n your last letter, you described a prominent member in your church who is causing some difficulty. As I read your account of the various “difficulties,” I must confess I had a good laugh over your descriptions. Would it surprise you to know I’ve had very similar experiences over the years? So let me begin by saying that even though your frustration is very high at the moment, you are in good company. I have yet to meet a pastor who has not struggled through this issue in one way or another.
Remember, you are a shepherd leading a bunch of ornery sheep. There may be times you will wonder if every one of those sheep are trying to wander away. The Apostle Paul describes it very well when he says: “I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:21-25a).
It doesn’t matter how pious a member of the church seems to be (including the pastor). Do not forget that all of us are sinners. No one is “good” (Romans 3:10-18). Only Christ gives righteousness. If we can keep this perspective about ourselves and others—however negative it may seem— few actions will surprise us.
As I read of your current struggles, an experience I went through early in my pastorate came to mind:
At the time, everything in the church seemed to be going extremely well. From Sunday to Sunday the congregation was growing. We had a wonderful music program. The ministries we had established in the church were functioning well. And then… one of our deacons began to wear the most outlandish outfits he could find to church. At first I was a bit amused by his multi-colored jackets of bright red, yellow, and blue. He was like a rainbow personified. Each Sunday morning he wore a different outfit, each one more bright and dazzling than the other.
I began to cringe each time he stood up to help collect the offering. Every eye would stare in amazement at his outfits. I couldn’t help but think how ridiculous he looked as he moved down the center aisle of God’s house collecting the offering—calling attention to himself. I wasn’t alone in my frustration, several members complained, demanding I do something about this.
“I can’t stand looking at him,” one person said. “Take away his deacon title!” said another. “Don’t let him collect the offering,” several suggested. While I was in agreement with most of the suggestions, I knew they lacked any Biblical foundation. But something had to be done as the complaints continued to grow. Finally, I called the deacon and invited him to lunch.
During lunch, I laid it on the line. I told him I was receiving complaints about his outfits and that he was causing a distraction in our services. He barely said a word. I knew, however, he was upset. His lips became rigid, his body tensed, and I could see the anger in his eyes. I urged him to consider the sacredness of Sunday morning church and asked for him to please dress more conservatively. “Think how others are perceiving you,” I implored.
e courteously left our lunch meeting and I felt satisfied with my “pastoral chastisement.” As we parted ways I told him I looked forward to seeing him at church on Sunday convinced there would be visible signs of my wise counseling.
The next Sunday he came to church in a black suit and conservative necktie. I smiled and greeted him warmly and commented on how well he looked. He sat with his usual group of friends, but it was obvious none of them were their usual, jovial selves. When it was time for the offering, he remained seated and let others collect it. When the service was over, he came to see me along with his group of friends. They all looked very unhappy. He stood in front of me and with his arms across his chest said, “Pastor Thompson, this is my last Sunday at your church. My friends and I will not be coming back. We will find another church where the pastor is more concerned about how people are on the inside rather than how they look on the outside.”
That day we lost over 15 members!
Needless to say, I was terribly upset: “Who sinned, me or the deacon?” I spent the afternoon trying to justify myself. I told myself that as pastor, I was trying to protect the church—that it was my duty to discipline, eliminate distractions, keep peace in the body and strive for purity. But none of these arguments worked. I knew in the depths of my heart that I was the one who was wrong, not the deacon.
Our Good Shepherd loves his sheep, no matter what color his sports coat! When a sheep is lost, the good shepherd leaves his 99 to go and find the one who is lost. I, on the other hand, had just thrown out 15 sheep from the fold simply because I didn’t like the way one dressed. His words haunted me; “…more concerned about the outside than the inside.” The more I thought and prayed about it, I knew he had spoken the truth.
It was an unforgettable moment for me as I humbled myself before the Lord. I asked for forgiveness, but more than anything else I asked God to give me a shepherd’s heart. I asked Him to help me love others, without judging them by the color of their skin, their clothes, their habits, or their possessions. And of course, I asked God to help me be concerned with how people looked on the inside rather than the outside.
I am sure you want to know what happened to those 15 who left the church. I talked to each one, asking for forgiveness. None, however, returned to the church. I learned a painful lesson and at a very high cost!
I am asking God that early in your ministry you will be filled with the special love that He promises to pour into your heart (Romans 5:5). Do all that you can to imitate the Good Shepherd. And remember this old Latin proverb, “a wise man learns by the mistakes of others. A fool by his own.”
God bless you. I look forward to hearing from you again soon.
With love in Christ,