Over the past 15 years of pastoral ministry, I have contemplated quitting at least 3 times. The first time was when I had to dedicate a tiny baby who had passed away after being born three months premature. The second was when my wife was diagnosed with cancer, which I describe in great detail in my book. But the time I most seriously considered quitting took place in the living room of a church member.
He and I had been in almost constant conflict over the course of two years. I was at his house to try to figure out what the problem was, and how we might fix it. With my head in my hands, I poured out my heart to this man I considered my brother in Christ, sharing all the woes and fears that I had faced that year: the break-ins at my home, my wife’s cancer diagnosis, our meager attendance at church. My voice choked with emotion, I confessed to him, “I really could use a break, you know?”
He looked at me, and with a flat voice dripping with contempt, muttered, “You are just so . . . emotional.”
Speechless, I stared at him. I realized then that he didn’t see me as I saw him, as a brother in Christ. I was his enemy, worthy only of his derision, not his compassion. As he met my stare with a stony one of his own, I pledged to myself, “That’s it. I quit.” For months and even years after this experience, I struggled to comprehend why this man viewed me with such disdain. The only thing that I could discern was that his entire small group seemed to collectively hold a pretty dim view of me as their pastor.
For a long time afterwards, I thought that my experience was unique. But as I spoke with other pastors, I realized that this narrative was an altogether common one. In conversation after conversation, fellow pastors told me their horror stories of how they too had faced poisonous and unwavering criticism from a single individual or, more commonly, a single faction of people. And this criticism had been so unrelenting that many of these pastors had left their congregations or the ministry altogether, sometimes both.
I never grasped how widespread this phenomenon was until I came upon this article. It states that a full 28 percent of pastors have been pushed out of their churches by attacks that originated from a relatively small group of people. This number does not include those who seriously considered leaving but ultimately decided to stay. Nearly half of those pastors who had left then seriously considered abandoning ministry altogether. What is even worse are the lingering emotional and spiritual scars that these experiences leave on pastors. This was definitely the case for me. My confidence, not just as a pastor but as a person, plummeted to new depths after that encounter, and it has yet to fully recover. I have come to realize that what is often most dangerous to the welfare of pastors is not the attack from outside the church, but the criticisms of cliques from within.
Now I want to make clear that I'm not saying that small groups, either the formal or informal kind, are evil. They provide a safe and intimate place to foster relationships and accountability, making them invaluable. Neither am I saying that people aren't allowed to have their opinions and share them with one another, or that pastors are somehow infallible and should never have to face loving instruction, especially when they commit a grave transgression.
But at the same time, people often fail to recognize that a tightly-knit group of friends can be the ideal petri dish for a particularly destructive brand of criticism. In fact, it is the very things that make small groups so wonderful that also make them so dangerous. The power of small groups is in social cohesion, or when a group takes on a shared sense of corporate identity. As a means to promote that cohesion, members of a group value and affirm other members, as well as their opinions and beliefs. They also tend to be wary of outsiders in order to safeguard the precious safe space that they share. These are not problems in themselves, but actually serve to make a group stronger.
But because the group is naturally inclined towards agreement, they can slip into a tendency called group polarization, where the shared opinion of the group is stronger and more extreme than the opinion of any one individual of that group. And since these groups are prone to being insulated from outsiders, there is no reference point from which they can recognize that their view may not be shared by others. Add to this the fact that central figures (like pastors and presidents) tend to be the natural target of frustration. And what you discover is that the impression of one individual quickly becomes the sure conviction of many, a conviction that is only intensified over multiple regular conversations. I'm certain that more than a few of us have witnessed this firsthand, where "Pastor blew me off one Sunday," becomes "Pastor is really aloof," and finally, "This pastor is just not cutting it. She's got to go."
Contrary to what we might think, opinions that are shared by more than one person are not necessarily a sure signpost to the truth because even groups can fall prey to harmful and ungodly patterns of thought and speech. This is not at all just the tendency of individuals. What better example is there than Passion Week, when an influential and disgruntled few manage to coax a massive crowd into crying out for Jesus’ crucifixion, the same crowd that five days before had cried out “Hosanna in the highest”?
There are ways that the church as an organization can regulate this: encouraging each group to welcome newcomers or asking groups to multiply so that connections and relationships are more broadly shared at the church. But these are not true solutions, only organizational attempts at managing the potentially destructive dynamics of groups.
No, I believe the answer lies with mature believers who recognize what is taking place in their circles and work to stop it. It takes individuals who will stand up and lovingly say, “You know, I don’t think this conversation is really honoring God or that other person. We should bring it up with them directly.” Or “I love our time together, but want other people to enjoy it too. What do you think about creating another group out of ours?” Or instead of remaining silent when an especially harsh comment is bandied about, speaking up to say, “I appreciate your point of view, but actually disagree. I think she is doing a great job.”
I know that this might sound trivial, and little more than helpful advice for church leaders. But it goes far beyond this. The truth is that the lives and hearts of so many pastors are being wrecked by the poisonous opinions that are cultivated by cliques. And that means that any church that wants to love and protect their pastor must go beyond gift cards and chocolate cake. The church must address the fact that often what is destroying pastors are not the arrows that come from outside its walls, but those which originate from within.
See my follow-up to this post at "How Hurt Pastors Hurt People."