Sometimes I sit there listening while my pastor friend tells what’s happening in his personal life and/or church. And, once in a while all the alarms go off. I realize he is in a dangerous place in his ministry.
If I sense a leading from the Holy Spirit or if he and I already have a close enough relationship, I’ll interrupt him.
“Bob, can we pause here a moment? I need to point something out to you.”
“My friend, you are exposed. You are a sitting duck. Life has drawn a target on your back. Satan has you in his cross-hairs.”
“You’d better do something big in a hurry or you’re going to get in bad trouble.”
He sits there stunned, without a clue.
“What do you mean? I’m doing everything I know to work my way through this.”
I say, “I’m not talking about what you are going through. I’m talking about where you are personally at this moment. You are in a vulnerable spot and you need to move before something bad happens.”
Older, veteran pastors have learned the hard way to tread softly through this dark valley they have entered. They have seen the carcasses of their peers strewn about, brought down by ego or depression or temptation or carelessness.
It’s the young minister who is more likely to try to brave it out alone. It’s the young pastor who is more prone to end up a victim instead of a victor.
Here are 10 danger zones for the pastor to watch out for.
On the highway, signs alert motorists to drive carefully, to slow down, to watch for obstructions.
Would that we had some way to tell God’s servants they are entering danger zones in their ministry.
1. You are tired.
The sign on the highway could say: Warning, ministers of the Gospel: For the next ten miles, you are tired. Your reactions will be slow, your mind is not sharp, you may find yourself in trouble before you know it.
We think of Elijah. After that great victory over the Canaanites at Mount Carmel, the exuberant man of God ran nearly 25 miles to Jezreel. Arriving there, he learned that Jezebel wanted him dead. Instead of reacting in faith–as he had done on the mountaintop–his fatigue betrayed him.
Jezebel’s threats, her dogged worship of Baal, and her control over Israel burst his balloon and destroyed his confidence. Fearing for his life now, he fled, ending up at Beersheba, a hundred miles south.
When we are tired, we don’t feel like reading our Bible or praying or doing the Lord’s work. As Elijah was to find, what he needed was nourishment and sleep (I Kings 19:5-7).
The minister who thinks of himself as above the need for proper food and rest is setting himself up for a failure in a dramatic way.
2. You are bored.
The sign on the highway reads: Warning: Boredom. Ennui for the next dozen miles. Be careful of distractions. Keep your hand on the wheel and your eye on the road.
We think of David. At the time when most kings were in battle defending their country, he stayed home. “But David remained at Jerusalem” (II Samuel 11:1). One night when he could not sleep, he rose from his bed and walked on his rooftop and spotted Bathsheba taking her bath. Nothing good followed that.
David had cleared off his schedule and had no important goals remaining before him. There was a void in his life at this point, making him a sitting duck for temptation.
Every minister gets bored occasionally, no matter how exciting his ministry and how rewarding his relationships. It’s human. What he does with the boredom may well determine whether the rest of his life is spent in fulfilling work for God or picking up the pieces of his ruined dreams.
Satan is no fool. He can see that you are bored. He hears your sermons and knows when the joy has gone from them. He watches your family and spots when the excitement has left your marriage.
This is the time to kick your prayer life and personal devotional life into high gear, child of God.
3. You find yourself at a critical crossroads.
The sign on the highway reads: Intersection ahead. Decision time. Choose carefully your route because you will be on it the next 25 miles.
A change of career, a new direction in your ministry, a different understanding of God’s will for your life—all are critical moments. They are dangerous times.
In my late 30s, I was bored in my ministry and in our marriage. The president of one of our SBC seminaries invited me to campus to discuss the possibility of taking a position. Margaret and I drove down and spent a couple of days in discussion and prayer. She wept as she looked at the sad choices of homes that were available to us on campus. When we departed for the long drive home, I was 95 percent sure I would accept the president’s invitation.
During that drive, God changed my heart. I realized I was already doing the ministry God had called me to, and that I loved my wife and adored my children. I did not want to serve anywhere else or be married to anyone else. I phoned the president and thanked him kindly, then rededicated myself to pastoring that church and leading my family.
A pastor I know resigned a large church in Texas and moved to a smaller one in Mississippi. Later, he admitted to a friend that he had made that decision at a bad time. “I was just exhausted,” he said. “And when I got rested up, I was pastor of the wrong church.”
I heard one old preacher advise, “Never make critical decisions on Monday or when you are tired.” Good counsel.
4. You are angry.
The highway sign reads: Caution: Anger. Blurs your vision, hardens your heart, exaggerates your reactions. Pull over to the side of the road and get control of yourself.
We don’t require a biblical example to teach us about the dangers of uncontrolled anger or the benefits of taming this lion. Paul advises, “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26). The point of that is to say a) we all get angry from time to time, but b) it needs to be dealt with promptly. Undealt-with anger is a poison which contaminates everything it touches and destroys every relationship.
My own experience says that when we are backslidden–when we get out of fellowship with the Lord–we become critical of God’s people and angry at the least offense. Likewise, when we are close to Him, we love those same people and are understanding and forgiving toward those who do us wrong.
The anger, therefore, seems to be a “road closed” sign that would interfere with our loving people and building strong and lasting relationships.
Deal with your anger, pastor. Do it before you leave the house today. Leave it at the foot of the cross.
