Riding out the storm, peacefully

An honest account of how a pastor survived opposition and criticism in his congregation

Ray Roberts is a pseudonym.

I have just survived the most sophisticated attempt to destroy me as a pastor and as a professional. I have met conflict before, but never like this. Unfortunately for me and the churches I have pastored, I seem to attract criticism. I wish I could be more like Eugene Peterson, 1 my alter ego in ministry style, and less like Ray Roberts. But God called me into ministry with my strengths and weaknesses. This means that I create new paradigms for church, and the price tag for such ministry is sporadic criticism and conflict.

For many of us, ministry seems to be more about conflict resolution than nurture, care, preaching, and winning new friends for Jesus Christ. We resonate with Richard John Neuhaus' proclamation that church is "thus and so"2 and not a perfect manifestation of Christ's character of love. In addition, we all feel the effects of our society's lack of trust in leadership. We have been tempted to conform to its "managerial" pressure to be spiritual jugglers rather than leaders shaping a community of God into His oneness. The moment we risk the proclamation of a new vision, a shifting of church priorities and expectations occurs. In all of this criticism is a consistent and automatic response and will occur whether you and I are good pastors or not.

Consistent with my concern to shape a given church according to a new vision I have been on the receiving end of criticism for my style of leadership along with a long list of other "concerns," such as my theology, philosophy, organization, interpersonal relationships, family relationships you name it. I have even had suggestions on what style ties to wear when I preach. One of the fondest memories of my internship was a retired pastor's counsel for me to keep my legs closed, knees touching, when I was on the platform. Chinese water torture could not be more painful than that exercise.

But I do not want to trivialize this discussion of criticism by mentioning the usual, and frankly inane, comments we get every week as we attempt to call our parishioners to God. Criticism hurts. There is no other way to describe it. What I have just gone through has hurt more than anything else in my entire ministry. Skillfully planned to destroy my integrity, these individuals crafted a unique style in their attempts to have me removed as pastor from my congregation. I was slandered, lied about, and campaigned against in a vain attempt to rally support from the majority in order to help God move me to another parish somewhere far, far away. What hurt the most is that some of what they said was true, just true enough to validate their accusations and create a three-month firestorm that is only now dying into embers.

Professional issues

Most of us have strong gifts in teaching and caring. Some pastors don't have strong gifts in leadership. However, we are nevertheless placed into the leadership position of our congregations, where this expectation is handed to us. Obviously, this dichotomy of gifts and expectations creates anxiety. Coupled with this anxiety is the more recognizable concern over where God is leading a particular congregation at that time and place. Yet in spite of these matters, vision is cast either by our proactive involvement or reactive entanglement.

Edwin Friedman3 suggests that no matter how a vision is cast, 78 percent of any system or church will agree or acquiesce to that particular vision. This means that 22 percent of the church are not going to agree or always be agreeable about the direction the church is heading.

Thus we will be criticized for too aggressive a leadership style. We will be criticized for too passive a leadership approach. We will be criticized if we find a happy medium. All of this occurs simply because we occupy a certain position with certain leadership expectations.

If you add to this mix our own personal limitation of talents, gifts, and real-life issues, we have handed certain individuals the "tithe-paying right" to criticize us. Our life is open to many of the church members. Every week we must share our philosophical perspectives of God, church, sin, etc., and cannot hide behind an annual sermon preached in 50 different churches. Our theology is suspect if we do not include a pet phrase someone wishes to hear. When we press the boundaries or touch on subjects that have not been discussed publicly, we are accused of bringing in new theology. All of this is automatic, and it does not take any pastor long to experience these realities. Describing the problem is easy. Living through the dissonance is difficult.

Managing criticism

Managing criticism, therefore, is absolutely imperative if you want to succeed in your ministry. From my experience may I suggest the following helpful pointers in handling criticism.

