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FIRST-PERSON: When the pastor is a ‘museum curator’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — Most pastors inevitably will face three common criticisms. The most common of the three is the issue of worship style and music. Although worship wars have abated a bit over the past few years, every pastor can be assured that there will be a few people in the congregation who don’t like something about the worship services.

A second common criticism of pastors comes from congregants who feel they aren’t getting sufficient pastoral attention. Indeed, even the pastor who gives extraordinary attention to pastoral care can’t be omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. I remember well one angry critic of a church where I served as pastor. She yelled at me for more than 10 minutes on the phone because I did not visit her when she was in the hospital. When I tried calmly to explain that I didn’t know she was in the hospital, she shouted even louder, “Well, you should have!”

It is the third common criticism that I wish to address in this article. It fits within the broad category of physical facilities. Some or several church members have deep emotional ties to, for example, a certain building, a Sunday School classroom, a parlor, stained glass windows, or pews. When the pastor attempts to suggest any changes related to these items of great fondness, he might meet a wave of unexpected criticism.

I spend a lot of time conversing with pastors. Almost every month I hear from a pastor who has been wounded by critics after he attempted to make some change that affected the church’s facilities. Many pastors are caught off guard by the depth of emotions they encounter. Others lament that they feel like they are curators of a museum, protecting physical items when they should be sharing the Gospel in the community.

When I served as a pastor of four churches, I was too insensitive to these critics. I often perceived them as unreasonable people with a misplaced focus. As I have aged (and hopefully matured), I now see that there were real reasons for the hurt.

Some of the congregants saw their loved ones married in a worship center, and the thought of abandoning that space for a newer and bigger facility can be deeply painful. Others recall their grandparents sacrificing hard-earned dollars to acquire those stained-glass windows. Those windows have a much deeper meaning than just some beautiful pieces of colored glass.

The bottom line is that many of these congregants have deep attachments to these items. There is a deep and real hurt when significant change takes place that affects those things that stir deep emotions in their hearts.

So what is a pastor to do when he receives intense criticism for removing the big, bulky pulpit in favor of a more contemporary lectern? How does he respond when he is shocked by the negative feedback when he suggests that the bridal parlor could also be used for Bible study space? May I suggest a fourfold plan of action?

— Respond to the criticisms pastorally. The critics often are hurt. Even though they lash out at their pastor, he needs to respond in love and deal with the hurt they are feeling.

— Keep the congregation focused on the missional objective of the church. Local congregations are to be taking the Gospel to the community and to the world. As that mandate is repeatedly emphasized before the congregation, more and more members will grasp that they cannot focus on the “things” of the church when they have been called to a much greater purpose.

— Use great discernment to know if the change is really necessary. Are there other alternatives that could engender less pain? Conflicts and fights over physical facilities and items in the church can drain the congregation emotionally and spiritually, and cause the church to lose her focus.

— Do not take the criticisms personally. I know. It’s easier said than done when you’re the target getting the arrows. But if you can hear the hurt objectively, you can respond with a greater pastoral heart.

Many pastors express surprise that their call to ministry includes being the curator of a museum. But the critics who hurt us the most are in the same group we find ourselves: sinners saved by the grace of God. God loves them and us unconditionally. We should do likewise.
Thom S. Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Thom S. Rainer