Pastors in trouble reminded to find the right kind of counsel in crunch time

The fact alone that a pastor is in trouble tells us nothing about his guilt, for there are many kinds of trouble—some good, some bad. As an accreditation conference speaker once told us, there is a crisis in college and university leadership since boards are trying to hire presidents who are in no trouble when they should be looking for leaders “in the right kind of trouble.” The same goes for the church.

I’ve been in both kinds of trouble. When I was a pastor in Arkansas, I had people leave the church over my tougher (and I think more biblical) stand on divorce and remarriage. And an organist blew up a business meeting (when I was out of town) in part over my request that we sing “I’ll Fly Away.” When all was said and done, we had a bit of a “backdoor revival” and some subsequent growth.

As for the wrong kind of trouble, I got chapped and chewed some people out at Midwestern Seminary (including a trustee) and got sacked as president. (That’s the short version.) I should have been cooler, more prayed-up for the encounters.

I’ve seen both sorts of trouble in others’ ministry as well. I remember a rich man who took groundless offense at a young pastor and had the sound system he’d donated removed from the auditorium, wiring and all. But I can also think of well-grounded upset at pastors who thought they were being persecuted when they were really just lazy, nepotistic, petulant, imperious, conniving or hobby-horsing.

So what’s a minister to do if things come crashing down on him? First, I’m as leery as the next guy with therapeutic psychobabble, some of it coming from Christian counselors. By contrast, I enjoyed reading Jay Adams’ “Competent to Counsel” in my seminary days. I can tell you that there are any number of Christians, including ministers and laymen, who are incompetent to counsel, but this doesn’t stop them.

When I was amid the divorce-and-remarriage kerfuffle, I believe I got some unhelpful advice from the Gothardites on the one hand and some “lighten up” people on the other. (Stott and MacArthur, through books and sermons, were better fits, to my mind.) In another, less stressful context, when I was offered a PR job at the SBC Executive Committee, a prominent denominational worker cautioned me that it would be a bad career move, and that I would be in a better position to advance if I stayed where I was (as a state convention executive director). Creepy.

But I’ve also gotten some great advice. When I was taking my hits in the final days at Midwestern, a faculty member told me, “They can’t kill you if you’re dead,” meaning that dying to self was the best spiritual tack. And on the brink of my firing, a former SBC president told me the story of a bird who’d flown into a badminton game, where he was mistaken for the shuttlecock. Sometime later, another bird asked how he was doing: “Well, I don’t fly so high as I used to, but when I get off the ground at all, it’s ever so sweet.” Amen.

One trustee “gave” me the wonderful Psalm 37. And somehow, I came upon Thomas Sibbes’ “A Bruised Reed,” which I read with purifying anguish. But in it all, I suffered my share of “Job’s friends,” who suggested that all “defensiveness” was of the devil, as if there were no distinction between that and defending something valuable against unfairness. (Speaking of “Job’s friends,” I’m reminded of the zealous layman who attributed the hepatitis A I got on an Amazon-region mission trip to the little Umbanda charm I brought back for a sermon illustration, and not to my willingness to witness in a place where the food wasn’t clean.)

I should mention that before and throughout the “end game” at Midwestern, I was in an accountability group to which I’d been invited early in my tenure. We met for breakfast every few weeks and worked down through a 10-question card, including “Have you let anyone rob you of your joy?” “Have you been above reproach in all your finances?” and, the last one, “Have you lied to us about anything today?” (I figured that you lied on one of the earlier questions, you could lie on this one; but no matter.)

These were real friends and encouragers, leaders with whom I could commiserate over the wear and tear of service. When I was gone, they pitched in to help me financially and later were involved in funding an oil painting of me at the school. But I can’t say we got very deep with each other. We weren’t into “take no prisoners” conversations; our exchanges were more on the order of “I feel your pain” and “You might try this.” As things came crashing down, one or more of them insisted that I get a lawyer, but I didn’t do that, and I’m glad.

Recognizing that advice can be good or bad and that you can deserve what you’re suffering or not, let me offer some simple counsel for your consideration, things to file away should a crunch come.

  1. Forget career. It’s not a biblical concern, except in the sense that you should do what you’re supposed to do each day, and let the chips fall where they may.
  2. Read the Psalms.
  3. Get up every day, wash your face, and do what lies before you, no matter how humble. Maybe you need to write overdue thank you notes; read a long neglected book; learn Latin; wash the car.
  4. Humble yourself to do whatever it takes to provide for your family, whether it’s substitute “teaching” a group of thuggish students in an urban school or signing on as a greeter at a big box retailer.
  5. Throw yourself into whatever ministry God gives you, from Sunday School teaching to witnessing through ESL.
  6. Don’t waste your time or spirit hating on those who did you in. I’m so grateful that the quote that came out of my mouth when a reporter from the Kansas City Star stopped me in the parking lot just moments after the firing was something like, “God’s good. I’ll be cheering for the seminary from the sidelines.” (And, being good and powerful, the Lord was just the one to sort things out.)

And to those who would offer solace or help, let me encourage you to not say, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” I know you mean it, and you would follow through, but it puts the recipient in a bad spot. Already down, he’s now cast in the role of supplicant, in fear of overreaching or imposing. Instead, offer something concrete—“Come stay at our place”; “Here’s a check”; “I’m sending your name to this church.”

Yes, there’s room for a bit of “Dutch Uncle” advice. As it says in Proverbs 27, “the wounds of a friend are faithful,” and sometimes it takes a little wounding. But woe to you if you rub salt in the lacerations of a wounded warrior.

It’s said that if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (Think of Rehoboam’s boyhood friends, the knuckleheads we meet in 1 Kings 12.) But there are variations on this theme, e.g., If you’re a band-aid, everything looks like a wound; a pencil … paper; a match … kindling; a needle … thread. The trick is to find the right counselor(s); you don’t need to apply a needle to kindling or a band-aid to paper. Hence, the need for the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), the Paraclete/Counselor/Comforter (John 14:26), and “a multitude of counselors” (Proverbs 15:22) as they are available providentially. Wisdom can be hard to come by, but as Solomon discovered in 2 Chronicles 1, God loves it when we ask for it.

—Mark T. Coppenger is professor of apologetics, director of the Nashville campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southern’s vice president for extension education.

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