Years ago, a pastor friend told me of his congregation's relocation. They had outgrown their facilities, could not expand where they were, and did need to move. One leading member also thought God had told him their new location. The pastor knew that location would involve enormous struggle and expense, but because of that one member's passion and influence, the church moved there. They almost went under several times in the long process.
Pastors make mistakes, too. About 60 persons in a growing suburban congregation traveled 30 miles to worship. Having experienced leaders among them, they wanted to plant a congregation in their own neighborhood. The conference (district) refused permission, partly because the pastor feared losing so many people. Within a year, though, almost none of them still worshiped there; it simply was too far for them to go and be deeply involved.
Ancient Israel had experience with leaders and people holding different visions. First Samuel 8-10 tells of Israel's desire for a king, so they could be "like all the nations" (8:5, 20). Samuel understood this would be a disastrous move for Israel in the long term and asked God's guidance. God told Samuel to give the Israelites the king they were asking for, but to warn them first.
Samuel did warn the Israelites that kings would draft their sons for permanent military service and for service on their estates; kings would create royal estates by confiscating their subjects' best lands, Israel's daughters would become palace servants, kings would tax the produce of lands not confiscated, and the livestock not already appropriated to the king's use.
It is easy for us to criticize the ancient Israelites for their lack of trust. God had brought them out of Egypt, had established them in the Promised Land, and had raised up judges for them at times of crisis. How could they so easily have abandoned their faith in God as King and Deliverer?
We must understand one more issue, however, to see the vastness of the change Israel was asking for. The Israelites thought they needed a king; Samuel (and God) knew they did not because a king would put them on a different path than God had intended and provided for them. God's intention for Israel, written into the covenant and the specific laws of the Pentateuch, was for the Israelites to be a new people upon the earth.
God called and formed Israel to be distinctly not like all the nations. Every nation Israel knew about had a king; every pastoral tribe had its chief. Politically, the king or the chief was 'father' of his people. Ultimately, everyone and everything belonged to the king or the chief, to do with or dispose of as he wished.
God intended Israel to be different.
Every adult male was a 'man' under God's covenant with Israel; every adult female was a 'woman.' Every family had its own land, not to be sold permanently (Leviticus 25).
Everyone had equal rights under the law and in the courts. When danger threatened, God raised up judges to repel invaders. Israelites did not pay taxes. Israelite men served in the army only in times of emergency and were not forced to work on state building projects, as their neighbors were. No one confiscated the Israelites' lands or goods. No state existed, and Israel's political philosophy revealed by God at Sinai taught them the greater good is never served by theft from the individual. Unless all are safe from the state, no one is safe.
Israel wanted to throw all this away to be like all the nations. What was Samuel to do? Amazingly, God said to him, "Give them what they want." Saul became Israel's first king. When he began to prove unfaithful to God, and a man of poor judgment, God instructed Samuel to anoint David as Saul's successor. God confirmed the kingdom to David, promising that through him and his descendents He would fulfill His eternal purposes for Israel-and through Israel-for all humankind. In the person and work of Jesus Christ, God did that.
God did not deny the Israelites the right to make their choices freely, however misguided those choices were.
God values human freedom as so precious that He will not override it. Rather, God works with, through, and sometimes, we must say, around it. If God was willing to work that way with ancient Israel, when so much was at stake, we as leaders among God's people today must be willing to think and act in the same way.
Across most cultures, a pastor-often with a leadership team of some kind-is the 'vision caster' for the direction a local congregation will take. Usually, pastor, leadership team, and congregation come to the same understanding of the mission and goals to be pursued.
But sometimes the visions of pastor and people diverge, or are even directly opposed. To build, or not to build? To sponsor a church plant, or not? To add a program, or not? Often much more difficult, to eliminate a program, or not?
Samuel's experience when Israel asked for a king is instructive even today. As leaders, we may voice our objections to a given position or course of action, and our reasons for objecting, but others are not persuaded.
What then? Not just this passage from 1 Samuel, but the whole counsel of Scripture instructs us that we are to give way-more graciously than Samuel did-as we read near the end of this story! If we cannot live with and lead from the results, we probably should seek another place of service. Whenever that is our decision, one more obligation accrues. We must leave without criticism, without rancor, and without talking about the situation with others once we are gone.
If, in deference to the exercise of human freedom, God was willing to work with the Israelites when they were wrong, dare we, who are not God, attempt to force the outcomes we think are best? If, in faith, we are willing to cooperate with God's methods, we may expect God to achieve His results.
Joseph Coleson is professor of Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City.
When Leaders and People Disagree:
- Review everything-by yourself, then with your team, then together with those on the other side to assure the disagreement does not stem from misunderstanding.
- Restate and discuss your concerns with the proposed course of action clearly, thoroughly, calmly, and agreeably.
- If you cannot reach agreement, consider bringing in an outsider, a mediator respected and trusted by both sides in the disagreement.
- If you still cannot find agreement or compromise, you, as leader or leadership team, must give way graciously, lovingly, calmly, and truly, without reserve or resentment.
- If you can stay on, make it your priority to assure the best possible outcomes for the course adopted. Work wisely, work diligently, don't sabotage, and don't carp.
- If you cannot stay, leave gracefully and graciously. Don't second-guess as you leave or to others when you are gone.
- Pray always for God's blessing upon those you have left; they still are your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Holiness Today, Sept/Oct 2010