Shepherds play an important role in the biblical narrative. Shepherds appear frequently in both the Old and New Testaments, often in reference to leaders.
One of my favorite images of a shepherd is that of a caregiver. It is common for a shepherd to examine sheep for wounds as they gather in a pen or cove after a day of grazing. The shepherd cleans the wound and applies an ointment to it before bedding the sheep down for the night.
Congregational ministers are trained to be good shepherds. Identifying and binding wounds are significant parts of a minister’s job. This was certainly true for Jesus.
“Worship always demands a response from worshipers. Criticism of what just occurred is not one of them.”
Instead of conducting his ministry in the temple in Jerusalem like many of his colleagues, Jesus chose to walk down dusty Palestinian roads where he could interact with people from all walks of life. He listened to their stories so he could respond to their needs with mercy and grace.
Being the good Shepherd did not prevent Jesus from being wounded. Nor does it keep today’s ministers from being wounded.
Who wounds the leaders whose job it is to heal broken hearts and bodies? Tragically, it can be the people they are called to serve. It was true for Jesus. It is no different for modern-day shepherds.
I am convinced many church members are unaware of ways they wound their ministers. By and large, laypersons have good hearts. They love the women and men God has called to lead their community of faith.
Regrettably, this is not true for all who inflict wounds on ministers. Sadly, their words and deeds are meant to harm.
Perhaps it would help church members to know how ministers are wounded. This could lead to constructive changes in the way they relate to their ministers.
Ministers are wounded when:
People play fast and loose with the facts. Assumptions are rarely accurate. Gossip never is. People who spread rumors or speak assertively about subjects they have no personal knowledge of do more harm than good. It breaks a minister’s heart to think that people believe they are guilty of saying or doing the things they are being accused of by those who pass on inaccurate or incomplete information.
Members leave the church without having a conversation with their minister. It is bad enough when faithful members lose interest or become disaffected in some way and quit attending without discussing this decision with their minister. It is worse when, without any previous conversation, a letter arrives informing the church one of their members has transferred his or her membership.
What is a minister to think when this occurs? Most ministers I know wonder what they did wrong and often shoulder the blame.
Church leaders do not lead. Ministers rely on mature congregational leaders who are competent, strong, courageous, insightful, honest, reliable and trustworthy. Ministers must have their candid input and unwavering support, especially when making difficult decisions and charting a path forward.
Few things startle and disappoint a minister more than a leader who remains silent when their voice needs to be heard or abandons the minister when their presence is crucial. When this occurs, ministers feel lonely and disillusioned.
Members do not follow through with promises. Ministers are by nature trusting people. Every dream, program, ministry or goal is built upon a foundation of promises made by those who called the minister to lead them.
Ministers get a sinking feeling in their gut when they realize the people they were relying on to fulfill their commitments don’t follow through as they said they would. Ministers feel betrayed as they make their way to the cemetery of broken dreams.
Members use money as leverage to get their way. Ministry is expensive. Meeting the needs of people is overwhelming. It requires sacrificial and steady financial support from all the members.
Money needed to fund ministries should never be used as a bargaining tool. Tithes and offerings are given in response to God’s generosity and faithfulness and are never to be offered or withheld in order to get one’s way.
Members who attempt to do this create an immeasurable amount of stress and anxiety for ministers. Their attention is drawn away from the ministries they oversee to the threat that could undermine all they are doing for others.
“There is always a time and place to deal with a minister’s humanness, and healthy Christians and healthy churches know when and where those are.”
Members are critical of a sermon or service on their way out of worship. Worship always demands a response from worshipers. Criticism of what just occurred is not one of them. Awe, praise, gratitude, humility, repentance and commitment are on the list.
If a worshiper has an issue with the way the service is conducted or the temperature in the sanctuary, these concerns need to be voiced in private at another time. When leaving the sanctuary, be mindful of the fact that ministers have planned, prepared, studied and rehearsed for hours to usher people into the presence of God. Focusing attention on anything other than God’s unspeakable riches in Christ Jesus at that time crushes the minister’s spirit.
Members ambush a minister in front of others with “gotcha” questions. People who want to make a minister look bad in public often ambush that minister rather than sitting down in private to have a discussion. Instead of giving the minister an opportunity to formulate cogent thoughts in the normal give-and-take of a conversation, some members delight in putting a minister on the spot. Evidently, they think it makes themselves look smart and powerful.
Members need to understand that ministers know more than they are at liberty to say, at least in public. Sensitive questions on personal or complex issues are best asked in private.
Members criticize the minister’s family. Ministry is one of the few professions where a leader’s family is scrutinized and judged. Sensitive issues other families deal with in private are often discussed in public by church members. When members weigh in on what a minister’s family is going through, it hurts. It can lead to bitterness on the part of a minister’s family who did not ask to live in a glass house.
Please don’t hear me saying that ministers do not need to be held accountable for their actions. We do, and we know it. We also know it is our duty to model the behavior we want to see from our members. When we fail, we need to acknowledge it and repent.
There is always a time and place to deal with a minister’s humanness, and healthy Christians and healthy churches know when and where those are. Henri Nouwen referred to such people as “wounded healers.” And that is a ministry to which all of God’s people are called.