When A Sermon Flops: 10 Ways To Diagnose a Dud

“Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy,” said Pat Riley, the former NBA coach. Likewise, preaching a great sermon never feels as good as preaching a bad sermon feels lousy. My worst attempts at preaching have given me far more pain than my successes have brought me joy, and here are some of the factors that contribute to a homiletical flop.

  1. Why does a flop hurt so much?

One study found that experiencing failure (compared to success) makes people experience unrelated physical pain more intensely, and that failure even reduces your ability to tolerate physical pain.[1] Other research found that emotional pain sticks with us longer than physical pain, meaning that you have an easier time replaying emotional pain that remembering physical pain.[2]

Failure hurts. Even the most thick-skinned, self-confident pastor can be rattled by delivering a lemon in the pulpit.

  1. Did they heckle you?

In the first church I served as lead pastor I had people in the congregation who heckled me while I preached (next time you have a bad Sunday just tell yourself, “At least they didn’t heckle me”). Jesus said, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17, NIV), and sometimes no matter how great the sermon is, a congregation just will not respond appropriately.

Preachers ought to examine themselves first, but there are times when this is the case. If they heckled you, or if their hearts were hard, then maybe it’s a good Sunday to kick the dust off your feet, have lunch, and find your favorite couch for taking a well-deserved nap. 

  1. Did you get a different response in a different service?

Once this year I was speaking in a church with three services (one service on Saturday night, and two on Sunday morning). When I got in my car after the Saturday night service, I turned to my wife and said, “Well, obviously I need to totally overhaul this message overnight, or figure out something else overnight altogether.” She completely disagreed and said the sermon was great, but the group of people gathered that evening were just not responsive. Eventually she conceded one or two minor tweaks for the morning services, but said, “Don’t you dare change anything else. Watch and see – it will be different tomorrow,” so I reluctantly conceded to my wife because of her persistence. The next morning the response was entirely different, so much different that a man walked up to me after the first service and said, “I’m 50 years old and that’s the first time in my life church has made any sense. Thank you.” I have known many other pastors who have had the same experience. My wife was right (as per usual).

Maybe you don’t get to preach the same sermon in multiple services or multiple locations and therefore don’t get to write off a lackluster response in one service because the next service was more positive, but sometimes a sermon that flops is just a matter of different strokes for different folks.

  1. Were you prepared to preach?

I put hard work and long hours into sermon preparation because I want people to understand scripture in a clear and life-changing way. I also put so much time into preparation because it bothers me so much to preach a sermon that flops. A well-prepared sermon can still bomb, but it is a blessing to both pastor and church when a preacher is adequately prepared. If you did not feel as prepared as you could have been, maybe you could set aside more time to prepare this week, or block out an extra afternoon to prepare this week, and see if a little more preparation makes a difference.

  1. Did you fumble the delivery?

You can have a great sermon prepared, but stumbling in the delivery can overshadow your content. There are many professional athletes who possess extraordinary skill, but struggle to perform in a critical moment of a game. Likewise, having something worth while to share is a key to good preaching, but the ability to actually say it is equally critical. If your flop was a problem of delivery, you might find it helpful to spend some time rehearsing your delivery, including your gestures (or lack thereof). Maintaining good volume, while also varying your volume and pitch at appropriate times can go a long way in improving your preaching.

  1. Were you sick, distracted, or otherwise not at your best?

It happens to all of us. You have done everything in your control to be ready to preach well, but something happens beyond your control. Did you:
…wake up with a headache?
…experience technical difficulties?
…have an emergency or other disruption interrupt the service?
…get blindsided by one of those “Pastor, I just need to let you know how much I was hurt by…” conversations right before you had to preach?

If it was beyond your control, then it’s good to be able to adjust and fight through a less-than-ideal situation, but cut yourself some slack.

  1. Did you take a chance on something but it turned out to be a mistake?

Terry Pegula owns my beloved Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres with his wife Kim, and in a 2013 interview he said he told the hockey department, “Make mistakes. I love mistakes. I want to see you make mistakes because the day you’re afraid to make a mistake is the day you stop taking chances.”

I think that’s true for preachers, too. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and it might just improve your preaching. Sometimes a creative idea or an illustration goes better than you even hoped. Other times, not so much. It’s the preacher’s responsibility to make every effort to separate the good ideas from the bad ahead of time, of course, but if the problem with your sermon was an idea that didn’t pay off, then this is an easy fix. You learned a valuable lesson: don’t waste it (but don’t repeat it, either). As Tim Fargo said, “Analyze your mistakes. You’ve already paid the tuition, you might as well get the lesson.”

  1. Were you clear?

One friend told me recently on a Sunday morning, “I know I’m on the board, but I’m not sure if I’m hitting the nail.” I picked up the habit a few years ago of summarizing my whole sermon in one sentence when I think I’m done working on it. If I can’t preach it in one sentence, I know I’m not ready to say it with 20-30 minutes. If you aren’t sure whether your hitting the nail or not, chances are your congregation won’t even know which nail you’re aiming for in your sermon.

