Creative Leadership

The Honor Culture Versus the Need to Disagree

There are a number of leaders today who teach the importance of an “honor culture” within organizations – particularly churches.  An honor culture is an atmosphere of respect for the pastor or leader, often to the point of intense loyalty. Growing up as a preacher’s kid, I can understand a pastor’s desire to have loyal and supportive church members. In fact, my dad (pictured above) was kicked out of a church by a disgruntled elder who engineered his dismissal over doctrinal issues, but by the time the congregation discovered the elder was wrong, it was too late.  So there is certainly a place for civil respect and honor for the role of pastor.

However, there are many cases when the highest honor can be respectful disagreement. During the difficult years when we struggled to convince my dad he couldn’t live on his own anymore and needed nursing care, I often gave in out of respect. But a family friend who’s a professional counselor reminded me the scriptural mandate to “Honor your father and mother” isn’t always about following their wishes. Sometimes he told me, honoring your father is about doing what he needs, not what he wants. He encouraged Kathleen and I to think more about my dad’s safety and health than his wishes, and do the right thing even if he disagreed.

That advice totally changed my attitude about what “honor” really means.

Back to our conversation about pastors, I believe in honoring them, but that sometimes means disagreeing. The questions are – are pastors mature enough to accept that disagreement as honor rather than disloyalty, and is the church or staff member mature enough not to abuse the privilege? Even serious disagreement can be expressed in a respectful way.

While my father and many other pastors have been hurt by out of line church members, I also know many instances where pastors were dangerously close to the edge, but because no one was willing to confront, they crossed the line into personal or organizational disaster.

“Honor” does not mean looking the other way.  Sometimes, it means disagreement.

What’s your take?

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  1. I am in a situation now that if I am honest with my preacher-client, I will be shown the door. I have been here before and I have lost jobs and clients but after not speaking up once, and feeling the shame of watching them lose everything but their salvation, I am getting prayed up to do what I need to do.

    These mega-preachers live too often in a bubble, surrounded by head nodders who are too scared to say the truth. And they have witnessed good reason to be scared!

    Truth — even in love — is often not welcome!

  2. Great post. Too often, the concepts of “honor” and “honesty” are disconnected. If I can’t be honest with someone (and, on the flip side, if I cannot trust that someone is going to be honest with me) then the relationship can’t be genuine. Being honest means disagreeing sometimes.

    But this issue definitely goes both ways. It’s not easy for a subordinate to disagree with a strong authoritative leader… but often leaders are also reluctant to bring correction. Both sides can actually hold back for fear of damaging the relationship, but in the end, lack of honesty is always more damaging.

  3. In some cultures, the intense loyalty to leaders you refer to becomes the basis of the group’s relationships. Those perceived as most ardent in honoring the leadership are then promoted to places of authority. Others promote the leader as speaking the Word of God or even being the voice of the Lord in the earth, and so the thought of disagreeing with the leaders is interpreted as disapproval of God Himself. It ought to be a simple matter to “speak the truth in love,” but group dynamics and peer pressure can get involved.

  4. Great article. Where I was (on staff at local church, media dept.), it was looked at as disrespectful to be honest. I pulled myself out of all creative planning meetings when I was ridiculed for my honesty from the leadership. I had many bosses (pastors) over a long tenure there, and only 1 of them really received open dialogue. It’s a rare breed to have a Pastor with an open ear to anyone underneath their leadership, unless they have money. That’s a whole new can of worms though, and I will not go there…it’s really sad though that these “mighty men of God” can’t take constructive criticism. Many of them, in my working with them for almost 20 years, is a lack of self confidence. They always need an “amen”, or want to know if anyone is “receiving” what they are saying. Just my persrpective…

    Read Jim Collins, “Good to Great”, about a leader accepting and receiving the brutal truth from employees under them. The similarities are huge.

  5. Absolutely! Ironically, my parents are in the same situation with my grandparents. My grandmother is extremely reluctant to sell the house and move in with them, and it has taken some persistance on the part of my parents and Dad’s brother to convince her otherwise. They know that should they put off this decision, it will only be harder in the future.

  6. Is this an ethical issue or a difference of opinion or worse, an excuse for poor performance? I think we need to speak the truth we perceive “with respect” wherever we serve in leadership to both those above us and under our direction. There are challenges on both sides of the team concept since often the leader has paid a price that those following have not always experienced. However, a wise leader will sincerely inquire of the opinions of those who have the day-to-day view of the organization.”Respect” has to be a two-way street to make this work. The leaders I most respect stretched me and didn’t let me make excuses for not being my best or giving an A performance.

    I see the decline of honor in our culture at large, and especially in a younger audience of church-goers. Since we have had many “dishonorable leaders” and “scorners of leaders” it makes it difficult for those with a right motive to be honest, take the helm and steer the ship. There must be a mutual understanding that everyone will make some mistakes, but without a clear leader the ship will not make its’ course.”Give double honor to those who preach the gospel” (for the gospel’s sake)! But uphold truth and honesty for the same!

  7. Great post, Phil. I just watched the 1961 movie “El Cid” with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. In the movie, based in Spain around 1080 AD, Heston’s El Cid, a prescient man of war, continually speaks inconvenient truths to kings. But he never stops believing leadership will become, by his dedication to touch truth upon the “touch-not-God’s-anointed”, in the end: good. While others are shocked, this warrior-prophet acts like it’s the job he was born to do! At the end of the movie the King of Spain comes to help the mortally-wounded Cid. The king beg’s Cid’s forgiveness! Cid smiles and says to his king, “It is hard to conquer yourself.” When will our proud leaders of broadcast beg forgiveness for their 40-year false-mandate to never be touched with any meaningful correction? Maybe such leaders need a prescient warrior to speak truth! But if you think they’d believe a correcting, prophetic voice, ask yourself: Is there any money to be made correcting the uncorrectable? The fact is, nobody can correct them …except themselves! And like Heston’s El Cid said, “It’s hard to conquer yourself.”

  8. Great post. In my opinion, “honorable disagreement” depends 100% on the trust between the Pastor and his leaders/staff. If there is a strong relationship, then the Pastor won’t feel as if when a leader disagrees it’s out of arrogance. He won’t feel threatened. He won’t be worried. I honor my Pastor (who is also my dad) this way, while being fully aware that as the Senior Pastor, his word is still the final word. I’ve learned that disagreement may not end the way I thought, it may also lead to submission on your end…Which is also a form of honor.

  9. Here is the test: “Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wise man incurs abuse. Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” Ps 9: 7-8

  10. In John Maxwell’s teaching on the different levels of leadership, he lists first a positional leadership through being given a title that progresses to people following because they want to, to following because they are able to get things done following the leader, etc. Each level seems to be reached through the leader developing relationships with the folower. This honor society and the related teachings on submission tend to be ways to get around building the relationships that good leaders need with those in their congregation.

    Jesus said the greatest will be the servant of all, but too often in our churches it is the greatest of us will be served by all. To keep that paradigm in place you sometimes need honor culture and submission teachings.

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