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Shepherding Divisive Opinions

Truth in Love 315

There's a difference between a congregant who disagrees with something versus someone who has a divisive approach.

Jun 14, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today, I’m joined on the podcast with Pastor Rick Holland of Mission Road Bible Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. I am so delighted to have Pastor Rick here, not just as my personal pastor here in the Kansas City area, but also for his many years of faithful shepherding and pastoral influence. What a great personal relationship we’ve begun to build and friendship. It’s been a refreshing relationship, Rick, and I’m grateful for you and the ministry of Mission Road Bible Church, the way that you guys minister to us as a family, I’m just so grateful. I look forward to our conversation today. Not an easy one, not a simple one.

Let me tell you a little bit more about Rick. He’s been married to Kim for 26 years, and they have three boys, and those guys are cool. There is another now that has taken their place, I suppose, a grandchild and his name is Charlie, a few months old. I love to hear Rick talk about Charlie. It’s one of my favorite things—the delight of a grandfather, especially with a first grandchild. 

We’re going to dive into this. We’re going to talk about some of these divisive opinions. We’ve been doing this whole post-pandemic thing for a while now. The pandemic for 15 months, and it seems like we’ve been coming out of this to some degree or another for quite some time. One of the things that I’ve thought about through this whole process is early on it seemed like your churches that were struggling, the pandemic had a massive impact early on. Then, as we move forward, some of your conservative, stronger churches were handling that well. People were unified. Yes, there’s a lot of unknowns. We’re not sure what’s going on. We’re not sure of the narratives. We’re going to take all the protocols and do the things that are necessary and that sort of thing. Honestly, it seems like it’s a little bit more difficult even for stronger churches at this stage in the game. People have formed their opinions about what they think is happening, based on science and what doctors are saying, their opinions about vaccinations. All this stuff is coming to bear, and here we are in different places trying to open back up. Some to differing degrees, and you guys as elders, I’m telling you, not just at Mission Road, but elders broadly, you guys are taking a beating to some degree on so many decisions. And it’s like, you can’t win for losing, it seems that any decision you make, somebody’s not going to be excited about it, certainly.

Let’s talk about some of those divisive opinions, and we’re not assuming here that people are sitting back twiddling their thumbs waiting to pierce the elders with some sort of divisive opinion that they have, that they’re holding these things strongly. They’re not necessarily corroborating on how they can tear unity down. They just hold these opinions strongly. Let’s talk today about how we shepherd those types of things, and you guys, as elders, certainly have had those types of discussions. Let’s begin here. What are some of the most critical things that you guys have had to encounter? And these are well-meaning people, but they fall on different sides of some issues. What are some of those issues that you guys are seeing now are difficult things to navigate post-pandemic?

Rick Holland: Well, it’s the right question that we’re asking weekly. We have a meeting from 5:30 to 7:00 every Friday morning with our elders. And we’ve talked about this, for now, 15 plus months. First, let me say we love having you and Summer and your family in our church as well. Glad God has brought you to us. What we’ve had to navigate from day one in this is sourcing authority. What I mean by that is we all believe in Mission Road in the sufficiency of Scripture and seeing God’s Word as our only source of authority. And yet, there are competing voices daily on the news, on Facebook, on Twitter, on social media, with a family member, with the internet. Science and society have leaked into Scripture, and those two pools of source material have caused people to become social experts and scientists. Then that puts us as elders in the position of kind of navigating that. We’ve told people from day one that we are not social politicians. We are not scientists, but we are biblical. And we want to say what the Scripture says, all that Scripture says, and no more than what the Scripture says about these issues. And that becomes very difficult with a multitude of opinions on all these issues on vaccines, on meeting, on masks, and we had to decide very early on, Dale. This was so encouraging with our elders that we wanted to do what was biblical and right. Not what would garner consensus, because there is no consensus, you said it. No matter what we decided, someone was on the other side of that decision. So we had to justify those decisions by, does this honor Christ and honor our responsibilities to the government and to our people? 

Dale Johnson: But at some point, you’re right, you have to make a call, right? You have to make some decisions, and sometimes it may or may not be popular. That sort of leads to the next question. You’ve got pastors out there who are feeling that pressure. They’ve sort of may be too late, as long as they possibly can and may be deferred as long as they possibly can, but they’re having to make some decisions. For better or worse, the Lord has put them in that place to make these types of decisions, and inevitably you’re going to have people who disagree. So, as an elder or as a group of elders, how do you guys navigate that when you make these decisions? The people who disagree. How do you engage them? How do you approach them? How do you deal with them regarding these decisions as you gather back again? 