  1. Are you sure it flopped?

A small church near our college campus was without a pastor two years ago, so I went to preach for a Sunday, but it did not seem to go well. They could not have been more disengaged while I spoke, and when the service was over the congregation was cold and aloof. I kept thinking, “Was I really that bad? Guess I won’t be going back there!” A lay leader from that church called the college a few weeks later to see if more people from Houghton could speak at their church, and much to my surprise he asked for me by name, hoping I was available to preach there every Sunday. Go figure. I thought the message had flopped, but apparently I had totally misread the response of the congregation.

Maybe it was fine, or maybe it was neither your best nor your worst. You can’t throw a touchdown on every throw, and some sermons will just be satisfactory, but not particularly memorable. Perhaps, it went even better than you think, though.

  1. Can the Holy Spirit still use a flop?

Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was an ordained minister, and when he was a seminary student he attended a different church each Sunday so that he could hear an assortment of preachers. On one of those Sundays, he heard what he described as the worst sermon he had ever heard in his life. When he looked to his friend that day, however, she was in tears. She told him the sermon had been was exactly what she needed to hear that day. “That’s when I realized,” Rogers said, “that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”

Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy, but we who preach would do well to leave the wins & losses to the Lord. The Holy Spirit can transform a feeble sermon into a timely message for someone.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches of New York State for 12 years. Steve also serves as director and primary instructor for Houghton College’s Equipping for Ministry program, which provides non-traditional classes for adults seeking ordination and personal enrichment. Steve is married to Tammy, and they have four children. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire

© Steve Dunmire 2015

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page.  Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

Seedbed Preaching Collective
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/11124005/?i=2&from=/8233549/related

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201307/10-surprising-facts-about-rejection

7 Ways to Care for Your Pastor as a Person

I am committed to using my voice to give unsolicited advice to congregations and church leaders when it comes to how they care for their pastors as people. In a previous post, IMG_4607b“10 Ways to Keep the Pastor You Love,” I urged Christians to care for the pastor at home, but it’s hard for someone who has never been a pastor to know what helps the most.

Here is some of good ways to start based on what I’ve seen, experienced, and heard from pastoral families.

1. Shorten the Distance for a Pastor Who is Far From Family

As a general rule, most pastors do not live near their families. That can be hard for a multitude of reasons. If your pastor has young children, it’s hard to be far from the support of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. If your pastor has elderly parents, it is hard to provide care from a distance. If your pastor has grandchildren in a different part of the country, it can be excruciating. Of course many careers can move you far away from family, but it is the norm for those in the ministry and the military. If your pastor can’t make it home for Thanksgiving, think about extending an invitation to join your family at the table. If your pastor has an ill loved one back home, see if there’s anything you can help with to make it easier for your pastor to make the trip home (consider buying the plane ticket). Those little things can do a lot to alleviate the isolation of living far from family, care for your pastor as a person, and also reduce the temptation to look for a position closer to home.

Consequently, if your pastor is far from family, that probably means they spend most of their vacation time traveling to visit family. That is another reason to be generous in the vacation time you give your pastor (I’m a big proponent for at least 3-4 weeks for pastors since the average full-time lead pastor works 6-7 days per week and 60+ hours per week).

2. Give the Gift of Quality Family Time

If you are going to give your pastor a gift, give the gift of quality family time. One family years ago gave our family tickets to a Buffalo Sabres game for several years, and then gave us season passes to the local zoo. Those were little indulgences that were rare for us, and we made many wonderful memories as a result of those gifts. In the end, those gifts communicated to me that they valued my family in a way that went beyond the cost of those gifts (and they WERE generous gifts). Another year my board gave my family an all-expenses paid trip to the Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY). We had a great little getaway, and created wonderful memories. And I felt both valued and that they understood one of the pressing needs in that season of my life: quality family time. They also set it up so that we could schedule the trip when it was most convenient for us, which also meant a lot. Part of caring for your pastor at home can be creatively finding ways to provide quality family time.

Some people are better gift givers than others, and some people are hard to please with a gift, but give the gift of quality time.

3. Boundaries

One of the perils of pastoral work is that most of the people we work with serve the church in their free time, so many pastors work normal “work hours” and then also do church work in what would otherwise be their “free time.” You may not think it’s a big deal to call your pastor at home in the evening, but in a church of even 100 people, if everyone calls the pastor at home once every year, that’s two calls at home at night every week. Before you intrude in the evening, on a weekend, or on your pastor’s day off, ask yourself, “Can it wait?” Part of caring for your pastor at home is recognizing that your phone call can usually wait until the morning.

4. Plan for Retirement

An oft-repeated joke about ministry is that the “The pay isn’t great, but the retirement is out of this world.” That’s cute, but one pastor’s son wrote to me: “My dad had a total of about $1,000 contributed to his retirement by churches over around 40 years of church ministry. So, he self-funded much of his retirement out of the meager salaries he received. They’re OK now, between social security and their parents’ estates, but that’s always grated on him.”

