Category Archives: Conflict and the Church

Preacher in the Hands of an Angry Church

by Chris Armstrong
Jonathan Edwards’s church kicked him out after 23 years of ministry, but the crisis proved his greatness was not merely intellectual.

As messy dismissals of ministers go, the 1750 ejection of Jonathan Edwards by his Northampton congregation was among the messiest. The fact that it involved the greatest theologian in American history—the central figure of the Great Awakening—is almost beside the point. The fact that it took place in a New England fast moving from theocratic “city on a hill” to democratic home of liberty is more relevant.

But another aspect is worth a closer look: Friends and enemies alike agreed that in the long, degenerating discontent, Edwards continued to love and pray for—or at least tolerate and refrain from attacking—his people, even when they bared their fangs.

Salary controversies and power struggles marked his ministry during the 1740s. In the infamous “bad book” episode of 1744, some teen boys in the church distributed a midwife’s manual, using it to taunt and make suggestive comments in front of girls. When the culprits were summoned before the church, their response, according to documents of the proceedings, was “contemptuous … toward the authority of this Church.”

Edwards chose to read before the church a list containing, indiscriminately, the names of both the young distributors as well as the purported witnesses. Some parents were outraged at Edwards.

Another issue was Edwards’s personality and style as a minister. At the outset of his ministry at Northampton, for example, he decided that he would not pay the customary regular visits to his congregants, but would rather come to their side only when called in cases of sickness or other emergency. This made him seem, to some in the church, cold and distant.

An Edwards “disciple,” Samuel Hopkins, later wrote that this practice was not due to lack of affection and concern for his people: “For their good he was always writing, contriving, labouring; for them he had poured out ten thousand fervent prayers; and they were dear to him above any other people under heaven.”

Rather, Edwards had made a clear-eyed assessment of his own gifts and decided that he was unable to match the graceful gregariousness of those ministers who had a “knack at introducing profitable, religious discourse in a free, natural, and … undesigned way.”

Thus he would “do the greatest good to souls … by preaching and writing, and conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study, where he encouraged all such to repair.”

Edwards’s ministry might yet have endured, however, were it not for the death of his uncle, Colonel John Stoddard, in 1748. Born in 1682, 21 years before Edwards, the colonel had built a friendship with his nephew. A sharp thinker, a county judge, and a savvy politician, John was a militia colonel who had become commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts western frontier by 1744. Stoddard wore—at least in the secular sphere—the mantle of his father and Edwards’s grandfather, “pope” of the Connecticut Valley, Solomon Stoddard.

Edwards found himself often leaning on his uncle’s influence to navigate the affairs of the church. Thus when Stoddard died, Edwards lost not only an uncle but a powerful ally and confidante.

As Iain Murray put it in his biography of Edwards: “There would be no open criticism of Edwards as long as Stoddard sat appreciatively in his pew beneath the pulpit in the meeting-house Sunday by Sunday.” Once the colonel was gone, however, that changed dramatically.

Stoddard’s heir-apparent as Hampshire County’s leading figure was Edwards’s cousin Israel Williams, a Harvard graduate, imperious in manner and implacably set against Edwards. In his early nineteenth-century biography, descendant S. E. Dwight named Israel and several others of the Williams clan as having “religious sentiments [that] differed widely from” those of Edwards. Their opposition soon became “a settled and personal hostility.” Williams served as counselor and ringleader to Edwards’s opponents. Joining this opposition were another cousin, Joseph Hawley Jr., 21 years Edwards’s junior.

Visible saints, hidden agendas
The same year John Stoddard died, an event finally pushed the hostile faction into open revolt.

For years, Edwards had been uncomfortable with the lenient policy on membership and communion set by his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’s predecessor at Northampton. Stoddard had allowed almost anyone to join and to partake, hoping that membership and communion might encourage true conversion. In 1748, Edwards changed the policy and told an applicant for church membership that he must first make a public “profession of godliness.”

Thus Edwards rejected the “Halfway Covenant”—the longstanding compromise of the Puritans who had, generations after planting their religious colonies, found their church membership dwindling. That compromise had reversed the traditional Puritan requirement that new church members be “visible saints,” godly in word and deed.

When the congregation saw that Edwards intended to return to the earlier, stricter Puritan position, demanding not only a profession of faith, but also evidence of repentance and holiness, a firestorm arose. Many of the church’s leading members felt Edwards’s innovation was a direct threat.

Two revivals had produced many converts, but, as biographer Patricia Tracy put it, “Men and women who had been recognized as visible saints in Northampton still wallowed in clandestine immorality and flagrant pride.”

Though Edwards knew, as he notes in his letters, that he was likely to lose his pastorate as a result, he stuck to his principles.

A council of the congregation put a moratorium on new memberships until the issue of criteria could be resolved. Edwards told them he planned to preach on his reasons for changing the policy. They forbade him to do so. Edwards began to write a book on the matter. Few read it, and too late to do much good.

In 1750, a council was called to consider whether the congregation would dismiss its minister. No one doubted what the conclusion would be.

Edwards’s friend David Hall noted in his diary the minister’s reaction when on June 22, 1750, the council handed down its decision:

“That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good … even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission.”

46 and unemployed
Edwards wrote that he now found himself a 46-year-old ex-minister “fitted for no other business but study,” with a large family to provide for. Although he knew “we are in the hands of God, and I bless him, I am not anxious concerning his disposal of us,” he fretted over his situation in letters to friends. Yet neither the distressing conditions nor the continuing antagonism of his opponents drew him out to open attack.

Remarkably (and partly because of financial need), Edwards agreed to continue preaching at the church while they searched for a replacement. But his Farewell Sermon also indicates he acted out of continued concern for the flock. He continued through mid-November, despite the Town maliciously barring him, a month after his dismissal, from using its common grazing land.

