The Greatest Danger to Your Pastor’s Spiritual Growth

I have always believed that the highest character trait of a Christian is humility. There are many statements in the Bible that support my position. Here are just a few:

  • This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2b
  • Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3
  • Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, to show true humility toward all men. Titus 3:1-2

I was thinking of these verses last week as Tara and I worked on a magazine article on the topic of responding to narcissists in your church. Initially, I thought it a bit strange when the editor asked us to write on this topic. After all, neither Tara nor I carry special education or training in diagnosing or dealing with narcissism. But the editor asked us because he rightly discerned that many times, church conflicts involve people who could rightly be described as narcissists:

Having excessive and grandiose interest in self; displaying extreme arrogance and a sense of entitlement; full of hubris (overweening pride) and often unwilling to accept any hint of criticism.

In fact, it breaks my heart to say it, but all too often the most narcissistic person at the center of a church conflict is not just any old narcissist, he is often a narcissistic pastor. Rather than teaching his congregation that he is nothing but a mere messenger and then doing everything in his power to deflect praise away from self and toward the true author of the message, the narcissistic pastor relishes the tickling of his ears even unto the utter destruction of his congregation.

The human ego accepts praise and the result is pride in self (narcissism). The first victim is the pastor. The second is his congregation. This is what the dangerous downward spiral looks like:

  • The pastor preaches a powerful message that really communicates.
  • Church members congratulate him on his fine work as a powerful communicator of difficult theological material.
  • The pastor is praised for “changing lives” and is pleased that the church members respond so positively.
  • The next week the same thing happens—praise, adoration, applause … for “the man.”
  • Week after week, the pastor receives this praise and feeds his ego by gathering close to himself only the people who agree with him and praise him; he tunes out (or even destroys) anyone who dares to challenge the view that he is a great man (the most theologically astute person in the church; the only real visionary; the one whose passions and ideas are “right”).
  • And then something devastating happens … the pastor begins to believe he is a great man; that he alone is the one making the real difference for the cause of Christ in his church.
  • The pastor and his congregation are destroyed.

The greatest danger to your pastor’s spiritual growth and ability to lead you into a life of holiness is your adoration.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

Pastor—you must recognize the danger signs of growing narcissism in your own life and repent rightly:

  • Pride in your voice, appearance, intellect, and cleverness
  • A willing acceptance of the praise of man
  • Self-confidence in your “high” position
  • A growing inability to accept any hint of criticism or feedback; listening only to those who agree with you and continue to feed your ego
  • Impatience and criticism to anything done in the church that fails to live up to your perceived standard of “excellence”
  • When conflicts develop in your church, you fail to lead as a shepherd and instead respond as a know-it-all autocrat

Other church leaders and members—you must take steps to protect your pastor and congregation from any growing narcissism in your pastor’s heart:

  • Pray for your pastor—that he would be a truly holy and humble man who eschews the hollow praise of men and pours himself out only for the praise of God and the building of God’s Kingdom (never the kingdom of man)
  • Encourage humility as the most valued character quality of any church leader
  • Define “success” as faith and holiness, not numerical success that reflects the values of the world
  • Thank God, not your pastor, for his spiritual gifts
  • Be a genuine friend to your pastor—always ready to speak the truth in love since he too struggles with sin, disappointment, and loss
  • Never allow your church to be defined by cliques or any “inner circle” of people in a place of prominence with your pastor
  • Faithfully exercise your own spiritual gifts so that your leaders are not forced into ministry areas where they are not gifted (see 1 Corinthians chapter 12)

For all of us, may we strive to never “think more highly of ourselves than we ought” (Romans 12:3).

For the King of Kings,
–  Dave Edling

Posted in Abusive churches, Authentic Relationships in the Church, Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor | 3 Comments

Mercy and Care Are Not Always Enough

Tara often does Q&A’s at her events and one question she hears a lot is: How can I help a person see and confess their sin that has become a barrier to our relationship?

In my last blog, I responded to one aspect of that question: the problem of spiritual blindness. But that is only part of the response that should be considered. Unrecognized sin that has become a barrier to a person’s relationships in the church is a major contributor to wider church conflicts. While spiritual blindness does trap a Christian into thinking they have no sin that needs to be faced, there are other factors that we should consider.

On Tara’s personal blog, she recently posted a link to a CCEF podcast entitled “How Can We Lovingly Help a Friend to Face His Sins?” The core of that excellent message focuses on the best methodological way to answer that recurring question. Dr. David Powlison (one of my all-time champions in the world of biblical counseling) says all the right things:

  • “Confront sin in the context of mercy.”
  • “If someone genuinely knows I care for them I can speak truth to them.”
  • [It is quite appropriate to say to a sin-captured friend … ] “In what you believe and how you are living you are destroying yourself.”

As always, Dr. Powlison’s counsel is based in Scripture. “Speak the truth in love” is the message of Ephesians 4:15, 4:25, and 4:29. And 2 Timothy 2:24-26 encourages us to love people by demonstrating mercy and care even as we confront them with the sin that has taken them captive. I find it reassuring to know from the counsel of one of the church’s most godly and respected biblical counselors that the loving thing to do is to bring to a sin-captured friend the truth of sin’s effect on their life and in relationships. The podcast interview concludes with the observation that even if the person continues on their path of destructive sin they will remember your mercy and care. Ultimately, God will use the way you spoke to your friend at some point to change that person.

