This post is a personal testimony. It is offered as an illustration on how to deal with a disgruntled member or member(s) of a large church. There are those who say that no church member ought to express opposition to the pastor's decisions. Some say that the pastor is the Lord's anointed, and to question his ministry, or his decision making, or his integrity is simply rebellion against God.
Not so. No pastor is beyond the scope of scrutiny. Further, it is not the questioning of the pastor that is the problem. Rather, it is the response of the pastor to the questions that is often the problem. Many pastors, whether it be for personal insecurity reasons, fear of exposure, or a false understanding of "church unity," will deal harshly with those who question their leadership. This post is offered as an example of how a pastor and church can deal with a disgruntled member in an effective manner.
Secret Meetings and Secret Complaints
There was man at Emmanuel who was not happy with the hiring of a particular staff member. He felt that the staff member displayed personal qualities unbecoming of a pastor (i.e. "impatience," "sarcasm," etc . . .), and the disgruntled member and his wife began to meet with three or four other families to "pray" for this staff member and our church. During the meetings which were held at the home of the dissatisfied member, other issues began to be discussed, issues involving me personally. The leader of the group felt that the hiring of this staff member reflected poorly on my pastoral leadership. Others began to question my salary and ask if the Senior Pastor was making too much money. A couple of the church members had heard that I was a member of the local Country Club and wondered if the church gave me that benefit, etc . . . They decided that they would meet on a regular basis, invite others to join them, and pray for our church.
Eventually someone told me about the meetings. Immediately, there was a mental decision that I had to make. Were these disgruntled members who were questioning my decisions, salary and benefits, and other matters as important to the Lord's kingdom as those church members who express appreciation for my pastoral leadership? I gave an immediate "yes" to that question in my mind.
As a result, I had to ask myself a second question: How can I affirm the people who were secretly meeting and how can I encourage them spiritually, while at the same time not reacting defensively to either their attitude or their questions? The person who had told me about the meetings had been invited himself to attend, and he knew that the group was going to ask others to come and be a part the following Friday. There was obviously an intentional effort to make the dissident group larger. Yet, I had to settle in my mind and heart that my goal could never be to prevent, control or dominate these people in any form or fashion. Jesus came to set people free, and that means disgruntled church members should be free to dissent and disagree with their pastor - and tell others of it! And, I should be free to accept it as from the Lord. It's a little like King David when Shemei was cursing him and Abishai, David's servant said, "Shall I go cut that dead dog's head off?" King David said, "Let him alone. God has bidden him to speak." As pastor, I see every event, even the difficult ones, as God refining my character.
Compassion, not Confrontation
I decided the best way to approach the disgruntled member was to personally contact him and let him know that I knew of the meetings, and that I affirmed all the members' rights to participate. Further, I determined that I would volunteer to meet with them, if they desired, to try to answer all questions they felt important. I also wanted to express my appreciation for their prayers for our church.
And that is what I did. Nobody else was involved. Just me. I expressed to the disgruntled member all of the above and told him I would be more than happy to attend the next meeting and answer any and all questions if he would like, believing that it is always best to communicate directly when there are differences or disagreements.
The disgruntled church member was a little taken aback. Later he told me that he was most surprised at my affirmation that he and the group had every right to meet. He also was taken aback at my expressions of love for him, especially knowing that I knew he was attempting to lead a growing group of dissidents to question my leadership. He would later tell me that this knowledge did not diminish the love and grace I displayed for him personally, and that this was what most impressed him.
Transparency, not Terseness
During our conversation I sought to answer any and all questions he had. We talked about the hiring of the staff member and I explained the process under which he was hired and assured him that any concerns he might have about a pastor at Emmanuel not relating with church members in a gracious manner was an important concern. I shared with him how that particular issue had already been addressed with the staff member in question and how it would continue to be addressed if needed. We then discussed my salary. Our church places all salaries into one lump sum when the budget is presented, and Emmanuel's Finance Committee had made this a practice long before I came as pastor. My preference would be that all salaries be broken out individually within the annual budget, but I have been overruled by the Finance Committee members. However, it is church policy, and a wise one at that, that ANY member who desires to know the salaries of staff members, including the pastor, only has to ask. He demurred and said he really didn't wish to know, but I told him my salary and benefits anyway, believing it was an important question for him to have answered and he was just too embarrassed to ask me.
