How do you pastor a mob?

The truth is you can’t.

At least not easily.

The only problem is that right now you have to.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an era of reasonable consensus to polarization, partisanship, and division. That’s true of congregations, boards, staff, teams, and almost every group that gathers these days.

The crisis of 2020-2021 has accelerated and heightened the tension.

For pastors, and for almost every leader these days, there’s no escaping the fact that pastoring a mob now comes with the job.

No wonder 29% of pastors have said they’ve seriously thought about quitting ministry in the last year. And turnover was already a challenge everywhere.

To make it more interesting, not only does everyone have an opinion, everyone now has a platform on which to share it. And share it they do.

The question becomes, do you lead in this environment, where few people agree on anything and everyone has easy access to you to criticize anything you do as a leader publicly and regularly?

How do you pastor a mob?

It’s definitely not easy, but here are four strategies that can help.

1. Expect Less Affirmation (So Find It Elsewhere) 

One of the big adjustments every leader is making right now is to get used to leading with less affirmation.

As Tim Keller put it recently,

“Not only is everybody tired, but nobody’s getting any positive affirmation…Almost nobody’s getting any pats on the back.

So you’re just running and running to try to keep things together. And there are no hugs, literally no hugs.

[Leaders are] getting absolutely no affirmation. There’s just a tremendous amount of loneliness of feeling of being separated from so many people that we care about. We just can’t live this way.”

Keller is absolutely correct.

What Do You Do About It? 

The question then becomes, well, what do you do about that?

Breaking down disappointment and the lack of affirmation can be helpful.

Disappointment and delight usually consist of the gap between what you thought would happen and what actually happened. If whatever you’re doing ends up being less than you imagined, you’re disappointed. If it turns out better, you’re delighted.

These days, almost everything seems to be turning out slightly worse than you had hoped.

This takes us back to the old adage: the secret to happiness is low expectations.

We may be in for a season where it’s going to be a challenge. Knowing that, and realizing you’re here to serve people who have not got a lot of joy happening in their lives right now can help you calibrate your expectations appropriately.

A second strategy is to seek affirmation elsewhere.

This can happen in a variety of ways. One obvious starting point is in your relationship with God. As a person of faith, there are days where that might be the only affirmation you receive all day.

But on many days, you can also find joy and affirmation from other sources: from your family, from a life-giving friend, from a walk in the woods, a good cup of coffee, or from a hobby that gives you a deep sense of satisfaction.

It’s essential that you do this and not feel guilty.  To find life-giving sources, habits, and rhythms is basic self-care.

Leaders who don’t practice self-care will soon find themselves either burned out or heading down the path of self-indulgence.  Both will sabotage your leadership in the end.

2. Be What You Hope To See

Almost every leader I know has been disappointed not just by random critics or uninvested people going off unhinged. They’ve also been hurt or disappointed by at least one long term friend, associate or colleague who’s turned on them over the last year.

That just further illustrates how hard a season it’s been for everyone.

So what do you? How do you respond?

The line I’ve tried to follow, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, is to be what I hope to see.

In other words, if you hope to see people behaving reasonably, be reasonable.

If you’re hoping for kindness, compassion and grace, embody that.

Don’t return sarcastic, snide or angry comments with sarcastic, snide or angry responses.

It can be hard. I scroll through the comments on this site or on my social media feed every day. Most are super encouraging. But there are also more than a few that are corrosive, angry or downright toxic.

My first instinct is to want to retaliate…to get back at the commenter. I’ve had some incredibly snide replies composed in my head…and that’s exactly where they need to stay. In my head.

There are also times I’ve tried to win over irate people online. I find I can’t. I can usually diffuse a situation in real life. On the internet? Almost a 0% success rate. So I no longer try.

I’ve also tried to discuss things online with people who have extreme and public views on subjects. Trying to change their minds is like trying to move a 10 ton block of steel with your baby finger. Not only does the steel not budge, you now have a broken finger.

The best way to react to angry, extreme views is to be what you hope to see.

I hope to see reasonable people who respect and love each other, and who can disagree with each other without being disagreeable. So I try to be that.

I think there’s a huge opening in our culture right now for moderate, compassionate, reasonable people. That’s what I hope to be.

What do you hope to see? Be that.

3. Don’t Get Sucked into the Wormhole

What are you trying to accomplish with your leadership?

