Over a decade ago, Evelyn Burry and I did a study of the issues that District Superintendents most hated dealing with. In the broadest category, DSs hate having to deal with people — but that’s not fair, because the thing they like most about their jobs is people as well. No, it is a particular type of people who cause DSs to dread their job — selfish people. Now, I know what you’re thinking — Dan, come on, we’re Christians, man. We’re the CHURCH. There aren’t any selfish people in our churches! This might surprise you, but there ARE some selfish people in our churches. And they are making things tough for everyone, not just District Superintendents.
If our informal research is anywhere near correct, 65% of complaints DSs receive are from parishioners about their pastors, while about 25% of complaints are from pastors about their parishioners or other pastors. 10% of complaints are about the DS directly or about the Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church, the state of Christianity in the world, or God. But what is most interesting about the nature of the majority of complaints is that they have little or nothing to do with the mission and ministry of the church — they generally have to do with personal disagreements, stylistic preferences, or simple personality.
Here’s a short list of some of the complaints DSs receive:
Our pastor laughs and smiles too much. He also talks too much about forgiveness and joy. We want a Biblical leader who understands how serious the Christian faith really is. (Good luck finding a Biblical leader — they’re all dead…)
Our pastor expects us to change and we are tired of it.
Our preacher keeps preaching from the Old Testament. I’m not a Hebrew, I’m a Christian and I want a Christian preacher for our church.
We cannot hear the sermons and we knew this would be a problem when we received a woman as our pastor.
The reverend is killing our church. He won’t preach what we want to hear, and he won’t listen when the members try to tell him what to say.
We are good, God-fearing conservatives. We feel that the pastor you sent is trying to corrupt us. Is there any way we could choose our own pastor?
This is to inform you that we will not be paying any more of our apportionments until you find us a decent preacher. You have failed to send us anyone we have liked for years. This is the tenth bad preacher you have sent in a row.
We would like you to know what the pastor you sent is saying. She is saying that if all we are doing is coming to church for ourselves, we are not really Christian. She says if we do not serve others, we are liars and hypocrites. She makes us feel bad that we love God and Jesus but aren’t doing anything for others outside the church. What is the process for getting a different minister?
We don’t have a preacher, we have a stand-up comic. He doesn’t wear a robe and he prances about with a microphone like some silly talk-show host. He’s an embarrassment. And another thing, he’s bringing in all these outsiders that are taking over and changing everything. He acts like he owns the church and does whatever he wants to. He’s killing our church!
You sent us a hugger and we’re not huggers. This simply will not work.
I have sixteen type-written pages of these I pulled up out of interview notes from just about every annual conference in every region of The United Methodist Church in the U.S. I have a shorter, but similar list of quotes from pastors about church people. What is striking is how rarely someone says, “Our leadership isn’t challenging us enough,” or “we need a leader who demands more and works to empower and equip us better.” Those kinds of requests are very rare when compared with all the griping about discomfort and disappointment and simply not liking or agreeing with the other side. What I didn’t lift up (and these are almost exclusively on the side of people bashing pastors) were some of the more extreme and outrageous things DSs here. Look at a few of these gems:
We want action now, or there won’t be a church much longer. Nobody can predict when an accident might happen — to the church building or to a particular person.
We think our pastor is a homosexual and you have to ban him from ever serving in the church again.
Since the new pastor started, things have begun to disappear. We think he is stealing them.
Women in this church are staying home because they don’t like the pastor’s advances. He makes us all very uncomfortable. (This one woman wrote her various district superintendents about six different pastors over a twenty year period of time, and no one in the congregation ever substantiated her claims).
My mother was fine until the ministrer visited her in the hospital. She died after his visit and I want you to know that I will be pressing criminal charges against him, you, and the Methodist church. (This suit never made it to court.)
These are extreme cases, but they are the tip of the iceberg. No wonder we’re not changing the world, we have trouble just navigating the intricacies of human interpersonal dynamics in our own congregations. How can we ever get busy on the big things when our day-to-day lives are defined by a fundamental inability to get along? Those outside the church are very observant. They want to know how being Christian makes life better. They want to know how being Christian helps a person to live differently in the world. They are looking for quantifiable evidence that Christians behave better, are more just, more loving, kinder, more forgiving and more tolerant than non-Christians. What evidence are we giving?
Pastors are easy targets. When things work well, we generally give the pastor way too much credit, but when things go wrong we gladly give the pastor all the blame. We mash and grind and whip and squelch, and then wonder why the minister isn’t more effective. Burn-out and exodus are on the increase in mainline churches among clergy, and it is harder and harder to entice new people into leadership. Said one second career pastor recently, “I thought I could do it better. I was always so disappointed in the pastors we got, so I decided to become one and show them how it’s done. Now, not a day goes by I don’t think about getting out. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great life… but only if it doesn’t kill ya’.”
Healthy relationships don’t happen automatically. They are developed over time. People need to be taught how to engage in positive and productive ways. We all need guidance in what are proper ways to express ourselves, and the less proper ways we should avoid. In our congregations we need to make a commitment to “do no harm” to one another, even when we disagree. We need to seek ways to “do all the good we can” to build each other up and strengthen the overall health of the community of faith. We need to be more intentional about practicing the means of grace — when we pray for each other, worship together, serve side-by-side, and engage in holy and uplifting conversation, it is that much harder to turn around and stab one another in the back. In short, we need to decide to be good, and to be good to one another. We need to commit to provide a witness to the world that the love of God is indeed greater than our petty differences. And we need to bear fruit — the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We need to be good to each other, especially in a world where so few know kindness and compassion and love.