Pastors: Finding the Balance

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)

14 thoughts on “Pastors: Finding the Balance

  1. Great read. The last three weeks I’ve been teaching through Second Corinthians chapter four, so I was delighted to see you reference verse five to close this article.

    Paul had many reasons to give up on the Corinthians, yet twice in that chapter Paul said, “we do not lose heart.” There are a host of reasons and insights in chapter four. Some of the more meaningful to me are:

    1. We received this ministry (1).

    2. We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord (5).

    3. God shines in us (6).

    4. God’s power is seen in our weakness (7).

    5. We just keep coming back (8-10).

    6. We are renewed daily (16).

    Sometimes I take a mustard seed and place it on top of the pulpit before I speak. It’s so small I can’t see it unless I look really close. No one in the congregation can see it. Yet it is there, a constant reminder that God’s Kingdom is present and will continue to grow even when it’s hard to see.

    Be encouraged.

    Later…Taylor 🙂

  2. Bro. Joe,

    I had a wise pastor give me some advice when I was going through a similar problem and I have never forgot it. He said, “Pastor, some of the meanest, vilest, most hard-headed and hard-hearted people you will ever meet will be located on the pews in the church that you serve in, but some of the greatest, kindest, most compassionate people you will ever meet are located in those same churches. Do not neglect the one for the other. It all depends on what you choose to focus on.” Now, after 15 years in the ministry, I have come to find those words so true. Mean, vile, hard-headed and hard-hearted? Yes sir. Great, kind, compassionate and loving? Oh yes! And thank God for them!

  3. Wonderful words! We in ministry need to be reminded of this frequently.

    When I was in graduate school preparing to be a college English teacher, my mentor and supervisor wisely told us teaching assistants that it was not fair to a student to pass him if he did not meet the required standard for the assignment or the class. It is a disservice to a student to tell him that he has reached a goal when in fact he has not.

    I have found a similarity in being a minister’s wife. Sometimes it is difficult and painful to tell the truth to someone who is on a wrong or destructive path, but if we don’t, if we sugar coat it and just wait for the problem to go away on it’s own, we do that person a disservice. There is, however, a delicate balance between speaking the truth in love and merely speaking the truth. I have learned that if I cannot speak to someone using the “mind of Christ” that I am better off (and the other person is too) if I don’t say anything. Love must be the motivating factor.

    I could go on and on regarding this topic as it is near and dear to my heart, but Pastor Joe has done a wonderfully elegant job of it!

  4. Many thanks to those of you who have left encouraging comments. I really appreciate hearing those nuggest of wisdom, learned in the trenches.

    “…And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor.2:16b)

    I feel all poured out after reading this through, Brother Joe. I appreciate your depth of insight and scriptural response and I know in my head and heart that Jesus is exactly where one needs to begin and end.

    Every question I have seems to pale when put to the biblical standard of what God expects of his servants. (Luke 17:7-10)

    Perhaps the hardest part of working this through in my heart has to do with continual forgiveness toward those who have betrayed, rejected, lied, gossiped, or slandered us. To love others who do not love us…

    I do have questions about how pastors hold those in lay leadership accountable; but I’ll have to come back later to properly formulate those thoughts.

    Thank you again for speaking truthfully and lovingly.

  5. Sheri,

    Please go to the article in this blog’s archives from August 30, 2009 titled something like “Love is Something We Do.” It addresses this very issue (loving those who do us wrong).

    Brother Joe

  6. As a wife of a leader in our church I have been gently but firmly reminded by the Holy Spirit that this is God’s church and he will protect ministries he ordains. I only need to be obedient. Time after time he has removed obsticles or resolved them with out any intervention on my part other than prayer. That is very conforting and freeing to me.

