As a pastor’s wife, I see this scenario played out regularly in church life: someone in the church dislikes something the pastor says or does. That person then vents their frustration to other church members, who then also become disgruntled. Discontent festers into an offense, until the offended parties finally leave the church.
Having been in ministry with my husband for seven years now, I’ve seen it from every angle – I’ve watched it happen from a distance, as church members attack the senior pastor’s leadership, I’ve been up close and personal with it when it was my husband’s decisions under fire, and I’ve even been the judgmental party myself, criticizing situations that I really didn’t understand. It’s toxic.
The criticisms range from, “Why don’t they do something about those kids’ classrooms? They’re so ugly!” and, “That worship music is too loud! Someone needs to tell them – I can’t even think!” to, “Why doesn’t the pastor ever preach on _______? Why does he always preach on ________?” and, “The only good thing at this church was _______, and now that they’ve done away with it, I don’t even think I can come here anymore!” The truth is, all of these comments, big or small, are all divisive, and they don’t belong in our churches.
We get into trouble when we start to look at our churches with the Burger King mentality – “Have it your way!” Church is not meant to be a consumer-driven institution whereby it meets every need and expectation we might have. Sure, I like having classes for my kids, worship songs that suit my taste, a variety of classes and Bible studies from which to choose, but that’s not really the point of church. If that’s the aim, then we’ve missed the mark, by a long shot.
Let me be the first to say that I’ve struggled with this myself. My mom would tell you I was born with an opinion about everything, so to say that I never question the decisions made by leaders in my life would be a lie. I can be as judgmental as the next person. It doesn’t come out of a heart of malice, but simply out of a desire for things to be better. I hate leaving something unchanged when a small tweak could make a huge difference, and I am passionately in love with my church, meaning I care about it so much that it often becomes the focus of my attention. However, seeing things from the other side has made me reevaluate my tendency to criticize.
As Paul tells the church at Corinth, “I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose (1 Corinthians 1:10 NLT).” Doesn’t this apply to us, too? In this context, Paul is talking about small differences of opinion that are causing friction and disagreements among the church members, and his answer is basically, “Let it go.” So many of the things we get our feathers ruffled about in church life are really insignificant in the big scheme where loving each other and pointing others to Jesus is paramount. The fact is, God has called our pastors to lead our churches – it’s a hard job, and I, for one, wouldn’t want it. So if you aren’t lining up for this position either, it’s not your job to decide which way the burger’s fried. Rally behind your pastor. He needs support more than he needs a bunch of hungry customers who want their burger with extra pickles and no onions. And if you see something that could be improved, share it, constructively, with the people who have the power to change it. Talking with anyone else about it is gossip, so don’t do it.
It’s easy to set our pastors up on a pedestal. We know they aren’t more than human, but still, in our minds, they are “holier” than us. We think they should be hearing from God so clearly that they ought never mess up, miss the mark or fall short. But they are as fallible as any of us (as any pastor’s wife can tell you of her husband!). Instead of expecting perfection and being aghast when they do something we find imperfect, we ought to look for opportunities to encourage and support our pastors. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.”
Have you noticed that the kids’ ministry hallway looks a little drab? Instead of complaining, why don’t you send your pastor an email, offering to paint it? If you think the coffee is subpar, find out if you can buy better coffee for the church. Feel like your church never offers the classes or Bible studies you want? Ask if you can start one. Then, respect whatever decision your pastor makes, even if it’s not the one you wanted to hear. Recognize that he is weighing many factors that you may not be aware of, and ultimately, submit to his authority.
I see a lot of people leaving churches over misunderstandings over which they’ve taken offenses. They leave without ever talking to the person who has offended them, thereby never giving the relationship a chance to grow through honesty. Ultimately, it’s hurting everyone involved. It hurts the church body they leave, as that church has to fill the pothole of disunity left in their wake; it hurts the person who left, as they leave a protected community of believers in which they could have planted roots but will now have to start over in building authentic community elsewhere; and, probably the most disconcerting to me, it damages the already-fragile opinion of non-Christians towards the Church. How can we ever show Jesus’ love to our neighbors if their view is of a hypocritical church body that claims to love everyone but doesn’t act in a loving way, even toward each other? As John 13:35 says, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying you shouldn’t have an opinion about what happens at your church. Like I said, I have opinions about everything! Opinions just show you’re invested and engaged, and that’s a good thing in church life. Just make sure you voice your ideas constructively and to the right people. Your pastor was put in his position of authority over you by God. Yet, he is still just a person like you, subject to all the same shortcomings. So if he’s said or done something that has offended you, talk with him about it. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the biblical thing to do.
Encourage your pastor and each other. Choose to speak life instead of death. Build up instead of tearing down. And next time you’re tempted to “order it your way” at church, remind yourself that you’re not at Burger King.