Finally in December 1750, after an anxious autumn during which he had even considered removing his entire family to Scotland to accept an invitation there, Edwards accepted a charge in Massachusetts’s “wild west,” the Indian town of Stockbridge. There he would labor the rest of his life, pursue his theological thinking to its most brilliant heights, and create one of the most enduring missionary biographies of all time, the life story of his young friend David Brainerd.

Belated praise
In 1760, his former enemy, cousin Joseph Hawley, wrote to Edwards’s friend David Hall, confessing that “vast pride, self-sufficiency, ambition, and vanity” had animated his leadership in the “melancholy contention” with Edwards. He repented of his earlier failure to render the respect due Edwards as a “most able, diligent and faithful pastor.”

Hawley concluded, “I am most sorely sensible that nothing but that infinite grace and mercy which saved some of the betrayers and murderers of our blessed Lord, and the persecutors of his martyrs, can pardon me; in which alone I hope for pardon, for the sake of Christ, whose blood, blessed by God, cleanseth from all sin.”

On June 22, 1900, exactly 150 years after Edwards’s dismissal, a group gathered at the First Church in Northampton to unveil a bronze memorial.

H. Norman Gardiner, a professor of philosophy at Smith College and chairman of the memorial committee, characterized Edwards’s ejection as “a public rejection and banishment” that remained “a source of reproach to his church and people.” He noted the “hatred, malice, and uncharitableness which characterized the opposition to him,” for which, to Gardiner, no apology either contemporary or modern could atone.

Edwards would have disagreed, arguing instead that even such deeply wounding actions as the aggravated and wrongful dismissal of a pastor from his pulpit of 23 years are not unforgivable. In that understanding, as in so much else, Edwards was far ahead both of his enemies and of many of us today.

2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Winter 2003, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Page 52


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Filed under Abuse in the Church, Abusing Pastors, Conflict and the Church, Pastor & Church Relationship, Pastoring

Advice to Our Church During the Political Election Year

I’m writing this piece to you, dear people of God, to offer some guidance regarding how we should conduct ourselves during the course of this heated political election season. I (and perhaps you too?) am concerned that we deviate from our main objective and focus as a church, which is Jesus Christ.

We ought to be a church that has as our main concerns the clear perspectives of Christ’s kingdom and teaching.  Social, political, personal and other such important concerns are secondary to loving, honoring and glorifying God through Jesus Christ.  I say clear, because we can often find not-so-clear support in the Bible for our own political or social views which so easily distract or cause us to deviate from our purpose as Christ’s local body.

So, permit me to lend some guidance for how we can treat these political and social issues, but more importantly, treat others during this intense season.

First, each one of us should be convinced in his own mind about his position.  This is the general or broad principle of Ecclesiastes 7:25 and Romans 14:5.   Each one’s political view is best informed by the Word of God (Psa. 119:169; Rom. 14:5), and not merely informed by one’s cultural, familial or other influences.  At the same time, this is not a call for anyone to be sloppy about his or her political perspective. Again, using a broad application of certain scriptures, one should not be double-minded (Jas. 1:5-8), but should say what he means and mean what he says (Matt. 5:37; Jas. 5:12).

Secondly, each of us should recognize that everyone has an opinion, but that not all opinions are equal, nor are they all always valid (including our own).

An opinion is “The judgment which the mind forms of any proposition, statement, theory or event, the truth or falsehood of which is supported by a degree of evidence that renders it probable, but does not produce absolute knowledge or certainty” (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language).

It would be prudent if each person has a well-informed opinion to share, not merely one that is based upon little knowledge (Prov. 28:26), feeling or intuition (Prov. 25:2).  Well-informed opinions bring a higher value to good discussions. Ill-informed opinions serve no one.
Further, we should respect one another through the love of Christ, even if we do not agree with or respect the other person’s opinion(s). Please note that in our congregation we do have a diverse group of people.That’s a very biblically healthy thing.  Opinions about social and political matters range from one side to the other, with much in the middle. We are to be reminded that Jesus’ own disciples held to quite divergent, indeed hostile, political and social positions. Consider Simon the zealot living and working side by side with his enemy Matthew the tax collector.

Thirdly, each of us is called to have the humble mind of Christ (Mic. 6:8; Phil 2:5ff; Rom. 12:3, 10; 1 Pet. 5:5).

All division, discord or fighting stems from an abundance of pride and a lack of humility (1 Tim. 6:4f; Jas. 4:1-3, 6).  This easily includes the propensity to try to impose our own political or social agenda or perspective upon others. So when we don’t get what we want (such as trying to make others agree with our own views) we make fertile ground for fights and discord within the church.

Humbleness means that each one of us is not seeking to please self.  This is to say that I/you/we are not to be:
(1)  Arrogant (Rom. 12:16; Jas. 4:16)
Which means one does not insist on my own way, ideas, or beliefs just because they are mine.
(2)  Domineering (1 Pet. 5:3)
(3)  Stubborn
(4)  Unreasonable (Ex: Gal. 6:3; Jas. 1:22)
(5)  Unyielding To be unyielding means one must not stand hard on things he believes when the truth and facts clearly counter his position.

Humility will take a genuine interest in others and in what they have to say (Rom. 12:9, 10). Humility is teachability, a willingness to give an ear to other perspectives in order to learn what others believe and perhaps why they believe them.  This is not a call to receiving all other views without discretion or discernment, but it is a call to be proactive in graciously and patiently listening to others.  Too many fights take place over straw men and too many divisions happen because of a deliberate and judgmental ignorance.

Humility is also thinking rightly about oneself (Rom. 12:3, 10, 16, 17), seeing oneself before the face of God. When we meditate on the implications of living before the presence of an almighty, sovereign Lord we will be more aware of such things as who we are even in the midst of a politically heated time, who God is with respect to elections and the future of our country,  and so forth.

Additionally, a humble person is teachable (Job 15:8; Prov. 26:12; Eccles. 7:16; Isa. 5:21; Rom. 12:16; 1 Cor. 8:2), and willing to change his mind about any matter if the other view bears legitimate weight and based upon revealed truth.