  7. Forty-seven years in the pulpit doesn’t qualify me for anything other than, maybe being a victim. I have had my share of confrontations from the sheep who wanted to control the shepherd. Many years ago at a Bible Conference, a large group of us heard an aged pastor speak and he gave us some advice that I have never forgot. He said…”Brethern, there are some things you fuss about; there are some things you fight about; and there are some things you die for. The problems in many churches is that pastors are fighting and dying for things not worth fussing about.” Over these years, I have had to confront important people in church who were wrong and I stood my ground on Biblical terms. It was done in love and compassion but I could not back down. At other times, I left two churches when it seemed that it was a losing battle and I was going to become a casualty. There are times when you need to walk away. Does not the scripture say that even Jesus could not minister in certain places because of their unbelief? You will die a thousand deaths inwardly until the journey is over but the rewards are eternal. Make sure that you are on good Biblical grounds and all actions are done in love for the sheep. After all, all we are as pastors, are under-shepherds.

  8. Thank you Brother Ron. That all makes perfect sense in our situation.

    It is good to hear the experiences of others and know that we aren’t alone.

  9. One thing that I will always remember from our peer group that you invited me to was the fact that, when I was ready to go in and talk about how bad a situation was, they almost always had a situation that was worse. (Usually a lot worse.)

    We all do need some perspective sometimes and remember that the Church is God’s Plan A and there is no Plan B. Don’t give up on the local church! Jesus died for her, and He takes personally how anyone treats His bride.

    I love your list at the end, Bro. Joe. People spoke very highly of your sermon when you came a few weeks ago. No surprise.

  10. Dr Joe – You express what we think and are unable to express. Thanks!

    I have two pastor friends that were asked to leave their churches because they preached the whole Word of God. From a human standpoint, we do not understand. But from a spiritual standpoint, we must accept God’s providence and “keep on, keeping on” as the old pastor told us years ago.

    It is not failure to leave a church if we are truly following God and His calling to the ministry. It is a calling not a vocation. It hurt my pastor friends and their families financially but they went on because it is a calling.


  11. Dr. Joe,

    Excellent words of truth, insight & encouragement. It is sad that so much hostility and pride can be found among those who are to be recognized as God’s people by the love that they have for one another.

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe that in trying to make the Gospel so simple, people have been led to think that there is to be no transformational life change. That sin is really no so offensive to God. Therefore, we can continue to live as we are – self-centered, self-focused, self-loving, rather than to become what He died to empower us to be – humble, servanted-hearted followers of the Living Lord.”

    Thanks for being an faithful encourager, Dr. Joe.

    Blessings & grace to you,


  12. No one else has mentioned it, so I shall as another possibility. I do not know this couple, so I may be way off base, but I note she says they have had only one “good” church in ten years. Leads me to wonder how many churches they’ve been in. Successful pastoring is about building relationships, and that takes time. You can’t walk into a church and decide in the first month that this, this, and this needs doing. I had a successor confess to me once that when he came to the church, he wondered why Perry hadn’t done this, that, and the other. Six months later, quoth he, I knew why you didn’t. Preaching is a different story as I never cut back on what scripture says. However, even then I stay pretty generic until I’ve been there long enough to know where they think they’re coming from. (exception: I include a major section on gossip in one of my first sermons before they get defensive that I’m picking on someone. If there’s been a problem, they’ll hear mine and the Bible’s disapproval.) It also helps after you build relationships to have the support of a significant group if a problem comes up.

  13. Sheri:

    I’ve been pastoring the church of the Lord for just over 26 years in several different states. One of the greatest changes that came about in my ministry was to learn a workable definition of “love”. Pastors and Pastor’s wives are expected to be “lovable” people sharing the love of the Lord at all times. For some, the word “love” is defined much the same as the love a husband has for a wife or a parent for a child. I tried pursuing that type of love in the churches the Lord allowed me to pastor. It simply left me empty and longing for something more due to the members for the most part not returning the “love” expressed. Then I learned a new definition of love which helped remove some of the empty feeling. “Love” is a relationship that edifies and builds up life. I my love toward the members of any church I am privileged to pastor I wish to establish a relationship that has their best interest at heart just as God’s love has our best interest at heart. As long as I believe I’m doing my part in loving the people, what they do in return has little impact on my direction. Yes, I’m human. Yes, the mean people sitting in the pew with their crude comments and unChristian actions hurt. Yes, I pray to the Lord daily to allow me the strength to continue on in His love. Thus, we come to the second truth I’ve learned about pastoring God’s church with unholy people within. Stay as close to the Lord as you can. Prayer is a must. Bible reading and study is a must. Fellowhship with other pastors and ministers in the area is a must. Finally, take your days off and enjoy them. One Pastor said this to me many years ago: “He who does not come apart, comes apart.”

