Minimizing Conflict as the New Pastor of a Small Church
By Vernal Wilkinson
The green stake bed truck backed up to the front door of our home and in a short time all our meager belongings were out in the evening sun of southern California. A seminary friend and neighbor had borrowed the green stake bed truck from his boss to get us to our first field with Village Missions. We started our journey away from that familiar old house before sun up the next morning. We caravanned the green stake bed and our small station wagon the 588 miles for the next 9 hours. We were met by a group of eager strangers who helped un-load. That evening our two close friends from seminary had to leave for home. The eager strangers disappeared into the woods to their homes. The green stake bed truck disappeared down the road and darkness closed upon us. We were alone in a profound sense that night. But one thing held us steady, our call. The Lord had called us into ministry and led us to this place to serve Him. Fulfilling that call, exercising that service, seeing lives changed because of our ministry would more than compensate for the struggle of the move, the sense of dislocation and loneliness.
Imagine our surprise when those eager strangers proved to be less than impressed with all we attempted to do for them. Change was particularly hard. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t enthusiastically throwing our efforts behind their programs, activities and events that, for reasons we didn’t understand, were very important to them. And we were baffled when our initiatives won little support. Our initiatives were obviously the best things to do since they had been endorsed by our teachers and worked in other places. This was the perfect scenario for conflict. We needed them to validate us by submitting to our best ministry efforts. They needed us to validate their efforts to keep the church functioning and active by making every effort to keep those things going.
While I can testify that they went overboard to accommodate us as we learned from them and the ministry did well, we also learned some things about steering clear of conflict in a new situation. This article will recommend some ways to minimize conflict while winning respect and honor as a new pastor. During 22 years as field missionaries and 15 years as District Representatives with Village Missions, we used these in ministry skills whenever we found ourselves in new circumstances. We also tried to teach others these same things as they entered new situations; so that with minimal conflict they may gain the support and understanding of the people to whom they minister. But only in recent time has a formula for articulating what we learned become apparent to us. It is found in one simple verse in Second Corinthians 6:11.
Scholars have suggested that Paul in his second letter follows the format of Roman forensic debate that was customary for use in any political setting. His entire letter to this point is like a speech to an assembly. He has in the first few verses presented himself and his case as sympathetically as possible. Then in the remainder of chapter 1 through chapter 2 he has laid out the issue and the essential proposition he is setting forth for consideration. The key expression of this argument is in Second Corinthians 2:14 (NASB) “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.” He is arguing that his ministry to and with the Corinthians has been lead by God. In this Paul is laying out arguments in defense of God’s leading. The previous verses catalogue his efforts as an apostle and substantiate the argument. Now in 6:11 he makes an emotional appeal for them to honor his divinely appointed leadership, Second Corinthians 6:11 (NASB) Our mouth has spoken freely to you, O Corinthians, our heart is opened wide.. In this appeal in verse 11 he makes two points about himself and his ministry that should draw them to honor his leadership and minimize the conflict that has been prevalent. The first point is in the phrase, “Our mouth has spoken freely to you…” and the second is, “…our heart is opened wide.”
First, the appeal is emotional. Note that he uses the address, “O Corinthians”. This is Paul’s emotional call of pleading. He uses it variously in his letters. He used it in First Corinthians 7:16 to appeal pleadingly to husbands and wives for their marriages. He uses it similarly in Galatians 3:1 to plead with the Galatian believers to turn from error. In First Timothy 6:20 Paul strongly appeals to Timothy to carry out his ministry as a man of God. This usage reminds us that the basis of our appeal for a new church to honor us as their new pastor is an emotional appeal. We want to win affection. We do not come to the church to win an argument about the best ecclesiology or youth program or worship order. The appeal is neither intellectual nor logical. It does not gather strength from authority or superiority. It is an appeal to the affections.
It is a call as well. The appeal for respect as the new pastor reaches out to them. The new pastor is giving an invitation for his people to come into his life and share with him in an intimate and personal way. It is a call with deference to the people. Paul had to recognize that they could accept or reject his offer of friendship. When a new pastor arrives at a small church and begins ministry, he must recognize the ownership of the ministry is theirs and they must choose to give place to him in it. A new pastor was unpacking his office at the new church when someone came in and asked to speak with someone who had a little authority. He replied, “You may as well speak with me. I have as little authority as anyone around here.” Authority in a new church does not come out of the box with our diploma or ordination certificate. It is granted in the context of affectionate personal relationships.
