When Your Character Is Under Fire:
The Withering Effect of Personal Attacks1
By David Horner
Why does the church attract people who feel it is their responsibility to make the pastor’s job as difficult as possible? In a strange way, it seems they think it is their right to keep their pastor under constant attack.
For pastors, troubles come in many forms. Pastors bring some troubles on themselves through their failures and mistakes. As difficult as it may be to learn from troubles that are our fault, finding the lessons God wants us to learn while in the middle of hostile fire seems even more difficult. When we see ourselves as victims of unjust and undeserved attacks, it is easier to get angry than to gain maturity.
The pastor often serves as a lightning rod for disgruntled people in the church. When we assume the title pastor, some believe that gives them license to unload their frustrations on us. I once heard Stuart Briscoe say, “He that dareth to raise his head above the crowd inviteth the tomato.” How does a pastor learn to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ in that environment? How do pastors prepare themselves for attacks on their character?
Different Kinds of Attacks
Some of the most destructive attacks pastors face do not come from a pagan, unbelieving world. More often they come from within the church. Learning how to recognize and respond to these attacks that assault our character and ministry equips us to grow from them, instead of allowing them to cripple us. As I recall my own experiences and those of others whom I know, attacks on our character fall into two basic categories: intentional attacks and unintentional challenges.
Most attacks against a pastor are deliberate and have no redemptive purpose. The reasons behind such behavior are often not even clear to the one who has you in his sights and probably have little to do with you personally. This does not make them less painful when they score a direct hit on your heart. Simply saying “nothing personal” while they tear you apart seldom provides much relief. Our consolation comes from knowing that God promises to shape our character through these painful situations.
Personal attacks on your character. Personal attacks place pastors in the crucible where the fire becomes so intense they wonder if they have what it takes to survive with the character of Christ still intact. Integrity and honesty, competence and common sense, humility and openness — have come under attack during my ministry. people who neither knew me nor cared about me have accused me of all kinds of things. Yet, I have found myself defending my character in the face of such attacks.
Attacks on your preaching style. As a pastor, you invest time, prayer, and energy into sermon preparation and preaching. It is often difficult to remain objective about that part of your ministry. When people criticize your preaching, it often generates tremendous emotional reaction. I still recall the sting I felt when a couple sat across from me and said, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t see Christ in your preaching.” After sticking that dagger in my heart, their follow-up comment was, “But don’t take that personally.” What do you say to that kind of helpful comment?
A pastor is an easy target. Beside direct assaults on your character, some attack you simply because you are the pastor. Your visibility and accessibility make you an easy target.
Disgruntled people seldom have joy and are determined to rob others of their joy. As a result, they launch attacks on the nearest and safest target, and pastors usually fit the bill. What they would not attempt at their workplaces or within their own families, they feel comfortable doing in attacking you. They come to church looking for someone to target, and you look nice enough not to bite back.There you are standing by the door as they leave the church, or you are only a phone call away. The convenience is too much for them to pass up.
A case of mistaken identity. Many attacks on pastors are misdirected. People have a hard time distinguishing between the church as a whole and the pastor as an individual. If they have a different idea about what the church should be, it is easier to attack you than an entire institution. They direct their assault on the church at you.
At times, pastors identify themselves with the churches they serve. They find it hard to be objective when they think and talk about their churches. They see the church as an extension of themselves. By the grace of God that is not how He sees us. But as long as pastors struggle with that association, they will feel defensive when people criticize them or the church.
A case of faulty information. Another group within the church attacks the pastor because it received bad information and did not bother to verify the facts before assuming the worst. Many times I have encountered irate church members who wanted to set me straight about something only to discover that someone had misinformed them, either intentionally or not. Even Christians will occasionally spread carefully managed presentations of the facts to achieve their purpose.
A desire to gain control. People who like to control their world often try to control their pastor. Sometimes they use flattery, manipulation, or personal favors to put the pastor in their debt. If this does not work, they have learned that many pastors wilt at the first sign of an attack.
