The toughest assignment I’ve received in a while came not from an editor or a denominational exec but from a pastor’s wife.
In an e-mail this week, Sheri referred to our recent blog titled “A Pastor’s Heart: Like a Mother, A Shepherd, the Savior.” She left this comment at the end:
“My husband is a young pastor with a shepherd’s heart. But it would seem the churches we’ve ministered in do not appreciate that.”
“In our experience, the churches have been rebellious, stubborn, prideful and have refused to deal with sin. The pastors have not been supported (due to congregational models of church governance) by the denomination.”
She continued, “We switched denominations to an elder-type model and have found the same problems. I know that there are ‘good’ churches out there; but in our short 10 years of ministry/married life together, we have only served in one and even that one had struggles. The sheep do not want to be shepherded.”
She asks, “What does one do when dealing with ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing?’ What about when they are in leadership (elders of the church)? How does one blend the authority with the gentle heart of a shepherd? I would really love to hear wise perspective on these issues.”
I promised Sheri I would lay this before the Lord, which I have done. After responding to her last question–on finding the balance between strong firm leadership and gracious shepherding–I’d like to lay this before our readers. Give us your insights. Sheri will be reading this, and if I’m any judge, a lot of other pastors and spouses will also.
The first question that loomed large in my mind was: Who in Scripture is our role model for this? You will not be surprised at the answer.
It’s Jesus, Sheri.
No one ever blended the two streams of Strong, Positive, Forceful Leadership with Gentle, Loving, Gracious Servanthood the way our Savior did. (Sorry for the caps, but it seems to require that.)
Jesus was a Strong Leader.
He was clear in His vision, solid in His purpose, steady dealing with His enemies, and never wavering in His pronouncements regarding the message of God.
To the sycophant Nicodemus who slipped in at night and commenced bragging on His teaching, Jesus was quick to say, “You must be born again!” (John 3)
In His preaching, He gave no ground to centuries-old traditions or the hide-bound religious big-shots of His day. “You have heard it said…but I say to you….” (Matthew 5) He told the crowds that unless their righteousness went beyond that of the religious leaders, they were in big trouble (Matthew 5:20).
There were no uncertainties in His preaching. I would not be surprised if the Apostle Paul had Jesus in mind when he said, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:8) No one wondered where Jesus stood on issues.
Just before the United States and Great Britain invaded the Middle East to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in what was called “Desert Storm,” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said to President George Bush, “Now, George–don’t go wobbly on us.”
Be strong in the Lord. Be courageous. Stand up. Speak out. (See Jesus’ instructions along these lines to the disciples in Matthew 10:16ff.)
And yet, even while He was strong and forceful….
Jesus was Kind and Gracious.
We’re to be that way, too, Sheri.
“Take my yoke upon you,” He said. “For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
He was gentle with the hurting. “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more,” He said to the woman caught in adultery who had been thrown before the public in open shame (John 8:11).
He was precious with the children. “Little lamb, I say to you arise,” He spoke to the now-dead daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:41). Note: several commentators interpret our Lord’s Aramaic term of endearment not as “little girl” but as “little lamb.”
From the cross, He did not retaliate (I Peter 2:22). He forgave His executioners and interceded for His tormentors. He spoke love to His mother and extended eternal life to the dying thief.
He washed the feet of the disciples (John 13).
Both His firmness and His gentleness are aspects of the same loving heart.
If I love you and see you destroying yourself unknowingly, I will intervene. If necessary, I will be harsh with you. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” says Proverbs 27:6).
In lifesaving training, swimmers are taught that if necessary, they are to administer a knock-out blow to the person they are trying to save but who keeps fighting them off. It’s the loving thing to do.
Jesus’ harsh sermon to the Pharisees in Matthew 23–His strongest on record–was delivered out of a heart of love. These self-righteous nabobs needed to hear in the strongest terms possible what they were doing, what God thought of what they were doing, and the everlasting peril with which they were endangering themselves. There is nothing unloving about telling a dying man he’s dying if he needs to know it.
There is nothing unkind about a surgeon cutting into any of us to remove a cancer. It’s painful, but the alternative is worse.