Therefore, each person can be (ought to be?) passionate about his position, but not arrogantly obnoxious about it (Prov. 11:2; 13:10; 21:4; 28:25; Mark 7:22; 1 Pet. 5:5).

Fourthly, each one has a right to state his position or speak his conscience in a godly manner (with grace, truth, clarity, kindness, etc.).  However, we should exercise wisdom and choose appropriate times in which to voice or discuss our views.

Fifthly, if it is a matter of an ongoing debate, the discourses should be tempered with humility and other Christ-like qualities.  For example, one should have restrained control of his attitude and tongue through gentleness and patience (2 Sam. 22:36; Ps. 18:35; Gal. 5:22, 23; 1 Thess. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:2, 3; Jas. 3:17).

The biblical idea of gentleness, a very important character quality and precious to God (1 Pet. 3:4), is not that of being weak or sentimentally passive. Rather, gentleness is that of being patient, mild, reasonable, full of grace and graciousness.  This is exercised by not insisting on  own way or our own perspective. Jesus, the God-Man and omnipotent Lord of the universe was gentle.

The Bible portrays gentleness as seeing people as sensitive beings, deals with people where they are, and treats them with respect (1 Cor. 10; 1 Pet. 2:23).

It really is feasible for us to hold to divergent political and social views and still be fellow believers in Jesus Christ.  I think of the example of J. Gresham Machen, founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and of Westminster Theological Seminary who voted for a Roman Catholic Democratic presidential candidate. On things biblical he was about as conservative as you can get, but on other matters he held to various views.  Fellow believers denounced his opinions and some even vehemently questioned whether he was a Christian because he did not hold to the same social or political ideas as they.  That’s just wrong.

The gentle person shows carefulness in choosing words and expressions so as not to unnecessarily offend (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:25; Tit. 3:2). I am not saying that we can or should never offend.  There are appropriate times for that. For example, biblical truth and the Gospel would be a couple of main things that offend others.  Jesus’ exchanges with the high priest, the king and with the Roman governor demonstrate patient restraint. Jesus was blunt and truthful, but not loathsome.  Yet, at other times, Christ gave strong, forceful rebukes which were quite offensive.  Those occasions happened when Jesus was protecting his sheep from wolves, or clearing human or satanic impediments to the mission God the Father had for him.

A gentle person reflects care, affection and goodwill toward others (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 4:2). He is not callously abrupt, obnoxiously critical or arrogantly judgmental.

We must not be pugnacious. Literally, this means one is not a striker, not prone to violence, and not a fighter. We are not to be physically abusive. But by implication one is not is not to be mean-spirited with words. He doesn’t lash out when someone says something about which he disagrees. Neither does he incite arguments or alienate people through an attacking manner.
He does not follow through with an uncontrollably hot temper (Prov. 3:30; 15:18; 17:14; 20:3; 25:8; 26:17; Phil. 2:3).

A gentle, humble, godly person must not be quarrelsome. That means he is generally averse to verbal fighting or contentious arguing.  This is different from debating where you present and argue your position. The wise person knows what, when, and how to argue/debate rightly.
One ought not to be eager to make his point in order to get his way.  He is not to be a contentious disputer (1 Tim.6:3-5; 2 Tim. 2:22-26; Tit. 3:9)  Biblical gentleness does not relish or overly delight in crushing others by defeating their ideas and beliefs.
On the positive side, the godly person has a sense of peace, tranquility, and calmness.  He is a peacemaker – one who is able to bring calm to a stormy situation; not stir up a storm (Eccles. 10:4; Matt. 5:9; Rom. 12:18; 14:19; Heb. 12:14; Jas. 3:17).

As believers, we are called to be just (Tit. 1:8). This means to be upright, righteous, and impartial in dealing with people. A just person is able to forget personal interests and seek the truth in situations, in interpersonal conflicts, or as an umpire over differences, especially differences of opinions.  Being just also calls each to speak what is right, while maintaining the  ability to hear various sides and weigh the evidence, facts, or arguments honestly (Deut. 16:20; Ps. 82:3; Prov. 21:3; Isa. 56:1; Rom. 13:7; Col. 4:1).

In short, the godly believer exercises the fruit of God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:23; Phil.4:5), especially in the context of the life of the assembly of God’s people.

If one cannot persuade others of his own position he should be content that he tried, and follow through according to a biblically informed conscience.  At the same time, one should be mature and secure enough to permit others to hold their views without condemnation, rebuke, or ridicule.

Having said all this allow me to conclude by providing specific ways to apply this:
1.     We have such a divergent group of people when it comes to political and social views. This is not a bad thing. We need to continue to actively respect one another and refrain from judging (condemning) each other.

2.     Unless we are having an obvious discussion about certain “hot” topics we should refrain from making political or other statements that are not germane to the subject at hand.  There are opportunities and venues we could arrange for us to do this. Note: I am not saying we are to be quiet about our views. It’s a matter of when and where to say them.

3.    We should be careful about making personal political pronouncements during times when we have guests (especially during worship).   For example, you might feel passionate about a     political position and voice that opinion, but to voice that with guests present could too easily     distract them from knowing that we are first and foremost about Jesus Christ and not about, say, a conservative or  liberal social or political agenda.  In other words, it would be simply wrong for someone to go away believing that we are primarily about “right-wing     Republicanism” or “liberal socialism.”

In any case, we always need to exercise discretion, kindness, and love while uplifting and making much of Jesus. Other matters are secondary (even if important) and are appropriately discussed in other contexts.

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Listen Up!

