(Twenty-third in a series.)
Arriving in Bloomington January of 1992, awaiting me that first week was a letter sent anonymously telling me I shouldn’t be so proud and claim authority for myself just because I was a pastor. Truly godly men were only servants of their people. They were not men who thought highly of themselves, as I did. I weren’t nothing, and so on.
Pastors regularly decide whether or not to read things sent anonymously. On the one hand, we would prefer not to, since anonymous communications are almost always personal criticisms, and often nasty. We’ve all learned from the metastasizing of social media that anonymity tends not to bring out the best in people’s character and communication.
On the other hand, we know ourselves. Specifically, we know few men are more tempted and in bondage to their pride than we who speak for God. It’s a high and mighty duty we have, each week to preach the Word of God to the sheep bought by Christ with His Own precious blood, knowing our Lord loves these sheep and through their vote has called us to serve them as His undershepherd.
Who wants to be speaker of the house when he can be speaker of the church, instead? Seminary professors have their baubles of publications, royalties, student acolytes, tenure, and hobnobbing with colleagues at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, but pastors care for flocks of rams, ewes, and lambs who love them dearly and confess their sins to them. It is our highest privilege.
It’s a good assumption that readers understand the temptations pastors face to refuse to read any criticism, let alone anonymous criticism. Many have given into this temptation and declare it to be one of their high principles.
Some of them are those I refer to as “hairspray pastors” because they always present perfectly, from head to mouth to toes. These are proud pastors who never shepherd their flock. They’re just chaplains who have a knack for officiating good memorial services, weddings, and baptisms, to the end that the older women of the church can pride themselves in being under such a handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken man in possession of such a posh accent.
A proud man myself who, surprisingly, still retains some modicum of self-awareness, I’ve made it a habit of reading my anonymous letters, painful though it’s always been. The receipt of them has receded through the years. Not because I deserve them less, I suspect, but because it’s likely certain people have concluded it’s too late. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so they wait me out impatiently.
A few years ago, I had a brother ask me to lunch and, after small talk and several good laughs, he suggested I resign the pulpit of Trinity Reformed Church earlier than had been announced. He was quite sincere in his suggestion. He had a number of reasons.
Smiling, I responded, “(John), I’m very sorry. I feel bad for you. I know you can’t stand listening to me preach. Sometimes I don’t blame you because I can’t stand listening to me preach, myself. I know it will be a great relief for you when Jody takes over, but you’ll have to put up with me a little while longer. But don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon.”
Believe it or not, this man loves me and I love him. But as he once said, “Tim Bayly, I love you, but I don’t like you.” That was years ago, and since then we’ve had some serious tensions, but we’re ending our years with love prevailing.
Do you find this surprising?
You shouldn’t. This is normal in the relationships of brothers and sisters in Christ. Otherwise, why all the exhortations to love and forgive one another across the New Testament? Why this command and statement by the Apostle Peter:
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. (1Peter 4:8)
Back to the anonymous letter awaiting me when I arrived in Bloomington: the thing readers maybe haven’t realized is that this man didn’t know me at all. He wasn’t responding to my leadership or preaching or pastoral care because I had only just arrived in Bloomington. I’d only preached a couple times at the request of the pulpit committee.
The letter was at least two pages of criticisms and warnings, so it was a thorough going-over he gave me. Yet as I read and reread it, I was somewhat relieved to see the man didn’t know me. A number of his condemnations were commonly true, but not in the particular (if I may put it obliquely).
In a month or two, I was speaking to one of the godly men of the congregation and I mentioned the letter. It was a congregation of 6-700, so it didn’t occur to me this brother would know the man who’d written it. After mentioning a few things the writer had said, though, the member said, “That would have been from my Dad.” In the end, I was his dad’s pastor for decades, and over the course of those years, I came to understand why I’d received that letter when I arrived in town. It wasn’t the last letter I received from his dad, although future ones I had the privilege of receiving from him were signed.
Why speak of such letters as my privilege?
Have you ever gotten a ticket the one time you actually weren’t speeding? Oh my, was I upset. What on earth! I’m actually going the speed limit and he gives me a ticket! Why am I being persecuted?? Is it my hair? My skin color? Did that dude just religously profile me? You know the high holy wrath you fall into when you’re accused of something you didn’t do, right?
