In my letters to Christians about their spiritual stagnation, the problem has rarely involved me personally. In your case, I happen to know that I am a real source of the trouble. Not purposely, of course: my calling as a pastor is to promote spiritual growth, not thwart it. Nevertheless, the great obstacle in your Christian life involves your perception of me. Specifically, it is your suspicion of my perception of you. You have come to believe, for certain reasons, that I do not like you, or are irritated, annoyed, or disappointed by you.
Now before I tackle the truth or falsity of this perception, let me tell you why it matters. It would be all too easy, and quite flattering to our pride, to tell ourselves that our relationship with our pastors doesn’t trouble us. It would be give our egos a bit of chest-beating pleasure to say, “he’s flattering himself if he thinks I care about his opinion of me.” In reality, we do care about how people perceive us, and we should care. Scripture calls on us to be blameless, and to give no offence to our neighbours, which implies the perceptions and approval of others. And we should want the approval of our leaders.
Like anything, caring about people’s view of us can quickly be inflated into an idol. When we elevate the importance of this into something all-consuming, we have fallen into the trap of man-pleasing. We have made an idol of self, and we spend all our time making sure others adore us as much as we do. Fretting, flattering, gossiping, scheming, competing, envying all spring up from this polluted spring.
The opposite ditch also appears: scorning the approval of others, sneering at courtesy, and intentionally displaying our immunity to the opinion of others with a contrarian approach to all things. This is also making an idol of self: the invulnerable, hyper-independent, autonomous self that looks with disgust on the “weakness” of seeking other’s approval.
Between the poles of these two idolatries is a temperate, healthy zone of seeking blameless lives with stable relationships. Blameless lives means our public conduct presents nothing offensive to a reasonable Christian conscience. Stable relationships means dwelling peacefully with others within an atmosphere of assumed approval. This is how pastors and church members should relate.
Let me unpack that. Blamelessness means we do care what others think of us, but the standard is God’s Word, not fickle opinion or immature judgement. We want a well-informed Christian conscience to approve of us. Further, whether it is marriage, parenting, friendship, or church fellowship, the relationship should be peaceful: without ongoing conflict, complaints, arguments, demands, murmuring or dissension. The relationship should exist with the assumption that we approve of each other, that we are pleased with one another’s company, and that, unless stated, nothing exists to bar or prevent our fellowship.
Of course, things do present themselves that bar fellowship. When that happens, the Bible gives very clear guidance for how Christians should deal with conflict, sin in the other person, annoyances, misunderstandings, or grievances. Once that has been done, the fellowship returns and continues in a state of assumed approval.
This goes wrong in two ways. The first is when Christians do not follow the Bible’s methods for dealing with interrupted fellowship and allow a problem to fester. The second is when, even after a biblical confrontation, Christians introduce their own suspicions that the other dislikes them. Since these suspicions occur in their own minds, no one can change them. Husbands and wives convince themselves that their spouse is displeased with them. Children exist with the belief their parents disapprove of them, and parents live with beliefs that their children despise them. Church members live with a sense that their pastor disapproves of their attendance, their involvement, or their spiritual growth. And believe it or not, pastors exist with a sense that the congregation dislikes their preaching, their leadership, their personalities, and so on.
This kind of ungrounded, background shame probably goes back to Eden, with our first parents hiding in the trees. We default to it so quickly that it will probably be a lifelong tendency for most of us.
Is this all suspicion of disapproval imaginary? No, in a fallen world we do disapprove of each other for unbiblical reasons. Instead of either confessing our own unbiblical expectations or bringing our annoyances into the light of a biblical communication, we deepen the problem with a host of emotional tricks: moody silence, withdrawal, withheld affection, ignoring the other, timed delays in responding, over-friendliness to others, and so on.
If this is the environment we grow up in (and it is), we assume the same games are being played in church (and sadly, they often are). But here, Vanessa, I can only assure you that no such secret or hidden dislike of you festers in my heart. I could not shepherd effectively, or preach authentically, or pray helpfully, if I nursed a thousand little hatreds against my church members. I have seen that in church, and included it in my How Not To Pastor A Church mental guidebook.
Now do church members sometimes annoy me? Of course! Do they do things that could drive me crazy if I focused on them? All the time! Are there Sundays when I wonder why the gift of neck-wringing was not included in Scripture? Perhaps!
So what do I do with these faults in others? First, if the problem with a member is serious enough, I will address it, one-on-one. If it is public sin, marring your testimony, or seriously affecting your walk with God, I will approach or offer help or counsel. And I will not address from the pulpit what is intended for just one person: that’s just cowardice.
Second, if it is not urgent, but is a problem that is common to many Christians, I will address it from the pulpit, because it will, Lord-willing, bring growth to several at once.
Third, if it is not urgent or important enough to deal with either in person or from the pulpit, I leave it to God in prayer. I hope that friendship, casual counsel, example, and the sanctifying work of the Spirit will slowly bring change. And if that change does not come, I am commanded to exercise forbearance, meekness, patience, and kindness with immaturity, because God has done so with me.
Importantly, I do not take the sins and foibles of church members personally. Yes, they are members of my church, but it is really Christ’s church. I am the pastor, but Christ is really the Pastor. So I learn all at once to take responsibility for Christ’s church, without taking personal umbrage. I have to learn to feel saddened at disobedience, but not slighted; grieved but not resentful; disappointed but not insulted. If I did not feel the annoyance, the sadness, or the grief, I would not have a shepherd’s heart. But if I took all these things personally, I’d begin edging toward a Diotrephes heart. To lose the shepherd’s heart is to become a cynic and a professional (or a permissive hireling), to become the other is to become a bitter overlord of God’s people, driving them with the lash instead of leading them in love.
In other words, Vanessa, if I have not approached you to intervene about something in your life, and if you are taking the sermons to heart, you should assume my approval. That doesn’t mean I think you are flawless, or that I am not able to see your particular immaturities. If I am a God-called leader, I should see more about your spiritual condition than you do and I should see further as to the consequences of your condition. But I am able to do that without disapproving of you.
Augustine helps us here: “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Please God, and then please yourself in Him, and you will never displease me. If you are devoted to pleasing God, and following your conscience, any conscientious pastor should and will be happy with you. Or to quote Tozer, God is easy to please and hard to satisfy. I wish to be the same with my church members – easily delighted in the smallest of obediences, but difficult to satisfy as we corporately press toward the mark of God’s high calling in Christ.
I pray this lifts your burden, as we grow together in Christ.
Your shepherd and friend,