“Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14).
We’re all vulnerable. Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:12). The brother who gave us that reminder was himself constantly being knocked down, but getting back up. If anyone knew the subject of vulnerability, Paul did (see 2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
After telling young Pastor Timothy of a coming time when people would not stand for sound doctrine and strong preaching, but would “turn away their ears from the truth and will prefer myths,” Paul said, “But as for you, be sober in all things (that is, clear-thinking), endure hardship (expect it, and plan to get through it), do the work of an evangelist (keep telling Heaven’s good news), and fulfill your ministry (do not let any critic pull you off course).” (With my interjections, that’s 2 Timothy 4:5).
I find it amazing and truly heart-warming how such reminders to a minister twenty centuries ago fit us so perfectly today. That’s one more reason, out of ten thousand, why you and I live in this Word. There is nothing like it anywhere.
Now, returning to our subject of the minister’s vulnerability….
The minister is most vulnerable at two times: in the few minutes before the morning service begins and in the half hour after it ends.
A wise minister will take steps to guard himself in order to give his best to the Lord and the people. (Proverbs 4:23 “Guard your heart.” Acts 20:28 “Be on guard for yourself and for all the flock….”)
A caring membership will protect the pastor at the same time for the same reasons.
FIRST: In the few minutes before the worship service where he is to preach, the pastor is vulnerable.
As he greets worshipers who are just arriving, someone approaches the pastor with a criticism or complaint. Surely, they think, having the pastor’s undivided attention like this must be of the Lord. So, they unload on him, dissing the Sunday School material (“heresy!” “wrong!” or “bland.”) or griping about another member. “Pastor, you’re in charge around here. Someone needs to do something!”
They report some gossip they’ve heard this week or let the pastor know none too subtly that he failed to call on them in the hospital. Great souls that they are, they’re willing to forgive, but they did want him to know.
All this registers on the minister’s soul like roadkill the complainer scraped up off the highway and deposited with him, expecting him to dispose of it.
Just what he needed before he leads this congregation in worship and preaches the message over which he has prayed and studied and labored all week.
In the men’s room, a deacon with an issue “of great concern” corners the pastor. In the hallway, a sweet elderly saint grabs the minister to report something she heard about him or his wife or his children. A staff member whispers that a men’s Sunday School class is upset because the preacher did not attend their Friday night cookout.
The preacher might as well be mauled by the offensive line of the New Orleans Saints.
The pastor’s wife pulls her man off to the side three minutes before the service. “When we get home, I want to tell you what Mrs. Crenshaw said. She is so hateful and I don’t want to upset you now. Go get ‘em, Tiger.”
Honestly, it hardly matters what the content of this negativity is. Whether the criticism is on-target or completely amiss, receiving it disturbs his inner calm and blurs his focus.
Pastors should be protected from it.
The Lord Jesus was focused, not on an upcoming sermon, but something far heavier: a Roman cross awaiting Him just outside Jerusalem. In realms unfathomable to us and in dimensions of which we know nothing, our Lord was preparing to do battle with the prince of darkness. He would die, then be raised on the third day.
That’s where His mind was.
“From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).
Perhaps the Lord was looking for encouragement or prayer support or was simply preparing the disciples for their own disillusionment when all this happened. I don’t know.
But here’s what happened.
“Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!’”
A paraphrase of what Peter said might look like this: “Now, now, Lord. Get that negative thinking out of your head. We are not going to let this happen to our beloved Leader. You just stick close to us.”
“But Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’” (Matthew 16:21-23).
The word “satan” literally means “adversary.”
Even well-meaning friends become your adversary when they distract you from the work God has given you to do.
Only someone with “his mind on God’s interests” will understand this and see how it applies to the pastor as he approaches the pulpit to preach the word, and thus do battle with the devil in his own small way.
Some churches try to get this right….
One pastor told his deacons about a fellow who regularly ambushed him as he was approaching the sanctuary. Every Sunday the guy had a gripe about this or that and was eager to unload on the preacher. Thereafter, a couple of deacons stood near the ambush-site and would catch the offender as he headed toward the pastor. They glad-handed him, asked about his family, wanted to be caught up on all the news. The pastor says they regularly rotated so the culprit never caught on to what they were doing.
A pastor enlisted the aid of a staff member to intercept all the notes being sent to him prior to the service (“no tissue in the ladies,” “the plumbing in the hall bathroom needs attention”, “can you announce the Tuesday meeting at my house?”
