Why are my Pastors and Elders so Disappointing, and What Should I Do About It?

August 13, 2008

(This is a summary of the last sermon in the six-part series, “God Gave Pastors and Teachers,” preached on July 20, 2008. The audio is available here.)

What do you expect from a pastor?

What do you expect from an elder?

Consider this description of the perfect pastor found in various forms on the internet:

The perfect pastor works every day from 7am until midnight and is a wonderful family man. He is content with a salary of $100 a week, wears stylish clothes, drives a late-model car, buys plenty of books, and donates $100 a week to the church. He is 29 years old and has 30 years pastoral experience. He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings. He is enthusiastic about missions, but never encourages anyone’s child to live the rest of his life overseas. He makes 5 visits daily to members’ families, visits shut-ins and the hospitalized, spends all his time evangelizing the unchurched, never misses a committee meeting, and is always in his office when anyone calls. That’s the perfect pastor.

People tend to have high expectations of pastors – and they are often disappointed. Some end up hopping from church to church, trying to find someone who fits their ideal. Others work hard to get rid of each inadequate pastor who comes to their church, expecting to be able to find someone better. But then after a few months or a few years, the next man proves just as disappointing.

Surely God doesn’t intend us to church hop, nor does He intend us to trade in our pastors for a newer model every two years.

How should you handle disappointment in pastors and elders?

This is the last sermon in a series on church leadership entitled “God Gave Pastors and Teachers.”

Last week, we discussed how the congregation should honor and esteem their pastors and elders, imitating their faith, and submitting to them joyfully and willingly:

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,  13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

But we also saw that the congregation, in the end, is responsible for the church maintaining right doctrine, and is responsible for the church displaying the Gospel in its corporate life through its unity and purity.

  • How do these ideas go together? How can the congregation maintain right doctrine, and submit to its elders, if the elders are beginning to teach wrong doctrine?
  • How can the congregation maintain purity in the church and condemn sin if an elder sins and he is telling them to be quiet and submit to him?

Furthermore, what should you do as a church member if you are disappointed in an elder/pastor? You don’t think your disappointment is the result of unrealistic expectations. You realistically expected him to act one way, and now, he is acting another. When should you be quiet? When should you say something? To whom?

The Bible gives us some guidelines here, beautifully balancing our responsibility to submit with our responsibility to protect.

Last week, we briefly gave part of the answer, in saying that Hebrews 13:17 does NOT mean: “Do whatever your elder/pastor says at all times.” Instead, we summarized the right attitude toward elders with John Piper’s words:

a church should have a bent toward trusting its leaders; you should have a disposition to be supportive in your attitudes and actions toward their goals and directions; you should want to imitate their faith; and you should have a happy inclination to comply with their instructions.

We’ll explore these issues much more deeply today. Once again, there is not one passage that says it all. So we’ll be looking at a number of texts today. I encourage you to go back, look at the context of each, pray over the Word, take them all to heart.

We’ll look at this topic under three headings:

1) The Accountability of the Pastor/Elder: Five principles from 1 Corinthians 3 and 4

2) Dealing with Unfaithful Elders

3) Dealing with Disappointment in Elders

1) The Accountability of the Pastor/Elder: Five principles from 1 Corinthians 3 and 4

Paul has been discussing factions in the Corinthian church. Some folks have been lining up behind different leaders, including himself and a teacher named Apollos:

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:5-7

Principle 1) Leaders are ultimately only important because God uses them

Leaders are useful to the church ONLY because God supernaturally takes their words and ideas and Infuses them with power. The true church is not built because of leaders’ program ideas, personalities, talents, or experience. It is GOD’s choice to work through them. So the fundamental question about any leader: Is he yielded to GOD? Is he seeking GOD’s face? Is he asking God  to work through him?

No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–  13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.  2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.  3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.  4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.  5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)

Principle 2) God will test each pastor/leader’s work on the Last Day

THAT is the pastor’s primary accountability. His accountability is not primarily to the congregation (“Tell me what you want me to do!”) nor even to himself (“This is how I know I can serve best!”) but to God (“This is how Scripture describes the Gospel ministry.”)

