Why People Get So Mad at Pastors

angry-kidby Wayne Cordiero and Francis Chan

A friend of mine recently changed careers after being in pastoral ministry for nearly a decade. I asked him how his new job was going. “Really well,” he said. “These days, people get mad at me only once or twice a year. When I was in pastoral ministry, it seemed like someone was mad at me every other day.”

I understood. I can still see the parents of a teenager, in my office crying because their son was walking down the wrong path. They were desperate for help, expecting and even demanding that I intervene in their son’s life. “Why doesn’t this church offer a better youth group?” they screamed.

I remember an angry keyboardist, frustrated that our church’s worship team was not using him “to his full potential.” He expected a prominent role in the worship service, and his expectations were not being met. “I really think the worship here should better utilize people,” he said.

I can picture a man offering to donate computer equipment to the church “but only if it was going to be well used.” Another man gave $65,000 to the church but kept pulling on invisible strings, demanding that it be used as he directed. Three weeks later, after sleepless nights of wrestling with his demands and threats, I had our accountant write a check for $65,000, and I gave it back to the demanding donor.

These frontline stories of pastoral work are endless. How do we handle people’s expectations, learn to get over them or live with them, or even learn from them? There are times when we even sense that these expectations come from God. What do we do then?

The key is to learn to listen to God and to let our vision flow from there. This often involves developing some thick skin, while still keeping our sensitivity to the real pain and needs of people. Every effective leader must learn to live with the very people who frustrate them until they no longer do. When you become a leader, you can never again get angry in public. The challenge is to stay balanced when criticized, to avoid taking the criticism personally yet to avoid becoming calloused or cynical. We are called to a paradox of personalities: sensitive but not easily offended, empathetic but not weak, flexible and yet filled with convictions.

(Editor [Mark Brouwer] comment: this is a strongly worded paragraph — especially the statement that “when you become a leader, you can never again get angry in public.” I’m not sure I agree with the “never again” part. Jesus got angry publicly.  Let’s agree that we need to be careful, especially about displaying anger in a defensive way … in other words, when we are angry about how we are being treated.)

You’re not making me happy

The common theme running through all of the stories I related can be summed up best in a single word—disappointment. That’s the root of all these unwarranted expectations, criticisms, and crises. Someone wants help and is not getting the help they want; someone needs a problem solved and the problem is not going away; someone is hurting and not getting any relief. It can all be summed up by the feeling of disappointment.

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. We live in a fallen world, and it makes sense that if life is not working as it is supposed to work, people would turn to the church to relieve that sense of disappointment, to get help. Yet the reality is that neither a church nor a pastor can satisfy every person’s disappointment.

I have known pastors who fall into this trap all too often. They wrongly believe that it is their job to make people happy. So they run themselves ragged trying to cater to the needs of people, or they push their staff to do this. It may sound strange, but there is a sense in which I can truthfully say that the church does not exist to help people. Our job is not to solve their problems or alleviate their disappointments. The primary reason the church exists is to worship God and to point people to Christ, the ultimate solution to their problems. Our work should draw attention to the one who has saved us, the one who has given us hope in place of our disappointment.

We do ourselves a disservice any time we position ourselves as the ultimate answer to people’s problems.

In our well-meaning attempts to promote Christianity as the answer to everything, we sometimes overpromise when we present the gospel. We want churches to be happy places, so we end each service on a high note, giving the impression that happy feelings always come from church. Or we want to help everybody we meet, so we have churches filled with broad spectrums of ministries for every conceivable need, but we end up doing many things poorly rather than fewer things well. The answer to all of this is to strip down the gospel to its essence: mankind getting right with a holy God.

With that in mind, we may need to help people understand the following truths if we want to help them develop realistic, healthy expectations about the church and the role and abilities of those in leadership:

  • Church will not always make you feel comfortable.
  • Church will not be the answer to your every need.
  • You will sometimes not like what happens at church.
  • You might leave a service unhappy once in a while, particularly if you are seeing yourself in light of God’s righteousness.
  • If you are a single person, going to church will not guarantee you a spouse.
  • Going to church will not guarantee that your children will not rebel.
  • Going to church is not the answer to all your financial problems.
  • You might not get along with everybody you meet at church.

Disappointment with God

If the ultimate solution to the disappointments our people experience is pointing them to Christ, letting him be the Great Physician in their lives, then once we have done this, disappointment takes on a different nuance. Now, if people are disappointed, they are ultimately disappointed with God.

For the teenager’s parents crying in my office, so sad that their son is walking the wrong path, so desperate for help from the church, so expectant and even demanding that I intervene, the one who has really disappointed them is God. They prayed about the situation. They begged God to intervene. So where is God? He is the one they are upset with.

When people come to us with their frustration, sharing their pain and disappointment with us, we need to dig beneath the layer of the immediate concern. When those parents are crying in my office (and I am crying with them), what they are ultimately expressing is that they are frustrated that God allows people to make bad choices—in this case, their son.

The real work of a pastor is not to try to solve their problems, particularly when pathways to immediate solutions have already been suggested and are not being heeded. The answer is not to ratchet up the youth program, or to drop everything and help chase a rebellious teenage son, or to lock him in his room until he turns 30.

