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

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.

Ministry Monday: How Soon is Too Soon to Move On?

I got a call from my friend Rick last week. The pastor of a medium sized church on the east coast, Rick seemed discouraged. “I’ve managed to be successful in shrinking my church in the years since I’ve been here” he said. His church is still far more than a mere handful. But the fact that fewer attend today than when he first came has prompted Rick to question whether it is time for him to make a change. He is coming to the area for a visit in a few weeks and he wants to talk it over with me.

 I am not sure what I should tell him. Rick is a good pastor, at least, by my estimation. He is serious about his work. He cares for his flock. He isn’t afraid to say the hard thing when it is necessary. He is a man of integrity. He is a church builder not a career builder. The word I would use to describe him is “steady.”

 Unfortunately, steady is not very appealing to today’s church. We would rather have dynamic instead. Ours is a Corinthian age which prefers the silken color and flash of Apollos to the plain cloth and reliable stitching of Paul. I suspect that Rick’s ministry is more in the Pauline tradition.

 Pastors often leave one flock to serve another. Some do so because they sense a call from God. Others because they have been forced by circumstances or the ill will of the congregation to make a change. A few are building their resume. How do we know whether we should stay or go? Some years ago I heard Warren Wiersbe say that there are no small churches, no big pastors and that it is always too soon to quit. I think Wiersbe is right. It may be time for my friend to move to a new field of service. But it is too soon for him to quit.

 What would you say to Rick? How do you know whether it is time to move on or not? Are the attendance figures enough?

P.S. Beware of Mondays. I’ve sent more resumes out on Monday than any other day of the week! Many years ago a wise mentor told me to never make a life changing decision on a Monday.