Why Is It Always the Pastor’s Fault?
Dr. Kevin ShrumWhen it comes to church health and life, why is it always the pastor’s fault when things don’t go well at church? Pastors are constantly told that the church rises no higher than its leadership. This is partly true – bad leadership, bad church; good leadership, good church. But it can also be true – good leadership, rebellious church. Why is there no category for bad church vs. good church? Why is the pastor always to blame and not the congregation as a whole? The pastor is also told that they receive a disproportionate amount of credit, so they should expect to receive their fair share of criticism. But we all know that leadership and church life are more complicated than this. Here are some reasons I have observed as to why some in the church believe the pastor is always at fault…
…because sometimes it is their fault. Let’s be honest. Some pastors are to blame for the life and health of the church they pastor. Bad attitudes, laziness, pettiness, and other attitudes and behaviors contribute to the ineffective leadership that causes the church to spiral out of control. So, the pastor is sometimes to blame.
…because we’re easy, public targets. But there are other reasons for the sometimes sorry life of the church that cannot be laid at the feet of the pastor. For example, the pastor is an easy target for the disgruntled and unsatisfied. Who else is there to blame than the one who represents the face of the church? You guessed it - the pastor. It’s hard to blame an impersonal building, a statistical budget or a systematic program. It’s even difficult to blame a group, i.e. deacons, elders, etc. It’s much easier to blame a person, one person, usually the pastor.
…because it’s easy to project on to the pastor one’s own failings. Sometimes the pastor gets the blame because he becomes the screen upon which church members project their own ecclesiastical disappointments and personal failures. It’s often easier to blame others – especially the pastor – than it is to deal with ones’ own sin and/or disobedience.
…because truth comforts and confronts – and people like only half this truth. A pastor who preaches God’s Word will find himself in hot water from time to time because truth not only comforts, it also convicts and confronts. It is perfectly natural to resist this kind of Word-produced, Spirit-induced, conscience-driven conviction. The accusation that the ‘Pastor is getting rather personal’ in his sermons or that ‘he should mind his own business’ becomes the impetus to strike out against the one who delivers the truth instead of allowing the truth to lead us to repentance and continued spiritual growth – shoot the messenger rather than receive the message.
…because there are personality issues involved. The church is made up of all kinds of people with differing personalities. This makes church interesting. It can also produce friction, especially if we expect everyone to be ‘just like me.’ Personality differences should remind us that our unity is found in the person of Christ, not in flattening out all of the personality issues that exist within the church. The pastor may have a different personality than I do, but this should not be a reason to criticize. A personality difference does not constitute a personality defect. God often uses interesting, sometimes quirky, all-the-time willing people to do His will.
…because there are style issues. In addition to personality issues there are also style issues. People do common things in different ways. This is especially true in the church and it is especially true in pastoral leadership. Style differences ought not to produce conflict or criticism.
…because spiritual warfare exists. A serious explanation for the conflict that often exists between the pastor and the church membership can be credited to spiritual warfare. Individuals are accountable for their own actions and attitudes. But we cannot be naïve. Satan and every demon in hell do not want to see the pastor and the people cooperate together for the cause of the gospel and the kingdom of God. The more Satan and his demons can tempt God’s people to turn on each other the more the work of the kingdom of God is inhibited. When conflict comes between the pastor and his flock, most of the time, it can be traced directly to Satanic/demonic temptations.
…because of an unwillingness to submit to biblically authentic leadership/authority. Authority is the new four-letter-word. Yet, the pastor is biblically commissioned to lead the church with biblically prescribed authority. This authority must not be personality-driven or solely positionally secured. Instead, the pastor has authority only in so far as he operates within the parameters of God’s Word and God’s truth. His authority is Word-driven, humbly expressed in proclamation and service to the people he shepherds. However, even with this kind of affirmation of pastoral authority, we live in a world where the autonomous self has reached its zenith and where submission to authority or to be held accountable is unthinkable. When the pastor exercises Word-driven pastoral authority some bristle with contempt. When push comes to shove, the pastor is often blamed for the conflict. Hence the pastor is to blame, but never a stiff-necked people.
…because churches don’t become like they are overnight and they don’t become how they ought to be overnight. When a church calls a new pastor the expectations are high. When things don’t go as expected the pastor is blamed. The pastor did not deliver what was expected. Conflict arises and the pastor is to blame. Again, sometimes pastors are to blame – we can act too quickly and impulsively. However, many times there is a failure to recognize that churches have personalities just like people. These ecclesiastical personalities are not developed overnight and they do not change overnight. To blame the pastor for failure to change the personality of a church overnight, a personality that took years to develop is shortsighted.
…because it makes good cover for disobedience. God’s people can be fabulously faithful. God’s people can also be unbelievably disobedient – ditto for pastors. Like the relationship between Israel and Moses, sometimes God’s people want to kill their leaders to cover their own lack of obedience, sometimes leaders want to dispose of their followers, and sometimes God judges both. Sometimes people use their disobedience as a cloak to criticize the leadership of the church for their lack of commitment.
…because of accumulated bitterness and blame. Finally, sometimes the pastor becomes the target for undeserved and unsolicited blame because of the accumulated sins of God’s people. While it is true that a pastor can make bone-headed decisions, it is equally true that conflicts, bitterness, envy, hatred, jealousy, and sinful attitudes can accumulate over the years that then get poured out on the unsuspecting pastor. Fair or not, the pastor can become the place where people purge the poison of their souls.
In one of my pastorates one particular gentleman in the church was getting the better of me. If I said it was up, he said it was down. If I said it was blue, he said it was yellow. As I read the text for and then preached my message he would sit in the back of the church and nod his head from side to side in negative disapproval. He spread rumors about me, my wife and family. He was disruptive in the church. I was to blame for everything. And I didn’t even know what I had done.
Then one day I received a great piece of advice from a godly deacon. As I sat under a large Oak tree in his front yard I poured my heart out to him about what this man was doing to me, my family, and the church. He listened attentively. When I finished he said to me, ‘Son, that boy was like that before you got here, he’ll be like that while you’re here, and he’ll be like that after you’re gone. Don’t worry about it.’ In other words, I wasn’t to blame. He went on to tell me to claim whatever mistakes I would make as a pastor, but not to take the blame for all things. In that moment God lifted a heavy burden from my shoulders. While I can be part of the problem as a pastor, I can also be an even greater part of the solution. There’s enough blame to go around.