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Working With a Difficult Senior Pastor

Stephanie Dyslin

Children's ministry was Ann's life, and her first year at a new church was a honeymoon. All her requests were granted. Then, when her ministry started taking off, the honeymoon soured. Her senior pastor became a dictator, telling her who she could and couldn't talk to, demanding blow-by-blow descriptions of everything she did, and even criticizing the way she dressed.

"I couldn't reason with him," Ann says. "And his decisions weren't always in the best interests of the children and their parents."

As Ann's ministry grew, her jealous senior pastor felt like he was losing his authority. So he cut out some of Ann's flourishing programs and said she was too aggressive.

After Ann resigned, her male replacement -- whom she had trained -- did everything she had tried to do but the senior pastor had blocked.

AREAS OF CONFLICT

Unfortunately, Ann's situation isn't unique. If you've been in children's ministry awhile, you've probably had at least one tough experience with a senior pastor. And if you're a newcomer to the field, it's bound to happen to you eventually. Everyone's negative situations differ. But they all threaten your ministry to children.

Working with children makes you vulnerable to certain types of conflicts with your senior pastor, such as:

*Perception problems -- Problems can arise from the perception that children's ministers are on the low end of a church's totem pole. Ann experienced this. Rather than being treated as a peer, she was treated as a lesser person worthy of domination.

*Misunderstandings -- Not every senior pastor will agree with you about the importance of children's ministry. Pete's senior pastor thinks Pete wastes time on fun events with children.

"He thinks it's total fun, which means nothing spiritual at all can happen," Pete says. "But I feel like it has spiritual significance and that point is being lost with my senior pastor."

*Expectations -- A distortion of the children's minister's role can also be a problem. Ruth worked with a senior pastor who expected her to do things that made him look good. She took on one major commitment she didn't have time for because her senior pastor convinced her it would be "a good feather in our cap."

Ruth remembers that commitment "was almost the end of my ministry. Everything else suffered -- Sunday school, my ministry to volunteers, and more."

IMPACT ON YOUR MINISTRY

Conflicts with a difficult senior pastor can take your focus off your ministry's goals and put it onto personal survival. Tough environments take a toll on you emotionally and professionally.

*Emotional impact -- Ann discovered that her personality changed as she dealt with her senior pastor. "I let him dictate to me to the point that I became another person," she says. She withdrew emotionally and eventually fell into a depression that required a monthlong hospitalization -- during which her senior pastor never came to visit.

*Professional impact -- A difficult senior pastor can drastically harm your ministry to children. Maria's senior pastor was threatened by her ministry's growth and by her relationships with congregation members. He tried to undercut the children's ministry by speaking negatively about it in public. As a result, Maria stopped reaching out and stopped confronting and challenging him.

"I even would avoid talking to him because it was considerably painful for me," she says.

PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

Problem-solving strategies will yield different results for different situations, depending on your particular problem, your personality, and your senior pastor. But here are battle-tested tips from veterans to help you deal with problems:

*Withstand pressure. Ruth now realizes that children's workers shouldn't do things they can't handle -- even when pressured. Looking back, she wishes she would've appealed to the senior pastor and her church's education board about her overloaded schedule.

"It's for the kids' benefit," Ruth says. "If you're so busy doing what the senior pastor wants you to do, then your ministry to the kids is suffering."

*Pray. Maria says she wishes she would've undergirded her children's ministry more in prayer. But you may not be able to expect that prayer to come during times with the senior pastor. Maria's senior pastor "wasn't interested in praying as a staff."

*Build a support system. One thing that helped Maria was finding support systems outside the congregation. "That helped give me perspective," she says. "And it helped me realize that I was still gifted; that this was not all my fault."

Pete found support from other adults in his church about his conflicts with the senior pastor. "It wasn't like I was trying to go behind his back. I was just trying to find out: Am I the one who's wrong here? Do I need to change my thinking?"

*Leave. If Maria hadn't known her senior pastor was retiring, she would've left the congregation. "I really think that sometimes it's okay to leave. If you're beaten down spiritually, personally, emotionally, then even with a successful program around you, you can't grow."

Stephanie Dyslin is an editorial technician for CHILDREN'S MINISTRY Magazine. *All names have been changed.


EXPERT ADVICE

Are you struggling with a difficult senior pastor? Dr. Mary Ellen Drushal, academic dean at Ashland Theological Seminary and author of On Tablets of Human Hearts, suggests the following:

To prevent problems:

*Ask many questions during your job interview, including, "How will conflicts be resolved?"
*Notice if the senior pastor avoids eye contact with you or treats you condescendingly.
*Follow up the interview with a typed memo of understandings, expectations, and job requirements.

When problems do occur:

*Document everything -- phone conversations, memos, and instructions. Documentation will protect you from memory lapses and false accusations.
*Confide in one or two carefully selected people, but don't gossip to gain support.
*Apply Matthew 18 in confronting. Go to your senior pastor in private first, and if that doesn't work, take along one or two other people.
*If you're wrong, submit and apologize.
*Don't become defensive. Jesus let his record stand for itself.

When nothing else works:

*It's okay to leave a position when irreconcilable differences exist between you and the senior pastor.
*No one should suffer verbal, emotional, or physical abuse by a senior pastor. If that happens, seek other employment.
*If dealing with the senior pastor becomes equal to the weight of your other tasks, then it's time to look for a new position. Shake the dust off your feet and keep walking.


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