Who’s in Charge Around Here?

When Jesus’ friends argued the toss about who would wear the stripes, they started a debate which still rages on. The twenty-first century friends of Jesus still have it on their agenda and it is still causing pain to the Body of Christ. The striving for control and power in the church seems to be as strong as ever in some places and produces awful casualties in congregational life. So, what’s the difficulty?

In every church there are problems between people. Our humanity carries a rock-solid guarantee of differing emphases, priorities, misunderstandings, personality clashes and jockeying for positions of influence. There is nothing new about this. On most occasions we are able to work out solutions which are healthy, constructive and move everybody on in their Christian journey. Out of tough experiences good almost always comes sooner or later. Conflicts wisely handled lead to greater acceptance and deeper trust although there is a price in pain to be paid in the process.

However, all too often in many congregations there are those who seem to be involved in every disagreement or trauma. Their participation may not necessarily be overt but the evidence of their contribution behind the scenes emerges every time. It is as if they have an ongoing commitment to destabilise and undermine the ministry of the church at every opportunity. Frequently they appear to have a passion for unsettling the pastor and depositing the burden of their complaints at the pastor’s door. In extreme situations they will push unashamedly for the pastor to leave and usually it will not be the first time they have taken such a course of action.

There are some common characteristics of such trouble makers (TM’s) who have also been described as “gatekeepers.”   A few trademarks:

  • TM’s usually present themselves as highly spiritual people. They will have a good working grasp of the Bible and will be able to employ proof texts in their sleep to support their position. This can be really intimidating for the less knowledgeable in the congregation who may feel uncomfortable with the TM’s behaviour but be carried away with their apparent commitment to be biblical.
  • TM’ s usually ride a doctrinal or theological hobbyhorse. It could be any one of a wide range of possibilities. These may include:
    • strongly held views about the nature and timing of Jesus’ return (not long to go)
    • inerrancy, infallibility and the inspiration of the Scripture (don’t get carried away with too much scholarship)
    • the exercise of healing and other gifts (we know more about these than you do)
    • the work and person of the Holy Spirit (we are Spirit filled so we have the score)
    • the need for repentance (on everybody else’s part, of course)
    • the qualities of Christian leadership (they are lacking around here)
    • the dangers of rampant liberalism (there’s a more than a whiff of it)
    • the demonic (Satan gets a lot of air play for which he is no doubt grateful)
    • the role of women (TM’s are usually against high profile women)            

and so on. Now the point is that each of the above warrant careful attention by all Christians. There is nothing inappropriate in pondering them all and having a prayerfully and wisely held perspective. The problem occurs when these (or any other issue) are used as debating weapons with other brothers and sisters in Christ.

Worse, they can be used as benchmarks to decide if another is “sound.”

To disagree with TM’s on their favourite theme is to invite isolation and criticism of a subtle kind, “I’m really praying for the pastor. He seems to lack conviction about the Lord’s Return.” But the real intention is to create doubt about the pastor’s faith and belief.

  • TM’s are usually long-term church members. They have been around for a while and have helped to condition the environment of the church. Their family will have a high stake in the congregation and will see it as “theirs.” At least this will be in the sense of not wanting the church to change too much and certainly not in a way which will decrease their influence. Sadly, their commendable desire to see the church maintain its witness and ministry will be neutralised by their lack of understanding as to the changes which must inevitably come if a congregation is to keep its saltiness.
  • TM’s are often found in the leadership structure of the church. But they do not have a real understanding of servant leadership and see the diaconate or eldership as a base for power and control. When the time comes for a new pastor to be found, they will angle to be on the Call Committee (or its equivalent). It is not uncommon for a wily TM to attempt to steer a Committee away from a potential pastor who may seem to have strong leadership gifts. Such a pastor may seriously threaten the TM’s influence in the church.
  • TM’s, to their credit, are often very active in the life of the church but usually in areas of ministry where they have control over others. Small groups are a favourite. The bonus is that this gives them the opportunity to draw others to their view of life and, in the process, creates a base for politicking when the need arises. Their undoubted genuineness of faith and devotion is a powerful mix especially when they are internally driven by the need to get their own way. The fact that there are others who are basically discipled into their flavour of faith is alarming.
  • TM’s are functional in their church involvement. They thrive on getting things done but in ways which have no regard for the effect on others. In no way are they are relationally sensitive despite their claim to be putting the needs of others first. This inability to assess the cost of their actions upon others, particularly the pastor’s family, is an enormous limitation. When confronted with the realities, they are dumbfounded to the point of outright denial.
  • Many TM’s come from a professional or business background. Some are self employed. Their experience in the market place and the need for them to make decisions without having to consult others helps to explain their penchant for wanting quick decision making in the church and their lack of interest in consultation or patient co-operation.
  • It is by no means uncommon for a TM to be actively involved in some form of para church ministry. In this setting the dynamics are vastly different from the demands of church life and there is the likelihood of the TM wanting to operate in the congregation in the same way and with the same freedom as in the para-church setting. Further, they will almost always present themselves as having specialist expertise to offer (which is good) but it will be on their terms.

