Why Do Churches Wound Their Pastors?
Dan Doriani / May 23, 2017/THE GOSPEL COALITION
A renowned Reformed pastor, great preacher, visionary leader, and tender man endured such criticism from his church that he almost despaired. He told one of his confidants, “After 12 years as a pastor, I had to put a wall between myself and my people so I wouldn’t have to quit the ministry.”
“Jack” was another esteemed pastor. An excellent preacher with sterling organizational skills, he fostered healthy church growth and led numerous citywide ministries. When he retired, the leaders of the pastoral search team visited me. We spent an hour getting to know each other, then their presentation began. Before long, I felt compelled to interrupt, “Please don’t tell me your goal is to find a senior pastor who’s more of a shepherd than Jack.” Faces fell.
“How did you know?”
I replied: “Jack is friendly and socially adept, but clearly not as sociable as you are—we just spent an hour talking about our families. Jack is always busy preaching, teaching, and leading. Your church has 1,500 people, so you know he can’t know everyone. But you’re sad he doesn’t really know all 60 elders. Since you admire him, you long to know him and hope you will know your next pastor. But no one is equally gifted at everything, and everyone’s time is limited. Therefore, if this search led to a man bent on shepherding, he would inevitably be less devoted to preaching or leadership. But after 20 years with Jack, the church expects and needs a senior pastor who preaches and leads with excellence. If you want a consummate preacher, teacher, and shepherd, you want the perfect pastor.”
In short, the committee loved Jack, but they also thought, We need to fix his weakness. They forgot that everyone has weaknesses.
‘We Need to Fix Him’
My work often leads to sustained conversations with elders, unordained leaders, and pastors of large, complex churches. With rare exceptions, churches are quite vocal about the flaws of their pastors, whether newly installed or long faithful. Good churches wish it were different, but they tend to think all will be well if the pastor improves, and they take better care of him.
At first, churches are eager to care for new pastors, especially senior pastors. They want to ensure that he has time for his family, that he doesn’t work too hard, that he joins a gym or a club. They want to treat him well—certainly better than the last pastor, who finished his tenure visibly exhausted. This intention is typically more enthusiastic than resolute, for the tone changes a few years into the pastor’s tenure.
The main problem is almost always criticism and opposition. Every pastor who effectively leads an influential church will face opposition. Heroes like Anselm, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Edwards tasted fierce resistance, even hostility. Because they enacted essential reforms and addressed burning theological debates, confrontation was inevitable.
Anyone with great skill and influence becomes a target. Similarly, a rapidly growing church will rouse opposition from its community, as neighbors protest increased traffic, and nearby pastors—possibly motivated by jealousy—imagine they detect heterodoxy.
These troubles are inevitable but manageable. The principal challenge lies within the pastor’s own church.
Five Causes of Criticism
This spring, I spoke to a group of large-church pastors, staff members, and elders. During a Q&A, an elder asked, “What is the single greatest problem facing pastors today?” I replied, “The greatest problem is internal opposition from subversive co-leaders and self-appointed critics within the church.” The pastors released a collective groan of recognition and assent.
I will briefly mention five causes of criticism and focus on the fifth.
First, a pastor may face full-blown antagonists who will lie, deceive, and manipulate to destroy him and control the church.
Second, a pastor must negotiate with talented, successful, and therefore opinionated people who love him but believe he’s dead wrong about a critical issue.
Third, a pastor pays for the errors of his subordinates. If a staff member commits a major sin, the senior pastor properly faces questions: Did he fail to address a nascent problem? But catastrophes can be unforeseeable.
Fourth, a pastor see problems that appear to invite, even demand, reform. Most people resist change. Further, those committed to the existing order will be inclined to resist proposals for a new system. New pastors know it is wise to delay changes, if possible, to build trust while making non-controversial improvements. Bold changes arrive later.
Machiavelli said there is nothing more difficult in leadership than creating a new order. Everyone who’s done well under the old system is an enemy, and those who may do well in the new order will be lukewarm allies. Machiavelli is needlessly pessimistic, since a manifestly flawed order always attracts reformers, and there is a minority that simply likes change. Nonetheless, pastors do court opposition when they initiate change.
But I want to focus on criticism directed at a pastor’s genuine flaws.
Finally, every senior pastor deserves criticism for two reasons. Above all, every pastor is a sinner. Pastors sin both in their private lives and in their work. When thwarted, they become harsh or angry. When self-discipline wanes, they prepare inadequately to preach, lead, or shepherd.
Further, no pastor has all the skills to lead well. To be sure, certain pastors lack self-discipline and essential abilities. But let’s focus on pastors with character, skill, and a capacity for work. Even they are criticized for their inadequacies, often fiercely and shamelessly, by their own people.
For example, senior pastors with great skill as preachers and leaders suffer criticism for deficient people skills. Some pastors are awkward or aloof. But even friendly, perceptive pastors hear this criticism. Why? Highly gifted preachers and leaders probably are less adept with people. Who excels at everything? Beyond that, senior pastors must push through demanding schedules. That can make them seem abrupt. Everyone is finite. Faithful pastors face demands on their time, so they cannot socialize freely. This is unavoidable, yet it offends. Yes, the ideal pastor will be equally adept at (1) preaching and teaching, (2) casting vision and leading, (3) and counseling and mentoring. But no human excels at every task.
Consider that God ordained three ongoing offices for Israel: prophet, priest, and king. None but Jesus held all three offices. Few had even two: Melchizedek was priest and king, Moses was a prophet and kingly leader, and David was king and prophet, at least informally, through his psalms. Even if we add a few more dual-role leaders, almost no one had two offices and no one but Jesus had all three.
The implication is clear: No church should expect its pastor(s) to excel in the prophetic, kingly, and priestly aspects of godly leadership. No one is equally gifted and passionate about the prophetic (teaching and preaching), the kingly (leading and organizing), and the priestly (shepherding and prayer). Even if a pastor were capable in every area, he’ll find one exhilarating, the other exhausting.
Why does the church freely, cruelly criticize its pastors for falling short of perfection? Why do we forget that Jesus alone is perfect, that Jesus alone redeems? To demand perfect skill, holiness, and ever-effective labor from anyone is akin to idolatry. Grace-centered churches must know this. But churches idolize their pastors one day and savage them the next. Americans can’t bear disappointment in silence, and all too often, we behave more like Americans than disciples.
The author of Hebrews names a better way: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls. . . . Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Author’s note: With the exception of one quotation from a pastor who died years ago, this blog’s illustrations are composites. They capture the spirit of many conversations. Parallels to any particular church are accidental.
Dan Doriani serves as vice president of strategic academic projects and professor of theology and ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary. He previously served as senior pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Clayton, Missouri.