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Pastoring the Powerful

Rev. John Simpson, General Superintendent,
Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia

Number 45

It seems that there is no shortage of powerful people in our churches.  In response to an earlier Ministry Perspective, many pastors disclosed their own struggles with those described as "TMs" (Trouble Makers). Some even wondered if the paper had been written with specific people in their congregation in mind.  Since it appeared that a nerve had been touched, a special in-service event
for pastors was convened to consider how pastoral care could be offered to these powerful people in the church.

Are TMs a Recent Phenomenon?

Are difficult people a recent addition to the life of the community of faith?  Hardly!  Go no further than the motley crew which Jesus called to service.  After three years of teamwork and affirmations of love and loyalty, Peter cracked under pressure and denied any knowledge of His Lord.  Judas let loose destructive forces which led to the death of Jesus while Thomas, acting like a forerunner of the forensic science brigade, demanded tangible proof of the apparently empty tomb.  

Before all this Mrs Zebedee tried to book special seats for her boys in the new Kingdom and there was the celebrated in-house argument about who was the greatest.  If Jesus had to deal with such unbridled humanity, we will not be spared the same turmoil.

The early church soon discovered the reality of TMs: 

     * Ananias and Sapphira fudged the figures on their land deal,

     * The Greek and Hebrew widows scrapped over inequities in the distribution of food,

     * Simon the Sorcerer pulled out his wallet to buy up the Holy Spirit,

    * Paul was distressed by competing groups,

     * Diotrophes turned the church into his own exclusive club.

What Produces a Climate of Tension?

There are many variables in the life of a congregation which will lead to tension,  unsettlement and the activity of powerful people. A sampling:

The Pastor and Self Awareness

A pastor will do well to reflect on the reasons why certain kinds of people become irritating.  It is all to easy to blame others for trouble which descends on the church.  The simple fact is that we all have panic buttons which can be unerringly pressed by those who drive us to distraction. We need to ponder our own reactions and be very careful that we are not contributing to the problems.  

A person may seem to be a classic TM for us simply because they have the knack of getting under our skin.  It may not be their fault.  There are such things as personality clashes; blaming our TMs for all that goes wrong shows a lack of maturity, personal insight and grace.

Problem People: There are a Variety

Wayne Oates describes five varieties of powerful people:

* The Circumferential or Back Biter who communicates behind the scenes but never directly with the person who is the subject of  their criticism.

* The Authoritarian Power Ridden who can only function when firmly in charge.  They want to do it their way.

* The Competitive Divider of the Congregation who enjoys bringing division and party spirit. 

* The Clinging Vine Dependant who rules the diary by their constant pleas for help 

* The Star Performer who places themselves firmly in the spotlight attracting attention to themselves.

There are others who could be added to the list:

* The Proprietor who has made a significant contribution to the  church, sometimes through the gift of the organ, the communion  table or a large financial donation, and who thereby claims  influence over the church.  They are more likely to be found in older churches where they may hunt in packs.

* The Disturbed Person who has real needs which can only be  addressed by an adequately trained counsellor.  Their fights with  the pastor and the church represent the outworking of unhealed scars of long ago.

* The TM who sets out intentionally to destabilise the church. These are the "white anters," the politicians.

* The leader who is ungifted for their role but who rigorously claims the franchise and actively works to keep others (who are  more suitably gifted) at bay.

* The baggage carrier from another denominational setting who arrives spiritually wide eyed and bushy tailed with a very different view of leadership, ministry and the role of the  congregation.  A collision awaits the pastor who is unprepared.

Circumstances which Encourage the Powerful--

Some situations produce a climate ideal for the powerful to flourish:

* The arrival of a new pastor is the classic.  A TM will launch an early comparison with the former pastor with the conclusion that  the "new boy is nice but lacks depth."  A great back-hander.
* A church which specialises in short term ministries will never be able to address deep seated issues in the life of the church. These unresolved crises will haunt every ministry and become part  of the heritage of the church.
* Older and smaller churches may have relied on the guidance and support of long term families or individuals.  Good folks they may  be; sharers of influence they are not.  A pastor may do little more than maintain a ministry very clearly defined by others.  Heaven  help him if he thinks about change except in some demented moment of sleep.
* The lone ranging pastor accountable to no one will almost certainly encourage the appearance of the powerful.  "If the deacons can't keep tabs on him, we will."  And they usually do but  all hell will break loose in the process.

