While cleaning out old files, my wife Sharon came across an article published in the local newspaper in 1994. The piece was titled An Explosion of Faith, with a subtitle that read, "A heartfelt mix of preaching and teaching has more people choosing the pews at Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church." The reporter traced our then young history as a church in one of the rapid growth spurts that took place in that era. The news reporter wanted to know why some people were driving forty-five minutes or more just to come to church. Various members of the church were interviewed, and each man or woman attributed the growth to my preaching and teaching ministry.
Before you think I’m bragging, consider this. This piece of our written history saddened us, because most of the same people interviewed have since left our church without an explanation or a goodbye. I’ve been a pastor for almost forty years and people leaving the church always hurts.
Don't get me wrong. I often tell our congregation and audiences that every pastor should have the privilege of shepherding a congregation like ours. Many of us have "grown up" together in our life journeys and share a love affair with Christ and each other. Our church is stronger than it’s ever been and there is a passion for building God's kingdom. But no matter how many times I am told the leaving is '“nothing personal," I cannot help but wonder what I did to drive people away, especially people I considered friends.
I'm not alone in this sadness. Numerous pastors and key church leaders tell me they experience the same sorrow. In one particularly low moment, my wife concluded that many people view pastors and their wives as commodities, embraced and loved only as long as personal needs are met. What we define as friendship for us is actually a casual relationship for them, easily discarded when the parishioner is disappointed when their perceived needs are not met by us.
Again, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that we pastors are without fault. Some pastors are foolish and arrogant. Some refuse accountability and lead with an iron fist. Some betray their very office by sinful behavior. But many laymen slice and dice their preacher because of personal preferences – not because of sin on the part of their spiritual leader.
Laymen, please answer these questions: Why is it that scriptural principles of godly behavior and conflict resolution do not apply to your differences with your pastor? Why is the cruel behavior of some congregations and church members toward their pastors considered appropriate when such behavior would never be acceptable in any other relationship? (Go to www.markinc.org to enter the discussion).
My first official pastorate was as the minister in a fifty-member church. I was twenty-one years old, excited and inexperienced. About six months into my three year tenure, the treasurer exclaimed, "Chuck, you are impulsive, impetuous, arrogant, and changing everything. Your wife is your only redeeming quality." Wow, and I thought he liked me! Talk about a baptism by fire. What he said may very well have been true. But, did he have to be so cruel? I didn’t know Christians got a pass on speaking truth in love! Are not the older men in the church to encourage the dreams of the younger and teach them what iron sharpening iron is all about?
Have you easily discarded a pastor from your personal life who thought you were a genuine friend? How many invisible score cards do you hold up when he preaches? How often do you pray for him? Do you realize that godly men called to the office of pastor live, eat, and sleep Kingdom work? Their social lives are marbleized into the church. The congregation is their family. Have you considered how your diatribes affect his wife and kids? How many pastors’ children leave the church as soon as they can because they have witnessed the emotional destruction of their parents at the hands of people their families loved and served?
I can feel the defense mechanisms kicking in as a layman reads this article. Some of you are seething and thinking, "If you knew our pastor, you would feel the same way I do!" Perhaps! I know some pastors who should never have entered the ministry and wreak destruction wherever they land. I have counseled many laymen on how to resolve conflict with their pastoral leadership. There is a way to work through differences of opinion and even to confront a morally corrupt pastor but that is not the purpose of this article (visit www.markinc.org to learn wrong and right reasons for leaving a church).
Believe me Mr. or Ms. Layman – we know how you feel about us. We can see it in your eyes, your demeanor, or the way you turn your head when you see us coming. It’s tough for a shepherd to look into the eyes of an angry wolf that is covered in lamb skin!
We know we do - and will - fail you. We cannot be 100 percent efficient at building budgets (we do not learn that in seminary). We won't hit a home run every time we preach and we’ll never preach like your favorite televangelist. We will forget your name or neglect visiting you in the hospital. We will say the wrong things – just like everyone else! Why is it worse in your mind when preachers do these things? Godly pastors recognize they have “feet of clay” and daily petition God to reflect redemption through them – in spite of their short comings.
Cruel, ungodly behavior toward your pastor is a mark of shame on the church of Jesus Christ. The enemy wins every time seeds of unbiblical conflict sprout between a godly pastor and laymen. Internal conflict drains spiritual energy given by God for winning the lost (to learn how to resolve conflict biblically, go to www.markinc.org and order the message series The Lost Art of Church Discipline).
I am pleading with God’s people. Look inward and see your anger and frustration toward your pastors through the grid of scripture. Push your own hearts and behavior through the same grid. Ask God how you can be a Barnabas who comes alongside and encourages and earns the right to speak the truth in love. Don’t gossip to others because “I’m intimidated by the pastor.” Pray diligently every day for us and our families and work through conflicts biblically. Do not be casual in your critical remarks – the hurt they cause is not casual to the pastor.
When a pastor broken by the sinful behavior of a congregation seeks my counsel I try to comfort them with a tiny little letter Paul wrote at the end of his life:
2 Timothy 4:9-18 - Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
I consider verse 11 one of the saddest verses in Paul’s writings. The Apostle Paul writes this letter from jail at the end of his life, knowing he will soon die a martyr’s death. After a sacrificial lifetime of planting churches, ordaining elders, shepherding countless people, and numerous beatings because of his relationship to Christ, he writes, “Only Luke is with me.” Where was the dad whose son Paul led to Christ? Where were all of the people who sat under his preaching and teaching? Paul was not berating these people or asking for personal attention. But the personal pain of loneliness is implied. In verse 18 Paul puts the pain of ministry in perspective for me:
The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Visit www.markinc.org to respond and to read Ten Wrong Reasons to Leave Your Church as well as Ten Right Reasons to Leave Your Church.
Dr. Chuck Betters has been the Senior Pastor of Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church in Bear, Delaware since 1986. He has a daily radio program, airing since 1994, In His Grip, which can be accessed online at www.markinc.org. He can be seen live via streaming video very Sunday at 11:00 AM ET. Visit www.GRPC.org. Along with the development of numerous audio and video resources designed to help heal broken hearts, he is co-author of Treasures of Faith, Living Boldly in View of God’s Promises, a Bible study of Hebrews 11. To order these resources visit www.markinc.org.