And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
-- 2 Corinthians 11:28
There is a way to superhero-ize the pastor, to elevate him in ways that make Viola and Barna on to something. And then there are ways to diminish him, to dishonor his office as if it is "nothing special."* Neither swing of the pendulum is healthy or honorable.
As we question whether God really said that elders who rule well should be considered worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17), we ought not forget that the average, ordinary pastor is constantly aware that with double honor comes double responsibility (James 3:1). The good pastor is a fellow who feels the weight not just of his own neediness for Jesus but yours as well. He is typically the one fellow who loses sleep at night because of what's happening (or not happening) in the church. While you worry about yourself and your family and your friends, he worries about himself, his family, his friends, and everybody else's selves, families, and friends. There is the daily pressure on him of his anxiety for the church. Good pastors feel this.
It is for this reason that the author of Hebrews instructs us, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you."
My friend Matt became a statistic yesterday. I don't put it that way to dehumanize or depersonalize Matt and his decision. But his experience is unfortunately very common. This is the crushing reality of the sheer weight of the pastorate on a soft, eager, humble heart. It is not good that Matt could not emotionally and financially remain a pastor, but it is good that he had the courage to do what many pastors do not -- protect his family and himself.
The peculiar sanctified anxiety that accompanies the pastorate is a place of vulnerability, an opportunity for the Accuser to do his thing. Matt writes, "For some of you, this is unfathomable. Part of your lack of being able to understand comes from you just not knowing everything. There are variables and arcs of the story few know . . . For others, you think the height of spirituality is being a vocational pastor." These are voices singing Satan's greatest hits.
Last month I was discussing with an acquaintance about the sobering statistics of men leaving the pastorate. She had zero sympathy. They should just suck it up. Don't be pastors if they don't want to be pastors. Do something else. Why would it be difficult anyway? It's not like a real job with real stresses. I was offended, but I didn't know her well enough to care about making sure she knew that. And, as Matt says, her "lack of being able to understand comes from just not knowing everything."
I am working on a breakout session for the upcoming LEAD Conference on the pastor's justification, so I've been thinking about this a lot. This is an issue near and dear to my heart, as I think it ought to be for every pastor. We are in the enemy's crosshairs in a special way. He may use the way some idolize pastors to appeal to our pride. He may use the way some defer to pastors to appeal to our sense of power and control. But most often -- and I really believe this -- he appeals to the anxiety we feel for the church, the gnawing sense of inadequacy in our souls, the pressure and stress of growing the church and meeting the budget and making sure all are visited and called and discipled, and "Did you hear what Sister So-and-so said about what your wife said in Sunday School last Sunday?," and on and on it goes, in order to flat-out level us emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Since childhood I have had a tape that plays in my head. It says over and over, "You're only as good as what you haven't done." Since my moment of gospel wakefulness I don't hear it as often, or when I do, I can silence it with the gospel. But sometimes it comes back strong in my moments of weakness and fear. In my moments of anxiety it sounds loudest.
Tonight I have my annual evaluation. There's no particular reason why I ought to be nervous about it. Our church takes very good care of us. I read the statistics and feel blessed. I get great feedback every week about my sermons. Our church is growing numerically and, better yet, spiritually. We have no wealthy people in our church and many are struggling in this terrible economy, but our people are generous and sacrificial, and so our offerings almost weekly exceed our budgeted need. We are months ahead of budget for the year. People are serving, reaching out, showing enthusiasm about God's mission. All indications are that we are doing well. And if you're judging a pastor's leadership on the church's health, relatively speaking I ought to feel very secure. But there's something about being evaluated, isn't there? The spotlight shows everything, not just the bright stuff. What about what I haven't done?
What do we do with this, pastors? Where do we get our sense of worth from? It could all go away tomorrow, you know? (I say to my leadership, if you give me credit for the increase, you will give me blame for the decrease, so let's just credit God, how 'bout?)
Pastor, will we seek justification in our reputation? In our church's numbers and figures? In our re-tweets and links? In our podcast downloads? In a book deal or speaking engagement? In our own sense of a job well done? This is sand.
Or will we look up and out, away from ourselves, away from the fickle fellowship, away from Satan's stupid boombox and its accusatory tapes on repeat, up to the right hand of the Father, where our righteousness sits, firm fixed eternal? There is your justification, pastor, perfect and big, bigger than you and better than you but bled and bought for you and birthed in you, yours irrevocably, sealed and guaranteed through both your successes and your failures, the pats on your back or the knives in your back. There is your justification, there in Christ, and because in him there is no shadow of turning, you are utterly, totally, undeniably justified.
* I thought of this the other day when perusing a discussion on Facebook about a church putting a pastor's name on the sign. The consensus appeared to be that this was prideful. I didn't weigh in but I'd like to offer a different perspective. When I moved to Vermont to assume the pastorate of Middletown Springs Community Church, I was asked how I would like my name to appear on the church sign. I replied that I preferred that my name not be on the sign. I had the same concerns about appearances of pride and the like, you see. And I don't own the church, and I don't want the church to be equated with me, etc. I thought this was a humble thing to do, and I don't mean that I felt that pridefully. It came back to me that my request had perhaps confused and hurt a few people. They were proud of me, glad to have me as their pastor. Why would I not want to identify myself on the sign? Was I ashamed of them? Of course I wasn't, and I made sure people knew that, but now I had another view of the thing. My church wanted to honor me. And I wanted to deny them that desire out of some self-serving need to not be honored. I am sure that some pastors like their names on signs and parking spots (which I don't have, by the way) and the like for sinful reasons, but in some cases, churches are just trying to show honor to their leaders. And that's biblical.