Pastor, To Serve Well, Lose the Perfectionism

“He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” (Psalm 103:14

God is under no illusions about you and me.

We’re not perfect and never will be in this life.

Get used to the idea.

So, whether you set out simply to live the Christian life as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ or you have been called into His service as a minister (pastor, missionary, whatever), you will do well to shed all pretenses and aspirations of perfection in this life.

This means that you will…

–give your best and feel it is never enough. It’s not, but the Lord can feed a multitude with a child’s lunch, so get over it.

–feel good about something you did and find out later some people were disappointed in you. You will not go to pieces over it.

–make some people angry at you for no reason you can think of. You will accept it as how things are.

–have enemies you never wanted, face opposition you never bargained for, and deal with crises not of your making. You will constantly check to see if it was something you did or failed to do. At the end, you will not take it personally.

Even when (or if) you have done everything flawlessly in your service for the Lord, you will be criticized.  Someone will find fault with what you did, write you off as a failure, reject you for whatever they were considering, and you will not be given an opportunity to respond.

Get used to it. It’s the way of life in this fallen world.

Got time for a story or two?

Sometime in the mid-1990s, when retired minister Richard Bryant knew he was facing death, he bought a cassette tape recorder and created a personal message for each of grandchildren.  As his pastor, I was impressed and encouraged him in this. So much so that over the years, I found myself telling others of this personal approach to blessing one’s descendants long after we are off the scene.

I told one person too many.

She was in her sixties, a widow, and with grown children living away.  When the doctors announced that her cancer was terminal, she took it stoically. As her pastor, my heart went out to her and I tried to think of ways to comfort her and make her final days as meaningful as possible.

I told her what Dr. Bryant had done and suggested she might want to think of making a cassette tape for each of her children and grandchildren. She said nothing.

As it turned out, the prospect horrified her.

Her daughter called to inform me that I had crossed a boundary with that suggestion, that “mother is a private person” and “she does not like to talk about this,” and I had offended the entire family.  She informed me that ministers from Hospice would be caring for her mother from then on, that I was not to contact her again, not even to apologize.

The Hospice minister did the funeral, which I attended, sitting on the back row.

DId I grieve over this? Slightly. I would have been more concerned, perhaps, had the lady been a faithful member of our church, rather than a sometimes attender. And with no other family member in our congregation, once she died, I was “done” with that family. That actually made it easier.

Pastors have this happen.  You have to take it in stride. If you don’t, you will forever be beating yourself up over matters out of your control.

On another occasion, I learned that one of the young mothers in our church was studying to become a nurse.That’s a wonderful profession and the schooling can be difficult, so I prayed for her. Her family was active in our church and I liked them a lot. As she approached her final exams, the lady emailed me numerous times requesting prayer.  I responded appropriately each time and prayed for her. In a couple of months, after she graduated and became a nurse, the entire family joined another local church. They left without one word then or since as to why.

That one hurt.

Did I fail them? I can’t imagine how. It’s possible they might have misinterpreted something I did or said, but I cannot begin to figure what.

The quickest way to work myself into an early grave is to obsess about this and grieve over it.

But that would be so pointless.

People have their own reasons for joining a church and sometimes for leaving one. Sometimes they will confide in the minister and at other times they won’t. At times those reasons are valid and sometimes baseless. Often they involve another person in the congregation and have nothing to do with the pastor.

Get used to it, preacher.

Here are seven realities every pastor must come to terms with if he would serve the Lord’s people well and for a lifetime…

1)  You are not going to please everyone. Aim to please the Lord.

2) You are not going to understand everyone in your flock. Do the best you can.

3) You are going to lose some people and never know why. It may hurt, but it’s the way life is.

4) You are going to gain some and be mistaken about why they joined. You thought it was your good preaching? No doubt it was, but don’t ask.

5) You are going to be perplexed as to why some wonderful people who attend faithfully never join your congregation. Make sure they know you want them to join and that they know how. Beyond that, it’s between them and the Lord.

6) Some will get angry at you, fight you on your proposals and projects, and never tell you why. Some carry baggage from pastors they knew years ago, which they have never dealt with.

7) Some will adore you for reasons of their own, completely unknown to you. Accept the love, particularly considering the alternative.