1. Develop and maintain a support system. I belong to two small groups; however, they are church members, and I cannot freely share my journey with them. I almost stopped attending these two groups because they were aware of what was happening in the church and wished to spend inordinate amounts of our group time discussing it. I tried to avoid dominating the group this way. It was more helpful to belong to a peer group of pastors who understood, gave advice, stood with me, and shared my burdens. Their friendship and prayers were invaluable during this crisis time.

I also sought out a licensed therapist and told him, "Help me stay balanced and keep my anger and stress from dominating my life." After all, I had a family to support, a church to lead, sermons to prepare, and whatever else goes into ministry. I did not want to have individuals with less than my best in mind to control my world.

My wife also became a great source of support. Previously she had helped me through significant crisis times and was equipped to handle this most intense confrontation. Obviously, at times most of our wives (if not ourselves) mouth words similar to those of Job's wife. But my wife never expressed such thoughts while I was being attacked. She kindly gave nurture, counsel, and wisdom when I could not see through the maze.

2. Take time out. My time-out included getting away from the fray and looking at the big picture. Twice a year I take my Bible and my dog and go to a remote cabin to pray. There is nothing like this weeklong adventure to clear my mind and allow me to see God through the murals He is painting in my congregation and in my own personal life. I could never survive ministry itself, much less a criticism crisis, without seeing the big picture. Unfortunately, last fall when all this was happening to me, I could not schedule time away. However, a speaking engagement overseas allowed me time on the flight over and back as well as during the 12- day absence. That time gave me a sense of God's vision and what was happening. From now on the first option and mandate for me is prayer and reflection. These must be scheduled!

3. Develop a deeper sense of God. This is not a cliche designed for spiritual readers of pastor's magazines. This is me working closely with God. I knew that the battle would be won or lost by the power of God. I am an experienced pastor who knows the ropes and is comfortable with local church politics. I know how to get around, how to move large groups of people toward a common goal, and how to shape the attitudes of the thought leaders of my congregation. But by themselves, none of the techniques would have worked very well in the midst of my crisis. It was too intense, too designed, too organized, for any of that to have much effect. This was God's battle and God's outcome. My role (and my intense inner battle) was to let God be in charge of this one and not attempt to manage and direct it. This is certainly not my usual modus operand!. While the slander and attacks increased, with eager ambassadors soliciting support in the hallways, I learned to back off and let God change hearts and heads.

Through the discipline of crisis, I learned as never before to enter into God's plan and let His power, rather than my professional expertise, be the defining reality. My prayer life entered another phase. I learned that it was God's purpose to bring my church to a crisis of belief. Henry Blackaby states: "When God lets you know what He wants to do through you, it will be something only God can do."4 God permitted this circumstance in our congregation to bring the church into an awareness of its inadequacies and God's sufficiency. I simply had to learn to enter into that engagement. It was difficult for me to let go of managing the moment and let God be God through it.

4. Try proactive pastoral intervention. Eugene Peterson balances a passive "letting God be God" approach with a proactive pastoral intervention with the critics. Every pastor knows that a direct visit or encounter with disaffected individuals is helpful and needful. I had spent hours with the individuals who emerged as leaders in the opposition. I knew their complaints. I had heard their concerns. Most were centered on process. Our church had grown so rapidly that we did not have the time or resources to create the policies needed to handle the changing dynamics. I was already overworking and couldn't do it all myself. The process complaint was actually a smoke screen. The real target was me. They did not like the direction of the church, the variety of approaches and languages created, and the fact that the church was no longer a small, homogenous group that attended the same functions at the same times. My declarations of wishing to stay long-term and develop a worshiping community leading to proactive engagement with our world was forcing the issue of leadership. When the smoke cleared, this attack upon me as leader was focused and declared. In the process, I recognized I had ignored these people during the previous year or so. I knew I wasn't going to change their minds, so I had decided to move ahead, not taking the time to stay in contact and keep in relationship. This was a serious mistake!