Principle 3) Elders/pastors are servants of CHRIST, not servants of the church

This principle is closely related to the second. Elders do indeed SERVE the church – they exist to benefit the church! – but they are not UNDER THE AUTHORITY of the church. Now, that doesn’t mean the congregation should refrain from communicating to pastor or elders how they may be helpful. He may well need to listen to that advice. But both the pastor and the congregation must realize: The congregation does not have authority to tell a pastor/elder how to operate his ministry.

Principle 4) God’s judgment of a man’s ministry will depend in large measure on factors that others cannot see.

1 Corinthians 4:5 says that God will bring to light what is hidden; He will disclose heart issues, such as: Is this man seeking God’s glory or his own? Is he praying, seeking God’s power, or depending on his own efforts? Since these unseen heart issues are so important, Paul says don’t judge. God will do so, with all the information, at the proper time.

Principle 5) Pastors/elders are stewards of the Gospel – and they therefore must keep the Gospel front and center

This is what Paul means when he says they are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Not that they have some secret knowledge they guard that no one else has. But they have the GOSPEL! And it is precious. They must make it known. In Colossians 1:26, Paul makes clear that the central mystery of God is now revealed to ALL believers. He defines this mystery as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” That is: God created man for His glory, but from the beginning the first man and woman rebelled against that purpose, setting themselves up as the measure of right and wrong. They and all their descendants were therefore subject to God’s just condemnation. But God sent His Son to die on the cross to pay the penalty we all deserve for this rebellion. All those who trust in Christ’s blood alone for their standing before God are credited with the benefits of His death, and can live for all eternity, fulfilling mankind’s original purpose: To bring glory to God.

Pastors and elders must communicate the cross, the Gospel, through teaching, through preaching, through the way they live. That’s their responsibility.. That’s how God will judge them. EVERYTHING they do must be tied in to the Gospel.

Do you see how these principles free you?

In general, you are not responsible to judge your pastor’s performance of his responsibilities. It is not your responsibility to fix him, or to improve him. God may well use you in his life. There are things you may need to say to him that will be helpful.

But there’s much you don’t know. God knows all, and will judge all. Barring overt obvious sin, you are to leave the judging to God.

You are to honor, esteem, joyfully and willing submit, speak up when appropriate, live out the Gospel yourself, and trust God to work in him and through him to His glory.

2) Dealing with an Unfaithful Elders

God sets a high standard for elders:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. ( Peter 5:1-4)

He warns not only elders and pastors but all teachers:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (James 3:1-2)

Furthermore, we know that elders can and do fail, as Scriptures show:

(Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders) 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;  30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.  31 Therefore be alert. (Acts 20:29-31, emphasis added)

Indeed, Paul makes provision for the public rebuke of an elder:

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.  20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1 Timothy 5:19-20)

Therefore, we can never say “Obey your elders, whatever they may say.” The congregation must live out the mandates discussed last week: They are responsible for the church maintaining right doctrine; they are responsible for the church displaying the Gospel in its corporate life through its unity and purity.

While the congregation not responsible for fixing or improving pastors, it IS responsible for rebuking or dismissing a pastor for clearly wrong doctrine or for clear, obvious cases of sin.

In A Display of God’s Glory, p. 40-41, Mark Dever lays out a helpful categorization of matters facing churches. He divide issues on two criteria: Importance and clarity. All issues will fall into one of four quadrants; he then asks, What is role of the congregation and the elders in each?

For those matters that are unimportant and clear or unimportant and unclear, the church is free to decide any way it likes. The matter is unimportant!

For those matters that are important and unclear – such as, Is now the time to plant another church?          What should the next sermon series cover? – there is considerable need for input and discussion, but in the end, the congregation must trust its leaders and follow them.

For those matters that are important and  clear – such as what is the Gospel? What is sin? – the congregation has great  responsibility. THESE are areas the congregation needs to be united around. If elders go astray here, the united congregation must step in and rebuke them. This should not take place over ambiguous, unclear issues or possible sins, but when there is a clear violation of the Gospel, or of the church’s statement of faith, or clear, obvious sin, the congregation must assert its authority.

