The Compliment That Insults a Pastor

Pastors have feelings too.
Pastors have feelings too. (iStock photo )

A few paragraphs from my journal of Tuesday, March 30, 1993. I had been at that church 2 1/2 years ...

At 2 p.m., I had a visitor. A former church member who will go unnamed here wanted to apologize for his being so critical of me in my first year. Couldn't identify why he was, except a certain resistance to authority.

I forgave him. The pain is that he is a minister of sorts, someone I had a lot of confidence in and did not know he was doing this. He said, "I hear from people in the last month that you have changed." Why am I offended by that? I said, "I haven't. I'm the same person I was then." Which is true. 

Reminds me of the pain in (my last church) when people would write and say, "We love you now, but for your first year here, we hated your guts. You were in our pastor's pulpit." (The previous pastor had stayed only three years and had left for another church before they were ready.) And these would be dear people whom I had valued.  They got it off their chest and left me bleeding. 

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Anyway, I'm making a real effort to leave it with the Father and to go forward. (end of journal)

Pastors Know This Feeling All Too Well

Someone will think they are giving you a compliment by saying, "Your preaching has been so good ... lately." Or they say, "I was telling someone the other day, you are a far better preacher than when you first came here."

Those kinds of compliments are better left unspoken. What they do is stick a knife in the heart of the preacher. They are digs and jabs over his perceived failures previously. What they accomplish is to ease the conscience of the speaker while adding more burdens to the preacher.

Why do some people think they need to confess a sin they harbored in their hearts but shared with no one? I do not need to know that someone disliked me "then," and thinks I'm worthier "now." (Note: The usual formula is that the confession should be as public as the sin. So, if my transgression was only "in my heart," then the confession may be limited to the Lord in private. Imagine the fallout if a man confesses to a woman that he had harbored lustful thoughts of her! Horrors!)

One wonders how church members came to see their job as issuing progress reports on the preacher's pulpit abilities. "He's better." "He's the same." "He's worse."

Show me that in the Scripture.

I suspect the answer has to do with the Reformation when the pulpit ministry became central to worship. Previously, the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper) occupied center place in worship, as it still does in Catholic and more liturgical churches. But Protestant churches—even down to their architecture—are centered on "the preaching of the cross."

From there, I suppose it's a short leap to the flock deciding some preachers are better at this sermon delivery thing than others. Doubtless, even in the 16th century, after Martin Luther's followers had multiplied and preaching became more prominent, people must have gravitated to the churches with the best preachers.

So, maybe I'm railing against something as permanent and fixed as the rising of the sun in the east. But it's still worth saying.

Let Us Pray for the Pastor and ...

  • And let us keep our critical opinions to ourselves, or give them to the Father in prayer. (If the sermons are truly disasters, every church should have a small team of leaders who are able to work with the pastor on this or any other problem. Church members do not take this upon themselves.)
  • Give thanks to the Lord for every good thing God does through our pastors.
  • Ask the Father to attend to his daily schedule since conflicts rise from every side, and daily the Lord's pastor is forced to choose which needs he will meet and which to ignore.
  • Let us speak well of him to other people. Let us not demand that he be perfect or flawless before earning our commendation. Let us show grace to the pastor by speaking well of him to others.
  • Let us speak up when someone is unfairly characterizing or criticizing the pastor. Let us not stand idly by when God's man is being attacked by someone who is clearly out of fellowship with Christ.

What 'Speaking Up' Means

Perhaps we could include a note here on how to "speak up" when we hear someone running down the preacher. Assuming they are not addressing you, but you overhear the remark, then I suggest you walk over to where they are talking and do nothing. Do absolutely nothing. Just stand there. Button your lip. Say nothing.

Walk up close to them, as near as the talkers are to one another—in silence.

Your silent presence will convict the culprit of his/her wrongdoing more than anything you might say.

If yours is a church where this scenario might well play out—that is, if people criticizing the pastor happens from time to time—then I suggest you rehearse before going into action. Imagine you come upon a small group in the hallway, and hear them running the preacher down. Imagine walking over and standing uncomfortably close to them. Imagine saying nothing but just looking at each one, in turn. Imagine standing there in silence as long as it becomes necessary. (The longer the silence, the deeper the conviction will penetrate and the longer it will endure, I promise.)

Do Not Misunderstand

I'm not urging anyone to concoct a praise report about the pastor out of thin air. Praise and encouragement should be given only when appropriate. What I am suggesting is that we find ways to encourage the ministers without attaching a barb to the compliment, without using the praise as a bait to sink the hook into the Lord's man.

How we treat the preacher, God takes personally.

I did not make that up. The Lord takes personally how His spokesmen are treated. It's straight out of the Scriptures, in two easily-remembered passages, Matthew 10 and Luke 10.

"He who receives you receives <e" (Matt. 10:40).

"He who hears you hears Me; he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me" (Luke 10:16).

Who among us would not like to brag on Jesus? Imagine having the opportunity to tell Him what a great job He's doing and how much you appreciate Him.

It's far easier than you might think.

Go tell the servant Christ sent how you value his ministry. And show him. Jesus will interpret that as you telling Him. And how good is that?

After five years as director of missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, where he's working on three books, and he's trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way.

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