But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
— Galatians 5:15
Most people don’t set out to dislike their pastors. Something just happens. Oh sure, there are generally disagreeable folks who seem to possess the spiritual gift of discouragement and are always looking to find faults, but most pastors I know who have congregants (or congregations) turn on them felt utterly ambushed. It takes time to trace the outworking of anger and even sometimes ousting to the root causes, and very often these causes are things that could’ve been headed off at the pass given communication, clarity, and charity.
Sometimes pastors preach heresy, engage in unrepentant sin, or unnecessarily stir up hostility or division, but a great number of pastors who’ve seen their share of congregational betrayal were, despite their flaws and failings, simply going about their ministry business when it blew up in their face.
So how does it happen? How do otherwise good Christians turn against otherwise good pastors? Here are three very common ways it happens.
1. Disappointment Turns into Disgruntlement
I have seen firsthand the weaponizing of disappointment in a congregation. Bonhoeffer was right that pastors must beware of the “wish-dream” when it comes to their congregations, but the danger works both ways — congregants often have wish-dream pastors. That is, they have an idealized version of what or who their pastor should be. They wish he was more academic or less so. They wish he was a better communicator, more like the guys they listen to on the Internet. They wish he was more extroverted or more studious or more something than he actually is.
The truth is that pastors will fail us, and this is not because they are necessarily bad pastors, but because they are human. They do not have infinite physical or emotional resources. They mess up. They make mistakes.
But when consider our pastors’ failures to live up to our idealizations of them, we must be careful we do not engage in idolatry — that we want from our pastor what we can only get from Jesus. I can think of a couple of significant disappointments I gave to church members once — both stemming from my apparent inability to “solve” counseling issues. It wasn’t my lack of availability or my lack of concern. I was engaged, I was gentle, I was pastoral. But I didn’t have a silver bullet and thus “failed.” These disappointments turned into severe critcism of me, became exaggerated into a wholesale attack on my qualifications and heart.
Remember that it’s not a sin to disappoint you. Sometimes pastors have to do that. Sometimes they don’t mean to do it, are just as disappointed as you are to be a disappointment to you. Don’t let your disappointments fester into disgruntlement. Consider Christ who never fails and let your pastor off the hook for not being him.
2. Disagreements Turn into Division
Maybe you disagree with a particular interpretation or application your pastor has made in his sermons. Maybe you disagree with a particular leadership decision that was made. Maybe you wouldn’t do things the way he does them or say things the way he says them. Barring actual sin — he’s preaching something theologically heterodox, etc. — it’s okay to disagree with your pastor on all kinds of things.
What it is not okay is turning your disagreement into a campaign of division against him. Sometimes congregants are so driven by their disagreements, they rehearse them in front of others. This is usually gossip. Sometimes these rehearsals become recruitment parties for commiseration and cooperation in the disagreeements. This is divisiveness.
When we take our disagreements on a grievance tour of other church members, trying to enlist others in our contrariness — martialing troops, in other words — to march against the pastor, we have swerved into the kind of division the Bible warns us against. “Some people are saying . . .” becomes a passive aggressive way of scaring a pastor into agreement with you or submission to your emotional blackmail.
Remember that very often wise Christians have significant disagreements about secondary or tertiary matters of doctrine. We can hold these disagreements in tension with each other while maintaining charity and unity as brothers and sisters. Remember, too, that leaders often have to make decisions with the best information they have at the time, and with the best intentions, and when those decisions are not matters of theology but simply matters of preference, the best routes forward involve assuming the best, seeking clarity if needed, and ultimately submitting to those responsible for your care (Heb. 13:17). Disagree in love and humility.
3. Confusion Turns into Accusations
“Pastors only work one day a week,” the joke goes. But some congregants are routinely suspicious of their pastors’ schedules. Or motives. I recall once being accused of slacking off because I was not in my office on successive days during the week. The reason was that I was engaged in a series of fairly intense counseling situations that required my presence in homes. That is not something I obviously felt the need to broadcast on social media or post on a sign on my door. It was nobody’s business but the elders’. And yet my mere absence was turned into an accusation of laziness or other dereliction of duty.
The truth is, most church members who have never been on the pastoral side of the congregation have no clue how much time and energy ministry actually takes. It’s not a grounds for a pastor’s martyrdom complex or self-pity. Good pastors aren’t always airing everyone’s dirty laundry or telling you all the weight they’re enduring. So it’s largely unknown to large swaths of the congregation.
Similarly, sometimes pastors have to make difficult decisions that are the result of much prayer and study. But in the moment of reception, those who have no clue how much “pastoral anxiety” was put into a decision immediately think the pastor is acting rashly or stupidly or just wrongly.
Good pastors will work towards appropriate transparency and clarity of communication with their churches, not leaving them in the dark about their care for the flock. There is such a thing as a lazy pastor and a detached pastor and an unproductive pastor. But just because you don’t know the situation doesn’t mean any of those latter things are true.
I always appreciated it when church members asked how I was doing, when they inquired as to my emotional state in ministry. Many times I suffered in silence, and so do many other pastors. It is doubly hurtful, then, to not just have to keep one’s burdens to one’s self, but then to have others make ignorant accusations on top of that suffering.
These dangers are possible in every church, because every church is made up of sinners — pastors and laypeople alike. Let’s remember to assume the best about each other until it’s proven otherwise. Hoping all things, believing all things — this is the stuff of love (1 Cor. 13:7), and thus the stuff of God (1 John 4:8). The rest — as logical or natural as it may seem to us in the moment — is from the lair of the devil, the great Accuser of the brethren.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
— Ephesians 4:1-3