How many times have you heard a member of the church say something along these lines?
- “If you don’t fire so-and-so, my family and I are going to go to another church.”
- “Pastor, if you put screens in the sanctuary, I will leave this church.”
- “My family has been a part of this church for 50 years. We donated that furniture and if you get rid of it, you’ll be getting rid of us!”
Be honest. How did that feel? How did you respond?
It’s not easy hearing those kinds of statements; nor is it always easy to know how to respond. On the one hand, it’s easy to react negatively, in a knee-jerk reaction, telling the person exactly what’s going through your mind. Not always the best reaction!
On the other hand, there is the option to respond in a manner which is clear and firm, yet loving. Again, this is not easy; we must keep in mind that our response does not simply reflect our personal feelings on the matter. Rather, it must reflect our commitment to the overall ministry of the church and to doing what is best for the whole body.
Part of the human conundrum is the fact that we are often self-centered, worried about how something might affect only us. Even in the church (especially in the church!) this plays out in various ways, as the above remarks make clear. But the fact is that the Church was never intended to be all about “me” or even all about “us.” It has always had as its mission “all about others.”
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any teaching or indication that the body of Christ is to center only on those who make up its membership. That is not to say members are not important; they are! But to focus only on members will eventually lead to death: members die, move away, and drop out. Then what? By that time, it may very well be too late to change course.
The ones who make such comments as above are, often unwittingly, trying to hold the church hostage; and, in fact, are often successful! And the blame for their success should be laid squarely at the feet of those responsible – not the one making the comments, but the pastor and the ones in leadership who have positive influence. If left unchallenged, the hostage-takers will always gain control, often simply because they are the most vocal.
So what is a good response?
To begin, listen. Listening to the members’ concerns often leads to a painless resolution. The member gets to vent his/her frustration and fear, which ends once it is heard and addressed.
Follow the listening with thanks. Even though you may not agree with the assessment or opinion of the member, it is simply good form to thank him/her for being bold enough to express it and come to you with it. At least you now know where that member stands!
Finally, pray. Don’t read this as being flippant! You may not pray with the member, but you can certainly pray for him/her after your conversation. Offer a prayer of thanks for having been given the opportunity to address the concerns and fears; pray that the member will come to support the issue even if he or she does not agree with it; pray that you will not become bitter because of opposition.
But what if, after you have listened, thanked, and prayed the hostage-taking continues? What should you do?
The healthiest thing to do is let that member go.
You read that right: let the member go.
With gentle but firm words, the pastor can say, “I’m sorry you feel as though that is your only appropriate option. If that is what you decide, I will support you. But I and the leaders of the church feel this is what is best for the mission of this church and cannot allow the church to be held hostage by threatening words or acts.”
Is this easy? Not at all. But remember, leaders (including pastors) must have a slightly higher tolerance of pain that those they are trying to lead.
Is it necessary? Sadly, sometimes it is; especially when the greater good of the church is at stake.
No pastor likes losing members, let alone losing members in this way! However, these kinds of power plays hold the church hostage, preventing it from doing the work it has been called to do. It also gives the minority voice control and power that should never be given away; and in order to keep the peace, the pastor and other church leaders let it slide, even though they know it’s wrong and end up feeling terrible for letting it continue.
Peace and progress are incompatible. No matter what the leaders of a congregation do, it will not please everyone. Holding this principle in mind helps put things in perspective and keeps the church moving in the right direction, rather than getting bogged down in petty power plays.
Jesus encouraged us to “shake the dust from your sandals” and move on (Mt. 10:14) if folks were not receptive to the Gospel. I believe the same guiding lesson should be taken to heart when the work of the church is threatened by hostage-takers. And not once did Jesus ever let those who were either followers or potential followers hold his work hostage. He let them walk away (Mt. 19:22).
If the pastor can summon the fortitude to make such bold steps, the leadership of the church who have fallen victim to hostage-taking before will soon step up as well, following the pastor’s example, and take back the work of the church.