More than two decades ago, my wife and I went through a severe trial. It was the only time in my life that I lost weight because of stress—about eight pounds in three weeks, which was significant as I was lean and trim at the time. Sometime later, I heard with my own ears from a surgeon that stress was the source of the health problems my wife was experiencing at the time.
Ministers are used to abuse from some members. That may shock you, but it is true, and often it comes from the very people you spend the most time and energy trying to help. I remember the letter I received from one man whom I had made every effort to help that began something like this: “I never liked you. You never helped me or my family. You only did anything for us because you felt obligated.” And believe me, the letter went downhill from there!
On another occasion, I received a letter from a former associate pastor decades after we had worked together. He had various complaints against me, including instances that I couldn’t remember. Now, I could understand why he might be upset about some situations, even though I had offered him correction for legitimate reasons, but for the most part it was stuff he should have gotten over long ago. What was interesting was that he put no return address on the letter; he did not want a reply. He simply wanted to “get it off his chest,” perhaps as a form of therapy.
Frankly, I have made many mistakes over the years that I would like to forget, and I am thankful our Creator is full of mercy and quick to forgive. But in general, I have a clear conscience regarding the above-mentioned circumstances, knowing the facts as they were.
We Are Not Alone
In January 2014, the clergy in the United Church of Canada, a merger of Protestant denominations that dates to 1925, formed a union. The Toronto Star, the second-largest circulation newspaper in Canada as of 2017, reported the following:
The goal of the newly created professional association, called Unifaith, is to give faith workers, their family members, student ministers and retirees, a common voice. In addition to fighting for job security for clergy and other paid employees, the new union plans to help combat the bullying, and in some cases physical assaults, of clergy by members of congregations or outsiders…. In addition, many United Church clergy have complained about being overworked, another issue the future union plans to address (“United Church of Canada clergy form their own union,” January 21, 2014).
This is rather shocking considering how hard the ministry works in the Living Church of God. Also, I do not consider that the criticism we sometimes encounter rises to the level of bullying or physical assaults. The point is that we all see matters from our own perspective, and life and work in the ministry is not always exactly what some members may imagine it is. Children often think a parent cannot understand them, but children have never experienced parenthood, whereas every parent has been a child. In the same way—though I am by no means comparing members with children—all of us in the ministry have been lay members. We also have those in authority over us, and all of us, members and ministers alike, must answer to the Supreme Authority in our lives.
So, where is this heading? Let me return to the opening paragraph of this editorial. While I had made many mistakes over the more than two decades I had been in the ministry at the time, I think I had a respectable reputation among most members and those over me. But then, after being transferred to a new assignment, my wife and I suddenly faced several accusations that were sent to the headquarters of the Church. One was that we “didn’t show enough love.” Whether true or not—and I assert that it was untrue—how does one defend himself against such an accusation? There were also three or four accusations that were totally false and could easily be proven so.
This was when the Worldwide Church of God was breaking down, and—as I have often said—when love is pitted against law, it is time to head for cover. The result of these accusations was that I was considered guilty regardless of the facts, at least those that could be verified one way or the other.
Some people look back on past events and learn, while others self-justify and frame their account of what happened to favor themselves. Enduring false accusations from members is something every minister must learn to accept, but when those “over you” carelessly pronounce you guilty when the clear evidence shows otherwise, it is another matter. I must confess it took both Carol and me a good three years to get past what happened, and only after we had left that organization due to the total apostasy taking place.
Even while talking to Dr. Meredith and Mr. Carl McNair about joining with them to do the Work, I mentioned briefly what happened and told them I would never again take such treatment sitting down. But I was wrong.
Two Important Lessons
I was wrong—not because anything similar has occurred since, but because my attitude disagreed with scriptural instruction. Peter taught, “For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:19–21).
Those are powerful words—words that are easy to read, easy to understand, yet difficult to practice on any level. How easily they roll off our tongues, but those words do not always reflect what comes out of our hearts! At that time, instead of comprehending what Peter instructed and what our Savior did, I discovered how many other men and women had similar experiences. Something Dr. Winnail recently said certainly applied in our case: “Disgruntled people find disgruntled people.”
That was one lesson I had to learn, and it came only after I had a change in direction. Once I was focused again on preaching the Gospel, the anger subsided, and I could see more clearly. Then I was able to forget those things which were behind and look to those things which are ahead.
