Imagine your family uprooting and moving to a new community. You are excited. You move into a new house, enroll the kids in a new school, get settled in, and start familiarizing yourself with the place you now call home.
Imagine the community being small—a place where everybody knows everybody. It seems lovely on the surface. While you are excited to be part of this new community, you realize that you’re not a native to the area, and it’s going to take some time to be fully accepted as a “local.” Typically, a new family is considered outsiders until they’ve lived somewhere for several years.
Now imagine you are a pastor. You are relocating because God has called you to a new church. You have answered the divine call to minister to the people. While you are delighted at the opportunity to serve and eager to get started, you also understand that you are going to be living in a fishbowl. Everyone will be watching you closely because what you do represents a higher standard in their minds.
Imagine the first several months being great—this is usually called the honeymoon period. During the first six months or so, people are rallying around you, drawing closer to God, bringing friends, and new people are joining the church. Excitement is in the air!
Shift in Dynamics
With all the enthusiasm, the dynamics of the church begin to shift. With new people engaging and new ideas being implemented, suddenly, people who have been there for years start feeling like they aren’t as important as they once were. They feel less valued—this isn’t true, but it’s their perception, nonetheless. (Note: these feelings are not from God; this is the flesh fighting for self-preservation).
Eventually, someone critiques the pastor for something minor. Usually, the criticism is over a sermon or something the pastor may have said in conversation. Instead of going directly to the pastor for clarification, the person shares their concern with someone else—maybe a person in their family or someone they’ve known a long time. That person then talks to someone else, and on it goes.
Before anyone can stop it, the effects of one small non-essential comment have snowballed into an avalanche of criticism toward the pastor. With that as a foundation, now people are looking for reasons to criticize the pastor. Consequently, people begin nitpicking everything the pastor says and does. They start reading into sermons and other conversations as if the pastor’s words are about them. Then they become offended.
At this point, the pastor and his family feel the pressure of the criticism. They have heard the rumors swirling around in the church. The community is so small that eventually, people who don’t even attend the church know about the situation. Even those who don’t believe the pastor has done anything wrong often go along with those who do. They remind themselves that they have to live in the same community with these folks—pastors come and go.
At this point, the pastor becomes dispensable. While there may be a few people in the congregation who support him, there are far more who aren’t willing to fight against the avalanche of criticism that has built up. So, most people decide to merely “stay out of it.”
Replaceable & Disposable
In this regard, a pastor is not valued in a community as a human being. Instead, the pastor is seen as someone who performs a service. People like pastors for what they say and do, not for who they are as a person. They may like how the pastor preaches, or his/her personality, or family, or whatever else, but they never accept the pastor as a person—as one of them. So, the pastor becomes replaceable and disposable.
If the pastor pushes back against the criticism, it typically becomes worse. Often the rumors have already grown so far out of proportion it’s almost impossible to reel them back in. For example, if a pastor tries to explain how something said in a sermon was misinterpreted, people will accuse him/her of calling the faultfinder a liar. They say, “So, you’re saying so and so is lying?” The pastor says, “No, they just misunderstood what I was trying to say.”
At this point, even when a pastor tries to explain, the people who the criticism originated with are typically unwilling to hear. Once the faultfinding has reached a certain point, the accuser now has an audience to appease. They would look silly to admit that all the commotion was over a small misunderstanding. Besides, they can’t imagine they might have been wrong. Being wrong means they would have to go back and explain to people. Now they have to fight for their reputation. They rationalize, since the pastor is expendable, that it’s okay for him/her to take the blame.
Once a pastor begins talking to and confronting the rumors, some people leave the church. Those that exit start telling people that the Lord is leading them somewhere else. Funny thing, I can’t find one biblical precedent where the Lord leads people to abandon the church when times get tough.
Seriously, the reason people leave during tense situations is that they are being confronted and asked to work through the issues, or they are offended. Most people would rather exit than face the possibility that they’ve been wrong in their words and actions. So, they bear the offense and leave the church. It is a sad thing to watch.
