When Pastors get Pigeonholed

Pastors face a common vocational hazard, getting pigeonholed. Labeling is another term to describe this ministry hazard. It goes something like this. You make a statement in conversation with somebody or in a sermon, you do something as a leader, or you communicate your intentions about an issue. Or you intentionally or unintentionally make known your unique ministry rhythms or daily routine (ie, study in the morning rather than take counseling appointments or take off Mondays and turn off your cell phone so you can take a break from ministry demands). What are the dynamics of this church leader phenomenon and what do we do about it?

Vector Pigeonhole Principle illustration. Flat illustration. Vector icons of pigeons.

Some people in your church may subconsciously make up a story about you based on their experience with you or based on their met/unmet expectations of you. The stories may be good. The stories may be bad (the usual case). Some stories sound like these.

  • He (or she) is never available when you need him.
  • He’s always available when you need him, 24/7.
  • He doesn’t listen to feedback.
  • He really loves people.
  • He’s a micro-manager.
  • He only does what he wants to do.
  • You better not cross him.
  • When he preaches, he’s nothing but emotion.
  • When he preaches, you won’t get fed.

People share their stories with others. As a result, many stories become secondhand and grow each time somebody shares the story, like the “whisper game” we played as kids. And once a person makes up a story, it’s difficult for us to remake it, especially if it carries strong negative emotion.

So, how should we respond to this reality? Consider these thoughts.

  • Don’t feel like you have to tell everybody everything about your life. We can be authentic and honest without airing our dirty laundry and without exposing our biggest frustrations with the church. We can avoid some stories with a bit more discretion.
  • When somebody says, “A lot of people feel the way I feel (usually a negative story),” don’t immediately assume the whole church is against you. “A lot of people” probably means two or three.
  • If a wrong story about you is circulating, gracefully speak to one or two of those circulating it and try to help them create a different story. Let them then circulate the new story.
  • Realize, unfortunately, that some people will make quick judgements about you and will pigeonhole you no matter what you do. Don’t worry about those stories. You probably can’t do anything to change them.
  • Examine the stories you yourself have made up about others and admit if you’ve been guilty of pigeonholing others. Change any incorrect stories.
  • Live such a Christ-centered life that when integrous people do make up stories, which they will, the stories they make up reflect God-honoring qualities.
  • When you’ve been wrongly pigeonholed, remember Jesus. No one in history faced more unfair labeling and hateful stories than did He. And He responded with the utmost grace to the story makers.
  • Finally, turn to the pages of Scripture. God’s word gives great encouragement and guidance  for leaders.

1Pet. 2.12 (CEV) Always let others see you behaving properly, even though they may still accuse you of doing wrong. Then on the day of judgment, they will honor God by telling the good things they saw you do. 

Titus 2.7 (CEV)  Always set a good example for others. Be sincere and serious when you teach.  8 Use clean language that no one can criticize. Do this, and your enemies will be too ashamed to say anything against you. 

How have you dealt with stories others have made up about you?

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What Drew 1200 New People to our Church on a Monday

I serve a great church of about 750 in Southern Ontario in Canada, West Park Church. Unlike in the U.S. where our church would be considered a medium sized church, here in Canada we are considered a large church, though not a mega-church. We’re in a growing area in the city of London and are always looking for new ways to connect with our community. We recently stumbled upon an idea that resulted in 1200 new people from our community coming inside our church on a cold Monday. Here’s what happened and an idea you may want to try in your church.

Family Day - crowd

Every third Monday of February several provinces in Canada celebrate Family Day, a day originally established to give families time together. It’s the same day as President’s Day in the U.S. On that day almost everything closes in Canada, including most stores. So, unless families want to get outside in the cold weather, they’re stuck inside or looking for some place outside their house where it’s warm.

In early January our staff was brainstorming about non-threatening activities we could offer our community to get them inside our doors. We came up with the idea of a Family Day event. After about an hour of brainstorming we all felt super excited about it. We originally thought we might reach 500-600 that day. But as we planned in the days following that first meeting, we began to trust God for even more.

And were we delightfully surprised. Over 1200 people from our community showed up on that Monday two weeks ago, excluding the 150 volunteers. That represented over 300 families from our community. And, over 130 of those families signed up to be on our email mailing list.

Here’s how we promoted the event.

  • We printed up colorful postcards, gave them to our church members a few weeks out, and encouraged them to invite their friends and neighbors.
  • We mailed out the cards to about 3,000 homes nearby a week prior.
  • We creatively promoted it during our services starting four weeks out.
  • We dedicated a web page for it on our web site.
  • We heavily promoted it on Facebook.
  • We rented a portable sign and put it on the road in front of our building.
  • We partnered with a Christian camp that emailed their email contacts in our area inviting them to the event.