    May the Lord God continue to bless you and your ministry.

  14. Thank you all so much for your encouraging words and insight. My husband and I really do appreciate reading your comments and the lessons contained in them.

    Perry: We have ministered in 4 churches. My husband was the youth pastor in the first 3; this past church was his first experience as a lead pastor.

    Church #1: we left of our own accord. There were issues within the church that did not concern us and were not the reasons that we left; but those issues are what led to the church dismissing our/their sr. pastor and closing their doors about 3 years ago.

    Church #2: We returned to the denomination that we both had grown up in and were familiar with. The board cited not having enough money as their reason for letting my husband go; but there were issues between the sr. pastor and my husband and myself (the board required the sr. pastor to apologize to us once they investigated the situation); and we knew that our time there was limited within the first 6 months. The denomination heads knew the issues that both the sr. pastor and the church had. You could stand on one corner of the church’s property and see 3 other churches that had formed from church splits within this church since it’s inception. The doors had been close to being locked by the denomination at least twice. While the denomination powers and other pastors told us after we were done there that they had been concerned before we were hired on; no one stopped us beforehand. The sr. pastor is no longer in ministry. The church has had a re-start and appears to be getting back to a healthy state now.

    Church #3: During our interview process we were really concerned about church health as well as having a good relationship with the sr. pastor. The 3 pastors we met with all claimed that the church had been unhealthy but that they thought it had turned a corner. We soon discovered this was not true. We had an excellent relationship with our sr. pastor. Just over two years after beginning our ministry there, we lost our second child. One month before, our sr. pastor had told my husband that he was actively looking for another church and that my husband should also ‘get out now’. Three months after we lost our daughter, my husband was forced to resign with no explanation given to the congregation. The reasons cited to my husband were not even in alignment with his job description.

    Church #4: We had taken time to grieve and heal before re-entering ministry. I had struggled with my husband’s call to ministry but had resolved those fears and concerns with God. We switched denominations and my husband was hired as a lead pastor of a small, rural church. We loved our church family and made good friendships within the church; a few still remain. It is a long story that I don’t know how to summarize best; but after 2 years, the elder board were split in half over wanting a new pastor. The reasons cited were not good enough for the denominational leadership to agree with. The denomination has been aprised of the situation from the beginning and attempted to work with the elder board and my husband to resolve the issues. It could not be done. The elder board refused to submit to the denomination’s authority. They illegally fired my husband. The denom. felt that keeping my husband in the church would not lead to anything good and they stated numerous times during the conflict that they did not want to lose my husband as a pastor due to this and that they would pull him out if it got to be too much. Since ousting my husband, the church and now the denomination have financially supported us. The denom. is actively looking for the next church for us to serve in.

    … So Perry, all of those summaries are intended to say that it hasn’t always been our choice to leave a church. I also hope that it explains, at least a little bit, why understanding how to balance being a gentle shepherd with a protective shepherd is important to me as well.

    Pastor David Shaw; thank you for your statement, “As long as I believe I’m doing my part in loving the people, what they do in return has little impact on my direction.” That is where I wanted to be with this last church family; to love them and be transparent with them and have no regrets. There have been regrets for things that I did and didn’t do in our other church families we served; but this past church was different and I am so thankful to be able to leave without regrets.

    Thank you all for your encouragment to stay close to the Lord. As a mom with 3 young and little children, that is most necessary and difficult task.

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