We often hear that Jesus is our model. WWJD, right? Shouldn’t we imitate him when we lead? I used to think so, but now I think not. Let me explain.
Tensions between me and a former congregation grew steadily worse over the six years that I served them. We were not a good match.
One of the primary points of contention was the community youth ministry I started with a couple of church members. They weren’t the “right” kind of kids: they came from broken homes where alcoholism and even sexual abuse were not uncommon. Parishioners would say things to me like, ‘We’re not against the youth ministry,” but they created a very inhospitable environment for it. I received figurative slaps on the wrist each Sunday as the Trustee chair exited worship. “There was ice cream on the door facing this week,” he’d say, or “A chair was turned over in the Fellowship Hall!”
One of the people who made life difficult there was Dan. He began protesting my pastoral leadership by walking out of worship each Sunday. After he sang with the choir and recessed with them, he’d gather up his wife and grandchildren and walk out of the sanctuary right before my sermon—during the reading of the gospel lesson.
I sat through many meetings and endured public criticism of the community youth ministry from Dan and others. During most meetings, I didn’t say much back. I was angry and afraid of either lashing out or being defensive.
I prayed continually about what the appropriate pastoral response would be, and I took up the model of Jesus during his interrogations. The accusations leveled against Jesus were usually a twisted version of the truth, and he said nothing back except to say, “You say that I am.” For over two years I tried to sit mostly silently, particularly when the accusations against me or the kids were ridiculous and could not be addressed rationally. The not-saying-much approach did nothing to right the wrongs, and it also totally wore me down. I was certainly sharing in the sufferings of Christ, but I was not being any kind of witness to my opponents.
It was not until I took time away for study that I realized I was following the wrong model of leadership. During a close examination of the book of Acts, I realized I should have been paying attention to the apostles. Time and again they were hauled up before some body or another for questioning, and they didn’t quietly accept accusations based on misunderstandings. They spoke up every time…about Jesus. This was an appropriate pastoral response.
Shortly after my study leave, Dan came at me again in a meeting, this time thumping the Book of Discipline and accusing me of not doing my pastoral duties. The accusations were totally false and based on his lack of awareness of what I did with my time. I asked to speak with him privately after the meeting.
As I walked through a Sunday school classroom to get the place where we were to speak privately, I was so angry my heart was thumping in my ears. I wanted to retreat into the silence I’d tried before, but I knew I must do something different. I used the short walk to ask myself, “What would a pastor who was confident and self-assured of her calling to pastoral ministry do?”
When it was just the two of us, I said calmly but firmly to Dan that I would hear his concerns if he met three stipulations: 1) that he follow Matthew 18 and address me privately 2) that when I greeted him on Sunday mornings he would speak to me rather than grunting or ignoring me, and 3) that he would stop walking out of worship during the reading of the gospel. It was fine if he didn’t want to hear my sermon, but he showed disrespect for our Lord when he walked out during the reading of Christ’s words.
You know what? He never walked out of church again. And he started treating me more decently.
The story doesn’t end as well as I hoped; he never really understood the community youth ministry, but my experience with him gave me confidence as I faced further criticisms about that ministry. No longer would I stay silent; I would now use those situations to point to Christ. I know now that only Christ can sustain silence in the face of unfounded accusations, and I am grateful for the ministry of the apostles, who show the rest of us how to lead.
Jenny Williams is pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Kingwood, WV.