Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

by John Howard Farmer

Pulpit to Pew; Pew to Pulpit?

 Over the span of my three-plus decades here, I’ve received a few of the most uncomfortable phone inquiries. I’ve even tackled the issue in this column a time or two prior.

Pastor Someone has failed to live up to the expectations of this or that church member. Deeper than the query is the known fact that this caller also is feeling disenfranchised by both pastoral leadership and congregational support. My invitation is to enter as a dispassionate expert and allow the caller to get his or her way in a deeply personal matter.

We are talking about an almost “no win” situation. No matter how I respond, I am vulnerable. I don’t dodge the issue, for I realize that there are most likely persons with whom I have some relationship seeking counsel elsewhere. Why is it so hard for church folks to be honest in their dealings, one with the other? 

Clearly the matters of pastoral leadership look different from the pew than they do the pulpit. They even appear differently from the parsonage than from members’ homes.

What usually ensues is a torn fabric of faith. Each side in a pastoral squabble feels victimized. There has to be a better way.

First, we can re-examine the affair calmly. Pastoral-congregation differences of opinions and lifestyle rarely are worth destroying a family or a church over. Each situation needs prayer first; then, negotiation next. Do not forget that we in the community of faith were so freely forgiven our transgressions. Shouldn’t we be just as kind when it comes to dealing with others? Say: are we not our brother’s keeper?

Sometimes we need to step back from the difficulty and let a little light shine on the matter. 

I cried when my son was called to enter pastoral ministry. I was afraid for his possible future to be decided upon by disagreements over the color of carpet, style of music, hymnbook, and/or Sunday school materials, as I have known of such injury to the Kingdom of God. Mark this, however: I am proud of the congregation and him in the areas to which God has called him to minister.

In most cases, the minister with whom we have fallen out of love was that very special person that the congregation invited to become their leader, or that a board, bishop or council sent to lead.

A number of times I have observed that the problem was not so much failed expectations, but, rather a failure to communicate what true expectations really were.

Ministers are often called to fix the problem caused by his or her predecessor: old brother/sister Last. Well, wait a minute, Minister Last is gone. Is there still a problem? Could it be that it is not a ministerial leadership problem? Could it be that some in the congregation simply refuse to be led by anyone?

Lying deep beneath many a church conflict is the fact that someone has decided that it is their church. Calmer, wiser persons of faith should recognize that it is the Lord’s church, or it isn’t even worth fussing over. If we can keep our focus on the Lord of the church, we can get them off each other.

Sadly, the Christian army is one of the few that shoots its own wounded.

Convene a council, board of elders, deacons, or what have you, and fairly lay out the expectations that are in jeopardy. It could be that a prayerful study of the issue might reveal that while we have a problem, it is not a problem that cannot be resolved. 

If, in the course of study, persons weighing the matter in light of history, performance, and opportunity, decide that new leadership is necessary, a plan that allows the church to prosper and the minister to exit should be implemented. The adjudicator ought put in writing the areas of disagreement and give the minister opportunity to respond. Meet again, and evaluate the differences. If repair is no longer possible, discuss with the minister what options exist for help and for resolution while he or she gets ready for another call.

I encourage disappointed folks make the difficulty an act of sacrifice. Don’t stop going to church, please.

I jokingly tell Baptists to pray for their ministers and brag on their good points. One of two things can happen: the minister will get better at what God has called them to do, or some other church will hear about them and want them to come to their field.

When failed expectations arise, we need a prayer foundation beneath our negotiations. We need the love of Christ in our hearts as we calmly discuss our differences. We need the forgiveness of Christ, with which we have been blessed, applied to the minister in whom we are so unhappy. Ask God to help—but be careful…we just could have the minister he wants us to have.

When ministers leave under stress, there are rarely winners. Minister X, who is to follow, inherits a damaged ship which will require a healing epoch.

A prayed-for and planned exit can benefit both congregation and minister. Or, contrary-wise, just recognition that even wounded ministers can heal to fly another day, right on the field to which they’ve been called.