The second lesson came as a result of learning the first. Only then was I able to evaluate what had happened with a fresh perspective. I know in my heart that most of the problem was not me, but I could finally admit to myself and to God that I could have handled the matter better. Yes, I was part of the problem. I cannot say whether my part was 10 percent, 15 percent, or 2 percent, but I at least had to take responsibility for my own shortcomings.
I drew several conclusions from this kind of situation. First, I needed to internalize Peter’s message about enduring wrongful suffering. Second, I needed to commit myself to never becoming bitter over someone else’s wrongdoing. Perhaps I will be corrected wrongfully, but that does not mean the person doing so has evil intent. Yet even if he does, Peter instructs us in the way to handle these things. I had to conclude that as long as those over me are God’s true, if imperfect, servants, I must submit to that authority. After all, following baptism, I had hands laid upon me. I had voluntarily admitted, even if I did not fully understand it at the time, that I was placing myself under imperfect authority in the Church. God tells wives that they are to “submit to their husbands in everything.” What husband is perfect? What minister is perfect? Both husbands and ministers make many mistakes, and we must learn in both cases to be patient and to forgive.
A minister’s mistakes come in many forms. We sometimes speak unwisely, even offensively. See the third chapter of James’ letter, where he warns us not to covet becoming a teacher of the truth: “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (vv. 1–2). Christ warns us about offending “little ones”—those who are new to the faith, lacking experience or wisdom (Matthew 18:6). Some are quick to quote this, but is this the scripture a longtime member should apply to himself? Or rather, should he not look to another verse: “Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble,” or as it says in the King James Version, “and nothing shall offend them” (Psalm 119:165).
It is my hope, dear brethren, that you can learn from my experience. There is the easy way to learn and the hard way to learn. One leads to life and the other can ultimately lead to death. As Paul instructs us, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14–15).
Both those in authority and those under authority must learn to get along. This is not always possible, as Paul admits, but he shows that we must do our part from the heart. “Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil.… If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:16–18).
There are many scriptures on this subject, and they are all easy to read, but they are also easy to dismiss, claiming, “That does not apply in my case.” Is Christ really living in you, or is this a meaningless mantra? I speak here not as one trying to browbeat anyone, but as one who also continually needs to grow in Christ. Meditate on the scriptures. Think about how they apply to you, especially when you feel wronged and know you are right.
From time to time, complaints come to my attention about a minister who is thought to be mistreating someone or teaching something not quite right. Brethren, I have been guilty of each of those mistakes on some occasions. Yes, over a period of nearly 50 years, I have missed the mark more than once or twice—mostly through ignorance, never through intention to do so. I am not talking about doing away with the Sabbath or the law of God, but sometimes I have, without wrong intent, spoken incorrectly about a scripture or prophecy that I misunderstood. I have also overreacted in dealing with certain situations, but again, it was not with malice or evil intent. I’m human. So is your minister, and so are you.
I love Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he speaks about keeping the unity of the faith. “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3). “Bearing”—or forbearing, as some versions render it—implies tolerating or “putting up with.” True Christianity involves putting up with the foibles and weaknesses of other human beings.
Marriages often fail because one or both fail this test. Some individuals drop out of one Church of God to attend a different Church of God because they find that easier than putting up with their minister or other members. Some people stay within a Church of God group, but physically move to be near their favorite minister, one who “understands” or promotes them. Yet, Paul tells us that there are different “gifts,” “ministries” (“administrations,” KJV), and “activities” (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). No two ministers are the same. This is one reason we try to train ministers under more than one man. We learn different lessons from different individuals. Focus on what is good and do not look for the bad. We should be able to discern between a moment when someone’s particular weakness is on display and times when someone is clearly falling into rank apostasy. There is a difference!
Brethren, we must learn to get along together. Pride and oversensitivity are often at the heart of our problems. Sometimes ministers are insecure and overreact when challenged with a question they cannot answer, or when being told they are wrong about something. Both ministers and members must put aside pride and vanity. We must all learn to speak openly but respectfully with one another, and we must stop looking for the faults in others. Remember Jesus’ admonition: “Judge [condemn] not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:1–2).
Brethren, let us all, members and ministers alike, drink in of these and so many other admonitions. Let us meditate on how they apply to us. And let us allow Christ to live His life within and through us!