Rick Holland: Yeah, we’ve had to do that both publicly and privately. But by publicly, there are some statements that we’ve made public. For example, when we’re under a mask mandate in Johnson County, we asked people to wear a mask. We said early on, masks don’t make us sin, and masks don’t cause us to cease worship, so we can do that. And the example was a friend I have who’s a missionary in an Asian country. I can’t say any more than that. And he goes to visit churches. If you would have told him that all of the churches, the underground churches he’s meeting with, they could meet publicly, openly, and without persecution, and all they had to do was wear a surgical mask, they would have been ecstatic. And yet we have these, you know, we’re Americans; we have rights. No one’s going to tell me what to do, which works nice in a mask situation, although they can get a ticket going 35 in a 25 zone. The government tells us what to do all the time. It’s just a matter of where we want to kind of mark those out. But when people disagreed, we would say things publicly.

For example, you were there probably a few weeks ago, regarding vaccines. We were asked constantly, what do the elders believe? What is their position on vaccines? We said, talk to your doctor and make a good decision. We’re not scientists. Don’t listen to the internet, don’t listen to Facebook, talk to your doctor, let the expert tell you that. But we still have a multitude of emails that have come in on what we should and shouldn’t be doing. The hardest part, and the most glorious part at the same time, is to drive people back to what are the biblical parameters for these decisions regarding your heart, your sanctification, your understanding of safety, your understanding of security, your understanding of what the expectations of living in a broken world are? How can you love God, love others, and be responsible before the Lord, obey Romans 13 and stay inside the biblical parameters in the covers of your leather Bible and not the opinion and gossip that’s on Facebook?

Dale Johnson: I think that’s so critical. I want to make a distinction here as we move into the next question, between those who disagree. Because pastors who are in this situation, they’re quite hyper-vigilant, honestly, about the decisions that they’re making, how their people are responding to it. There’s a difference between a congregant who disagrees with something and shepherding that person versus someone who has a divisive approach.

Rick Holland: Completely different. We’ve had people disagree with the policies that we’ve had at church, and they’ve done so very privately, very honorably. But then the people who begin, you know, the Sunday gossip session, and they try to gather a momentum of people. By God’s grace, we didn’t have that in His kindness over the course of the 15 months. But we did see people who we needed to have lunch with and just talk to. Interestingly, those two guys we really had to talk to about this, when it came down to it, it wasn’t so much policy-driven as fear-driven. And now we’re into biblical issues. What are you afraid of? Is that a legitimate fear? How does God meet that need? And how can you think rightly about your own safety, your own security, the transitoriness of this life, the temporality of this life, and the permanence of the gospel to get back to those core issues. I think Satan is very clever to get us on the tangential issues, which looked like the big issues. Masks, vaccines, those are just fruit, not root. To go back to how am I thinking about these? So, in those individuals who disagree, we tried to shepherd them back to the real issue here, and it was rarely masks or vaccines. There were underlying issues that were related to those. 

Dale Johnson: I think one of the critical things that you said, most people might sort of gloss over, is no matter if someone is disagreeing, you’re having a dialogue. That’s how you are shepherding them, and you’re working with them through that. So you’re seeing those people, still, honor what you guys are saying as elders, and that’s healthy. We shouldn’t get defensive or respond unnecessarily to folks like that. But when you do see these types of divisive categories or characteristics, it’s important that you as elders do not just assume what these people are thinking and that you go and approach them—not in angry response or accusatory ways but to go and investigate. Find out what’s going on. What are the things that you’re afraid of? What are the things that you’re concerned about? Hear their voice. That gives you the opportunity to shepherd them appropriately, knowing what stage is to do next. I think so many pastors and elders at this stage in the game sort of already assume that the lines are drawn, the camps are made, and they don’t engage their people. That’s missing a shepherding opportunity.

Rick Holland: That’s really important. It’s not about winning the debate with your detractors. It’s about a soul that is in turmoil over something. The disagreement’s just a smokescreen a bit—there are worldview and theological issues underneath those disagreements that have to be identified, unearthed, and addressed. What you’re talking about has been our goal. I love the way you assess it, it’s a shepherding issue, not a debate about the issue, and if you put them in the category of “You disagree and I need to win this debate,” you’re not going to get to the core issues of their heart or even yours. I mean, we’re not infallible, we have made decisions, we’ve had to call them all again or call an audible and say, we need to revisit this. We don’t assume that we’re always in the right in every decision either. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and I think your people then sense that humility and it’s a lot easier to be led by folks who demonstrate that posture as opposed to, “We’re in this position, we’re going to take the reigns and snatch you wherever people seem to respond better.” And it’s not that you don’t have to do that at times. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying there’s a way you shepherd and guide people from a disposition of wisdom. Let’s talk about some of these types of issues. I want to sort of dive in, not just what issues you have to deal with but really the processes that you guys as elders have gone through in how you go about making decisions, right? As you talked about, we want to make decisions that fall within the binding of our leather Bibles. And if that’s the case, walk us through sort of processes or how in a hierarchy, how you’re thinking about the truths of Scripture that helped you guys to make decisions wisely to then present them to your people. 

