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Recently, I cautioned young assistant pastors on a snare lying in their path (i.e., certain church members puffing them up into believing that they are superior to the pastor and ought to have his job). In telling my own story from several decades back, I expressed gratitude that I had not become the senior pastor for several reasons. Chief among them was the extremely strong laymen who exercised great influence in that church who would have "chewed me up and spat me out."

A young pastor wrote asking me to elaborate on that. Who are those men? How do they operate? What is a pastor to do when he finds himself serving a church with such leadership in place?

Nothing that follows is meant to imply that I have all wisdom on this subject. Far from it. I carry scars from encounters with some of those men—not men from that church in my previous article, but from their clones with whom I did battle in two subsequent churches.

The Apostle John wrote to a friend whom he called "beloved Gaius" in the little epistle we call III John. The key issue is a church boss who was exercising tyrannical control over the congregation. John says, "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church" (III John 1:9–10).

They've always been with us, these self-important self-appointed church rulers who reign as big frogs in small ponds and get their thrills from dominating God-sent ministers.

Who are they?

They are almost always men. I've never seen a woman try to control the church and the preachers the way some men do. Perhaps you have. Human nature being what it is, doubtless there are female Diotrephes out there. Thankfully, they are rare.

Where do they come from?

Ah, there is the rub.

Some of these men—let's call them Sons of Diotrephes—are serious disciples of Jesus Christ who rose to leadership positions in the church on their merit. They stepped in at difficult times for the church and provided the wisdom, the direction, and the leadership that saved the day. The congregation is grateful and now naturally looks to them for direction long after the crisis is over.

When a new pastor arrives at a church, he will want to identify the influence-makers. Whether they hold elective offices or not, these are the men and women to whom the congregation naturally (and first!) looks when critical decisions must be made. If they oppose a program the new preacher is presenting, he's in trouble from the start. He does well to get to know these people and to keep them on his side.

Some Sons-of-Diotrephes are not serious disciples of Jesus but simply stepped in and filled a leadership vacuum at a crisis period in the church's life and now refuse to vacate it. They enjoy being power-brokers. Such people are the bane of every pastor and the death knell for every church unless the congregation acts to break their stranglehold.

Sometimes carnal men are assigned church leadership roles by merit of their wealth or position in the community. In a small- to medium-sized church made up of typical Americans, the owner of a factory or large business will always stand out. The deference which he commands during the week will be shown him on Sunday. If he is regular in attendance and generous with his money, he's almost automatically going to be elected to key positions. Whether he is godly and humble—Spirit-filled and mission-minded, with a servant spirit and a heart for God—or not, rarely comes into play in the typical church.

How sad is that?

Pity the new pastor who walks into a church unprepared to deal with carnal leaders who enjoy their power positions and cannot wait to let the new minister know who's in charge.

Dealing with the Sons of Diotrephes

In the church where I served as a staff member (referred to in the previous article), the strongest lay leaders, the ones who ruled and insisted that the pastor deal with them, were a handful of business leaders in the city. Some were related to one another. To me personally, they were sweet and friendly and a pleasure to fellowship with. However, I was a lowly staffer and hardly a blip on their radar. It was the pastor who was in their crosshairs.

Quick story. A new pastor arrived and quickly ran into the reality of this small cadre of Diotrephes-clones (the SODs). After a few difficult years, the weary pastor bailed out and relocated to another state. Some years later, when the pastor who succeeded him got into moral trouble and had to resign abruptly, the pastor search committee wanted the former pastor to return. They were surprised by his response.

"Before I agree to talk with your committee," he said, "I want Mr. Diotrephes (he named him, of course) to fly out here and ask me personally to become the pastor. If he doesn't, I'm not interested." When Diotrephes showed up at the pastor's office, hat in hand, asking him to return, the pastor let him know that if he came back to that church, things would be different. Otherwise, no soap. He returned and led that congregation through many years of ministry and growth. To my knowledge, his influence and leadership and authority as pastor were never seriously threatened thereafter.

I've never forgotten that lesson. Unfortunately, his was an unusual situation, not easily duplicated by other pastors.

Question: How would a pastor deal with the Sons of Diotrephes in the new church where he has gone to serve? Very carefully. Extremely prayerfully.

A wise pastor will find out before he goes to a church how decisions are made there and whether unelected, self-appointed laypeople call the shots. A little investigating (such as talking with the previous pastors or the local denominational leadership) will tell him whether he wants to proceed further with the pastor search committee.

