I was getting ready to go serve at my first church as lead pastor. The church was located in a small town in Alabama. Having served as an associate pastor, I knew that I would have more responsibility as a lead pastor. I also knew that I would benefit from receiving counsel from a veteran pastor prior to going to my first lead pastorate.
I’ll never forget the words of advice one of my mentors gave me. He said, “Tim, you have to choose as a pastor what hill you’re willing to die on.”
I thought hard about his counsel and about the context where I would serve in a short few weeks. Being located in the Deep South, I was aware of the potential for prejudice and racism in the area. I’d asked the search team about the members’ feelings towards people of color. They responded that they would be welcomed to the church.
I found that the search team did not speak for all the members. After serving there for about a year, my leadership team reached out to an African American family in the community. We were overjoyed when they came to a Wednesday night supper that preceded our Bible study hour.
As they waited in line for their food, one of the charter members of the church who was sitting close to the line said with a loud voice, “What are those people doing here?” It was clear to everyone in the room what he was communicating. He didn’t want African Americans in our church.
At that moment, the words of my mentor came to my mind, “Tim, you have to choose as a pastor what hill you’re willing to die on.” Every eye in the room, including those of the African American family members, was on me. Would I respond to this charter member’s racist statement and risk getting forced to leave the church (he had a great deal of power there)? Would I remain silent and communicate to our guests that people of color were not welcome at our church?
I made my decision quickly. I walked over to the table where he sat and said, “Those people are people who God loves and people for whom Christ died. Those people are my guests and guests of this church. Those people are not a problem. The un-Christlike condition of your heart is a problem.” I spoke my comments to him as loud as he made his statement.
I then went to the family and apologized for the man’s attitude and statement. I told them that they were welcome there, and we hoped they would stay for the Bible study. They stayed that night, but never came back.
I left the church about a year later. I was not forced out by the charter member. I left the church on good terms. Sadly, to my knowledge, the church still does not have people of color attending its services.
I cannot be accountable for them. I am accountable for how I lead and whether I am willing to take stands on hills on which I should be willing to die. Silence in the face of racism was and is not an option.
If I’m going to lead like Jesus and love people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, I must be willing to die on that hill.