Serving in Hard Places

In a recent conversation with another minister, I shared a story about church conflict. It was a true story. And I was the object of the conflict. Of course, I may have also been the cause of the conflict. At least to some degree. But it was his response that got me thinking: “You have served in some hard places.” Actually, I have. In fact, serving in hard places is part of what ministry is all about. Like Jeremiah, we are called to shepherd a people who have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear (Jeremiah 5:21).

In addition to serving in hard places, I have also had the privilege of consulting with some churches in hard places. Here are a few insights from my journey.

The Conflicted Church

Conflict is not uncommon in most churches. But there is a difference in a church that experiences conflict and one that is conflicted. Conflicted churches have a long-standing history of conflict. Years ago, I was being considered by a church that fell into this category. I remember the advice of a state denominational leader. He said, “You just need to know their history going in. They have never fired a pastor, but I can tell you the past three pastors were not unhappy to get out of there.”

Conflicted churches don’t just make it hard on the pastor who serves them. They make it hard for people to respond to the gospel. They make it hard for those who do respond to the gospel to stay involved in the church. Years ago, a fellow-pastor made this statement, “If it were not for my church’s reputation, we could reach our community.” Conflicted churches are hard places to serve.

The Confused Church

Churches often get confused over a variety of issues. They get confused about their mission. This is especially true for churches that thrived during the days of cultural Christianity. They built their ministries on having the best programs. The best facilities. The best music. They were a one-stop destination to keep families engaged.

And then cultural Christianity began to fade. Families no longer needed the church to keep them occupied and entertained. And instead of embracing the mission of making disciples who make disciples, these churches tried to go “back to the future,” thinking if we can just do what we used to do, everything will be like it used to be. They are confused churches. And they are hard places to serve.

Other churches are confused about their theological identity. A significant number of church members hold to differing and antithetical theological positions. And the pastor is supposed to shepherd them all. That was true for me in one of my earlier pastorates. It was toward the end of Southern Baptists’ struggles between conservative and moderates. And the church I was called to serve included about 15% who identified with conservatives. And about 15% who identified with moderates. Neither group could abide the other.

Yes, it was a difficult place to serve. But it was also one of my favorite places to serve. I still have deep friendships from that church, even among those with whom I have sharp theological disagreement. The key to serving a confused church is to lovingly shine the light of truth to overcome the confusion.

The Comfortable Church

I know this seems counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t you rather serve a comfortable church than a conflicted one? The problem is that churches can become too comfortable. That was the case with one church. This was a county-seat town, First Baptist Church that ran close to 500 at their peak. That was more than 50 years ago.  Since that time, the church experienced a slow, but steady decline of more than 50%. No one really noticed. That’s because a 50% decline over 50 years is only 5 or less people per year. It’s death by attrition.

But the real reason this church remained comfortable was that while the attendance declined, the financial resources increased. And so, at one point, the church had about 230 people in weekly attendance with a $1 million annual budget and money in the bank. That’s quite a bit of comfort!

In their minds, the church had been growing over the years. And then in less than a year, they lost $150,000 in income due to deaths and people moving away. Ironically, the church was also beginning to experience numerical and missional growth for the first time in decades. But because of the financial crisis, they quickly abandoned the vision, retreating to a place of comfort.

If you find yourself serving in a hard place, there is hope. As Mark Clifton says, “There has never been a church that Jesus looks at and says, ‘I don’t know what to do with that one!'” Jesus has a plan for every church, even those that are conflicted, confused, or comfortable. If you would like help discovering God’s plan for your church, let me hear from you.


Rob Paul is a church revitalization strategist with over three decades of experience serving established Southern Baptist churches in pastoral ministry. He has helped churches in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to experience revival and revitalization by God’s grace and for His glory. He is currently serving as the lead pastor of Huffman Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. To find out more about Rob Paul Ministries and the work of church revitalization, visit Church Revitalization Resources.