My last pastorate contributed generously to my retirement savings, but I know it is not the case for everyone. Helping to provide a secure future can go a long way toward caring for your pastor at home right now.

5. Parsonage & Homeownership

Having a paid-off home is one of the biggest ways for a pastor to prepare for retirement, and it’s one of the reasons I argue against parsonages (a church-owned home). I have searched high and low for a study to prove homeownership results in pastors who stay longer than their peers. While I have not found a study to prove it, I cannot find a study to refute it. I have also found countless advisors who say it’s true (or that it MUST be true). I also cannot find a single person who believes the opposite (that providing a parsonage encourages a longer pastorate, or prepares a pastor best for retirement). In a future post I plan to share my argument FOR a parsonage and my argument AGAINST a parsonage, but suffice it to say that I think helping your pastor become a homeowner is one of the best ways to care for your pastor at home.

6. Food

It’s a little thing, but it can be quite a boost to find a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup sitting on your desk.

Over the years of ministry some of the most memorable food gifts I have ever received have been:

  • a gallon of maple syrup
  • fresh concord grapes
  • homemade cookies
  • homemade pies
  • homemade cakes
  • candy bars
  • snacks for a Super Bowl party
  • an unexpected cup of coffee
  • restaurant gift cards

Of course, not all food is a treat. My wife and I were once invited over to someone’s house for dinner, and as our hosts were serving us coffee after dinner the milk in my wife’s coffee looked like it had curdled. She didn’t want to embarrass our hosts, but also didn’t want to drink coffee with cream that had gone bad. Our host realized what was going on and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I know it looks bad, but we stock up on milk when it’s on sale and throw it in our freezer. After you thaw the milk it only LOOKS like it’s curdled, but don’t worry – it’s fine!”

Of course it helps if you know what kinds of food or treats your pastor likes (and to avoid your pastor’s allergies), but it can be a real treat so long as you don’t serve curdled milk.

7. A personal story: 4 Deaths in 72 Hours

In the first 72 hours after we brought my youngest son home from the hospital we had four deaths in the church I was serving.

I had planned to take some extra time off to savor having a newborn son in the house, but instead I didn’t even get a single day off for two weeks while I made funeral arrangements with those families. Looking back I can’t think of anything I could have done or should have done differently because I was the pastor: I needed to be there in those moments. But it was nearly overwhelming. I was dealing with (1) my own grief for those who died, (2) my sadness over the lost time with my family and newborn son, and (3) my frustration that this was yet another scheduled vacation that would be interrupted by church work. But then I also felt extremely guilty for being so frustrated. It was really just an inconvenience for me, but these poor people had lost loved ones (this is part of the tension pastors feel).

I may never forget what one friend did in the midst of that dark week, though: he stopped by with coffee. I was surprised to see him, and actually as he walked through the door I was disappointed, thinking, “Oh man – I wish he had called. He went out of his way to see me, and I don’t have time to talk because I have a funeral in 2 hours.” Actually, he drove miles out of his way to deliver coffee to me because I was officiating my fourth funeral in two weeks. It was a simple gesture that said to me, “You’re a pastor, but you’re not a robot. This is hard for you, and I know it.” He didn’t stay long. He didn’t pry. He just showed me he understood by that simple gesture. He drove all that way to be with me in one of my deepest lows of ministry and then turned around and drove back home. And it meant a lot.

Do that.

Do that even if you don’t ever fully understand what it means to be a pastor, even if your pastor seems unflappable in tumultuous seasons. Be attentive to the highs and lows. Your pastor is often the one who is there for others when they go through a difficult time. If you want to care for your pastor at home, be the one who goes out of your way to be there like that for your pastor.


What do you think?

What did I miss? Anything you would add or take away from this list?

© Steve Dunmire 2015

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

10 Ways to Keep the Pastor You Love

“Being a pastor was SO much easier than what I’m doing now,” said no former pastor ever. Not one.IMG_9464c Instead, I meet pastors every month who say to me, “I thought I knew what this would be like, but being a pastor is so much harder than I expected, and most people have no idea.”

I am not writing this for pastors. This would be a very different article if pastors were my intended audience, but I am writing this for lay people, board members, district superintendents, and anyone who loves his or her pastor.

Here are ten simple things you and your church can do to help your pastor feel fulfilled and appreciated in pastoral work, and to try to hold on to your beloved pastor.

  1. Think Twice Before Criticizing

Someone is always mad at your pastor about something. Seriously. You cannot please all of the people all of the time, but having some people mad at them all of the time is the harsh reality many pastors live with. And it can wear a good pastor out. There are angry emails, scathing remarks in the church foyer, and people who will snub you in public once they have left your church.

