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.