Pastoral Traps: Authoritarianism

Not long ago I put together a short list of some of the unique battles that accompany the role of the pastor. I’d like to share them with you over the next few blog entries. While the battles we pastors face are many, I want you to consider five in particular . . . not necessarily in the order of their importance.

The first is the problem of authoritarianism. It’s easy for the pastor to become authoritarian. What does that look like? If the minister needlessly represses the freedom of God’s people, if he becomes inflexible and dictatorial, tyrannical and oppressive, if he bullies people with threats, if he lacks a servant’s heart, if he himself is not teachable, if his arrogance has replaced humility, then he has become an authoritarian. He needs reproof . . . even if he is the pastor.

Stubborn Independence

I’ll never forget a principle I first heard from Francis Schaeffer while attending one of his lectures. There he stood in knickers and a turtleneck sweater, delivering a message to a group of young, idealistic listeners—many of us struggling to find our way. I heard him say this again and again: “The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way.”

If you’re in a hurry, you can make it work your way. It may have a pure motive and all the marks of spirituality, but it won’t be the Lord’s way. Stop and realize that.

Affectionate Leaders

Good leaders have affection for people. Paul writes, “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God . . .” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Is that great, or what? Paul didn’t shrink from sharing his emotions with his flock. That strong man, an apostle of Christ, looking back on the Thessalonians said, in effect, “Oh, what an affection I had for you. How dear you were to me!” Those are affectionate words of intimacy.

To keep this simple and easy to remember, I want to suggest that affection for people can be demonstrated in two ways: small yet frequent acts of kindness and stated and written words of appreciation.

Prayer and Preaching

You have to love Paul’s humility. Here was a man in his sixties who has been preaching for years asking for prayers for a clearer delivery. Read his words carefully:

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:2–4)

There was no pretense with Paul. No degree of success or number of years in the ministry gave him a false sense of ultimate accomplishment. He knew he had not yet arrived. He remained dependent on the Spirit of God. He was convinced his preaching could be improved. And so with a genuinely thankful heart, he entreated his fellow believers for their prayers. Can you see the power of that kind of attitude? Very refreshing in the first century. And very rare in the twenty-first.

No wonder the man made such a lasting impact for Christ.


The Pastor’s Relationships—The Congregation

Your congregation represents people from all walks of life—all ages and stages of maturity. All flawed, yet all drawn together because they love Christ, and they love to be a part of the ministry.

The Pastor’s Relationships—The Congregation
(Photo: By Justin. A. Wilcox, Own work. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

What a unique creation from God!

Some of these people who come to your church need time to heal. Some have experienced what I call “toxic religion.” They have had former pastors who dominated and domineered them, who took advantage of them spiritually, and who told them it was a sin to attend another church. How tragic.

All Fearful, Welcome Here

These wounded people will often stumble into your church afraid.

  • They’re fearful, first of all, that they will be found out by their friends from their old church—most of whom are now shunning them because they left.
  • Second, they’re afraid of not knowing the “right” thing to do in their new church.
  • Third, they may even be afraid of you.

So please, have a heart. Be extremely patient with them. These individuals don’t come in and hit the floor running, ready to serve. Let your church be a place of refuge where they can find sufficient grace to heal. Be faithful to pray for them.

Feeding and Leading

Some of your sheep long to be affirmed, and all of them desire to be nourished.

  • So feed them well. I have discovered that frequent chiding and rebuking of the flock is not helpful. Help them stay balanced.
  • Lead the sheep. In my New England pastorate I drove the sheep. That was a mistake. I learned that a pastor can’t really lead the sheep if he doesn’t love them. So learn from my mistakes.

When you need to do some kind of reproving—and that’s part of our job—do it privately and confidentially.

  • Never embarrass a church member.
  • I suggest you have your difficult meeting off-site, so that not even the staff will know the individual showed up to talk to you alone.

Faithfulness and Tenderness

All will appreciate your faithfulness and your tenderness. They like to know that when you’re touched by something, tears will come. Never apologize for your tears. The older I get, the more tears seem to be on the surface. Jesus wept . . . remember?

Model for them the role of a shepherd. You’re working with sheep; it’s a great analogy. And remember that you’re a sheep too. (It’s easy to forget that.) You’re not even the Chief Shepherd—that’s Jesus. He’s the Head of the church.

Let’s keep Him as Head.

The Pastor’s Relationships—Take Care of Your Staff

As a pastor, you not only look after the needs of your family and your flock, but you also need to care for your staff.

The Pastor’s Relationships—Take Care of Your Staff
Image from Photodune.
  • Do you pray for them?
  • Do you treat them fairly?
  • Do you play favorites?

Only you can answer these questions. When you do annual reviews for your staff, do you take your time with them, look them in the eye, and tell them what they need to hear?

Make a Sandwich

When I do a review, I apply what I call the “sandwich approach.”

  1. I start by genuinely telling them what they’re doing well.
  2. Then I let them know areas where they could improve.
  3. Finally, I conclude by reminding them of their value—both to the ministry and to me personally.

By “sandwiching” the review, they can hear anything in the middle. But they must know that your affirmations up front are authentic and not just a primer for the bad news—or for their getting fired! They must know they are important to you. I’ve communicated some of my strongest words to staff people—some very firm words—maybe even stronger than I’ve said to my kids. But not one of them thought I didn’t love them.

