Who pastors the Pastor?

If you follow me on Facebook you’ll notice that I commonly post up stuff about ministry amidst all the other stuff about life, family, and the other interesting things I find online.

The reaction to one article I posted recently has taken me by surprise. It’s been liked over 100 times, uncommon in of itself, but more surprisingly almost three quarters of those likes have been from non-friends. Further the article has been reshared 37 times – and again, mostly from people I don’t know. What is it about this article which has hit such a raw nerve in people?

In brief, the article summarises the sad resignation of Pastor Pete Wilson, who stepped down as senior pastor from Cross Point Church back in September, 2016. The reasons for his stepping down, as indicated in the article, were because, ‘I’m tired. I’m broken.’ The article goes on to detail the sadness of this admission and reluctant stepping down, and the many ways in which pastoral ministry is a real struggle for those involved in it. Some of they key ones mentioned include criticism of sermons, sermons delivered during spiritual emptiness, scrutiny over pay, close relationships ended through innocuous decisions, loneliness, and temptations. It’s a long read, but worth your time and effort – if only to encounter the very real circumstances many pastors minister under.

In a number of ways the struggles listed in that article echo my own struggles that I have previously posted about. I’m glad that my experience has contained many joys in ministry as well, and so far the joys have outnumbered the negatives. Still, this is not always the case for many pastors. Even late last year I experienced a short season of discouragement, which all came to head one afternoon as I studied 1 Peter 5 with my beloved youth fellowship and realised that the instruction to elders to shepherd willingly and eagerly (ie cheerfully, with joy) was something I had been struggling to do for a while. It was hard to lead a study on that knowing I had been empty of it for some time, and I am thankful for the friends who ministered to me and prayed for me during this season. Eventually I was pulled through.

This brings me to an important discussion paper I read a few years ago, and have run training sessions on before. ‘Who Pastors the Pastor?‘ by Philip Jensen and Tony Payne. Again, it’s a long article worth reading. But here are some highlights:

On whether it is right to depend on other pastors to encourage your pastor:

  • Depending on other pastors to encourage your pastor creates an elite class that is inconsistent with Scripture. Of course, it is natural that people who have trained for the ministry together, or who have been associated in some way in the past, should turn to each other for advice and encouragement. But for a congregation to unload the spiritual care of their pastor onto his fellow professionals is extremely unwise. It places him in a different class, as if something more substantial than the application of the Word of God to his life is required. If the pastor does not confess his sins to, and receive encouragement from, his ‘laymen’, an unbiblical hierarchy is created.

On who in the end should pastor the pastor:

  • The congregation should pastor their pastor. This is not only in keeping with the emphasis of the New Testament, but is far more practical. The congregation is in the best position to care for their pastor. In the web of personal relationships between a pastor and the members of his congregation, there is ample opportunity for sharing spiritual things, for encouragement and for rebuke. The congregation will be aware of their pastor’s shortcomings and will be able to help him through them in a way that no outsider could.

On the obstacles to this sort of mutual encouragement:

The pastor:

  • …the pastor himself can prevent his own spiritual nurture. Too many pastors lock themselves away, spiritually speaking, by being unable or unwilling to receive the ministry of others.
  • Those who carry the Word of God to others can easily fall into the trap of always teaching it, but never listening to it.
  • Many pastors find it impossible to receive the ministry of others because of their own insecurities… The pastor may feel that if he reveals too much of himself, he may be seen as a weak leader, and lose control. As a result, he holds it all in and discourages others from taking the initiative.
  • Pastors are encouraged along this path by the whinging and criticism that they so often bear. Everybody knows how to run the church, and the constant griping tends to drive the pastor back into his shell. He protects himself by refraining from any kind of interaction at this level.
  • Another problem for the pastor is the sheer number of people who might minister to him. He is known by all, and his foibles and shortcomings are seen by all, and members usually feel they have the right to comment on them – mostly to each other, but sometimes to the pastor himself.
  • [When] a pastor accepts the mantle of [many impossible and often unspoken] expectations [in their ministry] and fails to meet them (as he inevitably will) he begins to hide. His guilt becomes a barrier between him and his congregation. He will not open up to them… for fear that they will see his ‘double life’.