For me these days in my writing and speaking, I’m trying to help leaders live in a way today that will help them thrive tomorrow.

For decades as a church leader, I spent my time trying to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus (even though that’s not my “day job” anymore, I’m still committed to that in my personal life).

Whatever you’re trying to accomplish with your leadership, stick to that.

Don’t get sucked into the wormhole that has become public discourse these days.

You don’t need to be a cultural commentator on everything from politics to pro sports to vaccines to state regulations to immigration to Supreme Court decisions to celebrity splits.

And guess what? You’re probably not an expert on any of those things. Neither am I.

Yet you look at a lot of pastor’s social media feeds today, and commenting on anything and everything appears to be their new job.

It probably comes from a good place. After all, you lead in a world where people feel like they got their doctorate in a particular niche subject on YouTube and perfectly understand a topic like no one else does.

But here’s the truth: you’re not going to win that argument. And you don’t need to be in that argument in the first place.

I’ve seen so many leaders peddle away their influence by weighing in on every topic du jour and miss the main point of their ministry and leadership.

So what are you trying to do again?

Stick to that.

And while you’re doing that, focus on the things that unite people, not on the things that divide people.

Focusing on division brings greater division. Focusing on unity brings greater unity.

Right now, in a culture fraught with division, people are longing for unity. So be unifying.

4. Ban The Trolls (And Tune the Rest Out)

There’s a lot of talk about free speech these days and our right to express ourselves. And I’m all for free speech.

But does that mean everyone gets to say whatever they want however they want wherever they want?

I’m going to suggest the answer to that is no.

Let’s focus on wherever for a minute—as in inside the church or organization you lead.

You definitely need people with diverse views and opinions on your team and in your tribe, but that doesn’t mean there are no limits.

Why?

Simple. The trolls inside your church will kill your culture and can ultimately kill your mission.

The sad truth is, some would love to do just that. They don’t care about you, other people, or your mission nearly as much as they care about themselves and whatever idea or venom they’re peddling in the moment.

Organizationally, this isn’t nearly as much about free speech, as it is about creating a healthy culture and and cultivating community.

To get a clearer perspective on it, imagine that conversation you’re trying to moderate online or in your church was happening instead at a dinner party in your home.

In the same way you wouldn’t tolerate a dinner guest who punches you in the face, breaks your dishes and insults your spouse and kids, you don’t need to let trolls and haters live in your digital or physical space.

No, if that happened at a dinner party, you’d either insist they leave or call the police, or both. And you’d be justified in doing that.

Trolls and haters intend to divide. They intend to wound and destroy. That’s their game. And I’m going to guess that destruction isn’t the game you’re playing (if it is, then welcome the trolls).

The proper response to someone who intends to destroy you is to stop them from doing so.

And as far as free speech goes, you’re not silencing them forever. Trust me. They’ll find someone else to pick on. You’re just saying it can’t happen in your space.

That’s leadership. And that’s setting a healthy boundary not just for you, but for everyone you lead.

The healthy people will thank you.

So What Specifically Do You Do With Trolls and Haters?

To break it down a little further, here’s what I do with trolls and haters. I started by assuming the best. Everyone has an off day, and sometimes the message I hear is not the message they sent.

Assuming the best means sometimes I ignore the comment or, alternatively, reply with a kinder, more generous response. That never changes a troll by the way.

Then my team and I start looking for patterns. If someone has an abusive pattern and shows no openness to changing, caring about others or even engaging in real dialogue, the proper response is to delete or block.

That’s true online and in real life. In real life on a handful of occasions, I’ve stopped toxic people from serving or joining a group at times because the impact would be so devastating on the people around them.

Remember, too, that we’re talking about less than 1% of the people in your church or maybe 1% of the people on your public channels. But that noisy, angry 1% can take down the 99% who are trying to have real community and real conversation.

It’s perfectly fair to put limits on unhealthy behaviour for the sake of the health of the organization. If you want more, here’s a post outlining 7 pro tips on dealing with toxic people.

What does this leave you with?

A healthier you and a healthier church ready to reach healthier people.

And the trolls and haters, they can find another sandbox to play in.

Which leads to the final point: when you find trolls play in other sandboxes, tune them out.

Consume some thoughtful, helpful, stimulating content instead, rather than the drivel that makes up too much of life in the moment.

