Caution! These Folks Can Sting!

You must proceed cautiously with certain people in your church.
Just as the New Covenant holds an essential paradox ("Sin not" vs. "And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate"), so does pastoring. On one hand, as a pastor I am supposed to welcome and embrace people regardless of their spiritual condition. On the other hand, I am cautioned to "be on guard" against dangers posed by false teachers and wolves.

This means that while I shepherd my flock with tenderness and affection, I do not necessarily presume that every creature wearing wool is a harmless little lamb. Some people who come to our churches are not looking to be led, covered or nurtured. Instead, their agenda is to lead unsuspecting sheep and shepherds into barren pastures and other perils.

But how do we tell the difference between confused sheep who want our help and individuals who merely want to impose their agenda on us or our congregations? A brief "driving lesson" here might provide an answer. Pastoring a church can be likened to driving a car--we have to keep our eyes on the road and the caution signs if we want to arrive safely at our destination.

The Santa Cruz mountains that hug the coast where I live in central California are not high, but they are steep and irregular. The narrow roads climbing from the valleys to the crests consist of one sharp turn after another. On foggy mornings the curves can easily do you in. Shortly after we moved here 16 years ago to pioneer a church, a young mom in our congregation misread one of these notorious curves and ended up 100 yards down the hill. Fortunately, she was not badly injured.

I've almost lost it on that same deceptively sharp curve. Like other drivers in these mountains, I have become accustomed to a whole series of curves on the road, and I get lulled into thinking I'm going slow enough (25 mph) to handle any turn in the road. When the warning sign--slow to 15 mph--shows up on the right shoulder, it is hard to believe. The curve's sharpness doesn't look bad enough to warrant slowing down. But by the time you realize the curve has a second twist, it is too late.

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Last week my wife and I conversed with another pastoral couple visiting our church on vacation. Our talk reminded me of the curve on Hames Road.

A prominent couple in their congregation was creating significant undercurrents of trouble in the church. They were undermining the pastor's authority and meeting with other parishioners to talk about what the pastor should be doing "right."

As these dear pastors related their history with the disgruntled couple, my wife and I exchanged knowing looks. It wasn't long before we were "telling" their story to them point by point. The pastor and his wife were amazed that we could guess their story with such accuracy. I think they even wondered if the problem couple had attended our church years earlier. Pamela and I didn't know the couple in their church, but we have navigated those kinds of curves many times on our pastoral journey.

My wife and I guessed the couple had made several specific statements to the pastor and his wife in the months before all the trouble started. From experience we have learned that these declarations (or some version of them) are like warning signs every ministry leader ought to be alert to on the road. Like so many pastors, our friends had ignored the unmistakable signs of danger ahead. The road on which they spun out wasn't called Hames Road, but the damage done to them and their church "vehicle" was just like that done to the young mom's car 16 years ago.


Roadside warning signs tell us to slow down and proceed with care. For pastors, there are at least five "cautions" that signal potential trouble ahead. When I hear any of these verbal statements from people in the church, I know it is wise to move my foot off the accelerator and to proceed with extreme caution:

1. "I just want you to be my friend." While the people in our church should expect to feel loved by those of us who lead them, the cry for a relationship with the pastor based on friendship can often mask a hidden agenda. When the relationship gets defined in terms of friendship, we are vulnerable to their claims of disappointment--not calling them enough, not spending enough time with them, and so on.

Few pastors have the time to live up to artificial expectations placed upon them by people who want to force the issue of friendship rather than just let it develop. While I disagree with the old advice that tells pastors they should not be friends with anyone in the church, my wife and I always resist the subtle pressure some people exert in their quest to "really know us."

It was not until late in His ministry that Jesus told His disciples, "Now I call you friends." Though relationships that start in discipleship will almost always develop into friendships, I have found that people who say they just want to be my friend almost never become the kind of people whom I can disciple. It is especially dangerous if such people derive a sense of their identity or self-worth from "being close" to the pastor.

Let's-just-be-friends people will tend to make their relationship with the pastor feel exclusive, as though we are their trophies. Years ago a woman who wanted everyone to know just how close she was to my wife became so smothering and hovering in church that no one else felt like they could talk to my wife.

