“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Do you remember this infamous line from the 1967 prison drama-movie, Cool Hand Luke? One thing I’ve learned about most relationship failures is that one party or both failed to communicate clearly. Misunderstandings often stem from communication breakdowns.

A semi-funny, but gross misunderstanding happened one Sunday morning while I was preaching. In the audience sat one of my elders, a friend from my childhood days. Occasionally, he would say “Amen” after I drew illustrations from our boyhood days. On this particular Sunday, I made an off-the-cuff remark, when afterward my friend said out loud, “Amen!” To which I replied, “Shut up, Barnum!” Everyone in the church laughed because they understood our long-term relationship. However, a visitor to the service was not quite as benevolent. Later that day I received a stinging email which read, “I cannot believe you told someone in your church to shut up from the pulpit. It was very unkind and inappropriate of you.” I was definitely misunderstood! Even after I explained our background, the woman refused to offer grace. Misunderstandings are tough to navigate at times.   

In this blog, I want to discuss several ways pastors are misunderstood. I believe it’s time to speak out. I hope my fellow pastors appreciate my boldness and candor. Here goes!

A pastor is the “watchman on the wall.”  Along with preaching-teaching, administrating, counseling, visiting, officiating weddings and funerals, and a host of other responsibilities, pastors are protectors. Occasionally, folks step outside of healthy boundaries inside the church family, and corrective measures have to be taken. While pastors are usually noted to be kind and loving, there comes a time when they have to exercise firm discipline. Church members should never pick up the offenses of others. Trusting the pastor is paramount during times of misunderstanding. Remember, few are privy to the whole story. The pastor is acting on information that those outside need not hear about. At worst, wolves have infiltrated the fold, attempting to scatter the sheep. At the least, someone in the church is gossiping or sowing discord (these come in many shapes and models)! The pastor must be proactive in his resolve to protect the flock. Others must use this time to pray and hold their tongue. Misunderstandings develop when individuals feel the need to override the pastor’s actions.  

Pastors are not always to blame for people leaving the local church. Each man must give an account for himself – his own actions and decisions. As a matter of fact, I’ve been in pastoral ministry for almost 50 years and in retrospect, I honestly conclude that most people who leave churches do so for petty, immature reasons. They look for excuses! And sadly, many leave because they have tried to live with one foot in the world and the other in the church. The apostle James makes it clear that double-minded living brings instability into the lives of people who refuse to commit wholly to the Lord. Usually, individuals who refuse to invest in the body life of the church, through regular attendance and giving, tend to become unfaithful. They have no skin in the game. Fallout is usually the result. 

Most who leave tend to be part of the problem, and seldom offer workable solutions. In my most recent experience as a church planter, I’ve discovered that the church many times gets wrongly blamed when some people leave. I’ve watched as two individuals have a relationship fallout and then blame the church. My friends, individuals need to accept personal responsibility for their actions and place the blame where it really goes – on the guy in the mirror!  

I, of course, am biased, but I truly believe that most pastors are God-fearing, Christ-loving shepherds, who genuinely love their sheep and are doing everything they can to love and nurture those under their care. Sometimes pastors do things that seem out of character for them. Still, trust them. If the pastor is wrong, God is able to redirect a listening heart. Misunderstandings develop when pastors are automatically declared “guilty” during these times. 

Many pastors are set up for failure. The reasons vary, but allow me to give three of the top reasons. First, a lot of churches have adopted a democratic form of government that elevates voting and personal preference above the biblical office of the pastor. In this system, the pastor is typically a hireling, not the recognized spiritual leader. These pastors have total responsibility for the weekly forward movement of the church, but no authority. Talk about a frustrating arrangement! The Bible, Old and New Testaments, supports a one-man leadership model. Too many chiefs bring disastrous results!

Second, the enemy has successfully downplayed the beauty and necessity of respecting those in authority. Sadly, our culture no longer emphasizes respect for our police officers, teachers, presidents, parents, or pastors. This lack of respect constitutes rebellion. God’s people should never disrespect those in authority. The Bible makes it clear that God places authority in our lives to protect and guide us. 

Third, the dissolution of moral absolutes in our nation has impacted many local churches. Pastors who uphold the integrity, infallibility, and moral teachings of Scripture are often met with resistance by those who compromise their moral standards. One of the biggest issues we pastors deal with in today’s world is the cohabitation of unmarried couples. Outcries of legalism or pastoral judgment are given voice when in reality, godly pastors are only following biblical views regarding sanctification, the believer’s call to holy living. God’s righteous standards have not changed! Misunderstandings develop when individuals fail to recognize the pastor’s leadership strengths and weaknesses, when individuals demonstrate a lack of respect, or when people refuse to come under the authority of the Scriptures. 

Pastors are sometimes viewed as inflexible and unloving. I grant you, there are churches getting much press in today’s world whose misdirected evangelistic fervor promotes shame and guilt. Unkind, harsh expressions fill their pulpits, and for this, I apologize. Truth not cloaked in love always repels, and never compels life change. While our message of redemption never changes, pastors and other leaders need to make sure that local church ministry is done by those who have “stood weeping between the porch and the altar” (Joel 2:17). David Wilkerson said many years ago, “Sermons that have not been wept over have no place in our pulpits.” Sin is still sin, but it falls upon pastors today to communicate the truth in love, being reminded that “it is the kindness of God that leads men to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Misunderstandings develop when pastors are mandated by a holy God to remain true to the Scriptures, regardless of differing opinions or ungodly cultural pursuits.

Pastors are supposed to care for the flock of God. This is partially true. However, the Scriptures make it clear that the pastor’s primary responsibility is to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). Body ministry is often discounted in today’s church. “It is the pastor’s job,” is an often-heard expression. While people-loving pastors desire to be present for life issues – hospital stays, funerals, weddings, etc – it’s just not always possible. You’ve heard the idiom, “There’s just not enough of me to go around!” That’s why God sets the different members in each local body. We are called to do life together! Read Numbers 11:16-30 and learn what happened to Moses when he tried to do ministry alone! Those who separate themselves from attending and “doing” in local churches rob others of potential blessings. No one person can meet all the needs of a local church family; however, if everyone does something, the needs can be met. Misunderstanding this important role has literally worn out pastors and short-circuited effective ministry. I experienced pastoral burn-out in my fifth pastorate because people misunderstood their role in body life. Misunderstandings develop when individuals forget that they are members of a body, and members one of another (Romans 12:3-5). 

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