You’ll be so much better off for it. Plus you’ll sleep at night while you work toward a better tomorrow with the people you lead.

How Do You Pastor a Mob?

Those are just a few things that have helped me navigate the rough waters of our culture these days.

What’s helping you cope? What’s helping you set healthy boundaries?

How do you pastor a mob and still advance the mission?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

How to Pastor a Mob

32 Comments

  1. Michael McLendon on May 21, 2021 at 4:23 am

    Not it is a composite…you clearly are not listening to the message.

  2. Mon on May 19, 2021 at 10:55 am

    im a youth pastor, a bible school director and a minister to people in the workplace and ive felt pretty close to burningout and havent been able to find anyone i can really be real and transparent with aside from my wife. This article affirms what im going thru but imparts a whif of freshness enough to get me out of the muck. Thank you Carey for the timely encouragement. I so needed this!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 20, 2021 at 3:18 pm

      So glad to help! I’ve got lots of resources that can help!

  3. Ogunro Oladimeji on May 18, 2021 at 6:20 am

    Hi Carey, thank you for these wonderful nuggets. Recently my church just found a way of having a toxic person out of the church, interestingly, shes part of the church leadership.
    Our challenge over time, as we thought was the fighting attitudes put up by this individual has scattered the church, of which about 50 church members have left in the past 7 years plus.
    Currently, the church is still few (less than 30 members including children)
    What can we do differently now to get new members that will stay, as majority of the old members are no longer staying in the neighborhood of the church.

  4. black faucet on May 17, 2021 at 6:31 pm

    Such an inspiring website!

  5. Christina Marvin on May 17, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you for the timely encouragement! We certainly live in interesting times…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:42 pm

      We sure do…

      • Pastor Alexander Ibeakuzie on May 19, 2021 at 1:45 pm

        Wow this is great revival to my soul , it has not been easy dealing with the mob in church , but from your teaching I have been strengthen and have more insight on how to pastor the mob

  6. Zach W. Lorton on May 17, 2021 at 10:59 am

    We do 2 things really well—we use contemporary worship, and our pastor teaches messages that aren’t just a rehash of a Bible study but provides real-world, practical contexts for what people are going through in this day and age. Those 2 things tend to keep people around, because they find it’s a different experience than any other church they’ve been to (or it defies all expectations they previously held). We don’t appeal to everyone, and we certainly don’t appeal to people in our community who love wooden pews, hymnals, and other older traditions.

    One such troll/hater we had was the pastor of a local denominational church (won’t say which denomination, but they have a reputation for being kind of boring). We put out an ad on Facebook saying, “Say goodbye to outdated, boring church services.” He posted in opposition to the sentiment, saying he found our implication offensive. Like clockwork, several others (of the same age, possibly from the same church), echoed his sentiment. We responded on the thread, calmly explaining the ad was meant for a different demographic, and responding in a positive way. We chose to keep the comment up along with the response, so that people could see what our purpose was in running the ad in the first place.

    If we get someone who repeatedly leaves disparaging comments on our social media feed, we block them. We’ve even had to step some people down from the worship team due to their divisive and belligerent activity on social media, because when confronted with it privately, they refused to change their behaviour. Salvaging our relationships are indeed important, but not at the expense of the ministry we’re trying to do.

    • Brian E on May 17, 2021 at 11:37 am

      Zach,
      I applaud your efforts to modernize and reach a demographic that was not being reached. I, however, do not agree with the “ad” as it is easy to confuse who it is intended to reach. The statement, “Say goodbye to outdated, boring church services,” could easily make fellow churches think you are going after their sheep. I am quite confident that is not the case and you are trying to attract those that would not resonate with the traditional service. However, if I was the pastor in a traditional service, I would be quite taken back by a church seemingly advertising to my people and encouraging them to step away.

      We can get into churches not doing a great job in feeding the congregation and thus a person would thrive in a different congregation. I understand that. But I believe leaving a church is a very personal and even God-led action that should never be taken lightly. I would hope we would encourage unity and help that congregant help their church instead of asking them to just say goodbye.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:46 pm

      That’s a tough one Zach.

      Interesting conversation about the ‘ad copy’. I see it both ways. On the one hand, you’re right, a lot of people never attend church because they see it as boring and irrelevant. On the other hand it could be seen as an attack.