Eugene Peterson declares this to be "pastoral sloth."5 He describes pastoral endurance of, or withdrawal from, fractured relationships not as "being courageous" (as we tend to think it is) and suggests we admit what our problem truly is sloth. I had more work to do with these people. I was called to pastoral relationship, not agreement or consensus.

I learned the hard, humbling experience of reconnecting relationships that were fractured by the willing abandonment with which I tried to come to those from whom I was distanced. I needed to apologize to them individually. I was not going to debate vision. I was simply going to them, if allowed, to seek forgiveness in that I had let them down pastorally. For those who refused to see me personally, I extended invitations to sit with me while another elder or two were present. When that did not satisfy the disaffected, I extended an invitation to bring their concerns to the board. I wish I could say this has been a glorious success in healing and rebonding; it hasn't. Most people who didn't like me before still don't like me. Nothing has changed ... except my heart.

5. Cultivate a dialogue with denominational leadership. Pastoring in a denominational system requires dialogue with denominational leadership. I have regular appointments with my conference leader to discuss the issues facing my congregation and the effects of our vision. In spite of this dialogue, the tendency for leadership is to try to fix the situation. If this happens, the criticism takes on political overtones that disallow a spiritually based approach to resolution on a local basis. The numbers were "on my side," but the politics would have hurt more than helped. Leadership allowed the discussion to remain on the local level. Words cannot express how important this was to the entire dynamic. If Matthew 18 can be avoided, most human beings will avoid it. If a person or group can go directly to the conference leader and do an end-around on local church leadership, much is lost and little is gained. There is a time and place for resolution at that level, but most often it is only after the local dynamics have been spiritually and organization ally processed. It may be time for all levels to allow God to teach the lessons He wishes a congregation to learn prior to stepping in and managing a church "discussion."

The outcome

The outcome is a very personal one. I have grown in a variety of ways. I learned lessons of managerial detachment as well as relational reattachment. God is more real than ever before. My confidence that our church vision is God-based grew in strength. My valuing of my wife is greater than ever. My church staff and leadership grew while supporting me and I valued their individual walks and perspectives. I once again reassessed my calling to ministry and decided to remain faithful in congregational life.

To be a "priest" is so much more rewarding than anything else I can imagine doing for a life's work. To walk with people, seeing their good as well as their dark side, to know their secrets and remind them of God, to share Jesus' release from the depression of sin all these energize my professional walk with this congregation in the context of God's glorious grace. God is good. I know it now. I regret questioning it a few months ago.

1 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1987).

2 Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for
Ministry
(New York: Harper and Row,
1979), p. 1.

3 Edwin Friedman, Generation to
Generation (New York: Guilford Press,
1985).

4 Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God
(Nashville: Broadman and Holman
Publishers, 1994), p. 136.

5 Peterson, p. 156.


Continuing education exercise

1. Is leadership a gift that God has
given to me? If not, how does my
church find leaders who cast an
appropriate God-designed vision?

2. When criticism occurs, how do I
manage it personally? How should I?

3. Is my need for conflict avoidance
greater than my desire to follow
God's vision for my congregation?
If so, how do I learn to be God-driven
and allow my church to
come to a "crisis of belief"?


4. What do I do with my bitterness
toward my "enemies"?

 

Suggested reading

Champy, James. Reengineering
Management. New York: Harper-
Collins. Management books come
and go but whatever sources
pastors find to enhance their
understanding of process, groups,
and issues soon to appear on the
professional landscape are
important. This is one such source.

Erwin, Gayle. The Jesus Style. Dallas:
Word Publishers, 1983. Scriptural
pictures of Jesus' interactions with
individuals.


George, Carl. Prepare Your Church for
the Future. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Revell
Company, 1991. Discusses issues of
church vision and growth.


Spence, Gerry. How to Argue and Win
Every Time
. New York: Martin
Press, 1995. A lawyer's perspective,
but the chapters on credibility,
listening, prejudice, and power of
words are imperatives a pastor
should read and understand.


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Ray Roberts is a pseudonym.

April 1997

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