Keep the Pool Clean

Your staff needs your loyalty. Church members will come to you to talk about the staff. Watch it.

  • Be confident and be careful . . . just as you would want your staff to be careful when church members come to talk about you!  Never undercut a staff member because a church member is influential or gives a lot of money. That’s dirty pool.
  • If you have a problem with your staff member, you have a mouth and they have ears. Make the time, and get alone with them. Be willing to listen to their problems with you without being defensive. Again, just like you would want them to respond to you.
  • Do you pay them a fair salary? Do you compensate them the going rate they could make if they worked in the industry in your city? Take a look at that and do what’s fair.

Stay in the Right Corner

Let me mention one more item in relation to staff. Do you check up and make sure they’re taking their day off? I had a staff member one time in a former church who rarely took his day off. I remember driving by the church on a Monday evening and I saw his light on. When I got there Tuesday morning the light was still on! I marched into his office and asked, “When’s the last time you took a day off?”

He seemed proud of his answer, “It’s been about three weeks.”

So I said, “That’s unacceptable. You keep that up, and I’ll let you go.”

You know what? Amazingly, he started taking his day off! There is no value in not taking a day off.

  • My mentor, Howard Hendricks, had one wag tell him, “The devil never takes a holiday, so why should I?” Hendricks didn’t miss a beat and replied: “Oh really, I didn’t know he was your model.” I love it!
  • There’s an old line that goes, “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” What kind of choice is that? Either way you’re out!

As a pastor you know more than most how important it is to have an advocate in your corner. Most likely, you are that sole advocate for those who labor alongside you.

Please, take good care of your staff.

The Pastor’s Relationships—Recognizing Your Staff

My older son has taught me a lesson from his experience as a businessman: Our most important customers are our own team members. I have discovered that is also true in ministry.

The Pastor’s Relationships—Recognizing Your Staff
Image from Photodune.

Many of you serve in churches where at least one other staff member works alongside you. Listen to me: Some of the people easiest to overlook are fellow staff members. I work hard not to do that.

Let me urge you to do the same. Here’s how.

Tell Them Publicly

Some of the most resourceful and insightful people I have known have been my staff people. One year we did a series of concerts at our church in California. Our music minister, Howie Stevenson, his wife, Marilyn, and their team of music makers put it together. People from around the community came to hear folk songs, pop songs, and fun songs. It was a smashing success! Every time we did it I had Howie stand up the following Sunday, and I told the congregation, “That’s the man who came up with this idea. That’s the man who gets the credit.” The place exploded with applause! Why did I do that? Because it was true.

We pastors often get the credit when we need to be passing it on to the one deserving it. We give enormous encouragement to our gifted staff when we publicly acknowledge them—and that affirmation motivates them to use their gifts in even greater ways.

Tell Them Privately

Sometimes we’ll recognize or reward a church member more frequently or lavishly than we do a fellow staff member. A paycheck is not acknowledgment. It takes words of appreciation. Trust me, they mean most when they come from you, the pastor.

In addition to recognizing them in public, do it also in private. Write them notes of encouragement. I mean handwritten notes. E-mail is quick and cheap; there’s little personalized in email . . . not even a signature! Write personal notes. Even if it’s as simple as saying,

Dear Frank,
This morning I felt that your presentation was spot on. Remarkable job!

Tell Them Often

I’m telling you, they’ll never forget it. They may even frame it! Once I was in the home of one of our church members. While walking up the stairs, I saw a simple note of thanks I had written framed on their wall. Framed! My first thought was to check, Did I spell everything right? 

Do you appreciate your staff? Tell them publicly. Tell them privately. Tell them often. Our most important customers are our own team members.

Let’s let them know that.

Powerful Preaching

As one responsible for communicating biblical truth, I want to share four principles especially for you. Pay close attention; read slowly, thoughtfully and carefully as I apply this to your ministry of proclaiming God’s Word.

First, always stay on the subject—Christ. For Paul it was always about Christ. Paul spoke of the “God who made the world and all things in it” to the followers of the “unknown god” of Athens, and everything for Paul pointed to Christ (Acts 17:10–34).

Preaching that which doesn’t exalt Christ is empty preaching. Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers,

Our Calling: What We Fight For

Our calling as pastors includes fighting. I don’t mean we strap on the gloves and go toe-to-toe with our elders and congregational members. I mean, as pastors, we’re called to defend the faith.

Our Calling- 5 Pursuits to Follow After
Image from Photodune.

As time passes, we will see our orthodox faith in Jesus Christ attacked more and more. We will find that the things of God are increasingly viewed with suspicion . . . addressed with cynicism . . . and, eventually, banned completely.

When we entered ministry, whether we knew it or not at the time, we entered a war zone. The pastorate is a battleground, not a playground.

This is why Paul included in his first letter to Timothy these sober commands:

Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12–13)

Our Calling: 5 Pursuits to Follow After

I wrote you the last two weeks that the ministry is not our job. It’s our calling. That calling requires that we flee from certain things. However, along with fleeing from those things, we need to follow after other things.

Our Calling: 5 Pursuits to Follow After
Image from Photodune.

I love the double action stated here. While we are fleeing from certain things, we are at the same time following after other things. The word that appears in my Bible is pursue (1 Timothy 6:11). The tense of the original term indicates that we should keep on pursuing these things.

Paul lists five pursuits for Timothy—and for us.