I agree with everything said in this podcast interview. And I obviously believe that spiritual blindness is a major cause of Christians being unable to face their sin because they simply don’t presently perceive or believe their words or actions are sinful. But this brings me to another difficult observation:

What if my friend, a self-professing Christian, cannot discern spiritual blindness due to something else?  That is, what if they are (despite their Christian profession) actually unregenerate and unable to spiritually discern sin?

That is the issue of 1 Corinthians 2:14:

“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (emphasis added).

Even in the context of mercy; even if my friend knows that I love, like, and care for them; even if they may agree their behaviors are self-destructive, the fact remains, according to Scripture, that my friend will not discern their behavior as sin because sin is something spiritually discerned.

This reminds me of what one of my seminary professors taught us:

“There are people in the church who have been in the church so long they have forgotten they are hypocrites.”

Sadly, unbelievers on the membership rolls of every church are the norm rather than the exception. The church is a mixture of true believers and those who may think they are believers but actually are hypocrites. (See the frightening words of this reality at Matthew 7:21-23.) These are the friends needing our greatest care, mercy, and love … they need the Gospel for the first time! Repeated denial of ones sins is clear evidence of unbelief going beyond spiritual blindness. We would expect a true believer to actually “see” their sins when mercifully confronted about them by a friend and to repent and do everything possible to change. That is clear evidence of belief and faith. Repentance and confession is the norm for a Christian. Everyday life in the kingdom is reflected by one simple character trait: humility.

I have been in too many churches where conflicts go on and on because there is no repentance, no confession, and no humility. I fear at the heart of those conflicts there are people who are unregenerate but who think they are Christians.

The Bible teaches us that sin is something that is spiritually discerned (see, for example, Romans 1:18-32), and that too often we expect people in the church to quickly change and turn from their sin when, in fact, they simply cannot because they have no ability for spiritual discernment. In many church conflicts what is most evident is a level of spiritlessness that defends sin rather than discerns it. Authors Tim Lane and Paul Tripp put this far more delicately and articulately when they say in their wonderful book How People Change:

The average Christian defines sin by talking about behavior. Beneath the battle for behavior is another, more fundamental battle — the battle for the thoughts and motives of the heart. Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire. As much as we are affected by our broken world and the sins of others against us, our greatest problem is the sin that resides in our hearts. That is why the message of the gospel is that God transforms our lives by transforming our hearts. Lasting change always comes through the heart. This is one of Scriptures most thoroughly developed themes, but many of us have missed its profound implications” (pages 14-15).

I strongly believe that one of those profound implications is the fact that the heart of an unbeliever is unable to spiritually discern sin. Thus, we have no right to expect change. What we ought to do instead is prayerfully and lovingly bring our friend to the Gospel in such a way that the truth of their behavior convicts them of their inability to spiritually discern. In effect, we are saying:

“Even though you have professed Christ as your Lord and Savior you seem to be demonstrating that your passion and desire for _______________ is more important and stronger than your love and passion for Jesus Christ.  Your behavior is one condemned by Christ as sin, yet you persist in it.  Will you please allow me, as your friend, to help you to see the Gospel and all of its implications so that you can have the sure foundation of a real relationship with God and a real relationship with your loved ones (including me)?”

Jesus Himself spoke directly to this issue in Luke 6:

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete” (Luke 6:46-49).

Church conflicts are like floods. Will your house, your church, stand or fall in the torrent? Does the foundation of true belief reside in every member’s heart? You will certainly know as soon as the flood of conflict hits.

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Confrontation, Spiritual Blindness, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Are You Paralyzed by Endings? Mind Present Duties and then Leave Events to God

Q. How can I know what to do in my church conflict when I don’t know how other people are going to act or respond?

A. Your question is a good one. It reveals a fear that many Christians have over “what might the outcome be?” in their church conflicts. In other words, many people are paralyzed by endings.  Their fear of the unknown stops them from making a good beginning. Following the Bible’s pattern for conflict resolution seems too uncertain and “iffy” for many so, fearing a potential outcome they may not prefer (and one out of their control), they simply choose to adopt methods that they have had experience with in the “world” (such as exertion of power, manipulation of others, withholding money, control through majority rule, etc.). Such people can’t think about where they are now or what they are doing without being consumed by the thought of how things will end. Rather than focusing on obedience they worry about the uncertain and unknown potential result.

Worry seems to be at the heart of this dynamic. Many hundreds of wonderful Christian books have been written on worry and how the Christian is to overcome this sin. Of course, while these books may be wonderful aids, God’s Word alone summarizes them all:

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  Matthew 6:27

Our Lord’s great ethical exhortations captured in what we call “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7) clearly and cogently teach us that we have no control through mere worry over what will happen, and, therefore, we are to abandon any hope that such a strategy may prove fruitful.  And yet we cling to our fears and anxieties as if we have never heard that this is a losing course of action. We worry because we are afraid of unknown outcomes, outcomes that we think we can control, and our continual fears and anxieties drive us away from the good counsel of God’s Word toward the poor pattern of worldliness and sin. That path feeds church conflict.

