaque of appreciation and took to the man’s house. Paid for it out of my own pocket.”

Someone who knew that fellow said, “Pastor, you sure go to a lot of trouble to honor a guy who hates you.”

I told Dan, “My brother, don’t weep over the people who left.  It appears they’re the ones who kept the church back all those years.  Keep your focus on the Lord.”

Knowing when to pursue a departing church member and when to let them go–that’s a toughie.

Only the Holy Spirit can show you.  Ask Him.

A neighboring pastor once told me three of my members had been in his services the day before. “These are your people, Joe,” he said. “I don’t want to take your members.”

I said, “My friend, those three have been unhappy from the first day I arrived. If they can worship God at your church, I wish them well.”  For the rest of their lives, those three happily served the Lord in that church. On the rare occasions when we bumped into each other in town, we greeted each other warmly.  It’s all good.

Sometimes leaders submit to the person with a gripe and a complaint; at other times we insist that the course we’re on is right and go forward.

If there is a set of rules to know when to do either, I’ve never heard of it.  This is one of many reasons the Holy Spirit indwells us. We will be needing guidance in situations that do not fit any rule book. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness. 

When does a pastor submit to the complaints of some in the congregation?  Here are a few random thoughts on that…

–1) When the complainers are among your most faithful members. They have earned the right to be heard. A wise leader will listen to them and take their concerns to heart. This does not mean they are right.  But they might be.  Hear them, pastor.

–2) When the Spirit within him is making it clear that everything is not as it should be.  The wise leader will stop and bring in his best advisors and reconsider what is happening.

–3) When he has been outvoted. (Smiley-face goes here.)  Seriously, if the congregation has shown by an actual vote that the pastor’s plan is not acceptable, he needs to recognize that something is amiss. Either he has a bad plan or has sold it poorly or the congregation is rebelling.  In any case, if the pastor proceeds, he’s going to get mighty lonely. It’s time to regroup with his best counselors and godliest leadership and decide where to go next.

Sometimes people rebel because the plan is unacceptable. At other times, they are registering a general unhappiness with either the leadership or the state of affairs within the congregation.

A wise leader–a faithful, loving shepherd–is always aware of the mood of the flock. Otherwise, how can he lead them?

A wise leader knows how to cut his losses and admit that he made a mistake, ran ahead of the Lord, miscalculated the mood of the congregation, or something.  The pastor who is unable to humble himself before his flock and ask for their forgiveness will not last long in the ministry.   After all, pastor…

Ephesians 5:21 applies to you, also.  Sometimes it’s the shepherd who has to submit to the flock.

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