One of the things that comes to me very clearly when I read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian believers is how much he loves these people and how deeply he cares for them. He isn’t physically present with them, he has other vital ministry going on where he is located at the time, he is hurt by the attitude of some of the members towards him–but in spite of all that, his deep love and concern for the church comes through.
For me, that evidence of love between a pastor and a congregation has become something of a foundation for my understanding of ministry. Because I am a pastor, I see and understand this foundation. What I am writing here also applies to other congregational leaders and although I will refer to pastors, the material is directed towards deacons, elders, teachers–anyone in a leadership position.
It is not uncommon when pastors get together for at least one to begin talking about how difficult his/her congregation is. Because the group is primarily pastors, there often seems to be the unspoken assumption that the church is always at fault. In pastoral circles, some congregations have reputations as being “hard” or “difficult” and the suggested advice is not to go there but if you do, by very careful.
I have talked with churches and pastors where the relationship between the two is marked by suspicion, mistrust and even paranoia. There are often deliberate attempts to hide things, mislead people and create power groups. And if I happen to hear about the underlying causes from either or both sides, I see that there are some serious problems–after all, there are no perfect churches, no perfect pastors and therefore no perfect pairings.
And yet, once the deep, dark secrets are out in the open, they are generally bad but somehow never quite as bad at the stuff going on in Corinth. That is not to minimize the real problems that some pastors face–there are serious problems in churches and pastors often end up dealing with the effects of these problems both professionally and personally.
But the issue for me becomes the way we as pastors often deal with the issues we see. It seems like we fall into the classic “fight or flight” pattern. As pastors confronting the issues in the churches we serve, we either run away from the church or turn it into a battle that either we pastors or the church has to win. Unfortunately, most of the time neither flight or fight helps the situation.
Running away from the problem just means that someone else will have to deal with it–and probably have a harder time dealing with it because it will be bigger and stronger. But an open fight doesn’t solve the problem either–no matter who “wins”, both church and pastor are seriously damaged, as is the congregation’s witness in the community.
For that reason, we need to take a look at how Paul handles his difficult congregation in Corinth–and realize that the love and concern that comes through so clearly in his letters is the crucial factor that allowed him to help that congregation. Certainly, he is at times very blunt and even harsh with the congregation. Sure, his language isn’t always as diplomatic as it could be. But no matter what he writes, it is clear that he loves these people. And I think that in the end, this is why his letters had an effect on the church. He didn’t run away from the church nor did he battle them in to submission. He loved them–and that love was used by the Holy Spirit to help the church change.
When I teach pastors, I generally find some point to make a strong statement to them. I tell pastors that we need to compliment and praise the church we are called to serve–and then, I tell them that if we can’t find anything to praise the church for, we are the ones with the problem, not the church. Our first responsibility as pastors is to love the church. Unless we as pastors can fulfill this requirement, we are not qualified to help the congregation deal with its issues–before we can help them with the sawdust in their eye, we need to deal with the plank in our eye. (Matthew 7.3-5)
Paul dealt with what was probably the most dysfunctional congregation of all time and did it with love and grace. Maybe if we church leaders were willing to follow that example more closely, there would be fewer Corinthian problems around today.
May the peace of God be with you.