Following months of false rumors and verbal attacks, the deacons and their pastor had arranged to meet with the man whose actions and words were deeply dividing their church. The ensuing discussion was frustrating to everyone involved. After several attempts to uncover and address the man’s core complaints, the pastor finally asked, “What would it take for us to satisfy your concerns and to put an end to this conflict?” Moving within inches of the pastors’ face, the man harshly replied, “I won’t be satisfied until you’re gone!”
Bullies, antagonists, and predators aggressively pursue their own self‑interests in the church, influencing others through various forms of misinformation, manipulation, or intimidation. Left unchecked, an active predator will entangle members and pastors in a never‑ending series of conflicts, leaving behind a trail of wounded souls and a damaged church.
Predators represent an ancient threat to the body of Christ. Speaking to church leaders in the first century, the apostle Paul warned, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert. . .” (Acts 20:29-30). How can deacons stay “on the alert,” protecting the church from predators?
Build Strong Fences
Make it tough for potential predators to establish a base of operation within the church. Just as strong fences can hinder or prevent wolves from gaining access to a defenseless herd or flock, wise preventive measures discourage church predators. The more effort you devote now towards constructing “fences” in your church, the less energy you will spend warding off predators in the future. What are those “fences”?
Loving Relationships. When deacons allow the Holy Spirit to produce Christ’s love in them, they will prioritize relationships whenever conflicts threaten the fellowship (Galatians 5:22-23). Although predators thrive in “loveless” churches, they find it difficult to work with people who have learned that loving one another through a disagreement is more important than winning a debate.
Local Mission. Predators maneuver easily in self-absorbed congregations (James 4:1-2). But what is the local, God-given mission of your church? In Jeremiah 29:7, the prophet told God’s people in exile to “pursue the well-being of the city. . . for when it thrives, you will thrive.” Deacons who encourage church members to selflessly “exit the building” in order to bless the people in their local community are helping to build a strong fence against predators.
Individual Ministry. God has given your church all of the people it needs to accomplish its mission (1 Corinthians 12:18). Pastors are called to equip the members to fulfill their call to ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Consequently, deacons should be encouraging every member to become a minister! Predators are drawn to churches where pastors and a handful of members do most of the work. Hungry for control and power, predators will seek out important positions for themselves, or challenge anyone that gets in their way!
Spiritual Maturity. The heart of the Great Commission is to make disciples. A disciple is more than a church attender. A disciple is someone who is being transformed into the likeness of Jesus by following Him in a daily, intimate relationship (Colossians 1:28; Galatians 4:19). Spiritual maturity is seeking to please the Lord in every area of life, especially in relationships with others. In a church where deacons are encouraging people to love and follow Jesus, predators struggle to mask their selfish motives and immature behaviors.
Guiding Documents. If your church has a set of bylaws and policies, observe them carefully, being sure that they adequately and accurately reflect the way your church conducts its business. Predators love to use obsolete or ignored documents to create confusion and to get their way during a church conflict. Updated documents will clarify how decisions are made and who has the right to make them.
Leadership Training. Although most pastors spend years in formal ministry studies, deacons often receive little or no preparation for their work. Contact your pastor, associational missionary, or one of your state convention employees for information concerning training opportunities designed to equip you to handle conflict in the church. Consider starting a study group with other deacons, reading scriptures and discussing books to help you grow as spiritual leaders. When a predator begins to disrupt the church, you will be prepared to respond with biblical truth and practical wisdom.
Stand Against the Predators
What if the “fences” are inadequate to stop the advance of a predator? You need a good guard dog! Used for centuries in Europe and Asia to protect sheep and goats from wolves and bears, “livestock protection dogs” are now being bred for use in the United States. Similarly, the church needs spiritually mature men who will place themselves in the path of a predator. When a predator attacks the church, how can deacons stand with their pastor and guard the flock of God?
Pray Together. Remember that all battles belong to the Lord (1 Samuel 17:47). While the predator might consider you an enemy, you know that the real battle is not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Set aside time as leaders to seek the Lord together, trusting Him with your need for wisdom and guidance (1 Peter 5:6-7).
Gather Facts. Predators can control some church leaders through intimidation. But if that fails, they will spread gossip and slander to influence the church’s perception of their leaders. Predators will filter and misrepresent their information in order to provoke negative emotions within church members. To establish the truth, deacons need to concentrate on gathering facts before taking decisive action (Proverbs 25:2).
