Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #5: Living Under Scrutiny

Every pastor feels the pressure of living under scrutiny. It is not the pressure of living in a “glass house” that creates difficulties so much as it is the burden of expectation. Often church members hold the pastor to a double standard, expecting far more of him than they do of themselves.

 Some expectations are warranted. James warns those who teach that they will be “judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Does he mean that they are held to a higher standard? Or simply that those who prove to be hypocrites will be condemned more severely? He is at least implying that teachers will be held to their word.

 Unfortunately, congregations do not always limit their expectation to the pastor. Sometimes the entire family feels pressured to live by a standard that church members do not always apply to themselves. The embittered pastors’ child is so common it is almost a cliché. The factors that contribute to this are complex and not always easily addressed. But a basic starting point is our recognition that no matter what some church members (and a few pastoral parents) may think, God does not hold the children of clergy to a higher standard. They are not more holy than other children. Though there are certainly some benefits to growing up in a pastor’s home, this “privilege” also has its drawback.

The children of pastors are exposed to the inconsistencies of the church more than other children in the congregation. They hear the criticisms leveled against the pastor and feel the pain when he is mistreated.

 You cannot avoid the scrutiny of the congregation. Nor can you keep others from having unrealistic expectations. But you don’t have to live up to a double standard. Nor are you required to enforce their expectations upon your family.

 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. 1 Cor. 4:1-5

Challenges Pastors Face-#4: Ministry to those in Distress

Trouble is Heaven’s goad. God applies it to good purpose in the life of the believer and unbeliever alike. For the unbeliever suffering often serves as God’s rude awakening, a sharp slap intended to bring the sinner to his senses. It is a measure of the deceitfulness of sin that this aim cannot be achieved unless suffering is also accompanied by the grace of God. When suffering enters the believer’s life, it functions like the potter’s hand that shapes the clay. Distress is the discipline which proves that God is treating us as his children.

This means that those who seek the pastor are usually hurting. Alexandre Vinet notes: “the principle occasion of religion and the ministry is suffering.” The pastor is exposed to the difficulties of the church more than anyone else. Many who come to him are suffering from self inflicted wounds. Often they expect the pastor to repair in a few minutes what has taken years to tear down. The nature of the difficulties the pastor must deal with run the entire gamut from physical to emotional to moral problems. The pastor sees people at their worst and is aware of the church’s deepest flaws, exposure that  can lead to depression or disillusionment. There is no “magic bullet” that will eliminate distress from the lives of those to whom we minister. More often than not our place is not to offer a quick fix but to exercise the ministry of presence. It is enough to be with people in their distress and serve as a reminder of God’s presence with them. Even if we could make the trouble disappear, we might not be doing them a favor.

But the natural discomfort we feel over their discomfort makes us especially vulnerable to what Jeremy Begbie has called “the pathology of sentimentality.” The sentimentalist, Begbie points out, cannot engage in another’s pain as pain or face up to another’s negative features. Those who sentimentalize the distress of the congregation are compelled to “keep on the sunny side of life.” Begbie is writing about the effect of this pathology on worship and notes how music in the contemporary church has sometimes been “deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-to-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them.” In the same way, the pastor is tempted to speak when he ought to be silent, offering up platitudes in the face of distress. Such words, though well meant, can blunt the sharp edged lesson God intends to teach through distress. In such cases it would be better if we were silent.

Perhaps it is time that we crossed over from the sunny side and joined God in the shadows.

See Jeremy Begbie’s excellent essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (InterVarsity): http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2843

 

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #3: The Challenge of Being Misunderstood

Not long after he started attending our church, Ed asked me about something that had been bothering him. It was a question that took me by surprise. It had nothing to do with election or the fate of the heathen. It didn’t concern some obscure point in the Bible. Ed wanted to know what I did all week. “What exactly does a pastor do?” he asked. When I described a typical work week, it was his turn to be amazed. He thought that my duties were limited to the thirty minute sermon I delivered each Sunday, something he assumed I did without preparation.

