The most difficult realization I experienced fresh out of seminary was that not everyone in the church was as enthusiastic to live out the gospel as I thought they would be. There were in fact some opposed not to just what I was called to accomplish but what the whole of the church was trying to be accomplish. It took some time, mixed with much trial and error, to finally realize that it was not those who were in opposition to me and other leaders in the church that caused the greatest heartburn and frustration. It was the antagonists; those who at first were with us and then began to continually criticize and work against us.
For some reason it seems every ministry will have antagonists. Those who—for a variety of motivations—set themselves against you as the leader, the ministry strategy, and, in extreme instances the church, itself. Most often—at least it has been my experience—antagonists are not evil people. They are men and women who say they love Jesus and are concerned about the church. However, they become antagonistic when the pastor and other ministry staff do not conduct ministry they way they think it should be done. When decisions that are made that are not decisions they would make. Often their preferences and their issues–theological persuasion, political temperament, worship style, etc.–become elevated as dogma and those who are not full agreement with them are quickly dismissed as spiritually immature and intellectually faulty.
Those whose are in step with a particular ministry philosophy, practice, or strategy are much easier to work with. The antagonist on the other hand is a source of great heartburn. How then do you address in a healthy and biblical manner those who are being antagonistic and are disgruntled? Let me share four possible ways:
1. Realize antagonists are never happy.
Antagonists thrive in a continual state of disgruntlement. No matter what you do, an antagonist will always find something wrong with how you approached it. They would have done something differently. If they were in charge this is how they would do it. If you would only do things the way they would do them, then it would work better.
Know that one of the many signs of an antagonist is that they strive for the positions of leadership, authority and influence without ever embracing the roles of service. They want to be a Sunday School teacher but do not presently attend. They want to lead in prayer meeting but have never been. To borrow an illustration; they are an armchair pastor. Antagonists are never happy because they are not serving, and you are not doing things their way.
As a leader you will never make everyone happy. This modern proverbial truth is difficult to wrestle with. Especially for pastors and ministers who—for the most part—possess people-pleasing personalities. To thrive in the emotional and spiritual difficulty that antagonists attempt to bring into your life, you must come to terms that they will never be happy. No matter what you do.
2. Never deal with antagonists on your own.
Acts 6 presents a circumstance that attributes the formation of the diaconate. Complaints between the Hellenist and the Jewish widows arose. A complaint if unaddressed would have hurt the local expansion of the gospel in Jerusalem. Seven men were chosen to address this complaint through benevolence ministry of the church. The point being, this complaint could not be handled alone.
A directly applied principle here from Acts 6 is that antagonists should never be addressed alone. As a shepherd when someone comes to you and they demonstrate a spirit of antagonism, the conversation needs to be shared with at least one other trusted leader in your church or a fellow pastor. This is not a time to complain or to build your own case against them (that would in fact birth your own spirit of antagonism). This is a time to say, “This conversation happened. This is why it bothered me. This is what I think will happen. I want you to be aware of it and be in prayer about it.”
Part of the harm that comes to both pastors and churches is when small situations are kept isolated. Often the small situation kept hidden will violently erupt bringing a wake of destruction. When an antagonist comes knocking at your door share that conversation with a trusted leader.
3. Take the opportunity to cement your calling and refine the next steps in your ministry.
One tactic of the antagonist is to praise you as “the best pastor I have heard” and “finally a pastor I can trust.” Then when you do not agree with them, they will immediately and often publically question your calling and pastoral/ministerial abilities.
When this happens go to the throne in prayer (Heb. 4:16) taking those moments of antagonism being pressed against you to cement your calling to the Lord in His service. He has enabled you to embrace His vocational calling, prepared you for this ministry, and is refining you for more effective service. When you feel emotionally and spiritually distressed, take time to cement your calling and praise the Lord that He would use someone like you.
In addition to cementing your calling, seek the Lord to clarify what your next steps should be. Write down what you believe the Lord is leading you to accomplish in the next 90 days. Keep that list handy. This exercise affords you the chance to clarify God’s leading in your life and to focus on what is good, excellent, and worthy of praise rather than react to the negative criticisms of the ever disgruntled antagonist.
4. Confess the antagonistic spirit in your own heart.
As pastors and ministers we must constantly be on guard of the root of the sin of antagonism that can easily grow in our own heart. We are just as fallen as those we have been called to shepherd. We are just as prone to temptation as those whom we counsel to renounce sin. We can easily become antagonists ourselves. Be on guard against this tactic of the enemy who seeks to devour you, your family, your ministry, and the church you have been called to serve.
Ministry in general, and the pastoral ministry specifically, is both a noble calling and difficult work. There are many in the church you have been called to serve who are rallying behind you, supporting you, and praying for you. It is unfortunately the occasional antagonists who attempt to emotionally, mentally, and spiritually derail you. Pray for them. Be on guard. Fight the fight. Run the race.