Every church should have mechanisms in place to deal with such problems. Every church should have:

1) A system of financial accountability, separating pastoral and financial roles;

2) A covenant, in which members and elders explicitly agree to be subject to the church’s discipline;

3) Clear guidelines to follow on avoiding even the appearance of sexual impropriety.

If you’re a visitor, and your church doesn’t have such mechanisms, and you’re worried something wrong is going on, your first step should be to try to get accountability and transparency in place. Make that argument biblically. If the leadership is not willing to be accountable – that is, their disagreement with you is not over a specific method of accountability, but over having any accountability at all – then you should leave that church, even if nothing wrong is going on at present. That is a recipe for disaster.

But assuming such mechanisms are place: How does one deal with serious moral or doctrinal failure in an elder?

I can only mention but can’t discuss two important types of issues for time’s sake:

1)    Criminal acts: Make sure you follow the law. Don’t cover up a crime. Don’t try to handle a crime on your own.

2)    An elder who is overstepping his bounds, giving commands in your personal life, such as telling you to take a certain job, to marry a certain person, to live in a particular place.

Instead, we will focus on cases where an elder is clearly undermining the Gospel, either doctrinally through violating the church’s statement of faith, or in his life through clear, obvious, non-debatable cases of sin without repentance. In such cases, the church must rebuke the elder publicly, as we saw above in 1 Timothy 5:19-20. Consider also Matthew 18:15-17:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Note that right after this, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answers, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Jesus is not telling us to avoid forgiveness. He is telling us to rebuke sin.

Note also that in Matthew 18 Jesus must be referring to obvious sin. For He assumes you are right in accusing your brother of sin. It must not be a matter of opinion. Jesus doesn’t even hold out the possibility that your brother explains what happened, and you’re now convinced no sin was involved. Jesus is here talking about cases of clear, obvious sin, such that when anyone else knows the details, they will agree that serious sin is involved.

If this sin is not so obvious and clear, or if the sin looks obvious to you, but others informed of the facts don’t agree with you, then Romans 14 come into play. The judgment is a matter of opinion:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;  11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”  12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.  13 ¶ Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Romans 14:10-13)

Do you see the importance of the sin being clear? The purpose of church discipline is to communicate the Gospel. The purpose of discipline is to enable the church to fulfill its threefold Gospel purpose: to express joy in Christ, to deepen joy in Christ, and to spread joy in Christ. That purpose is UNFULFILLED if there is clear wrong teaching, or clear wrong living by an elder. So discipline is intended to UNITE the church BEHIND THE GOSPEL, not to DIVIDE the church over matters of opinion and judgment.

Thus, the church should never attempt to discipline a member or elder over a matter of opinion, or over a debatable matter of interpretation.

But when clear sin is taking place, when there is clear false teaching, when there is no repentance, then, “Let him be to you as Gentile or a tax collector.” In such cases we are to treat the guilty, unrepentant person as an unbeliever, removing him from the church – and from any church ideally – hoping to push him to repentance. That is the goal.

Many churches and elders have experience in exercising godly, biblical discipline. It is wise for any church facing such an issue, particularly concerning a church leader, to seek the help, advice, wisdom, and guidance of such experienced pastors.

What if you’re in a church where false doctrine or obvious sin are going unpunished. And you can’t get rid of the erring elder – either because there is no mechanism to do so, or because the mechanism fails? That’s the time to leave.

So pastors/elders will be judged on the Last Day by God, and are accountable to Him. But pastors/elders who clearly deviate from core doctrines, or who engage in obvious sin, must repent or be removed by the congregation.

