Friday, April 20, 2012

How does your church treat you?

I pastored a small, rural church as a bivocational minister for twenty years.  The vast majority of that time my family and I were treated with great respect.  There were a few instances when that was not the case, but that came mostly from individuals and not from the congregation. At the same time, I saw pastor friends of mine who were treated very poorly by their congregations.  In my current role as a judicatory minister I've seen some pastors who have simply been abused by their congregations.  They and/or members of their families have been treated in ways that I would not have believed if I had not witnessed it myself.  Why do such abusive churches exist?  No doubt there are a number of reasons, but in this post we will look at just two of them.

Some churches are controlled by bullies.  They may have been the schoolyard bully in grade school, and now they have a bigger arena.  They also have no one who is willing to stand up to them.  They scream and yell and threaten, and everyone backs away until they get their way.  The entire church walks around them on pins and needles fearful that anything they say or do might set them off again.  Until someone within the congregation stands up to them they will continue to hold the church hostage and abuse every pastor who attempts to serve them.

I've seen two churches that finally stood up to the bullies in their congregation.  Both churches called me to attend a leadership meeting to address some events that were happening in the church.  In one church two families were primarily responsible for running off new people who joined their church, and in the other church a bully was trying to run off the pastor.  In both cases, the bullies were acting entirely inappropriately.  As I met with each church's leadership I explained that since they were the leaders in the church they were responsible for addressing this problem.  One leadership group told me there really wasn't anything they could do, so I told them if they weren't going to deal with it to learn to live with it because it would not go away on its own.  A few weeks they did talk with the people who were creating the problems, and these individuals left the church.  In the other church the leadership met with the individual soon after I met with them and explained they could no longer accept his behavior.  He also chose to leave that congregation.  Unfortunately, I've seen other churches that did not address the inappropriate behavior, and these churches are in various stages of decline and unlikely to turn that around until someone challenges the bullies in the congregation.

A second reason some pastors are treated so poorly is that we teach them it is OK to treat us in that manner.  Dr. Phil has a great line in one of his books that says that we teach people how to treat us.  I think he is exactly right.  When we as pastors refuse to demand that we and our families be treated with respect we should not expect to be respected.  When we refuse to advocate for fair salary and benefit packages and time off to spend with our families we should not be surprised when we are not given pay raises or time away from the church.  Some pastors are so eager to please people in their congregations they will not stand up for themselves or their families.  If a pastor presents himself or herself as a doormat then he or she should not be surprised if people treat them that way.

Of course, it may not be us that is doing the teaching.  Pastors who have served your church previously may have taught the congregation it was OK to show disrespect to the pastor or even abuse him or her.  In that case, you have a responsibility to change the culture in that church, but it won't be easy.

In order to demand respect you must be a person who deserves respect.  As you model integrity in all you do and say, exercise sound wisdom and judgment in your decisions, and demonstrate humility in both your successes and failures you will earn the respect and trust of your congregation.    You also have to be a person who respects others if you want them to respect you.  The easiest way to demonstrate respect is to live by the Golden Rule.  If you treat people as you want to be treated, you will often find they treat you the same way.  This may not work with the bullies, but it will work with the majority of the congregation.

If I found myself in an abusive church I would not stay there.  If I could not begin to turn around the negative attitudes that permitted a church to abuse their pastor in a reasonable amount of time I would leave.  Life is too short to subject yourself and your family to that kind of abuse.  Shake the dust off your shoes and move on.  At the same time, if I am in a church that treats its pastor with respect I would want to put down deep roots and stay there for an extended period of time.  This is a church in which you can enjoy a good ministry.  As the same time, I would make sure I continued to earn the respect the congregation was giving me by doing the things mentioned in the paragraph above.  I pray you are in such a church.

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