In my opinion, the quality of a good relationship is measured in part by how well the parties listen to each other.  Reflecting back on the best of all times with others it was when genuine conversation took place; where there was a sweet rhythmic dance of the dialog.  I am reminded of such times with a set of friends in Louisiana. We’d gather spontaneously, usually at our home.  What often started off as checking in with each other ended up hours later with a most memorable and delicious fraternity.  We joked and laughed as we played games, then strolled into one another’s lives touching upon the ups and downs we faced.  Often we would get seriously quiet as we contemplated some pretty profound things one or more of us were facing.  At times we would cry together. At other times we would laugh together.  All in all, those were good times, and we bonded more than mere friends would.  In those hours we were like an ideal family.

As time marched on, those events happened less and less.  Why?  We had tasted something very good, and we longed for it.  The most obvious reason was that we moved away, or they did.  Periodically when we would travel to Boise, we would enter into such heavenly episodes with family or those old friends (who had lived in Louisiana).  Once in a while we found the dance among people and friends in Denver, San Diego, Monterey, or San Jose.

Certainly there is a positive chemistry between dancers. Temperaments, personalities, and common interests come into play.  With some, such as a dear family we met in Long Beach before we moved, things just click. With them it is as if we had known each other for years and therefore could converse pretty much about anything.
But why?  There are, no doubt, many reasons.  I will name two.  First of all, I think that we all had a mutual respect for each other.  There was no fear.  Neither was there an attempt to be better than the other.  There was a simple humility that said, “You are important and I am going to respect you and what you say.”  Second, I believe, is that there’s a willingness and ability to listen.

As a seventh grader, relatively new to a town in New Jersey, I wanted to know how I could make friends.  In one of our required hours at the school library I noticed a book that grabbed my attention.  Now that was rare because I had not yet learned to enjoy reading.  The book was How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  The biggest thing I gleaned from that popular and informative book was the value and importance of listening. From that time on listening was a premium quality worth owning.

A few years ago, while preparing to teach a leadership class on the subject of communication, I came across another good book. Listen Up by Barker and Watson is well worth absorbing.  It is from this book that I write the rest of this article.

One of the reasons why I (we) have not often been able to find those enriching engagements is because most people are poor listeners.  The Bible is informative on this subject, as is Listen Up. Here are a few reasons:

* they never learned good skills for listening
* they learned skills from bad behaviors taught or modeled by others
* laziness (for it takes work to hear a person out)
* mental deficiency or disorder
* mental fatigue
* talking too much so as not to give others the chance to talk

However, it seems the most common reason is due to pride.  Pride carries the belief and attitude that what another person has to say is unimportant. Pride says that I know enough or more, so I have no reason to hear you.  Pride says that I am more important, so I will not waste my effort or time on you.

Pride also practices irritating habits. Listen Up lists only the top ten (Barker and Watson, p. 88), but they are worth mentioning:

1.    Interrupting the speaker.
2.    Not looking at the speaker.
3.    Rushing the speaker and making him feel that he’s wasting the listener’s time.
4.    Showing interest in something other than the conversation.
5.    Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing her thoughts.
6.    Not responding to the speaker’s requests.
7.    Saying, “Yes, but…,” as if the listener has made up his mind.
8.    Topping the speaker’s story with “That reminds me…” or “That’s nothing, let me tell you about…”
9.    Forgetting what was talked about previously.
10.    Asking too many questions about details.

What I seem to encounter most often by others in my little world is the habit of disconnecting within the first few words of a discussion.  Their eyes get this glazed over look revealing they have changed their mental channel.  On occasion I’ll start a conversation in one direction and jump to something completely unrelated just to see if there’s any reaction.  There rarely is.

The other thing that often occurs is being cut off by the “listener” while you are speaking.  Oh, pardon me, but was I talking? The third most annoying thing that frequently happens is when someone will tell you something, usually having to do with their life, and when you begin to sympathize by talking about something similarly encountered they ignore what you say and continue talking about their thing or their life.

Those irritating habits are certainly annoying. What’s more, they are denigrating and at times humiliating. Like the pride from which they flow, they say that “I am unimportant, unworthy of being in their presence.”  So, my response, good or not, is to leave, or if it’s someone who is known to have these irritating habits then I just merely refuse to engage, and if possible to avoid altogether.  Nearly everyone who comes to mind who regularly does these things do not even seem to care whether anyone is listening.  They’ll talk and talk and talk.  I suppose it’s because they are the only ones they will listen to?

Frankly, bad listening negates relationships. Bad listening will not allow for the dance of caring engagements or the melody and rhythm of beautiful dialogs. Indeed, bad listening often destroys established relationships, be they friendships, marriages or familial ties. For all those counts I really, really hate bad listening. It’s torture. My worst nightmare would be that I would end up in Hell for eternity, and Hell would be a place where you are among a dozen or so people who are all perpetually talking but no one is listening.  I am there, but functionally invisible. Perhaps I hate bad listening most of all because it steals the slightest opportunity to have a precious, rewarding, life-enhancing discourse and exchange?  It’s like going to a dinner and being served a plate of rotting, putrid fish when you know that the possibility exists for having your favorite dish.

So what to do?  Bad listeners, can, with desire, determination, training and a good measure of humility, become effective and good listeners.  The authors of Listen Up tell us that good and effective listeners have these common characteristics (Barker and Watson, p. 108):

1.    patient
2.    caring
3.    loving
4.    understanding
5.    selfless
6.    attentive
7.    poised
8.    generous
9.    open-minded
10.    thoughtful
11.    intelligent
12.    empathic
13.    involved

Not surprisingly, most of these qualities are presented in biblical Scriptures (but that’s for another time).
The authors help us by giving us strategies for improving our listening skills (Barker and Watson, pp. 109 ff).  Of course they provide details, but allow me, if you will, to highlight their four main points.

First, know when to be silent and when to speak.  Counselors have used a very simple technique, particularly with couples who are having a difficult time communicating.  They give the one partner an object, such as a ball.  S/he then has the right to speak.  When s/he has made the point s/he gives the object to the other person and that person speaks.  The first partner is now obligated to keep quiet and work at listening. When the second partner has had his or her say then the object goes back to the other. And so it goes. Simple, but effective training tool to develop the skill of when to speak and when to be silent.