Rick Holland: Yeah, we had literally, and I really mean this, hours, dozens of hours of conversations about this. It landed with two broad categories. Whatever decision we are making about whatever issue has to avoid sin. Whatever we’re doing cannot be sinning. For example, if the government told us, you cannot sing, we’re commanded to sing. That would have been an easy issue, so is it causing us to sin? But the second was, is this preventing us from worship? And that became more complicated because prevention can be a very subjective issue. I didn’t like singing with a mask, but that was a preference, not a prevention issue. So, does it make us sin? Does it keep us from righteous behavior? Those became our two parallel kinds of tracks that we were trying to run the train on, and they held very well for keeping us out of the ditch on both sides.

Dale Johnson: Now, as we think about the particular decisions and the process by which that happens, you sort of add another iron into the fire with modern technology—it’s easy. As you mentioned, you hearing news reports every day about what’s going on here and there, and with the internet, you can see what’s happening in other ministries, and other churches, other locations, and to some degree, pastors and elders are having to fight against what other ministries are doing. How do you guys take those things into consideration? How does that affect your processes of decision-making? And how do you land on the other side, as you’re thinking about shepherding your own people? 

Rick Holland: Well, that last phrase is where we landed. First Peter 5 says, shepherd the flock of God among you, and we recognized from the very first month of the pandemic that there were voices, national and international voices, that we respected, that were making calls and making judgments that whether we agreed or disagreed with is a separate issue. They were in different states with different regulations, different contexts, and we had to make a decision very early that we wanted to do what was best biblically for our own flock at Mission Road—knowing that sometimes would be going against other bigger, national voices. Interestingly, that became a real critical shepherding issue with people. “Well, what about so-and-so who said such and such?” And we had to shepherd them through to say, “Well, it’s a different context, different church, different city, different county, different state.” Our minds were so occupied with shepherding the folks at 7820 Mission Road that we couldn’t keep up with every other pastor’s opinion, and we had to stay in our lane in our church.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s one of the things that I could say objectively that you guys did super well. You were able to affirm those decisions in those places because they are different contexts and yet still be convictional, biblical, help people understand the biblical parameters as you guide the people here. Quite honestly, I mean, those are the people you and the rest of the elders will be responsible for, and I want to say that to pastors. You’re not responsible for every believer that walks on the planet. You’re responsible for those people who have joined with you in fellowship at your location, and I think that’s super critical for you to think through. One last question that I want to get, maybe just very practical. Let’s say you receive a phone call or some guy who’s a pastor in another place and he’s asking these questions, and he’s pouring his heart out, “Rick, man. It’s been really difficult. We’re tired.” Maybe he’s in a location where there are only a few elders, and he can’t spread the workload out a lot, and he’s weary and tired, and his people are weary and tired. They’re not overly defensive or specifically divisive, they are just all weary of everything that’s been going on, and he begins to ask you some questions about how to navigate this. You can just tell that he’s weary. Where do you begin? How do you start to help, to encourage a pastor in a situation like that? 

Rick Holland: Yeah, that’s the right question, and I think you do so corporately, and you do so privately. What we as pastors say from the pulpit is important because that’s your biggest shepherd’s crook. So to be principle-driven, to be heart-driven, to be book-chapter-verse-driven is very important so that people see what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and what you’re not doing and why you’re not doing. It is important. But I think drilling down a little bit more. It’s the one-on-one with a couple, a dad, a mom, a husband, a wife who are having a lot of heartburn over issues. That’s counseling. That’s discipleship. That’s where you now have a dialogue with someone. And you can unearth what’s going on in their heart. Identify where the missteps are, the misapplication of theology, the misappropriation of theology, the misunderstanding of theology, and do some heart work, some correction work there. I think it takes both. You have to be public and for the corporate dimension of the body so that everyone is hearing the same message. Not everyone’s objections or issues are identical. So that’s where the one-on-one, you said it a minute ago so well, that conversation. Praise God for being able to sit across the couch or across the table from someone and say, “Why do you believe what you believe, and is that biblically sound in how you’re thinking?”

Dale Johnson: That is the work of the ministry. Sometimes in our modern sense, we measure these ministry issues by nickels and noses, and we measure ministry by a thousand other things. The reality is, these are the ways in which ministry matters scripturally, when we’re walking people through some of the wrestlings of their own heart. And right now, the discussion happens to be couched in the language of the pandemic and the fears, anxieties, worries, concerns, freedoms, and rights that people experience through this. I think those are wise words for us to consider, and I pray for pastors that they take encouragement in how they go about shepherding their people even on this side of the issue that we’ve been dealing with.

For more information about TEAM Focus Ministries for weary and tired pastors, contact us at [email protected].