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Pastors face a common vocational hazard: getting pigeonholed. Labeling is another term to describe this ministry hazard.

It goes something like this. You make a statement in conversation with somebody or in a sermon, you do something as a leader, or you communicate your intentions about an issue. Or you intentionally or unintentionally make known your unique ministry rhythms or daily routine (i.e., study in the morning rather than take counseling appointments or take off Mondays and turn off your cell phone so you can take a break from ministry demands).

Inevitably, people in your church or ministry will subconsciously make up a story about you based on their experience with you or based on their met/unmet expectation of you. The stories may be good. The stories may be bad (the usual case). Some stories sound like these.

  • He (or she) is never available when you need him.
  • He's always available when you need him, 24/7.
  • He doesn't listen to feedback.
  • He really loves people.
  • He's a micro-manager.
  • He only does what he wants to do.
  • You better not cross him.
  • When he preaches, he's all emotion.
  • When he preaches, you won't get fed.

People share their stories with others. As a result, many stories are secondhand and grow each time somebody shares the story, like the "whisper game" we played as kids. And once a person makes up a story, it's difficult for us to remake it, especially if it carries strong negative emotion.

So, how should we respond to this reality? A few thoughts.

  1. Don't feel that you have to tell everybody everything about your life. We can be authentic and honest without airing our dirty laundry and without exposing our biggest frustrations with the church. We can avoid some stories with a bit more discretion.
  2. When somebody says, "A lot of people feel the way I feel (usually a negative story)," don't immediately assume the whole church is against you. "A lot of people" probably means two or three.
  3. If a wrong story about you is circulating, gracefully speak to one or two of those circulating it and try to help them see a different story. Let them then circulate the new story.
  4. Realize, unfortunately, that immature people will make quick judgments about you and will pigeonhole you no matter what you do. Don't worry about those stories.
  5. Examine the stories you have made up about others and discover if you've been guilty of pigeonholing others. Change the incorrect stories.
  6. Live such a Christ-centered life that when people make up stories, which they will, the stories they make up reflect God-honoring qualities.
  7. When you've been wrongly pigeonholed, remember Jesus. No one in history faced more unfair labeling and hateful stories than did He. And He responded with the utmost grace to the story makers.

1 Pet. 2:12 (CEV) Always let others see you behaving properly, even though they may still accuse you of doing wrong. Then on the day of judgment, they will honor God by telling the good things they saw you do. 

Titus 2:7–8 (CEV)  Always set a good example for others. Be sincere and serious when you teach.  Use clean language that no one can criticize. Do this, and your enemies will be too ashamed to say anything against you. 

How have you dealt with stories made up about you?

Dr. Charles Stone is Lead Pastor at West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada, and the founder of StoneWell Ministries, a pastor coaching and church consulting ministry. He is the author of four books including, "People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership" (IVP 2014), and his most recent book, “Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry” (Abingdon, May 2015).

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Russell Brownworth

commented on Aug 6, 2011

The most valuable advice in this article (for my two-cents worth) is found in #6 - living such a Christ-centered life that the stories are better than you really are. A man who was unhappy with the way I didn't meet his (unreasonable) expectations went to the community where I served prior to our church. He interviewed several dozen people to get some leverage to use against me. His plan fell apart when the folks in the community lifted me up. Didn't know I'd "lived above the criticism line" that well!

Jeff Strite

commented on Aug 6, 2011

This article only confirms what I've always believed about ministry: Perception is 90 of reality. In other words: what people perceive about your ministry is what they'll believe about your ministry

Jeff Strite

commented on Aug 6, 2011

This article only confirms what I've always believed about ministry: Perception is 90 of reality. In other words: what people perceive about your ministry is what they'll believe about your ministry

Sterling Franklin

commented on Aug 8, 2011

Very wise...what happened to my prior comment?

John Sears

commented on Aug 10, 2011

Charles, thank you for this article. In light of a recent event in the congregation where I serve, I am encouraged by your words. It was well timed that I should read this article.

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