At a workshop I was once asked why so many churches stab their pastors in the back. I responded that I wasn't so sure that we get stabbed in the back as often as we shoot ourselves in the foot. I know there are some very dysfunctional churches that eat up pastors. For many years I have wished denominations would stop helping such churches find pastors until they take the steps they need to become healthy, functioning churches. Too many good people have been sacrificed to the controllers in those churches by denominational leaders unwilling to confront the churches about their dysfunctional behavior. But, I have also seen many pastors get into trouble in their churches because of choices they make that they should have known would get them into trouble. When such pastors talk about their situation to me they act amazed that they got into trouble.
As a pastor, we need to remember that our churches are filled with imperfect people. If they were perfect they probably wouldn't come and listen to such imperfect people as ourselves! Persons within our congregations come from a variety of backgrounds, they have different life experiences, and they are in different places in their spiritual journeys. Those backgrounds, experiences, and different spiritual levels cause each of them to have different expectations of their churches and pastors. Some of those expectations are valid; some border on ridiculous, but each of them seem right to the ones who hold them. It is possible if you are serving a church of 50 people that there are 50 different job descriptions for the position of pastor in the minds of your congregation. Most pastors I know do not get into trouble for violating the written expectations of their church. Their problems come when they violate one of the numerous unwritten expectations. Is it possible to satisfy every one of those expectations? No, and you will be foolish to try, but you should try to discover what those expectations are and begin to address them. And, if you find you have violated someone's expectations respond to their concerns as quickly as possible.
Let me give you an example from my own pastoral experience. One year our Vacation Bible School dates were changed to a different week than normal. It so happened it was rescheduled for a planned vacation my wife and I were taking to visit our son who was in another state that summer between his Sophomore and Junior year of college. Although I did not hold a regular position in VBS it was expected by many in the church that I would be there to greet people and help out as needed. As soon as I saw there was a conflict I contacted the VBS director who said we should go ahead with our planned trip. The Sunday after VBS I was confronted by one of the matriarchs of the church who wanted to know why I had decided to be away during VBS. She was obviously not happy. I explained we had made plans to visit our son and had made all the arrangements before the date of our VBS was changed. I told her I had contacted the director as soon as we saw there was a conflict, and she had encouraged us to visit our son. My explaination satisfied the matriarch, and it was never brought up again. I also made sure to confirm the dates of our VBS in the future before making any plans. If I had made a habit of being away every year it would probably have become an issue.
A pastor I know kept his church leadership upset because he absolutely refused to do certain things in the church. I happened to be with him and some leadership one evening when one of his leaders mentioned that he would have to be absent the next Sunday and asked if the pastor would fulfill a responsibility he had. I won't be more specific than that because I don't want to take a chance of identifying the individual. The pastor refused and did so in a manner I felt was unnecessary. He justified his position to me by saying if he agreed to do it the church would soon be asking him to do so all the time. I didn't see it that way. I felt he was being asked to help out in an unusual situation, and he wasn't willing to do so. It wasn't long before that individual was no longer the pastor of that church.
I am certainly one who believes in taking a strong position when the occasion calls for it, but I also know that in smaller churches everyone has to jump in occasionally and do things he or she might not necessarily want to do. I also believe that it is important to pick our fights. Some aren't worth it and cost us our ability to take a stand on more important issues.
How do we avoid shooting ourselves in the foot? Give some careful consideration as to the unwritten expectations in your church you might violate if you go forward with what you are thinking about doing. If that is a possibility, try to identify who will feel their expectations are being violated and talk with them about what you are thinking about doing before you make a public announcement of your plans. This may seen unnecessary, but it is really nothing more than the Golden Rule. If we always try to treat people in the same manner we would want them to treat us we will seldom go wrong. If you find you have offended someone by an action or decision you have made go immediately to them to discuss it. Believe me, it won't get better in time by ignoring it and hoping it goes away. That was my usual strategy early in my ministry, and it never got better. Even if you don't convince people your action or decision was the right one, most people will appreciate the fact that you came to talk to them about it. Finally, be sure to offer the same understanding towards others when they violate your expectations of them. We can't expect grace from others if we have never extended it towards them. If you are in ministry for any length of time you will be disappointed and hurt by things people say and do. If you can forgive them for the times they disappointed you, they will be more apt to forgive you when you fail to live up to their expectations of you. By practicing these recommendations you will be more likely to enjoy a long and enjoyable ministry in your church.