The modus operandi of the TM is straight forward enough:

  • They utilise a range of approaches.
  • These are generally a combination of occupying the high spiritual ground, gently questioning the integrity and judgement of others (especially the pastor) and considerable small talk within the church.
  • Such questions are raised mostly within their own networks of people who have come to trust their opinion totally.
  • In any time of trauma their stated commitment is to the wellbeing of the church but on terms which are very quickly defined – theirs!
  • They become the spokesperson for those who are unsettled and concerned.
  • There is, of course, no room for black or white. Any suggestion of there being areas of grey are seen to be indications of weakness and a lack of conviction.

As a difficulty in the church deteriorates, the TM will become ever more daring and outspoken albeit in measured ways.

  • It is unlikely that they will go for the jugular vein too early.
  • When it is clear that a situation cannot be resolved, the TM will be seen as the rescuer who will propose that the pastor should be given the freedom to consider a call to another church for their own good (of course) and also for the good of the congregation.
  • It is all so simple and so very plausible and effective. Even the harried pastor will think it is a good idea at the end.      
  • It is not uncommon for the more blatant TM to offer themselves as pastor to give the lead “we’ve never received.” Even if not openly expressed, many the TM who has quietly longed for the pastoral leadership.

So what is the cost to the church for TM’s and their unsettling activities?

  • The price is high and no church can afford to pay it:
  • The church will be restricted to cautious change and only those changes which have the blessing of the TM. In other words, the church will become increasingly ineffective in its ministry.
  • The congregation will almost certainly fragment. For every TM there will be others who will attempt to move the congregation along and, before too long, people will have grouped themselves around personal loyalties. This will happen with or without the church having a pastor. This fragmentation will increase if there are several TM’s in the church.
  • The pastor will become increasingly frustrated and lose heart if the TM is not confronted adequately. Stress, tension and loss of sleep will all be on the agenda. If not attended to these will lead to poor health and even depression. Worse, the pastor’s partner will suffer along with other family members. They may also become “soft targets” for criticism from the TM.
  • There will be a certain show down, a high noon event which will render the church broken, bruised and bloodied. The pastor will probably leave; in due course the dust will settle; the cycle will start all over again.
  • Some members will see a need for church discipline to deal with the TM but the leadership (including the pastor) may lack the nerve to act and be fearful of a fall out in the church from the TM’s networks. Such hesitation is understandable but costly. If discipline is proceeded with, the TM will plead that their concern has always been for the good of the church.

Is there a better way? Yes, there is!

  • In the first place, it goes back to the time of interview when the pastor and the Call Committee first meet. Too often there is a lack of honesty about the dynamics in the church at interview time and the important questions are not asked.
  • This will be the case when the TM is on the committee. But questions about factions, difficult people and problems do have to be canvassed since the pastor will inherit them all and have years to rue the acquisition.
  • There is a need to identify early what the attitude of the church is to change and who is most likely to support and oppose change.
  • The pastor and the leadership have to be willing to deal prayerfully and carefully with the TM’s. A full, head-on collision is not the way. An old timer TM will know how to emerge with barely a scratch.
  • The approach needs to involve a few people only. Within the context of a caring but firm conversation which has been called and blessed by the leadership (even though only a few representatives will be present), there is the chance of some progress being made.
  • It is essential to realise that even the most difficult TM who sincerely loves Christ will have gifts and graces for service. The issue is that these have been misused. It is preferable to find ways in which they can be harnessed creatively and for the good of the church.
  • A full on assault to move them out of the church will deny the congregation of their giftedness and leave them disoriented, not knowing where to find a new spiritual home. It is also a very limited practice of grace.
  • Keep in mind that some TM’s do have personality and other problems which may be disguised in hyper spiritual garb and not immediately recognisable as such.
  • There is still a responsibility to try and care for them even if it means finding new ways of channelling their energies. This will be very hard if they have come to regard some ministries as “their” territory. Their sense of identity will be under attack in any attempt to redirect their focus.
  • It is unwise to leave TM problems simply linger on forever. The pastor does need to build personal links and try to win friendship and support. Many TM’s can be won over and provide great strength to the church.
  • Sometimes they have given a lead because they felt that no lead was being given at all (and they may have been right!). On occasions there may have to be a painful parting. This will hurt and is not ideal but, if there is no better way, there are few other options.

Now for the tough bit! It is not impossible for the pastor to become the real TM. The unconscious longing for total control can create a style of pastoral leadership will actively work against the wellbeing of the church and bring with it all the problems identified above.

The simple truth is that the pastor can fragment the church too and be so desperate to see the church grow in a particular way that a host of difficulties can be unleashed on the church for no good, long term reason. The need for humility, wisdom, patience and abundant grace is always with us. It is too easy to see the faults in others and fail to see that we could be fuelling the situation ourselves.

Finally, Who is in charge around here? The Lord of the Church is in charge, of course, and we would all do well to remember this as we step out of bed each morning. These are His people and, as pastors, they have been entrusted to us warts and all. At the end of the day it is His role to move His people on to new heights of faith and trust and that includes all the TM’s we have ever known.

Rev John Simpson