Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

Sometimes the biggest problems in a church are not caused by people who stir up division or attack a pastor outright, but by those who stand by and do nothing. Why are some lay leaders so passive, and how can you best respond?
Most of us are familiar with the oft-quoted words of 18th-century British political philosopher Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." I am one of many ministers who has experienced this in a church setting, where evil persons prevailed primarily because good but passive lay leaders chose to do nothing about them.

It is bad enough when a pastor is viciously attacked by caustic critics, but the greatest disappointment is the passiveness of those the wounded minister thought were his friends and supporters. They could have defended him but chose not to do so, either because they were afraid or because they didn't care.

Several possible dynamics are at work in the passiveness of any particular lay leader. Following are the four most common reasons why these otherwise supportive people fall into a passive role that can end up hurting a pastor and damaging an entire church.


1. Avoiding conflict. Some laypersons have had their share of intrachurch struggles in the past when they lost friends over some conflictive issue. They don't want that to happen again. Passive leaders may often have this attitude: "The minister will eventually move on to another church, but the rest of us have to stay here and get along somehow."

One deacon once told me that he had been involved in the conflict when the former pastor left, and he would never get involved again. So when I came under attack, this man and his wife, who had been so supportive to me up until then, quickly withdrew into silence and absence. When we had key deacons' meetings where I needed his verbal support, he somehow had to work late that evening and could not attend.

In the business meeting where my future was being discussed, this deacon and his wife chose to abstain from voting one way or the other. Having been burned once before, they had decided never to be burned again. I felt betrayed by their silence.

2. Intimidated by "facts." Others are simply intimidated by the more powerful and persuasive antagonists. They are afraid of repercussions. They may be afraid of being made to look foolish or ignorant in the face of the "facts" of the accusations.

They could be thinking, These critics may have information I don't possess; since I'm not really sure what or whom to believe, I'll just wait this out and see what happens. In the meantime, the minister's support dwindles. The antagonists see this and become even more bloodthirsty.

When an antagonist accused me in front of about 15 people meeting in a home of using the church phone to make personal long-distance calls at the church's expense, I was flabbergasted. I knew that I had done no such thing. From his "notes" he said I had called a number in Dade County, Florida, to speak to a friend.

All I could say at the moment was, "I didn't do it." I returned to the church office and pulled out the phone bills. I found one call to Miami, Florida, during the previous month, but it was on the church day-school phone bill, not the church office phone bill. I called the day-school director and asked her if she had made such a call. She readily admitted it, saying she had called one of her school suppliers to place an order, something she did almost every month.

When I confronted my accuser with the facts, he gave me his usual smirky grin and tried to change the subject. I wrote a letter to those 15 people to explain what really happened, but no one said anything--no apologies, no response whatsoever from anyone. The damage had been done.

3. Force of personality. Not only does the appearance of so-called facts intimidate some people, but the sheer force of antagonists' personalities also unnerves passive people who are shy and nonconfrontational. Antagonists are typically verbally persuasive, slick and charming in presenting their arguments against the pastor.

A denominational executive once came to our church to observe some of our meetings. Regarding two antagonists in the church, he later commented to me: "These fellows are really powerful people, aren't they? Their personalities seem to overwhelm the others, intimidate them and leave them speechless. It is obvious to me that they are intensely angry about something deeply rooted in their pasts, but regardless of what is motivating them, they will probably succeed in running you off. No one is resisting them. The silent majority is leaving you standing alone. I don't see how you are able to stand up under the pressure as well as you are."

4. Too busy. Another reason some lay leaders cop out in protecting the minister from pathological antagonists is their own busyness in the jobs where they must earn a living. This coupled with the excessive free time of the antagonists creates an environment in which the antagonists have opportunity to operate.

My supporters tended to be very busy people, putting in a heavy 40-hour-plus workweek, along with their regular family duties. They simply didn't have extra time to get embroiled in church politics. The antagonists tended to be retired with a lot of free time on their hands.


When clergy are being abused by church bullies, and key lay leaders do little or nothing to stop it, the minister is usually all alone and feels it deeply. Those who should be rushing to his defense are seemingly nonexistent or strangely and disappointingly silent. There were many days when I sincerely wondered if God really cared about what was happening.

During many weekdays, I would go into our empty auditorium to pray. I prayed intensely and earnestly. My prayers seemed to go nowhere. I felt as if God had "gone fishing."

Loneliness is one of the worst of all psychological wounds. We humans are social creatures, and isolation is one of the worst of punishments because of our socially dependent nature. No wonder that one of the worst punishments in prison is solitary confinement, total isolation from other humans.

Our national space agency decided years ago never to send anyone into space alone for any extended period of time. Sustained loneliness has been known to drive humans insane. Even children's workers in day schools know that isolating a misbehaving child can be a very effective form of discipline. But the child interprets it as psychological punishment if it lasts very long.

It is no different for ministers who feel cut off from the psychological support of their key lay leaders. Ministers who feel this kind of loneliness are not weak; they are simply normal human beings who are socially conditioned to expect support from those who once pledged to follow their leadership. This kind of loneliness is indeed a very real wound, an injury that requires healing just as much as a physical wound does.

