by Jim Tune
Is it OK for your preacher to change? Churches expect their leaders to grow. Christians expect their preacher will become more saturated by, and competent in, handling Scripture. Time in study should lead to greater depth and maturity. Shepherding a flock should, over time, lead to stronger skills in conflict resolution, mediation, and reconciliation. Your preacher will attend conferences, read books, and embrace new ideas and fresh vision.
For the most part, this kind of growth and its changes are generally welcomed by the elders and congregation. But what if deeper change takes place in the life of the leader, change disrupting the status quo? What if time in study, immersion in the Bible, and experience with body life actually make him a different person from the man the church hired 20 years earlier? Can we cope with that kind of change? Can we admit that life should reshape our souls and adjust our lenses?
Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not talking about heresy or adopting a plan of salvation distinctly different than the one you hired him to preach (and that he professed to believe).
Still, many preachers feel a deep reluctance to reveal who they really are to those they lead. They ask, “Where can I truly be myself? If people know who I am, will they reject me? Do people love me as their pastor but not as a person?”
I think, for the most part, churches have improved their level of care in terms of salaries, benefit plans, retirement, vacations, and sabbaticals. Despite this, vocational fulfillment seems elusive to many preachers and staff. We want to be valued for who we are and who we are becoming, acknowledged as trustworthy, creative, thoughtful, capable leaders. We want to use our gifts, abilities, and skills to make positive, unique contributions. To be real at work is as important as the paycheck.
Without being overly sentimental, the best thing you can do for your preacher is to love him. Love is not a word that comes up very often in the rough-and-tumble environment of employment. But in the church employment environment, love is not only the “greatest of these,” it’s everything. Love is an act of humility that says, “You have value. We need you here!” How many annual reviews in churches ask the question: “Does our preacher or staff member feel loved?”
Let me offer an example. For several years I’ve been slowly backing away from what I call the “Evangelical Ghetto.” Inside this ghetto is a subculture of its own that rallies and bases inclusion on several extra-biblical earmarks. Many Evangelicals live, behave, lobby, and vote as though the hope of the world rests upon worldly kingdoms. But the Bible teaches that hope lies in a Kingdom established by Jesus, expanded by people committed to following Him only. They may even be pacifists, Democrats, and oppose capital punishment!
I have taken a walk outside the “ghetto” walls from time to time, and I’m beginning to like it. It’s a part of who I am becoming: a resident alien. People who love me unconditionally have accepted my departure from the right-wing party line. Others have backed away, dropped support for the mission I lead, or expressed concern for the state of my faith.
Too often, when someone arrives at different positions and convictions, we cut them off. We then distance ourselves from anyone who likes that person. Of course, this is wrong, un-Christ-like, unloving.
My move away from the tribal markers of Evangelical subculture has changed me. I believe it is a change brought about by spiritual growth. Others believe differently. That’s OK, because we “show tolerance for one another in love,” (Ephesians 4:2, NASB). Again, not tolerating “a different kind of Good News,” (Galatians 1:8, NLT), we can still, even when they change, “have confidence in [our] leaders…because they watch over [us] as those who must give an account,” (Hebrews 13:17, NIV), “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5:21, ESV), because it is Jesus Himself who was and remains “the author and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2, NASB).
Churches, give your preacher the space I’ve received. Give your preacher room to change.