Welcome to the age of minorities!
Small, highly organised groups of committed people are addressing single issues and wielding enormous political power. Greenies, freeway protesters, women’s libbers, homosexuals, dissident trade unions and all the rest have leant how to make their point with powerful and impressive results.
Without making an assessment of the worth of their cause, one has to admire the modus operandi in terms of results. The “silent majority” remain largely silent although there may be immense unhappiness about the flavour of some of these lobby groups and the outcomes.
Minority Groups In Our Churches
Of particular concern is the impact of some minorities in our churches. Recent years have seen untold unhappiness being occasioned by minority groups within congregations.
They are capable of making their point, unsettling the pastor, lay leadership and the congregation in the process. They are able to create a climate of unrest and distrust which mitigates against effective ministry and distracts the church from being the church.
Energy and time is spent in trying to sort out matters which have usually been inflamed to the point where, in some cases, the long term ministry of both pastor and church is jeopardised. Regrettably the wider community all too easily becomes aware that the Christians are slugging it out again.
Who would ever wish to join them? I have enough problems of my own, thank you very much.
Why Minorities Arise
Minorities in the church arise for a variety of reasons. Usually someone somewhere is unhappy about something. The original cause may not actually be known. In some situations it may be traceable back to a time of conflict which could be twenty or more years old.
But the heat is generated around some more recent issue. Sometimes it could be a worthwhile cause which turned sour for some reason. There are some common denominators:
- Minority groups usually start out for the worthiest of motives. Often they feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously by the leadership, or that they have been brushed aside, or simply not listened to. The more extreme behaviours arise in an effort to be heard and to make changes. The wise pastor will give caring attention early. However, if things turn bad….
- The pastor or a prominent lay leader often ends up being the target. Occasionally it may be the whole leadership group.
- Disquiet first appears on the grape vine. Often those who are aggrieved do not take the trouble to follow the biblical directive to talk matters over with the person concerned. They may not think it is worth the effort if previous attempts to make a point have achieved nothing. This failure to confront proves to be very costly in the long run.
- There may be doctrinal concerns. These occur especially where there are those who come from other traditions with differing understandings of church, ministry and leadership. These concerns can be held dogmatically where there is no genuine room for conversation or the holding of alternative viewpoints.
- Those who drive the disenchanted minority are usually powerful people with personalities which demand to be noticed. They are eminently plausible and claim to have the well being of the whole church on their hearts. This is rarely the case. Rather they become intent on dislodging the pastor (for good reason, of course) although this is never spelt out.
- Sadly the Bible is the preferred weapon. Armed with a swag of useful texts, the case is mounted. With this there is to be found a monochrome theology which is well packaged and without leaks. Certainly there is no room or necessity for gray areas (which makes exploratory discussion mostly pointless).
- Politically the unhappy minority can be genuinely street wise. They know how to prey upon the fears and uncertainties of others. They are adept at seizing on comments or situations which “demonstrate” the worth of their concern.
- Generally leadership groups tend to crumble in the face of sustained pressure. An effective minority will have managed to appoint at least one of their number to the diaconate. This means that it will be impossible to come to a strong stand. It is highly likely that the leaders may even come to think that the group may be right since there is usually just enough apparent truth in the complaints to make them uneasy.
- Few pastors or leaders have the thickness of skin to tell people graciously and firmly when to back off. On the whole we lack the security to confront issues in a caring manner so that fellowship is maintained. Differences lead to divisions which too often turn out to be irreconcilable. Even Solomon would be pushing it to unravel some church disputes.
- The pastor can be in the most vulnerable position. Resignation may well be less painful than having to deal with an ongoing spiritual and/or political pincer movement where good will and grace give way to gossip and grudges. If there has been a failure to listen, the pain is the greater as the pastor may not have really comprehended the reasons for the difficulties.
There’s Other Problems, Too!
There are then other problems which disenchanted minority groups generate. The most obvious is the refusal to support the work of the church prayerfully and financially.
It does not seem to be a problem to press on passionately with the cause and claim the right to speak at special church meetings even when giving has ceased and there is no useful ministry being exercised. Critics are usually to be found in the arm chairs with little or no stake in the ministry. Some will be there because the leadership does not want them involved.
How To Handle The Minorities
So how do you handle the minorities? Some suggestions:
- Check out the presenting cause. There may be something which you can learn and it may be a help. Do not ignore the concerns of the those who are usually supportive of you. It may not be expressed in the right way but that is no excuse for not paying attention. Try not to react personally. If you need to change in some way, ask the Lord for the grace, wisdom and humility to achieve this. Always be ready to acknowledge your own mistakes.
- Keep in mind that the presenting cause may not be the real cause. Finding the underlying concerns can prove very difficult, especially if there are personality issues clouding the matter. But try and seek the help of others you trust. Too often we attribute the worst motives possible to those with whom we disagree. In this situation it is no wonder that others may see us as having horns of heresy coming out of our foreheads. Perceptive friends will keep us from over reaction.
- Don’t run away and hide. Talk to the people who are supposed to be having trouble with you. You may make a new friend or deepen a friendship. If you get nowhere, you have at least tried. Leave the way open for conversation. Going for the jugular vein is not exactly Christlike, removes safe middle ground and makes a dignified compromise almost impossible.
- Keep some balance. Try not to lose the plot by getting involved in the fray too much. Press on with the big dream. Try not to let the ministry of the church lose momentum. There are probably many in the church who do not know what is going on in detail and they could not care all that much if they did. But most will be looking to you to keep your cool.
- Reconciliation is the ideal (and biblical solution) but it may prove to be the impossible dream. There will be those who may leave the church and that will hurt. With some departures it will seem a blessed deliverance. Remember that there is a small battalion of God’s awkward squad who have been fighting with pastors all their lives and you are simply the latest in the line.
- Nurture your own spiritual life. Avoid letting the fray rob you of your own devotional exercise. Find a soul mate to whom you have given the freedom both to encourage and challenge you. There is the real danger of becoming so embroiled in the issue that you may actually lose objectivity and perspective. You need someone to be your anchor.
- Try to sort matters out before someone has the bright idea of calling a special church meeting. This will probably turn the issue into an unwanted donnybrook. There are few winners once the exercise of collecting signatures has taken place. Like a bad marriage the damage will have already gone deep and only a special act of grace will heal the hurts.
- In the unhappy event that you leave the situation under a cloud, do your best to learn what really took place. Do not rely on your own assessment of the situation. You will be fragile for a while and probably angry as well. When the system has had time to cool off, seek the comment of those whom you trust. They may have some additional angles for you. Listen to them even if it is painful.
Minorities: Here To Stay
Minorities will continue to be a fact of church life. Not all will be unhelpful by any means. But some may easily fracture the life of a congregation without seeming good reason. Their issues may seem to be trivial to you but they will be otherwise for them. The need to listen carefully is crucial.
Accept the care of others for you and believe that the ordinary church member will generally want to see the cause of Christ furthered in the best way. Endless criticism is not the best way.
Finally, it is helpful to remember that the Lord whom we serve was not without His critics and often looked for teachable moments when He was in conversation with them. The way of the cross is the way of joy and pain.
Rev. John Simpson
This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.