“What’s the worst thing about being a pastor?” she asked. “What is your worst nightmare?”
She and I were Facebooking back and forth about the ministry when she broadsided me with this one.
She suggested possible answers. “People writing nasty letters complaining? giving you advice? criticizing what you wear?”
I laughed and thought, “Oh, if it were that simple. No one enjoys getting anonymous mail trying to undermine your confidence in whatever you’re doing, but sooner or later most of us find ways of dealing with that.”
“It’s worse than that,” I typed. Then I paused to reflect.
Hers was such a simple question, one would think I had a stock answer which had been delivered again and again. But I don’t remember ever being asked it before.
Now, I have been asked plenty of times variations of “What’s the best thing about pastoring?” My answer is probably typical for a pastor: the sense of serving God, the joy of making a difference in people’s lives for Jesus’ sake, that sort of thing.
You knock yourself out during the week counseling the troubled, ministering in hospitals, visiting in their homes, conducting funerals and weddings, all while you are working on the sermons for Sunday, meeting with staff members planning upcoming events, and handling a thousand administrative details. Then, you stand at the pulpit twice on the Lord’s Day and give your best. And you see doubters begin believing, the fearful becoming courageous, the lost getting up and coming home to the Father, people saying God has led them to join with your flock, and broken homes restored –I cannot imagine it getting any better than that.
A pastor is in your glory.
Worst nightmare? Thankfully, I don’t have those. But I suppose my friend was asking for the scariest scenarios, the most frightening circumstance for a pastor. I have an opinion on that.
Here’s my response.
First, the worst part of pastoring….
–I) I was in my third church–this would be my first pastorate after seminary–before I became the object of malicious gossip. I’ve often given thanks the Lord grounded me early with supportive congregations so this wildness in the third one did not abort my young ministry. It could, you know. You have to wonder if the originators of ugly, mean-spirited gossip know or even care that they could be wrecking a man’s ministry.
Gossip is one thing, but malicious gossip is the cruelest variety, the kind that is untethered to reality, takes no prisoners, and gets its satisfaction when the object of the poison decides to drive off a cliff. When he actually does do something suicidal, the gossip moves to warp speed.
Such meanspirited behavior almost always blindsides the man of God. In his heart of hearts, he had expected better from the people of God, those redeemed by the blood of Jesus.
He rarely has a clue on how to respond. Usually, he does nothing because combatting gossip is like fighting smoke or attacking the fog.
–2) In two of the seven churches I served, when the wolves began howling and snarling, I felt abandoned by a few key leaders who should have stood up for their pastor. Later they were to tell me they were peacemakers, not confronters, and simply not able to face up to my attackers.
My own opinion is they were suddenly taken by an attack of yellow fever: cowardice. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to men of great influence and powerful personalities in a small room.
Please don’t miss the point: the unfair attack by some in the church, as bad as it was, is not what I’m saying was awful. What made it worse was the people who knew better keeping their silence and leaving the pastor twisting in the wind.
Now, that’s not to say everyone did. I still smile at something a very young deacon did to the bulls-of-the-wood. When a small cluster of powerful deacons began blaming me for the church’s ills and asking for my resignation, David, the newest deacon in the room took all he could, then rose to his feet and turned to address the naysayers. He opened his Bible to Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, chapter three, and read his description of a worthy pastor.
David would read a phrase, “He must be above reproach,” look around at the deacons, most of whom were old enough to be his father or even grandfather, and say, “That’s Joe McKeever!” He read, “He must be temperate and self-controlled and respectable. That’s Joe McKeever.” And on and on. He made them sit there and listen while he went through the entire passage.
It took courage.
I was stunned by his courage and infinitely blessed in his affirmation. Young David in a roomful of Goliaths.
Blessed by one who stood up, hurt by those who kept their seats.
Welcome to the ministry.
–3) Pastors who have been terminated say that was the worst experience of their ministerial lives. Once in a while, I’ll meet someone who says otherwise, that it finally cut them loose from a bad situation and they were glad to be free. But most who have endured such a possible ministry-ending event carry the scars for the rest of their lives.
I still recall the chill that went through my body in a deacons meeting when I realized this was the moment I had dreaded, that I was about to witness a train-wreck up close–with me in the engineer’s seat! (This was the deacons meeting referred to above when David addressed the ramrods.)
It was awful. But it had its own rewarding moments.
I had the privilege of sitting there for four hours hearing myself cussed and discussed. Yet, the greatest peace washed over my soul that night. The Lord had never felt so near as He did then.
You never forget that. It was one of those watershed, life-altering evenings that sears itself on your soul: precious, awful.
My dad used to say about his six children, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for one; I wouldn’t give you a dime for another.” I know the feeling.
–4) A pastor is really hurt when he knocks himself out to teach the way of the Lord and his people just don’t get it. Sometimes the members of the church act more carnal and worldly than the clientele of the nearest bar.
When a member of a friend’s church came to him complaining about the water bill because the pastor was baptizing too often, my friend wanted to beat his (own) head against a wall. It’s too ridiculous to cry over, but hurts too bad to laugh.
When the church members refuse to deal with blatant immorality among a key leader because he employs half the members in the congregation, the pastor feels like a failure.
When they let a church boss call the shots because he is wealthy and loud and gets angry easily, the pastor wonders, “What’s the use? If they don’t care, why should I?”
–5) When the pastor prayerfully plans a program that offers to reach many for the Lord or salvage a lot of broken homes or open up new worlds of spiritual blessing for his people, and the leadership shoots it down because “It costs too much,” that hurts.
Some people have no business in church leadership positions. To the everlasting consternation of pastors, congregations will put a man on the finance committee because he’s a banker. Whether he knows the Lord or ever reads his Bible or understands spiritual things matters little. They leave the pastor to deal with self-important committee members who see their responsibility as killing his vision before it ends up costing them money.
The worst part of pastoring is not the hospitals, the funerals, the weddings, or the administration. It’s not about attacks from the outside world or the harassment of those picketing the church because the preacher is taking a stand on some issue from the pulpit. It’s none of these things.
The worst part is when the people of God act like the devil.
My worst nightmare? The scariest scenario?
Every pastor will have his own candidate for this dubious honor.
My worst experience as a pastor is when something of my own doing–not another’s–proves to be my own undoing. When I have become my own worst enemy, when my foolishness or brashness or bull-headedness fueled my determination to do something that turned out to be an embarrassing disaster.
Want a story about that? Sure you do.
Sorry, not today.
In such cases, the only thing to do is to publicly repent and apologize.
Congregations are overwhelmingly willing to forgive pastors for their mistakes when they humble themselves publicly and ask for it.
In a seminary class we were discussing conflict in the church. I reminded this group of future pastors and missionaries, “There’s a reason God drafts people into this work. If it were easy, everyone would flock to it and the Lord would have to turn people away. But it’s hard.”
Sometimes, it’s discouraging to your dreams, it demands of you far more than you have to give, and it can be deadly to your family.
That’s why the pastor must be a person of great prayer; otherwise he ‘s not going to make it.
And it’s why we keep asking you to pray for your pastor. Everything depends on your prayers.