The congregation:

  • [Members of the congregation can often be reluctant to approach their pastor – sometimes out of an appropriate reverence for those who have been placed over us in the Lord, however…] …it is more usually the result  of an inappropriate elevation of the pastor onto some super-spiritual pedestal. Many congregations regard their pastor as a breed apart, rather than as a fellow heir of the kingdom, who is as much in need of care and spiritual nurture as all of us.
  • But perhaps the chief reason for congregations failing to pastor their pastors is that they don’t know how. Even if the congregation is willing and the pastor is open, it is still hard to work out how to do it effectively.

At this point I’d love to copy and paste the five suggestions outlined by Jensen and Payne, but I won’t as I think it’ll breach copyright – and I would like to encourage everyone who loves and cares for their pastor to click through and read it for yourself.

So let us know in the comments below – if you’re a minister, what has been some of the most encouraging things your congregation has done for you to spur you on in ministry? If you’re a congregation member, what’s one thing you’d like to do for your Pastor to encourage them more?

Guidance and the ‘Peace of God’

Peace
‘Peace’ by Moyan Brenn. flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore

Christianese

noun

  1. short-hand phrases and platitudes that Christians often use, mostly spiritual sounding, sometimes with biblical grounding, but are often lacking in contextually driven understanding.

 

A common Christianese phrase concerns the idea of asking God for guidance and receiving his ‘peace’ as a sign of assurance and comfort regarding the decision.

The peace in question is a supernatural peace: a peace which envelopes the believer to give them reassurance that God approves of a difficult decision. This supernatural peace is usually given in times where the decision made is causing great anxiety, stress, or worry, to affirm a particular path or choice.

When we turn to scripture there are quite a few references to the ‘peace of God’. Most, however, refer to the peace between us and God that has been won in Jesus Christ. It’s not necessary, and perhaps an example of eisegesis (reading into the text preconceived meaning), to read these verses as examples of peace in guidance and decision making.

Probably the most often used passage to build this theology of guidance upon comes from Philippians 4:5b-7.

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s words clearly echo the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. Read together these verses encourage the believer to keep the larger perspective in mind in the midst of the troubles and worries and anxieties faced in the present moment. The danger for the believer in the midst of present crisis is to let the immediate troubles and concerns consume them; to drive them to distrust God’s goodness.

Paul reminds us that prayer and supplication (with the attitude of thanksgiving) gives us a way out: a way to God himself. The peace on offer, then, is the peace of God – the peace between us and God the Father that has been won by the Son on the cross for our sins.

This peace surpasses all understanding because we can and never will fully comprehend all that Jesus accomplished on the cross for us: God’s burning anger and wrath against our disobedience completely and forever satisfied; our imperfection, unrighteousness, ugliness and brokenness imputed to Jesus; Jesus’ perfection, righteousness, sheer and utter beauty imputed to us; our relationship with God the Father now, and forever, perfect. How can any mind fully comprehend this, and more?!

This peace lifts us up beyond our present crisis and anxieties. It reminds us that the greatest of all worries, concerns and fears – our broken relationship with God – has been taken care of. It then guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Through the indwelling Spirit pointing us again and again to the gospel we trust God’s goodness more and more despite the present issues that threaten us.

This peace is a peace of the big picture: that whatever is troubling us (big or small) our greatest trouble is taken care of. It frees us to make thoughtful, wise, and biblically driven decisions rather than wait for God to drop something into our laps.

Philippians 4 has very little to do with God’s approval or affirmation of difficult decisions.

I think, then, there are a few other good reasons to rethink the use of ‘peace from God’ as affirmation during decision making.

