How to Care for Your Pastor
by Kent Philpott
"The pastor is a person"
While I was counselling with a young couple, the wife complained about certain behaviours of her husband. All the while he squirmed in his chair and looked miserable. As I listened, it occurred to me that in some respects I was quite like the young man, and eventually I broke in and said so.
Tinged with some annoyance, her immediate response was, ‘I don’t believe it. You’re a minister.’
Many people in our churches do not understand that the pastor is a person, someone not unlike everyone else. In the eyes of the young woman above, I wasn’t a person. I was some kind of little god or perfected saint — someone different, better, unlike the young man she married.
All the common frailties
A pastor is a person and, therefore, has the usual frailties common to the fallen human race. This is no excuse for bad behaviour on the part of a pastor but it is an important acknowledgement that a pastor is a human being. Yes, there is a higher standard that a leader in the church is called to, a trust that is to be honoured, but the pastor is still a person who is growing up into the stature of the fullness of Christ. ‘Sanctification’ is what theologians call this growing up. It is a process that takes all our lives and is never complete this side of being face to face with God in heaven, when we will be no longer looking through a glass darkly.
Jesus as a person
Christians are sometimes amazed at some of the descriptions of Jesus they stumble upon in the Gospels. The four evangelists show him as being weary, hungry, thirsty, sorrowful and angry. It can be difficult to accept Jesus as a man when we know that he is God, albeit the God-man. The church leader, though not God in any sense, can also be weary, hungry, thirsty and much more — mad, hateful, frustrated and unloving. In fact, pastors are vulnerable to any sin imaginable. It can accurately be stated that every minister, priest, pastor, indeed every leader in Christ’s church, is a sinner.
Peter, that great patriarch of the church, was a man and a sinner. After the great confession, ‘You are the Christ’, came the denials. He became a pillar in the church at Jerusalem, but Paul rebuked him for compromising the gospel of grace. What are we to think of Peter the great apostle? He was a sinner just like every other person who has ever been called into the Kingdom of God, neither inerrant nor infallible.
A moment of shame
I was surprised to find that a minister from another city had made an appointment with me. His name was familiar, and I didn’t think too highly of the church he pastored. Of course, he didn’t know what I thought. But he wanted to talk to me, and due to the fact that we were not close, I guessed whatever it was he wanted to talk about must be of some importance to him.
As the appointed hour grew near, the more expectant and excited I became. Was I going to find that this pastor was having trouble with his church? It was as though I was about to experience a personal triumph. Compassion, love, prayerfulness — none of these entered my heart or mind. When I recall the incident, I am still embarrassed about my reaction.
‘How are you doing?’ was my opening line. This pastor, who was older than me just nodded. He sat down and stared at the floor. His red eyes told me he’d been crying. Guilt feelings surged through me and every ounce of my one-upmanship drained away. As far as I remember, I’ve not shed a tear since I was twelve, but I almost did then. The story he related is by now one I am used to hearing. His church had become a great burden. Attendance was way down, as were the offerings. People were grumbling; he was straining and striving, and ready to give up on himself. And he had come to me, a fellow brother in Christ who was glad of the thought of gaining something over him. After he talked, I talked. Softly and haltingly I told him how I’d felt about the appointment and asked him to forgive me. It was hard to do, and I probably would have hid it from him had he not been in such a pitiable state.
Here were two pastors, two sinners, who felt nothing like perfected saints. I wasn’t even feeling ‘Christian’, nor had I acted like one, until God changed my attitude. Is this usual? No! Can Christian leaders really act this way? Yes! Why? Because they are human beings.
Feet of clay
A pastor lives life as anyone else, facing the process of aging, physical illness, marital problems, troubles with the kids, misunderstandings with the neighbours, cars breaking down, being overweight, being uncertain about the future, and so on. Time and life invariably expose the limits of our strength and ability and will without fail reveal that our feet are made of clay.
A few pastors I have known chose to distance themselves from the people they served. Yes, there is something to be said for being aloof and inaccessible. It is possible, though not very authentic, to hide behind titles, vestments and false impressions. Some of us simply have a difficult time being known as the human beings we are. We want to transcend our limitations and at least pretend to be more than we are. We want to be liked, approved and esteemed. Perhaps it is the pastors ourselves or the aura of the office, handed down through the centuries, that creates the distance between pastor and congregation and indirectly contributes to an exaggerated sense of the pastoral ministry. If people think pastors are more than human, maybe pastors are partly at fault.
Some pastors who have come to realize that they are being suffocated trying to live the perfect life act out in various ways, intending to prove to everyone that they are just human beings like the rest of the congregation. I have known some rather awkward efforts by church leaders to accomplish this. Some took up smoking, drinking and other even more dangerous behaviours — all to convince or warn others that they were just regular people. (This would call for exceptional caring for congregations.) Most often passing quickly but embarrassingly, such conduct will sometimes convincingly prove that pastors have feet of clay, or something even less honourable.
The clay metaphor as applied to ministers of the gospel comes from 2 Corinthians 4:7: ‘But we have this treasure (the gospel of the glory of Christ) in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’ Pastors are jars of clay; they need to know it, and their congregations need to know it as well or the glory will be misplaced, credited to people rather than to our glorious Christ. Proper appreciation of this means better health for both pastor and congregation.
God does not need superstars; he wants real people who are committed and obedient to him. Being who we are allows God to make us who he wants us to be. Because of who God is and the love he pours out on us, we can be who we are and allow those who minister to us to be who they are.
Part of caring for pastors involves coming to grips with their humanity, their fallen nature, their struggles to grow up into Christ, and their failures and limitations. This certainly is how church members want their pastor to relate to them. Remember that wonderful golden rule: do to others as you would have done to you. Of course, this does not mean accepting, excusing or tolerating bad behaviour or, as it is sometimes expressed, it does not turn the congregation into co-dependents. It also does not mean shunning, rejecting and disrespecting a pastor when things are not going well or even are going terribly.
God is a miracle-working God, a God who can bring glory out of the worst situation, and God is not a God who gives up on people, even pastors. Pastors may need to be pastored from time to time, without their knowing it maybe, by mature brothers who know what it is to be human, a saint and a sinner all at once.
For further thought . . .
1. How do you view pastors? Are they different?
2. Do you recall a time when a pastor cared for you?
3. What meant most about that ministry to you?
4. Can you pastor a pastor?