“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 threw this one in my direction.
She gave me her own ideas. “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 to that is not far different from the response most other pastors would give: 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 –it doesn’t get any better than that.
You are 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….
–One. 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 takes no prisoners, and gets its satisfaction if the object of the poison decides to drive off a cliff. When he does something suicidal, the gossip moves to warp speed.
Such meanspirited behavior surprises 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 was blindsided and does not have a clue how to respond. In most cases, he does nothing because how does one combat gossip?
–Two. In two of the seven churches I served, I felt abandoned by a few key leaders who should have stood up for their pastor when the wolves began howling. Because they were peacemakers rather than confronters, they were to tell me later, they were not constitutionally able to face up to my attackers.
My own opinion is they were suddenly taken by an attack of yellow fever: they were cowards. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to men of great influence and powerful personalities in a small room.
Interestingly, the attack itself from some in the church, while no fun at all, is not what this point is about. As bad as that was, what made it far worse was when people who knew better kept their silence and left the pastor twisting in the wind.
Now, not everyone did. I still smile at something a very young deacon named David did. When a little group of deacons began rising in chorus to blame me for the church’s ills and to ask for my resignation, the newest deacon in the room rose to his feet. He turned to Paul’s epistle to Timothy, the first one, and read from his description of a worthy pastor in chapter 3.
David would read a phrase, “He must be above reproach,” look around at the roomful of deacons, most 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.
I was stunned at his courage and infinitely blessed by 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.
–Three. 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!
It was awful. But it had its own rewarding moments.
I had the privilege of sitting there for several 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.
As 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.”
–Four. 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 much, 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?”
–Five. 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.
The worst experience?
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 where we were discussing conflict in the church, I reminded these future pastors and missionaries, “There’s a reason the Lord calls people to 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.