Monday, January 29, 2007

The Changing and Unchanging Aspects of Personhood

Since arriving back from South Korea, I have been struck by the fact that our culture’s fascination with personalities has intensified. We have a fascination with celebrities, be they football coaches, politicians, megachurch pastors, or Hollywood stars.

I was reading a particular team’s football forum recently, and I noticed that some of the fans that are disenchanted with their team’s coach were venting their feelings. One participant in the discussion asked how the “haters” would feel if the team won the national championship next year. Would the disenchanted fans still hate the head coach? Their quite serious answer was in the affirmative. Those fans were so obsessed with their hatred that they could not let go of it, even if the coach won the biggest prize. They had painted themselves into a corner with their hate, and they could not get out of it.

I have noticed the same phenomena in churches. When a new pastor comes, there is ordinarily a honeymoon period in which members give him the benefit of the doubt for a temporary period of time, but they begin to form a lasting opinion of him from the beginning of his tenure at the church. At some point, many of them decide that they like him or don’t like him. After that crucial point, everything he does is viewed through colored lenses. If they have decided that they don’t like him, they begin, perhaps unconsciously, to accumulate evidence for his dismissal. If they have decided that they like him, then they blissfully ignore any mistake he makes and thus fail to help him grow when a constructively critical word to him in private (or rarely, publicly) might really be helpful. When a pastor finds a church where he is truly loved and appreciated, he hates to leave. In many cases, however, after about two years a few or many church members make church life unbearable for the pastor, and a divorce between the pastor and the church occurs. It is no wonder that many pastors question their call into the ministry after such negative experiences.

Why do we react to key leaders this way? Perhaps one reason is that we cynically don’t believe our leaders can learn from their mistakes and improve their performances over time. We are impatient with them and have unrealistic expectations. We wonder why they cannot be like the spiritual giant down the road, the superstar pastor of another church. Of course, some aspects of their personalities will not change much, if any. We must understand, however, that Christian people can genuinely change for the better. Perhaps we ignore this great truth because so many of our church members are stalled in their spiritual growth. We simply don’t see people change at all for the better, or we don’t notice any change because it is so gradual. Intellectually, we believe people can change for the better, but emotionally and subconsciously, we don’t believe it. Pastors and denominational leaders are not fully-formed spiritual giants in most cases. If we want our denomination to be all that it can be for the Lord, we need to exercise more patience with our leaders. Most importantly, all of us need to be teachable and “leadable.”

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