I have learned through personal experience how unscrupulous and unprincipled people can become when they want their own way. Manipulation, deception, and intimidation are only some of the means people have used to control me and seize control of the direction of the church. Attacks of that nature will challenge a pastor, press in on him, drain him, and seek to wear him out — all for the sake of people who are trying to gain control and have their own way.
A desire to elevate themselves. Attacks arise from insecure people who continually tear others down to make themselves look better. Since they are not secure in themselves, they believe their only recourse is to force others into a defensive posture to elevate their own ego needs. When a pastor realizes that the church offers them the only safe place to act this way without immediate consequences, it helps him understand why they do what they do. Nevertheless, their barbed comments and sharp denunciations still cut deep.
Attacks from the adversary. One last source of intentional attacks against pastors should not surprise us — the concerted efforts of Satan to undo anything God is doing. Scripture acknowledges Satan’s ability to strike at one’s weakest and most vulnerable points. Peter warns, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NASB).2 Who better to devour than a pastor God has called to lead people into a growing relationship with Christ?
By the grace of God, maintain the diligence that Peter advises. Do not become the next pastor the devil blindsides. Protect your ministry from the wicked schemes of the accuser of the brethren.
Other challenges pastors undergo come from people who do not intend for their words and actions to hurt anyone, but the effect is the same. Often these people speak thoughtless and careless words with little regard for their impact.
Constant questioning. Soon after our church started, I found myself continually on the defensive with a couple of church leaders. Regardless of what subject came up, I could count on objections from both men. They raised question after question in an apparent attempt to challenge my leadership.
When they raised questions, I would defend my ideas. They seemed determined to press their opposition in direct proportion to the strength of my defensiveness. After a meeting with some particular ill will, I had had it. After I returned home I called them and asked if we could meet and work this out.
When we met, I told them that their continual undermining of my leadership had become a stumbling block in our relationship. They both looked completely shocked. They had no idea that their questions were perceived as negative. They intended no defiance or opposition. They honestly did not mean to put me on the defensive or challenge me. As we talked, I saw these men in a different light.
They realized they needed to learn how to ask questions without appearing through subtle insinuations that they were trying to uncover wrongdoing. By the way they phrased their questions, people sensed they were under attack. When we brought this to the surface, we realized we were allies, not enemies.
In spite of how they phrased their questions, I saw that each man was sincerely interested in the things of Christ. They even had a deep concern for me personally. Their unintentional manner and my over-sensitivity had created an adversarial relationship in which I felt attacked.
Differences of philosophy. At times, people have tried to be helpful by offering me better ways to do my job. By insisting on a change of direction and a revision of my ministry calling, some have offered what they thought were legitimate alternatives to how the church functioned. As pastor, they saw it as my job to accept their approach so the church could be what they wanted.
Was I personally under attack? Even though it felt like it, I was not. Once I realized their concern was philosophical, and they had not meant to attack me personally, I was able to address that concern in its proper context. Unintentional attacks still carry a heaviness with them, but they are less threatening when you realize nothing personal is involved.
Legitimate evaluation. Another area of concern for pastors arises from legitimate evaluation and critique from those responsible for giving oversight and supervision to their ministry. Pastors need to be accountable to someone. In my ministry, the group responsible for overseeing the pastor is the elders. Each year we evaluate the ministry as part of our plan to grow and learn how best to serve Christ together. Regardless of how many kind and affirming words are in our evaluation, human nature causes us to zero in on what we believe are negative critiques. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Pastors need help in identifying both to excel in their strengths and shore up areas of weakness.
Unfortunately, even after I have prayed for a heart that is willing to learn and a spirit that is open to change and growth, I sometimes still find it hard to handle even legitimate suggestions for improvement. Listening with a godly, humble heart can protect you from missing this excellent resource for your personal growth. Leaders with discernment and wisdom who love you and embrace the same calling and vision for ministry are trustworthy. Their role is not to attack you or tear you down, but to challenge you and build you up. When we misread their intentions, we invite misery. When we believe their intentions are wholesome and healthy, we can endure their critique even though they may not express it as sensitively or as helpfully as we might have wished. In Psalm 141:5, David wrote, “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it” (NIV).