Second, “put a lid on it.”  Keep emotions under control.  This is certainly a useful strategy in formal or business relationships.  I would say, though, that when people know how to communicate well (which involves good listening), then emotions become a natural part of the dialogical dance.  For example, loving, Christ-like relationships are supposed to have the ability to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12).  Otherwise, the authors have an excellent point, and they suggest the following “tips to stop emotions from taking over:”

1.    Be aware in advance of people and topics that trigger emotions.
2.    Analyze why you react to some words and ideas emotionally.
3.    Resist the temptation to get defensive.
4.    Empathize and remember that the speaker may have different meanings for words than you do.
5.    Withhold judgments until the speaker is finished.

Third, show interest.  It takes a basic level of humility and care to develop this.   They say we can show interest by remembering what was said in previous conversations; remembering their names; using eye contact effectively; and making it easy for others to talk.  What they mean by that is consciously doing what often happens naturally when a good rapport has been established:  nod your head, keep eye contact, lean forward, do not interrupt, and casually mimic the other person’s body language (don’t overdo this or make it obnoxiously obvious).

Finally, the authors suggest using paraphrasing and reflecting skills.  This means repeating back to the other person what you hear them saying so as to gain a healthy level of understanding.

So what’s the point of all this dribble?  Listen!  Selfish pigs (and people too) don’t listen.  Prideful ones have no room for others, and so they will live in their own little world oblivious to the reality of other worlds where people genuinely engage one another in a way that is healthy, helpful, caring and of mutual benefit. They are deaf to the music of mutual concern, benefit and affection.  Listen! Because of the great rewards good listening can reap for you, for others and for society.  Listen – because of the potential for developing and enhancing relationships.  But most importantly, for those who name the name of Jesus, listen! Listen – because he has spoken and is speaking, and calls us to hear.  Listen, because we are called to have loving sympathy, even empathy for others.  Listen, because he first listened.  Listen, so that you can dance the dance.

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Pastoral Politics (the book)

Pastoral Politics (Why Ministers Resign) was written by Dr. John Gilmore.  Here are some quotes from his book:


Some regard preachers as those who should “take orders” from churches, slog it out in the field over long hours, rather than work as honorable messengers to convey and relay truths from the great storehouse of truths, the Bible.

Society thinks churches are where people seek God.  But, as it turns out, some people seek churches where they will not hear about a God who repudiates their opinions or makes them aware of their spiritual need.  Too many churches become favorite places to escape God, yet allow the sinner to think he or she is religious and acceptable.

When people substitute selfish motivation and church participation to effect their own salvation, negative repercussions will ensue, and the pastor’s presence and presentation will be opposed.  Rather than heeding a pastor’s words of warning – rather than embracing a pastor’s message, it is much easier to devise means to bring an end to his or her witness.  Killing the pastor is an option that surely has been considered, but thank God that option is rarely used.  Expulsion of the pastor, however, is the accepted method of choice for most disgruntled church members, although it is not always the course of action that is immediately taken.  It is sometimes preferable (and fashionable) to immediately bring pressure on the pastor’s personal style of ministry so that the gospel message and witness is so whittled down that offense is removed.  If pastors don’t watch, congregations may mold them any which way.

The prophet Jeremiah was told his troubles would increase in his ministry (Jer. 12:5-6).  According to Vernon Grounds, “A faithful witness for Jesus Christ may sooner or later plunge us into situations so tough and tiring that they will tax our resources to the breaking point…Get ready, the river may rise.”

Jesus wanted spiritual shepherds who were tough-skinned, resolute, and steady.  “The wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:13 NIV).  Good shepherds do not scat when a wolf snarls and snaps.  Good pastors don’t back down from incursions of theological error, nor retreat from personal attacks.

Jesus didn’t measure up with Jewish expectations.  Hans Kung writes:  “For those who supported law and order, he turned out to be a provocateur, dangerous to the system.  He disappointed the activist revolutionaries by his nonviolent love of peace.  On the other hand, he offended the passive world-forsaking ascetics by his uninhibited worldliness.  And for the devout who adapted themselves to the world, he was the uncompromising.  For the silent majority he was too noisy, and for the noisy majority he was too quiet, too gentle for the strict and too strict for the gentle.

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101 Ways to Discourage Your Pastor

How many Christians are aware of the passage in the New Testament,
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (ESV, Hebrews 13:17)?  Okay, forget about how many. What about you? Were you aware of that verse? If you were aware, have you given it much thought?

When searching for a publisher for The Perfect Pastor? one major publishing house said that “You won’t find anyone who would give you a nanosecond of a New York minute to read about (the life and work of) pastors.”  Sad, but apparently true.

Pastors are definitely called to serve in Christ’s local church. One aspect of that servitude is an attitude or response to these servants that often come with the calling. That attitude or response that is not dissimilar to how things are perceived:  You must be there when I need you. Until then I don’t think much about you. And I certainly do not need to be concerned about your joy.

The latest studies reveal that thousands of pastor leave their churches every month. And hundreds of those pastors leave the ministry altogether. The average duration of a pastor in full-time, remunerative ministry is five years. And it’s 13-18 months for the youth minister. There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest reasons is the lack of hope.  The lack of hope that perhaps his gifts are of value, that his work and service is meaningful and purposeful, and that he is appreciated as a person and as a pastor. It is rare to find a pastor who really has a deep sense that he is appreciated or is wanted.

Now, my objective here is not to evaluate the above statements. Rather, my concern has to do with the fact that there are responsibilities God has called the church to with regard to their pastor(s).  One of which has to do with seeing to it that the church lets them serve as overseers and shepherds with joy!