The first is that it often doesn’t take into account our sinful nature. The sinful nature can no longer condemn us, for a great victory has been won for us in Christ (which leads us to the true peace from God). We no longer fear our sins’ condemnation and judgement. But we still battle with a sin nature, which, by the guidance of God’s Word and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we work each day to overcome. This battle is finally won when we faithfully persevere in faith till we die or Jesus returns.

Until then our hearts and minds and wills can do all sorts of things to justify ungodly action. In my pastoral experience I’ve seen ‘the peace of God’ used to justify dating non-Christians, getting a divorce (which didn’t fall under one of the two biblical grounds for divorce), leaving a good church for no obvious (or biblical) reason, and a host of other smaller, but in my view, unwise decisions.

Telling sinful people, who have an inbuilt tendency to justify sin, that one method of decision making is to find ‘peace’ in that decision, as a seal of approval from God, is asking for trouble. Pretty much every case I have spoken with people about this the peace from God they have received fell in line with their heart’s desires.

What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies. And a sense of ‘peace’ is often used to justify what a sinful and errant heart loves.

Related to this is that the advice to seek out the peace of God seems to demonstrate a low view of God’s church. It individualises decision making to ‘what is best for me’ and neglects questions of what will also benefit the local church you are growing and serving in. It also seems to have a low view of the older and wiser people in church to help advise and counsel you.

Another reason to question this peace is that many difficult but necessary decisions will be filled with anxiety. Telling my parents for the first time that I had abandoned my childhood faith of Buddhism and had converted to Christianity… that was not a peaceful decision to make. I remember physically shaking at the thought. Confronting a brother who is in sin is not an easy or peaceful decision to make. Having to step someone down from a ministry is filled with frustration and sadness: two things, the last time I checked, which do not appear in the dictionary definition of ‘peace’.

So ‘peace from God’ in decision making doesn’t seem to have much biblical foundation, and there appear to be good reasons why it’s not helpful to seek out in the first place. So what should one do when confronted with a difficult decision?

First, pray. Ask God for wisdom to see through the decision and options, and for insight into your heart motivations. And ask God to help you remember the larger picture and that the present concerns before you will never take away or threaten what Jesus has won for us.

Second, read through God’s word and ask if the decision you are confronted with is clearly spoken on in scripture. For instance, the decision to marry or not marry a non-Christian is clearly warned against (Malachi 2:11, and through the implications of Ephesians 5:22-33).

Third, seek godly counsel. Sometimes when we read through scripture there are no necessarily clear words. What job offer should you take? Should I date this girl I’m interested in? Which house, and in which suburb, should I purchase (or rent)? Here is where wiser and godly counsel should be sought. Start with your Pastor and elders. Too often we go to lots of friends and get varied and ultimately confusing advice. So let me suggest start with the people who you can trust handle scripture well, can show you what to do in the grey areas of life, and can gently ask you questions about your heart motives.

Fourth, with prayer made, scripture read, and wise counsel sought, just do something!

I realise that I can’t spell out every situation in one post. But hopefully there is enough here already to help us think through this common advice to seek the ‘peace of God’.

Have I left anything out? What else would you advise? Put your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Post Script:

It’s occurred to me that some of my readers may have well gone through a situation like the one described above – you’ve had a confusing decision to make, you’ve prayed about it, received some peace and then gone ahead with that decision to find God has evidently blessed it. I think that’s great and I don’t want to deny that experience. What I’m aiming to do in this post is help us think biblically through our experiences – so that our experiences do not hold the same authority in our lives as scripture should.

In other cases I know that some people have made unwise decisions after receiving some peace, and in the end God has still blessed the outcome. I can think of a couple of instances where someone has felt a peace about dating a non-Christian to later have that person convert. We should praise God for that. But I also want to caution that just because God has blessed an unwise decision does not mean he approves of the foolishness in the first place. If you poke your eye with a fork and miraculously retain full vision does not mean that God blessed the decision to poke in the first place.