Challenge the Sinful Behavior. When Paul encountered a deeply troubled and argumentative soul, he suspected the behavior might be due to demonic influence. Consequently, Paul encouraged Timothy to keep “instructing his opponents with gentleness” in the hope that they might repent of their words and actions (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Because predators will interpret gentleness and patience as weakness in a leader, pastors and deacons need to work together to communicate their unity and resolve.
Initiate Church Discipline. When should a deacon body pursue church discipline of a predator who continues to cause turmoil and division? Paul taught church leaders to issue two formal warnings to an individual creating division in a church. If the predator refused to repent and change, Paul directed church leaders to end the discussion and the relationship (Titus 3:10-11; Romans 16:17-18). If your church has adopted a process for church discipline, observe it carefully.
Dealing with church predators is extremely draining. Deacons might fear losing the respect of their family and friends by getting involved in the conflict. However, they are more likely to win their respect by standing against those seeking to undermine the ministry of the church. Paul promised that deacons who serve well will “acquire a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13). Serve well!
For further reading:
Sheffield, Robert, and James E. White. Equipping Deacons to Confront Conflict. Nashville TN: LifeWay Christian Resources, 1986.
(Written to encourage deacons, this article was originally published as “Protecting Your Church from Predators” in the Fall 2017 issue of Deacon Magazine, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources.)
As you read this, there is a pastor near you who is “on call” every day of the week. He pours his heart into his sermon preparation, but no one seems to notice. He visits the sick, but someone is telling him he doesn’t visit enough. Someone else is asking him what he does with all of his “free time” during the week. The church isn’t growing. He feels like he is failing in every area of his work. There’s a deep sadness rising in his soul. The joy is gone, and he thinks frequently about quitting. He is losing the heart of his kids. He rarely gets to spend time with his wife.
Too many pastors are living this story every week. Your pastor is in danger. Here are seven ways you can help protect him.
- Cover your pastor with prayer. When teaching on spiritual warfare, Paul urges us to bathe all we do in prayer, and to intercede for “all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Everyone needs someone praying for them, and your pastor is no exception. He is a primary target of the enemy, who wants to exploit every weakness and magnify every failure.
Include him in your prayers at home and as the Lord brings him to mind during your day. Call or text him, letting him know when you have lifted him up. Your pastor prays with others almost daily, but how many people stop to place a hand on his shoulder and pray for him? Drop by or schedule a brief visit during the week for the sole purpose of praying for him directly.
- Share with your pastor how God is using him. In addition to the time-consuming activities of visiting, counseling, and planning, your pastor spends countless hours preparing to preach and teach God’s Word each week. As members leave the building on Sunday, it’s easy for him to wonder “is God using me?” Pastors need encouragement.
While it’s true that happy people don’t complain, they should speak up! Let your pastor know how God is using him in your life. Text him at the end of a long Sunday and tell him what you saw God doing through him. Discuss his messages with him, taking time to share what God is teaching you through his preaching. Your specific and personal words of encouragement will be deeply felt and long remembered by your pastor.
- Attempt to meet needs and solve problems before you report them. What do you do when a member comes to you with a ministry need? It would be a mistake to think that you are “helping” your pastor by simply telling him what you have heard. He probably has plenty on his plate already!
Since pastors are called to equip God’s people to do ministry (Eph. 4:11-12), deacons should be the first to model a mature believer’s response to the needs and problems that surface in the church. Relying on the Holy Spirit and drawing on God’s Word, explore how God might use you to take the first steps towards a ministry solution.
- Minimize murmuring to the maximum. Years ago the deacons in our church embraced the task of “minimizing murmuring to the maximum.” The slogan expressed their desire to meet needs and handle complaints in a way that helped the church remain spiritually vibrant and relationally strong.
By routinely correcting misunderstandings, answering questions, and quelling rumors, you can lead members to a deeper willingness to trust the heart of their pastor. When a member remains dissatisfied, offer to accompany him to a meeting with your pastor. Your presence can have a positive and calming effect on the conversation.
- Stand with him when he encounters destructive criticism. When the widows complained to the Apostles in Acts 6 that they were not being treated fairly in the church’s relief ministry, they were not attacking the leadership: they were voicing an unmet need. Understood in this way, complaints can become pathways to the creation of new ministries in the church. Similarly, criticism can be constructive, leading to positive changes and needed improvements. Deacons do not need to fear conflict, but because it is inevitable among sinful human beings, deacons should “go to school” on the biblical process of peacemaking (see the recommended resources at the end of this article).