The former pastor made no bones about it with me. "Joe," the older gentleman said, as he put his long arms around my shoulder, "twenty of the most miserable years of my life were spent in that church."

That is exactly what he said.

"A little group was organized against me. They fought me on every decision. Whenever they got word that we were going to be presenting anything for a church vote, they burned up the phone lines organizing their people to oppose it."

And yet, I still went to that church. I went in knowing that I could expect opposition from a small, powerful group of members. Sure enough, they were on the job. As we've written elsewhere, I found out later that some decided I was too conservative for their liking and decided before the moving van was unloaded that I would have to go. Instead of staying 20 years as I intended, I stayed three.

In our case, we called in a church consultant. He spent many weeks studying our situation and faulted the church for having no constitution and bylaws, which left a leadership vacuum to be filled by strong-willed laypeople. He found that while I was not responsible for the church's division, I had become its focus and recommended that I move to another church so the congregation could create a constitution and start fresh with a new pastor.

It hurt to walk away. But I realized later that doing so probably saved my life. The stress of that pastorate was slowly killing me.

Something inside us probably would like God to deal with the SODs the way he protected Moses against them. From Numbers 16 ...

Now, Korah the son of Izhar (and a number of his buddies) rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, men of renown. They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?"

When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, "Tomorrow morning, the Lord will show who is His and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him.... You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!"

Moses said to them, "You and all your company are gathered together against the Lord." (Numbers 16:11)

The next day, the ground split apart under (these men). The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods.... The earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly.

Wasn't this a little harsh? Well, God did it, not Moses. And God being God, He can do as He pleases (Psalm 115:3).

By the way, one day one of the SODs came to me at church and said, "Joe, does it not matter to you the caliber of the people who are opposed to you?" At the time, all I muttered was, "It does." Only later did the Lord call Numbers 16 to my mind where the "men of renown" opposed Moses.

In Moses' case and in my case, God dealt with those men. Dramatically in Moses' case, not so much in mine. As far as I can tell. And that's an important point.

I stood in front of a church I had been serving for seven years and told the congregation how a small group of SODs were making life miserable for me. They did not represent the larger membership, I said and was glad to know, but they were a constant drag on my ministry and a thorn in my flesh. From the pulpit I addressed that group: I need you to know two important things: One, God is using your opposition to purify me and make me stronger. So I am grateful for you. Second, you will stand before the Lord one day and give account for what you are doing to His church and the man He has sent as your pastor. And friend, I wouldn't be in your shoes for anything in the world. I thought of the line, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31).

Toward the end of that sermon that day, I told the Diotrephes clan, "From now on, I'm serving you notice. We will love you, we will listen to you, and then we're going to ignore you. But we are going forward." The congregation burst into applause. Some asked later why it had taken me so long to kill that snake.

The answer was that I was still in recovery from the turmoil in the previous church (the one referred to above where the older pastor had spent 20 miserable years, to which I devoted only three years). Furthermore, it took seven years in this church to gain the confidence that the congregation looked to me as pastor and would support me in a stand against the SODs.

Here are my suggestions to the pastor who finds himself in this snake pit:

1. Spend a great deal of time on your knees.

2. Protect your wife from much of the stress. If she can continue loving the SODs and their families without reservation, all the better. She will need to know some, but not everything.

3. Remember the Lord's instructions of Luke 6:27ff. In loving your enemies — those who hate you or curse you or threaten you — you are to do good deeds for them, bless them, pray for them, and give to them. Among other benefits, you will make sure that ill will and resentment will not linger in your heart.

4. Minister to the SODs faithfully as though they are your biggest supporters. Otherwise, you are giving them material to use against you.

5. As you gain the trust of the rest of the congregation, in God's timing you will be able to withstand the SODs more aggressively and with greater success.

6. Remember that a short-term pastorate plays right into their hands. If you leave after only a few years, they are vindicated that their leadership is needed to save the church during the interim, and they will be lying in wait for the next pastor. You will have done him no favors.

7. Vengeance is not yours. (See Romans 12:9–21 for a manual on dealing with everyone in the church, including the Sons of Diotrephes.) Your job is to preach the Word and love the sheep and stay close to the Lord.

There is one more method, a quick one, that ends the Sons-of-Diotrephes' hold on the church. Other laymen inside the congregation can rise up against the SODs and put them out of business anytime they please.

The SODs have the pastor in a hammerlock. This is his job and he needs an income to feed his family. If he gets run off from this church and finds himself unemployed, he will find it difficult to get another church. Pastor search committees are understandably wary of flockless shepherds. "If you're so hot, why aren't you leading a church?"