On the night I was ordained, Dr. Earle Wilson said to us, “If you fail, you’ll be criticized. If you succeed, you may be even more criticized.” Some studies have shown that 40% of pastors experience significant conflict with someone in their church at least once every month. In my years as a pastor, I cannot think of a time when at least one person wasn’t angry at me about something. Many pastors have said it’s a death by a thousand cuts. To say “pastors just need to have thick skin” is both flippant and it fails to take into account how stress makes a person more likely to suffer from depression, more susceptible to temptation, and also makes a person more vulnerable to illness. Every time someone chooses to leave your church, or complains about a sermon, or ignores you out in the community, or sends an anonymous letter, or feels the need to “speak my mind,” it takes a little bit of the air out of your pastor’s tires. Every week I meet with pastors who carry wounds from years of serving cranky Christians, and I look in the eyes of good pastors whose souls bear the cumulative damage of the relentless criticism and anger vented toward pastors. I can assure you that having a callused pastor is much worse than having a pastor who takes criticism and attacks personally.

Do you love your pastor? Think twice before criticizing, and if you are going to be critical about something, make sure it’s for good reasons (and be calm and kind as you do so). Assume that your pastors’ critics are taking shots at them, even if you don’t see it or hear about it.

  1. Housing: Be the Best Landlord in Town.

If you provide a parsonage, be the best landlord in town. I facilitated a Clergy Tax Event last year where we were talking about how to determine the “Fair Rental Value” of the parsonage, and one person in the group asked, “Do you take into account the fact that no one else would actually want to live there?”

As a rule of thumb, keep the parsonage nicer than is necessary. Never let “good enough” be the standard. Most pastors I know are shy about asking for work to be done on the parsonage, but if you want to keep the pastor you love, you won’t wait for the pastor to ask for work to be done on the parsonage. The parsonage is your pastor’s home, but it is the church’s house. You cannot control everything that happens in the life of the church, but you can make sure your pastor has a comfortable home – a haven to which your pastor can retreat at the end of every day.

Of course, pastors who own their own homes tend to have longer pastorates than those who live in parsonages. Homeownership provides the chance for a family to live where they want in a house that suits their needs, and a mortgage has a way of “encouraging” people stay in one place longer. If you have a pastor you love, be an advocate for helping them move from a parsonage into their own home.

  1. Care for the Pastor’s Family, and for your Pastor as a Person

In some ways, caring for the pastor’s home is a big way of carrying for his family (see point #9), but it can go beyond that. Whenever I hear that a colleague is leaving a church, I always pray that their spouse and children get to hear how much their spouse or parent has meant to the congregation as pastor. When I left my last church, I was so touched by the number of people who said they were going to miss watching my kids grow up, and the people who gave gifts to my children. The gifts and cards people gave my children meant twice as much as the ones they gave me. One family gave my kids money for college every year on their birthdays, and became like surrogate grandparents for our children. It makes it harder to entertain leaving when people in the congregation have truly become like family to you … and especially to your children and spouse (I’ll write more about this in my next post).

  1. Vacation Time & Weekends Off

Most full-time pastors work 6-7 days per week (yes, I know of a few lazy full-time pastors who work 4-5 days per week, but those are the exception, not the rule). So if a pastor has a 6-day workweek and only gets 2 weeks off per year, the pastor will work 302 days per year. By comparison, a person working a 5-day work week with 2 weeks off who will work 250 days per year. That is an extra 52 workdays per year for your pastor! If you give that same pastor 4 weeks of vacation, the pastor will still work 38 more days than the person who has a 5-day workweek and two weeks of vacation!

I am a big proponent of hardworking pastors getting AT LEAST three or four weeks of vacation not because they deserve MORE time off than their lay people, but because even with “more” vacation time they will still work more days per year than the average lay person.

  1. Salary: Give Your Pastor Raises

Finances are always a factor, and every pastor would be able to work for free in an ideal world, but you can’t afford to do your job for free, and neither can your pastor. People often have the idea that a pastor ought to make sacrifices for the sake of the ministry, and therefore they ought to make less than they deserve. Many pastors, likewise, know the financial needs of the church better than their lay leaders, and will decline raises or even voluntarily take pay cuts for the sake of the ministry. Even if the pastor declines the raise, it is important for morale that you are generous in what you offer. A cost of living increase (at the least) should be offered as standard operating procedure every year for your pastor.

As I was writing this, I realized something: the only way I ever received anything more than a cost of living increase in my years as a pastor was by moving to a new ministry. I never thought of it that way until now, and I never went looking for those moves, but they always found me. Again, I’m not writing this as career advice to pastors, but as a word of advice to congregations who want to keep the pastor they love: if you don’t give your pastor a raise, someone else will.

What can you do when there isn’t money in the budget for a raise? In the current financial climate, many workplaces and institutions have experienced years when raises weren’t an option, or even years when painful cuts were necessary. Your pastor will understand better than anyone (and sometimes before anyone else) if a raise isn’t possibly because of the budget. I have heard of churches who told their pastoral staff, “There isn’t room in the budget for a raise this year, so instead we are giving everyone an extra week off this year.”

