I stepped down from the pulpit, feeling good about how I had pleased the people by allowing their much-loved missionary, who my wife and I had heard so much about from the time we arrived, speak for the morning. I loved to preach and did not give up the pulpit easily, but I had learned there was a significant difference between being the elected pastor of a congregation and an effective leader whom people would follow.
It takes 5-6 years before a pastor has “go to the wall for you” support from a congregation. Until then the people evaluate, test, even judge you. Why? Because most churches have endured a succession of short pastorates, and they are not about to commit themselves once again to someone who may disappear in 2-3 years, leaving behind yet one more set of unrealized pastor-driven goals. Until they know you are truly committed to them as their pastor, they will not throw their all into your vision and goals. But once you have stood with them for several years through thick and thin, the good and the bad, and shown them you are there for them despite their opposition and lack of support, then they will begin to trust you.
Having learned this the hard way, I wanted to win the confidence and support of my congregation so we could enjoy many years together of effective ministry in and around our city. Consequently, when I heard that this much-loved missionary was home and planning to visit our church, I asked her to be our speaker on a Sunday morning and update the congregation on her life and work.
She readily accepted. Surely this would show the people I could give up preaching in order to honor their love and support for this woman. Sunday came, and when it was time for the message, I introduced her as our speaker and sat down. She did a great job informing us of what God was doing where she served and even kept within the time frame for the message. Following the benediction, we came down from the platform and people milled around her to renew acquaintances, ask questions, and enjoy her presence.
No home run
I thought, “I hit a home run with this one!” But as the crowd thinned and the chosen hosts took the missionary with them, three of the deacons approached me. Looking at their faces, I could see a storm brewing. They minced no words: “We want to meet with you tomorrow evening. You violated a biblical principle, women are not allowed to teach men. We have held to this for over fifty years, from the time this church was founded. Where do you get the idea you can come in here and begin changing what the Bible teaches? We will see you tomorrow evening!”
Their words, like a sudden thunderstorm, blew away my euphoria over believing that I had shown the people my love for them by putting their missionary before myself. How could these men be so legalistic that they could write off the joy this woman had brought to the congregation with her report of how God was working where she lived and served? Equally so, how could they dismiss the encouragement the support of this congregation brought her? My defenses began to rise like an ancient castles’ drawbridge when faced with an approaching enemy army. I lined up my cannons.
- “I did it because you kept telling me how much this missionary meant to you.”
- “I did it so you could see and hear what your investment in her was producing.”
- “She didn’t preach, she didn’t even read Scripture, she just updated us on her work.”
- “Why do you allow women to sing hymns and spiritual songs in the worship service which instruct and inspire us? Isn’t this the same as speaking to us?”
- “What about women in the Bible like Priscilla? What about the four daughters of Agabus? What about Deborah?”
By the time I got home for dinner, I realized this was going to be my biggest battle since coming to this church, as it was a theological clash. These never end quickly, and too often end badly. I thought of the heroic words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand, God help me, I can do no other,” when he stood on trial for his teachings. The Pope had declared them heresy, and the Diet of Worms, an Imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, demanded he retract them. He refused and was declared an outlaw. If I took my stand on what I believed to be right, what would happen to me?
Lead from weakness
I called my mentor and related the episode of the morning to him. “How do I defend myself?” I asked afterward. “I did nothing wrong.”
To which my mentor spoke 3 little words: “Lead from weakness.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you defend yourself,” he explained, “you may win the argument, but you’ll lose in the long run because you will have established a competitive environment between you and your deacons. And be sure of this, there will be more conflicts between you. Go into the meeting and ask to be allowed to speak first, then simply tell them you didn’t know the church had a policy of not having women speak in the worship service. If you had known, you would’ve worked something else out at another time so the people could have still heard her update.
That’s leading from weakness. Always choose carefully the ground on which you fight your battles. Every little difference you have is not a worthy struggle.”
When I gathered with the deacons in my office Monday evening, you could have cut the tension with a knife. I asked to speak first and quietly stated that no one had told me of the policy, and that if I had known it, I would never have invited her to speak Sunday morning.
“I’m sorry I created an issue where there didn’t need to be one,” I said in closing.
The room remained silent for a moment, then one after the other, the deacons thanked me for apologizing and acknowledged they should’ve let me know of their belief regarding women preachers. With that, the meeting was over in less than 15 minutes, and we left the room carrying none of the tension with which we had entered it. From that evening on, our relationship began to improve as we were learning how to work together. I had just learned one of the most important lessons of effective leadership, lead from weakness.