However, the SODs have no such control over the other laypeople. That's why they try to work behind the scenes with the other men and women in the congregation. They use friendship, gifts, thoughtfulness, appointments, and honors to curry favor with the deacons and teachers and officers of the church. The laypeople are so trusting of these (ahem) wonderful people, they "just know" they couldn't possibly be doing all those terrible things to the pastor. And so, like sheep, they go on their way, allowing the wolves to harass the shepherd.

The remedy: in a church business meeting, stand up and ask important questions. "Who decided this?" "Pastor, was this what you wanted?" "Who is on that committee?" Two things the SODs cannot stand are exposure (everyone finding out what they've been doing behind the scenes) and accountability (insisting that decision-makers report to the congregation on what they did and why).

Sons of Diotrephes have contempt for the laity in their congregation. They know the great mass of the members want to be left alone and protected from the inner workings of their church. This provides them with a field on which to do their work. Hold them accountable. Ask questions of them in public. Turn on the lights. Let fresh air into the inner workings of what used to be known as smoked-filled rooms. You might end up saving your church and rescuing an embattled pastor.

There is no one-size-fits-all plan for dealing with self-appointed church bosses. But I hope my analysis provides some assistance to God's pastors. Don't forget, friend, to mobilize your prayer support team. In good times and bad, you'll need a cadre of intercessors regularly entering the Throne Room on your behalf.



Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.

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Lisa Donald

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Wow, amazing article. thank you, Joe. I believe there IS a female counterpart to the SODs ... the woman Jezebel (doesn't HAVE to be a woman) who seeks to dominate and control through manipulation, sympathy, or sensuality. She typically has a strong need to be the teacher or spiritual leader and uses tactics such as approval or disapproval, ignoring, dominating conversations (talking) and connection to or influence over the Pastor.

David Buffaloe

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Excellent article. I never knew that the Bible addressed this situation so thoroughly - and I thank God that He used you to bring it to my attention. I am going through this type of thing, and am wore completely out. Your letter brought me hope - thank you, Brother!

Don Workman

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Thanks for a needed article, Joe. After being in vocational ministry for over 33 years, I can identify with these struggles. I ran into these kind of people in only one of our churches, and would say that the first three years were more than extremely difficult. But God moved in my heart to not abandon the flock, and with His help I decided to "outlast them or outlive them" - and I have done both. By God's help and grace my wife and I are now in our 20th year at this same church and He has blest it with a great mood, spirit, and health. But we would have never seen that if we bailed after three years of hardship. So, young pastors going through it, print Joe's article and refer to it often for counsel and lean heavily on God's strength to carry on - and trust that your faithful walk and work for Him will bear excellent fruit!

Doug Warren

commented on Jun 28, 2011

How many of God's men are going through this! Reminds me how blessed I have been in my years of ministy to have only one such congregation. Let us pray for and be available to listen to those who are experiencing this as they attempt to lead people. Thanks, Dr. McKeever, for being willing to write what others would be hesitant to write.

Jeff Strite

commented on Jun 28, 2011

I'd like to humbly add a few thoughts to this excellent article: 1) Never give your adversaries any skin to grab hold of. Protect yourself from accusations by making sure there isn't even a hint of immorality or impropriety in your life. If you don't, SODs will destroy you if they can. 2) Always stay ahead of the curve. If you see trouble coming, make sure you get out ahead of it and deal with it - firmly but lovingly. 3) In our church, the Elders are the decision makers and principle discipliners of sin. I've always attempted to have these men do their job and confront issues like SODs. But I have learned that there may come a time (after they've been given sufficient time to confront an issue) that I may have to deal with the matter from the pulpit.

Pastor Al Green

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Thank you for this very powerful article. Wish I had read it 30 years ago. This is a must read for every preacher who wants to move the church forward.

John Grusendorf

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Joe this is the kind of thing I needed 30 years ago. I was all but destroyed by these kinds of men. In two seperate churchs I was devoured by men whom I trusted. The last one was so harmful to my ministry that it took eight years to overcome the damage done to me and my family. While I have never stopped serving Christ (I went into Christian education) I am only now beginning to seek another pastoral position. (20 years later) I have counseled many a pastor who has experanced this kind of thing and will now share your article with each of them. Thanks for your incite.

