I am aware of no spiritual gift listed in the Bible that God bestows on His church members which calls them to use that gift with the goal of making the spiritual leader's life miserable. Really! You've probably heard the prayers of those seeking a new leader for the congregation.
"Oh Lord, send your church your man, in your time." Then when the prayer is answered, you'd think God had made a major blunder. It's as though God didn't send a pastor, but a devil to be fought at every crossroads. This demon in ministerial garb must be contained and controlled. "How dare God's 'mistake' suggest we need to change! We've been here since before he/she was born, and they come waltzing in here with all these new ideas. The very nerve...."
When this philosophy prevails, you've got your hands full. How sincere people can be led into this anti-church leadership thinking is a perplexing puzzle. But usually, it's one or two members who are spewing this pernicious virus that has infected others. So, what to do with the difficult member, the one who has established himself as the ex officio leader? Remember, you are the newbie. They have had years to ingrain their influence into the congregation. What are you to do with this one member? What chance do you have of overcoming such a well- entrenched power base?
First: God sent you to be the leader. He called you to the ministry. You've followed His leading in getting yourself prepared to do the job. You're not going to overcome opposition because your ego has to be in charge. You've been selected by God, Himself to be the leader of the congregation. Go for it.
Second: Observe, size up this person who has inserted himself as the church's leader. Has he become the leader through default or has he assumed leadership through manipulation or because his ego demanded it? Have previous pastors been so ineffective or lacking in moral character that, for the sake of the church, this person stood up and provided the much needed leadership? Has this person a good heart or are they somewhat desperate for control of others? There is a quick way to discover just what you're dealing with in this situation. After a very short time at the church you need to ask this question, does he or she defer to your leadership? By that, I mean when you make a presentation or suggest a direction for the church, does this person get behind you and actually support verbally and with their influence and action? Or is there always an undercurrent of resistance?
If you find this person is supportive, then you have been blessed with a jewel. I've had several such leaders. When I was new in ministry, one of the elderly leaders in a small church came to me and said, "Now Pastor, they's two ways of doin' this. And one of 'em can git you in a peck of trouble." Believe me when I say, this man had my attention and my respect.
I witnessed another wonderful example of genuine Christianity in a church leader who had been providing pastoral care and leadership to a small church for many years. He became extremely supportive of my ministerial leadership when he recognized we were working for the same God. My feelings about this man were validated when I stopped by a small store and got involved in a conversation with the clerk.
After discovering which church I was leading, he told me he had great respect for a certain one of my members. Being a small community, many folks conducted business at this particular store. It seems my member's conscience wouldn't allow him to cash in on a tobacco lease to which his farm was entitled. The member was a leader in the congregation and didn't think it was right for him to make money from a product that caused people harm. He just lost money every year. The tobacco lease went unused year after year.
I'm not telling you about a wealthy man who didn't need the money the lease would provide. This man and his Christian wife had an ever present financial struggle to face. In spite of his own problems, my member discovered that one of his neighbors had come on even harder times and was about to lose his farm. This church leader sold his tobacco lease and, in order to avoid embarrassing his neighbor, left the money with the store clerk to give to him. The clerk told me when he handed the money to the gentleman, there were tears; and not just from the neighbor.
Take heart. God has people out there who will be helpful and encouraging to you. I found them in every church I ever led. There are also the other kinds. In nearly all churches there are the pastoral stumbling blocks. If you've tried a few things and it feels as though you're trying to run in waist deep mud, you'll have to address that other, less pleasant end of the spectrum.
There are going to be good people, honest souls, sincere and willing to work, but who are not right for your style of ministry. Be as gentle as possible with these members. They will unavoidably feel unappreciated and may not be able to understand that, although they have your respect, you need people who will be willing to move at your pace and be comfortable with your personality. Go out of your way to extol them. But you must be searching for personalities that will mesh with your agenda. Remember, we're not looking for "yes men," but sincere people who possess a personality that will cooperate with you.
Let me give you a short example. This well-meaning member may be part of a leadership team that has been granted the freedom to ask all the questions they need in order to obtain the information necessary for making decisions. But in the end, once they grasp the idea, the team must act. If a person is prone to over analyzing to the point of absurdity, you'll be stuck with some long discussions, but the God-given opportunity may be lost in the process. Frustration will prevail on all sides. One other caution for you is to move slowly in these situations. As Yoda would say, "Move slowly, but move you must."
There are also people who have personal needs that they feel can only be fulfilled within the matrix of the church. There's not much wrong with having needs met by the church, except when it's an unhealthy need, such as: a need to dominate a group of people. There may also be a person who is obsessed with needing all their ideas regarded as superior to all others. There are also people who have achieved positions of leadership outside the church where they command a staff and, therefore, feel they have a right to exercise the same authority over church members.
My fellow ministers have told me of people who wielded an iron fist in church leadership because they had no control at home. Of course, there are members who have never achieved anything of great significance and see the church as their last chance to rise to a position of respect. All these negative reasons for maintaining a leadership role present difficulties for you. If you have found resistance from a particular self-appointed leader, pray that God will give you wisdom. The particular personality I'm referring to here is a pharisaical one. Self-righteousness exudes from their being. Those in the congregation, who can't see what you've become aware of in this member, are convinced that the church absolutely cannot survive without this "dear saint." There have been many ministers who have stumbled over this one. I think here I can save you a lot of wasted time and energy.
May I suggest a strategy that has served me well? This difficult person hasn't become an accepted leader within the church by being stupid.
Many times the resistance or undermining process will take on a sophistry undetectable by most of the other members. You see it. You'll feel it. You'll pull your hair out over it. But many times the membership is oblivious. To them this person may be seen as indispensable; an absolute pillar.
