I can tell you right now the names of two people who no longer call themselves Christians because of my pastoral leadership. In both cases, they left church, probably angry with God and religion to this very day. In both cases, I was confronting a sin in their life. And in both cases, I had a lot to learn afterwards.
As a leader, how do you correct someone without driving them away?
Correction is necessary to the gospel. Jesus was about full, mutual, real, intense, honest relationship where sin was dealt with in the context of community. As a pastor, I've come to recognize this afresh, realizing that my role is to help bring this kind of life into my community.
But it is hard.
Three hurdles to jump
I've observed first-hand three hurdles to necessary pastoral correction.
First, we have mistakenly minimized the all-too-important relationship between what we enact as leaders and what the Spirit of God does because we were willing to do our work.
Early in my ministry, I quickly came face-to-face with the monster of the church. From my front row seat, I could see the deep-rooted depravity of the people God had given me to lead; not to mention, of course, a newfound respect for my own depravity. I took up my new mantle of authority to correct sin. What I found was shocking: people didn't like it when I held up a mirror and showed them their own warts and imperfections.
The pain caused by correction—even if done in love—slowly began to cause me to shrink back from my pastoral duty of correction. A fellow pastor said something that seemed to answer the problem: the Holy Spirit is better at correcting people's sin than I was and I could leave it to him. This, I was convinced, was the theological answer to my pastoral problem. The result was pastoral silence. For a few years, my role as corrector atrophied, all, of course, because the Spirit could do the work. But, over time, I allowed that overly optimistic belief to morph into a kind of belief that, as a pastor, I don't need to correct, rebuke, or challenge those in my community.
I don't deny that the Holy Spirit corrects us. What I've come to believe, however, is that as a pastor, the Spirit's work of correction is actually worked out through the loving words of a spiritual leader.
To assume that I am off the hook to say the hard word of correction because God's Spirit does the work is, in my mind, tantamount to saying we don't need to learn to recycle because we know the world will end.
Our responsibility is in no way minimized by God's sovereignty. Just because God can and will does not mean we should not do.
The second hurdle we face in pastoral correction is fear. Silence, by default, will almost always be the easiest answer. Not the best answer, mind you, but the easiest answer. Recently, a member of my church completed his chaplaincy requirements having learned many of the ins and outs of the chaplaincy world. Turns out, the work of a chaplain requires relational juggling—serving the needs of patient, families, doctors, and nurse all at the same time. All while, the chaplain must keep a sane mind, a cool emotional demeanor, and embody the gospel of Jesus in trying times.
My friend learned of a phenomenon known in the medical community as "Mutual Pretense." Something that takes place after it's become clear to everyone that the patient will die. The doctor, patient, and family of the patient will often deal with the fact by talking about anything other than the fact that the patient is going to die. They'll talk about what'll happen once they get out the hospital, about sports, about family—anything but the truth of the impending death.