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?

The First 5 Years

 

The end of 2016 has signalled for me another year of ministry done and dusted. I’ve now been at this particular work for five years now. Two years ago I was up for renomination as Pastor and I’m thankful to God, and to my church, for their confidence vote in the ministries I’ve been involved in.

The past five years have also reminded me of Gary Millar’s favourite John Chapman story. Gary’s ministry in Ireland wasn’t always swimmingly great. In fact, if you ever sit down with Gary to hear how ministry was for him you’d be utterly surprised that he didn’t throw in the towel sooner. There were some pretty bad things said about him and done to his family (though, thankfully, nothing physical).

But Chappo was always telling Gary, “Brother, they killed our Lord Jesus. Don’t expect anything less! And remember, the first 50 years of ministry are the hardest.”

I’ve been at it now for five years. That’s 45 more to go before it gets any easier…

So with five years under my belt here are some of the bigger personal reflections.

Preaching is hard work. I came out of College bustling with energy and ideas and convictions that had been freshly laid. The tendency in my early sermons was to preach what I had just learnt (and was wowed by, and wanted people wowed by) and what I wanted to say and show these points from the text before us. By the steady guidance and feedback of my friend and co-pastor Ben I’ve made greater strides in my preaching – to speak clearer on what scripture itself is saying and being a little more discerning (though I often still fail) of what to leave in and take out. Five years on the task is still hard and filled with plenty of ‘woulda shoulda coulda’ moments and reflections.

Another aspect of preaching which is daunting is the sheer responsibility of being clear and faithful. Clarity wasn’t something I was always good at. Points within my sermons were sometimes jumbled and a confused mess. The saying ‘mist in the pulpit means a fog in the pew’ has been apt on many occasions. I’ve been working the hardest on this aspect of my preaching the most over the last five years. But what has struck me more recently is how weighty the responsibility is when the scriptures are clearly and faithfully preached.

For instance, I recently preached on the topic of loving your enemies. It was a hard sermon to chew on and preach on – because Jesus words seem so black and white that to caveat everything would be to miss the point of the radical nature of his words. A few short weeks later and I hear of a family in church which were struggling to cope with a difficult neighbour – an enemy. They had heard God’s word to them and were wrestling with the implications of it. It struck me how weighty those words of mine were. And it drives me to my knees to cry out that my words be faithful, and that the people I have oversight over will faithfully apply the words they hear.

The administrative side of church work can be quite mind-boggling. My first few years oversaw some major changes in the structure and organisation of my church. Basically, it came down to one of the elders in my church to sort out – and wow, the amount of work that went into it was incredible. I’m even more thankful today for God gifting men and women for this task.

Part of the reorganisation of our church brought up a stark reminder on what unity in the church looks like. Unity is not just about doing things together under the same roof happily. Unity not only needs relationships, but must also be grounded in theology and ministry philosophy – because eventually differences over these things will come to the surface and reveal a distinct lack of unity.

Here are some other short reflections. Starting with some negative personal experiences over the past five years:

  • There are always going to be people who talk about you and not to you – and usually about issues they have. And it always hurts. I’m up the front a lot, and I have a lot of energy out there, but I’m also human – and so is my family. It hasn’t happened a lot, but it has happened. And it’s sucked each time. I don’t think this will change either – not because I’m a pessimist but because of the doctrine of the sinfulness of man. It’s a tough reality of pastoral ministry that you need to grow a thick skin while at the same time wearing your heart on your sleeve.
  • The fear of man is real and utterly pernicious. It’s plagued my first five years – especially after the first round of criticism. It plagues me whenever I know I need to have a hard conversation. Those conversations I keep delaying, keep putting off, because I fear the confrontation. Coupled with this I have realised how much the sin and desire of having people like me hinders faithful ministry. This is something I still struggle with.
  • Coupled with my fear has been a growing realisation of what insecurities I have as well. The gospel that I encourage others to keep wrapping their security and significance around is something I desperately need as well. The past few years of ministry have made that clear time and again.
  • I need to constantly remind myself that even redeemed people are sinful and will act in sinful ways. I’m still surprised when I see this happen, but I should not be – for if we truly believe the battle that is being waged within us between the Spirit and the flesh we need to recognise that sometimes, sadly, the flesh will win.
  • There’s probably few pains in ministry like the pain of shepherding someone, even a close friend, who doesn’t listen to your counsel and drifts away – either from your church or from the faith. It’s utterly heartbreaking to watch.

