In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown said there is no heavier burden than great potential.
Young pastors know the feeling. You arrive on the field, move into the parsonage, meet with the leaders and begin your ministry. You are feeling your way through each day, trying to find the handle for everything, hoping to get a sense of who this church is and how you can best minister to it. Meantime, you’re still trying to find out who you are and what the Living God had in mind by fingering you of all people to turn into a pastor. And some well-meaning member comes up to you.
I just want you to know, pastor–we are expecting big things from you. We waited a long time for you. This church is sitting on ready. All we need is a leader to point us in the right direction.
That sounds so good on the surface. They believe in you. They want you to succeed. They’re on your team.
But those words carry a great burden. They imply that if great things do not begin to happen soon, the pastor is at fault. All the other parts of the machinery were in place. If the pastor is “God’s man,” then we will move forward and have great success. If success does not come, then he is not “God’s man.”
Sound familiar? Bear in mind, this is never stated in so many words. But it sums up the consensus of the leaders of many a good church as they welcome the new preacher.
A great opportunity. A heavy burden.
Woe to the preacher who does not meet the expectations of those who called him and who convinced the congregation he was the greatest thing since Billy Graham.
I have known pastors who were relieved of their employment because (ahem) they did not live up to their potential. According to the leaders, the pastor did not deliver on the expectations they had been led to believe would follow his ministry.
Did the pastor over-promise or did the committee over-expect? Or is something else going on here?
Then the disciples of John reported to him concerning (the ministry Jesus was having). John, calling two discples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, “Are you the Expected One, or do we look for another?”
When the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the Expected One, or do we look for another?’ And that very hour, He cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight. (Luke 7:18-21)
Jesus was not what John the Baptist had been expecting. From the jail cell where Herod had thrown him, he had begun to be disappointed in what he was hearing of Jesus.
During his brief ministry, John had preached a glorious, majestic, mighty Messiah. John was not worthy to stoop and unlace His sandals. The Messiah would baptize with fire. He would lay the ax to these hypocritical religious leaders who were catering to the Romans and dominating Jewish life in that region. The Messiah would burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:1-20)
John baptized Jesus amid incredible joy and high expectations.
Now, John is wondering if he might have been mistaken.
From the reports he’s receiving, the Man of Galilee is attending weddings and enjoying Himself. He’s entering people’s homes and eating with them. He drinks wine. He’s teaching and blessing, He’s doing some miracles, and He’s attracting crowds. But He is not confronting the Romans, organizing a militia, dealing with troublemakers, getting set up for a new world government.
The Lord said to John’s disciples, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard here. Tell him that the blind are seeing, the lame are walking, that lepers are being cleansed, deaf are hearing, that dead people are being raised, and that the poor have the gospel preached to them. Tell him that.” (Luke 7:21-22)
Jesus was not what John expected. No question about it.
However, Jesus did not change His methods to suit John. Don’t miss that.
The Lord stayed the course. He knew who He was, what He was to do, and how it was to be done (see John 13:1,3). He had one overarching goal in mind: to live up to the expectations of the Father who had sent Him. I always do those things that please the Father (John 8:29). Nothing else mattered.
As for the expectations of John and others, they would come along in time.
The old saying goes, “I cannot tell you how to succeed, but I can tell you how to fail: try to please everyone.”
If there is a character flaw in the typical pastor, it’s this: he does not like to disappoint anyone. He will get out of bed in the middle of the night and drive across town because some church member said they needed him at that moment. He will leave his family at the ball field and disappoint his child who watches from the outfield as his dad walks out of the bleachers and disappears, rather than say ‘no’ to a church leader who insisted that “I need to talk to you right now.”
As a young pastor just arrived on the field, I left my wife and two small sons in the parsonage with boxes to unpack and a home to set up, in order to get to the hospitals and call on members. No one required it of me. My sense of obligation and duty to the members was stronger than my devotion to my own family. I say that to my everlasting shame.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I kept hearing the affirmation from the wonderful members of that search committee who assured me I was everything they had wanted in a pastor, that they “just knew” God was going to bless our ministry with power and results.
I was trying to live up to their expectations.
Sometimes the church members’ expectations are correct and wise; sometimes they are skewed and unworthy.
