Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
So reads Hebrews 13:17 (NIV). Based on context, we know he is talking about spiritual leaders (some translations say, “they keep watch over your souls”). Let’s be clear about this: We shouldn’t see earthly ministers as infallible or God-like. Jesus told His disciples multiple times that greatness is found in humility. Peter and Paul, James and John, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of our Lord were all petty, insecure, fallen humans just like you and me. For that matter, so is the pastor of your church (especially if you attend First Baptist, Conroe). Therefore, we do not accept their every utterance as the WORD OF GOD. We check their teaching, instead, against the actual Word. We hold them accountable when they fail to live up to their callings. We worship one God, and Him alone.
On the other hand, here and elsewhere in Scripture, we are commanded to treat our spiritual leaders with respect. I love the way the author of Hebrews puts it in the verse above: “Make sure they enjoy leading you; If you make them miserable, it won’t make your life any better.” (my paraphrase) By the way, in case you think the Word of God needs some empirical backing, here’s a relevant quote from an expert on church health: “The length of a pastor’s tenure…was found to have a direct correlation to the health of a church. A church’s likelihood to be healthy was much greater when the pastor had served there between five and 20 years.” Would you like to attend a healthy church? If so, keeping your ministerial staff at your church as long as possible is a good way to make that happen. And ministers who love what they do tend to stay a long time and do a better a job of serving God’s people. So what can a church do to “make their work a joy”?
First, this DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not some passive-aggressive cry for help on my part. In all the categories I will list below, I feel absolutely blessed by my church. However, when I taught on Hebrews 13 recently, I mentioned some ways a church could encourage their ministry staff. I had people ask me to put this in writing so they could remember it and share it with others. So that’s what I’m doing, in hopes it will bless some minister who isn’t as fortunate as me…
Pray for them. Years ago, a good friend called me nearly in tears. Her new pastor was terrible, she said. “He is an awful preacher and doesn’t seem to love us at all. I have a hard time even talking myself into going to church on Sundays. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, either. I’m afraid if he sticks around for long, our church is going to die.” She asked me what to do. I said, “I assume you’re already praying for him, right?” There was a pause. Then, sheepishly, she said, “No, I haven’t been. I guess I’d better start, huh?” It made me wonder: If my friend, one of the more devout people I knew, wasn’t praying for her pastor (who clearly needed it), how many other Christians fail to do this? Friends, pray for your ministers. I could write another blog post about why ministry is so difficult, emotionally draining and spiritually demanding, but take my word for it: Your ministers need daily prayer for wisdom, spiritual power, guidance, joy in their work, and other things specific to their own situations.
Encourage them. Aside from politicians and football coaches, I doubt there is anyone who hears more criticism and complaining about their job performance than ministers. It comes in loud pronouncements in church gatherings; quick, biting comments just before worship begins; gossip that finds its way to their ears (“Pastor, people are saying…”); and the dreaded anonymous notes. No matter how secure your ministers are in themselves and the Lord, that stuff can take the joy out of ministry, fast. They need people to build them up. Try to catch them doing a good job, and point it out to them. Even better: Praise them in front of other people. Best of all: Send them a note of encouragement. Believe me, they will keep that note, and pull it out someday when they feel like quitting.
Love their family. Someday, I’ll write another blog post about why being a minister’s spouse or child is at least as hard as being a minister. But for now, trust me when I say the minister’s wife is often the loneliest woman in the entire church. And the minister’s kids feel a pressure no child should have to deal with. So go out of your way to show love to them. In fact, if you have only enough time and emotional bandwidth to focus on either the minister or his family, choose his family. They need friends, so make sure to include them. They need to feel that the church is their spiritual home, not just the place where mom or dad works. They need to know it’s okay to be themselves. Pray for them as often as you pray for the minister. Take time to do something considerate for them: A note, a gift card, an invitation to a play date, an offer for lunch, free babysitting so Mom can get away. Don’t put unreasonable expectations on them: The minister’s spouse may not want to be involved in your favorite ministry event, and that’s okay. The minister’s little girl may have a screaming fit in the preschool hall on the same Sunday his teenaged son shows up with a purple mohawk; treat them the way you would any other kid who’s far from being emotionally mature. Don’t be offended that the minister’s family has issues, just like yours does. Pray that they would all be thankful God brought them to this church. If they feel loved, it will bless your minister, and he will not want to leave.
