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“How could they treat us like that?”
They were not the words I expected to hear from one of my closest friends and colleagues in ministry. A seasoned, godly and competent pastor had found himself on the receiving end of an unexpected offensive, not from outside his church, but from within.
The pain in his voice suggested it was the fact that it had come from within, from his own people, that had cut him so deeply. These were the same people he had ministered alongside and poured himself out for week after week, and a small number of them had wounded him. What began as a seemingly benign issue around uncommunicated and unmet expectations had slowly evolved into something bigger than the sum of its parts—an offensive with an endgame: to see him ousted.
The systematic undermining of his integrity and ministry that followed culminated in the termination of his contract and robbed him of his reputation, his community, even his home. It had also left him with deep emotional wounds that he was only beginning to triage.
These were the same people he had ministered alongside and poured himself out for week after week. The systematic undermining of his integrity and ministry left him with deep emotional wounds.
As I shared snippets of his experience with other pastors, I was shocked to hear story after story of others who had been wounded by the people they served. These weren’t cases of guarding the gospel against wayward pastors—they were kind, gentle, competent and faithful shepherds.
To varying degrees, it appears as though it has become a cultural norm for Christians to wound their pastors, and not in the good way! (Prov 27:6). Could it be that the cultural moment we inhabit is informing the way we treat our leaders, rather than the word of God? Even the highest secular office in our land isn’t immune. We’ve had seven prime ministers in the last ten years—let that sink in. Perhaps it is worth asking ourselves whether the spirit of our age is informing the way we relate to those who have been entrusted to lead and feed us, rather than the Spirit whom God has gifted us as his people.
Many of us are guilty of having contributed to that culture in one way or another over the years, which is why I write the following plea as much to myself as to you: please, don’t wound your pastor. Here’s why:
It Dishonours Christ’s Church
In the case of my friend and colleague, a few influential people came to see him as a threat to their long-standing control in the church. Rather than support and encourage him in his responsibilities as their under-shepherd, they worked to criticise and thwart decisions that he’d been involved in making, undermining his ministry and negatively impacting his influence both within their church and the wider community. This kind of behaviour dishonours Christ’s church. The call of Hebrews 13:17 is to do the opposite:
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
The writer to the Hebrews recognised that the dynamic between pastor and church is a two-way street: pastors care for their people, and the people care for their pastors. One way the people are to do that is to recognise their pastor’s God-given responsibility in leadership and let that inform the way they relate and operate in partnership with them as they lead. The result of this dynamic is a pastor who finds pastoral duties a delight, and people who are growing in Christ-likeness as a result (Ephesians 4:12). Not only is it a win in terms of favourable outcomes, it honours Christ and his church as we should.
That should matter to God’s people because the way we treat one another speaks volumes—especially to people watching from the outside.
It Looks Bad to Outsiders
Perhaps that was something those involved in the undermining of my friend’s ministry failed to consider before the matter took on a life of its own. Not only did they undermine their pastor when they felt like he was circumventing their control, they also contributed towards driving others away from their church in the process.
When Christians treat their pastors like this it speaks volumes to those watching on from the outside—and they are watching. Instead of holding out a gospel-flavoured, counter-cultural way of relating to those in authority over them, churches become indistinguishable from the culture of the broader society we inhabit where undermining, backstabbing, and cutting down those in authority is the norm. It is gut-wrenching because it is the opposite of how we are called to relate as members of Christ’s church:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
Your Our Pastor is Probably Already Wounded
Young brawlers are taught never to kick someone when they’re down. In addition to being cruel, it is unnecessary and strips both them and their sparring partner of their dignity. Pre-teens attending their local gym don’t have trouble appreciating and adopting this concept, so why can’t Christians in their churches? Perhaps it is because we’re self-centred creatures, prone to sin, coupled with the fact that many pastors are masterful at dragging themselves up off the mat and hiding their wounds.
In the heat of the moment, we owe it to our pastors to slow down and remember the load that they carry, and that we may be one of many who are about to land a blow on someone who is all but out on their feet. At the risk of stating the obvious, we should pray for them instead. Pray for resilience. Perhaps pray Ephesians 3:16: “that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen them with power through his Spirit in their inner being.” We owe it to Christ to pause, to pray, to consider the degree to which our words and actions might impact the person they’re aimed towards, and to stop (Eph 4:29).
So Build-up, Rather Than Wound
If we hold out a gospel-flavoured, counter-cultural way of relating to those in authority over us, it will be yet another way that our churches will be distinguishable from the culture of the broader society we inhabit. Instead of wounding, our churches will be marked by supporting, caring for, and building up those in authority as they care for us, and people will notice.
Simple things, like:
- adopting a posture of charitable assumption towards them and their ministry;
- speaking about them in ways that build them up when they’re not around;
- and seeking to work through hurts/issues with them directly.
These are just a few of the ways that we can contribute to that culture in our churches.
In 2013, Kevin Rudd introduced a set of reforms to the Labor party designed to stop constant leadership spills that have become commonplace in Australian politics. It was a welcome reform for those that see the constant leadership changes as unnecessary and unhealthy for the country.
If you find yourself unwittingly drawn into a factional game of “leadership spill” at church, don’t play. Christ, his church, and your pastor deserve better.
Author’s postscript: If you’re keen to keep reading, Christopher Ash has just released a book on Hebrews 13:17 called The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (But Is Too Embarrassed to Ask. It speaks to some of these issues in more detail and does a much better job.