I have had the honor of serving in full time ministry for 56 years, and I think I am only slightly exaggerating when I say, “If your church is not in crisis, you are probably just coming out of a crisis or you are about to go into one!” But take care because Jesus has overcome every crisis. Your church can be saved!
It’s interesting how the Lord guides us. We were in our early 60’s. We had been a traveling ministry for several years. My wife and I had held more than 200 marriage conferences and retreats. We’d led ministry conferences, signs and wonders conferences, and ministerial retreats. And then God began speaking to me in a dream.
It was always the same dream, and it was 2 to 3 times a month. I was being called to serve a church in crisis. The church never had a name. I never knew where it was, but it was always a church in crisis. So when I received a telephone call from the pastoral search committee asking me if I would consider an interview for lead pastor with them to help their church in crisis, I told them I wanted to pray about it. When I hung up the phone, my wife said, “You really aren’t going to pray about that are you?” I said, “Yeah!” She began to weep because she liked our life on the road and was intimidated by the thought of going to a church in crisis, with all the stress and issues that entails. Moving in your 60’s is a challenge.
I said, “Here is the deal: I’m going to pray about it, but unless God speaks to your heart and confirms it to you as well, I won’t make a move.” Two days later, she came back to me and said, “I have been praying, and if you think God wants us to go to this church, I am with you. Let’s go.” And we did.
Here is what I found out when you are invited to help a church in crisis: When you get there, you have to remember that it’s kind of like being a husband to a divorced wife whose first husband was unfaithful, betrayed her and abused her. No matter how wonderful the current husband is, she is going to look at him with a certain level of distrust because she sees everything he does through the eyes of her past experience. She is judging him, not only by who he is but by who she was married to, the man who betrayed her and abused her. This is how the congregation of a church in crisis sees the new pastor.
We didn’t know all the details of this church’s crisis. All I know is that in the minds of the congregation, they thought that he had betrayed and abused them. What they thought became their reality. I learned early on that it wasn’t that they didn’t trust me personally; they didn’t trust the ministry, and I represented the ministry. This presented some real challenges. They were very distrustful about the management of finances even though we had adopted an annual budget. Though the Administrative Pastor and I were charged with the responsibility of administrating that budget and answering for it, they appointed a full member finance committee. Everyone who came in went over every expenditure, line by line, right down to the penny. It made administrating the church and doing business for God extremely cumbersome, and it always felt like they didn’t trust us. If you find yourself in this situation, let me encourage you to be careful about letting your ego get involved.
When you feel disrespected, you want to defend yourself. Let me give you a really painful example. I had been there about 6 weeks when it came to my attention that one of the widows in our congregation had a medical crisis. I had gone over the budget and saw that there was $10,000 to $15,000 in the widow’s fund, so when I met with her and found out she needed some medical supplies and didn’t have money for them, I just took my credit card and bought the medical supplies. That night when the finance committee met, I handed them the receipt, told them what I had done, and said that it was on my credit card and I would like to be reimbursed. They said to me, “You are not authorized to do that. You can’t do this. We are not going to reimburse you. We have a widows’ committee. You have to put this before them. They have to approve it.” I didn’t say anything, but I have heard that when I’m really angry, you can feel anger emanating from my body without me saying a word.
I went home, and that night God dealt with me. He said, “You’re going to have to call those 4 members of the finance committee and apologize to them.” I said, “Why should I apologize to them? Even if I wanted authorization, they should have said, ‘Pastor, we didn’t tell you; you didn’t know. We will reimburse you, but next time…’ But they didn’t do any of that! They said, ‘You’re not authorized! We won’t reimburse you!’” My ego was really involved. But the Holy Spirit said, “You about blew that. You about destroyed this situation.” After wrestling with the Lord most of the night, I called each one of those 4 men the next morning and apologized. You might think that they would have said, “Well, Pastor we probably could have handled that a little better also.” But not a one did. They just said, “Thank you,” and dropped it. When you are dealing with wounded leadership, you are dealing with a wounded congregation. You must remember that you can’t let your ego get involved. Once your ego becomes involved, it becomes a power struggle, and nobody wins a power struggle.
In conflict, it is critically important that we differentiate between difficult people and divisive people. We have to work with difficult people, and the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 15 that we have to mark divisive people. The temptation is to think that a difficult person is a divisive person because they have a different opinion than we do or a different style of decision-making. These create real discomfort. But with God’s help, we can learn to work with difficult people.
Many of the conflicts in pastoral ministry are created by hurting congregants. They have been hurt by life, the church, a pastor somewhere. They create issues. But those issues never become a crisis until the pastor’s ego gets involved. Once it does, it’s “me against you.” This is why I lean on phrases like, “How can we solve this?” It takes the focus off winning and invites the unhappy person to become part of the solution. Some of the other questions I like to use are, “Help me to understand how you are feeling,” and, “What can I do to help resolve this issue?”
Pastors, we can always become part of the problem if we let our ego get involved, or part of the solution, if we let the Holy Spirit help us be peacemakers and spiritual leaders. Let’s determine to honor God by the way we rebuild trust with churches in crisis. Let’s be understanding and faithful, giving room for distrust to turn to confidence as the members watch us living lives of commitment and godliness.