June 15, 2009
by Pastor Chuck Swindoll
Question: The pastor at my church is making policy changes at the church that I don’t think he can support biblically. I thought the church leaders would stop him, but they are going right along with his plan. A few families have left the church, and I worry that this might lead to a church split. What can I do?
Answer: We receive many letters from Christians who are concerned about their pastor. Essentially, they want to know whether or not they should confront him and, if so, how to confront him in a respectful and effective way.
I’ve never met anyone who enjoys confrontation. Usually, we avoid it at all costs because it is so difficult to do and can be very draining emotionally—particularly when it involves a pastor. However, if done well, revealing a blind spot in a person’s life can actually save them from great trouble. If we truly care about someone, we’ll warn them when they have veered off the way and are heading toward disaster. The Proverbs say, “Rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 10:8b). The wise pastor appreciates people who are willing to tell him the truth.
However, we must tell the truth . . . in love. Confronting is not the same as criticizing. If the pastor does not feel that you truly have his best interests at heart, he will naturally become defensive. Be careful of using the truth like a battering ram to force the pastor to change. You don’t want the confrontation to turn into a power struggle. When that happens, the real issues get lost, and the conversation feels more like a tug of war with both sides more interested in defending their territory than working together toward the common goal of building the kingdom of God.
Let me offer a few other suggestions.
First, pray before you make any decisions. Pray for the leadership of your church. For a spirit of unity. For wisdom. Pray that your motives will be pure. As you pray, seek the guidance of Scripture. God often reveals attitudes of pride or resentment through His Word. Your goal is to be a clean vessel for the Lord to use in your pastor’s life.
Second, if sin is involved, follow Jesus’s plan for confrontation. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus revealed a four-step strategy for correcting people: (1) talk to them privately, (2) if they don’t listen, talk to them again with the help of an objective negotiator, (3) if they don’t listen again, bring the matter before the elders, and (4) if they still don’t listen, clearly mark the boundaries of right and wrong, outline the consequences of behaving wrongly, and enforce those consequences even if it means removing them from fellowship. If your pastor is in sin and refuses to repent, his denominational superiors need to know about it so they can investigate and enact consequences.
Third, use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Confrontation dissolves into accusation when we make vague statements like, “You’re teaching heresy.” Instead be specific about your concerns, avoid sweeping judgments, and talk from your personal point of view. You may say something like, “I heard you teach such-and-such. I understand the Bible differently on this point, and I wonder whether or not people in the church are getting confused. I think we need to resolve some of these issues so that we can be unified as a church and more effectively accomplish our task of building the kingdom of God.”
Fourth, if you’re asking the pastor to change, be willing to change yourself. Healthy confrontation can be a learning experience for you and the pastor. Be humble as you speak with your pastor, and be open to changes that you might need to consider. He will be more willing to adjust his way of thinking if he perceives a teachable spirit in you.
Fifth, sometimes separation is necessary. Sometimes disagreements can’t be resolved. It’s not a matter of right and wrong but simply differences of opinion, and you have to agree to disagree while staying friends. Leaving a church is always painful for your family, the church, and the pastor. There’s no easy way to leave. But if you must go, make sure to leave gracefully, affirming the good things about the church and encouraging those who are staying. Leave with a clear conscience that you have done everything in your power to find a resolution. Months later, you will probably wonder, “If only I had. . . .” Put in the extra effort now to resolve the personal conflict so that you don’t leave angry at a person. A resource on handling disagreements is Chuck’s sermon, “Graciously Disagreeing and Pressing On,” from The Grace Awakening series.
Let these verses give you guidance in matters like this:
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,
"Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from deceitful speech.
He must turn from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it." (1 Peter 3:8-11 NIV)
Seek peace and pursue it. That’s a good slogan to live by.