But then you have a tiny dose of self-awareness fall from Heaven on your black cloud and it comes to mind how many times you have been speeding and didn’t get a ticket.
So it is with the criticism of pastors. It was good for me to read that anonymous splenetic diatribe against me because some of it was, in fact, true. Even though he didn’t know me at all. In fact, much of the rest of his letter served as helpful warnings to me.
So, by God’s grace, I took the letter as anonymous from a man while a gift from God. He meant it for me for evil, but God meant it for good. The good of my own soul, but more the good of the people I would be leading—including my own wife and children. Some pastors may not need a hatpin regularly poking them to let all their hot air escape, but most of us do.
Still, keep this truth in mind: pastors don’t get fewer, but more criticisms than the other officers (not to mention members) of the church.
After forty years of pastoral ministry, I’d say the most helpful thing for many churches would be if the elders’ wives received anonymous letters like the one I received. Also their husbands. Also the deacons’ wives and their husbands. Seriously.
For many years I’ve been an understanding ear for pastors under the oppression of the high superiority of nitpicking elders’ wives issuing complaints and demands (often through their husbands) concerning clothing, time schedules, room usage, sanctuary decor, sanctuary decorum, worship music, worship music instrumentation, worship music instrumentation volume (unless it’s a pipe organ), nursery toy sanitization, the absence of the pastor’s wife from this or that or the other thing, those newcomers who just waltzed on in and took over the place she and her husband have been sitting for the past ten years, the pastor’s pulpit warnings about the spiritual dangers of public schooling, his warnings about the spiritual dangers of Christian schooling, his warnings about the spiritual dangers of homeschooling, and how irreverent it is to have coffee in the foyer. Her eminence declares the church has no responsibility to give the pastor a raise just because he and his wife are breeding like rabbits. She gushes to the pastor about the conference she just attended or the online sermon she just watched, and how stupendously John Piper or Voddie Baucham or Al Mohler or Andy Stanley or Kevin DeYoung was. (She may not explicitly say she wishes he was her pastor, but you get her point.)
Concerning her criticism, though, there’s a principle to keep in mind. It’s usually the most helpful man who is criticized. The elder’s wife may want her husband to share the title of “pastor,” but that title ought to be reserved for the man she’s always expressing her disapproval of because it’s likely a sign he’s the man most helpful to the entire flock.
Sooner or later, pastors learn some ewes and rams are made to head-butt their shepherds. From behind. They can’t help it. It’s their character, and we must not take it personally. As my dear wife often puts it to me, “It’s not about you.”
It’s about them. It’s who they are, so we need to live with them in an understanding way—as the weaker sheep. So our prayers will not be hindered.
Off the top of my head, and so you, dear pastor, don’t feel alone, here are a few things I’ve gone through.
Back in late eighties, I received an anonymous letter postmarked in Arizona telling me I should stop trying to be my father. That I wasn’t like my father at all, but rather my mother, and so on. Figured out it was from an Evangelical leader in Wheaton whom I’d never known personally. Accidentally learned he’d been traveling in Arizona that day, and in this particular case since I was living in Wisconsin, I responded to him by letter (rather than asking to meet with him personally). Dad had died a few years earlier and what he wrote was quite hurtful, actually, but I did not respond in kind. It’s the only time I’ve responded to an anonymous letter.
An elder in my town church sat in the second row right under the pulpit and set his watch to start beeping at noon, one hour after the beginning of our worship service. Month after month, for many months. Maybe more than a year. It was distracting to the congregation. It was disconcerting to me—that was the point. For years this same elder (inactive) put one nickel in his numbered giving envelope, licked and sealed it, and placed it in the offering plate. Since it had to be opened and counted and registered by those counting the offering each week, it was tiresome, so one day I asked him his point? He said, “It’s because I’ll only give you a nickel for your thoughts.” (I’ve always wondered if he knew it’s not a nickel, but “a penny for your thoughts.”) He continued doing so.
Another inactive elder sent me an anonymous letter damning me for this or that, ending with talk of blood and his threat to kill me. A year or two later, he stood up in a congregational meeting and read a number of verses from Jeremiah condemning the false shepherds of Israel. When finished, he pointed at me and declared to the congregation that I was those false shepherds.
