Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Toward Taking “Roast Pastor” off of the Sunday Lunch Menu – or at least shutting down the poisonous fountain of anonymous criticisms

This is a roast "al pastor." No actual pastors 
were harmed in the making of this blog post.
What’s on the menu? Well, if it’s a Sabbath afternoon (I was going to say “Sunday,” but I’m assuming that my Seventh-Day Adventist friends engage in the same behaviors.), you can safely bet that at least a handful or two in any given community (if not every congregation every Sabbath) are having “roast pastor” for lunch. Rarely, though, does this occur if the pastor is actually at the table, of course. And some don’t choose to air their concerns, questions, or comments so publicly. Not that they always bring their criticisms directly to the pastor’s office. No, as Thom Rainer has discussed (You can find his post here: http://thomrainer.com/2014/12/17/one-sentence-pastors-church-staff-hate-hear/.), most will hide behind the seven deadliest words you can fire at a pastor, “I thought you should know, someone said….” The sentence has other forms. But whatever words are used, they can sentence the pastor to agonizing over every detail of every sermon, each encounter, all the missed connections, and an unlimited imagination of unmet expectations, any one of which can lead a pastor to distraction, discouragement, and despair. Or they can lead to a pastor reacting bitterly, withdrawing emotionally, and/or writing yet another “Monday-morning resignation letter.”

This office says "Yes, I've spent tens of thousands on my education, 
but please, do share your thoughts about my eschatological errors."
(Note to pastors: if you get in the regular habit of writing and deleting “Monday-morning resignation letters,” you’re probably moving past any therapeutic value to be found in the exercise. In fact, you’re probably starting to more fully contemplate sending out your resume. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t. But when you reach the point where it’s a frequent practice, don’t pretend that “come Tuesday, it’ll be alright.”)

Again, though, as Rainer points out, it doesn’t have to be this way. He explores the reasons and suggests a way to shut down such behavior. In my experience, though, his approach may simply bottle up the criticism by refusing to hear it. As with other home-made fermentation projects, sometimes that results in a more mature vintage, and sometimes it results in an explosion. I would advocate a slightly different approach that I believe more fully addresses the pastoral responsibility to those who feel compelled to share “someone’s” critique of the pastor, or of any other victim.

This one? "The pastor will be right back, just as soon as 
he's done meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Ministry Staff."
(“Victim? Really, Pastor? Isn’t that overstating it?” Please understand. I see this behavior, however well-intentioned, and however accurate the criticisms may be, as gossip. And I see gossip as sin. It is sin against God, but also against whomever you make the target of your gossip. If you read on, I think my reasons will be clear for holding this rare and extreme position—that sin is a bad thing. So don’t stop when you get to the part where you get offended and want to come tell me, “Pastor, some people read your blog, and they’re saying….”)

From my first year in my first pastorate, I have taken a wise mentor’s advice and “gone straight at the problem.” After a couple of months there, serving a congregation consisting of (in the words of the denomination’s district staff) the dozen or so who’d “spent the past twenty years running the other two hundred off,” I proposed to the board that we purchase a church van. “It has to have eleven seats, though,” I told them. “Because the next time one of you comes to me and says, ‘Well, I heard that…’ or ‘Someone was saying…’ that person gets to ride shotgun, and we’re going to drive to whomever it was that shared the gossip with them. Assuming that person was passing along something they’d heard from someone else, we’ll load them up and keep heading upstream against the flow of poison. There’s only twelve of us in this church, so when the eleven of us arrive at the last doorstep, I’ll know that someone knows who said what.”
"Welcome. Come on in...but first, you might want to 
tie some pomegranates to your pants cuffs."

In a pastor’s busy schedule, it can be hard to imagine that there’s time for this much attention to the negativity. But the damage can be immense. Rainer explains its effects so well that I won’t repeat it all here. You’ve got the link to his blog above. But the result, for him, was that “I got to the point where I did not entertain such veiled criticisms. I tried to be polite and say, ‘I am sorry, but I cannot listen to you further because you will not give me the specific sources of the concerns.’” Rainer’s approach is sound advice from a psychological pain-management perspective. It also fits the practice of efficient “pastoral administration.” But that last phrase is in quotes because I don’t believe it’s a real thing. The term is an oxymoron—a statement that contradicts itself (like “hot water heater,” or being “clearly misunderstood,” which occurs between my wife and me sometimes when we are “alone together”). There are administrative duties to be fulfilled in the function of any congregation of believers. But it is “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 – and the functions of Ephesians 4:11ff and elsewhere) that should be the substance of anything we call pastoral ministry.
I'd love this furniture in my office, but I can't afford 
the brandy and cigars to go with it.

So how do I prayerfully apply the Word to those claiming to represent an anonymous coalition of critics?

Several scriptures explain our mutual responsibility for one another in the body of Christ. As I see it, if you don’t choose to address what you see as my errors, then you can’t legitimately claim to love me. Sending someone else (or pretending that you represent someone else) doesn’t make your actions any more loving, or any less sinful.

Here’s two passages in particular that come to mind, about your responsibility to me as a fellow-Christian.

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. (I John 5:16, NASB)

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20, NASB)

The most detailed approach, though, come directly from the lips of Jesus. I refer to it as “The Matthew 18 Protocol” as a shorthand for “Don’t be coming in here with that ‘somebody said’ nonsense.”

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you….” (Matthew 18:15-18, NASB)

"Why, yes, our pastor DID talk about Matthew 18...
right before he left."
There are further instructions there, of course. But it all starts with obedience to the command of Christ. We are called to pursue that first step toward being clear on what the criticism is, while honoring the relationship Jesus assumes will be not only maintained, but deepened. At some point in the first three stages, Jesus offer hope of reconciling the parties. The fourth only applies when the object of the criticism is entirely recalcitrant. (Assuming, of course that the criticism is found to be valid. Be sure to look at the passage Jesus is quoting. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 addresses the possibility of inaccurate criticisms and false accusations as well.)

What does this look like in the actual practice of pastoral ministry? If someone cares enough to bring their concerns (whoever’s concerns they may claim them to be) to the pastor, then I assume they care enough to want to handle matters in a Biblical manner. So, when they’ve explained what others have passed along to them, I ask some form of this question:  

“So, before we go to meet with them, how did it go when you confronted them about their gossiping? How far into the Matthew 18 Protocol are we?”


So, now you have read my blog. And you may want to tell me what “someone” thinks about it. I’d appreciate it, though, if you’d be kind and loving enough to identify yourself in your comments, so that we can work together on resolving any conflicts and maintaining, even deepening, our relationship. Thanks in advance for your example of obedience to Christ.

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