Dear Pastor, Avoid the Common Pitfall That Will Sabotage Your Ministry

This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.

Dear Pastor,

In seeking to be good stewards of God’s truth and his church, we must be mindful of the common pitfalls that can undermine our efforts to lead well. This begins by recognizing that sensible leadership from the pulpit is defined as much by what it avoids as what it includes. Practically speaking, this means that we must be diligent to avoid preaching landmines that can sabotage our ministry leadership and leave God’s people dazed, confused, angry, or hurt. Sensible leadership recognizes how to identify and navigate these dangerous preaching hazards and avoid common contemporary pitfalls. Overall, there are three particular danger zones that we should make an intentional effort to evade.

One of the main ways we can exercise sensible leadership from the pulpit is to avoid public arguments. While this may seem obvious, it’s actually one of the easiest and most common ways we detour into threatening territory in our preaching. Perhaps this is most apparent by how Paul continually addresses our propensity as pastors to be distracted from our primary role as preachers and cautions us against being lured into disagreements and disputes that we should avoid.

Expositional Leadership

R. Scott Pace, Jim Shaddix

This guide shows pastors how to simplify and strengthen their ministry work by integrating the three core aspects of their roles—leadership, preaching, and pastoring—through expository preaching ministries.

While repeatedly outlining for Timothy and Titus what to teach in the pastoral epistles, Paul also repeatedly outlines specific things to “stay away” from or “shun.” Other than steering clear of certain types of people (2 Tim. 3:5), Timothy should also “avoid” things related to the content of his public instruction and personal interaction (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:16; Titus 3:2, 9).

First, in both of his letters to Timothy, Paul specifically cautions him to “avoid irreverent babble” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:16). In our previous section regarding stewardship of the pulpit, we briefly mentioned his first admonition to avoid “pointless discussions” and “unholy chatter” in order to guard the truth of the gospel (1 Tim. 6:20). Interestingly, Paul’s parallel warning in his second letter to Timothy immediately follows his command regarding diligence in studying and dedicating himself to “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The sequence directly contrasts his handling of God’s word with the “irreverent babble” he’s called to “avoid” (2 Tim. 2:16). Perhaps most significantly, he cautions Timothy that his failure to do so “will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Tim. 2:16). In other words, avoiding these things and focusing on God’s word determines the direction and effectiveness of a pastor’s leadership from the pulpit. Similarly, Paul’s cautions Titus to “avoid quarreling” (Titus 3:2) and “foolish controversies” (Titus 3:9) because of the affect it has on those he leads and influences. The “quarrels” undermine our testimony as well as the gospel that our “courtesy” and kindness are meant to embody for those who are lost (Titus 3:2–7). God calls us to speak with great confidence about the gospel and its practical implications as we “insist on these things” that are “excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8). By contrast, the “foolish controversies” and related disputes that we’re called to “avoid” prove to be “unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).

Sensible leadership from the pulpit is defined as much by what it avoids as what it includes.

So how does all this apply to our ministry today? Many preachers who desire to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) and recognize our responsibility to “rebuke those who contradict” with sound doctrine (Titus 1:9) will adopt a defensive posture in the pulpit. While these are crucial aspects of our role, our preaching should not be characterized by an argumentative demeanor or confrontational rhetoric. And beyond our posture and tone, we must also be careful that our messages don’t focus on unnecessary issues of debate and controversy.

Yet, engaging in public arguments doesn’t always arise from an argumentative posture. As pastors, it’s easy to get comfortable in the pulpit, especially when we’ve been with the same church family for an extended season. While familiarity lowers walls and opens doors for honest communication, it can easily become an opportunity for us to mishandle that trust and freedom by not filtering our words appropriately. We can begin to assume that our people will automatically understand what we meant to say, give us latitude to speak more freely, or give us the benefit of the doubt. But we must be careful not to use the pulpit to air grievances or pull out our favorite soapboxes. Taking these liberties and presuming on people’s support can slowly and subtly start to erode our leadership.

Another important aspect of avoiding public arguments that requires an honest look in the mirror involves recognizing the sinful cravings of our hearts that feed on debates and controversies. Some people expect pastors to be the resident expert on many of the social issues in our culture. In an effort to satisfy these congregants and gratify our own desire for respect or notoriety, we can begin to relish our role as the neighborhood prophet who calls people out, turns heads, and raises eyebrows. We may not always do this with cultural issues but we can be tempted to do so with theological topics in order to pacify the same desires. Yet, as Paul charges Timothy, we should be reminded, “not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Tim. 2:14).

In addition to avoiding public arguments, we must also be careful to avoid political agendas. These issues, specifically those that are not addressed by God in the Bible, are particularly dangerous because they are typically some of the most hotly debated, volatile, and potentially divisive ones. Political subjects can involve civil politics or church politics, but we must guard our messages from being motivated or controlled by either. To do so effectively requires wisdom, tact, and diplomacy. These attributes are not celebrated or conditioned in our culture, so they can be points of weakness for all of us. They also come more naturally to some and are typically acquired over time (by learning from our own mistakes!). But they are communication skills that can be developed, and they are essential for effective leadership, particularly when dealing with political issues.

This article is adapted from Expositional Leadership: Shepherding God's People from the Pulpit by R. Scott Pace and Jim Shaddix.

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