Then we talked about my membership at the Country Club. I told him that the church does pay the $300 monthly dues, but I pay all my expenses, including meals and guest fees. I also explained that I knew in Enid that some might view my membership at the Country Club as exclusive, but we had a very particular reason for the membership - the people there need Christ as much as the poor. I related how I had been able to build multiple relationships through meeting peole at Oakwood Country Club, and had been asked by many non-churched Enidites to perform funerals for family members, had been able to lead several to faith in Christ, and through my contacts, many Christian family members had become members of Emmanuel. I also told him I loved the golf course (a Perry Maxwell course, no less!).
He laughed a little with me and we discussed a few more issues, and I spent about an hour talking with him about any and all his concerns. I ended the conversation in this manner:
"I may have not been able to answer your questions completely, and even if I have, you still may not agree with my decision making. Please know that your disagreement with the pastor of Emmanuel is not only all right, it is healthy. The main thing you should know is that you have every right to question me, and even if you think I make too much money, shouldn't be a member of the Country Club, or shouldn't have led the Personnel Committee to hire a particular staff member, our disagreement will never be, in any form or fashion, an impediment to me loving you and being a pastor to you. Feel free to relay what we have discussed to those you are meeting with, and know that you have my complete support in continuing to meet. You can invite anyone and everyone you desire to join you, and if you have more questions, I will be happy to come meet with you. If, after evaluation, you feel you can't worship with us because of a disagreement, please know that you have our blessing and full support to join another sister church and we will recommend you with Christian love and grace. Bottom line, I'm never above questioning, nor are you are ever beyond my desire to see our mutual walk with Christ strengthened."
The man teared up a bit. Thanked me for visiting with him, and we parted.
When Leadership Cares About People
Two weeks later, in church, he stopped me. He thanked me for taking the time to contact him, expressing his sorrow he had not contacted me before he had talked with others. He thanked me for answering his questions and addressing his concerns and said that after listening to me preach for 15 years he should have known that I would have responded with grace and transparency to any questions he had. He then expressed his love for me and mentioned how much he respected me. He said the group was no longer meeting, and all of them voiced at their last meeting that they wanted their families to be a part of a church where leaders affirmed them, even when they disagreed.
To this day, this man and the three or four families that met with him those few times remain faithful members of Emmanuel.
I have called Dr. Mac Brunson at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville. I left my cell phone number with his personal secretary. I have also called Rev. Blount and left messages for he and A.C. Soud, Chairman of the Trustees of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville. My intention is to ask these men a few questions and offer my encouragement to them as a brother in Christ and fellow Southern Baptist pastor. None of them has called me back, but if and when one does, I will treat him in the same manner I did my own church member. Many conjecture that my calls will not be returned. Others wonder why in the world I would make events at FBC Jacksonville my business. I do for one reason only. I made a promise three years ago that should I ever hear of a Southern Baptist experiencing some kind of spiritual or emotional abuse by a denominational or church leaders, I would not be silent and I would do what could be done to help the one being abused who was without "power."
In 2007, an anonymous and disgruntled long time member of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida began a blog called FBC Jax Watchdog. This man had several financial questions, voiced many criticisms of pastoral leadership decisions, and made known his deep concerns over sweeping bylaw changes - all of which he documented. I understand that there are always two sides to every story, and perspectives will be different over these issues depending on whom you visit with from FBC. The issue for me, however, is whether or not a Southern Baptist churchman has freedom to raise questions of leaders, or does he fear retribution if he does. Some have repeatedly and quite viciously taken Watchdog to task for his desire to remain anonymous. I've challenged him on this issue as well, and the Watchdog admits that he has made mistakes out of fear for what would be done to him if his identity were known. But the point of this post is neither to question or defend Watchdog's anonymity or his decision to make known to others his criticisms of leadership at FBC. I have no opinion on the merits of the latter. The point of this post is to question those in power - the leadership of FBC Jacksonville - as to why they took the approach they did when they discovered what a disgruntled church member was doing.