3) Dealing with Disappointment in Elders

What if you are disappointed in an elder, but the issue is not serious doctrinal error or obvious sin? Such disappointments might arise from:

  • The direction the church is headed
  • The way Sunday School is conducted
  • Issues in the service, or in the building,
  • The way pastors/elders allocate their time,
  • Doctrinal issues not in the church’s statement of faith
  • Possible sin which is not criminal and not obvious

Three points to remember:

1) Remember as we saw that the pastor/elder is GOD’s servant, not YOURS

2) Remember your responsibility is not to fix the pastor/elder, but to help the church achieve its purpose through its staying faithful to central doctrines and through its purity and unity.

3) Remember to be humble. In particular, remember that you don’t understand your pastor’s calling, his responsibilities, and his challenge in balancing those responsibilities as well as he does. Your pastor/elder probably has thought long and hard about how to serve well. He probably knows the Word well, and has studied the relevant passages about pastoral ministry in depth. He probably is well aware of his faults, limitations, and sins, and is trying to deal with them. So be humble! Acknowledge in your heart and verbally that you could be wrong. Look again at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and Hebrews 13:17. Ask yourself the questions from Piper’s summary of the congregation’s attitude towards its leaders. Make sure that both in intent and in outcome you are working to build up the church.

So, having remembered those things, if you are still disappointed, ask yourself:

Is it time forbear, or time to speak? We should be more likely to speak to an elder or pastor about matters that concern us in his life than with the typical church member. For the elder should be mature, and thus should be able to take criticism, even invalid criticism, and sort through it. Virtually every pastor I know welcomes responds positively to respectful, healthy criticism.

So don’t go to your pastor/elder saying, “You need to do X, Y, and Z much better!” Or, “I’m fed up; I’m leaving.” Indeed, never leave a church without seeking the prayer and counsel of the church’s pastors/elders, and going through an extended period of time praying for the elders.

Instead, use words something like these:

“Here are some issues we’re facing. We expected X to happen. What we see is Y. Help us here. Did we have wrong impressions? Is there a gap between your own goals and reality? Can we help to improve things in this area? (Note: Sometimes what frustrates us most about church is the very area where we should be serving.) “Know that we are committed here. But this is an important issue to us – important enough that if it is not resolved, we’re going to be quite uncomfortable. We want your prayers, your counsel, and your input. ”

If the issue is specifically related to the pastor/elder’s job performance: “We know that we only have an inkling of what it’s like to be a pastor. So take this advice knowing that we trust you to hear and to put what is right and possible into effect.”

That’s a way to communicate disappointment in a humble, submissive way. Churches benefit greatly if that type of communication happens.

If you communicate in this way and, in the end, must leave the church, you most likely will go with the prayers and blessings of the leadership. And that is the best way to leave a church.

Conclusion

God gave pastors and teachers. They are His gifts to His church. They are servants of Christ and stewards of the Gospel. A church must have Gospel-centered pastors and elders if it is to fulfill its purpose of expressing joy in Christ, spreading joy in Christ, and deepening joy in Christ.

But the church is made up of wandering, stupid sheep, and thus elders will disappoint members for two reasons:

1) Because the flock is made up of sheep with unrealistic expectations for leaders;

2) Because leaders themselves are sinful, limited, sheep.

So don’t be surprised at disappointments. If you’re not disappointed with Fred and myself today – you probably will be at some point soon.

But listen carefully: Every disappointment is an opportunity to display God’s glory. We are put in community in part so that we can live out forgiveness and forbearance when we do sin. God will use even our failures, even our limitations, even our sins to display His glory through is church.

Then we will see the cross that much more clearly. Then we will display the mysteries of God that much more fully. Then the world can see repentance, and faith, and love in new, different ways. Then those around us can see that we are far from perfect, but we are forgiven – and we forgive others – through the blood of Jesus.

That’s what we want to build here: Not a group of perfect pastors, elders, and members – we’ll never achieve that in this life. But a group of forgiven sinners, continuing to sin to our dismay, but continuing to point to the cross, repenting and seeking His face together, confessing and forgiving and loving each other and building each other up – so that even through my sins and failures, even through your sins and failures, we might all be built up in love, being equipped for the work of the ministry, being built up as the body of Christ, growing up into Him who is our head, until we all attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

That’s our calling. That’s our goal. That’s our destiny.

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