If it is truly our fears that generate worry shouldn’t we search and learn all we can from God’s Word about that unproductive state of being and emotion? Is God telling us the truth when he says:

Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe. Proverbs 29:25

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

Trust, love, and care are God’s pattern and it is to be these biblical concepts that define the pattern of response for us, his eternal children, whenever we face church conflicts. Jesus said “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34).  Matthew Henry commenting on this verse states:

“Let us mind present duty, and then leave events to God; do the work of the day, and then let tomorrow bring its work along with it. It is the will of the Lord Jesus that his disciples should not be their own tormentors, nor make their passage through the world more dark and unpleasant, by their own apprehension of troubles, than God has made it by the troubles themselves.”

I would add, don’t let those worries about what might happen tomorrow stop you from doing today what you know is the right thing to do today. Doing the next right thing demonstrates your trust in God, your love for your church and its members, and the care you have been called to offer in times of trial and hardship. Those are all elements of redeeming church conflicts and you can, by God’s grace, make that good beginning unfettered by doubts of the outcome because “ His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who has called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, HOPE in the midst of conflict | Leave a comment

When (Differently) Gifted Pastors Destroy the Church (Rather Than Build it Up)

This was a church conflict that never should have happened.

One man was excellent at vision casting, capturing the excitement and motivating people for great things in the name of the Lord. The other was an excellent teacher. Working in harmony they could have accomplished so much for the Kingdom. Instead, frustration and anger plagued the work of the church. Staff members quit their jobs; members left; blame-casting began; and soon both of the pastors were looking for new calls.

The use and misuse of spiritual gifts are major causes of conflicts in the church. Paul seeks to bring some order to our understanding of the use of gifts in the church as he corrects the Corinthians and urges them with these memorable words:

“Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:12 (emphasis added)

There are four main reasons why church conflicts often emerge due to the misuse of spiritual gifts:

  1. Jealously
  2. Criticism
  3. Blindness
  4. Lack of Appreciation

Consider how jealousy destroyed the relationship between these two gifted pastors. Rather than rejoice in God’s gracious provision of gifting for His glory and the benefit of His work, these men competed with one another and envied the “advantages” of the other. Their jealousy lead to critical judgments of one another whenever they perceived a lack of support or excitement for “their” passion and vision (and gifting). Of course, foundationally, they both had extreme cases of spiritual blindness (a topic that Tara and I tackle at depth in Chapter 8 of Redeeming Church Conflicts). Rather than see and humbly acknowledge their weaknesses (and then compensate for their weaknesses by enjoying the strengths of one another), they tried to be fruitful in areas where their particular gifts were lacking. And all of these conflicts were fueled by a consistent failure to appreciate and encourage one another.

Rather than working within their areas of giftedness and appreciating the unique contributions each man was making for the advancement of the Kingdom, these leaders misused their gifts. Their relationship was doomed as a result and their church was terribly damaged. This could have been avoided if they had heeded the counsel of the Apostle Paul to “try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” Yes, the specific context of this argument applies directly to a distinction between prophesy and tongues as gifts, but earlier in Chapter 14, Paul provides the direction and goal for the use of all spiritual gifts:

“…for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3) …so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:5).

All appropriate uses of spiritual gifts have these common goals:

  • Strengthen the believers,
  • Encourage the believers,
  • Comfort the believers, and
  • Edify the believers

No gift is superior to another; no gift is to be overlooked because all spiritual gifts are for the edification of the church. As one body, united in Christ, we share one calling: Build up the church! We do that best when we build up each other. That is why the Spirit has poured out his gifts upon living stones…we, the church. There is no room for jealously, criticism, blindness, and lack of appreciation when it comes to our mutual joy of unleashing the gifts of the Spirit that have been poured out for the sole reason of building up the church. Such foolishness and sin is immature and destructive and we ought to pray that our churches would never have conflict due to the misuse of the abundant spiritual gifts God has given his people.

Paul ends chapter 14 with this warning (verse 20):

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”

How do we think (and live) as adults? We avoid the works of the flesh as listed in Galatians 5 (including, of course, enmity, strife, jealousy, rivalries, dissensions, divisions and envy) and we manifest the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control).

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” Galatians 5:25

For the Glory of the Lord and His Church,
-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Spiritual Blindness | 2 Comments

How to Fire Your Pastor (Part 3 of 3)

Q. Sometimes, even in a mature church, a time comes when a servant-shepherd pastor must be let go. In this situation, how should the pastor and his family, and the other church leaders and members respond so that they can all work together to redeem this difficult situation?

A. My last two blog entries in this short series have distinguished between two types of pastors/situations:

  • Those in ministry for career employment (“hired-hands” as described in John 10:12-13) who are “fired” from their position just as any person in a secular job is fired (Part 1); and
  • Those “servant-shepherd” pastors who are called to a life of humble sacrifice and suffering for their service, who are then persecuted for the sake of Christ’s righteousness (as described in Matthew 5:11-12) by being maltreated (and ultimately “fired”) by immature Christians in their churches (Part 2).

Today’s post addresses a third type of situation—one in which a servant-shepherd pastor is appropriately  let go by mature (wise, loving, God-glorifying) Christians.

A few notes before I begin …

First of all, I fully recognize that these three groupings of people and situations may seem too restrictive. I readily admit that most situations are actually somewhere in-between on the spectrum: many pastors truly desire to serve as servant-shepherds, but they also recognize that their calling is also their “job” in that they provide for their families through the income they earn through the pastorate. I also recognize that many church members and leaders likewise fall somewhere in between “mature” and “immature” on the spectrum—they may (immaturely) be persecuting their pastor for worldly reasons and using secular causes and means for firing him; but often, there is a mix of godliness and maturity in the situation that causes these situations to be far more “gray” than I am describing in this series.

