Pastors and people

Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:4)

The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD. (I Samuel 24:6)

Bert and Ernie* came into my office (in another state) and plopped down in the chairs beside my desk. Without preamble Bert began, “Elmo*[our pastor] has got to go, and we need your support.”

Our conversation was pretty short when I told them I couldn’t support what they proposed. You see, Elmo had stumbled in several ways during his ministry at our church and was obstinate about it to boot. I couldn’t imagine him staying long and frankly didn’t mind when he moved, BUT nothing that had happened justified his firing. He was not a mere employee of the church, and we would be wrong to evaluate him as if he was.

In my experience, a few church members in most churches are too eager to rebuke or get rid of their pastor.  It becomes a corporate problem when those members have great influence. When that happens, even in response to a real provocation on the part of a pastor, a local church is tempted into great sin—one that will hobble its ministry for years. But the primary reason I don’t favor most pastor terminations is not pragmatic but convictional. I do consider pastors called (anointed) to the role at a specific church, and I do think we are most often “judging the servant of another” when we pick at the pastor. Saul’s case, from 1 Samuel 24, seems clarifying to me. Saul was, pretty early in his reign, spiritually a bad king. From David’s perspective he was also a real physical threat. Still, God’s choice of Saul and the fact that God had not yet removed him stayed David’s hand—out of respect for the role perhaps but certainly out of respect for the One who is Lord over good kings and bad ones.

On the other hand, pastors are not kings nor are they a different sort of Christian than their fellow church members. If most of the blame for church conflict comes from peevish church members who do not understand the nature of a church, some of it also comes from pastors who believe that they alone are immune from accountability to their brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s a caution here that we hear too rarely.
I’ve been on the platform, and I’ve been in the pews. There is a real temptation on the part of leaders to count those who agree with us in detail on the side of angels and to consign those who disagree with us about the smallest details to the other team. Being quick to make those judgments can be a symptom of thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. It can also make adversaries of those who don’t intend to be. Some wounds we experience in ministry are self-inflicted. Perhaps conflicts between pastors and churches are most often a failure for one or both parties to have the mind of Christ—meekness and humility. With that in mind, here are a few things that seem true and helpful in the relationship between pastors and congregations.

Pastors are not “the help.” I’ve seen situations where some church leaders consider pastors as temporary and replaceable as those who stock shelves at the grocery. Part of this misconception is fed by the too-short tenures of many pastors. Lay leaders who decide to disregard the pastor until he leaves may have found that this approach worked in the past. Nonetheless, at one point we (mostly) agreed that God was calling our pastor to lead our church; it is not a small thing to change our minds about that. My father-in-law once observed that church is the only place where some people “get to be the boss.” He’s right that this attitude is out there, but it’s a wrong attitude.

Pastors are human. My point is not that they make mistakes, as do you and I, but that they deserve mercy and grace as much as you and I. Not every mistake a leader makes should be a deal killer. We can be very unforgiving of those who serve us in leadership. I take Matthew 6 to say that we are obligated to forgive those around us before they apologize or satisfy us. Forgiveness means that we no longer hold it against him in thought, deed or speech.

Pastors are not omni-competent. None of us is. Listen to the list of qualifications many churches want of their pastor. They want a great preacher who will spend many hours in the study but also someone who makes every hospital and homebound visit and is available to chat with anyone who wants to stop by the church. He also needs to be a good businessman and know a little about church plant management. Oh yes, he’d better be a good dad and husband in the midst of it all. I’ve known pastors who wanted to micromanage the plumbing, the music ministry and real estate transactions in addition to their ministries of the Word. It’s a freakishly rare pastor who can and should spread himself so thin. It’s a church setting itself up for disappointment that expects him to do so.

Pastors are part of the body of Christ. Of course we understand that the pastor’s gifts are given for the building up of the church. But it is also true that your pastor was brought to you at this time because he needs what God has empowered you to do for him. He’s a church member as well as a church leader. That means that a pastor should become part of the church he also serves—to become intimate enough with his brothers and sisters so that they know his needs and his strengths. It means people should welcome the pastor, his wife and their kids as they fit in rather than treating them all as another sort of human being. Treating your pastor as an outsider is a sure way to shorten his tenure among you. 

This is a covenant relationship, friends, and not a business hierarchy. That covenant binds pastors and people together, but the covenant is with the Lord of churches. When a church and pastor crash into each other, someone has violated that covenant. Churches very much need pastoral leadership. Pastors very much need the fellowship, support, prayers and gifts of other church members. Something far grander than man-based success happens when we all take responsibility for our roles within the body of Christ.

*Not real names of anyone I know, except Muppets

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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