The Man on the Pedestal

In the last few years of my ministry, as I’ve found myself addressing lots of first-time groups–something a pastor of a congregation rarely gets to do–several stories and quotes and points keep coming to the forefront.

Or, if you prefer: in my old age, I repeat myself a lot.

I like the first way of saying it better.

One expression which I now find myself working into revival sermons, pastors conferences, and now, onto my Facebook wall goes something like this: “The pastor’s job is not to make the congregation happy. In fact, his role is about as different from that as it’s possible to get. The Heavenly Father sends pastors to make the congregation healthy and to make HIM happy. When church members insist that he is there to serve and please them, they are usurping the role of God.”

Recently, I posted that on Facebook and drew a mixture of reactions.

Of the dozen or so comments, most were variations of “amen” or “I wish every church member knew that.” But one was different.

A longtime friend who made a career of campus ministry and along the way pastored a few churches and served on the occasional church staff, said, “But the opposite is true, also, Joe.”

I took that to mean that Bob Ford was pointing out that pastors should not think the congregation exists to make them happy either. A good point, Robert.

Not that most pastors would ever think that for a moment. But let’s admit the obvious here: some pastors have been royally spoiled.

I’m thinking of a pastor I once knew who served a large and well-known church in our denomination and who fell from his lofty perch due to transgressions of the female variety. Sometime after his self-destruction, a staffer from that church and I were chatting about how this could have happened.

The minister said, “You know our church. You know how our people put the pastor on a pedestal. He’s not like other mortals.” He paused and in a reference to the fallen brother, said, “Pastor Blank surely did enjoy that pedestal.”

Therein lies the root of the problem, I suggest.

When the people around a leader–whether he occupies the White House, the governor’s mansion, the CEO’s suite, or the pastorium–exist to please him, to satisfy his every whim, and to see that he wants for nothing, unless he is anchored to reality in some meaningful way, they’re setting him up for a fall.

After Jim Bakker of PTL fame (notoriety?) fell in the late 1980s and eventually went to prison for misuse of funds, he confessed, “I had gotten to the point that I thought the rules that govern other people did not apply to me.”

He is not alone in that majestic-malady. It’s a popular disease among the pampered.

My observation, based strictly on my experience and nothing more, is that pastor-pampering and ministerial pedestals are almost always found only in the largest churches, almost never in small ones.

In small churches, the people feel close enough to the minister to call on him and know he will be there. They know his phone number and feel free to call it. They see him in the grocery store and at the ball games.

But not in the mega-churches.

I’m not prepared to use the generalization “without exception,” because I do not know all the pastors, and there are exceptions to every rule (including this one, as the saying goes).

My friends (and former members of one of my pastorates) Bob and Wanda moved into a Memphis suburb, and soon learned that Dr. Adrian Rogers, esteemed pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, owned the house across the street. One evening Bob called excitedly, “Wanda! Come quick. Dr. Rogers is taking his garbage out to the street!”

Wanda didn’t budge from the kitchen sink where she was working. “Well,” she said, “how did you think the garbage would get there?”

Bob said, “I don’t know. But I just never thought the pastor would carry his own garbage cans.”

No church member deliberately sets out to exalt a minister to super-human status. It happens subtlely, slowly, surely.

First, the church decides that they’ve grown so large, the pastor needs other people to do the actual work of pastoring the church. I suppose that’s so the head guy– the senior pastor, he’s now being called–can devote his time to more important things.

Don’t ask me what more important things a pastor can find to do than pastoring his church, but there it is.

Working on those magnificent sermons. Administering the larger staff. Hobnobbing with denominational leaders. Flying around the country to speak at large meetings. Confering with television people, radio executives, publishers.

This is a dangerous world, and since the church’s worship service is now being beamed out by satellite, the pastor is well known and needs to be protected from the hoi polloi. The church hires body-guards.

His salary is unknown to all but the innermost few, and for good reason.

Now, what that pastor desperately needs is a wife whose head has not been turned by any of the accoutrements of their success. She keeps him grounded.

But she can’t do it alone, not if everyone else around him is worshiping the ground he walks on and even spreads a red carpet to protect him from that.

The best approach is to write it into the constitution and bylaws of the church: the pastor of this church will pastor it.

Put it in print: the pastor will visit hospitals, he will minister in nursing homes, he will hold funerals and weddings and counsel people. He will attend church visitation.

He’ll not do all the hospital visitation, of course. He will not be the only nursing home minister, and others will assist with weddings and funerals and such. But the head man, the senior pastor, will get out and knock on doors and follow up on visitors from Sunday’s services.

“But can’t we hire other people to do those things just as well as he can?”

Sure you can. And as the church grows, you will bring in additional staff to take some of these responsibilities, but not all of them.

There are huge reasons, major explanations, for insisting that the pastor actually do some of the work of pastoring the church.

To keep him grounded.

To keep his ministry legit.

To give his sermons an authenticity.

To stay connected with his people.

To focus his intercessions.

To make a statement to the rest of the Christian church on what it means to be a shepherd.

I have written here about the seminary classmate who wrote me a letter from the church he was pastoring in another state. At the time, I was leading a large church and I suppose he thought we were large enough for his idea to work.

He said, “I’m so tired of the day-to-day work of pastoring a church. I’d love to join the staff of a large church as the ‘minister of Bible teaching’ where I’d do nothing but study the Bible and teach the members.”

I wrote back, somewhat facetiously, I admit, and said, “Dear Rick: Me, too.”

From time to time, every pastor would like such a job description. But for good reason, it should never happen.

It’s the day-to-day hassle–the personal visitation, the committee work, the problem-solving, the work!–that gives the minister the right to stand and lead the people on Sunday. Cut that out, isolate him in his study, and restrict him to the pulpit and something vital goes out of his ministry.

I’ve never owned sheep and never been a shepherd, but I think I know one solid fact about their relationship: sheep may follow the shepherd, but his happiness is the farthest thing from their minds!

Thank you, Bob Ford.

1 thought on “The Man on the Pedestal

  1. Joe,

    You are right on target as usual. Some pastor said, I would love pastoring if it weren’t for the people. Sometime, we may all feel that way, but it soon passes and we are reminded that pastoring is about the people. I have never understood how a pastor could or would think that he should isolate himself from the people he has been sent to minister to. Dr. Curtis Vaughan at SWBTS used to say, If the people know that you love them, they will put up with almost anything. That is the key-loving the people that God has called you to minister to. I remember that Jesus said, I came not to be served, but to serve… The towel and the basin ought to be our symbols, not a crown.

    Keep up the good work.

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