But a blog entry can only be so long! And the focus of Tara’s and my book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, is the painful division engendered by the reality of conflict in the church. Thus, we hope that you will read all three of these blogs from a perspective of grace and “wisdom from Heaven” which we know from James 3 is “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit.” Seeking wisdom is particularly important today, as my personal observations and convictions about this topic will undoubtedly bring up many questions and ideas that I can’t possibly try to address. There are simply too many variables present when a pastor is let go from a church. To paraphrase our own words in Redeeming Church Conflicts by applying them to this blog series (rather than to our book):

Church conflict is complex. The various causes of church conflict, the personalities involved, the church’s polity, and the level of spiritual maturity among leaders and members will raise questions that no [blog series] could possibly address with specificity. Therefore, be careful and pray as you seek counsel from other church leaders and members about the application of [these posts] and various scriptural passages to your church’s specific situation. By seeking counsel from wise and spiritually mature Christians, all of us will hopefully avoid using any part of [this series] as a weapon to hurt others or to fulfill any sinful goals we might have. Plenty of biblical peacemaking principles have been taken out of context and forced on others in loveless and selfish ways. We pray this will never be the case with [these blog posts]. Instead, we pray that our efforts in [these blogs] will encourage and guide Christians and their churches in redemptive responses to conflicts—responses that are based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theologian Dr. Dennis E. Johnson captures the heart of our concern when he writes: “In Scripture the starting point of instruction on right behavior is not a list of our duties, but a declaration of God’s saving achievement, bringing us into a relationship of favor with him.”

So, with all of those caveats in mind (my lawyerliness is really showing today) … how ought we to respond when we (wisely and lovingly) discern that it is time for a pastor to leave a specific church?

We ought to embrace God’s agenda for change and allow that change to produce holiness in all of us.

Will that change be easy? By no mean. There will undoubtedly be uncomfortable moments in leadership meetings when new ideas are discussed or information is analyzed and everyone involved (including the pastor) will begin to have that uncomfortable sense that God may be leading their church in a way that is not a good fit for the current pastor. Hopefully, everyone involved will be prayerful and careful (full of care) as small discussions begin to grow into larger discussions. Communication with other leaders (for example, elders to deacons or council members to bishops) will be intentional and clear. At all times, people will hold firmly to the standard set for speech in Ephesians 4:29—edifying, bringing God’s grace. There will be no gossip or slander. Love for God and neighbor will be the defining mark of every meeting, announcement, and decision. The pastor will never be gracelessly criticized. Instead, every person will guard him, build him up, and help him (and his family) to transition to his new pastorate.

That sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? But we know that there will, of course, be bumps in the process. Immaturity and even outright sin will arise. But the pastor, his family, and every mature leader and layperson will embrace even those difficult and painful situations as opportunities ordained by God for growth in holiness. As Drs. Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane state in their must-read book, How People Change:

Making us holy is God’s unwavering agenda until we are taken home to be with him. He will do whatever he needs to produce holiness in us. He wants us to be a community of joy, but he is willing to compromise our temporal happiness in order to increase our Chrislikeness.

Wise and mature pastors, leaders, and members will recognize that this pastoral change is part of God’s plan for producing holiness in His eternal children. They will respond with light—truth, healing, beauty, compassion, and care—because their life goal is to reflect all of the characteristics of their Lord and King, Jesus Christ. But others? Sadly, they will respond with darkness—lies, distortions, relational injury, ugliness, judgment, and betrayal—because even though they claim to live for Jesus and His glory, they are ultimately motivated by their own selfish desires. They are willing to sacrifice the unity of the saints to fulfill their agendas. They do not pick up their cross and lay down their lives for their friends.

But even then, the wise and mature Christian will see even these attacks of darkness as opportunities to model Christlike humility and love because how we fight in the church differs significantly from how the world fights. Or it ought to.

I will close with just a few questions that you might consider in order to walk through your pastoral change with holiness:

  • How can we please and honor the Lord in this situation by respecting and honoring His under-shepherd, our pastor, even though we agree he should leave this church and continue his ministry elsewhere?
  • How do we guard our own hearts and minds through all of this so that our trust in God for our church (His church) is evident to everyone?
  • How can we continue to fulfill our duty to render “double-honor” (1 Timothy 5:17) to our pastor by meeting all of his and his families’ worldly needs during the transition period?
  • How can we best work with our pastor to help him continue his ministry during the transition period and into his next assignment in the Church (note the capital “C;” the Church is much larger than any one local congregation)?
  • How can we utilize pastoral change as an opportunity to help our immature brethren grow in Christ?
  • How can we guard the pastor’s family from harmful gossip and speculation?
  • As needed, how can we best use God’s plan of accountability (church discipline) to build his church by correcting the sinful behaviors of those acting in a manner inconsistent with their own profession of faith?
  • How can we bless our present pastor by ensuring that we call another true servant-shepherd pastor to follow in his steps building on the foundation he has faithfully laid?
  • How can we craft our pastor’s legacy of godliness as a model for future pastoral relationships?

