There is an old adage that says if you want to avoid criticism, you should do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing. This way of thinking certainly comes into play in the pastorate. At some point a pastor will either say or do something that will cause someone to take offense in the congregation. In other words, if you pastor, preach, and lead a church, you will sooner or later be preaching in the middle of conflict.
Every pastor will face some criticism periodically. People can whine about some of the craziest things, making criticism something that is on the weekly agenda. This is a normal part of the everyday life of the pastor. However, serious conflict occurs when there is a substantial segment of the congregation that is upset with an issue in the church, with the pastor himself, or both. Generally, it will be both! This is due to the fact that the pastor will have to stand on an issue, and no matter what side he stands on, he will offend someone. As a pastor leading a flock, you cannot limit your stands to theological issues only, as many other issues will fall into your lap, such as building programs, etc.
The pastor will have to stand on an issue, and no matter what side he stands on, he will offend someone.
The other issue with which we wrestle is our romanticizing the metaphor of the shepherd. Many think this is an easy job when, in fact, it is an extremely difficult calling. As a shepherd, one was exposed to the elements, one had to deal with external threats to the sheep such as wolves, and one had to respond to recalcitrant sheep. Those are exactly the three issues a modern pastor faces. We deal with the everyday pressures of committees, counseling, weddings, funerals, and our own family issues. False teaching is everywhere, particularly with the arrival of the Internet, which we must combat as best we can. Our own people will struggle in their walk with Christ, requiring great effort on our part to help them through all they face. All these, in addition to your leadership as pastor, will ensure that conflict should be expected in one’s ministry.
The dilemma during these times is that you cannot take a hiatus from your preaching schedule until this issue is resolved. You must labor in the middle of conflict as if nothing is going on around you. This causes enormous stress and numerous temptations to respond without the mindset of Christ. The pulpit can never be used for personal gain, but rather, as Ephesians 4:15 reminds us, we must preach “the truth in love.” This verse is the premier guiding directive for our preaching in the middle of conflict.
The pulpit can never be used for personal gain, but rather, as Ephesians 4:15 reminds us, we must preach “the truth in love.”
The first issue the pastor must personally address in this time of difficulty is that of his heart and attitude. Even if it is a biblical issue before my people, I must make sure I love those with whom I disagree. I cannot have their faces in my mind when I step into the pulpit to deliver God’s word. If it is their face and not that of Jesus, then my preaching will not spring from a holy motivation. I have to be determined to love those with whom I disagree and with whom the Bible disagrees. Even if the issue is clearly a deviation from biblical norms, I must love the sheep as I try to help them see the biblical position.
Now that I know my motivation is right, I have to decide whether or not there may be the need to preach to the issue at hand. One must be sure that you do not preach to an issue that is not clearly biblical. One cannot preach about the youth needing a church van, even if you are singularly sure of that need. The Bible simply does not speak to that issue, and thus neither may you. The pastor is to preach truth and not opinion, no matter how strongly he feels about the issue at hand.
Even if the issue is clearly a deviation from biblical norms, I must love the sheep as I try to help them see the biblical position.
If it is a biblical issue, then preaching to it may be warranted. This requires great tact and wisdom. The pastor cannot be seen as “going after” those in his church that do not agree with him, even though the Bible disagrees with their position. This is where preaching book-by-book and verse-by-verse is so beneficial. If you arrive at a passage that delineates the issue, your freedom to address this is abundantly clear and mitigates the attack of those who say you are simply preaching against them. Some obviously may still take issue with what you say, but those who are rational in the church will see the inescapability of the upcoming passage.
If you have chosen not to preach book-by-book, you endanger your ministry when speaking to an issue, even biblical, while the conflict rages. If you feel you must address the biblical position, I would recommend you preface the sermon with a statement of your love for the people and your willingness to meet with those who disagree at some time after the sermon. It means your schedule must be cleared, and they must be given easy access to you. If your people feel you love them and are willing to hear them, their validation from you will go a long way in easing their difficulty.
All in all, preaching in conflict is a constant issue for those who pastor and a treacherous path to have to tread. In the second church I pastored, one night I was telling God how bad my situation was there. Conflict was constant and not always kind. On one of those lonely nights that only a pastor knows, God spoke to me and asked me a question that has driven my preaching in the midst of conflict for the rest of my ministry. God asked me if He sent me there for me to love them or for them to love me. The answer was clear for me, and it has set the tone for my ministry ever since that night. I must love my sheep and deliver the truth even when they don’t like me or don’t like what the Scripture has to say. Sometimes it is a tough life, but it is always a wonderful calling.