      What if you framed it in the positive? “Finally…sermons you can understand. Music you’ll love. X Church.”

      I don’t know, I’m not an ad guy, but it’s just an idea. A little more positive while still making the distinction clear.

      Another thing you can do is custom target an audience that DOESN’T go to church so you’re less likely to get church trolls on it.

      Just some ideas. But I agree, you own that public space and you have to keep that space healthy.

    • Michael Henry McLendon on May 19, 2021 at 11:33 am

      Your response to the “troll/hater” tells me everything I need to know. What more disparaging comments to use your words can there be than calling someone your disagree with a toll/hater. The younger generation you likely represent has no problem using words like troll and hater to describe someone and then thinks it is ok to tell church folks that they are going to outdated boring services. What I hear from you is someone who is tone deaf. The person who is being divisive and offensive is you. Your come across as more concerned about pushing your brand of ministry that actually ministering to people. The behavior that needs to be changed is yours. You sound like you have a big plank in your eye not just a mere splinter. This attitude is one that seems all to common now resulting in less reverence in worship, valuing the highest decibel level possible for music that tends to carry no enduring spiritual message, and performance over substance.

      • mike viladesau on May 19, 2021 at 3:01 pm

        The distinction I believe is someone who disagrees respectfully with a gentle spirit vs the person who posts ugly and offensive comments again and again. The term “troll” or “hater” is for the person who sows discord by being insulting and divisive repeatedly.
        We have biblical grounds to warn them warn them again and then have nothing to do with them.
        Titus 3:10 NIV
        Grace and peace.

        • Michael Henry McLendon on May 20, 2021 at 8:40 am

          So calling someone in a church a troll and hater is not insulting and divisive? In my decades of experience, using such words just pours gas on what maybe a fire or perhaps embers that may burn out. Hate is a very strong work that carries a heavy burden for those who use it. For people to disagree and there not to be harmony about an issue or change within the church is not a bad thing. When someone who professes to be a Christian uses the term hater to refer to those who disagree, raise an objection, or sometimes just ask a question that may be uncomfortable then I suggest that person should examine their own heart. My experience in churches in various leadership roles tells me that much of the divisiveness people feel often comes pastors and staff who think they are the church and exert control thru a staff led model that excludes the church body. Anyone who disagrees may then be targeted. Many younger staff today tend to shoot from the hip with out first praying and thinking about what they are saying and doing so there is no practical way to manage agreement and disagreement within the church body.

  7. Cyndy Warnier on May 17, 2021 at 10:47 am

    Thank you for this much-needed perspective and the encouragement it gives us. I am a campground host and chaplain; the church is God’s wide open space surrounded by forests, and every walk of life comes in, many who have no qualms about telling you they swore they’d never set foot inside a church again…and yet they came to a campground service. This tells me the heart-felt need to keep going and pay no heed to those “trolls” – let God have his way with them.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:47 pm

      Love this. Way to go Cyndy.

  8. mike viladesau on May 17, 2021 at 9:14 am

    Thanks for this post Carey. I just started a series on love, unity, forgiveness in a time of hate, discord, and canceling. My heart is sad over people attacking each other on social media over everything. The love of many is waxing cold. I am still full of faith and full of joy. Our best strategies and plans and efforts are proving futile in the face of this perfect storm( The US election, the pandemic, George Floyd).
    We are reaching the end of ourselves.
    I believe (and I submit this with all humility and gentleness) that we are reaching the point where only an outpouring of the Holy Spirit will turn the tide.
    When God comes you love everybody. When God comes forgiveness and unity become a reality. When God comes the Reality of Jesus and HIs Kingdom are preeminent over politics and nationalism. When God comes the hunger for the word of God increases a hundredfold.
    It feels like the church is at the banks of The Red Sea.
    I read the pages of history and I see Wales set ablaze by God. I see the first and second great awakening. I see Asuza Street and the racial barriers coming down.
    I believe we are on the brink of a historical revival in North America.
    Christ will prepare His Bride!
    I am so grateful for you heart to serve leaders Carey I am stopping to pray for you right now.
    Mike Viladesau

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:47 pm

      Mike, great to hear from you. I agree it’s hard. I rejoice with you that we’re a people of hope. Keep hoping!

  9. Sheryl Disher on May 17, 2021 at 9:02 am

    Carey, I thank God for you & for the wisdom in your posts. I’ve shared them with many people who have also been blessed.

