Monday, September 12, 2011

The Pastor's Justification

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.


Jason Wert said...

"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."

OK, I am not a pastor. I feel called into some kind of vocational ministry but I'm not there yet. The result of that is I've gotten to know quite a few pastors and seen the workings of many churches I don't even attend. There's NO way you can stay the things about stress that woman said with any validity.

It may just be my perspective but the role of a pastor is the front of the battle lines with the enemy. You're the point person. That means you take the brunt of the first wave of the fighting. And the second. And the third.

If you don't acknowledge the stress and weight of that then you're a fool.

Anonymous said...

My gospel wakefulness has not been so much a moment as a process. At some point in college a friend started talking to me about Calvinism. I didn't get it, and I objected with all the usual objections until I decided that I think the Bible really does teach it. That thinking led me to Piper and the gang, and ultimately to what I would be glad to call, with you, "gospel wakefulness".

By the way: that's not to equate gospel wakefulness with Calvinism. Only to say that learning Calvinism led me to the gospel since it was Calvinists like Piper who seemed so focused on our total need for Christ.

All that to say this: while I'm no super-pastor, I think I'm right about some basics. I love God's Word. Prayer seems more important to me than methods, even if my sinful heart runs to methods more than to prayer. I love the gospel. I love Christ. When my ministry isn't going well, I'm glad to look at myself (with the help of some godly, loving friends) and ask what I'm doing wrong. But I'm also glad to say that my justification is a man on a cross, not a number of attenders.

But I'm an associate pastor, not a senior pastor. And the senior pastor at my church, well, isn't that gospel-centered and Bible-centered. If I sent him this post right now, when our church that he has pastored for 16 years is struggling, and when I know he is personally struggling with that fact, I think he'd take it as, "Oh yes, it's not my fault. Jesus is my justification, not my ministry." But frankly, I think a lot of it is his fault. So it would be the wrong kind of Get Out of Jail Free card.

But then, he really is a Christian with the same justification on the cross as me. When you're faithful and it isn't going well, this post makes great sense to me. But with the contents of this post in mind, what do we say to the pastors who are truly Christians, but who are nonetheless bad pastors?

You'll understand, I'm sure, my making this comment anonymous.

Dubbahdee said...

I number at least 3 pastors as my good friends, and several others are more than passing acquaintances. I think you are correct to say that members of your vocation live at a unique conjunction of danger. I don't use the word "danger" lightly. I have seen every one of these men, at one point or another, chewed up and ground almost to powder by their work.

As a young man I thought for a time that I had been called to Pastor, but ended up choosing a different path. I think now that my calling is to be a wing-man, a lay confidant and supporter of the pastor. I believe my own pastoral instincts give me a unique insight into what Pastors deal with, and this empathy helps me to befriend and encourage someone in a very lonely and difficult role.

Much of that wing-man role is simply accepting that the pastor is a man first and foremost and being his friend at that level. One of my good friends came to visit me when we were living in a different state. He worshiped with us at our church and got to hear me preach as I substituted for the pastor who was out of town that Sunday. One of my clearest memories of his visit was when he thanked me for simply introducing him to my others by his name, and saying I was his friend. That way he did not have to deal with the inevitable pause and stock reaction that people give when they find he is a pastor.

There is more to write on this, but this is already a long comment. Good post.

Jared said...

Anonymous, you asked: what do we say to the pastors who are truly Christians, but who are nonetheless bad pastors?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "bad pastor." Do you mean that if they repented of sin and/or shored up some weaknesses or areas of growth, they could be competent/good pastors? Or do you mean they are clearly not called/gifted/qualified to be pastors?

In either case, I think, someone ought to love them enough to say hard things in soft ways. I'm not saying it should be you! I'm just saying that protecting one guy's feelings at the expense of a local church's health or good direction is not a wise passivity.

I should have clarified in the post that I am not suggesting that pastors not be evaluated or receptive to constructive criticism and transparency with their elders, leaders, and congregations. We should not use our anxiety about or temptations in or overreaction to criticism to create a force field only "yes men" can penetrate.

So I didn't mean to imply that pastors should never be challenged, rebuked, or exposed to concerns others have, only that a) congregations be sensitive to the peculiar anxiety of good pastors, and, more importantly, b) pastors find their justification not in a good performance review but in Christ alone.

Hope that helps clarify.