"Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ" (Eph. 5:21).
I leaned over to my grandson in church the other day and whispered, "I remember when Brother Ken brought the drum set into the church. Some almost died. Now look." On the platform was the usual dozen or so musicians-pianist, keyboard, several guitars, two or three drummers, one violin, a couple of horns, and this time, for a special emphasis, a mandolin and banjo. The music was great.
What I thought was, "What if we had given in to the critics? What if Dr. Ken Gabrielse-now the dean of the Warren Angell School of Fine Arts at Oklahoma Baptist University-and I had feared the criticism and buckled?"
There are times when church leaders need to pay attention to the criticism, and times to ignore it. Knowing "what time it is" is the hard part. For God's children, that's a function of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is the Great Time-Teller.
Note: I am not saying that having more musical instruments in church is necessarily better or godlier than limiting the accompaniment to a piano and organ. But for us at that time, it was a giant step forward. We could have submitted before the fears of the naysayers, but where's the faith in that? By putting the welfare of the greater church ahead of the criticism of the few, we blessed everyone, including those who griped (which is to say, they managed to get past their complaining and to love the full instrumentation).
A young pastor sat in my office recently to bring me "up to speed" about his ministry. He reminded me that "two and a half years ago I sat in this room with you wondering whether I could pastor a church." That congregation had dwindled to 16 by the time Dan took the leadership. These days, he says, they're running 50. "However," he said, "not a single one of the original 16 have remained. They've all left."
That happens. Knowing the background of that church, I assured him that their leaving was not a bad thing. Over the last quarter of a century, I've seen a succession of pastors eventually throw up their hands and leave. The building and grounds are attractive and the neighborhood appears prosperous. Originally, I thought that if the right pastor came, that church would do well. What I had not known, however, was the tight control a few people were exercising on their pastors-a death grip.
Pastor Dan has simply loved the people, he said, and he has stayed by the changes that needed to be made. What changes? They reverted to mission status and put themselves under the authority of a larger healthy church in the area. They changed the name of the church in an attempt to shed the old image and dysfunctional reputation. As these and other changes were brought in, the old-timers quietly slipped away.
"I've tried to honor them," Dan said. "For one, I bought a plaque of appreciation and took to his house. Bought it out of my own pocket." Someone who knew that fellow said, "Pastor, you sure go to a lot of trouble to honor a guy who hates you."
I said, "Don't weep over those who left. It appears they're the ones who kept the church back all those years. Keep your focus on the Lord." Knowing when to pursue a departing church member and when to let them go-that's a toughie. Only the Holy Spirit can show you. Ask Him.
Some years ago a local pastor called to say three of my members had been in his services the day before. "These are your people, Joe," he said. "I don't want to take your members." I said, "My friend, they have been unhappy from the first day I arrived. If they can worship God at your church, I wish them well." To this day, those three are happily serving the Lord in that church. On those rare occasions we bump into each other in town, we greet each other warmly. It's all good.
Sometimes we submit to the person with a gripe and a complaint; at other times we insist that the course we're on is right and we will go forward. If there is a set of rules to know when to do either, I've never heard of it. This is one of many reasons the Lord indwells us with the Spirit. We will be needing guidance in situations that do not fit any rule book. When does a pastor submit to the complaints of some in the congregation? Here are just a few of my observations from experience.
1) When the complainers are among your most faithful members. They have earned the right to be heard. A wise leader will listen to them and take their concerns to heart. 2) When the Spirit within him is making it clear that everything is not as it should be. The wise leader will stop and bring in his best advisors and reconsider what is happening. 3) When he's outvoted. Seriously, if the congregation has shown by an actual vote that the pastor's plan is not acceptable, he needs to recognize that something is amiss. Either he has a bad plan or has sold it poorly or the congregation is rebelling. In any case, if the pastor proceeds, he's going to get mighty lonely. It's time to regroup with his best counselors and godliest leadership and decide where to go next.
Sometimes people rebel because the plan is unacceptable. At other times, they are registering a general unhappiness with either the leadership or the state of affairs within the congregation. A wise leader-a faithful, loving shepherd-is always aware of the mood of the flock. Otherwise, how can he lead them?
Joe McKeever is a retired Southern Baptist pastor from New Orleans, Louisiana. He blogs regularly at www.joemckeever.com.