It was my first call as head pastor. Before coming to this Sacramento church, I had ably served another as youth pastor, but like many young men, I had been itching for my own command. When I interviewed for the position, I remember saying brash things like, "Growing a church is not all that difficult." That sweeping assertion was grounded in the fact that I had taken two classes in church growth at seminary some five years earlier. Such are the foolish things young men say when they crave authority.
My first few months at this church were pretty rocky, as there were two or three elders who also craved authority and did their best to sabotage mine. One had an indirect and snide way of doing so. He never complained about my leadership to my face, but he sure would let others know what my faults were. He knew the gossipy nature of the congregation well enough to know that his words would soon enough make it to my ears: "You know, Mark, Stanley didn't care for that last sermon …"
After a few months of being humble and forbearing, I'd had enough. I invited Stanley out for lunch. It didn't take long for the conversation to move to the topic of church, whereupon I said: "Stanley, I understand you don't care for me or my leadership. That's your prerogative. But one thing I will not abide in this church is people talking to others about me behind my back. If you have a concern, you need to bring it to my attention personally, man to man."
This long-time elder had for years put the fear of Stanley into many members; he was not used to anyone talking to him like this. He stared back at me a little wide eyed as I went on like this, with evident frustration, for a couple more sentences.
Then to make sure he got my point, I concluded with, "Understand?"
In the pregnant moment of stunned silence that followed, Jesus meek and mild was nowhere to be found.
Then I asked if there was anything he cared to address at this lunch.
Stanley shook his head and said no.
And then we had a delightful lunch together.
In fact, after that, we had a delightful relationship. He never complained again, to my face or, as far as I know, behind my back. Stanley became one of my strongest supporters in the congregation. Stanley apparently wasn't much impressed by humility and forbearance. But he respected tough talk.
In what follows, I'm mainly thinking of pastors and how they ground their authority, but it surely applies to anyone in any calling—from ministry to motherhood, from being a head coach to a head cook. No matter your calling, you can be sure that at some point you may need to exert your authority brashly, boldly, with tough talk, using every ounce of authority your office possesses. Sometimes this is necessary, because there is a lot of hardness of heart still going around.
But in this essay, I'd like to suggest a better way, one alluded to in the story of the Transfiguration.
In this story (Mark 9:29), Jesus takes his closest disciples up a mountain, where they watch as he becomes arrayed in glory. At the climax of this story, the voice of the Father says to the astonished disciples, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" A story this wondrous has many points, but one certainly seems to be this: Jesus is someone the disciples should listen to. "Listen to him!" says the Father about his Son.
What's less clear is why the disciples should listen to him.
Certainly, there is all this glory, the blinding light that wraps Jesus in a mantle of divinity. After a moment like that, and the Father's command to listen, you almost expect Peter to say sarcastically, "Ya think?"