Reverend Keith Moreland

commented on Jun 28, 2011

I ran into this at a former church. The SOD's had gotten themselves as heads of the committee's, except for the nominations committee, where the pastor was to be chair. I told the committee that no one could be put in place unless they met qualifications that I outlined for each committee (see http://upsidedownchristianity.blogspot.com/2011/05/rock-on.html for how I dealt with it specifically) and most of the SOD's fell off of the committee's entirely. They still managed to get rid of me, but I think it was the biggest fight they had ever seen. Every other preacher would just up and leave. Perseverance pays eventually.

Donnie Martin

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Dr. McKeever, your words were most helpful. I have had personal experience with this sort of harassment. My first pastorate was one that destroyed my dreams of a sweet, loving, close fellowship with God's people. Though the majority of the congregation loved us and seemed to enjoy our ministry, to the SOD's, I could do nothing right. Though I was there for 9 years and 9 months, my time there resulted in a minor nervous breakdown and my eventual resignation. At the height of the torture, I had a man who sat on the back row and silently mouthed his mockery of me as I preached each Sunday morning. As the congregation filed out of church after the service, this man would shake my hand and snidely say, "That was a good 'old' message you preached this morning, Donnie." He accused me of preaching the same message for the previous 12 weeks. An accusation that was laughable. However, I wasn't laughing. The demonic traffic was so strong in the church building, I was literally afraid to go in the building alone. The fear factor there was torture. It took my wife and I a long time to recover from the emotional injury of this incident. As a matter of fact, I left this church thinking that I would never pastor another church. Nevertheless, God had other plans. My first church was tougher than boot camp in the Air Force, which at the time, I felt was almost unbearable. God used this situation to destroy many of my misconceptions about the pastorate, and mature me spiritually as well. I hope to never go through it again, but God gave me some valuable training in it. Thanks for the article.

Rich Viel

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Excellent article. Jeff's additions were great also. I too have had to deal with SOD's in ministry. In my last church they were the elders. They had decided that the role of pastor is not a New Testament biblical role and that they, as elders, were the true leaders of the church. They had destroyed the previous pastor who made several rookie mistakes. As a veteran pastor, they had a bit more trouble with me. After eighteen months of making life a living hell for me and my family they asked for my resignation because the church "wasn't growing." We had actually grown from 80 to 110 in worship. I agreed to resign on the condition that they would follow their convictions and never bring another pastor. Within a year, the congregation forced them to leave and began a fresh start with a new pastor and leadership. It took five years of waiting but God has now placed me in a healthy congregation that is a perfect match.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Overall, a good article. I would just like to offer one word of caution, though: be careful not to identify someone as a "Son of Diotrephes" too quickly. We pastors are constantly tempted to equate our agenda with God's agenda. And if someone opposes us, it's very easy simply to dismiss them as an SOD and treat them accordingly. But we must not ignore the possibility that those we consider SODs might be right, and we might be wrong! Even if they are in the minority, don't forget that reformers often are, as well. I'm sure Martin Luther was seen as an SOD by the Catholic Church. So let us depend constantly on God, who alone knows the hearts for our flock, as well as our own hearts. If God convicts us that it is he who opposes us through these people, let us humble ourselves and return to him in repentance. If God assures us that we are right with him, then--and only then!--let us deal with it with the help of the wisdom provided in this article.

Kimberly Kiehn

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Thank you so much for this article. It saddens me how common this is among churches...on the other hand, it's nice to know we aren't the only ones going through this. As a pastor's wife, I find it very difficult to not be angry and become bitter. I really don't want to be. I do have a question---is it ever right to quit? My 46 year old husband has the energy of a 65 year old man at this point (we have 5 SOD's, and they're training a 6th...), but feels his only option is to step out of ministry. I have a hard time not agreeing.

Terry Wallace

commented on Jun 28, 2011

Great article on Preacher eaters. Been there done that, and yes there women preacher eaters. The one that I had to deal with was called a church mother. Difficult people to deal with. I like your method brought good results.

Drew Tucker

commented on Jun 29, 2011

I've seen and heard of several Jezebel cases. Furthermore, I've seen two cases where the Senior Pastor was a preacher eater because he was a manipulator of the people and would cut any associate pastor or lay leader out of the way to maintain his power and status quo. They did so not for biblical reasons but rather personal or pragmatic gain.

Blake Armstrong

commented on Jun 29, 2011

Excellent article! I would like to recommend a couple of books that I read as the result of such an experience. These books were really helpful for me and my wife. Well Intentioned Dragons by Marshall Shelley and A House United by Francis Frangipane.