Here’s how we prepared for that day.

  • We recruited 150 of our church members to serve as volunteers for the event.
  • Instead of training the volunteers on another night of the week, we asked to them arrive an hour and a half early the day of the event for a brief training session.
  • We met several times prior to the event to carefully plan all the logistics.
  • And, we scheduled an evaluation session the week after the event to talk about how we could improve it.

Here’s what we provided for the event (held from 2-6, 2-4.30 for the activities and 4.30-6 for movies). 

  • We spaced out the activities throughout our entire building.
  • We offered hotdogs, popcorn, soft drinks, and cotton candy for an all-inclusive family price of $10 per family. Every person received a wrist band that enabled him or her to get food and enjoy all the activities. The wrist bands also gave us an exact attendance count.
  • We rented several inflatables geared to different age groups.
  • We hired a local pet store owner to bring his large reptiles for the kids to pet. This was a real winner.
  • We showed two different movies at the end of the event, one geared toward little kids and one geared toward older kids.
  • We gave away several nice prizes right before we showed the movies. That kept people there and that’s how we got their email addresses. They had the option to check on their raffle ticket if they wanted to receive emails about similar events at the church.
  • Every 30-45 minutes we held fun Minute to Win It contests for kids.

We’ve now made this an annual event for us. We see it as a pre-evangelism experience designed to create favor with the community. We believe that when attenders need spiritual or emotional help, they will remember their good experience at West Park on Family Day and come to us for help.

As we strategically plan to reach our community, we’ve scheduled these ‘anchor events’ during the year to reach our community.

  • Family Day event (Feb).
  • Canada Day event (late June) on the Saturday prior to that holiday (think Fourth of July for the U.S.). In this event we provide similar activities as we do for Family Day, only outside, and provide a free fireworks show as well.
  • We plan to hold several outdoor movie nights on our property where we’ll show movies and provide popcorn and drinks (summer).
  • Christmas Eve (we provide a walk up live native scene complete with live animals).
  • Easter Sunday service (we make this special for kids by providing a petting zoo and kids love it).
  • A back to school event (Sept).

We believe that spacing these outreach events will have a cumulative impact on our community and help people take further spiritual steps like coming to a worship service.

What creative ideas has your church used that reached your community?

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What Pastors should Look for in Safe People

In a previous blog post I wrote about how many pastors suffer with relational anorexia. Pastors can find a cure for this devastating issue when we seek out and find people with whom we can process the pain ministry inevitably brings. As you consider the traits you’d look for in a safe person, consider these Scriptures and the guidelines they infer, because these people are often difficult to spot.

Teamwork concept. Isolated on white

When Samuel went to look for Saul’s replacement, God told him, Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. GOD judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; GOD looks into the heart.[1]

Outward impressions may belie the heart of a potential safe person, so don’t let a poor first impression turn you off. When David looked for those with whom he’d surround himself, he wrote,  I have my eye on salt-of-the-earth people—they’re the ones I want working with me; Men and women on the straight and narrow—these are the ones I want at my side.[2]

Character and integrity took front and center when he chose his advisors and leaders. He also said, Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they reprove me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it.[3]

David looked for those with the courage to tell him what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear. Daniel Goleman (most known for writing on emotional intelligence) wisely notes,

People deprive their co-workers—whether bosses or subordinates—of honest performance feedback for several reasons, chief of which is that it can be uncomfortable to give such feedback. We’re afraid of hurting others’ feelings or otherwise upsetting them. Yet, while we tend to keep the truth about how others are actually doing to ourselves (oddly, not just the negatives, but also the positives), all of us generally crave that kind of appraisal. Candid evaluations matter deeply, in a way that other information does not.[4]

When Paul taught about rights and privileges he said “knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others.[5] Someone with all the right replies may not be who you need. Actually, we need those who will ask us the right questions more than those who want to give us answers.

Below I’ve listed several qualities to look for in a safe person. Only perfection, however, will embody them all, so don’t expect to find someone who meets all the criteria. A safe person, however, should evidence many of these.