A previous blog speaks to how to encourage your pastor. I want to suggest typical ways people and churches discourage their pastor, how they rob their pastor(s) of joy. Here is an incomplete list:

1. Treat him as if he is the messiah, expecting him to save your life.

2. Reject him when he doesn’t save the day.

3. Demand that he meet your so-called needs and your personal desires.

4. Be angry or disappointed when he does not do what you want him to do.

5. Be angry or disappointed when he does not do what you have told him to do.

6. Be angry or disappointed when his family does not meet your approval.

7. Be angry or disappointed when his family does not meet your expectations.

8. Be rude toward his wife.

9. Be rude toward his children.

10. Be critical about his wife and/or children.

11. Be critical toward his wife and/or children.

12.Expect his wife to be better and more perfect than other women in the church.

13. Expect his children to be better and more perfect than you expect your own.

14. Find ways to drain the life out of his wife and/or children.

15. Shun his wife and/or his children.

16. Impose nonbiblical legalisms on him, his wife and his children.

17.Do not allow his wife to develop friendships within the church.

18. Do not allow his wife to develop her own set of friends.

19. Complain about him to his wife.

20. Complain about him to his children.

21. Have selfish, ungodly, nonbiblical or unbiblical expectations of him.

22.Tell him how to dress (explicitly or by subtle criticisms).

23. Tell him what to eat or not eat.

24. Show little or no love for him.

25. Work him to death.

26. Add nonbiblical or unbiblical requirements to his job description.

27. Add your own expectations to the list of things he does.

28. Pressure him to be performance oriented, focusing on things rather than upon people or God.

29. Do not give him time to do the things required and mandated by God and God’s Word.

30. Keep him over-busy. Drain the life out of him.

31. Tell him you believe he is doing enough, but then give him more things to do.

32. Tell him how your previous pastor(s) was better at doing things than he is.

33. Tell him how your previous pastor(s) was better at being a pastor or a godly man.

34. Show disrespect for him. Dishonor his role and position.

35. Expect him to be your close friend.

36. Do not allow him or his family the freedom to develop their own personal and private lives.

37. Refuse to listen to his biblical and godly counsel.

38. Refuse to follow his biblically informed vision.

39. Reject or refuse to support his biblically informed mission.

40. Show disloyalty to him.

41. Often compare him to other pastors, preachers and teachers.

42. Come to him with articles, books, DVDs or other materials to show him how he is to think and be like those other “good” men.

43. Be bored with or unsupportive of his teaching.

44. Sleep often during the sermons.

45. Tell him or others how much you appreciate other teachers, but never tell him you appreciate him.

46. Tell him or others how much you like to listen to other pastors (especially the popular ones), but do not really care to hear your own pastor.

47. Take as much from him as possible and never or rarely give back to him (and his family).

48. Rarely or never use your spiritual gifts to serve him or help him grow or to bless him.

49. Tell him how to preach.

50. Tell him how to teach.

51. Tell him how to lead.

52. Tell him how to counsel.

53. Tell him how to evangelize.

54. Tell him who to evangelize.

55. Tell him how to pray.

56. Imply or tell him he is not doing enough.

57. Imply or tell him he is not doing the right things.

58. Imply or tell him he is not doing things right.

59. Criticize the worship.

60. Argue with him in meetings.

61. Cut him down in front of others in the church.

62. Complain about the fellowship in the church, and expect him to fix all the problems.

63. Grumble about the numerical growth or lack thereof.

64. Tell him how to spend his time, even his spare time.

65. Resist his desire to disciple you.

66. Resist his biblical admonition, counsel or rebuke.

67. Don’t allow him to have spare time.

68. Call him on his vacation time.

69. Don’t give him vacation time.

70. Give him little vacation time.

71. Never give him a sabbatical, even if he has been at church for many years.

72. Do not pay him a decent salary (which ought to be the average or mean income of the church membership)

73. Interrupt his prayer time to satisfy your wants.

74. Interrupt his study time to satisfy your wants.

75. Restrict or find ways to keep him from growing mentally.

76. Restrict or find ways to keep him from growing spiritually.

77. Do not support or encourage his desire to do continuing education (at conferences, school or seminary).

78. Restrict or find ways to keep him from having fellowship with others who can build him up.

79. Lie about him.

80. Use the truth to slander him and his reputation.

81. Help to spread rumors about him.

82. Gossip and complain about him.

83. Be more favorable toward the assistant, associate, intern or youth minister than toward him.

84. Find ways to put division between him and the assistant, associate, intern or youth minister.

85. Tell him or others how much you wish he was like a previous pastor or your favorite pastor or one of the big named and popular pastor.

86. Complain to him regularly.

87. Rarely or never be kind to him.

88. Reject his kindnesses.

89. Be intentionally inconsiderate.

90. Be rude to him.

91. Embarrass him.

92. Make fun of him.

93. Be angry with him. Show anger, resentment and hostility toward him.

94. Keep a running account of all the negative, wrong or sinful things he has said or done.

95. Rejoice when something bad happens to him.

96. Rarely or never put on a best construct regarding him, his life and work.

97. Be impatient with him.

98. Expect him to be hospitable, while you are rarely or never hospitable.

99. Be critical of his wife.

100. Expect his wife to be a second pastor.

101. Impose unbiblical expectations upon his wife (she “must” be the pianist, music leader, Bible study teacher, nursery worker, etc.)or upon his children.

In other words, do all that you can to rob him of the joy God wants him to have in his service to God and God’s people. Rob him of the encouragement God tells you to give him. Steal love that you owe him through Christ; instead suck the life out of him.


© D. Thomas Owsley  2011

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Keep the Change! (or what’s wrong with the status quo?)

When we lived in a small town in what could be considered the deep South, there were quite a few phrases that always made me chuckle, inside my head, that is.  I often heard,

“If you can’t find it, it don’t exist.”

“If we ain’t got it, you don’t need it.”

“There ain’t no sense in messin’ things up. Things here are just fine the way they is.”