Pay them well. It’s not about the money. Really. I don’t know anyone who went into ministry to get rich. And most ministers I know have the skills to make a lot more doing something else. But if the minister and his family are struggling financially while most church members are doing well, it can be discouraging. If it’s been a while since she’s seen a raise, even though the church’s finances are strong, it’s hard not to be resentful.
Get along with each other. Psalm 133 begins with the words, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” God loves it when we get along; so do His ministers. On the other hand, if you want to burn out your ministry staff, force them to constantly grapple with petty conflicts among church members. If you are at odds with someone right now, make things right. Do it because it will please the Lord. It will make your own life less stressful, and it will make your minister’s job easier, too.
Choose your gripes wisely. Earlier, I said ministers hear a lot of criticisms and complaints. I didn’t mean to imply that they should only hear positive comments. After all, a church is a hospital for recovering sinners, and that’s going to be messy at times. What’s more, ministers make bad decisions, miss critical details, or just need to be made aware of certain unstated realities. When I was younger and still fairly new in the ministry, I heard that a woman in my church was in the hospital. I called her on the phone and asked if I could come visit. She said not to worry about it; she was just fine. A few hours later, a man in the church called me. He said, “Pastor, I am telling you this for your own good. No matter what she says, you’d better go visit her. If you don’t, she’ll feel like you don’t care.” I made the visit, and after that, we had a great relationship. I appreciate that man making me aware of what I had no way of knowing otherwise. Consider, before you say something negative out loud, “Is this really necessary? Will this help anyone? Does this address an issue that’s really important?” If the answer isn’t a resounding “YES!” keep it to yourself.
Confront the bullies. Every minister has a bully or two at some point in his ministry. Some have more than one or two. A bully is someone who does everything in his/her power to make the minister’s life miserable: Treating her rudely, criticizing him before others, starting unfounded rumors, complaining about any new idea he attempts, even scheming to get her fired. Why does this happen? Maybe the minister followed someone the bully was loyal to; maybe the minister offended the bully in some deep, personal way; maybe the bully is just emotionally damaged and is taking it out on someone. Often, good people in the church are aware of his actions, but do nothing. Church people tend to be nice; they don’t want to get involved in the affairs of others uninvited. They certainly don’t want to offend a longtime church member by telling him he is out of line. But that’s exactly what they should do. Confronting a bully is an act of love and mercy; love for your minister, who will owe you a debt of gratitude he’ll never be able to repay…but also love for the bully, who needs to read the book of Exodus and remember what happens to people who mistreat a servant of God.
Most of all, love the Lord and His Kingdom. Sadly, I have met dozens of people who once were in vocational ministry, but aren’t anymore. A large percentage of them aren’t even involved in church today. They still believe in Jesus; they just don’t associate with His people anymore. They didn’t leave because of the money, or because they got fired, or because they had some moral failure that disqualified them. By and large, they left because of disillusionment with the Church. They went into ministry with a sense of excitement and idealism; they felt a call from God to change the world. Then they got their first church job, and quickly found that their biggest obstacle wasn’t the village atheist, the cult around the corner or the Devil Himself; it was the people in the pews. They found that otherwise good Christians weren’t really interested in changing the world. At least, not if it meant changing their routine. What they wanted from their minister (“What we pay you for…”) was to be a personal chaplain to themselves and their families, and to efficiently run the church programs they enjoy. I am not trying to denigrate either chaplaincy or church programs. But when a pastor gets criticized by his church because he is spending too much time winning souls in the local prison…when a youth minister who is reaching unchurched teenagers hears more complaints about their clothing than hallelujahs about their salvation…when a music minister is told he cannot start a second worship service designed to appeal to younger people, then is criticized because the church is getting older…when a children’s minister can’t convince long-time church members to volunteer for Vacation Bible School, but she’s still expected to reach young families….they start to wonder why they are in the ministry in the first place (Those aren’t hypothetical examples, by the way. They are all based on ministers I know.). Sadly, many of the best, most passionate and brilliant people who feel called to ministry today start their own churches instead of taking a position at an established church because they don’t want to fight the battle of “We’ve never done it that way before.”
Am I saying that you have to agree with every idea your minister proposes? Of course not. Even if you think his idea is all wrong, recognize what he’s trying to get done. If it has anything to do with loving people, especially people outside the church, help him brainstorm how to do it well, and jump on board the train. Even if the idea fails, thank God that you have a minister who hasn’t lost sight of his calling, who still believes God’s primary work is changing lives. The more you allow–I should say encourage–your ministers to focus on reaching people for Christ, the happier they will be.