In short, the question to leaders at FBC Jacksonville is a simple one: "Why did you take such a hardball approach with Watchdog?"
Make no mistake, the leadership of FBC Jacksonville knows who the Watchdog is. A subpoena was issued to the internet provider that required the revelation of the identify of the owner of the Watchdog blog. Knowing that such a request for a subpoena would have to include allegations of criminal intent, I have asked the question of A.C. Soud, Rev. Blount and Pastor Brunson if whether or not what some deacons at FBC have shared with others is true - that the allegation against Watchdog (before they knew who he was) was that he was stalking Mrs. Brunson and stealing the Brunson's mail. Again, criminal activity must be alleged for a judge to grant a subpoena for an internet provider to identify the owner of a particular blog. You can't just shut down somebody's right to write anonymously on a blog, even if you don't like what they are writing, because such a right is protected by the First Amendment. What's worse, however, would be for someone to artificially create criminal intent in order to get information regarding a protected identity. But instead of assuming accuracy in the deacons' information of what happened, I would like to ask the ones involved in obtaining the subpoena. Ironically, the Chairman of the Trustees at FBC Jacksonville is retired Florida Circuit Judge A.C. Soud. Further, regardless of how leadership at FBC Jacksonville obtained the identity of the Watchdog, the concern of this post is not with the manner in which they obtained it, but rather, what did FBC leadership do once they discovered who Watchdog was?
Did they go and visit with the man and his family? Did they seek to provide some spiritual encouragement to him? Did they choose to try to answer his questions? Did they attempt to affirm him and his family for their years of service at FBC Jacksonville? Did they display Christian love and grace? Did they affirm them as Christian people and members of the church? My understanding is that FBC church leaders did none of the above but in fact, took the following actions:
(1). Leadership issued a court ordered trespass warning, barring the Watchdog and his family from entering the premises of the church.
(2). Leadership led the church to pass a resolution, led by retired judge A.C. Soud, that no church member shall be publicly critical of church leadership, and werer a member to violate that resolution, the member shall be "confronted" with their gross sin and disciplined publicly.
(3). Leadership went behind behind closed doors with the deacons and others and accused the Watchdog of inappropriate behavior (stalking, videotaping, stealing) without ever sitting down with the Watchdog himself to inform him of their allegations.
(4). Leadership also made phone calls to the church where the Watchdog has joined to "warn" the church of this man and his family.
(5). Leadership chose to make the issue Watchdog's "character" rather than answering the Watchdog's "questions."
The really sad thing to me is that the man in question is a long time, faithful member of FBC Jacksonville who has had family in the church for decades. He is highly educated, respected in the community, and has been faithful in service for years. In my opinion, church leaders are abusive when they attempt to shut down disagreement in the manner that seems to have been taken by the leadership of FBC Jacksonville.
Things must change in our Convention, our denominational agencies and our churches. Real leadership serves, not dominates. Real leadership affirms, not denigrates. Real leadership can withstand criticism, because real leadership is confident their actions can withstand scrutiny.
I am hopeful that other Southern Baptist church leaders and pastors can learn from the two different examples of disgruntled church members given above. What the Southern Baptist Convention needs at this hour are leaders who are servants, desiring to help people in their walk with Christ. Too many of us are "professional" ministers who are concerned with our careers and have lost sight of the fact that our careers actually have names. How should leadership deal with disgruntled members?
The answer to that question will go a long way toward making our Convention and our churches what we should be.
In His Grace,