Over the past two decades I have witnessed how both “hired-hands” and true servant-shepherds respond to dismissal from their pastoral office.  The thing that has surprised me (and inspired me!) the most has been not only how the latter personally responded but how they also prepared their fellow church leaders for the trial. I have not seen servant-shepherds respond with anger (although frequently with a degree of sorrow), and not with self-justification (although frequently in defense of God’s Word).  As they have led other church leaders and members into an understanding of what being “called to the ministry” means (a life-long quest for God’s glory wherever their unique contribution to God’s Kingdom can be made) they have imparted an understanding of the cost of redemption. While we use the word “redemption” frequently and in different settings, are we remembering that the cost was the death of Jesus, the Son of God? Church leaders and church members tutored in the message of the “cost” have been equipped to see God’s much grander plan for his Kingdom when they face even the loss of a beloved pastor who is being unleashed for even greater Kingdom service and sacrifice. To quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Praying for peace as we await “The Day” of The Shepherd’s return (Hebrews 10:25; 2 Peter 3:10)!

-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Excerpts from "Redeeming Church Conflicts", How to Fire Your Pastor | Leave a comment

How to Fire Your Pastor (Part 2 of 3)

If you’ve read last week’s blog, “How to Fire Your Pastor — Part 1,” then you know that its content only applies when the pastor is best characterized as a “hired-hand” (see John 10:12-13). In contrast, today’s post addresses the issue of letting a pastor go when the pastor is a true servant-shepherd. In these situations, there may be godly and appropriate reasons why he must leave. There could be compelling personal considerations, changing demographics, a difference of opinion or purpose that is not sin-driven but may reflect a differing philosophy of ministry, a humble recognition of the fact that the spiritual gifts of another may better serve the changing environment, etc. But, sadly, there may also be sinful reasons why the servant-shepherd pastor is being let go. The “firing” may actually be revealing spiritual immaturity in a few (or many) members of the flock.

It is the latter situation—sinful reasons for the firing—that usually brings up the greatest amount of hurt and destructive conflict for the pastor, his family, and the rest of the church. This is the focus of today’s post:

How does a servant-shepherd pastor redeem even his unjust firing for God’s glory and for personal and corporate spiritual growth?

First, let’s consider the background for when a servant-shepherd pastor is sinfully fired (treated just like any employee at any old job).

We live in a day and age when even Christians, having been conformed to the priorities and patterns of our loud culture through its incessant demands, forget they have been called to hunger for the things Jesus hungered for: righteousness, mercy, peace, humility, compassion, and justice, to name but a few. People conformed to the pattern of this world (see Romans 12:2) can lose focus and even become intolerant of a pastor who models Christ-like obedience and humility in their confused quest for greater “relevance” in the world. Whenever church people begin to measure the “success” of their pastor by making comparison with what passes as successful in this world, it is not unusual for persecution of the pastor to follow. How should a true servant-shepherd respond?

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12

Furthermore …

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 2:24-25

A servant-shepherd who has preached, taught, and modeled Christ by manifesting all of the fruit of the Spirit does not respond to conflict with conflict. He responds with the message of redemption and reconciliation. The issues of concern that go by secular titles (“wrongful termination,” “due process,” etc.) seem trite and insignificant to the true servant-shepherd because he doesn’t carry concern for his “job” but, rather, is consumed with a passion for the souls of God’s sheep (who are also his sheep), even those souls seeking his dismissal. Having been called to the ministry by God, his vision is one of care and compassion even for (especially for!) the spiritually weak, confused, and immature.

And so we find ourselves at the real questions in this situation:

  • When immature Christians try to force a servant-shepherd pastor out of office, how will the other church leaders and members—those who are mature in Christ—respond? Will they look at their pastor and recognize the presence of grace and godliness in their midst? Or will they be taken over by worldly goals and patterns?
  • And how about the pastor and his family? Will they confidently continue to trust in God, even in the face of persecution? Will they keep an eternal perspective and see God’s glory at work, even if their own personal story becomes one of being forced to leave the church on account of righteousness? Will they remember that how they respond to even this persecution is going to be a part of their lasting legacy at this church?

From God’s perspective, “firing” one of His under-shepherds is the epitome of foolishness. In Psalm 14:1 we are told:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Whenever God’s people seek removal of a true servant-shepherd pastor due to any priority inconsistent with the Lord’s revealed will, they essentially affirm in their hearts that there is no God. In their foolishness, they deny that God could place in their midst one who would speak and model God’s Word of truth in love. Because God’s truth is frequently hard to hear given our culture’s demands and its loud voice, it is not surprising that churches do seek the removal of godly pastors. And shouldn’t that cause conflict? Shouldn’t there be people rising up to oppose the ungodly acts of unrighteousness seeking to be imposed on others? And the true servant-shepherd will not run from conflict (as the hired-hand does), but he will stay and guide his sheep in the way of redemption and reconciliation regardless of the outcome. He will do that with care and compassion because he knows that God will sovereignly grow his people up in maturity through such encounters. He always remembers that:

God is present in the company of the righteous. Psalm 14:5b

And this presence reveals itself even when conflict comes to the church.

One closing note to servant-shepherd pastors: In at least half of the church conflict intervention cases I have consulted on, by the time mediation services were engaged, the pastors had already fled the congregation. Rather than staying to shepherd their people at the point of their greatest spiritual need, these men proved the charge that they were merely “hired hands” when they saw the wolf of conflict coming! It grieves me to say it, but I do believe that such men are no longer worthy of the title “pastor” because they did not prioritize the care of the flock over their own personal or professional “needs.”