Pastors enter the ministry for the call, not for the money. Pastors pay the same price for milk, gas, and coffee as anyone else, though. Make it happen, somehow, someway, and be creative if you must. If you don’t give your pastor a raise when it is deserved, eventually someone else will.

  1. Give Your Pastor Tools To Get the Job Done

Your pastor’s reimbursement account is not part of the pastor’s compensation: it is the tools the pastor needs to get the job done. Reimburse the pastor’s ministry mileage, provide a pastoral expense account, and a budget for buying books. An adequate computer, office space, books, mileage, and reimbursed expenses is not a luxury – it is the tools your pastor needs to be effective. Don’t ask your pastor to make bricks without straw.

  1. You Want Your Pastor to Be Flexible, so Give Your Pastor Flexibility

Take in to account how much of a pastor’s ministry conflicts with family life on weekends, evenings, and holidays. Free your pastor up to attend school functions, and to use the flexibility of the pastorate to be there for family during “normal work hours” because weekends and holidays are so often crowded by ministry responsibilities.. The old saying fits some pastors who are “invisible for six days and incomprehensible on the seventh,” but most of my friends who are pastors work too hard, not too little. Flexibility is a free benefit your church can afford to give your pastor.

  1. Be Dependable

When a pastor leaves a church, the hardest people to leave are the dependable ones. Make it hard for your pastor to think about leaving by your actions: be dependable, be consistent in your attendance, and be the type of person of whom your pastor can say, “We’re building with people like that.” When workers are not dependable, and members are sporadic in their attendance, it doesn’t take much for the grass to look greener somewhere else. Do you have a pastor you love? Then be there, and be dependable.

  1. Send Compliments Over Your Pastor’s Head

Your pastor probably reports to a board, elders, a bishop, or a district superintendent, so make sure you tell them that you love your pastor. And do it now, before those types of people ask you what you think. The chronic complainers will not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head with their criticisms, so you should not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head when you have a pastor you love. It will be refreshing to everyone involved.

  1. Send Specific, Handwritten Notes to say, “Thanks.”

In an age of tweets and text messages, a hand-written note is a lost art, and a rare treasure. Here’s a little secret: many pastors have a file of handwritten notes they’ve received over the years. A handwritten note is most likely the sort of thing your pastor will not quickly discard. Express your appreciation in writing and it will stand out.

Research has shown that possibly the greatest predictor of career satisfaction for pastoral ministry is for pastors to know that they are making a difference. Don’t be vague when you say thanks. Be specific. Don’t just say, “Thanks for all you do.” Say thanks for things your pastor does, or characteristics your pastor has, and ways your pastor does things.

Did you learn something you didn’t know during your pastor’s message, or find yourself thinking about it days later, or did God speak to you in a powerful way through a message? Then tell your pastor what it was, specifically. Tell your pastor, “That sermon helped me understand ….” or even, “That story your shared in your sermon really helped me see ….”

Other examples are:

  • “Thank you for taking time away from your family to be with ours in a difficult time.”
  • “I know that situation was difficult, and I appreciate the way you handled it.”
  • “I can tell you put a lot of time and preparation into your messages, and I just wanted you to know that it shows.”

Pastors are willing to endure a lot if they know they are making a difference. So show them. Tell them. I have never once heard a pastor say, “My congregation expresses too much appreciation to me.” Write it out with pen on paper and put it in the mail.

My Point

I spend an average of almost 30 hours per week with pastors and ministry leaders. Believe me or not, but if any of these ten things seems like “too much,” or if you neglect these ten things, I guarantee the pastor you love will leave sooner or later. On the other hand, I don’t know of any pastor who would casually leave a church that does these ten things consistently.

What do you think?

What did I miss? Anything you would add or take away from this list?

© Steve Dunmire 2014
Photograph also © Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

Serving in Obscurity

Every church I ever served had an inferiority complex when I arrived. One was dealing with the fallout of a recent church split. The next church greeted me by asking, “What did you do to get sent here? We retire more people than social security!” In my third church, I followed a difficult case where my predecessor was removed by the denomination for a personal indiscretion. Not one of those situations was healthy when I started on day one, all were deeply wounded, and I knew serving those churches meant serving in so-called obscurity. In a small town, in a suburban neighborhood, or in the ghetto, any one of us can find ourselves operating in obscurity where we feel overlooked, forgotten, insignificant, and unimportant. I have many friends who serve in so-called obscurity, and I spent many years there myself.

That’s why I love Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory was appointed by his older brother to a small, out of the way town hardly anyone had heard of. Nyssa. Gregory was not thrilled. Serving in obscurity, in an out-of-the-way place was not the kind of career Gregory had in mind. He protested, but his older brother revealed that this was an intentional appointment. His brother had chosen obscurity for him on purpose, explaining that he didn’t want Gregory to gain notoriety by serving in a prominent location, but to bestow distinction on that obscure place by the way he conducted himself there.

