She was a well-dressed middle-aged woman. She arrived early at one of my first services as senior pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church. Immediately my “new person” radar went up. All pastors have this sixth sense, but for young, first-time, small church pastors it is always at the highest levels of alert.

I walked up to her and briefly chatted before the service began. I learned that she had driven a great distance and had listened to a few of my sermons online before deciding to check us out.

After the service I purposely singled out the new lady (we’ll call her Rose). Rose was overflowing with compliments. “Wow! I haven’t heard preaching like that in a long time. You’re a breath of fresh air in this community.” I offered some preacher speak like, “No, it’s all God.”

But inside my heart was dancing the two-step. Rose’s flattery seemed a balm to my restless soul. Pastoring was new to me, and I was pretty insecure about my preaching. I had yet to find my voice. Here was a seasoned believer whose opinion mattered to me. She’d probably been attending church longer than I’d been alive.

The flattery continued. “You’re the only church in this area that preaches the true gospel message.” I was pretty sure this wasn’t at all true, but I let that go. Why spoil a good thing? Maybe every other evangelical pastor in town embraced a full-throated heterodoxy. I had yet to develop relationships with any other local pastors, so her assessment seemed as good as any.

Naively, my wife and I embraced Rose and her family. We quickly put them in key volunteer positions. I came to the church at a time of decline, so the energy from people like Rose could kick-start a renaissance.

Or so I thought.

Cracks Show

At first, Rose seemed like someone who would commit to our church long term. She put together an apologetics Bible study on Wednesday nights and recruited people from the community to join us. She volunteered time on some important projects and even enlisted her husband, an unbeliever, for a remodeling project.

My wife and I grew to love Rose and her family. We frequently entertained them at our house or out to lunch. It seemed like we were growing close.

But soon the cracks in the friendship began to show and those words of flattery that so enraptured my soul when Rose first walked through the doors of Gages Lake would come back to haunt me.

And I learned a powerful lesson in pastoral ministry. Flattery, especially the pastoral variety, is a ministry killer (Proverbs 26:28).

Spreading the Net

I had always regarded flattery something short of sin. Sure, I’d read the biblical warnings against it, but it seemed rather harmless, perhaps nothing more sinister than a few over-the-top compliments.

But my experience with Rose and others has confirmed that flattery, when directed at leadership, can be a trap. Proverbs 29:5 says that a person who flatters his neighbor “spreads a net for his feet.” While well-deserved affirmation is always directed toward another, flattery is ultimately directed inward. The Scriptures assign it selfish motives (1 Thessalonians 2:5).

Flattery is a hidden trap for pastors, especially young men new to leadership. Pressured to grow and besieged by our own insecurities, we allow flattery to shape the way we do ministry.

For one thing, flattery can feed a natural, human desire to compete with the other ministries in town. We do this in subtle ways. A few folks throwing around some hyperbolic words and suddenly we begin to think that perhaps we are preaching more biblically or with more relevance than the other evangelical congregations in town. We forget that our body of believers is but one expression of Christ’s body in our community.

For a while we can build a loyal following based on our style and seemingly unique approach to the Scriptures. But soon the same flattery that drives people to us begins to push them away.

This happened, over time, with Rose. Her hypercritical assessment of every other church was ultimately applied to us. Had I paid more attention to her shaky history of church attendance, I would have realized Rose had had trouble settling in one church for a long period of time. And sure enough, when Rose drifted from our church, her reasons for leaving resembled the critiques she offered of the other evangelical congregations in town.

Rose and I remain friends to this day, and I wish her well. She is an accomplished woman who knows a great deal of Scripture. I hated losing her, especially when her gifts were so beneficial to our congregation. But until she changed her approach to church, she’d never be the kind of committed, long-term member who could serve as a leader in our ministry.

Combatting Flattery

So what should a pastor do with flattery?

First, we need to cut it off at the pass. Since Rose others have visited with similar stories. They’ve attended several different congregations, but none satisfied them quite like we do. Because we’re a bit more traditional than others, we usually hear something along these lines: No churches preach the gospel anymore. Every sermon is watered down. You’re an oasis in a parched evangelical desert.

I’ve learned to measure my response and ask a few questions. I try to discern where they attended previously. If the name of a nearby evangelical church pops up, I always offer praise for the pastor and the ministry. Since my experience with Rose, I’ve had the opportunity to develop relationships with most of the evangelical pastors in our area. It’s safe to say we don’t all agree on methodology or ecclesiology but if they are preaching Christ, I feel a responsibility to support them publicly.

Second, we should be wary about building our church with malcontents. A few weeks ago, I had a man visit who bragged about his involvement in several area churches by saying, “Yeah, I know where all the bodies are buried in this county.” I smiled, then spoke of my admiration for the pastors he was about to criticize. I also made a mental note and whispered a silent prayer to the Lord. Don’t let me be his next body.

Now a few important caveats. There are often good reasons to leave one church for another. Some feel God calling them to help lead a smaller, more needy work. Others leave for legitimate theological disagreements. And there are cases of often difficult personal situations that call for a change of scenery. However, in every case, I always encourage them to leave any grievances with their other church behind. And I typically allow our relationship to develop before I consider them for any positions of leadership.

Third, we should preach often on the proper approach to church. The consumer approach to church afflicts Christians of all persuasions, from conservative to progressive, from Reformed to broadly evangelical. It’s incumbent on us to daily remind our people that even the best churches will disappoint. No church will satisfy all of our preferences. Our purpose in gathering is to glorify Christ and serve others.

Flattery will always be a part of the human condition, but with Scriptural discernment, we can soberly avoid its entrapping net.