“When Stephen your witness was being killed, I stood there giving my approval, even watching the clothes that belonged to those who were killing him.” – St. Paul (Acts 22:20 CEB)
Among the realities that a small town – small church pastor must face is the harsh one that she or he is always an outsider in a crowd of insiders. The congregations of small churches don’t change much in terms of the core lay leadership and the heart of the group. They’ve seen pastors come and go. Some last a couple of years. Some last five. Some last nine or ten, or even longer. But they never really become “one of us.”
Especially in an itinerant system like my own United Methodist Church, no matter how much they love you, care for you, and accept you the fact is that you were sent to this place and you will eventually be sent away. The other folks in the congregation are very likely there to stay. They’ve been friends for many, many years and they plan on being friends for many more. Pastors come and go. The core congregation doesn’t.
Dan Dick, in his wonderful book Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness identifies some church members as toxic influencers. Toxic influencers are not bad people, but they consciously or unconsciously exert toxic influence on the church. Toxic influencers “work behind the scenes to ‘poison’ people’s minds against new ideas, changes, innovations, and new people in leadership. These people hold incredible power to undermine the authority of elected leaders and working groups” (pages 22-23.) They spread rumors and begin “whisper campaigns,” they confront pastoral leaders with “people are saying…” and “I’ve heard…”, and badmouth the pastor and/or the church to their friends in the community. Sometimes they threaten to withhold their tithes and offerings if they don’t get their way. When angry, they sometimes disappear from church life for a few weeks or even months as a form of protest.
Again, they’re not bad people. Often they have the best of intentions. For the most part, toxic influencer is a role that people play from time to time when they’re upset. Some folks can be chronic toxic influencers, but that’s a topic for another day.
Because of the steady stream of gossip, rumors, criticism, nit-picking, silent protests, and overall toxic influence exerted on the church, pastors often feel like piñatas.
But this article isn’t about clergy-killers or toxic influencers. Actually it’s about everybody but the toxic influencers. It’s about the ones standing by, giving their approval and watching the coats.
Yes, pastor, there will be those who beat up on you. They’ll run you down in the community and they’ll criticize you to your face. They’ll ignore you when you try to be nice to them. They’ll threaten to leave, to withhold their giving, to call your District Superintendent, and to write the Bishop.
And no one in the church will have your back.
They’ll say they do, and they kind of mean it. They like you. They think kind thoughts about you. Some pray for you. Some will even go out of their way to tell you they think you’re doing a good job, to hang in there, and they care about you.
What they won’t do is stand up to their friends who are throwing the rocks. And that’s just reality.
They’ll tell you that you shouldn’t take it personally. They’ll tell you that you shouldn’t be so thin-skinned. They’ll tell you that the trouble you’re having will blow over soon and it’ll all be alright. But most of all they’ll avoid conflict with their friends.
That’s just the way it is. Pastor, you just have to deal with it. And whether you’ve been stoned with fist-sized rocks or nibbled to death by ducks, you have to stand up on Sunday morning and proclaim hope and grace and mercy and love. (I was once asked why I preach so often on grace. My answer was “because none of us are any good at it.”)
I started this post with a Bible story, and I’ll end it with a Bible story. One of the lessons we pastors need to learn from Moses is that even if you are leading them to the promised land, they will grumble and argue and fight with you for the whole trip. So just keep leading.