In that church–my first after seminary; I went there at the age of 27–we had a strong lay leader who ran the show. Lawrence Bryant was the age of my father, exactly twice my age. He was a successful businessman who had come to Christ ten years earlier and now went out of his way to present the gospel to everyone he saw. He was passionate about Jesus Christ.
Mr. Bryant had chaired the search committee that brought me to that church. When I arrived on the field, I found him to be chairman of the deacons also. The congregation looked to him for guidance in almost every decision that was made. To my relief, however, he was a good man with a gracious heart.
This is not a sad story.
However things could have gone wrong quickly.
One day Bryant asked if I would like it if he came by the church office each noontime so the two of us could spend the entire hour in prayer.
How, I wondered, could one turn down such a request? Isn’t prayer good? Wouldn’t more prayer be great? I have the time. I want to be all the Lord wants me to be. Mr. Bryant is older and wiser and stronger. He has a lot to share. So, surely this is the right thing.
I agreed. For the next several weeks, this church leader would arrive in my office at 12 sharp and we would spend the next 60 minutes on our knees. We would read a passage of Scripture, then pray. Then, we would stand to our feet, he would leave, and I would head home for lunch.
Now, I emphasize this, he was not manipulating me to do anything. He did not phrase his prayers to ask God to direct me in any particular direction. He simply prayed for God’s hand to be upon me, His will to be supreme, His power to work within our church.
How did I feel about this? Somewhat put upon. I often felt uncomfortable. But since I knew how far I had to grow in the Lord to be mature, I dismissed the discomfort as evidence my flesh was rebelling. Any growing believer knows that feeling. The flesh resists the things of God.
One day, Mr. Bryant said, “We’re going to have to quit this, preacher.”
What happened was that he was being criticized. Some unnamed church members were saying, “There goes Lawrence to the church to give the preacher his instructions.”
Nothing was further from the truth. But he was sensitive to the appearance. And he stopped.
I was glad to have my lunch hour back. But my appreciation for this man grew by leaps and bounds. There was a humility there not clearly evident to all who met him.
Sometime along about the same time, Mr. Bryant did something else that did cross the line.
He and I were out visiting prospects for our church that night. Afterwards, we sat in his car and prayed together. I recall something he said that sent cold chills up my spine.
“You stick with me, preacher. And I’m going to make you into one of the great preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
If I said anything at the time, I don’t know what it was. I knew this was not right. I was not going to be putty in the hands of anyone–not even the finest layman I’d ever known–to mold me. I was in far bigger hands than his. My heart’s desire was to do the Father’s will, not live up to the expectations of a deacon chairman.
The Lord had done something wonderful for Mr. Bryant. He gave him a wife.
Helen Bryant loved the Lord just as much as her husband did. In fact, a decade earlier, just after he came to Christ, he led her to the Lord. She was a lovely, kind and gracious person. A good balance for his Type A personality.
Somewhere along about that time, Helen said with all the sweetness a Southern Christian lady can muster (and that’s a lot!), “Now, Lawrence. You just relax and let the Lord make Brother Joe into the preacher He wants him to become. He’ll not be needing your help to do it.”
And he did.
From that moment on, there was a liberty and peace in our relationship. At no time for the rest of my ministry there–and the ensuing years of our relationship when I’d moved on to other churches–was there any hint that he was projecting his goals and aspirations onto me.
Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:4)
We have no way of knowing how John the Baptist took the news of Jesus which his disciples delivered to him in Herod’s jail. But, since he was about to leave the scene, and since the Lord lauded him as the finest born of woman (up to that time!) (Luke 7:28), we may assume he got it all straightened out.
Whether your supporters and detractors get it all straightened out or not, pastor, stay the course.
I keep coming back in my ministry to Paul’s testimony to the Corinthians. We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake (II Cor. 4:5). The great apostle–who knew what it was to live underneath people’s expectations–was not there to present himself or please the people. He would serve them, of course, but for Jesus’ sake.
That’s how we serve our people, pastor. We serve them, but we don’t take orders from them. We serve them for Jesus’ sake. That is, we take orders from Him as to what we should do for them.
Amazing how liberating that is.
And, wonderful how it all works out in the long run.