Unintentional challenges and attacks consist largely of comments and behaviors that are not malicious. Prepare for the inevitability of having to deal with them by learning to assume the best and give the benefit of the doubt as long as possible. This will help you keep things in perspective.
The way we handle attacks on our character and ministry demonstrates how much we are conforming to the image of Jesus Christ. At times you may respond badly when attacks seem unrelenting, merciless, and unjustified. But getting knocked off balance does not mean you will repeat the mistake every time you come under fire.
Unforeseen attacks can be so disheartening and discouraging that we sometimes question whether it is worthwhile to keep going. We might ask, Who wants to tolerate this abuse anyway? But that is not the issue. The bottom line is how we respond so Christ is glorified. People need to see it is possible to take direct hits — whether from the enemy or from friendly fire — and still maintain a positive testimony for Christ. The way we respond reflects the way we are growing in Christ.
Preparing a Wise Response
When attacks come your way, consider these ideas:
View attacks as a call to prayer
When the heat of attacks builds, the fire can sear you or serve as a call to take the concern to the Lord in prayer. Worrying and obsessing about the causes of our trouble never bring positive results. But when I remember that God invites me to cast all my anxiety on Him and to present my worries to Him in prayer, then I come to Him as one who is weary and burdened and find rest in His presence. Soon I find relief from the sting of the hard times, and I am made aware of the refinement God is producing in my heart.
Find any kernel of truth in what people say
Prideful as I am, it seldom occurs to me that the attack might get under my skin because I know what the person has said contains an element of truth. I need to ask the Lord to show me how to be honest with myself and with others. The normal defensive posture I assume when under attack can insulate me from confronting a truth about myself.
Before retreating or counterattacking, a more helpful approach may be for you to consider the possibility they may be right somewhere in their diatribes against you. While I am preparing a rebuttal, the Lord often slows me down long enough to point out some truth He does not want me to miss.
Refuse to consider anyone your enemy — meet with him personally if possible
Shepherds lead and feed all their sheep, not just the kind, supportive, and cooperative ones. The Lord leaves no room for us to accumulate enemies. Even if those who intentionally try to cause trouble regard us as their enemy, we must refuse to reciprocate.
Christ offered one way to deal with our enemies — love them. If possible, meet with your assailants. Bring one or two others who love Christ with you. Mediating a godly solution does more than just restore peace. Seeing enemies reconciled demonstrates the power of God’s love and forgiveness to others who are not used to seeing love in the midst of conflict.
Resist taking the matter into the pulpit
On more than one occasion I have been tempted to inject a few choice words into my sermons regarding a troubling situation I was facing. Sometimes I gave in to the temptation and made some veiled comment — a subtle public statement to vindicate myself. Being neither entirely foolish nor completely clever, I never said enough for anyone to know what I was talking about, and people often left wondering what that was all about. Since the matter was appropriately confidential, no one should have known. Looking back, I realize that I was probably trying to rally people to my side of the issue in a manner that was abusing the power of the pulpit and dishonoring the privilege of preaching. Keep things private and as confidential as much as possible.
Maintain a balanced perspective on the size of the problem
Pastors cannot ignore attacks, but these attacks do not need to dominate their lives and ministries. Early in my ministry I believed an attacker when he said, “What I am saying is not just my opinion. A lot of others agree with me.” That is usually not true. But if I believed it were true, I became paranoid about whom those others were, how widespread the concern was, and why no one else was saying anything.
There will be times when the problem is bigger than we think. Until you know that to be true, treat the criticisms and attacks as isolated incidents you need to address. Do not treat them as major crises that demand the suspension of everything else you are doing until you can resolve them.
Keep Seeking Christ
By the grace of God a pastor can prevail in times of trouble through the power of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us to rejoice always. When hard times come, let nothing rob you of your joy as you devote yourself to “keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1, NASB). The hymn writer says it well, “The things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
1. Adapted from David Horner, A Practical Guide for Life and Ministry: Overcoming 7 Challenges Pastors Face (Grand Rapids: baker, 2008), 169–175. From chapter 11, “Seizing Teachable Moments: Failure Can Produce Growth.”
2. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).