Welcome back to our ongoing discussion of the things people wish their pastor knew before leading them in a journey of change.
A second fact many pastors will discover when they look into the congregational past is that we’ve got our share of dysfunction.
No congregational journey can be reviewed without discovering a fair number of detours, wrong turns, and family quarrels in the car. Welcome to humanity, the necessary risk God took when entrusting His eternal purposes to us. We tend to get a number of things wrong on the road to getting them right.
One of the greatest ventures in human history begins unfolding in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. Moses, a slave baby raised in the palace, leads masses of the oppressed to a land of freedom and plenty. It’s a compelling story with every plot line the most creative screenwriters could possibly manufacture. That’s why every movie ever filmed of those events gets the label “epic.” It’s an amazing story.
But, think about this story from the bird’s eye view. First, you have such an amazing vision—Promised Land—a gift to people who’d spent more than four centuries in slavery. We’ve lived the American dream for a little more than two centuries. Imagine facing your greatest nightmare for twice that amount of time only to have the horror melt into a hope like this one. Honestly, the idea was so appealing that even a bunch of Egyptians gave up their homes to follow those slaves into the desert.
Of course, this was God’s journey. He proved He was along for their ride on numerous occasions. First, He extricated them from Pharaoh’s grip with the help of ten horrific plagues, aiming them into the Egyptian neighborhoods with a precision that makes our smart bombs look like kindergarten projects. Then, He dropped a moving sidewalk into the middle of the Red Sea, creating an aquatic adventure Sea World can’t copy. Maybe they could if anyone would have taken a few photos, but there wasn’t time before God Himself collapsed that body of water into a frenzy of waves that washed away the powerful army that had been chasing them.
There was honey-soaked bread-like stuff on the ground. There was water from a rock, and quail that flew so low and so slow that even the senior adults were catching them in their bare hands. I hunted quail a few times and know first hand what a miracle that would take. To say that God made this journey with them seems to be a colossal understatement.
Don’t forget the cloud. God put a puffy tour guide in the skies to show them when and where to move forward, and He even lit that fuzz ball up with fire at night so they’d be confident of His direction, even while they were sleeping.
And Moses was a pretty good leader himself. The Book of Hebrews lauds his humility and its clear that this former Egyptian prince had a heart for God that few can match. If you want to be a leader, it’s hard to find a finer example to follow than Jochebed’s boy.
So, put that all together. You have amazing vision, God’s power and presence punctuating the journey in “you-had-to-be-there” kind of ways, supernatural guidance so clear that even the most foolhardy could see which way to go, and a leader of leaders that’s easily among human history’s top ten guys to follow anywhere.
And still there was dysfunction. People complained and wanted to go back to the land of slavery where they were now hated with immeasurable fury. Some of the leaders were given to backbiting and jealousy. They even called God’s spotless record of support into question when the enemies became bigger. Frankly, if there was ever a journey that should have danced all the way to the end, this was it. A real life musical in the making, and yet they hit an awful lot of sour chords.
Every journey has problems…yours will too. So, Pastor, as you look at where we’ve been, be gentle.
Too many new leaders try to build their current credibility on the failures of the past. They vocalize the frustrations of the formerly frustrated; thinking that affirming their disagreement with former leaders somehow aids their own popularity. They point out the mistakes of the past; hoping people realize that “had I been here” the path would have been straighter. So trashing the predecessor or ridiculing the past becomes the path to a weak leader’s future.
He won’t live to see it.
If you criticize the day you didn’t live and the road you didn’t walk, you alienate those who did. Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but the last thing we need is for someone to remind us of that. Besides, that leader you’re refuting cared about us, led in circumstances you don’t fully understand, and sought the same God for direction that we need you to be talking to. Don’t ridicule the work that preceded your arrival. You won’t earn our respect that way.
Change, on its own, can feel like a criticism of the past. A new way causes some to think you’ve decided the old way was foolish. Don’t add to those inaccurate perceptions by careless words and actions that seem to prove them true. The Apostle Paul wasn’t afraid to confront unhealthy stuff when necessary, but even he told us to prove all things and do your dancing around the good stuff (somewhat paraphrased).
If you want to lead our next step, affirm the steps we’ve already taken. You may be smarter than our last pastor, but if you insist on acting like it, some of us will feel compelled to prove otherwise. He was our friend first. Even if he made a mess of things and limped away in colossal failure, it’s not fun to gloat over his grave. We need to build with rock, not mud.