Next, this appeal for respect and honor as a pastor comes from an open mouth. By this expression Paul is referring to the candid description he has given of himself up to this point in the letter. For example, in verses 4 and 5 he has told of his sufferings including afflictions, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness and hunger. He has also been upfront about his failures (vv. 8 – 10). He has in the course of ministry been the subject of dishonor, evil report, ignominy, sorrow and poverty. Yet in the same verses he has been no less candid about points of success such as the fruits of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, the armor of God, surviving, rejoicing and enriching others.
All of these suggest that the way to minimize conflict is to be candid about yourself. Admit failures. Tell of great experiences from the past. Talk about doubts and fears. The point is to win affection so that you may be honored as pastor. This cannot be done by asserting your credentials or dropping the names of great preachers or famous Christians with whom you’ve studied or associated. Rather, a relationship is based on candid and authentic telling of your story, sharing your feelings, opening yourself up.
In a small church particularly in rural areas a new pastor is an outsider. As such he is suspect. When we took a field in the mid-west it became known that we were “Californians.” We were from the land of “fruits and nuts” with all that it implied. But this outsider status can be overcome if you are an authentic person who is open, honest, candid, and, hence trustworthy.
The appeal for respect and honor as the new pastor in a small church is enhanced by the second quality that will win affection, integrity. This is summed up in Paul’s expression about the heart that is opened wide or enlarged, “…our heart is opened wide to you.” An open or enlarged heart has three characteristics that show integrity.
The first is the connection between the open heart and the mouth. Jesus once said, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” (Matthew 12:34) He recognized this connection. A hypocrite is someone who speaks one way but his heart is another or as Proverbs 23:7 says, “…his heart is not with you.” Paul is saying that your heart should be evident in your words. Never masquerade, mask or manipulate. If you do, eventually your heart will betray you. However, if there is sincerity in your words that will win others. It is important for a pastor to speak from where he lives. This is true in personal relationships as well as in sermons, Bible studies and prayer times.
But Paul uses language here that specifies the open heart. This is his second characteristic. He uses a word also translated broaden in Matthew 23:5. Jesus refers to the Pharisees broadening their phylacteries. They were taking the box with the Shema which they wore on their arm of forehead and making it bigger. They were decorating it and the straps that held it. This was a show of spiritual pride on their part. But Paul is not talking about show but basic honesty. He is saying that he has shown his heart to them. He has detailed his inner person for them to understand and know. They can see his integrity because his heart and his mouth lineup.
By the third characteristic in the expression “open wide” or “enlarge” Paul adds another dimension to our understanding of heart integrity. From this word we get our word, “plat.” It means to define property boundaries and set aside ground for ownership. Paul is reminding them that they own a piece of his heart. He has made room for them in his heart. As a new pastor tries to win honor and respect and reduce conflict he must demonstrate a genuine love for his people. Taking an interest in their interests, growing in respect for their unique culture and society, valuing their stories and traditions shows that you are plating room for them in your heart as you appeal for them to respect and honor you.
A new pastor had preached for a few months and his sermons were not well received. When he became aware of this, he asked some folks “Why?” The reply came back, “Perhaps it’s because you end each point with, ‘But then what do I know.’” A new pastor can be too self-effacing or too over bearing. He can come into the new church so afraid of offending or having conflict that his timorous approach makes him come off as a will-of-the-wisp milk-sop. Or, assuming that he has knowledge, authority and credentials, he can be so demanding that he angers and offends. Either way conflict will occur. It is not wrong to expect and try to win honor and respect as a pastor (Paul writes the whole letter of Second Corinthians to that end) but how you do it will determine how much conflict you encounter. Take Paul’s example and the conflict will be minimized. Open your mouth and tell your story. Give an authentic picture of yourself including bumps, bruises and defects. Folks will find points of identification with your story that will win the honor and respect you seek. Also open wide your heart. Let people see inside your home, your family, your life. Let them see how you attempt to live out your call with integrity and sincerity. Doing these two things will validate your appeal for the honor and respect that will forward your ministry.