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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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Talk about it...

Michael Garner

commented on Jul 4, 2014

I always enjoy your posts, but this one is especially good. All I can say is, "Been there, done that." Wish I had handled it the way you recommended.

Deborah Brown

commented on Jul 4, 2014

As a female pastor serving small rural churches, I have experienced that women are just as likely as men to be SODs. It may be a worse situation because bystanders are extremely reluctant to take on a female SOD because the fallout they will experience is brutal and long lasting. When a female SOD decides your ministry is over in a church you may as well call the moving company because you will not enjoy another peaceful day. That being said, the tips given by Dr. McKeever are dead on.

Joe Mckeever

commented on Jul 4, 2014

Deborah, thank you. (Btw, wouldn't the females be DODs instead of SODs.--lol) I have zero experience either with women pastors or women bullies, so as one said in a later comment, that part of my experience is lacking. Thanks!

Thomas Friedrichs

commented on Jul 4, 2014

The only thing I would add is to always call their bluff. It's the passive aggressive stuff that is most maddening. If they hint that they will take their money elsewhere lovingly tell them that though it saddens you, God will provide if we are dedicated to pursuing his will. If they threaten to leave, lovingly tell them you would rather work through it but then hold the door for them on their way out. Good Article.

Keith B

commented on Jul 4, 2014

Unfortunately, when the SOD is the Chairman of the Board, calling the bluff isn't always an option.

Ricky Dean Mauldin

commented on Jul 4, 2014

Within the last month the Chair of the Board of Trustees (actually his wife, with his silence being deafening) accused me in an e-mail that went to other members of some back-door dealings. They're not with us, and the Body is stronger. It gave me a chance to show Matt. 18:15 has a "receiver" responsibility (wait, if you haven't confronted the brother yet, you certainly cannot tell me), and to restate that I need counsel, but I alone will stand before the Lord and give account for the direction of the local church. I enjoyed the article and add "amen" to the call to confront from the pulpit. I've seen too many pastor casualties who "made nice" when they were to confront in love - not the same things.

Sue Baker

commented on Jul 4, 2014

Sue Baker July 4, 2014 Great article --- filled with Godly wisdom. Wise pastor to confront them from the pulpit!They do their work behind backs and in the "darkness", so it's best to bring it out in the open and hold them accountable. It's better for the leaders and congregation to hold them accountable for their sin before God does! Hopefully they will repent and their evil in the church will stop before they destroy that congregation. Who will want to stand before God and try to explain that to HIM?

A. G. Benson

commented on Jul 4, 2014

Ah, the innocence of saying the syndrome does not apply to women, or is more rare. Every female pastor has first hand experience to testify to the contrary. When the claws of the females are engaged in battle with pastoral authority, the males are as little pussycats.

John S. Marquis

commented on Jul 4, 2014

Having also been the victim of "SOD's" in two previous churches I can to learn two very important things in my life. Number one is "don?t be a nice guy". In other words when my motivation was not to cause ripples in the pond, have disagreements and make everyone happy I appeared vulnerable to the SOD?s as they saw this as weakness and exploited it. The second thing I learned is that a majority of SOD?s half into the category of being more carnal and part of the business community and used to being the boss and having control. If you dig around there are usually enough people they have mistreated and questionable business practices, some even immoral and illegal activates, that can be used a leverage to encourage them to relinquish control, remove them from leadership and institute some form of church discipline if not motivate them to move on to another church.

Keith B

commented on Jul 4, 2014

I've come to realize that it doesn't matter where you go..every church has one. No sense thinking "what if" and relocate.

T E

commented on Jul 4, 2014

Wow, great article. I wish I had read it before a carnal corral in our last church undermined my ministry there and caused me to leave. Thank you for speaking the truth in love. May all SOD's everywhere understand the damage they are doing to the Body of Christ and repent for the sake of the Kingdom.

commented on Jul 5, 2014

Great piece. I am right in the heat of SOD fireworks. When I woke up this morning I had them on my mind. I didn't realise SODs were so endemic in the Church of our Lord. I believe this article is God-sent. Dangerous SODs and DODs on the Board are doing everything possible to scatter the disciples/converts we are raising. The loyalty of the increasing numbers of new disciples/converts is weakening their destructive stranglehold on the church. Your prayers and further counsel will be welcome.