Consider this approach: Evaluate to what extent the people who want to be your friends are eager for you to become equally good friends with lots of other people. The more "special" they want their relationship with a leader to be, the greater the danger in the upcoming curve. Slow way down. True friends are never in a hurry to claim friendship as though it was a mountain to conquer or a feat to accomplish. The kind of friends you need are not the people who "need" to be your friend.

2. "You don't acknowledge my gifting or maturity." Everyone wants to be appreciated, and many pastors may at times fail to express their regard for people in their church. However, it is one thing to want to be received as a contributing member of the team; it's another thing to think that one's gifting deserves a more exalted position or special treatment.

When Jesus described greatness and spiritual strength, He did so in terms of servanthood: The greatest (strongest) among you will be known by how much he or she serves (lifts). Every four years at the Olympics, the world crowns the strongest man in the world--based on how much weight he can get under and lift--not on how much he lobbies for a title.

Truly gifted and mature believers manifest that strength by serving others. A remarkable reality in every church is that there is never a lack of opportunity to serve. Since "wisdom is vindicated by all her children" (Luke 7:35, Amplified), I look for what people have done for the sake of others as the best way to evaluate how gifted or mature they are. Church is not supposed to be a staging ground to platform people's ministry gifts. Instead, it is a family wherein each part is encouraged to do its best for the sake of all.

Rarely do servers, givers or merciful people complain about not being used enough. It is usually the prophetic, discerning leader-types who want more acknowledged position or more entry into the decision-making process of the church. People who are unhappy with the recognition they have received from their pastor tend to be unhappy with many more things about how the church is run. It might appear that they are heading in the same direction as the pastor, but closer scrutiny will reveal that they are not.

People who are excited about going with us wherever we are headed rarely even think about their position. Conversely, those who have their own ideas about where and how the church ought to go will make it a point to try to work their way forward in position.

Consider this approach: The best way to evaluate the true motives of people who want to be given more of a place is to ask two questions: (1) Are they as eager to work anonymously behind the scenes as out in front where they will be noticed; and (2) Do they have a well-established history with people in the church--years of dying and serving on behalf of the group they now want to lead?

If the answer to either question is no, then the coming curve in the road may be too sharp to navigate safely.

3. "I don't feel like you understand me." We all want to be understood. Every pastor misreads situations or people on occasion. One-time misunderstandings can easily be fixed with a genuine apology. Spiritual leaders will always be appreciated when they apologize for their (inevitable) mistakes.

But when the statement, "You do not know how to listen to me or deal with me," becomes a consistent refrain from someone in our church, it means they are convinced their situation is so unique we cannot really grasp all of its implications.

Even though the Bible says that our struggles are quite common (1 Cor. 10:13), these people want to lay claim to a unique set of issues and needs only they understand. I have encountered several such individuals who exude a condescending patience--a willingness to tutor me on how to deal with people like themselves.

One couple who attended our church felt I could not appreciate their needs or giftings because they had been abused as children. The truth and counsel I shared with them, which had helped others, seemingly made no impression on them. They wanted to turn their counseling sessions with me into training sessions for me.

Their goal in church was not to receive healing from the timeless truths of the Bible; rather, they sought to convince me that I needed to learn how to treat them differently. They wanted accommodations made for their difficult life, not recommendations for how to change it.

Often these misunderstood people will try to explain away their rough spots and wrongdoings with claims of good intentions, saying things such as: "That is not what I meant," or "Hear my heart," or "If you took the time to get to know me better, you wouldn't misread me."

Consider this approach: The bottom line is that any kind of correction or adjustment the pastor tries to bring them is dismissed. Because pastors do not want to be insensitive to people's unique situations (an abused upbringing, previous bad experiences with churches, fragile conditions of body or mind), we find ourselves in an untenable position: either agree with them or be guilty of not understanding them.

Pastors, this is a roadside warning. You will find yourself working overtime worrying about how such people are going to misread your actions and decisions. Different people do have different needs. Pastors cannot approach fearful or disenfranchised people the same way they approach proud or foolish people. But when people in church make the pastor feel disqualified to really help them except on their terms, and if they presume to be the pastor's counselor, then the road ahead is very dangerous.

4. "I could not come to you because you are too intimidating." We who pastor must always be careful not to come on so strong or self-assuredly that our congregation feels it has no permission to hold differing views on matters. The booming pulpit voice can be imposing, and our pastoral office carries with it an authority that is a little intimidating no matter how nice we are.