Time in obscurity might be a prerequisite for significant responsibility for some leaders. Obscurity is a lifetime calling for some. Though a place appears unimportant at first glance, it can be the ideal conditions to hear the voice of God, and can be the crucible where God can refine our character.

So do you find yourself in an out-of-the-way place, where you’re sure that no one really notices what you’re doing, or that you’re really not making a difference? Don’t distinguish yourself based on where you serve, but distinguish your place by how you serve there.

Oh, and you can meet a lot of wonderful people in those out-of-the-way places.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little
can also be trusted with much,
and whoever is dishonest with very little
will also be dishonest with much.”
Luke 16:10, NIV

© Steve Dunmire 2014
Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

How I Learned to Love Difficult People: 10 Painful Lessons

Someday if I write my memoirs from my years of pastoral ministry, I would like the title of the book to be, “How I Learned to Love Difficult People.” I was warned that, as a pastor, I would have to deal with difficult people, but I was not prepared for how venomous they could be at times. I have been on the receiving end of their vindictive anonymous letters, their berating phone calls, their accusing rants, and watched too many of them literally storm out of the churches I have served (not to mention their passive aggressive behavior, sarcastic remarks, cutting jokes, and backhanded compliments).

If I ever get around to writing that book, I think these will be some of the chapters.

1. Sometimes difficult people are the ones who have the nerve to say what everyone else is thinking.
Sometimes (not always) difficult people are the people who say to your face what others will only mutter under their breath. Difficult people are sometimes the only ones who have the nerve to say what everyone else is thinking. They can be downright ruthless when they say it, but difficult people can be the pastoral equivalent of when a physician orders blood work for a patient: difficult people can be a very efficient way to find out what is going on in the bloodstream.

Some people say there is a nugget of truth in every criticism, but that’s nonsense. Sometimes difficult people are rude but right, but sometimes they are rude and wrong. I once had a board member who consistently brought me any complaint he heard within the church even if he didn’t agree with the complaint. It was sometimes amusing when he’d bring to me conflicting complaints and expect me to find a way to make both people happy. His first priority for the church was that everyone be a “satisfied customer.” I, on the other hand, was not willing to let the church be held hostage by difficult people. It is an unrealistic goal to expect that every complaint in a church can be quelled. Sometimes the drums are not too loud. Sometimes a program is not a good use of church resources. The same room that is too cold for one person can be too warm for another person. The same policy that is too strict for one person can be too lenient for the next.

While difficult people are not always an effective way to assess organizational health, one way I have learned to love difficult people is by viewing their criticisms as a way of finding out what is going on in the “bloodstream” of the church when it is appropriate.

2. Difficult people are my most reliable indicator that I am doing something right.
I love difficult people because they serve as signposts to me: when difficult people start making life difficult, it is one of the most reliable indicators that I am doing something right.

I have never done anything important without being flanked by difficult people on all sides. There is a common strand running through every major turning point of ministry, every unquestionable breakthrough, every visible success, every time I could point to measurable results, or even every time I was received some level of recognition. The common element in each of those things is the pestering presence of difficult people who opposed me every step along the way.

I actually started to get excited when one woman in my last pastorate would come to pick a fight with me because her fights with me always came right before a major growth spurt, a major breakthrough, or some great news of some kind or another. The correlation between her rants and the ministry breakthroughs simply became too obvious to ignore.

In my case, I love people difficult people because they are one of the most reliable indicators I have been able to find to tell me that I am doing something right.

3. Difficult people help us develop thick skin.
Dealing with difficult people is one of the most effective ways to develop the thick skin a pastor needs in order to be fit for ministry. There may be no other substitute. Dealing with difficult people is to our souls what weight training is to our bodies: it makes us resilient and strong.

We all say we shouldn’t take it personally, but difficult people often make it personal. The criticism and complaints are often really about the responsibilities of our position rather than us, but just as the difficult people rarely make the distinction, we also struggle to make the distinction. Difficult people often make sure to make it personal. The very point of their anonymous letters, as useless and unhealthy as they are, is to make the issue personal (for us, not for them). Most difficult people I know resort to ad hominem attacks sooner or later, attacking the messenger when they run out of ways to attack the message.

I have learned to love difficult people because they make me stronger.

4. Difficult people are like carnival mirrors.
Paul Tripp once said in an interview, “I like the metaphor in Scripture of the word of God being this perfect mirror that I look into and see myself as I actually am. What we tend to look into is carnival mirrors. They show me me, but they show me me with distortion, like the carnival mirror at the fair. I see myself, but there is distortion. This identity thing in ministry is one of those carnival mirrors. Here is where you see something that is a normal human struggle intensified by ministry.” He was talking about pastors seeking their self-worth and identity by what they do, and I believe this is an area where difficult people are a blessing. Difficult people and critics in our lives can be like carnival mirrors who show us ourselves but they portray an exaggerated and distorted version of ourselves. We recognize immediately that the distorted image is not who we are because it is so exaggerated and this can provide for us the opportunity to look at our lives and see ourselves as we really are.