In other words, don’t disturb the status quo! This is not something one only finds in the deep south. You can observe this protective mindset in villages around the world, in towns around our country, as well as in established businesses, institutions and churches.

It was, supposedly, Ronald Reagan who once said, “Status quo is Latin for ‘the mess we are in.'” Well, as much as that might be true in some circumstances, it is not always true.  Much good and positive can be said about the status quo; which, by the way, is a Latin phrase for “the state in which” referring to an existing condition.   It’s opposite Latin term could be “mutare” meaning “to change,” from which we get mutant, mutation and commute. Status quo sounds more pleasant and comforting.  Mutare is scary. After all, who likes mutants (except in comic books)?

At this point I should offer a warning: if you were not familiar with the Latin terms and did not know mutare meant change, your brain has now changed because you have learned something different. You may not wish to read on.

My special interest has to do with leadership and the status quo. More specifically with the status quo in a local church.

So, how are we to understand the status quo in a local church?

First, it should be noted that the existing status quo began as a challenge to the previous status quo. Everything that is now in place was once viewed as a challenge or as revolutionary, and it was once considered a good idea because it intended to meet the problems and circumstances of the day.

The status quo can be a good thing. How?  Consider this, the status quo:

  • Offers order in lieu of chaos
  • Brings a level of needed stability
  • Provides valued traditions that can be transmitted from generation to generation
  • Defines and protects the current culture.

On the other hand, there can be problems with the status quo within the local church. For one, it can give people a false sense of security.  What might have been established and is now the current situation may hinder the important things God values in his church, things such as worshiping in Spirit and truth, or fellowshipping in a way that fosters Christ-likeness, or reaching those who are lost in their sins and without Christ.

Another problem is that the status quo can be turned into complacency. One only needs to read the prophets of the Old Testament or Christ’s rebuke to Laodicea in Revelation to know that God hates complacency when it comes to a relationship with him, doing righteous and just things for others, or doing what he commands.

The status quo might also become an obstacle to needed, genuine (and biblical) transformation. One cannot repent in the biblical way without changing one’s mind, heart and focus.  A local church cannot repent of its collective sins if it is content with the way things are.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the status quo can lead to the death of a church. In a culture such as ours in the United States, things are almost always in a state of flux and change – for good and for bad. For businesses, maintaining the status quo can be its death.  We have observed this with almost dizzying effects as we continue to see famous companies dying for lack of needed change.

In some sense this can also be true with churches. I am not necessarily advocating for business-like adjustments within the local church. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which trying to maintain the local church’s culture that is anchored at the cutting edge of the 19th Century may be the demise of that church. It’s rare to find Americans, Christian or otherwise, who really enjoy stepping into a church that looks, feels, says and does things the way they were in the Great Depression. Further, it’s rare to see a church grow spiritually or numerically that refuses to change old unhealthy or sinful habits.

Why would a church fight for the status quo? For one, there are always guardians of the status quo. Studies indicate that in most organizations there is between 6-10% of the people who never accept    change. About 8% of them become the self-appointed guardians of the old way. The reasons for this are many (see my previous blog).  Those who resist change or who set themselves up as vanguards against any change give familiar arguments many of us have heard (and probably used):

  • “We’ve always done it that way.”
  • “We’ve never done that before.”
  • “It won’t work.”
  • “It cannot be done that way.”
  • “You shouldn’t rock the boat.”
  • “If it ain’t broke-don’t fix it!”

These arguments are really objections used to reject transformation in favor of maintenance. I am reminded of a visit to a an elderly woman who was seriously ill. My wife and I stopped by to see her and pray with her.  Our pastor happened to be there at the time.  She was a stately and genteel Southern woman, rather well-to-do, who had contributed a sizable amount of money to purchase the new church’s property and build the new building. We were escorted into her bedroom by her black maid.

During our visit she was complaining about the presence of a new young couple. They were black, and worse, they were military folks.  Being “western” and therefore worse than “yankee,” we could not reason with her (perhaps it was the other way around?)  At one point my wife kindly reminded her of what the Bible says about loving fellow believers regardless of race or status.  Our pastor concurred and quoted a couple of passages from the New Testament.  Wheezing, she strenuously objected with her closing statement, “I know what the Bible says. But I don’t care what it says because it’s always been this way and it will always be this way, and I am not going to change!” With that, we excused ourselves.  Sadly, it was the last time we saw her alive.

For her and other folks who must keep the status quo, you might as well “keep the change!” That’s because in their minds there really is nothing wrong with the status quo. And if there is something wrong, there is still no good reason to upset the way things are.


“Progress is always preceded by change.

Change is always preceded by challenge.

Challenging the status quo is where leadership begins”

–  Andy Stanley


D. Thomas Owsley © 2011

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Change: That Other Four-Letter Word

A number of years ago, while serving in a different church, I initiated some changes. However, I made sure that the first year would see no changes within the church; at least none that would cause upheaval. The first year was a time to get to know the people, to develop trust, and to plant the seeds for a possible, positive future and to cast the vision.

The first upheaval came in my second week as pastor, when I moved the old, little table in the foyer out and moved a more accommodating desk in. That way the literature could be neatly spread about rather than placed in heaps where no one took notice. That next Sunday a woman dressed me down like some drill sergeant for “changing everything” in the whole church! What was an insignificant, meaningless “change” was an incredibly large challenge to life as it had always been (at least so she thought).

A week later this same person found me painting my new office.  It hadn’t been painted in fifteen or so years. The carpet was even older and impossible to clean, the venetian blinds were tattered, and the desk had been used by my many predecessors over forty-five years. In fact, I amusingly found notes in that desk dating back to the original pastor, and a few from other previous pastors!

When this woman saw that I was repainting the room she got angry.  “What are you doing!?” she demanded to know.

Not wanting to give in to her rhetorical scolding I answered with the obvious, “I’m painting the office.”

“Well, I can see that! Why are you painting the pastor’s office?”

“It needs refreshing, and I am the pastor, you know?”

