A few months ago I wrote about five pastoral errors that could kill a ministry.
Fair enough: ministers sometimes act like idiots, and I speak from experience: most of the examples I gave were about me.
Ministers are sometimes their own worst enemies. But what about the churches that are toxic? There are some congregations that leave a string of ministerial casualties behind them. Pastor after pastor accepts the call to minister there and retires hurt after a year or two, bruised, resentful and deeply hurt.
Sometimes a culture develops in a congregation that's profoundly unhelpful and unbiblical. I suspect that whatever pattern of church governance a congregation has – whether it's the congregational style where lay people have a lot of say in what happens or the heirarchical style where the minister runs the show – things can go badly wrong.
Here are six ways in which a congregation can kill a ministry.
1. If you don't like something the minister says in their sermon, tell them on the way out. It's convenient, and saves you having to ring up during the week or arrange to see them in their office.
It can also be devastating. Most ministers put hours of study and prayer into their sermons. In churches with a strong preaching tradition, it's the focus of the ministry week. To be told that you've got it wrong – and probably by someone who hasn't put in a fraction of the time or effort that you have – is just horrible. Think, pray and reflect before you speak – and on the door, just smile and say thank you.
2. Fire off unthinking emails. It's quick and you can say exactly what you think without bothering to find a stamp and go to the post box.
But it's that process of writing a letter, putting it in the envelope and posting it that gives us time for second thoughts. Emails can be a blessing, but they can be a curse. Not everything goes right in church all the time. When we have something to say, taking time to think about it saves us from inflicting real damage.
3. Find other people who think the same about the minister as you do. You'll have lots to talk about.
Some congregations develop a sort of pack mentality, a bit like children ganging up on the unpopular kid at school. No matter what good the minister does, it's never quite good enough. So if you find yourself with negative thoughts about your minister, make a point of being with people who see him more positively. Listen to them; they might be right.
4. Don't trust your minister an inch. After all, you don't know what he does all day.
Pastoral ministry is an unstructured sort of thing. Some of it looks pretty unproductive. A member of the congregation who sees her minister out for a walk in the afternoon might wonder what he's doing. Maybe he's recovering from a stressful visit, or maybe he's thinking about a sermon. Reading and study don't look productive from the outside, either – but woe betide the minister who skimps on that. Trust is essential. You'll know if your minister isn't ministering. Until then, assume that he is.
5. Rely on your minister to solve all your problems. It's what they're paid for, after all.
Congregations can get too reliant on their ministers, especially if they have – as most of them have – a truly pastoral heart. But the pastor's job is not to solve problems. It's to bring people to spiritual maturity, so that when they're faced with tough times their faith doesn't waver. Your pastor will carry any burden if you really need them to. Don't overload them with stuff you can carry yourself.
6. Ignore the Bible. It's far too challenging for ministry-killers.
"Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time," says Paul. "After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11).
There are always stories about abusive ministers. Not all pastors are perfect. Not all ministries work. Sometimes the fit with the congregation isn't right. But sometimes the fault is the other way, and there are a few individuals in a congregation who are – though they would deny it with horror – agents of Satan. They need to be confronted, dealt with and brought to repentance, or encouraged to find another church where their spirit can be more at rest.
Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.