By Jim Tune
Is it OK for your preacher to change? It’s understood that with growth comes change. And most if not all churches expect their leaders to grow.
Christians expect their preacher will become more saturated by, and competent in, the handling of 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 and read books and will embrace new ideas and fresh vision.
For the most part, this kind of growth and the changes that accompany it are generally welcome by the elders and congregation. These are changes that directly benefit the congregation without unduly disrupting the status quo. Good enough.
But what if deeper change takes place in the life of the leader? 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 change us, reshaping our souls and adjusting our lenses? This is what time does. It makes a person real. Do we see that in ourselves? Can we allow it in our preacher?
What Real Means
I love the exchange between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse in Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit. The Skin Horse wisely encourages the Velveteen Rabbit about what it means to be real:
You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
Is it OK for your pastor to become real? As I’ve noted in my weekly Christian Standard column, 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 for their preachers. Salaries, while still unacceptably low in many smaller churches, have improved. Benefit plans, retirement packages, vacations, and sabbaticals are provided in many congregations today. In spite of this, vocational fulfillment still seems elusive to many preachers and staff.
Here is what I am suggesting: many of us who are “employed” by the church crave something much more meaningful than job security or a decent paycheck. We want to be valued for who we are and who we are becoming. We want to be acknowledged as trustworthy, creative, thoughtful adults capable of making important decisions. We want to use our gifts, abilities, and skills to make positive and unique contributions to our organizations and the world. As we grow, change, and are re-created and renewed, we want to give expression to the uniqueness of who we are becoming. To be real at work is as important as the paycheck.
Why Love Matters
Without sounding too soft or 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 environments of corporate America. But in the church employment environment, love is not only the “greatest of these,” it’s everything.
Even in the corporate setting, leadership and human resources experts are affirming the power of love. As Max De Pree says in Leading Without Power, “We are working primarily for love.”
Love is an act of humility that says, “You have value. We need you around here!” Love affirms that a person is worthy and important. How many annual reviews or discussions regarding employee compensation ask the question: “Does our preacher or staff member feel loved?”
In his fascinating book Joy at Work, former AES Corporation CEO Dennis W. Bakke says the happiest and most productive workplace professionals are the ones who are “thought of as a person” and not merely a human resource, asset, or employee. Bakke states he is even reluctant to refer to staff as employees. Unfortunately I’ve seen firsthand far too many churches that regard key staff members as just that—employees.
As Bakke set out to reinvent the culture at AES, he remembers having second thoughts about using the word assets to describe people in his company. He writes: “What do we do with assets? We use them. We buy and sell them. We depreciate them. When they are used up, we dispose of them. I vowed that I would never again use that word to describe people in my organization.”
So why the lesson on human resources? Let me cycle back to my original question: “Is it OK for your preacher to change?” What if he changes and grows in ways you didn’t see coming? Is he safe? Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not talking about heresy or the adoption of a plan of salvation distinctly different than the one you hired him to preach (and he professed to believe).
Let me offer an example. For several years I’ve been slowly backing away from what I call the Evangelical Ghetto. Inside this ghetto are things that have nothing to do with being a Christ follower. Rather, it is a subculture of its own that rallies and bases inclusion on several extrabiblical earmarks.
If you are a right-wing conservative politically you are welcome. If you are pro-gun and pro-death penalty, you are welcome. It doesn’t hurt to be strongly, even fervently pro-American. Patriotism, nationalism, and militarism are all virtues to be embraced in this ghetto. Israel must always be above criticism and without fault. Immigration is unwelcome or generally frowned upon. American foreign policy occupies disproportionate amounts of the conversation, as though the nation of America had something to do with the kingdom of God.
I am pro-democracy, pro-America, and pro-Israel. I love my country. But I love God and neighbor more. That said, I believe there are no man-made systems or humanly engineered governments that are even remotely like the kingdom of Heaven. The kingdom is altogether different.
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 not of this world. It is a kingdom that doesn’t operate through retaliation, but with a completely different understanding of power. It is a kingdom established by Jesus Christ and a kingdom expanded by people committed to following him only. They may be pacifists, Democrats, and oppose capital punishment . . . even at the ballot box.
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. Some have cheered my escape from the ghetto. Others—those who apparently “loved” me based on my adherence to their vision of Evangelical orthodoxy—have backed away, dropped support for the mission I lead, or expressed concern for the state of my faith!
Former Moral Majority leader Ed Dobson speaks of his own marginalization by conservative Christians in spite of his faithful service and conservative sentiments. Dobson and several other religious leaders were invited to the White House to meet with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. When interviewed by Christianity Today, he made some favorable comments about the president. Dobson later received a faxed copy of the article from Jerry Falwell. Across the margin, his former employer scribbled, “Unforgiveable compromise. Don’t ever call me again.”
I’ve experienced this in milder form, but it’s a familiar tactic. We take someone who has arrived at different positions and convictions and we cut them off. Then we put distance between ourselves and anyone who likes that person. Of course, this is wrong, un-Christlike, and unloving. The result is an insulated group in an isolated ghetto where no one has permission to think for himself.
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 may believe differently. That’s OK. In opinions we have liberty. I am grateful for my Christian friends and community for loving and supporting me through these changes.
That gratitude gives birth to the passion behind my plea in this essay: Churches, give your preacher the space I’ve received. Give your preacher room to change.
And preachers, wherever you are on your path today, rest in that. If some day in the future you find yourself in a different place, remember: it’s OK to change your mind—and to speak it.
Jim Tune is the founding minister of Discovery Christian Church in Toronto, Canada, where he continues to serve as the global outreach and church-planting director. He is president of Impact Ministry Group (an international church planting ministry).