What’s a pastor to do when church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times in my last pastorate, some years ago.

Consider that the church was still in recovery from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation handling an all-consuming debt.  Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during that fight, while others nursed hurts and anger from the same tragic event.  I’d not been around during that catastrophe, I’m happy to report, but the Father had sent me in to help the congregation pick up the pieces and return the congregation to health and usefulness.

It was hard.

I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd a divided congregation with toxic lay leadership.  So, I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflict and for everyone, myself included, to have time to heal.

Naïve, huh?  Probably so.

Daily I was being undermined by the angry, criticized by the hurting, ostracized by the pious, and scrutinized to the nth degree by leaders, self-appointed and otherwise.  When I tried to lead the church to take steps I considered normal and healthy, these also were thrown back in my face.

The journal records my efforts to bring in community leaders for a Sunday night forum during which the guest would speak and take questions.  Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.

I was stunned.  They don’t see the need? Aren’t they citizens who vote and who are affected by the actions of political leaders? Do they not care?  Where have these people been?

If it didn’t involve evangelism or preparation for the rapture, the leadership wanted no part of it.  Not that they were doing all that much about either.  These were merely points to check off in rating anyone invited to speak in their church.

Walt Handelsman was the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  I admired him greatly and was delighted when he gave me an autographed collection of his editorial cartoons.  When I asked if he would be available to visit our church some Sunday evening in the hour preceding worship, he quickly agreed.

I began mentioning to a few leaders my plans to host Walt for an hour.  I thought they would be pleased. They were anything but pleased.  Not a single one thought it was a good idea.

–“Do you realize Walt is Jewish?”  When I said we’re not bringing him here to talk religion but to share how he chooses his issues for cartoons, and that we are going to be a respectful host, you would have thought I’d given up being a Christian.

–“Why are we doing this?  What’s the point?”

“Inviting him to our church would be putting our approval on what he says and does.”  This is quite a stretch, but people who believe such cannot be reasoned with.

My wife said I should drop it, that it wasn’t worth fighting for.

She was right.

Reluctantly, I called Walt and explained the situation.  He was gracious.  I said, “I don’t want you feeling this kind of narrowness is typical of all Baptists.”  He said, “Since there are pastors like you among them, I won’t think that.”  (Forgive me for inserting this, but I thought it necessary.)

I wrote all of this in my journal for 1994 and added one more thing.

This isn’t fun any more.

Now, I am well aware, thank you, that God has not promised that leadership in the Kingdom would be easy or all fun and games.  Matthew 10:16ff makes it clear that the faithful may expect to be savaged and ravaged, and believers have no excuse for not knowing this or being prepared.

But sometimes working with the Lord’s people can be quite frustrating.  Even the Lord’s best.

Yes, I know, I know.  Ask Moses.  He is the gold standard for dealing with a carnal, self-righteous, crowd a zillion times as big as any I’ve pastored.  He felt the burden, stumbled a couple of times, but got up and grew stronger, and left a record of steadfastness under pressure and criticism which any of us would envy.

Even so.  Pastors, God bless ’em, have to deal with the offspring of Moses’ bunch.  Sheep can be hard on their shepherd.

Church is no longer “fun” when….

–When you work and plan and promote an event, and only a handful show up.

–You go to great expense to bring in a key speaker, one whose message can transform a church, and few attend.  And those who bothered to come, were critical afterwards.

–When you have a great dream, vision, and high hopes, but no one buys into it. They stare at you like you just blew in from another planet.

–When you bare your soul and share your heart, and they cannot wait for the benediction so they can get home for their favorite TV show.

–When the church is divided, cannot come together on anything, and you are the only one who thinks this is wrong and that unity is a big deal with the Savior.

–When the community is not being reached, no one is coming to Christ, and the baptismal waters have not been stirred in a while, and no one seems to notice. Or care.

Jesus knew the feeling.

He preached and ministered and gave the crowd the meat of the word, and then looked up to see that everyone had gone home.   Looking at the disciples, He said, “Will you go away also?”  (Check out John 6:67)

So, pastor, when you feel that way, remember you’re not the first. Our Lord said you’re no better than He, and that the servant may expect to be treated like the master.  (See Matthew 10:24-25.)

So, pastor, don’t get discouraged and most definitely do not quit.  It’ll be better in time.  But whether the situation improves or not, you have been called for the duration.  Keep your eyes on the Lord, and not on the people.

And–I need to say this–if your poor record at this troubled church is a turnoff to search committees looking for their next leader, keep your eyes on the Lord who sent you here.  A servant stands or falls to his own master. (That’s Romans 14:4 and it’s a keeper.)

Do some things for your own mental well-being, preacher.  If you have a grandchild, block off an hour on your calendar and take them to the park.  Push them on the swing and feed the ducks.  Take them to the zoo.  Take a few days off and go to the beach.  Get up early and walk the shore and pick up shells and talk to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place.  Or go to the mountains.  A few days rest can do wonders for your perspective.

Above all, stay close to the Lord and your spouse.  That is not optional, but absolutely essential.

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