She ignored my rebuff.  “Who gave you permission to paint the pastor’s office?” she grumped with her fists dug into her sides.

“I didn’t know I needed permission to paint my office.”

“This is the pastor’s office! You need permission!” she barked with an even more elevated voice.

I kept rolling the paint on the wall while she stood firmly planted in the doorway. It was then that I understood her anger.  This was her church.  The pastor’s office belonged to her as well as everyone else who had been there for years. Even though I was the pastor, I was the new guy making abrupt changes to her little world.  She had not been consulted about those changes.  Of course she had no official role other than the one she appointed herself to as the guardian of all things “the way we’ve always had it.”  Her foot was now tapping the carpeted floor.

Turning my back to her while rolling paint up and down, back and forth on the wall, I loudly declared, “The elders know what I am doing and gave consent.”

At that she did an about-face and proclaimed, “Well, we’ll just see about this!”  and stomped away.

The next day I accidentally knocked a can of paint all over the old carpet. I really did not intentionally do that, even though I was suspected of plotting my next change in the pastor’s office.

Whether intentional or not, making even the slightest deviation to normalcy was a declaration of war.  And no matter what approach I took (ignoring, détente, dialog, or confrontation) that war lasted the entire time we were at the church.

Change is hard.  But change always happens. We can’t stop it from happening. However, some people, for whatever of the myriad of reasons, are terribly affected by change.  To them, change is a four-letter word, a crisis (though way out of proportion to reality); something to fight or grumble about.

It was almost two years later when another woman, sweet as can be, approached me after a sermon that apparently moved her deeply.  It was about how grace overcomes law, and how the grace of Christ is what really causes us to change (oops, there I said it again).  But this kind of change is into Christ-likeness.  She approached me and said, “My family and I have been in this church for almost twenty years. I’ve never heard this kind of preaching before. I’m leaving the church!”

“But why?” I asked.  Her explanation is that what I was doing was causing all sorts of change, nearly all of which she thought positive.  This made no sense to me; but her rationale was that the elders who were in charge had been in charge for too many years and had permitted a lack of grace to exist in the congregation all this time.

“Aren’t the changes being made good?”

“Yes, but they should have been made years ago.  And they are changes, which is causing problems. And now they are just too much for me.”

“Have you considered that if you leave to go to another church how much of a big change that will be?”

She just looked at me with tears creeping down her cheeks.  She said nothing, but turned around and left.  She and her family began searching for another church, and because of her kin relationships they would periodically come to worship and an occasional fellowship meal.  For her, even good change was hard to take.

The phenomena of change and resistance to it has been observed, studied, written and lectured upon for decades. These students of people and their responses to or engagement with change have informed us that there are many reasons why people resist change, even good change.

The first reason is fear. Fear of the unknown. The assumption here is that if change happens, then something bad will happen.  Then there is the fear of failure.  If I or we change what we are doing, maybe we will fail and things will only get worse? Other fears include the fear of personal loss or the fear of the loss of my power or influence. Or it could be the fear of the loss of the status or position I have now.

A second reason, which I have observed all too frequently over the years, is rejecting change because of insecurity. The more insecure the individual or group is the more they will stand against change. Along with insecurity, it is possible they feel overloaded and overstressed in their own lives already, so they cannot add anything they consider additionally stressful.

Thirdly, sometimes the reason people oppose change is because of pride.  This is fairly common with people in power positions, managerial positions or in leadership roles. Their pride has a very difficult time accepting change because the change wasn’t initiated by them.  Rightly so, change could mean  or would mean that somebody is going to lose influence, power or control.

On the flip side it might be that those who refuse to go along with change do so because they simply do not respect or trust the leader(s). John Maxwell speaks to this in his seminars and in his book, Developing the Leader Within You (p. 65).

Any alteration to the status quo disturbs the comfort zone. This is often due to the fact that people are quite satisfied with the way things are.

If the environment isn’t disturbed then perhaps they resist because the routine is disrupted. I recall one time in another church when the elders decided to move the worship service ahead by fifteen minutes.  One would have thought they had violated the 11th commandment and set the new time to Thursday mornings at five o’clock!

Maybe it’s a case that people refuse to accept change is because they don’t understand the purpose of it.  A well thought out and clearly communicated  vision and mission with purposes and goals may help to alleviate the angst or opposition.

However, even if you present good, clear and cogent arguments some will dig in their heels because they do not see the value of change. People will accept and then buy in to something new or different when the value of the new and different is greater than the value they place on the old and familiar. In other words, people will not change until they believe that the rewards of change outweigh the cost for change.

Conversely, there are the “traditionalists” (for lack of a better, more descriptive term) who resist change because they have invested time, talents, energy, money, resources into the established institution. For them change would mean loss. It would mean devaluing their life or work’s investment prior to the proposes changes.

In the case of a local church, resistance comes because the church’s values were not changed before the influencers or leaders introduced or implemented change.

If all these things have been addressed or even carefully attended to, it could come down to the basic fact that some will dig into their trenches and make a stand against change because of sinfully negative attitudes. This goes along with the matter of selfish pride.

Where there is stubborn pride there is a refusal to learn and grow. As the book of Proverbs implies, without humility there is no possibility of teaching and learning.  I believe Socrates also made that observation.

Finally, within churches, especially in established churches, members may not have made a clear distinction between form (unchanging, eternal principles) and function (things that can change). Too often biblical indicatives become equated with methodology.  The functions and methods are all too frequently seen as coequal to God’s law and Word, rather than rightly understanding God’s Word must inform the principles by which things are done.  God leaves open the vast amount of possibilities for implementing those things which are biblically unchangeable. It’s a freedom to be enjoyed even within the difficulty of change.

There are many more reasons why change is such a repugnant thing for some people; why it is a four-letter expletive. Nevertheless, these are the most obvious reasons. And I’m sure, given time, this list will change too.

D. Thomas Owsley

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