It comes as a surprise only to a very few that pastoring a church can be extremely hard work. Rewarding, yes. Fulfilling, challenging, and blessed. But there are times when it taxes the child of God to the core of his being, when it tests his sanity, and drives him to question everything he ever believed about the faith he is proclaiming and the people he is serving.
Only the strong need apply.
They used to say that only the hardiest of stock settled the early American west. “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way.”
There’s something about that which fits the ministry.
What triggered all this for me was the sports guys on ESPN the other day talking about Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback. He’s had an ankle injury this year, and has been making every effort to play on in spite of it. Whether this is smart or foolhardy, we’ll leave to other people. The commentators were of one mind on it, however: Isn’t Big Ben great! He doesn’t give in to a little injury. He knows how to play hurt!
I’ve played hurt. You too, pastor? I will go so far as to say that every pastor who stays in the Lord’s work for any period of time will sooner or later “play hurt.” He will have a serious burden or strong opposition or major trial or some kind of massive handicap which would destroy a lesser individual (“a career-ending injury” it’s called in sports), but he still stands in the pulpit preaching, still goes to the office, still leads his church.
Every week I hear from pastors and/or their wives with similar stories of great upheavals in their ministries. The one this week said, “I perceive that you too have had troubles and trials in your life. That’s why I decided to write you.”
She said what the others have say: “Please do not use any details from my story. I wouldn’t want this to get out to certain people.”
If they only knew. Each story is so similar to all the others, one would think it was the same thing happening repeatedly.
Take the letter this week.
Just a few years ago, the preacher-husband and his wife started a church and saw it prosper. Then, a denomination approached asking if they would merge with one of their struggling congregations. Both groups followed all the proper steps, then merged.
In so doing, however, they inherited from the old church an assistant pastor who was trouble from the first. When they presented evidence of his wrongdoing to the denomination, the executives did nothing.
When the pastor developed health problems, the troublesome staff member led a movement to oust him. Suddenly, the faithful preacher found himself jobless, critically ill, and in financial need.
These days, that unemployed pastor is recovering from his illness but the wound to his soul seems incurable. After all, where was God in all this? Why did the Lord allow these mean-spirited people who call themselves Christians to behave this way? Why wasn’t God faithful to His servants who had labored long and hard for Him?
The pastor is not sure he believes in God any more.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an epidemic in our land of internal church problems.
Your church is not the exception, my friend. It is far more typical than you would think.
In the past few days, church leaders have told me of…
…a volunteer who asked for a key to the church so she can minister. When refused, she became demanding, and is now creating a ruckus within the congregation. The pastor found that she tried the same ploy in previous churches, and is now trying to decide what to do.
…a small church where a lady who sings in the small worship ensemble has a terrible voice but huge ego (bad combination!). The preacher’s problem is how to get her off the platform but still keep her and her family as church members
…senior church members feeling abandoned in a congregation that is finally managing to reach young families. The rift is small presently, but threatens to undo all the blessings God is sending.
An uncle of mine used to take me shopping when I would visit his family as a child. More than once, he said, “Joe, don’t worry about expenses. We’ve got plenty of them.”
If your church has a lot of people, you will have plenty of people problems.
The preacher often becomes the target whether he deserves it or not.
After all, he’s the point man. Exposed out in front as the leader, disaffected members aim their fiery darts in his direction.
I smile sometimes on recalling how a church I was pastoring decided to spend nearly $1 million to renovate its ancient buildings. The building committee, made up of godly and mature leaders, did a lengthy study before recommending the project to the church, which adopted it almost unanimously. However, for reasons unknown then or now, a few unhappy campers spread the word that I was pushing it through as an ego trip.
The simple fact is when you are the head coach, a team’s victories and failures both fall on your shoulders. If the quarterback throws a hail mary and connects for a touchdown, the coach is a genius. If the ball is dropped or intercepted, he is to blame.
A church up the road from here has just survived an attempt by a few lay leaders to oust the pastor, a ploy they have pulled off successfully several times the last two decades. This time however, they had themselves a pastor with grit. He resisted, they did their worst and fell short. Now, the disgruntled are leaving and the remaining members are pulling together.
Two other churches I know well have seen their pastors resign under fire recently. In both cases, the pastors just grew tired of fighting a few lay leaders with their own agenda who were determined not to follow them.
The most surprising thing for many pastors is learning their greatest opposition, their biggest problems, their major obstacles to doing the work the Lord sent them to accomplish is coming from within the membership.