5. You are lonely.
The highway sign reads: Loneliness makes you a target for temptation, lowers your resistance to impurities, and weakens your resolve. Get over it quickly.
Criminologists say no one ever commits a crime without first justifying it. I suspect that those in the Lord’s work who step across the lines of fidelity in marriage excuse what they are doing with protestations of loneliness.
You may be lonely. No one is saying otherwise. There is a great deal of unhappiness and even loneliness in many a marriage. And yet, that does not justify breaking the marriage vow.
In his book The Myth of the Greener Grass, J. Allan Petersen reminds us that Satan’s lies are directed toward good people to entice us to do wrong things from good intentions.
This is not the place to go into all the cures for loneliness in marriage, but our point is that this condition makes the man or woman of God vulnerable to temptation and enticement.
Someone told me of a minister who lost his ministry, his family, and all the esteem he had built up over the years by an affair with a woman he was counseling. “What was stunning about this,” said my friend, “was that the woman was a notorious adulterer. The pastor knew full well what she was and still gave up everything for her.”
Loneliness makes one so vulnerable. Be aware. Stay alert. Stay on your knees.
6. You are stressed.
The sign beside the road reads: Stress is a killer. Marital stress, financial stress, internal church stress–all are signals that the bridge could be out on your highway. Slow down and pay close attention.
In the cartoon, the older woman tells the young one, “Stress is not par for the course, dear. It is the course.”
Stress is just another word for the pressures that close in upon us. We all have them. The only person without some kind of stress in his/her life is now resting comfortably in the cemetery.
Every marriage encounters stress. Every human has to deal with financial stress at one time or the other. And in churchwork, stress comes in truckloads–people conflicts, schedule conflicts, money problems, doctrinal clashes, personal disagreements, denominational warfare, the list is endless.
By itself, stress is neither good nor bad. It’s a given. It’s always going to be there. As the TV character said, “It’s always something.” Yes, it is.
To build a muscle, you put stress on it. When God wants to build His children, He allows us to go through stressful times. The plan is that they will press us in closer to Him and make us stronger.
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes (Psalm 119:71).
7. You are complacent.
The sign reads: Self-satisfied in your achievements? Smug in your contentment? Do not be surprised if you are blind-sided by some highway obstacle. You will be in the ditch gasping for air and never know what hit you.
The Apostle Paul said, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). There is such a thing as too much confidence.
The trick for the servant of the Lord is to find the balance between courage and confidence on the one hand and humility and a sense of dependence on the other. The cocky young preacher–they are not an endangered species, unfortunately, but seem to arise anew with each generation–would do well to study II Corinthians 12 where Paul admits to a thorn in the flesh that would not go away. Eventually, he learned the hard lesson that His grace is sufficient and “when I am weak, then am I strong.”
8. You are depressed.
The sign on the roadside reads: Feeling blue? Don’t take it out on the rest of the world! Look up!
Everyone gets depressed at one time or other. Mondays seem to bring depression for many in the ministry.
It helps to remember that some of the Lord’s best workers have battled depression. Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Elizabeth Elliot come to mind. Mrs. Elliot wrote in one of her books that when she was depressed, she would be unable to make detailed plans for that day. “I’ve learned just to do the next thing,” she wrote.
She would make the beds, then ask herself, “What is the next thing?” If that was to wash the dishes, she did that. And so on. At the end of the day, she had been productive.
What she did not do was let her depression rule her life.
9. You are discouraged, maybe even defeated.
The sign on the highway of ministry reads: Beware of low places! Watch out for unexpected blowouts, failures, setbacks. They can wreck you permanently.
Someone has a blowout on the highway and while working to repair the damage, gets hit by a passing motorist. It happens.
In the small town where I was pastoring, US Highway 90 dissected the business community. Traffic moved through at 70 mph, as I recall. One day there was a fender-bender. Nothing major. The parties were standing around, inspecting the damage. All of a sudden, a speeding car blew through and killed a woman standing beside her car.
Breakdowns are bad enough, but often they bring other, more complicated problems. So, when you get a setback in life, be careful. Things could get far worse in a hurry unless you are careful.
Never forget that discouragement is one of the devil’s great fields of play. You must not linger there long. Find out the source of your real encouragement and go there as quickly as possible.
10. You are on a high. Have just had a great, great success. Watch out.
The sign reads: High place ahead! Alert. You may be distracted by the view or the thin air. Pay attention.
Remember the line in a couple of places in the Old Testament about “walking on my high places”? (Check out Psalm 18:33 and Habakkuk 3:19) Think of your “high place” as an “Everest” experience. The view is magnificent, the feeling is exuberant, but the air is thin and the footing is slippery.
So, after your great success–that wonderful growth, the publication of your book, the doctorate, whatever–be careful. This is a vulnerable time for you, minister of God.
Be on the alert, man and woman of God. Be sober. Be vigilant.
Your enemy, your adversary, your opponent, the original slanderer, the one who hates you with a passion and would love nothing better than to sabotage your ministry,
He walks about like a roaring lion. Hungry, prowling, relentless, powerful, deadly.
Seeking whom he may devour. He comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy.
Resist him, steadfast in the faith. (I Peter 5:8-9)
“But the God of all grace, after you have suffered a while, perfect you, establish you, strengthen you, and settle you.
To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 5:10-11)