Westminster Seminary California
 
 
A Pastor’s Reflections: Phoning Ahead
VFT

During my pastorate I encountered my fair share of people who did not appreciate my ministry or the church for one reason or another. That’s fine and to be expected. Whether it’s my preaching, the church’s supposed unfriendliness, or a host of other reasons, people can and do leave churches. This is to be expected. There are, however, a number of people over the years where I had great difficulty ministering to them. One scenario comes to mind that repeated itself on several occasions—a family arrived at church, joined, and seemed to roll up their sleeves, jump in, and be as helpful as possible. It seemed like they were a breath of fresh air. But as time progressed, things began to sour. The family started to reach out to other families and created a clique. Soon there were two factions—the in-crowd and everyone else. It wasn’t too long before I had people complaining to me about the clique.

I responded to the complaints by doing my best humbly to approach the family that was creating the stir and gently challenge them about what they were doing. As is often the case, cliquish people are blind to their clique-making ways, and so the family rebuffed my correction. Things became tenser as a result and the clique built their walls thicker and higher almost to the point where I felt like there was another church within the church. Long story short, the session and I humbly but firmly held our ground, admonished them for the division that they were causing within the church, but our counsel proved ineffective—they left the church in a huff. Blessedly, the clique didn’t leave with them. Yes, we lost a few families but it wasn’t a total loss. At this point some would say, “Phew! Crisis over. Now we can move on with life in the church.” Not so fast.

Shortly after this family left, our session received a request to transfer their letter of membership. Without hesitation we sent their letter to the NAPARC church that issued the request, but there was a nagging question that lingered for our session. Yes, this family consisted of members in good standing—they were not under any formal discipline, which would have prevented their transfer to another church until the discipline was resolved. On the other hand, we had a pastoral dilemma—should we phone the pastor of the other church and let him know of the significant difficulties we faced with this family?

We wrestled back and forth about this. Would such an action be prejudicial? Perhaps we (the pastor and elders) were the problem. Maybe we handled things poorly and by phoning the pastor of the other church we would needlessly and unfairly characterize this family? On the other hand, perhaps we should warn the other pastor and session because, good grief, this family caused us a lot of trouble and a few words of caution might prevent some difficulty and hardship in the other church. Decisions, decisions.

In one case the session and I determined to warn the receiving church of the possibility of problems. I had a very cordial and edifying conversation with the pastor at the receiving church. I described the situation, told him where challenges might lie, but at the same time admitted that my session and I could be mistaken. In another instance we decided to remain silent, a decision I later regretted. A number of years later I came across the pastor of the receiving church and through an initially delicate verbal dance determined that we had similar experiences with a certain family. Upon this discovery, we both recounted how this one family had caused division and strife within both of our churches. I told him I thought about calling him to warn him, but didn’t want to be prejudicial, and he told me he thought about calling me but didn’t want to seem judgmental as well. Right then and there I decided that when in doubt, I should phone ahead to the pastor of a receiving church and offer pastoral observations when necessary.

There is a fine line between gossip and vengeance and pastoral concern, a genuine love for the sheep. If your concern is to vindicate your own name and air dirty laundry, then refrain from making the call. But if you genuinely love your sheep, even those who are difficult to shepherd, if you want the next pastor to be aware of issues so he can possibly minister effectively to a family where you have been unable to do so, and if you’re concerned for the well-being of the greater church, then in consultation with your session, make the call. The question of whether to call or not is ultimately one of wisdom, sometimes you answer and other times you don’t answer the fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:4-5). Pray for wisdom but also don’t be kowtowed by political correctness or fear of confrontation when wisdom dictates that a family requires correction, rebuke, and counsel even if they leave your church.