I know these situations are frightening and often infuriating. This is exactly how an attack from a real wolf would be! If you are reading this and you just found out that you are being fired by your church, you are probably flooded with adrenaline and tempted to give in to fight or flight. Please fight this temptation with all of your strength! Don’t be afraid. Don’t be fooled. Stay the course! As needed, repent, confess, and change. But stay the course. Don’t stay merely to contribute to the conflict through self-serving defensiveness, but rather lead your people through the conflict by redeeming it for God’s glory and your (and God’s!) sheep’s spiritual growth. You can always leave later if that seems wise and would serve God’s interests, but first build a legacy of sacrifice that will leave a lasting impression and enduring memory that will change your sheep for their future in the church. Even foolish sheep, after all, need a model of what a true shepherd is like.

And for the rest of the leaders and church members? Tune in next week to read my entry on how you should have dealt with your servant-shepherd pastor, rather than merely firing him in a worldly manner.

For the glory of the Lamb,
Dave Edling

PS
To read part 3 of this “How to Fire Your Pastor” series, click here.

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Confrontation, How to Fire Your Pastor | Leave a comment

How to Fire Your Pastor (Part 1 of 3)

Q. Getting rid of a pastor can cause a lot of conflict. What should be happening for both the pastor and other church leaders and members when everyone is figuring out if the pastor should be let go? How should a church let a pastor go?

A. It depends (typical lawyer answer, eh?) …

  • Is your pastor a “hired-hand” (see John 10:12-13) or a servant-shepherd ready to lay down his life for God’s sheep?
  • Is the tradition and history of the church to hire a man to lead by fulfilling a “position description” or is the attitude of everyone (pastor, leaders, and members) reflective of “calling” only God’s chosen under-shepherd who through supernatural spiritual gifting humbly models Christ by imitating His sacrifice?
  • Is your pastor one who curries favor with people or one who pushes forward Christ and the Holy Spirit’s agenda while making nothing of himself?
  • Do people of the church want a pastor who is popular by the world’s standards or one who is poor in spirit (MT 5:3), one who mourns (MT 5:4), one who is meek (MT 5:5), one whose hunger and thirst is for righteousness (MT 5:6), one who is merciful (MT 5:7), one who is pure of heart (MT 5:8), one who is a peacemaker (MT 5:9), and one willing to accept persecution because of righteousness (MT 5:10)?
  • Has the church “filled the pulpit” with an appealing and clever orator or a man of godly character who is qualified as one who is above reproach, husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, a model manager of his own family, and one who has a good reputation with those outside the church (1 Timothy 3:2-7)?
  • Is your pastor displaying evidence of the influence and fruit of this world (loud, pushing his agenda, seeking man’s approval, demanding his way, proud, arrogant, etc.) or the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)?

If your pastor, and the people of your church, are predominantly described by any of the characteristics and/or descriptive statements appearing before the word “or” in the above questions you most probably have a mere hired-hand for a pastor. Firing a hired-hand is no different than firing any other person holding a secular job: you must be knowledgeable of and comply with your state’s statues and laws concerning employment to avoid a charge of “wrongful termination.” It will mean dotting all of the “i’s” and crossing all of the “t’s” of procedure dictated by legally-mandated due process considerations. And, it will mean “managing church conflict” among those who will be driven by worldly expectations and sentiments akin to those experienced when the best player on the local high school sport’s teams is benched because he or she is failing academically (howls of indignant outrage). But the church will get through it even though some people may leave. That won’t be the concern in such a church because the focus will be merely on answering the question, “Who can we hire into the position next?”

But …

If you have a servant-shepherd pastor, and the people of your church are characterized by the statements following the word “or” above, then you have an entirely different situation … an entirely different problem. That discussion comes, Lord willing, next week in “How to Fire Your Pastor — Part 2.”

-Dave Edling

PS
This post has two follow-up posts: parts 2 and 3.

Posted in Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Confrontation, How to Fire Your Pastor | 2 Comments

Other Things You Can Do Rather Than Fire Your Pastor

Week after week the most frequently searched topic that lands people at this website is “How to Fire Your Pastor.” If you are a regular reader of this site you may recall that I wrote a three part series under that title several months ago. My reaction to this traffic coming to our site because of that search terminology is one of both sadness and revelation. Sadness because we desperately need faithful pastors in our churches, and revelation because apparently some people believe the best (wisest, most God-glorifying) step to take would be to fire their pastors, so they are looking for that advice.

Today, I would like to encourage you to pause and take a step back from your plans to fire your pastors and instead, consider how you might help them to become the faithful shepherds God has called them to be.

The truth is, barring some sort of overt, heinous sin (which sometimes, yes, appropriately leads to the immediate firing of a pastor), most pastors are “let go” (really, fired) for reasons that could have, and should have, been addressed by many more people than just the pastor. For example, you may be ready to fire your pastor because he is disorganized and often drops administrative details. Did you hire him for his exegetical, scholarly, preaching/teaching skills and then make plans to surround him with people who are strong administratively? Has he asked for an assistant and have you denied him that year after year? What about personality clashes? Have you observed a growing conflict between your pastor and another influential person in your church—and done nothing about it? Have you been a faithful peacemaker to assist these Christians in conflict? Or have you stood back, shook your head and said, “Too bad!”; while you waited for the explosion that recently happened?

How well have you loved your pastor? Really loved him with a faithful, abiding, prayerful love?