As a man or woman of the Lord, you have long since come to terms with the fact that your preaching is imperfect even if it improves year by year, that your prayer life at its best still leaves much to be desired, and that your pastoral techniques and leadership styles–as wonderful as they doubtless are!–could be better.

Keep on growing, friend. But cut yourself some slack and drop the perfectionism.

I can hear someone protesting. “But didn’t our Lord say we are to be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect?” (That’s Matthew 5:48.)

Perfection is indeed the goal, one which Paul had in mind when he said, “All have sinned and come short of His glory” (Romans 3:23).  God’s standard is always God’s standard.

We love Him and love His word, but we fall short.

The Ten Commandments are God’s standard, but this does not mean we are going to live up to them. If we could attain them regularly, He would not have given us “a way home” in the same chapter. After listing the commandments in Exodus 20, the Lord gives provisions for an altar in verses 24-26.

He knew we could not live up to His standard, but that did not change it.

When people start believing either that they have attained perfection or that they can, watch them closely. Two things will happen, both of them bad: a) They will turn excuse-making and rationalizing into an art form, and b) they will become judgmental toward the rest of us who do not live up to their personal standards.

Perfectionism: a sure-fire way to defeat.

Once you believe you are perfect, there’s no way to go but down. Because you are a sinner, living in a fallen world among flawed humanity, you are going to transgress the law of the Lord.

I once worked with a pastor whose philosophy went like this: “When I come to a new church, I assume that every minister on my staff is perfect. You will have to convince me that you’re not.”

To him, that sounded high and affirming. In reality, it was the worst system imaginable. Since no one is perfect and everyone is flawed, the people on his staff could only disappoint him.

Perfect people do not need grace and mercy. In fact, may I say, the few people I’ve encountered over the decades who felt they were in that category were a royal pain for everyone else. They were superior, condescending, and judgmental. Nothing at all like our Lord.

Since you and I are far from perfect, we will be needing all the grace and mercy we can get. We will be needing forgiveness and understanding, and will be doing our share of forgiving others. “I’m so sorry,” “Please forgive me” and “I thank you so much” will become mainstays in our conversation.

Only one well acquainted with his own humanity and his many failures can appreciate the quality of the Lord’s mercy and and the scope of His grace.

Only one who has been dealt with graciously and mercifully by a loving Lord can in turn preach grace and mercy to His people.

It is said that General Oglethorpe told John Wesley, “I never forgive.” To which Wesley replied, “Then I hope you never sin.”

Perfectionism is not only unattainable, it is the enemy of all you are trying to do for the Savior.

There is a connection we make with the people we’re ministering to when they learn that we too are human with our share of weaknesses. (Only the misguided will demand that you their minister should be perfect. That, we hasten to point out, is part of their imperfection.) We see this kind of connection even with our Lord Jesus. Not regarding His flaws, which He did not have, but with His humanity. The writer of Hebrews said:

“We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

One of the many positives about the Lord Jesus is that He has been where you are and knows what you are going through.

How good is that!

Now, servant of the Lord, go forth and learn what the apostle meant when he said, “Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). The news in that is all good.

2 thoughts on “Pastor, To Serve Well, Lose the Perfectionism

  1. Excellent blog. Reminds me of a scene from a movie “Rudy” about a football player at a leading university which was a Catholic school. He goes to see the priest and at one point in the conversation the Priest admits he has learned 2 things in all his years as a priest. He said, “one, there is a God, and two, it’s not me.” Here was a guy who had accepted his humanity in all areas. That has stuck with me since. I came up under a pastoral leadership style that preachers were not that transparent. One in particular was a dynamic leader but after awhile people began to critize him for being unable to identify with the world they lived in because of his seemingly sinless life. And he never did. Today in his ’80′s I am thankful I served under his leadership but I realized years ago I could never be him.

    • Gordon, in the late 1970s, my wife and I went through a year of marriage counseling. In 1981, at the request of the other ministers on our staff, Margaret and I took a Sunday evening service and told the church about our rocky marriage and the year of therapy. Later, the SBC wrote it up and published the story in various publications. Two things happened: some pastors were critical, saying we were putting the ministry in a bad light; but there was an outpouring of thanks from our members who began flocking to my office seeking help with their marriage and letters from ministers elsewhere saying this encouraged them to get counsel. We regretted the rocky years but never regretted telling the church about our struggles.

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