 Ed is not the only one to think this. Nearly every pastor I know has been asked this question, sometimes by the church board!  This should not surprise us. The sermon is the only exposure most people have to the pastor’s work. The pastor’s other responsibilities of leadership, planning and pastoral care are hidden from view. Even if they were not, some would wonder if such things actually constitute real work. For them any task that does not produce a callous does not qualify as work.

 How should we deal with the pressure we feel to justify ourselves in light of this misunderstanding? The challenge is to inform the congregation without trumpeting our accomplishments or exaggerating our effort. This is something the apostle Paul did with the Corinthian church, making them aware of some of the pressures he faced as an apostle (2 Cor. 11:28). The goal is not to evoke pity or to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them, but to educate God’s people and solicit their prayers.

 Try not to be defensive when someone wants to know what you do all week. Those who ask this question are not trying to insult you. They are genuinely mystified. Help them understand the nature of your calling and ask them about their work. You are probably as unaware of all that their job entails as they are of yours.

Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #2: Routine

Pastoral work is cyclical work. It is work which is marked by rhythm and repetition. There is the weekly cycle of sermon preparation. It doesn’t matter how well the sermon went on Sunday. When Monday comes, the process must begin again. The better the message, the greater the pressure we feel to repeat the experience. As much as we love sermon preparation, even the best of us must sometimes feel as if we are on a treadmill. Sunday night leaves many a pastor dreading the approach of a new work week just like the factory worker or office employee.

 Our ministry of leadership is also cyclical, subject to the ebb and flow of life within the church. Every congregation has its own seasons. In some churches summer is the time when things slow down. Attendance dips and committees or programs go on hiatus as members leave for vacation. In other churches summer is the busy season. This rhythm of congregational life can frustrate a pastor whose planning cycle and expectations are out of sync with the rhythm of the church. Ignorance of this aspect of the church’s culture is a recipe for misunderstanding and mutual frustration.

 On the surface you might wonder how pastoral counseling could ever feel routine. The church is filled with a variety of people whose background and circumstances differ from one another. Yet after a few years we discover that even when the faces and the names change, the problems are the same. We must confront the same sins. We are asked the same questions. Our preaching, too, begins to feel monotonous as the a few fundamental themes resurface in passage after passage. Or as the same holidays demand our attention year after year. It doesn’t take long before we begin to feel that we have only a handful of sermons and that we preach them over and over again.

 Our first step to addressing this challenge must be to recognize the value of rhythm and repetition in the life of the church. Repetition is a necessary to growth and learning. Rhythm and repetition are evident in nearly every aspect of created life. We live in a world marked by the returning rhythm of work and rest, seed-time and harvest as well, as the need to hear the same things over and over again.  It is only our frenetic leadership culture, afflicted as it is with the spiritual equivalent to attention deficit disorder, that sees these things as a detriment.

Ten Challenges Pastors Face: Challenge #1-Hard Work

When I was in seminary, one of my professors told our class a cautionary tale about a student who explained his rationale for entering the ministry in these words: “It’s easier than digging ditches.”

The unworthiness of such a motive is so obvious it needs no comment. What is worth noting is the falsity of that student’s assumption. In his book Pastoral Theology Alexandre Vinet identifies “much labor” not only as one of the pastor’s primary difficulties but as one of his obligations: “The smallest parish should become, by the zeal of him who cultivates it, as onerous as the largest; this work has no limit, no spot where the material fails.”

 It is the breadth of the pastor’s duties that often makes it difficult. Most pastors do not enjoy the luxury of being specialists. They visit the sick, teach the youth, share the gospel, and prepare sermons on a weekly basis. Add to this the responsibilities of leadership and it is easy to see why we feel so tired.

 At the same time, the bulk of this work goes unobserved. Pastors do not punch a clock. They do not have a supervisor. True, the expectations of the congregation may make them feel as if they have a hundred employers. But in reality most church members trust the pastor to do his job. The broad nature of the pastor’s responsibilities combined with the relative freedom given to them to execute their duties without someone looking over their shoulder can lead to two dangerous temptations.