In one of my churches there was just such a person. Let's call him, Dr. R. U. Sure. In point of fact, there has been a personage akin to the good doctor in every church I have ever led. Seldom did Dr. Sure challenge me face-to-face. It was nearly always with questions in a board setting or with other members who could possibly be influenced with his doubt.
"Have you really thought this through? Have you run this by higher church administration? Do you think the budget for this endeavor is complete enough to make such an important decision?" Again, as Yoda would have said it, "Always with the questions, the Doctor was."
A fine example of this discreet resistance came bubbling up when our church was making preparations to launch a foreign ministry project. The setting was perfect for laying out the seeds of doubt. The whole church membership had assembled to discuss the outreach. Dr. R.U. Sure was asking plenty of questions and they were numerous. "How many of us will be involved in actually making the trip? How much money are we attempting to raise? How much experience do you have with this sort of thing, Pastor? How much time do we have to prepare for such a huge undertaking?"
Shortly after I had spent considerable time having to field the Doctor's seemingly innocent questions, the church treasurer came to me and said she knew I had a policy of not wanting to know what individual members gave to the church because "you want to treat everyone the same, but I can't help myself. I think you need to know. That man with all the questions hasn't given one penny to this project."
What do you do with a guy like that? How do you address this stumbling block in the way of Gospel progress? You have options.
Being the kind of human God has called into your position, it will naturally be your inclination to attempt to win over this pocket of resistance. It is your duty to love every member; to want every member on board so the church will be enabled to move forward. You think if you just reason with this person, if you invest quality time with them, they'll see your sincerity and be won over. Don't do it! It's a trap.
By spending time with and being seen with Dr. R.U. Sure, you are only adding to his/her influence. You may be sure that every idea you share will be analyzed and distorted and used against you at some future critical time. At this point your naiveté screams out, "No. I refuse to believe that God has such leaders in His church." Well, Sister/Brother, welcome to your new world. You'll find all those heathen and "bad people" out in the world won't cause a tenth as much heartache to you as those misguided within your own congregation.
Until you gain superiority of leadership over this individual, the church will never achieve the amount of success that it could. Now, what do I mean by "gain superiority over?" This brings us back to strategy. How are you going to handle this barrier to growth; this thorn in your side? Of course you're going to pray for them. But please make them short prayers. Remember, time given to the good Dr. R. U. Sure is often a drain on you and often very unproductive.
Okay, I've told you what not to do. Here we go with your plan. Ask yourself why you have to be in charge. You'd better come up with, "Because God called me to be the leader here." This isn't an ego thing or a "worldly" striving for control. God, Himself, placed you in this church as its leader. Perhaps, Dr. R.U. Sure is older than you. Did God call the Dr. or you to be leader? Once you've got that settled in your mind and heart, you're ready to implement Operation Successful Church.
As I see it, you've got three options; ignore the Doctor, try to win over the Doctor, or try my method. My method has worked every time for me, but don't let that influence you if you really want to try one of the other two. Now, I want to qualify "worked every time." In some cases Dr. R. U. Sure was only held at bay and somewhat neutralized. In the majority of experiences, however, he was vanquished. In those churches, I witnessed revival, membership growth, and increased attendance.
My method is quite simple: don't spend your valuable time with the Doctor. Spend your energy with those under his/her influence. Show them that you are called by God to lead. Demonstrate that you have the church's best interests in mind. Share your ideas with them. Listen to theirs. Let them tell you about the past. This is where you'll not only form bonds with the members, but learn what not to try and what approaches have worked in the past. What has been the church's history of success? Have there been past successes? How long ago? Suggest that the future you have in mind for them and their church is a bright one; one in which you would like to work side by side with them to accomplish. Share your past successes in God's work. Let them hear how you love the God who sent you to them.
The time for confrontation is not at the beginning of your pastorate, but after you've established a trustful relationship with Dr. R.U. Sure's support group. It has been my experience that most of the members are completely unaware that there is an anti-clergy person or group within the church. When God, in His time, opens their eyes, they will follow the leader He sent.
I arrived for my first board meeting in a certain church. "Dr. R.U. Sure" was already present. I didn't have to search for him at all. Many of the board members were already assembled around a large table. At the head of the table, in the position that should be occupied by the chairman (Me) was the good Doctor.
Wanting to establish myself as the leader, I had come in a black suit, white shirt, and black neck tie. The "Doctor" was in jeans and polo. I placed my agenda, notes, and Bible in very close proximity to his position at the table. Following my strategy, after a few months, God opened the eyes of the congregation and the Doctor wasn't offered a single position in the church leadership. I didn't orchestrate that outcome. The Lord did.
In the intervening months I must say I prayed some unusual prayers. With tears streaming back on my pillow, I begged, "Lord, help me cut 'Doctor R. U. Sure' off at the knees. I don't dislike him, but You called me to be the leader here. You know me, Lord. I'd rather not be out in front. I lead because You commanded me to lead."
When the "Doctor" was removed from leadership, the church experienced attendance increases. Baptisms became a frequent event. A friendly, welcoming spirit was pervasive in our church. It was actually fun to come to worship. The "Doctor" was not alienated, not shunned. I believe he came to the conclusion that God had sent me and that he could release his control over the membership. He and his wife were great members.
My friend, it isn't those in other denominations who oppose you on theological grounds that will give you the most trouble. Your own members are your greatest resource and also the source of your greatest challenges. May God help you to lead the misled. May He give you wisdom as you strive to forward the banner of Hope in this needy world.