Pastors must learn to expect problems and to “play through” them.
Play through the pain. Go on doing the work the Lord called you to do even though some in the congregation hate your guts and resent your presence.
I did not say all these who oppose you are sweet godly saints who mean well. Some are.
Some are tyrants out of hell intent on wreaking havoc in the congregation.
And–don’t miss this–some are a mixture of the two.
For reasons that baffle me, even the smallest of congregations will frequently have a few people with a thirst for power. They want to control decisions. Why in the world anyone would want to be a big frog in a small pond escapes me. But they do.
As I write, last Monday night, our New Orleans Saints hosted their arch-rivals in the NFC South division, the Atlanta Falcons, in our Superdome. It wasn’t much of a game as these things go, and ended with the Saints on top 45-16. But what caused all the talk this week was the Saints’ last drive of the game.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was attempting to amass 305 yards through the air, which would eclipse the NFL record set in 1984. Even though the Saints had “won” the game and needed no more points, the final pass–the one which put Brees over the top–scored another touchdown.
We hear that the Falcons resented it. We hear that they considered this piling on, running up the score.
No amount of explaining from the Saints seems to have stopped the bellyaching.
Finally, the response to the Falcons’ criticisms from far and wide all said the same: “Had the Falcons wanted to stop the Saints, all they had to do was do it. That they couldn’t stop them says it all. They’re a bunch of crybabies.” (To be fair, it was not all the Falcons nor all their fans. In fact, the complainers seem to have remained anonymous.)
It brings to mind an old song about a fellow named Charlie Brown, who kept asking, “Why is everybody always picking on me?”
Pastors can be crybabies and wimps. “Oh no. My congregation is having problems. Where is God when it hurts?”
To the pastor who is experiencing problems within the congregation and becoming the focus of opposition, we have this counsel:
1) Grow up. Expect trouble. Read Acts 20:29-30 again and again until you get the point that “it is through many tribulations that we enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
If anyone could pastor a church, God would not have to draft us.
2) Be strong. This is no work for wimps or weaklings. God told Jeremiah, “You will go to all to whom I send you; you shall say whatever I command you. And you must not be afraid of them” (Jer. 1:7-8).
3) Show courage. Be willing to face your giants, to stand before your Goliaths and not show fear. No knees knocking, no teeth chattering, no lump in your throat, but full confidence in the Lord who called you and accompanies you. Again and again, Joshua was told by Moses, by the Lord, and by the congregation, “Be strong and of good courage.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-7,23 and Joshua 1:6,9,18)
Pastor, please note that not only did Moses and the Almighty God want Joshua to show courage, but the people did also. No congregation wants their pastor to wimp out.
4) Expect trouble. See above.
5) Don’t quit. Hang in there. Twice in II Corinthians 4, at the start and at the end, Paul counsels God’s people not to lose heart and quit. In verse 1, they are to stay faithful because they have received mercy and been called to ministry. In verse 16, they are to persevere because God has great things in store for them.
“In due season we shall reap….if we faint not.” (Galatians 6:9) Various translators say “if we do not lose heart and quit,” “if we do not give up,” and “if we do not grow discouraged and stop.”
6) Expect to get back up again after you are knocked down. Repeat as often as necessary.
Every pastor will want to memorize Paul’s words–learned in the school of really hard knocks–from II Corinthians 4:8-10. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed–always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.
Football is a game for men, they say. Play through your pain. And when your opponent scores big on you, remember: there’s no place for crybabies on this team.
I can hear someone say, “You don’t know how bad I had it. You have no idea what I’ve been through or how badly this hurt.”
Answer: Of course I don’t. I’ve had my share of opposition and trials, but not like yours. There is, however, Someone who knows. And He is not asleep at the switch, my friend.
So, trust Him. He knows what He is about.
A phrase the old-timers used to hear preached was “Quit you like men.” It’s found in the Old Testament in places such as I Samuel 4 and in the New Testament in I Corinthians 16:13. That little phrase, oddly worded, seemed to strike a nerve with preachers and laymen a couple of generations back. Many a preacher stood in the pulpit and preached to his people that they should “quit you like men.”
Far as I can tell, it simply means to be courageous, brave, and strong. The old Williams Translation says, “Keep on acting like men.” I cannot improve on that, and won’t try.
Grown-ups only in the pulpit, my friends. No crybabies or wimps need apply.