Kim Beckwith

commented on Jun 29, 2011

The great number of passionate responses to this article is, in my humble estimation, a sad commentary on the Body of Christ today. I have both survived such an attack in the past, and have seen good friends perish under them. Our greatest strengths as ministers and servants of Christ many times becomes our own undoing as humility and a servant's heart often come into conflict with a strong sense of need to defend ourselves. This to me is the defining issue. Are we trying to defend ourselves or are we trying to defend the church from the ravages Sods bring upon the churches they populate? Jesus openly defended the woman caught in adultery but did not raise a hand in his own defense. Perhaps we should prayerfully consider our motives and if its a concern for self humbly determine to endure, but if its a concern for the Body of Christ, boldly confront.

David Hodgin

commented on Jun 30, 2011

What a great article! Joe you have a lot of wisdom and moxie to go with it. It’s sad how many of us can relate to your article. I have had trouble with both men and women manipulating the church so there are plenty of “daughters of Diotrephes” out there. I wanted to also let Kimberly know I’m praying for you. “Is it ever okay to quit?” It is really hard to get your health back from this sort of thing, believe I know. No pastor is Jesus Christ, none of us need to die for the sins of our congregation.

Kurt Koerth

commented on Jul 1, 2011

What are "assistant pastors" and "senior pastor"? Are those Biblical terms? Should we be using them at all? Serious question.

David Hodgin

commented on Jul 1, 2011

"assistant pastors" and "senior pastor" Hmm, good question. We probably do use those descriptors too much and often for the wrong reasons.

Dr. Luke Kauffman

commented on Aug 13, 2011

Wow! This article is a keeper. Every pastor and seminary student needs to listen carefully to the spirit and the text of this article. As a church conflict resolution consultant, I wish I had an article like this one to give to the pastor and the congregation before listening to hours and hours of conflict. May every reader have a humble heart so as not to add more conflict to the Body of Christ by finding any fault in this God sent article to His church.

Zabdi Lopez

commented on Aug 16, 2011

Pastor Lopez, This is a good article and just in time for me to read it.

Chris Surber

commented on Jan 10, 2013

Great article and sadly very true. I had a similar situation when I was an Associate. I am also glad that I didn't allow the "coup" to take place. We've got a lot of work to do in this area in the Body of Christ!

Keith B

commented on Jan 10, 2013

I can see this is an older article, but well-worth repeating. Every church has a power player or two that causes division.

Alan Coe

commented on Jan 10, 2013

Preacher eaters come in both sexes, believe me.

Jonathan Larsson

commented on Jan 10, 2013

Re: Jeff Strite's comments in #5 - THIS is the real answer. The leadership and authority of the church should reside in the eldership. Elders that are properly "pastoring" or "shepherding" the church will handle these issues and if they don't then they shouldn't be elders. The preaching minister may or may not be an elder and part of that group. If he's not, he really shouldn't be called "the pastor".

David Parks

commented on Jan 10, 2013

Fantastic article. Wish I had read this BEFORE I encountered my first SOD. No one had even warned me they existed. So I had no idea how to deal with them. The damage to my self confidence and ministry took years of healing. It was over 30 years ago. The real tragedy is that both congregations are now just a shadow of their former selves. God will not bless a church that honors Diotrophes over Christ.

Anthony Jones

commented on Jan 11, 2013

I would just like to add, that as a younger pastor going into an organized, operating church, with most of it's members much older, and in a lot of cases more educated, you can imagine my situation. On top of that, the previous pastor had so many problems until he was removed from the church, which was a much older man, and shortly afterward died as a result of sickness and heartbreak. So here I am; now being there more than 5 years. I most say I have seen some victories. But it took me staying close to God, staying on my knees, and keeping the atmosphere charged with God's anointing. I have found that the anointing truly does destroy the yokes. My wife and I came into a situation where the congragation was a total wreck. But through much prayer, we have managed to hold out. Things are not perfect even now but we've come a long ways. We have had in the past several court cases, trying to keep the bad people away from the church, we have made the local news, etc... But I am a witness, and I'm not saying I made all the best decisions, during some of these experiences, but I did make some decisions, and I am a witness, if you really rely on God, and preach His word with passion and conviction, my friend, things will get better. Don't give up on God. I really enjoyed the article and can truly relate. I am touched by the responses of other leaders sharing their experiences. Hopefully, we all will find strength in God that's needed to endure.

Doug Conley

commented on Jan 11, 2013

This is a great article. It describes more than one ministry I've had. Also, I agree with Jonathan.

Steve Brinkman

commented on Jan 11, 2013

I appreciate the transparency, biblical wisdom, and practical insight in this article. Thanks so much!

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