 The first is the temptation to exaggerate. Because we are aware that most of what we do is hidden from view, we overstate the nature of our work. This is not peculiar to the pastor. I have found that it is a temptation in academia as well. This tendency may be due to pride or it may be the result of a misguided attempt to reassure others that we are “earning our pay.” Whatever the reason, it causes us to put on airs like the hypocrites of Jesus’ day, who looked somber and disfigured their faces to show others that they were fasting (Matthew 6:16). It prompts us to carry out our duties with drooping shoulders and long sighs and  to claim that we are doing more than is actually the case.

The other great temptation is to be lazy. Congregational ignorance over the nature of a pastor’s duties combined with the absence of direct oversight are often a toxic combination when they come into contact with a pastor’s self-pity or self-interest. There is perhaps no other profession besides the pastor’s where it is so easy to look so busy and do so little. “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:5

Every Pastor a Potential Hero

This morning I came across this passage in Alexandre Vinet’s Pastoral Theology:

 “We must not fear to bring before us the gloomy view of the ministry. Let us say to ourselves that in this career heroism is necessary. All pastors ought to be heroes, for Christianity even in the people is heroism; a Christian is in spirit a hero, a hero potentially.”

 According to Vinet, one of the hindrances to ministry is a failure to expect difficulty: “The history of the Church is composed of a succession of troubles and of peace; and these periods are unforeseen. The deepest perturbations are not always announced by sure, and especially by distant presages. The sky is serene in the evening; the next day a storm bursts forth, and the stormy weather cannot be anticipated.”

 It is understandable that we should be alarmed when storms arise in ministry but we should not be surprised, as if something unusual were happening to us. The church’s normal condition, Vinet points out, is neither of absolute affliction nor absolute peace. The ministry is “a tempest of the spirit” (Gregory Nazianzen).

Worse Things Have Been Said

 

Not long after I graduated from seminary, I spoke to a friend about my discouragement with the church I was serving. Looking back I realize now that things were not as bad as they seemed. The opposition I faced was the sort that every young pastor deals with, especially when he is eager to prove himself. But at the time it seemed to me that I had made a terrible mistake.

Some of the church’s charter members were grumbling about changes I had initiated. A few even hinted that I had bullied the church’s leaders into seeing things my way. Their criticism was unfounded but it stung just the same. I began to wonder if I was wrong to accept a call to this congregation. My friend listened to my tale of woe but was unsympathetic. “Worse things have been said about better men” he told me. I was annoyed by his blunt reply but could not disagree with his point.

Jesus warned those who speak in his name that they will also share in his reproach: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:24-25)

The problem here is ultimately one of authority. Christ’s words serve as fair warning to all who preach that divine authority does not guarantee a smooth path. We would like to think that God given authority also gives us leverage with our hearers. “Listen to us,” we want to say. “We speak for God.” But the same Bible that gives us our authority also offers ample proof of the congregation’s capacity for discounting that authority.

Preaching is an awkward business. The preacher does not give advice, the preacher declares. The preacher tells people what is right and what is wrong. When they turn to the right or the left, the preacher stands before them like the angel who stood in Balaam’s path, and says, “This is the way, walk in it.” What right do we have to make such demands? Who are we to tell others how to live?

Preaching is impolite. When we preach we draw public conclusions about the motives of our listeners and impugn their character. We utter things from the pulpit that we would not dare to say in private conversation, at least not to strangers! 

This is the preacher’s prophetic responsibility. “Prophetic preaching does not necessarily imply that the preacher assumes the role of Jeremiah or Amos, but that the preacher remains faithful to the prophetic dimensions of biblical texts” Thomas G. Long explains. “If the word comes from God in the biblical text, the preacher remains true to that word, regardless of the reaction or the cost.”

Unfortunately, the prophetic mantle cannot guarantee that every barb that aimed in our direction is undeserved. Some of the complaints leveled against us are warranted. The reproach we bear is not always the reproach of Christ. Sometimes it comes as a result of rash decisions we have made or right words spoken in the wrong spirit. My friend was right. Worse things have been said about better men. And just as often better things are said about us than we deserve.