Before you take steps to fire your current pastor and then hire in a new one and treat him the same way … perhaps you should consider the following four responsibilities all church members bear toward their pastors:

  1. Members owe their pastors love (despite their pastors’ weaknesses). Too many churches place unreasonable expectations on their pastors. Those expectations become the standard of performance rather than the Scriptures. Nowhere in the Bible do we find perfection manifested in humanity except in our Lord Jesus. Unfortunately, many people expect their pastor to be as perfect as their Savior. Rather than realizing a pastor’s role is to point people to their only true hope in Christ, too many people look to their pastor for that model of perfection. While pastors are to be models of holiness and live lives reflecting the character of Christ (as we all are!), it is unrealistic to expect any human to fulfill what only Christ can do. Church members have a responsibility to love their pastor by seeing him as a fellow follower of the Lord dealing with the same struggles and life challenges they do as a fallen creature redeemed solely by grace through faith in Christ.
  2. Members owe their pastors honesty. When disappointment surfaces over any aspect of the pastoral role, be it personality, preaching or teaching performance, leadership or character, members are called to be faithful friends by going personally, quietly, quickly and gently to their pastor with their specific concern. Before going, members are to remember to “get the log out of their own eye first” (Matthew 7:5), remembering that their goal is to be a friend and fellow pilgrim with their brother of faith (Hebrews 11:13-16) and not a critic bringing a message of discouragement. Members have a responsibility to help their pastor change just as they need to change by allowing God’s Word to be “more loud and vivid than previous life experience” (to quote Dr. David Powlison). They do that by not having an attitude of the judge or critic, but by coming alongside as a fellow servant with gentle and honest concern. Church members have the responsibility to come to their pastors with any concern only when they come ready to pray for and be part of the solution as a faithful partner in ministry.
  3. Members owe their pastors respect. Every church member owes every other member respect because they are image bears of The Father, their creator. We each, as believers in Christ, know we are different because we have been given a new heart, a renewed heart enabled by faith to both see the created things of this world as evidence of God’s love, and to read, believe, and trust his Word in the Scriptures as eternal truth displayed so that we might know more fully His faithfulness in Christ. As new creatures we are, therefore, “compelled by the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14) to see our pastors with eyes of compassion for whom Christ died and to respect the unique demands placed on them; those who have been called to bring His Word to our ears and hearts remembering that God’s Word is, at times, difficult for us to hear because it convicts us of our own sin…our guilt and shame. But pastors also bring us hope in Christ that our sins are forgiven and our guilt and shame no longer the bondage capable of holding us in personal condemnation.  The role of being a messenger of conviction and freedom is incredibly demanding and we owe our pastors a special measure of respectfulness as they balance this difficult task.
  4. (And I, Tara, would add that …) Members owe their pastors prayer and encouragement. Both of my children, since they were three years old, could go right down the list and name our shepherd-overseers because they have prayed for them over and over again. (“And God bless Pastor Alfred, Pastor Jason, Elder Schaner, Elder Feralio, Elder Petsch …”) And they have regularly sent hand-made cards, pictures, and notes to them (as have Fred and I–well, cards and thank you notes, but not hand-made). Why? Because shepherd-overseers have a very serious and important job to do. It is not a light thing to take on the responsibility for the souls of sheep. These are busy men with jobs and families and many duties in addition to their shepherding responsibilities—surely the very least we can do for them is to be regularly praying for them and thanking them for their care! Plus, God forbid, if any of our hearts ever become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and one of our pastors has to “leave the 99” to come after our wandering heart with the (loving, painful) ministration of the rod and staff … well … their redemptive ministry has a much higher likelihood of “success” if we have a relationship established with them. As Ken Sande says, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” So we are all called to build relationship now so that we can have the accountability and discipline of rules as needed.

The next time you find yourself considering whether to side with the group who is calling for the pastor to be fired, please remember that you have a responsibility to him that is consistent with the responsibility he has to you: love, honesty, respect, and prayerful encouragement. That is what God calls us all to do as his eternal children:

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12

Many churches recognize an annual “Pastor Appreciation Month” in October. How might you take tangible steps to show your pastor love, honesty, respect, and prayerful encouragement this month—and every month?

For the Glory of Christ’s Church,
Dave Edling (with Tara Barthel)

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Disappointment in the church | Leave a comment

“It was like being in Hell with instructions!”

Recently, I read a passage from a book I that fits in my category of “relaxation / pastime” pleasures, a luxury I have afforded myself in my retirement years. The book is A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols (HarperCollins Publishers, 2001) which is about the 1968-1969 non-stop circumnavigation of the world sailing race by nine solo yachtsmen.

The book’s sub-title is: Nine men set out to race each other around the world. Only one returned.

The opening chapters of the book go into some detail about each of the nine participants. One, a rugged British paratrooper by the name of Chay Blyth, had never sailed in his entire life. Here was a man of adventure who had rowed across the Atlantic several years earlier but had not one clue about sailing. He was in this race, in his own words, for survival adventure:

“Out here it’s all black and white, survival. I’m not particularly fond of the sea, it’s just a question of survival.” (page 49)

My brother and I used to have a vision of one day sailing from Bellingham, Washington to Bora Bora. He is a commercial fisherman and boat-builder and I am retired from the Coast Guard with both Navy and Coast Guard deep water sailing experience. I was once even the navigator of a U.S. Navy ship. We thought this would be a fitting adventure for our mid-60’s until both of our wives heard the plan. Now, we are not going and my brother sold his boat. Oh well! At least I get to live the vicarious life of reading about others who have taken to the high seas. I have to admit that differing from Chay, I was not out for merely the survival aspect of such a voyage…I expected to survive and have some serious fun along the way.