Some challenges:

  • When Paul says in Romans 12 to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep’ it seems like such a wild contrast – but ministry is exactly that. The past 12 months have been filled with wonderful moments of rejoicing: weddings I’ve been a part of; celebrations of new births; tears of joy at the conversion of someone after one of my sermons. And there have been many moments of weeping: crying with someone who has unexpectedly lost a loved one, feeling the emptiness and sadness that comes with job loss or unemployment; sharing the anxiety and burden some have over their loved ones who have turned from Jesus. Lately this emotional roller coaster has been experienced in quick succession of a few days. It’s quite emotionally taxing to ride this wave.
  • It’s hard to keep self-learning. I have heaps of books now in a massive bookshelf waiting to be read. Unfortunately I have allowed the busyness of ministry to chew into personal reading time. I’ve been convicted of making time for personal growth, and the need to feed myself as much as I am feeding others. Let’s see how 2017 goes with regards to that.

There’s quite a few negatives and challenges listed there. I find it easy to remember and repeat these things. But over the past five years there has also been immense joys:

  • Watching people convert under your bible teaching is an immense privilege. I’ve seen some converted who have been around for a long time, and then something in one of your sermons or bible studies just makes things click. I’ve seen some converted only after a few weeks of getting to know them. Truly my task has only been to plant and water. To be a witness to God growing faith in someone is remarkably awesome.

    I’ve shed the tears of joy as I sat with someone who finally saw how beautiful the gospel is. I can remember those excited moments shared with a team of leaders who have seen a group converted after a camp talk. There’s just nothing like it.

  • Watching people respond to the Bible when it becomes clearly unwrapped before them never gets old. Those light bulb moments when someone connects the dots for the first time, and you can see the awe and excitement in their faces is just a brilliant moment in ministry. It’s massively encouraging – especially when you hear someone repeating those same truths enthusiastically later. And it’s not just the light bulb moments, but I’ve also had the joy of walking with some whose theology had previously been all over the place – and seeing them not only come to a much more grounded and clear understanding of the gospel, but also to see them putting that into practice in their own ministry.
  • Watching people grow in their walk has given me a wonderful and godly sense of pride and joy in them. I’m a father to three young children, but I feel like a father figure and older brother to many others as well. One younger sister once approached me, seeking my advice, because she felt like I was her older brother who was always looking out for her best interests. Yup, right into the heart that went! Pastoring must never be reduced to a mere job.
  • I count it a massive blessing to know that there are many who not only call me their Pastor but also their friend. My friendships in ministry have been invaluable for their encouragement and spurring me on just as much as I have been involved in spurring others on.

In the first five years there have been some hard and discouraging moments. And there have been wonderful joys. I’m glad that the joys have far outweighed the negatives. Here’s to another 45 years.

And I know for some of my readers: I’m really looking forward to those 45 with you.

Paul Tripp – Awe [quote]

I’m reading through this book at the moment – it’s a fantastic read so far. Here’s an awesome quote about ministry’s primary goal:

“One generation shall commend your works to another.” (Psalm 145:4)

That was exactly what I needed. It immediately hit me that every moment of ministry must contribute to this goal. Whether it’s the worship service, the children’s lesson, the small group, or the sermon itself, each must share the central goal of holding the awesome glory of the works of the Lord before his people once again. God intends every moment of ministry to inspire awe of himself in his people. This must happen again and again and again. Why? Because we so easily become awe amnesiacs. We live between the ‘already’ – Christ’s completed and inaugurated work – and the ‘not yet’ – the coming culmination of God’s work of redemption. And since life in this period is one big war over awe, the present generation of ministry people must give the next generation their awe of God.