This dichotomy, this paradox, is God’s standard for those He calls to lead His flock.
On the one hand, a gentle heart; on the other, strong, settled leadership.
Those who are mature in Christ are characterized by 9 qualities Scripture calls “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
But do not make the mistake of calling this timidity.
“God has not given us the spirit of fear or timidity, but of power, and of love, and of a sound or disciplined mind” (II Timothy 1:7).
Humble yourself, servant of God. You have been sent to feed the hungry, bind up the wounds of the hurting, comfort the grieving, and minister to the imprisoned. Other people will make demands on you. You are a servant; get used to it.
Stand strong, servant of God. You have been sent to proclaim the riches of God’s grace and the full counsel of Christ’s gospel to people dying in sin.
One huge caution: You will not be able to pull this off in the flesh.
Humanly speaking–if you are on your own and doing the best you can–you will veer from one extreme to the other. You will end up wimping out when you should have been courageous and stood tall, or being tough and forceful at the very time you needed to humble yourself and be gentle.
You will go in the strength of the Lord–we’re talking about putting your self on the cross every day of your life and asking God to fill you with His Spirit–or you will make a royal mess of your ministry.
Many who have left the pastorate could bear testimony to that.
Pastor, you do not have what it takes to be a successful minister. Pastor’s help-mate, you do not have what will be required to be his spouse.
Get used to that fact. The work is far bigger than you are. Paul said, “Not that we are adequate for these things, but our adequacy is of God” (II Corinthians 3:5).
Get it right, however, and go in the strength of the Lord, and you will say with the Apostle Paul:
–I am not ashamed of the Gospel. Romans 1:16
–I am not ashamed of Jesus. II Timothy 1:12
–I am not ashamed of the life I am living for Christ. Philippians 1:20
God said it would be this way, Sheri.
In the final epistle we have from the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit speaking through him told us how things would be in the last days. What He ended up giving us here is a perfect depiction of so many of our churches (not all, thankfully!) and so many of the people who are calling the shots for the congregations.
Read it and weep:
But know this, that in the last days, perilous times will come.
For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good,
traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (II Timothy 3:1-5)
If you miss everything else, do not miss this: He is talking about the people in the church!
The world’s crowd has always been this way. But in the final days, the people in the pews will be afflicted by the dreaded carnal diseases of selfishness, pleasure-seeking, a sense of entitlement, and a disdain for spiritual things.
And this, Sheri, is the work to which you and your preacher husband have been called.
Now, may I speak to you plainly, young sister:
1) Quit being surprised when members of your church act this way. God told us ahead of time what we could expect. Jesus said the servant is no better than the master; if they treated Him this way, we could expect the same (Matthew 10:24-26).
2) Start expecting the ugliness and begin to prepare for it. Rejoice when you find members who truly love the Lord and will honor you, but quit expecting everyone to act like mature saints. You will experience unending disappointment if you do.
3) To some extent, it has been so from the beginning. Even in the first century, Paul told the elders of the Ephesian church, “I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30)
4) We will leave it to the Lord to sort out the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). That is not our privilege nor our burden. (I for one am thankful, Sheri!)
5) Your job and mine will be to love them, minister to all who will let us, and speak the Word of Truth to them. We will do this not because we are good and they are worthy, but we have been called and they are our assignment.
6) It is the Lord Jesus we serve, ultimately. What I do for the church, He takes personally. (No revelation from God’s word has more drastically affected my ministry in recent decades than learning this.)
We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. (II Corinthians 4:5)
7) Eyes on the Lord, Sheri. Eyes on the Lord. Give thanks to Him for the privilege of doing even the least little chore in His Kingdom.
And every time you find a faithful pastor and spouse, encourage them. They are not your competition but your brother and sister. Some are laboring under horrendous burdens and need your kind words, an invitation for a cup of coffee in your kitchen, or a hug.
Thank you, Sheri, for telling me what you and your preacher/husband are going through. I hope our readers will leave comments that will encourage you.
I will leave you with something from Scripture that speaks to my heart forcefully:
Therefore my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (I Corinthians 15:58)