Difficult people have forced me to face up to my own insecurities, and my need to be liked. They force us to choose the need to be firm on some issues over our need for acceptance. Their criticism strikes at the lie that the Enemy has planted in our hearts: “This is who you really are, and all the nice things people say is just them being polite.”

Pastors will make tough decisions, sometimes on a daily basis, and some ministries will cave to a participant who throws a temper tantrum. We must have a conviction that if we do the right thing it does not mean that everyone will respond appropriately, and just because someone responds inappropriately it does not mean we did the wrong thing. Leaders need to define their priorities, and who they are before the difficult people ever show their faces.

5. Difficult people make us clarify what we’re doing.
Sometimes difficult people help us to clarify what we are doing and saying. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I was required to have a Research Reflection Team. The four people I met with on that team would often ask me, “I think you are you saying this … is that what you mean to say?” Sometimes I would answer them, “No, that’s not what I’m trying to say at all!” Then I would look at the page and realize that it was, in fact, what I had written. Without their input and watchful eyes I would not have seen that what I meant to write and what I actually wrote were not the same thing.

One more way I have learned to love difficult people is that, just as one string being out of tune on a guitar can force us to retune all six strings, one difficult person in a church can prompt us to clarify everything we do. They force us to make things clearer and more precise because of their complaints and sometimes in anticipation of their complaints. In this way, difficult people make our ministry better because they force us to be clear and precise about what we want to do, and how we are going to do it.

6. When difficult people attack, other people sometimes increase their support
A pastor needs meaningful friendships in order to endure. In my case, some of my most meaningful partnerships and friendships in the ministry have been forged in response to the difficult people in a church. At times I have seen people become much more vocal supporters of me as a pastor because they have seen a critic’s harsh attack. Some people can become motivated to be more supportive once they have seen difficult people on full display. The experience will motivate them to shield their pastor from the difficult people.

Those teams then can also help the pastor live to fight another day. I once had a couple who had been harassing me for months, threatening me, working against me behind my back, and turning people against me. This couple was holding the church hostage with their behavior, and I knew that to take them on by myself would be pastoral suicide. Only a few people knew just how bad it had become, and eventually those few friends and supporters in ministry were the very people who helped bring the situation to a head, and allowed me to not only survive the situation but to actually emerge stronger. Two of the most well-respected people in the church, a man and woman who were unquestionably above reproach, came to me saying, “You don’t have to do this alone. We will help you fight this battle.” When the angry couple finally had a public eruption and left the church, these supporters were the first to speak in my defense, and they even took some of the heat for me. These friendships not only helped me survive the firestorm, but they made some difficult days of ministry a lot less lonely.

Another way I have learned to love difficult people is that, by being difficult, they can help some of the wonderful people rise up and become proactive in their support of the leader they love. I am grateful to have several significant friendships that were forged in direct response to difficult people.

7. Difficult people make me a better boss and a better subordinate.
Difficult people have helped me to see how important it is to recognize good work, to applaud hard work, and to express appreciation. They also help me to see that not every opinion needs to be expressed. I have found that often that the people in my churches who have worked the most with difficult people (i.e., the small business owners, people who lead or teach in one form or another, or who work in customer service) are often the best at expressing appreciation. I do not believe that is a coincidence.

On the whole, I would like to believe that I am less critical of those who serve above me because of my experiences with difficult people.

8. I pray harder when there are difficult people in my life.
I wish this was not true but it is. In that way, if difficult people drive me to my knees in prayer, then I know they are a great gift. A.W. Tozer writes, “Whoever defends himself will have himself for his defense, and he will have no other. But let him come defenseless before the Lord and he will have for his defender no less than God Himself.” Difficult people drive me nuts, so they drive me to my knees in prayer, and that is one of the reasons I have learned to love difficult people.

9. Difficult people are not an obstacle to conquer
I once heard someone give a sermon about Eliab, David’s older brother, who burned with anger against David when he was asking the men about Goliath (1 Samuel 17:28). The pastor said:

Right there David faced a great challenge: was he going to fight with the critic, or keep his eye on the goal? Every champion has to make a decision sooner or later in that arena. Anybody who sets out to do something great for God will have people ridiculing him, challenging him, and criticizing him, and he can make a choice: either keep going as God has directed him, or stop and do battle with the critic. David could have fought with his brother but he never would have gotten to Goliath. There is always somebody around to tell you “You can’t do it,” isn’t there? There is always somebody around who doesn’t have the courage to do it themselves, and they want to make sure you don’t have the courage to do it either.

Critics are neither an indicator of success nor failure, so I have chosen in advance to battle giants, not critics. I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is an option. I have learned to love difficult people because otherwise I could easily become focused on conquering the difficult people in my life simply for the sake of conquering them. It is my job to keep my eye on the prize, so I will not waiver in my resolve because of difficult people. I do not want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over his critics; I want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over giants.