Suspicion Sets In
When people leave, it causes others to become suspicious. They wonder why these committed church members are departing. Since it is a small community, it’s not hard to find out. So, they ask around and get the “word on the street.” The rumors cause suspicion to rise. Some people may even go directly to the person who left the church to find out why. However, they seldom go to the pastor to see what he/she thinks. The reason is that the pastor isn’t typically viewed as a real part of the community.
Now that the pastor is at odds with long-standing members, he/she becomes the “bad guy.” People can’t imagine any of the established church members, some of whom may be family, could be wrong. Thus, it must be the pastor who is in the wrong. Again, the pastor is replaceable in the eyes of the people.
At this point, the avalanche of criticism is out of control. The pastor feels the pressure of the negativity. It becomes oppressive. The pastoral family is now living in a small community where people are continually talking about them negatively. The feeling is paralyzing. It makes you want to shut all the blinds, lock the doors, and hope no one stops by. You don’t even want to leave the house when you’re living in this situation.
In a small community, the rumor mill extends far beyond the walls of the local church. Even people who don’t attend the church know what’s going on. It doesn’t take long for the pastor’s reputation to become marred. Even those who like the pastor aren’t willing to stand against the waves of criticism from those they have to live with in the same community.
Next, the pastor feels like a failure. He feels like he’s let God down—like he’s let his family down. The pastor feels like he’s disappointed the people who have fully supported him since he’s been there. At this point, the pastor begins to struggle with depression. Like Elijah in the wilderness, he becomes broken, defeated, and feels like no matter what he says or does, it won’t change the outcome of what has happened.
Once people make up their minds about the rumors, they typically don’t change their viewpoint. The reason is that they would have to admit they’re wrong. Since the pastor hasn’t really done anything to deserve the amount of criticism he/she is receiving, and since most people are unwilling to admit they’re wrong, usually there is nothing left to do but leave.
Pastors in these situations become overwhelmed. The weight is too much to bear. The pastor is hurt, disillusioned, and unsure of how to move forward. Although they only arrived a few years before, they find themselves packing boxes and anticipating the next transition. Once again, they have to uproot their family and make a decision about moving to another community. Sometimes God opens a door for another church. Other times pastors find themselves in a state of limbo.
Indictment Of The Church
This is a true story. I write about it with firsthand knowledge because I have personally lived it. Also, as a district superintendent, I have watched this scenario play out over and over. I often say that unless a church can accept a pastor as one of their own, the he/she will never make it. In turn, the congregation will be viewed by the community as a church that “chews up pastors and spits them out.”
This entire scenario is an indictment of the church.
Again, too often, churches love pastors for what they do, not for who they are. They are seen as performers—like carnival monkeys, dressed up and brought before the crowd to entertain. When the audience gets bored, they’re ready for a new monkey. I sincerely feel sorry for those who take part in this destructive cycle. One day, God will hold them accountable for their words and deeds, as He declares, “Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm.” ~1 Chronicles 16:22
With all that said, sometimes pastors do some foolish things. I could share many stories where a pastor deserved the scrutiny he/she received. However, a much higher percentage of the time, they do nothing to garner the kind of ill-treatment they endure.
The Remedy: Repentance
This story represents the sad reality of many congregations. Unfortunately, this behavior gets passed down from generation to generation. Kids learn how to keep the mantra of manipulation alive, and so it continues for years and years.
It is an Ichabod spirit—the glory of God has departed. God will not work in a system that functions like this until authentic repentance takes place. Since people are often unwilling to admit when they are wrong, repentance usually never happens. Thus, the spirit of Ichabod remains.
I have experienced this sequence of events over and over and over again. God is not happy with any of this. Is it possible for these kinds of churches to turn around? Certainly! Nothing is beyond the reach of God. However, it will require genuine repentance. It will also involve a willingness to stand up against the spirit of Ichabod whenever it rears its ugly head in the future.