Danny Brown

commented on Jul 5, 2014

I consider this to be a very spiritual, loving, and Biblical view, and I appreciate how the writer summarized his advice in 7 points. Of course, we ministers cannot always assume that we are completely right in everything, and that is the difficulty in dealing with strong people. If we knew that we were always perfect, we could fight with more confidence, but we always know that we may be wrong ourselves at times. But if we use love and kindness along with strength, as the writer has said, it seems we will be in a good position to see ourselves and the situation more clearly. God bless you guys!

commented on Jul 5, 2014

Great piece. I am right in the heat of SOD fireworks. When I woke up this morning I had them on my mind. I didn't realise SODs were so endemic in the Church of our Lord. I believe this article is God-sent. Dangerous SODs and DODs on the Board are doing everything possible to scatter the disciples/converts we are raising. The loyalty of the increasing numbers of new disciples/converts is weakening their destructive stranglehold on the church. Your prayers and further counsel will be welcome.

Minister Sanders

commented on Jul 5, 2014

Great Article Pastor! When dealing with carnal controlling individuals such as these we must be spiritual and not personal in our relationship with them. If we become personal with them we will only end up hurt and being emotionally destroyed by them therefore making us weak and wanting to leave the church. But when we keep things spiritual as my Pastor has taught me we are able to deal with people such as this according to the Word of God and remain strong so that they see in spite of their defiance I will stand firm and do the work of the Lord. And as you stay humble yet strong the congregation will see your light shine among men and they will be more receptive of you and it wouldn't matter what these folks do they cannot overcome God nor stop what He has already ordained. Pastors and all laymen keep the faith in spite of the opposition that will test it. God Bless!!!

Mike Jacobson

commented on Jul 5, 2014

Great article. I have serving God's church for 30 years. There are SOD's in every church. In fact they are usually on the pastoral search committee. Once they are identified- pray for them, keep them close and let God expose their folly. In time you will gain the trust of church family and their influence will eventually waver. I have never had to do it, but I love the thought of addressing them directly from the pulpit. Hang in there men - He who called you is faithful...and He will do it.

Nathan Nielson

commented on Jul 5, 2014

Great!

commented on Jul 5, 2014

Great piece. I am right in the heat of SOD fireworks. When I woke up this morning I had them on my mind. I didn't realise SODs were so endemic in the Church of our Lord. I believe this article is God-sent. Dangerous SODs and DODs on the Board are doing everything possible to scatter the disciples/converts we are raising. The loyalty of the increasing numbers of new disciples/converts is weakening their destructive stranglehold on the church. Your prayers and further counsel will be welcome.

Howard Merrell

commented on Jul 5, 2014

Sometimes SODs appear even after a long relationship. By far the worst year of my ministry, in this regard, was my 38th year at the same church. One thing I clearly learned. You can't lead out of fear.

S Henriques

commented on Jul 5, 2014

I've been there, done that--as have too many other pastors and staff members. In one church I followed a pastor who retired there after 23 years--and stayed in the church. His wife continued to teach a Sunday School class, and he apparently turned down all invitations to preach in other pulpits. Everything I did that wasn't exactly like he would have done it came under a great deal of criticism--not to my face personally, but to everyone else. I put up with it for four years, and when my rheumatologist recommended a career change, since the stress was making my arthritis much worse, I decided it was time to confront. Someone was sending anonymous letters to the deacons asking them to fire me. I took one of those letters into the pulpit and read it aloud on a Sunday morning, then informed the congregation that the deacons would be taking action that afternoon in their meeting. When they did nothing, I knew it was time to leave. I was willing to stay and storm the gates of hell for that church, as long as I knew they were with me. But when it became apparent that they weren't going to address the constant attacks (because they knew they would have to confront their former pastor and his wife, among others), I realized it was time to go. I stayed another few months and walked away. Only when I got out from under that constant stress did I realize how it was affecting my body. It also took a terrific toll on my family as well. I guess every pastor has his detractors, but what makes it so difficult is when the pastor's supporters stand by and do nothing. Several years go by, and I was invited back to speak for a few minutes at that church's anniversary. I spoke about ten minutes and made it a very positive message about still reaching out for the future and being the church God called them to be--and got a standing ovation. Most of those who had opposed me before were gone by then, and it was cathartic for both me and the congregation to have that time--me, to resolve any residual bitterness, and them, to resolve residual guilt for not standing up to the SOD's from years before.

Cal Swickard

commented on Jul 7, 2014

To state that it is almost always men trying to control the preacher I agree to a certain degree. In my case it was their wives who controlled there husbands because they didn't like change.

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