Another active elder set up an appointment at which he told me my wife was too involved in the life of the church, and I should keep her at home. He was often the spokesman for his bossy wife, so I took it in stride. My wife cared for the young mothers and children of the church, whereas his wife did so not at all.
After some years in the pastorate, I wrote on the tab of a folder, “God’s File.” Two things went in there: signed and anonymous cards, scraps of paper, and letters of criticism and condemnation; and letters responding to those criticisms which I wrote, sealed in addressed (and sometimes stamped) envelopes, and filed there.
It’s good never to respond to criticism by email or letter if you can do so in person (or, if they live at a distance from you, by a phone call). It’s also important never to respond without waiting at least a couple days to cool off and get your wife or your trusted elder’s advice. Let me reiterate this: never but never send a text, email, or letter responding to criticism or dealing with conflict without waiting at least two days, during which you run by your wife or trusted elder or outside wise friend what you have written or intend to say, asking them to give you their counsel and editing advice.
Let me add: after you have finished spending hours writing out the perfect response, always keep as a live option filing that response in a file folder on your computer or drawer labelled, “God’s file.” You’ll be happy to find that file decades later (as I just found mine two days ago while going through a box of old files). And maybe when you do find it decades later, you too will decide not to open the envelopes and read what you wrote back in the eighties.
We all fall in many ways, and pastors must learn to let people despise them without getting demoralized. We must give it to God and learn to live without the bitterness that corrupts many. Yes, it’s painful. Sometimes extremely so, particularly for our wife and children. But which of our heroes in Scripture and church history did not suffer opposition and hatred as a consequence of their pastoral work caring for God’s sheep?
Need I list them? Noah, Elijah, Jeremiah, the Apostles, and Jesus. Athanasius, Augustine, and Peter Waldo. John Wycliffe, John Hus, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, and John the Baptist.
Beyond those sheep given to open hostilities, there will also be sheep who are what some call “cold fish.” Opposed to fellowship’s intimacy, they are indifferent to any expression of personal care and will show up for Lord’s day worship at the last minute, leaving as the benediction is given. Pastoral visits will be received politely, but not an ounce of the warm milk of human compassion will ever be seen or experienced by their shepherd or any other member of the church.
This is normal in every congregation, and despite the hurt of rejection felt by members and officers who make an effort to reach out to them, loving them remains our privilege. Further, who knows when or how the Holy Spirit may work in them, turning them back to the flock and its shepherd?
Before concluding, one more example. A dear friend in ministry was the senior pastor of a substantial Presbyterian church and had been serving there for a number of years. He and his wife had suffered fertility problems for a long time, but finally had the joy of God’s gift of a child growing in her womb. At the end of her second trimester, though, their doctor told them their little one had a congenital heart defect which would be fatal in the first hours or days of life.
They grieved privately for some time, but as the date of delivery approached, they shared their grief with their congregation, asking for prayer and understanding. Precisely then, the formerly silent opposition broke out into open hostilities, and a number of members attacked this pastor. They did so after the announcement of the child’s impending death, and continued throughout those days awaiting the birth, then in the aftermath of the child’s death.
Is anyone surprised that this dear brother resigned his call at that church, in due time? Also, that he spent the second half of his ministry serving congregations as their interim pastor?
Sure, there are bad men in leadership. If you want to know about them, read the women who specialize in online gossip.
This brother, though, was a good and faithful pastor.
Dear sheep. Dear deacon and elders’ wives. Dear deacons and elders. Love your shepherd. He loves you, doesn’t he?
Two things that Great-Sufferer-at-the-Hands-of-His-Sheep, the Apostle Paul, wrote have always been at the front of my mind when I see the ingratitude and grudging financial support many pastors suffer at the hands of their churches. Both are found in Galatians:
So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth? (Galatians 4:16)
The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him. (Galatians 6:6)
Yes, as Dad said repeatedly through the years, “criticism is the manure in which Christians grow best.”
Yes, we who shepherd God’s flock must embrace criticism without allowing it to destroy us and this holy work to which God has called us.
But it’s also true God warns His people:
Do not touch My anointed ones, And do My prophets no harm. (Psalm 105:15)
(Twenty-third in a series.)
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