    • Nathaniel Nix on May 17, 2021 at 10:42 am

      Trolls – Ban, Delete, Move on

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks Sheryl.

  10. Mark on May 17, 2021 at 8:38 am

    First remember that the many of the prophets and Jesus were executed for not caving to the mob. It can at times be inevitable that you, like Jesus, will be run out of town. Now, pastoring to a mob may mean that there are times you should be quiet, much like Jesus before Pilate. Teach the people faithfully, some won’t hearken to the words and some will, like the parable of the seeds. For all those who think they are so oppressed, remind the people what happened when Rome and others before and after them took over. You will have to use some extra-Biblical sources to do this but it will be worth it.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:58 pm

      Mark. I hear you. I just wouldn’t assume that the pushback you’re receiving is because you’re like Jesus.

      I’ve seen so many leaders claim that and really it’s a lack of self-awareness. I’d explore every avenue of ‘what might I be doing that’s getting in the way” before I concluded that it was because I was too much like Jesus.

      • Mark on May 17, 2021 at 3:20 pm

        Thanks. I am not a pastor. I have just seen pastors run out of town. I advised one years ago who was good to leave ruling family ran him off and replaced him with one of their family members.

        • Mark on May 17, 2021 at 3:21 pm

          Leave before the ruling…
          Typo

  11. Scotty Jarrard on May 17, 2021 at 8:36 am

    Unfortunately, this is the new reality for pastors and leaders. Last February, I could tell a huge shift was coming but I couldn’t of ever imagined that it would divide us to this degree. Good read. Praying for you all.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:59 pm

      It’s a big shift Scotty. For sure.

  12. Dee Anne Phillips on May 17, 2021 at 8:03 am

    I have a Facebook group of over 6000 people of all denominations, all over the world. Right before I read this article I posted this:

    My friends,

    I am sure that like me, you pray *fervently* about different political issues and circumstances in this broken world. 

    A gentle reminder that here in the Prayer Roum we trust and worship the King of the universe, and His Son, Jesus Christ.
    Those same people who do despicable things on behalf of themselves or on behalf of their country, would love for us Christians to take our eye off the ball and weaken our connection to each other and to Whom we worship. I refuse to let them distract us.

    So I ask you *keep praying* but do not mention the political circumstance or government by name. God knows exactly what is in our hearts and our intentions. Mentioning to others exactly the circumstances and the countries involved only stirs up controversy and discord among us. I have been getting complaints and reports and that is not why we are here.

    I am committed to keeping The Prayer Roum a serene and safe place to pray alone or with others. Thank you in advance for honoring the rules.

    Blessings and love to each of you. 

    Perhaps the best way to manage a mob is to be on the offense and not let the mob form. Easier said than done, even online. It takes a lot of commitment and downright courage. But as we all know, leadership is not for the faint of heart.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 1:59 pm

      It sure isn’t Dee Ann. And as a moderator you set the tone. Thanks for this!

  13. Michael McLendon on May 16, 2021 at 6:46 pm

    Based on church experience, when a pastor sets out a divisive agenda and vision for a church what do u expect will happen? In my view such actions tend to be taken by pastors who believe they are the single authority in a church and rule with an iron fist…no transparency, no effort at open communications, and they do not listen. They are happy when long time members leave the church so they can rip out the organ, remove the pews, and any vestige of a revenant place of worship…a sanctuary. On I forgot…the louder and more unintelligible the music the better. The mob as you call it is really the consequence of deliberate actions of a pastor and willing staff who believe it is there church to rule.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2021 at 4:50 am

      Michael it sounds like you’re speaking about a very particular situation in which there’s been a lot of hurt. I would encourage you to process that locally with people who know the situation. I’m sorry you’re so deeply disappointed and hurt. Working through this locally might be very healing.

      • Michael McLendon on May 21, 2021 at 4:22 am

        I have served in many churches as my career has moved us around the country and have seen many different situations so this is a composite. I learned long ago that when new staff arrive and want to change everything to be hip with the two word church down the street and impasse a staff directed model for church governance that you either allow God to lead you to a different place to worship or stay and try to be helpful. Trying to be helpful usually does not work because most of the new generation do not want to listen. They only want change for change sake and do not hesitate to call fellow Christian’s trolls and haters or worse.

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