A “noisy gong” or a “clanging bell” (1 Corinthians 13:1) is what disciples in congregations hear when their pastor or church staff member delivers a confrontational message about how they are functioning as a church without earning the right to be prophetic.
Yes, there is some authority inherent in the office or call of pastor. Pastors and priests can speak from this place, the authority given them by the office or calling.
Yet, this authority (and trust) only goes so far, remaining insufficient for leading significant change or missional progress.
Pastors and church staff must earn the right to be prophetic.
I’m not so much meaning the kind of prophetic confrontation regarding social justice or moral issues, though this kind of authority is also related.
I’m talking more about the kind of confrontation that tells us how our way of being church is less than what we could be.
This is “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), or “speaking the truth to power.”
There are times when congregations need to see themselves for who they are and how effectively they are living out God’s calling in their context.
But here is the crux of this matter: Congregations can hear and receive this kind of constructive criticism when they know it is delivered in love.
The Apostle Paul provides all kinds of metaphors in 1 Corinthians 13 for how criticism is experienced when it is, or is not, based on love for God and for people.
So, before pastors and church staff rush off to confront their congregations about their lack of missional advancement, here are some checks and balances to consider first.
1. Check your relationship connection.
Churches are faith communities. The nature, strength and health of our relationships in our faith community are central to being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
We must remember the “new commandment” Jesus gave to us (John 13:34-35).
When human beings know that someone loves them, is on their side, on their team and is cheering for them, then human beings will hear most anything the other wants to say.
In other words, when I know that you and I are in relationship and you want good for me, then I am willing to hear you – even when what you have to say is unpleasant.
Conversely, when I believe you aren’t really interested in connecting with me or knowing me, then your criticism is experienced as negative.
2. Check your personal motivation.
I remember an old cartoon from a ministry magazine, back when there were hard copy ministry magazines.
Two pastors are walking down the street, talking about their day. One says to the other, “Sometimes, I just want to smite someone.”
Certainly, pastors and church staff grow frustrated with their congregations. Things move slowly or are just so far short of what the ideal seems to be.
These are the times when we have the tendency to deliver confrontational communication to our flocks. This is the ideal time to check our motivation.
There are so many times, after pausing, reflecting and then delaying, that I am so thankful I did not pull that prophetic trigger.
There are other times when our frustration is alerting us to a problem that needs addressing.
The key practice here is to check our motivation. Simply releasing our anger is erroneous motivation for prophetic ministry.
The goal of ministry is not to help us feel better; it is to help the congregation move forward in mission and ministry.
3. Check your commitment level.
Are you called to stay with this congregation after you confront their stuff? A principal that effective leadership coaches use to guide their work with clients is to avoid uncovering what one is unwilling to work through. This clearly applies to pastoral ministry.
When I am leading worship, I must remember my role with this particular church. Am I supply preaching for one Sunday only? Am I an intentional interim pastor with a time-limited agreement?
Am I a pastor who intends to stay a handful of years? Am I a pastor who takes the long-term view of staying through whatever may come?
The answer to each of these questions leads to a different level of possible prophetic confrontation.
When we are willing to stay around to work through the mess created by our confrontation, then we may be ready to be prophetic.
When we are not committed to staying, our confrontation is experienced as a hit-and-run.
Every congregation needs a mix of affirmation and confrontation in order to move ahead.
The art, science and, even more, Holy Spirit part of ministry is to discern what is needed for such a time as this.