Rather, the real work of a pastor is to help give the parents a clearer sense of who God is, that God is good no matter what they are experiencing right now, that he desperately loves their son even to the point of allowing him to make poor choices. The real work of a pastor is to help people come to grips with God’s goodness, even though we often do not understand his ways.

Picture the angry keyboardist, so frustrated that our church’s worship team was not using him to his full potential, so hurt his expectations are not being met—his real disappointment is with God. Did the keyboardist not ask God to give him a greater ministry on the worship team? Why did God say no?

The wise church leader does not immediately cater to this man’s demands and promise that he will be used more regularly on the worship team if that is not the best option. The wise leader will help this man see a righteous God contrasted with the prideful heart of man. Again, the ultimate work of a pastor is not to assuage this man’s disappointment and solve his scheduling problem or his need to be in greater demand as a musician. It is to offer him a clearer sense of the character of God.

An Invitation to Lament

When you encounter people’s unreasonable expectations of you as a leader, one very practical and biblical response is something we find modeled in the Psalms and in the ministry of Jeremiah and throughout much of the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament.

This response to disappointment, to unanswered questions and unresolved tension, to the pain and suffering people bring to us is inviting them to lament.

This means that when a person comes to you, and the problem cannot be solved, you point them to Jesus and invite them to honestly pour out their heart to the Lord. We know that God is the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3). When we lament, we acknowledge that God is good and sovereign, yet life is not as we would like it to be.

We find validation for our grieving in our lamentation. We learn that our emotions are permitted, that it is right to express them, even when those emotions include anger at injustice. The biblical form of lamenting allows people to feel and express the discomfort and disappointment they experience living in an imperfect world.

When you invite people to lament, you are acknowledging that you, as a church leader, are with them in their journey, and you empathize with what they are going through. You do not try to cheer them up. You do not try to fix all their problems. You allow them to feel the hard truth, the raw emotion of the problem or circumstance. And you point them to God.

David cried out to God. So did Jesus, who prayed with “loud cryings and tears to the one who was able to save him from distress.” God himself did this with Job. After Job had lost his family, his health, his housing, his reputation, and his livelihood, God did not wipe away every tear, at least not at first.

God did not try to make things all better. God did not offer Job any solutions to his problems. God did not crank up the ministries at the local church to help Job recover the things he had lost.

God simply pointed Job to the realities of the moment: that Job was a man, and that God was God. He allowed Job to lament, to call out in distress, and then God pointed him to facts that he could not fathom. It is perhaps the best example of pastoral ministry ever recorded.

Remember, seldom are your critics actually disappointed with you. They are usually disappointed with themselves, their lives, or God. You are simply a convenient target.

Wayne Cordeiro is founding pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, Hawaii.

How Do You Get People to Love God?

It’s hard to be a church leader. We try so hard to get people to love Jesus. And when they don’t, we ask why—again and again. Why don’t people serve more? Why don’t they give more? Why don’t they share their faith? Why do they keep looking at pornography? Why don’t they get along with each other better?

When we see shortcomings, usually our response is to work harder. Or encourage them to work harder. Maybe we can craft the perfect sermon, or perhaps in this counseling session we can say the perfect thing. (And sometimes we do need to work harder, for sure.)

But usually we need to realize a simple and yet complex truth. The ultimate work of a pastor is God’s doing. We can’t make people do anything. Paul’s commitment in Ephesians 3:14-19 is to pray harder, and to pray for a specific thing: that people would know the fullness of God, so that people can understand Christ’s love for them.

That’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. No matter how hard we work as church leaders, we will never be able to get people to love God. That work comes from God by the power of his Spirit. It’s a supernatural exchange. God grants the love. If a person does not truly understand the depths of God’s love, you will not be able to talk the person into it. This granting is something only God can do.

Imagine it this way. When my wife, Lisa, and I lived in Simi Valley, we often had people sharing our house with us. For some time, a young woman named Rochelle lived with us. She was single, and, like people in the Christian community are apt to do, Lisa and I tried as hard as we could to get Rochelle married off. Seriously—we introduced her to every single guy we could find. Rochelle didn’t mind, and it proved fun for the whole family. Even our kids prayed that Rochelle would get married.

But no matter what we did, there was no way that we could “make” any two young people fall in love with each other. Eventually, Rochelle fell in love all by herself. She’s now married, and the couple is expecting a baby.

The same idea is at work here—you can’t make anyone fall in love with Jesus, either. When it comes to Jesus and people, you can only make the introduction.

I can only tell them that God, the Creator of the world, the only God that matters, loves them deeply. More than any other human being could. God loves you so much that he gave his son to die on a cross for you. It doesn’t matter how messed up you are, how much you’ve rebelled against him, or even how indifferent you might be to matters of the cross; God still loves you deeply. Who does this? Who chooses to die in place of someone else? What an amazing God this is!

Yes, I can make this introduction, but nothing will happen until the Holy Spirit supernaturally gives a person the ability to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. He enables people to know something they can’t know. You understand God’s love in your inner being. Oh, how God loves us! And for people to understand this love, it comes only through prayer.

Prayer is the first and greatest work that we do.

—Francis Chan Reprinted by permission from Sifted, by Wayne Cordeiro and Francis Chan (Cook, 2012).

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