Some Basic Underlying Assumptions

In case any pastor is longing for the perfect church, keep in mind the following:

* TMs and the powerful are a fact of life
* Someone will always be off side with you and you with them
* You cannot please everyone
* Not every issue will be resolved no matter how hard you try
* The future of your church and the Kingdom in general does not rest on your shoulders or the adequate outworking of a given issue.

Caring for Powerful--Some Suggestions:

* Prayer.  This is a primary ministry and will help you adjust your attitude to TMs.  Enlist soul mates to pray for you.  Be careful with confidences.  Believe that the power of prayer will allow the Lord to intervene in ways not open to you.  He is the Healer, the Reconciler and the Restorer.  Prayer enables us to seek the mind of Christ.
* Between pastors there will be great value in enlisting the help of skilled interims to identify and resolve problems, clarify vision  and prepare for the new pastor.  The departing pastor should file a report for Advisory Board.  The church could do the same after the pastor has left.
* Unless there is some clear reason for the pastor to leave the church, do not give up! Patience and reflection are crucial. You  will discover how best to invest your time and energy.  Do not  expend it all on the problems and the awkward people. 
* Try to get to know your "thorn in the flesh."  If your difficulties are all church related, you need to find some new turf  to meet on.  It will be worth the effort.  It takes time to get to  know someone well, especially if there has been a break down.  So  go for more contact, not less.  Hang around.  Listen. Relax with your people.  There is a place for intentional church fun.
* There will come a time for confrontation but leave the tank and the howitzer at home. A genuine desire to share  your concerns and listen to your TM will often pay off. But avoid this being seen as  a show down of force as this will exacerbate the issue.  Do not be afraid to spell out matters of accountability and responsibility if  you need to.  No one finds this easy but with grace, strength  and wisdom your intentions will usually be regarded as above board.
* Do not be afraid of vulnerability.  It does not hurt to let people  know that you are bruised by their behaviour.  TMs often have no  idea of the personal pain they inflict and many would back off if  they sensed the real cost of their activity.  To deny your own  struggle is unrealistic and self destructive.
* One of the least understood areas in church life is that of discipline.  It is seen as a last resort but the Bible makes  provision for such.  A person who is knowingly upsetting the church and causing pain to the Body of Christ has to be confronted with  this.  Gentleness and justice need to be well balanced.  In extreme circumstances it will be better for everyone (the TM included) for a parting of the ways to take place.  If reconciliation is not  possible, there is no choice.  A fresh start elsewhere for a TM  may lead to new growth (for all concerned including the church). If  a person does leave, be genuinely affirming. Bless them on their  way (in the best sense).
* If a church has a person who displays the symptoms of disturbed  behaviour, find a sifting process (for their sake and for yours) if  they stand for key leadership or ministry positions.  Affirm the gifts they do have and let them serve in areas which have clear boundaries and accountability.
* Include the proprietors early in any planned changes.  Give  everybody a chance to have strong ownership of what the church is  doing.  Invite feedback and constructive comment.  Freezing people out will cause difficulties when proposals are raised at the church  meeting.  Also, the mission statement of the church needs to be owned by all.
* You do not have to win every battle.  Give ground.  Express  thanks. Acknowledge your mistakes but stand firm graciously when  there is a matter which is important to you. Compromise.  Enjoy  synergy.  Warmth on your part will allow people to accept your  rough edges when the time comes.  If one good idea in ten takes  off, you are doing well.  Flex, forgive and forget.
* Do not take life too seriously.  Is there room for humour?  There usually is. A good belly laugh is great therapy.  It also restores perspective.
* Opt for effective communication. Do not rely on (or hide behind)  letters or bulletin notices. Use the phone or meet one on one.

One Final Thought

How do  you really see your ministry?  As spiritual turf to be preserved from intruders?  The pastor who worries about others crowding in on them needs a fresh view of what they are about. Ministry is a gift.  It is not something which we have worked up for ourselves. 

The Lord has entrusted to us a small part of His Kingdom strategy. It is our task to serve faithfully and set our brothers and sisters in Christ free to serve Him well too.  Yes, it may demand that we make room for them to find their feet and ensure that they receive affirmations which we might otherwise think should be for us.  We have not been called to the front row or mid stage to be applauded. We have been called to serve.

The pastor who is at home doing what they feel is right for their Lord will meet fewer powerful people.  They will be the ones who have the best chance of getting alongside problem people and winning their support and confidence.  It also puts the focus on stature rather than status.

If we are hung up about position, hierarchy or calling the shots, we have lost the plot.  We are not here to throw our weight around. The secret was recorded a long time ago: in quietness and trust is your strength.   This is the kind of living and serving which gives the mountains a hurry up.

John Simpson

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:08 PM