Deliver us From Our Strengths, O Lord

One of my summer goals is to read Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope. This morning I was struck by Trollope’s description of Mark Robarts, the vicar of Framley: “In person he was manly, tall, and fair-haired, with a square forehead denoting intelligence rather than thought, with clear white hands, filbert nails, and a power of dressing himself in such a manner that no one should ever observe of him that his clothes were either good or bad, shabby or smart.”

 It was Trollope’s characterization of the parson as intelligent rather than thoughtful that caught my attention. Here is someone who has a greater capacity to be well thought of than to think well. He knows how to fit in and has an ambition to do so. This is a good temperament to have if you want to be a politician. But not so good if you are called to be a prophet.  

 Trollope’s portrayal of Robarts makes me wonder how often my ministry has been shaped by my desire to be liked and improve my position. Or how often I have felt it was sufficient to exercise my intellect, when reflection was what was really needed. “He had too much tact, too much common sense, to believe himself to be the paragon his mother thought him” Trollope writes of Robarts. “Self-conceit was not, perhaps, his greatest danger. Had he possessed more of it, he might have been a less agreeable man, but his course before him might on that account have been safer.”

 From our strengths and social virtues, O Lord, deliver us.

Ministry Monday: Attending to the Culture of Our Souls

In his lectures on preaching delivered to students at Yale in 1912, John Henry Jowett asked how ministers were to avoid the perils of their calling. He answered: “By studious and reverent regard to the supreme commonplaces of the spiritual life. We must assiduously attend to the culture of our souls.”

This seems to me to express the essence of spiritual practice. It is the effort we make to “attend to the culture of our souls.” What is equally striking about Jowett’s answer is its emphasis on what he calls “the supreme commonplaces of the spiritual life.” We are enamored of the novel and the exotic, when the real crucible of spiritual formation is usually found in the mundane.

According to Jowett, attention to the culture of our souls requires solitude: “In the midst of our fussy, restless activities, in all the multitudinous trifles which, like a cloud of dust, threaten to choke our souls, the minister must fence off his quiet and secluded hours, and suffer no interference or obtrusion.”

This is hard to do, living as we do in an age which equates busyness with effectiveness. “Gentlemen, we are not always doing the most business when we seem to be most busy” Jowett warns. “We may think we are truly busy when we are really only restless, and a little studied retirement would greatly enrich our returns.”

Perhaps the most productive decision you make today could be to engage in “a little studied retirement.” You might start by turning off the little sound on your computer that alerted you to this new post.

Ministry Monday: What Happened to Bob?

Something happened to Bob during the sermon yesterday. He got saved. I’d like to take the credit, but I am afraid that I had very little to do with the whole affair. As he explained the experience to me after the service, it seemed to me that what he heard had little correlation with what I actually said.

 I do not blame Bob for this. He was doing his best to pay attention. But a third party distracted him. At some point the Holy Spirit drew Bob aside and resumed a conversation that the two of them had begun earlier. When it was over, Bob was in tears. He prayed with one of the church’s elders after the service and committed his life to Christ.

 It would be nice to think that the incisiveness of my reasoning, the power of my delivery or the clarity of my outline pushed Bob over the line. But the more he thanked me for the message, the more I felt like an awkward bystander who has stumbled upon someone else’s intimate conversation.

 I am not saying that my words played no role at all. I was, after all, preaching about Christ. I think the outcome would have been entirely different if I had been reading recipes from a cookbook. But I have been preaching long enough to know that the power does not lie in my rhetoric or my structure, as important as those things are to my preaching. This is not the first time that the Holy Spirit has stolen my thunder.

 In his book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd Jones speaks of the “romance” of preaching. One dimension of this, according to Lloyd Jones, is the element of surprise: “…you never know who is going to be listening to you, and you never know what is going to happen to those who are listening to you.” I would add that you never really know how it will happen. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Thanks be to God.