Not all conflicts are the same. Your pastor is not perfect, he makes mistakes, and he is growing in Christ – just like everyone else in the church. Consequently, if someone wants to find fault in a pastor, he will always be successful! When an individual’s complaints and criticisms turn into personal attacks and hostile accusations, you need to stand with your pastor, providing visible and verbal support. Church bullies cannot be ignored. If you refuse to engage and confront the inappropriate and sinful behavior of an antagonist, the conflict can quickly escalate with catastrophic damage to your pastor, his family, and the church.
- Help him recharge and avoid burnout. When a pastor becomes chronically tired, discouraged, or overwhelmed by the incessant demands of ministry, he can suffer from burnout, losing his motivation and becoming susceptible to intense levels of temptation. Members are usually unaware of the stresses associated with pastoral ministry until it’s too late.
Deacons need to help a pastor protect his use of time and avoid the abuse of his body. How? Don’t expect him to attend every church function. Ask him whether he’s taking a day off. Take an interest in his family, watching for opportunities to affirm and support his efforts to be a good father and husband. Be sure that he schedules and uses his vacation time. Lead the church to bless the pastor and his wife with an evening out (providing a gift card and free babysitting) or a weekend getaway.
- Do ministry together. What is your ministry as a deacon? What is it that God has called the deacons of your church to actually do? In too many churches, the “ministry” of the average deacon has been reduced to sitting through a monthly meeting. God has called you to much more. Like “The Seven” who stepped up to meet the needs of the widows in Acts 6, pray about taking on an area of ministry that would alleviate personal demands on the pastor, while addressing a needed area of ministry in your church.
As an individual deacon, one of the most encouraging things you can do for your pastor is to go with him as he does pastoral visitation, travels to a speaking engagement, or attends a denominational meeting. Together you will have a greater ministry impact on the people you see. Your presence will go a long way towards alleviating boredom, fatigue, and loneliness. Your relationship with one another will deepen, becoming more authentic and genuine.
Great pastors of healthy, growing churches never get “there” by themselves. God always uses a team of men to support, encourage, and protect that pastor. Are you part of a team like that? Are you one of those men?
For further reading:
Sande, Ken. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004.
Sheffield, Robert, and James E. White. Equipping Deacons to Confront Conflict. Nashville TN: LifeWay Christian Resources, 1986.
Do you know that the greatest challenge of leading at home or at church is to win the heart? With a position, you can lead a few people for awhile, but with a tender compassion for people, you can influence this generation and the next. This idea is rooted in the New Testament qualifications for a church leader:
“(a real leader should have) his children in submission with all reverence” I Timothy 3:4
Translators sometimes apply “reverence” to the father’s manner of leadership (rather than to the children’s manner of submission). I disagree. Anyone can get a child to do what they want. It’s not the father’s masterly behavior in view, but the children’s heartfelt compliance with their father’s direction. To secure someone’s “followship” — and their deep respect — is a very different kind of parenting and pastoring.
“My Daddy loves me and knows me and cares for me… when he asks me to do something, that’s all I need to know!” Winning the heart of children at home qualifies a man for pastoral leadership. If he knows how to win hearts at home, he will lead out of the strength of his relationships with people in the church house… and not out of his position.
Are you a person who knows how to win the heart of a child? I have six children, but I am no expert or model of a perfect father. Whatever I have done well as a Dad is entirely a result of my ongoing experience of the fatherhood of God.
You see — winning the heart — this is what God does with you and me every day! He is always:
- Giving to me (Matthew 7:7-11)
- Knowing me (Matthew 10:29-31)
- Leading me (Mark 14:36)
- Comforting me (II Cor. 1:3-4)
- Training me (Hebrews 12:7-11)
- Receiving me (Galatians 4:4-7)
The Father’s act to win our heart also lies at the core of our salvation! Charles Spurgeon describes the Father’s work this way,
…you are the very ones whom I pray Him to lead captive, in silken chains of blessed bondage, as trophies of the irresistible grace with which His almighty love wins the hearts of his greatest enemies, and transforms them into his faithful friends and willing servants for ever and ever.
I like that… leading souls at home, inside the church, and outside the church always involves winning the heart.