Ministers under attack need protectors to come to their defense. Perhaps some of the readers of this article are lay leaders. I urge you to put yourself in the shoes of an abused pastor. What would you expect from those who once pledged support for your ministry? A vote to call a minister to a church position is also a pledge to support that person in every possible way.

Do not allow your fear and feelings of intimidation to place you in the camp of the minister's greatest enemy. Place yourself in the position of Aaron and Hur who saw Moses, even though a great and powerful leader, still in need of support and upholding. Without those two brave men, Israel would have lost the battle. Their role was simple: uphold the leadership of Moses. Even Moses was in need of support and encouragement. Your minister is no different.

Silent supporters are no supporters. A wounded minister needs a cadre of vocal supporters who will rise up and face the abusers with a loud, "Stop this ungodly abuse, and stop it now, or we will eject you from this congregation." Then action should follow their words.

What can the good and godly laypersons in a church do to support their ministers and restrain clergy abusers? The following true story illustrates in a humorous yet powerful way what lay leaders can do to protect their ministers.

A friend of mine had just been called to be the pastor of a large metropolitan church in the West. He was to succeed a pastor who had served that church for more than 25 years and chose to retire early. Three of the church's younger deacons met one morning for coffee.

All three were distressed over the way their pastor had resigned. One spoke up and said: "You fellows know what a wonderful pastor we had, but he chose to retire early because of one of our elderly deacons who gave him trouble over the past several years. His criticisms were unwarranted and unjust. We've got to stop this from ever happening again." The other two agreed wholeheartedly.

They devised the following plan. They called the pastor's antagonist and invited him to go with them to see a special place. Not knowing what the plan was, he agreed. The three young deacons drove by and picked the elderly deacon up at his house and then drove out north of the city to the banks of a river. They invited the older deacon to step out of the car, telling him they wanted to show him something special, which turned out to be a large cottonwood tree.

The spokesman of the three then said: "We want you to remember this tree. We all know that our beloved pastor resigned in tears over the way you treated him for the past several years, and we have decided that the rest of us should not have allowed that to happen. We are here to repent of our silence over what you did.

"We have just called a new pastor who will be here in three weeks, and we have made a vow here under this tree that we will not allow you to antagonize him, so don't even think about causing any trouble. This is why this tree is a special place for all of us."

My friend then concluded: "You know, I served that church for several years and never had one ounce of trouble out of that older deacon. My predecessor, who remained in the church, never understood why. Well, it was obvious to me years later when those younger deacons told me that they had decided to become my 'ministerial bodyguards.' Wouldn't it be nice if every church had deacons like that!"


If you as a pastor are dealing with antagonists and passive lay leaders, you have two choices: Either you let the rejection destroy you in the form of bitterness and resentment, or you determine to grow through the experience. I make the following suggestions:

1. Stop whining. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. After what happened to me in my pastorate, I struggled with clinical depression for two years, complaining to everyone who would listen. I wallowed in anger and resentment. These negative emotions affected my marriage.

While it is true that healing can only begin to take place when you feel free to begin the ventilation of these negative emotions to a caring ear, and though you may need encouragement from your spouse or even a professional counselor, this is not the same as whining.

Rather than whining, ask yourself: "What can I learn from this experience? How can I make this experience a means for my own spiritual growth? What can God teach me in the midst of what is happening to me?"

2. Start over. Quitting God's ministry team is not an option, although staying on the team may mean changing positions. I have moved from being a pastor to a new role in pastoral counseling. But I stayed on God's ministry team. And remember, a pastor rejected by one church may become a pastor graciously accepted by a different church.

Of course before starting over, some wounded ministers need to take a break for a time of healing. It should not be surprising that Jesus sometimes directed His disciples to take a break from stressful situations (see Mark 6:30-32). This principle should be applied to any wounded minister to enable him to experience a healthy recovery.

3. Forgive. The wounds you have experienced can be healed only by exercising the divine gift of forgiveness, which will in turn deepen your faith.

When I was pressured to retire early in my last pastorate by the machinations of a small group of antagonists, I wrote each one a lengthy personal letter describing how I felt about what they did to me, my ministry, my marriage, my family, my health and my future. I tried to be honest without being harsh. Not one of them wrote a response. Not one said they were sorry.

But for my own sake, I needed to forgive them even though none apologized. I wrote to each one that I was forgiving them. I did not expect reconciliation, but I did need to be free of my resentment.

I made a distinct decision not to seek revenge. There were several things I could have done, but I chose not to do any of those things. I could not afford to put my future happiness in the hands of other people.

4. Preach the gospel, not your wounds. For as long as you have breath and your heart beats, you have a message of good news to proclaim. So preach it, but as you do so, don't preach your wounds. Don't let any bitterness, resentment or anger muddy the waters of your message.

Rather, in a renewed ministry, become a wounded healer. And, most important--never, never give up.

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