10. I am someone’s difficult person.
I know that I have been a difficult person in someone’s life. Sometimes I appear difficult to another person because of a disagreement, or because we disagreed about some social or political issue. Sometimes it is just because of a personality conflict, and sometimes it comes with being a person in leadership. But I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is a way I can do unto others what I would have them to do me.

And now, a confession.
This whole post has been a bit disingenuous because I don’t really love difficult people. Not yet, anyway. That’s why I hope that someday I’m able to title my memoirs, “How I Learned to Love Difficult People.” In the meantime, though, difficult people drive me crazy, and it is still a work in process.

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

3 Reasons Why Humor is No Laughing Matter for Leaders

C.S. Lewis said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven,”[1] and I think humor is no laughing matter for leaders. In honor of April Fools’ Day, here are three reasons why humor is one of the most underestimated devices in a leader’s toolbox.

1. Humor is Good for Morale

You have probably sat in tense meetings where the only laughter is nervous laughter, and likewise you have probably sat in meetings where the laughter is easy and comfortable. There is a time and place for serious meetings, but humor makes showing up for work more enjoyable. The first time I met many of my current colleagues in my position at Houghton College was attending a staff retreat two months before my official start date. My new colleagues laughed together so much it caught me off-guard, and convinced me that I was going to love my new job. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (NIV), and it is perhaps especially true when working with employees and volunteers. Make your environment a place where people have fun, and they’ll gladly work themselves to exhaustion.

Our college president, Dr. Shirley Mullen (a strong leader and gifted scholar who has earned two Ph.D.’s and was featured on the cover of Christianity Today magazine) took part in an incredible phone prank last spring. The video of the prank was posted and re-posted by folks at Houghton College who said things like, “This is why I love working at Houghton.” Need I say more?

Humor is good for morale, which is probably one of the main reasons why so many comedians have had unhappy childhoods, and 80-85% came from poor families. Humor is a coping mechanism for otherwise unhappy people. Winston Churchill said, “Famous men are usually the result of an unhappy childhood,” so it is my parents’ fault that I’m not famous.

2. Humor is Disarming

Before you are ever going to be able to make some people change you first need to be able to make them laugh. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and an engaging sense of humor isn’t what you do instead of saying something important. A sense of humor helps take the edge off of a hard message. Nothing is quite so disarming for a person who is skeptical about your message than making them laugh.

There are people who can tell jokes and one-liners and keep you in stitches, and there are those rare people who are just plain funny. I think most people do not expect their pastors or anyone else to be incredibly eloquent all the time, but they will extend you a lot of grace if you just help them laugh. A leader who doesn’t have a good sense of humor (whether he or she doesn’t have a sense of humor or has an inappropriate sense of humor) had better be really strong in other areas to compensate for it.

A good sense of humor, like a good question, is always disarming. There was a certain teacher who always answered people’s questions with questions of his own. Finally one day someone asked him, “Sir, why do you always answer questions with a question?” He answered, “Why not?”[2]

3. The One Enthroned in Heaven Laughs

Psalm 2:4 says “The one enthroned in heaven laughs” at the nations who conspire, plot, and band together against the Lord’s anointed. Many of us picture God in heaven scowling, or any other number of ways, but have you ever pictured God in heaven laughing? At the very end of his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton says that Christ, who “fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall” seems to be hiding something from us. He says the stoics concealed their tears, but not Jesus. He says that diplomats pride themselves in constraining their anger, but not Jesus – he turned over tables at the temple. Chesterton writes, “There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”[3] Mirth is an old fashioned word for laughter, humor, hilarity, or fun.

Have you ever thought of a sense of humor as being a godly characteristic? The fact of the matters is that there is so much humor in the Bible, but we are just too serious to even notice half of it. Consider these examples:

  • I cannot help but chuckle every time I read about the transfiguration when Peter blurts out an idea to Jesus about putting up tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. My favorite part is when scripture adds the comment, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:5-6, NIV).
  • Another favorite example of mine is King Xerxes’ conversation with Haman about “the man the king delights to honor” whom Haman assumes is himself, but is actually Mordecai, the man Haman is plotting to have impaled by the king (Esther 5:9-6:14).
  • Lastly, I don’t know if Jesus was trying to be funny in this example or not, but I laugh out loud every time I read Mark 1:37-38 where Jesus had gone out to a solitary place to pray, “and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else…”

Do you think a humorless teacher could have attracted all of those crowds? If you don’t find yourself chuckling once in a while when you notice humor in the Bible I guarantee you’re doing it wrong.

A Word of Caution

Humor is a big deal for leaders in many different settings, but humor is always a risk. Some of the most biting comments people have ever made in my life have been put-downs wrapped in a “joke.” Like any form of communication, people will sometimes hear what they want to hear, not what you are actually saying, so next week I’ll follow this post up with a post entitled, “5 Rules for Joke-Telling Leaders.”

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Orlando:Harcourt, Orlando, 1963, 1964), 93.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 38.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1908), 310-311.