Wendy Clark © 2009
Love must be sincere.
Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
Honor one another above yourselves.
Someone that I care about has recently had a very bad ministry experience. In thinking about his experience, I realized that many ministry-minded people I know have also had a very bad ministry experience at least once in their history of ministry. By “bad” ministry experience I don’t mean simply having to deal with difficult people; that’s a given in any field that involves close contact with people. I’m talking about an experience where those you expect to help and support you, those you trust most in ministry, do the unexpected: they undermine your ministry or your reputation or they side with those who want you gone.
A youth pastor with a growing ministry discovers that he is drawing criticism from a certain group of parents. “There’s too much serious Bible study,” they argue, “and not enough fun.” The senior pastor seems to side with the youth pastor. After all, the youth group is larger than it has ever been, and students are making decisions for Christ and getting baptized in numbers his church has never seen. The youth pastor must be doing something right. But, in private, the senior pastor tries to soothe the troubled parents by agreeing with them, and by so doing, he encourages them in their cause to get rid of the youth pastor.
Why doesn’t the senior pastor stand up to these grumblers with the facts? Why doesn’t he take a strong stance on the importance of what the youth pastor is doing?
Maybe he wants everyone to be happy and doesn’t know how to handle conflict. Maybe the grumbling parents are big financial givers to the church, and he’s worried about what will happen if they leave. Maybe he feels threatened by the success that the youth pastor is experiencing, and he’s feeling insecure about his own place in ministry. Maybe so many new people coming into the church is bringing new challenges to face and a part of him just wants things to go back to being comfortable and easy.
A struggling church comes to a decision: they need to hire a worship pastor, to try to move things in a new direction, and attract some younger people to their congregation. They find a young, eager, and talented person to help plan their services and lead worship on Sunday mornings. They communicate excitement and enthusiasm for change and new ideas.
It is not long after the young, eager pastor comes on staff that the complaints start rolling in. At first the complaints are about the program; nothing seems familiar or comfortable any more, and the people miss their favorite songs. The worship pastor listens to their concerns and begins adding in those familiar songs where he can, but that doesn’t seem to satisfy because apparently he is not doing their songs the way they know them. The worship pastor is puzzled. How is he supposed to produce their songs their way when he wasn’t around then to hear those songs? He meets with some people from the music team to try to understand the complaint better but only ends up more confused. That’s okay because the senior pastor assures him that over time people will learn the new songs and become more comfortable and that he and the entire staff is behind the worship pastor and willing to be patient.
The complaints begin to multiply, however, and they begin to get more personal. “The worship pastor is bossy and wants his own way.” “He doesn’t really listen to me.” “He doesn’t care about me.” Some of the complaints are true. Meanwhile the changes the worship pastor is making seem to be working as the staff had hoped. Several new, young families have joined the church, and enthusiasm is growing and spreading through the congregation. While a group of people are unhappy, that doesn’t seem to be the prevailing attitude of those who are coming on Sunday mornings.
The end comes suddenly; it is so unexpected that the worship pastor is left bewildered and confused. How did they get from “the entire staff is behind you and willing to be patient” to “things aren’t working out and we’re asking you to step down”? Why wasn’t there more warning, a chance to make changes and adjust?
Unfortunately, I could fill volumes with the bad ministry experiences of people (both paid and volunteer) who truly love God and are trying to serve him. Certainly none who are perfect, but they are people who serve the Lord faithfully while making their share of mistakes along the way. Probably the most difficult part of these types of experiences is the feeling of betrayal. They trusted other pastors, staff, and leaders to protect them, to defend them, to truly support them, and instead, they were left alone. If paid staff, they are forced out of not just a job but a ministry, they and their spouses and children are often forced to leave their church and their primary social support, and sometimes their home and community also, resulting in feelings of incredible loss and abandonment.
From the other side . . . what should pastors, staff, and leaders do when someone leading a ministry in their church is drawing a lot of criticism, especially if it seems justified?
Treat that leader with love and respect. Even in the secular world we hope for respect. Among those who are following after Jesus we want more than just respect. We want love.
What might love and respect look like? Here are a few possibilities:
*Ignore unreasonable criticism and strongly address the complainers
*Bring legitimate criticism to the attention of the leader and look for ways to appropriately respond to it
*Talk through real problems the leader is facing and try to come up with solutions together
*Provide periodic, specific, reasonable, honest evaluation of both the leader’s areas of strength and weakness
*Be willing to adjust the leadership position to better fit the skills and abilities of the leader.
When a church body brings on a staff person or leader for an area of ministry, there should be commitment to helping that person be successful in that position. There should be a working together to appropriately address inevitable conflict and criticism. There should be an active plan for success. When the leader is not doing well, it should be perfectly clear to the leader, and he or she should know exactly what needs to happen in order to do well. A ministry leader should never be surprised by a sudden withdraw of favor or support. A ministry leader should never be left wondering about what happened and how he or she lost a leadership position.
The success of each leader in a church body is shared by the church as a whole, so the church should invest in the success of their leaders. They should be creative and active in bringing about that success. They should show love and respect to their leaders even when (perhaps especially when) there are problems and concerns with that person’s leadership.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:9-10).
Yes, this even refers to how we treat our leaders.