Thriving in the Face of Pastoral Challenges

When Paul described the burden of ministry that God has given us, he concluded by asking the question, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor 2:16) After reviewing the challenges of leadership in the church, we might ask the same thing. We must remember, however, that wherever God calls, He also enables. God did not call us to be fruitless and unprofitable. He has a plan and purpose for His leaders, and leadership can be more effective if we follow some very practical and thoroughly scriptural guidelines.

First, know where you are going. Jerry Vines and Homer Lindsay Jr., served together as co-pastors of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., for many years. When he was appearing in a seminar I taught I once asked Dr. Vines what they did when they did not agree on the direction to take in a given matter. Vines replied that he and Lindsay had three options whenever they had a disagreement about how to proceed. “Either I will defer to him,” he said dryly, “or he will defer to me, or we just do nothing. There are a lot of times,” he confessed, “that we just do nothing.” As I reflected on his words, I kept in mind that First Baptist of Jacksonville is one of the greatest churches in America. They ministered the Word to thousands every week. Yet here was the pastor confessing that many times they seemed to do nothing.

If two great men of God who love one another and seek God with all of their hearts cannot always discern the will of God, then it certainly follows that such uncertainty is not an unusual circumstance. That doesn't mean, though, that in those moments the pastor's ministry grinds to a halt. To the contrary, the pastor will find the routine matters of ministry are more important than ever. A pastor will find it far better to do the obvious things that one knows God wants — preach the Word, visit the sick, witness to the lost, build relationships--than to proceed with a plan that he is not confidently convinced is of the Lord.

Don’t have a building program just because others are doing it. Don’t follow the latest trend because you read it in a book and it seems to be working for another church. If you lead the church down too many blind paths, the price you pay will be ineffectiveness and irrelevant leadership. Be certain that you know where God wants the church to go.

Second, be honest with the Scriptures. Too many pastors have twisted Scripture and assigned meaning foreign to the text and to the author just to get their people to conform. One church was experiencing a steady hemorrhage of members who were leaving and joining another congregation that was larger and seemed to be on the move. The pastor of the smaller church did everything he could to stop the bleeding, but when he sensed that he was unsuccessful, he finally played his trump card — he made it a scriptural issue. His text, however, had nothing to do with churches or membership. He preached about Jesus walking on the water and Peter getting out of the boat, only to sink in failure. The pastor then proceeded to compare the boat to the church, and he said that Peter would not have sunk had he remained in the boat. The lesson was not left for inference. “You better stay in this boat,” he told them.

Whatever a church leader does, he must never compromise the Scriptures for his own purposes, no matter how noble they may seem at the time. And if he does yield to that temptation and contort a text to lend a false sense of biblical authority to his bad decisions, it will surely come back to haunt him. If a pastor can twist the text, so can the deacons and the church members, often to justify ousting him.

Third, live a godly, holy life before the people. Godly living is simply right, but it also has the practical value of earning the trust and confidence of the congregation. Once when I was a pastor, I had to make a very difficult decision that I knew would be misunderstood and questioned. Some weeks later a couple in the church came to me and told me that they weren’t sure they could stay in the church because they disagreed with the decision I had made. I asked them a pointed question: “Do you believe that I was at least trying to do the right thing and to honor the Lord?” Without hesitation they responded, “Of course. We never doubted that you were doing what you believed to be right. We just think you missed it.” I confessed to them that since the matter was not clearly spelled out in Scripture they just might be right. I might get to heaven and discover that I missed it. But at the very least, God would not rebuke me for not seeking and desiring to do His will. “If you trust my heart,” I told them, “then you are free to question my decisions, and we still have no problem. As long as you feel that I am seeking God, we can work together, even when we disagree.” 

Fourth, don’t be threatened by disagreement. When the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron because they had no food and water, Moses did not get mad at the people. Rather, he marveled that they should grumble at him. In the mind of Moses, blame and credit were equally misplaced because he was merely God’s servant and instrument. “Who are we,” he asked, “that you should grumble against us?” (Exod 16:7). Too often, church leaders are incensed that they should be disputed. Instead of emulating Moses, they ask, “Who are you to question us?” Realize that disagreement is healthy, inevitable and one of the ways God confirms us in His will and His likeness.

Fifth, keep negative emotions in check. Leaders can feel anyway they want, but they cannot afford to show the feelings of fear and anger. If they smell fear or anger on the leaders, a congregation will respond in the same way. If attacked in a business meeting, a leader needs to learn the meekness of Moses and the confidence of Nehemiah. In fact, leaders should study biblical leaders like Nehemiah, Moses, David and Paul to see how they responded in times of adversity and still managed to accomplish the objectives God had given them.

Sixth, choose your battles carefully. Some battles need to be deferred to a better time, and some need to be ignored completely. Pastors who move onto a church field and immediately make it their goal to “straighten out” every problem they notice either lose their members or lose their job. Never let the direction of your leadership be motivated by your own annoyances. Prioritize and be selective, especially in timing, in what you notice and attempt to change.

Seventh, be willing to apologize. There is something very powerful about a leader who is willing to humble himself before his people and say, “I was wrong. Please forgive me.” They already know it, but they feel encouraged to see that the leader knows it and does not live under the delusion that he is infallible.

Eighth, focus on the Word and the lost. Churches who are well-fed are usually more content, and churches who are evangelistic have no time to major on minor issues. Keep the Word and the world on their hearts, and they will be much more easily led. As Max Lucado said, "When fisherman fish, they flourish, and when they don't, they fight."

Ninth, develop lay leadership. Use the natural units in your church (Sunday School, life groups, deacons, students, women’s ministry, etc.) as training grounds for leadership development. Organize five levels of activities that will: 1) build relationships, 2) present the gospel, 3) study the Bible, 4) develop leaders and 5) practice leadership. Just as Moses discovered that he could not do it alone, church leaders must constantly broaden their base of development and ministry sharing.

Finally, stay put. I've said it before, but this is perhaps the single greatest factor in pastoral leadership. The average tenure of a Southern Baptist pastorate is less than four years. Then the church spends six months to a year searching for a pastor. The people develop a resistance to leadership because they see no continuity and feel like they have heard it all before--and often they have because a new pastor has no regard or even knowledge of what his predecessors taught.

The strongest churches in America are those who have enjoyed continuous and strong pastoral leadership. Regardless of denomination or leadership model, the most obvious common denominator is that leaders persisted and stayed long enough to harvest the vision they planted. People trust leaders they believe will be there in the future.