Recently a shy woman approached me after service and told me she gets very nervous around me. She decided that she had to force herself to tell me this as a way of getting over her nervousness. We had a delightful chat. I told her that I'm still a bit nervous around my pastor. We laughed about how silly it is, and she felt much better.

Sincere sheep respect their pastor, and sometimes that respect manifests in a sort of nervousness. As pastors we must recognize this and do everything in our power to minimize that awkwardness. But other people in a church can be saying the same words for a different reason. Rather than looking up to the pastor and caring about what the pastor thinks of them, they simply do not want the pastor to correct them.

Such "intimidated" people successfully deflect any potential adjustment to their viewpoint by confining the issue to how strong or imposing the pastor is. If the pastor doesn't adopt the right response to them, it becomes confirmation of the pastor's intimidating manner. Sometimes people do not want to hear the truth--even when it is spoken in love.

Consider this approach: I have to keep asking myself (and my wife): "Am I really that intimidating in my manner, or is it that some people simply want me to agree with them no matter what?" Granted, I might be fooling myself when I conclude that the problem is not with me. On the other hand, it makes little sense that I seem so intimidating to just a tiny fraction of my congregation. If I am the same person with everyone, why do just a few call me intimidating?

If people have been in our churches for several years and they continue to see us as too intimidating, then it isn't healthy. Either we are too strong for them or they have some other reason for not wanting to hear us. Either way, it is best for them to find another pastor. If they feel they cannot come to us when they disagree with something we have done or said, then they are probably not able to receive much from us at other times. It is time to slow down and watch the road carefully.

5. "The Lord has shown me some things I'd like to share with you." Fewer words are sweeter to pastors' ears than this preamble when someone proceeds to describe how they were helped or convicted by something they read in the Bible or something they heard in a sermon. Our whole goal as pastors is to help people hear from the Lord themselves.

But few words warn of greater danger than when people claim special insight into the problems of the church or the pastor. Messengers with these words are usually self-styled prophets--like the one who came to our services three weeks in a row wanting to deliver a word to the churches in our county; or like dear ones in our church who have a very narrow focus of concern or teaching.

A close look at their agenda will reveal that they want to become the pastor's tutor--helping the pastor do what the church should be doing. Often, they will want pastors to chase extrabiblical subjects or to adopt a more legalistic stance about things. Their mystical insights into obscure verses or spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting and spiritual warfare leave the pastor feeling unspiritual and hugely inadequate. Real truth from the heart of God always gives us hope for our future; it never leaves us feeling like we should just quit.

In its more severe manifestations, this statement can herald the spirit of Jezebel that drove the prophet to despair in the desert. My first serious encounter with such people was a former nun who offered us special insights about how to really pray and live by faith without having to work. Conveniently she had forgotten a simple biblical truth--no working, no eating--in her zeal to teach us the deep things of God. Since then I have had several other mystics talk to me and pray that my eyes would be opened to see the need for "more of the Spirit" in our church.

Consider this approach: When people "feel released by the Lord" to share special truths with the pastor, it is a good idea to test the spirit behind the smoke that looks so spiritual. Ask these questions: Has the messenger exhibited a lifestyle of discipling and nurturing lots of healthy, godly people? Do we feel relieved and aided by the messenger's insights, or do we feel pressed and driven by them? We should slow down for the curve ahead by examining the lasting fruit of their lives, not just the immediate fruit of their lips.

Insecure church leaders might easily be tempted to use these five cautions as confirmations for their own oppressive style of leadership. When a leader is determined to dominate people with severity, that leader will find proof texts even in the Bible. But although I am concerned about how some unrighteous leaders might misuse these warnings, I am even more concerned for the leaders who have been surprised at how sharp "people curves" can be.

As with most things in pastoring, there is no simple formula to follow. Each of these statements, or their many variations, can be harmless and innocently spoken on long stretches of straight roadway. But if you have already had to do a bit of twisting and turning in the relationship, or if a person makes two or three of these statements, you should proceed with caution before you promote them to a role of greater influence in your church.

Daniel A. Brown, Ph.D., serves as senior pastor of The Coastlands Foursquare Church in Aptos, California. He has recently authored Heaven (Regal Books).

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