Criticism is the manure in which pastors grow best...

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My father was fond of saying "Criticism is the manure in which Christian leaders grow best," but not all criticism is helpful. Pastors receive a disproportionate percentage of the destructive criticism that floats around churches, often allowing their work to be decimated by the submission syndrome that is the fruit of years of being brow-beaten by elders (or deacons) whose mothers never needed to worry about their self-esteem. The illegitimate use of a tool, though, does not invalidate its legitimate use.

Recently, my dear brother in Christ and fellow Presbyteryian Church in America pastor, Phil Henry, received a request from an elder in another congregation asking for advice concerning rules to follow in providing his pastor constructive criticism.

As I've written here before...

I know there are congregations that suffer under controlling, egotistical, autocratic pastors who have cowed their elders into a passive compliance that effectively abandons the sheep to whatever sort of regime the pastor is inclined to create.

In my experience, though, an equally serious problem is churches that are led by elders who take the view that the principal duty of their office is to protect the congregation from the pastor's leadership, particularly by eviscerating the pastor's sermons of any appeals to the conscience or calls to repentance and resolutely opposing all church discipline.

And while it's true that the presence of such unfaithfulness in the leadership of a board of elders is often the product of the sin of an earlier pastor who, by his adultery or theft or political manipulation of elders meetings severed the sweet relationship of mutuality and trust that ought to characterize the relationship between the pastor and his elders, I hope we all are in agreement that two wrongs don't make a right. Elders boards characterized by a spirit of opposition to their pastor ought to do one of three things: repent and produce fruit in keeping with repentance, request the resignation of their pastor because he is unfaithful and his shepherding of the sheep is contrary to the explicit commands of Scripture, or themselves resign allowing the congregation to choose new elders who will work in harmony with the shepherd God has called to serve that church.

I praise God that He has blessed our congregation with a sweet spirit of mutual affection and love within our elders board, and that when pastors and elders argue and debate matters (as we ought to, at times), it is done without acrimony in a climate of trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and in our own charitable spirits toward one another--that we do "expect the best of one another."

With that preface, I'd like to post here the advice Pastor Henry provided in response to his friend's request. All of us need constructive criticism to grow in our godliness, and many of us will need to provide such criticism to others, including pastors. Here then are one pastor's suggestions for how best to accomplish that godly task:

Dear Brother,

Thanks for asking your question on how best to bring concerns and/or criticisms to the teaching elder of a congregation. I have taken some time with responding, partly because I wanted to ask the input from a friend and former pastor of mine (to whom I owe much) and partly because of the serious nature of your question.

1. The pastor is "first among equals" on the session and has precedence in questions over what the Lord is teaching or desires to teach the congregation. Formally, you see this role worked out in the pastor being the "moderator" or "president" of the elder's board in local churches of our denomination, as well as having the tie-breaking vote in board decisions.

2. The pastor is called to stand alone at times on his board; was it Athanasius contra mundum? And while such times should be rare, that's not always the case. The price of leadership is "daily death" (1 Corinthians 15:31), constant striving (as when one runs a race; cp. Philippians 2:16-18), and being laughed off the stage as Paul was in 2 Corinthians--yet did he back down?

3. As an "equal," it is true: the RE has the privilege of pastoral criticism, but what does that look like? A "power struggle"? Holding closed door meetings when the pastor is out of town? Perhaps this is the world's way of doing things, but in Christ's Church? We have in the PCA a very low view of authority and vocation. Really, the question boils down to this: has God called the pastor or not? And no one has an infallible answer to that question. So, we must trust that, even though we don't know "for sure," God's will has been done through the presbytery's call, the congregation's call, and that we "doubt not in the dark what we trusted in the light." Such an attitude is much different than a Ruling Elder trying to "change" the pastor. The ruling elder must be willing to "come alongside" the pastor and trust Christ to use the Ruling Elder's input as Christ sees fit in the pastor's life and work. My friend noted that "most criticisms should clearly have a biblical basis; there's room for horse-sense criticisms, but they ought to be presented as that--not as "Thus says the Lord" intensity."

4. In a previous congregation, I jokingly came up with a "two office view" of the Ruling Eldership. "Catcher's mitts" and "Conduits." The Catcher's Mitt is a man who takes criticisms from the congregation and tosses them back to the one who made them saying, "Have you prayed for your pastor this week? and for his ministry? What have you done to make sure you can (e.g.) profit from his sermons that you say are (too shallow, too deep, too long, too short, too whatever). Such an elder is thinking pastorally, not politically.

5. The Catcher's Mitt NEVER says anything about anyone else's opinion or statements to him about the pastor. He believes if someone wants to criticize, he should be encouraged to go directly to the pastor per Matthew 18. My friend said: "even if we know others have our same concern, we should not mention others when we speak to the pastor. We should not say things like, "I've heard a number of people express concerns with you..." or "I know others share my concerns..." or "I'm no the only one who thinks this..." and so on."

6. The "Conduit" doesn't do this; on the contrary, he often speaks with those statements, or one like this: "You know, pastor, a lot of people are talking about that application you made from the pulpit last week." He basically "funnels" whatever he hears to the pastor, seeing this as performing some kind of "service." Near as I can figure, he is possessed of the notion that the pastor needs to "know" what the people are saying, and thinks that RE means "representative elder" rather than "ruling elder."

7. Not that representation is all bad. But let's distinguish. If your wife informs you of something your son said, you can tell immediately if its an "fyi" so you can (together with her) determine how best to minister to your son, or if she wants to use his testimony as added weight for her case (which she hides behind his words).

8. You see, Conduits don't lead like men, but play a game. They are content to be used by the power structure in a congregation to manipulate the minister. Some old theologians see the primary function of the Ruling Elder as chiefly responsible for church discipline. How different is that from today, where the RE's tend to be the chief mouthpieces of the dissenters and grumblers in the flock.

9. I've been the recipient of a good deal of what I believe to be inappropriate feedback from such elders in the past, but which, at the time, I encouraged. Pastors can be masochists in their quest to be sensitive to the needs of the church. And so an important but under-practiced area of love for a Ruling Elder to show his Teaching Elder: protecting him from criticism. Does any true RE want the TE, in the pulpit, to be tempted by the fear of man any more than he already is?

10. So, for the RE desiring to make a criticism, the bottom line is that he has either seen something himself and will speak to the pastor directly, in his own words, or he should keep his mouth shut. My friend: "No pastor worth his salt needs an elder or church member to bolster his case by saying that others agree with his criticism."

I do love you brother. May God bless your work as a Ruling Elder.


Phil Henry

(Rev. Phillip E. Henry is Associate Pastor and Minister for Families and Youth at Rincon Mountain Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Rincon Mountain is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, the denomination in which David and Tim Bayly also serve as pastors.)