Recently, I cautioned young assistant pastors on a snare lying in their path (i.e., certain church members puffing them up into believing that they are superior to the pastor and ought to have his job). In telling my own story from several decades back, I expressed gratitude that I had not become the senior pastor for several reasons. Chief among them was the extremely strong laymen who exercised great influence in that church who would have “chewed me up and spat me out.”
A young pastor wrote asking me to elaborate on that. Who are those men? How do they operate? What is a pastor to do when he finds himself serving a church with such leadership in place?
Nothing that follows is meant to imply that I have all wisdom on this subject. Far from it. I carry scars from encounters with some of those men—not men from that church in my previous article, but from their clones with whom I did battle in two subsequent churches.
The Apostle John wrote to a friend whom he called “beloved Gaius” in the little epistle we call III John. The key issue is a church boss who was exercising tyrannical control over the congregation. John says, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (III John 9-10).
They’ve always been with us, these self-important self-appointed church rulers who reign as big frogs in small ponds and get their thrills from dominating God-sent ministers.
Who are they?
They are almost always men. I’ve never seen a woman try to control the church and the preachers the way some men do. Perhaps you have. Human nature being what it is, doubtless there are female Diotrephes out there. Thankfully, they are rare.
Where do they come from?
Ah, there is the rub.
Some of these men—let’s call them Sons of Diotrephes—are serious disciples of Jesus Christ who rose to leadership positions in the church on their merit. They stepped in at difficult times for the church and provided the wisdom, the direction, and the leadership that saved the day. The congregation is grateful and now naturally looks to them for direction long after the crisis is over.
When a new pastor arrives at a church, he will want to identify the influence-makers. Whether they hold elective offices or not, these are the men and women to whom the congregation naturally (and first!) looks when critical decisions must be made. If they oppose a program the new preacher is presenting, he’s in trouble from the start. He does well to get to know these people and to keep them on his side.
Some Sons-of-Diotrephes are not serious disciples of Jesus but simply stepped in and filled a leadership vacuum at a crisis period in the church’s life and now refuse to vacate it. They enjoy being power-brokers. Such people are the bane of every pastor and the death knell for every church unless the congregation acts to break their stranglehold.
Sometimes carnal men are assigned church leadership roles by merit of their wealth or position in the community. In a small to medium-size church made up of typical Americans, the owner of a factory or large business will always stand out. The deference which he commands during the week will be shown him on Sunday. If he is regular in attendance and generous with his money, he’s almost automatically going to be elected to key positions. Whether he is godly and humble—Spirit-filled and mission-minded, with a servant spirit and a heart for God—or not, rarely comes into play in the typical church.
How sad is that?
Pity the new pastor who walks into a church unprepared to deal with carnal leaders who enjoy their power positions and cannot wait to let the new minister know who’s in charge.