This is why some pastors remain in their study until service time. They walk briskly into the sanctuary without greeting anyone and thus avoid all the distractions. This is not the best solution. They should not deprive themselves or their people of his greeting worshipers as they arrive. The pastor who visits with his people before the service can often do a week’s worth of ministry–and save himself a ton of headaches!–in those few minutes.
But he should always keep his guard up, and a buddy close at hand to assist him, particularly if the negativity is an issue in that church. After all, in biblical times, every warrior had his armor-bearer at his side.
SECOND: In the same way, the minister is vulnerable in the few minutes following the worship service.
What happens is this. Over the last hour, as the pastor led the worship service and delivered his sermon, he had laid himself bare, sharing everything on the inside of him. And now that the sermon is over, he is empty, drained, spent. But his mind and heart are still laying open and undefended. Closing up and recovering take time, time during which he is wide open to temptation, to criticism, to negativity, and let’s be honest, to ego.
Almost no one but the preacher gets this.
Most ministers are plagued with self-doubts about every sermon they preach. Did it work? Did that story fit that point? Was it too much? Was it too complex or too simple? Was my loud tie too distracting? Did anyone care I wasn’t wearing a tie? Did anyone notice that I lost my way momentarily during point 2?
While these doubts fill his mind, he positions himself at the exit and shakes hands with departing worshipers. Most will offer platitudes. “Great sermon, pastor.” “Enjoyed the message.”"You just get better and better, pastor.”
But once in a while, someone will decide to (ahem) help him out….
“Pastor, you’ve preached that sermon before. Here–I marked it in my Bible.”
“Pastor, that was undoubtedly the worst sermon I’ve ever heard you preach.”
“I heard Charles Stanley preach the same message on television. And frankly, he does it a lot better.”
“That is not my favorite suit. I prefer the dark blue one.”
“Our former pastor is preaching at Antioch this week. I’d love for you to go hear him and see why he was so loved.”
“As you know, pastor, I once took a seminary course online. I’ll be emailing you about your sermon because I spotted a couple of things you could do to improve on it.”
And then, there is the pastor’s wife…
On the way home, the pastor may chance it. He says, “Honey, how do you think I did today?”
He may ask it, but he does not want what he’s asking from her.
I cannot say that too strongly. Wife, do not tell him what you are thinking! (Remember those times when you ask him, “Does this dress make me look fat?” You want the truth, but you would appreciate some tenderness and affirmation. Well, that’s where the preacher is at this moment. So, tread lightly here. Say something like, “You did just fine, honey. I’m always so proud of you.”)
However, let’s imagine if the pastor’s wife unloaded on him. She says, “Well, okay. I wasn’t going to say it. But you had a stain on that suit coat and should have worn the grey. And your hair was sticking up in the back.”
Wait. She’s just getting started.
“The introduction to the sermon didn’t work, honey. I’m sorry. Maybe I was just distracted. And you had too many points to the sermon. And…”
She’s not through yet.
“I distinctly remember you preaching this sermon last year. Don’t you think you’re repeating them too often. And you used a plural verb with a single noun several times. And you still haven’t lost your rural Alabama accent, saying ‘wrench’ instead of ‘rinse.’ And must you say ‘y’all’? It sounds so backwoods, not like someone well-educated like yourself.”
(After reading this draft to her, my wife insisted I drop in a note to say a) none of this is autobiographical, b) when I was pastoring, she and I rarely went home in the same cars, and c) while I still sound like an Alabama farm boy, she doesn’t say those things. Not much, anyway. Smiley-face here.)
Okay. We were just imagining that the wife might say those things. Be thankful she doesn’t. She has been married to her man long enough and learned him sufficiently to know when he needs an encouraging word, when he needs his back rubbed, when he needs to be left alone, and when he can receive positive input (aka, helpful criticism).
Again, it’s not a bad idea for a pastor to have an armor-bearer at his right side as he greets departing worshipers. Even if such a friend does nothing, a critic who wants to unload on the preacher will be less likely to pour on the acid if a witness is on the scene.
Scripturally, a pastor is a shepherd whose job it is to protect the flock.
However, pressing that metaphor to its limits, sometimes the stronger members of the flock need to rise up and defend him, taking steps to protect him from well-intentioned but undiscerning members.
Pray for your pastor.