This is the first in the “Christian Problems” series: a recurring set of posts over time that deal with the unique but nagging problems of everyday Christian life. Think of it as an advice column – because I so love advice columns – prompted by questions and incidents I’ve heard or witnessed over the years.
I love my pastor(s). They’re great. The two men and two women who, together, make up the pastoral staff of my particular church are wonderful people who work hard, offer tremendous support to the congregation, and truly seem chosen of God to lead our church. I am grateful for them.
But a lot of people do not love their pastors! In fact they very much profoundly dislike their pastors, which is what Christians say about people when we know we’re not permitted to hate them. In fact, I’d wager that “not liking the pastor” for one reason or another is one of the major motivators of church conflict and often of people leaving churches, or dropping church, altogether.
There are a million reasons to like (or dislike) a pastor. And if you’re sitting in the pew grimacing with every word that comes out of your pastor’s mouth, there’s definitely an issue at hand. Here are some steps to solve it, rather than sitting and seething three pews back from the front, wondering why the pastor isn’t noticing your dagger-like glares:
- Ask yourself is there is actually a problem or an issue that needs solving. I am amazed by some of the reasons people have for disliking a pastor. Some people don’t like their pastor because of their pastor’s hair or weight or speaking style. Some people don’t like their pastor for vague reasons like “just…you know, how he is” or “the way she acts around people.” (What does that mean?) What I’m trying to say here, nicely, is this: is the problem the pastor, or is the problem you? Are you sitting here judging someone on superficial attributes? Are you inventing reasons not to like them? Be honest and dig down to the real crux of why you can’t stand this person. Is there a legitimate cause of conflict or an issue for concern, or is it something as frivolous as “I don’t think their jokes are funny” or “I don’t like bald preachers”? You needn’t always feel as if the pastor at church is your best friend or your favorite human being on the planet. If the problem is you, then you need to start working on your own heart and ask for God’s assistance as you do.
- If there is a legitimate issue or conflict that is worth addressing, have you addressed it? Maybe you have a real reason for disliking your pastor: they didn’t show up to your hospital room before a major surgery, they sinned in speaking falsely to a member of the congregation, they violated the church’s bylaws. Maybe they said something from the pulpit that made no theological sense whatsoever. And ever since then you’ve been brooding in the pew, waiting for them to figure out what they did wrong. Of course you can’t stand your pastor. Nothing’s been rectified or resolved between the two of you. And waiting around for someone to magically see the error of their ways isn’t always going to resolve the problem. If the issue is significant enough that it needs to be addressed, then it is up to you to address it as Scripture (and the mechanism of your church) dictates. Give your pastor an opportunity to remedy the issue, if it’s possible. Find out what your course of action needs to be, and follow it. On the other hand, if the issue is so insignificant that you cringe at the thought of bringing it up in such a way, then maybe drop it and ask God to start working on your heart instead.
- Shut down the gossip, the rumor-mongering, and the anger. Anger breeds anger. Dislike means dislike. What I mean is this: if you can’t stand your pastor, and all you do is talk on the phone or in person to other people about how you can’t stand your pastor, all you’re doing is fanning the flames of your own resentment – and spreading the conflict like wildfire. You’re not giving your heart a chance to approach the situation differently. Even if you fundamentally disagree with something your pastor has said or done, the Bible says that it’s your job to speak prayerfully and in truth, to avoid gossip and slander and stirring dissent. Getting angry and venting to other believers isn’t the best way to handle the situation – and has a habit of making things worse.
- If there is a threat to your well-being, leave the church and, if necessary, contact the relevant authorities. Let me be clear: at no point should any pastor engage in sexually, physically, or verbally abusive behavior. If that occurs, they ought to suffer immediate consequences from the local church and from their denomination’s governing body (and also from outside authorities), and should engage in genuine repentance and long, meaningful rehabilitation. But none of that requires your continued presence or engagement with the church. Feel free to leave the church immediately and do not look back. And if necessary – or if you fear other congregants may be in danger – report abusive behavior to the authorities. A pastor does not have special rights to abuse his or her authority over congregants.
- If there is a threat to your spiritual well-being, leave the church. You’ve worked on your own heart and you’ve attempted to address the situation. But things are still not good. Maybe your pastor is continuing to behave in a way that shows the issue isn’t resolved. Maybe the damage done has been so great that you find it hard to go to church at all. Maybe the theological missteps are so egregious that the sermons no longer represent anything remotely Biblical. If you’ve started avoiding church, abandoning prayer time or suffering spiritually from a struggle with the pastor, look elsewhere.
- Keep in mind the dictate EPAL: Barring a situation that involves any form of abuse, if you can’t stand your pastor the EPAL practice works well and sums up the steps above: Examine (Your Own Heart For What’s Really Going On), Pray (About What To Do), Act (In Accordance With Scripture), and Leave (Only As A Last Resort).
Following these steps will either 1) force you to examine the personal sins, preferences, and problems in your own heart that have resulted in your current attitude toward your pastor, 2) help you identify and address the problem or issue that you do have with your pastor, which can ideally result in healing and growth for all parties, or 3) let you know when the relationship with your pastor is damaging your well-being to the point that you need to attend church elsewhere.
And there you have it: a remedy for those who can’t stand their pastor, and who want to move past it.