In this series on the pastor and personal criticism, it is important to consider how church members can effectively serve their pastor with correction. As pastors, we need this, and we need to make it as easy as possible for church members to approach us with any questions, concerns, or observations they might have.*
So what if you have some correction that you want to bring to your pastor’s attention? How can you bring that critical observation to him in a humble and loving way? How can you bring correction to your pastor in a way that not only serves him but pleases and honors God at the same time?
These are excellent and important questions.
But given the limitations of addressing this topic in a brief post, I cannot address every situation or provide you with exhaustive suggestions on this important topic.
This series on personal criticism has not attempted to address sins that would disqualify a pastor from ministry.** What I’m attempting to address is when a church member has a concern about a particular sermon, the direction of the church, or about a pastor’s personal character that the pastor may be unaware of.
Actually, one’s interaction with a pastor and possible disagreement with him will most often be over an issue of wisdom, or maybe even a matter of personal preference.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions to consider.
Motivated to Serve
Perhaps the most important step is this one: examining our hearts prior to any conversation in which we bring corrective comments to someone. And here’s why: motive makes all the difference. It is wise for me to examine my heart for any self-righteousness and to ask: Is my desire to share this critical observation with my pastor motivated by a desire to serve him? We must not assume our motive is humble and redemptive. Our purpose must be to serve our pastor, not to scold him.
One way I have found effective in preparing my heart prior to correcting someone is to spend time thinking about evidences of God’s grace in his life. Study the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) and the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4–11, 27–31; Ephesians 4:11–16; 1 Peter 4:10–11). Then study the life of your pastor and carefully consider where you see the work of God in his life. Thank God for your pastor and these evidences of grace in his life. This simple practice will create fresh appreciation for him, a fresh awareness of God’s activity in his life. It will also help to ensure that you bring corrective observations to him in a spirit of gratitude.
Next, pray for him. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the various burdens and temptations that are common to all pastors. John Newton, a pastor for more than 40 years, was quite familiar with these temptations, and he can help you better understand the burdens of pastoral ministry in blog posts like this one and this one. As you pray for your pastor and the various burdens he carries, your heart will be softened toward him.
Meet in Person
For a variety of reasons I think it is normally unwise to communicate correction to your pastor—or anyone, for that matter—in written form. Writing is easier than meeting, but that’s because, let’s be honest, we are reluctant to correct and fear their response to our correction (and that can be sinful judgment on our part). Meeting for a conversation requires that we first, by God’s grace, put to death the fear of man in relation to our pastor or anyone we are correcting.
There are numerous benefits to a face-to-face conversation with your pastor. I could write pages on why conversation is superior to written communication when it comes to correction. Only in conversation can we ask questions, elaborate on points, draw out our pastor, and hear his perspective. Whenever I correct someone I know that my perspective is limited and my perceptions are flawed. In this conversation I can express my concern to my pastor and not assume my perspective is infallible (Proverbs 18:13).
A conversation also provides your pastor the opportunity to observe your facial expressions and hear the tone of your voice, which are both critical to effective communication.
In this post I have used the word “observations.” By this I mean that you are not approaching your pastor as a prosecuting attorney conducting a deposition. Rather than bringing charges and accusations against him, you are bringing personal observations—something you have observed.
There is a critical difference between an accusation and an observation. The former is the fruit of a proud and offended heart; the latter the fruit of a heart that has been humbled by the gospel, and is aware that one’s perceptions are fallible.
Recognizing this will help me see two important things: (a) that I may be wrong in my criticism, and (b) my criticism may not be as important as I think it is. Approaching issues with this kind of humility will position you to come to your pastor with questions and not accusations.
So what constitutes a successful meeting? First of all, it was successful if you cared enough to approach your pastor and have this conversation with him. And it was successful if your pastor took the time to listen to you and to consider your observations. Do not expect or require that he immediately agrees with all your comments or that he immediately responds to them. Allow him the time necessary to pray, reflect on your correction, and talk with his wife and his friends about it.
But if you find yourself offended if your pastor doesn’t immediately respond or if he disagrees with you, then it could be that your own heart has been revealed, and maybe your motives weren’t as pure as you might have thought. You then have an opportunity to humble yourself before God and to entrust your pastor to God.
So meet personally with your pastor, humbly offer him your observations, but do not require an immediate response from him. As long as you have communicated your correction clearly and in love, you have served your pastor and honored God in the process.
* On a related note, it is important that pastors cultivate approachability and accountability. Two articles written by Ken Sande are very valuable in helping pastors to cultivate these areas, and those articles can be located here.
** For more on the distinction here between disqualifying sin and non-disqualifying sin in pastoral ministry, see Preaching the Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), pages 122–124.