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As the only pastor at a small Alaskan church in a small Alaskan town, I wield a lot of power. Now, I don’t mean that in any nefarious way with an evil laugh added for effect. What I mean is that I have found little opposition to my hopes and dreams and visions for the congregation I serve. Most smaller churches tend to be “Pastor-Led.” And people, I think, genuinely like me and respect my opinion (at least I hope that’s the case). I think I prayerfully consider my approach to ministry and where it is that the church is being called by God. And, I’ll humbly say that I think I’m a pretty bright guy and able to make some pretty good decisions.
More or less.
Moreover, I think I can be pretty persuasive. This can be a good and a bad thing.
This is not without a large asterisk noting that I have made mistakes along the way…some that have hurt individuals (by words and actions) and some that have hurt the church (through some brash decisions or not following through). I have made many mistakes and I know I will continue to make them. I’m not going to get into detail here because I just don’t want to.
However, one of the things I know I’ve had difficult time with is making sure I have folks around me who are able to challenge me–to try to keep my feet to the ground when I’m dreaming and force me to think big when I’m being cautious. These are the folks who need to remind me of budget restraints and point out when a study or sermon or worship idea has fallen flat or is not what the church needs right now. These are the folks I can turn to, early on, to help me shape an idea before “going public” with it or can tell me to scale back my activities or get more involved in the community of which I’m a part. These are folks who speak the truth in love…whether or not I’m their pastor or friend. I think there is a need for this to help with discerning God’s will and direction for myself and the church.
I’m not looking for trouble or rudeness or persons who just want to fight. Those people do exist and I confess those same feelings rise to the surface in myself when I come face to face with them. But I do think it is good to have persons who can engage the pastor in creative conflict
When I do premarital counseling with folks, we talk about how conflict in marriage can be a very good thing. It gets more than one opinion out there. It allows for growth. It helps in the decision-making process in life. The same thing goes for churches. We’re not looking for a fight. But we are looking to move beyond “Yes Men” and “Yes Women” for the sake of the church. We’re looking for a creative give and take with the pastor and not just a give.
I remember the first church I served where we had some pretty destructive conflict over hospitality and Hispanics. Some wanted to welcome Hispanics into our church facility. Some did not. In our denomination we have a “Pastor-Parish Relations Committee” in the local church and at one of those meetings during the heat of the conflict one of our members angrily said, “This isn’t a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. It’s a Pastor Committee and you all know it.” She was saying that the pastor had surrounded himself with those whom he knew would agree with his vision and ideas. I believe she was wrong about not welcoming Hispanics. I believe she may have been right about the pastor (me and a long line of predecessors) surrounding ourselves with those who would agree with us. It may not be helpful to the church but it is easier.
When I was first starting out in ministry, one of my mentors told me, “Jim, don’t think for an instance that you’re not getting into this, in part, because of your ego. We all believe that we’re called by God to the ministry. But we all like the attention. We all like to be in front of people. We all like the positive strokes.” He was right to some extent. We all like it when people agree. It can even make us pretty sure that we’re doing what God wants us to do. After all, when you’re surrounded by Yes-Men and Yes-Women it can give you a false sense that everyone prayerfully agrees with you.
But is this right?
Says Nathan Kirkpatrick over at Faith and Leadership in a blog post entitled “The Leader and the Loyal Opposition”:
A radio interview with a recently re-elected president of an African nation caught my attention recently on my way in to work. The interviewer was asking him about the results of his re-election (which he won by more than 90 percent of the vote). She asked whether the final tallies were the result of repression of opposition voices, and, after some back-and-forth, she asked pointedly, “Don’t you, as the leader of your country, have a responsibility to cultivate a viable opposition party?”
Such an interesting question! Setting aside the larger geopolitical and human rights implications, it made me wonder if leaders of institutions have a responsibility to cultivate opposition to their own leadership.
Frankly, I’m not sure most leaders even think about it, because it seldom feels as though they suffer from a shortage of opposition. Further, most have been trained to believe that central to their work is “gaining alignment,” the building of strong coalitions within their organization (and beyond) to achieve a discerned vision. In many leader development programs, days-long sessions are dedicated to the art of attaining and maintaining organizational alignment.
Perhaps, even in a small church, we “have a responsibility to cultivate opposition to [our] own leadership.”
I’m not sure how to put this entirely into practice, but I do know there are persons in our congregations I seek out to get an honest and informed opinions with no expectation that they are just going to agree with me just to agree. I don’t think I would qualify them as “loyal opposition.” But they are definitely not “yes men” and “yes women.” And I don’t think it’s enough. We need to instill in all of our folks that their opinions matter and that their prayerful consideration is important for the overall direction of the church. It’s part of our communal discernment.
Churches and clergy need to be reminded of this. I think it’s even more needed in the smaller churches where there may not be a staff with whom ideas are shared and shaped.
Therefore it’s even more needed for myself and the church I serve.