 

QTC Reflections

It’s coming up to Christmas shortly and I got an early present: my results from this semester’s studies. And the results are good, so I finally graduate after what has been, honestly, three of the best years of my life so far. Spending hours and hours each week studying and being trained to think through God’s Word will, I hope, produce a fruitful life of ministry.

Recently I’ve been greatly encouraged by the increasing number of people in my circles who are interested in and seriously considering theological education. While I don’t think study is for everyone, I generally wholeheartedly encourage study for those who are willing, able and available.

After three years here are some of my reflections on my time at College. Some useful, some slightly more trite. Over the coming years I will most likely expand upon these as ministry and theology meet with experience. But the following few points I hope will be an encouragement and food for thought for those considering the jump.

Learn to see that godly people will disagree, and that’s OK.

I’m speaking specifically about non-crucial matters of faith and salvation. Whether in writing or in person, people will disagree. There are some further things to say on this:

  • Take care not to overplay theological dominoes, aka the slippery slope argument – just because you might hold a particular view doesn’t necessarily mean you also believe some of the logical out-workings of that view (ie, holding to an old earth view of creation doesn’t automatically mean you’re an evolutionist).
  • Learn what hills are worth dying on – there are lots of fights to fight in theological studies, but most of them are not fights people fight in church on Sunday – so learn what it is that you’ll fight for, and what it is you’re willing to leave for the sake of relationships and ministry.

Learn to live with tension

A common error in biblical interpretation is to so focus on or emphasise one view that it becomes detrimental to another equally valid view. Quite a number of tensions exist in scripture not because of its ambiguity but because of its clarity, and it appears that scripture is happy to live with these tensions (eg. the debate over the extent of Christ’s atonement). So be careful of overstating your case to the detriment of what scripture actually says.

Another common error in relation to this is presenting arguments in a false dichotomy. It’s annoying when you’re reading through some material and they’ve caricatured a closely held doctrine. So don’t be hasty in your presentation of an argument. Do it honestly and faithfully, that your ‘enemy’ would sit there listening to you and agree with your presentation.

Grow a robust view of scripture

Quite often our reading of scripture is pretty narrow. By this I mean we tend to usually take the literal meaning of a text at face value and move on. My three years at College have taught me that scripture is more robust: it invites us to pause more often to consider how it should be read and applied.

Faithfulness does not necessarily equate to a narrow reading of scripture – artistry and beauty are two lenses which give equally (sometimes more) satisfying explanations of some difficult texts. This takes more time and effort, but is worth it.

Why so serious?

One of the best pieces of advice I heard early at College was from a long-term ministry worker who said he had learnt in his time to ‘harden up theologically, but soften up relationally’. He had learnt that we shouldn’t treat our relationships like we treat theology: calculated, dispassionately and theoretically. So while I would say that you must take theology seriously, you yourself are not ‘theology’ so don’t be so serious!

Along with this, use College Missions not just as an avenue to serve churches, but as an opportunity to build friendships and networks that will last you into ministry. It took me three missions to learn this, don’t waste yours.

Non-College Activity

It surprised me during my final year that many people did not have clear interests or hobbies. I want to argue that it’s good to develop outside interests while at College. Things that can help you unwind and take your mind off ministries, things that can help you relate to others on a different level and things that you might be able to build a creative ministry around. So get into it!

Learn to Read Scripture Pastorally

Essays are at once a challenging and rewarding exercise while at College. You’ll have very few opportunities in ministry life to research and write to the same depth as you do during studies. But it comes at a price as it’s widely reported that most people coming out of College tend to write their sermons like they write their essays.

So while you’re writing your essays keep an eye on your clarity. Take the time during your studies to ensure that you know how to clearly put forward an argument in your essay, and translate that to your teaching generally.

Finally, as you’re reading through your essays take some time out to think through the question pastorally. This may not work for every essay, but for most of them some pastoral reflection will do your heart much good, and it will keep you thinking about how God’s word speaks to yourself and to others.

 

There are my thoughts. If you’re a recent graduate or have been in ministry a few years, what would you add?