  • Not a cliché giver, doesn’t over-spiritualize
  • Asks good questions, effectively reflects back what he hears you say, and seeks to understand
  • Believes in you
  • Consistent, a promise keeper
  • Trustworthy, can keep secrets
  • Not afraid of your anger, tears, or other emotions
  • Has his own scars yet doesn’t wallow in his pain; empathetic
  • Around him you don’t feel like a child with a parent but feel you are equals
  • Not critical or judgmental
  • Approachable, vulnerable, humble
  • Wise and discerning
  • Can and will challenge you to get outside your comfort zone
  • Around him (or her if you are a women) you feel comfortable; he’ll let you be on the outside who you are on the inside
  • Won’t try to make you someone you’re not; appreciates the real you
  • Likable to be around (I can’t overemphasize this)
  • Strong commitment to Christ, helps your commitment to Christ deepen
  • Willing to confront with love and grace, doesn’t flatter
  • Helps you become a better person
  • Doesn’t have a lot of expectations of you

To boil it down, a safe person is one who truly will listen, occasionally offer advice, and consistently will support and strengthen you.

Pastor, I encourage you to find a safe person in your life, sooner than later.

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[1] 1 Samuel 16:7, The Message

[2] Psalm 101:6, The Message

[3] Psalm 141:5, NLT

[4] Daniel Goleman, 94. Primal Leadership

[5] 1 Corinthians 8:1, CEV

3 Healthy Boundaries Every Leader Needs with Critics

At last year’s Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I heard Sheila Heen speak. She co-authored the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback with Douglas Stone. The session was so good I purchased the book. Wow. What an eye-opener. It’s chocked full of great insight and I highly recommend it. One particularly helpful section dealt with healthy boundaries every leader needs with critics when we don’t want or need their criticism. The authors suggest three ways to respond that I’ve summarized below.

Road work sign stop on white

Three boundaries every leader needs when the critics come calling.

The authors’ basic premise is that we need feedback and how we respond determines how well the feedback helps us. But sometimes we simply don’t need or want the feedback and criticism others offer us.

Here’s how to respond with grace, tact, and clarity.

  1. I am open to your feedback but may or may not heed it.
    • In this case, you do run the risk of the other person feeling rejected. If you are seeking their advice, request it in such a way to minimize that risk. For example, if you are considering some new ways to do mens’ ministry in your church, you might ask a key church leader, “I’m asking several men about some new ideas for mens’ ministry. Any ideas you care to share?” In this way you are communicating that you are listening to several different people, not just one which can take the edge off you not taking his suggestions.
  2. I can’t receive your feedback now.
    • In this case, at the moment you are not open to feedback on an issue. Let’s say you’re a pastor and really struggled with your Sunday sermon and you’re bummed out about it. Someone comes up to you at the end of the service and says, “Can I give you some feedback to your message?” If you can’t receive it at the moment, communicate that. Simply say something like, “I appreciate your willingness to give me feedback, but I just don’t have the emotional energy to hear it now. Thanks.”
  3. I don’t want your feedback on this.
    • This is the most strident boundary response. If this person does gives feedback it could severely damage your relationship or further damage a tenuous one. Let’s say you have a chronic critic in your church who won’t let an issue die and they keep badgering you. In this case when they come to you again it may be appropriate to say, “We’ve talked about this many times and we don’t agree. Please don’t bring it up again.”

Communicating in these ways isn’t easy, but necessary at times to keep healthy boundaries. In my research for my third book People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I discovered that a good percentage of pastors find it difficult to draw these kinds of boundaries.

If it’s tough for you, face your fears and try one of these boundaries next week with a critic.

What has helped you keep boundaries with your critics?

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8 Healthy Ways to Respond when People Leave your Church

Every pastor faces it. Most hate it. You can’t avoid it. People will leave your church. When that happens, what should we do? In this post I suggest a few tips on how to respond when it occurs.


In my over 23 years as a senior pastor (and a another 12 as an associate), for various reasons I’ve probably seen hundreds of people come and go at the churches where I served.

In one year over 100 people left the church I planted after I gave my infamous “Willow Creek” talk. I had just attended one of Willow’s early conferences and within two weeks I delivered a message about all the changes we planned to make. It didn’t work. In my immaturity I had failed to wisely manage change.

Except for some blessed subtractions (those who leave who have hurt your church), unless you are an emotionless robot, when someone leaves it hurts.

Here’s how I’ve tried to process my painful emotions when people leave.

  1. I don’t disparage them to others after they leave.
  2. I reach out to those who had significant roles in the church. Often I will meet with them.
  3. I NEVER burn bridges. I wish them well and pray for them in person if possible.
  4. I don’t try to hide their leaving from other leaders, and neither do I broadcast it.
  5. When possible, I’ve used informal exit interviews to discover why leavers left and if there’s anything we can learn.
  6. When I see them again, I reach out and show genuine interest in how they’re doing.
  7. I don’t let myself become bitter. God has graciously given me short memories about hurtful church experiences. It’s all His grace.
  8. I remind myself that Jesus also dealt with those who left Him. From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6.66)

How do you process church leavers?

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