Chay’s race did not begin well. Three weeks into his passage he sailed into a gale and discovered he had no idea how to meet the challenge. He was helpless in a vessel he was quickly discovering had poor design qualities for such weather. As the boat became unmanageable and began to broach before the huge seas and high winds, he wrote the following words (which were also my inspiration for this week’s RCC blog entry):

“So I lowered the sails…and once I had lowered them there was nothing more I could do except pray. So I prayed. And between times I turned to one of my sailing manuals to see what advice it contained for me. It was like being in hell with instructions.” (page 50)

As co-author of a book on dealing with the crisis of church conflicts, I was immediately struck with the thought:

How many pastors feel exactly like Chay when the gale waters of conflict hit their church? Yes, they pray. And then they turn to the many “manuals” to see what advice they may contain…but how often do they feel that they are “in hell with instructions”?

Unlike Chay’s knowledge of sailing, most pastors know a lot about how to lead a church. But that leadership is usually under conditions of calm seas and gentle following winds. When the storm hits, however, the climate changes and “all hell breaks loose” (to use an old nautical and other adventurous term).  As I read A Voyage for Madmen, I began to wonder:

“Have Tara and I just written another “manual” that offers little real advice in the storm of church conflict? If prayer is not sufficient what is?”

Having worked with a significant number of conflicted churches, we know that church conflict can feel very much like a foretaste and glimmer of “Hell” … so the analogy is apropos.

Of course, Chay’s problem was that he didn’t learn how to sail through rough and stormy waters before he left port on such an adventurous undertaking. That should never be the case in the church as regards conflict. Pastors, other leaders, and every church member have time to prepare for the looming storm of church conflict. In Redeeming Church Conflicts we warn readers to prepare before the high winds of conflict begin to swamp the hallowed halls (and every relationship is at risk of being washed overboard). Don’t wait to read the “manual” until the turbulent times are sinking your ship…read and prepare now! Don’t be like Chay!

As of my reading this morning, I don’t know yet how Chay fares in the race he has entered. I will finish this book and discover the ending in a couple of days. But I do know that if you, as a pastor, church leader, or church member, don’t prepare for the voyage of church conflict before it strikes the bow, stern or amidships of your church, you will broach. Therefore, you must enter the race prepared!

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” 1 Corinthians 9: 24-25

For the glory of His everlasting crown,
-Dave Edling

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Why is the rampant loss of hope a reality in most church conflicts?

One observation Tara and I make in Redeeming Church Conflicts concerns the loss of hope among believers who struggle with conflicts in the church. We spend a significant number of words on that sad dynamic and how to respond biblically. Scripture, of course, repeatedly and clearly points to God and his Word as the only true source of our hope. For example:

  • Psalm 42:5     put your hope in God…
  • Psalm 62:5     my hope comes from him…
  • Psalm 119:74  for I have put my hope in your word…
  • Psalm 146:5   whose hope is in the Lord his God…
  • Romans 15:13 may the God of hope fill you…
  • 1 Corinthians 15:19  for this life we hope in Christ…
  • Hebrews 6:19   we have this hope as an anchor…
  • Hebrews 11:1    faith is being sure of what we hope for…

We all know that hope is one of the most enduring aspects of the Christian faith: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

With such clarity from Scripture, doesn’t it seem a bit incongruent that hope frequently becomes one of the first victims of church conflict? We profess hope as a core fixture of our faith along with faith and love but when conflicts poison the culture of the church hope seems the most vulnerable.

Why? Why the rampant loss of hope as a reality of church conflict?

I think it is because we frequently and too easily dilute biblical hope with worldly reality. That confusion is often fueled by prayers first (and ardently) for God to change “that other person” rather than for God to change me. We know God is perfectly trustworthy but that people aren’t. We know that God is perfectly faithful but that people aren’t. We know that God is perfectly consistent but that people aren’t.

So, when the people we have looked to to define our faith, shape our lives as believers, and form our experience of Christianity fail us, at that time of failure, frequently our hope in God withers too.

Loss and failure based on what we have experienced in God’s church at the hands of other believers is often confused with a failure of God. And in that confusion we then treat others not out of love but out of failed hope. Because we lose hope in the people of the church we can lose our hope in God. Further, we subsequently don’t allow the true source of hope to govern our relationships with others. Rather, we allow our shifting and misplaced hope in people, who like us, are ultimately not perfectly trustworthy, faithful, or consistent, drive our conduct and we fall further and further away from our real source of hope.

The object of our hope should never change even when we find ourselves shaken by conflict. If the object and ultimate source of our hope does not waiver should we not be able to maintain hope whatever comes? We are called to be free (and wise) in the Spirit to distinguish worldly disappointment so that it doesn’t lead to disappointment with God. Being grounded in God as our only source for hope means we can then choose to minister, serve, and have compassion and care for those who would even be the potential cause of our hope-confusion.

Rightly placed hope always remembers: And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us (Roman 5:5).

May you find joy in hope even in the midst of church conflict.

-Dave Edling

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