How to Care for Your Pastor
by Kent Philpott
"The pastor is growing"
‘Kent, when do you think you will have your emotions under control? I saw you become upset this morning with that question during the Bible study? I am looking for a church that has a pastor who is more assured and in control of his emotions. Sorry, I hope you don’t mind if I keep looking for another church.’
I understood. It had been my hope that by the time I was forty I would be a mature person. Then I thought maybe fifty, then sixty. Now I have given it up. There has been growth, but I have a long way to go.
When pastors are ordained, they are fully equipped to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ. True or false? Why isn’t the answer ‘true’? It is not true because a pastor is growing and changing.
Change is to be expected
Looking back on my life I see I have changed. This is clear to us when we think about our past and compare how we were with how we are. It is probable, however, that we are not fully aware of all the ways in which we do grow. At the least, we grow emotionally, theologically, psychologically, spiritually and physically. It is essential that Christians understand that pastors are growing and changing too. Growth means change, and some changes can surprise us.
Pastors grow emotionally
Ministers grow emotionally. Everyone deals with insecurity and fear, for example. Being one-of-a-kind in a large or even small society can produce painful situations. Over-sensitivity has always been a problem of mine. Probably due to feelings of insecurity, when I am criticized or confronted about my sermons, it can have an impact me. As the years pass, however, the criticisms, negative comments or helpful suggestions have helped me to become a better preacher. Actually, I need the feedback, but I have to be emotionally strong to benefit from it.
One Sunday I preached a sermon on the basics of the second coming of Christ. Later that day I received a phone call from someone who had heard it. I was told that it wasn’t adequate because I’d presented only one side. Admittedly, eschatology is not one of my strong points, yet the criticism hurt. Over the course of the next few months, I had opportunity to read several books on the subject. What my critic had said proved to be true. I had, in fact, presented only a part of the picture. Now I seek to give as balanced an understanding of Christ’s second coming as possible. Though I was hurt at first, I benefitted from the correction.
Parenthood is a job you are only somewhat capable of doing by the time the children are grown and gone. A father or mother doesn’t necessarily know how to be one, and a husband or wife always has a long way to go. Yet, in the Bible we see that a pastor has to be a good father and husband or he shouldn’t be in spiritual leadership. There is a large guilt trap hidden somewhere in there. Church leaders are learning to cope with a myriad of complicated and never-ending family responsibilities, and churches can expect that their pastors will make the same mistakes they do — maybe more.
For me, there seems to be a direct relationship between my ability to minister in the church and my ability as a father and husband. The question is, How much more growing is yet ahead for me? At this point, there is no way of knowing, but I still have a lot of growing to do.
Pastors grow theologically
Theological education, discipleship, leadership training, seminars and conferences are all wonderful, but they cannot teach church leaders all they need to know about the Bible, Christian doctrine and how to lead a congregation.
Years ago at a Christian festival I heard ‘Holy’ Hubert Lindsay of Berkeley speak. That man could recite the whole Bible; he had it memorized from Genesis to Revelation. As I listened to him, I was at once impressed and depressed. Obviously impressed, but discouraged by the fact that I had, at that time, only a few dozen passages committed to memory. I was just learning the Bible. I know more of the Scripture now than I did thirty-five years ago, and I hope to know yet more.
Some of what I learned in the church where I was converted I have dropped or altered. Doctrines I embraced during my seminary years I no longer accept. There were doctrines I stood by rigidly only to find that I am more open now to nuances and differences. Some things I am completely unsure about and rarely even speak of anymore. Do you suppose this is unusual in a preacher?
Over the years, I have not become liberal. If anything, I have become more biblical and Christ-centred than ever before. I refer to myself as an ‘old time gospel preacher’. My great pleasure is to preach Jesus and teach the Word. But I have changed theologically over the years. It has been a great blessing that my dear Miller Avenue Church has given me room to do this without condemning or challenging me. Without fear I can speak openly about biblical doctrines I am examining. Understand that I am not talking about the major doctrines that we see outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, the doctrines that make Christianity distinct from all the world’s religions.
Pastors, however, like anyone else, will interact with the many and various trends that come along, some of which involve and impact biblical theology. Early in my ministry I embraced trendy doctrines without question only to be burned when they fizzled and faded. Each time a movement passed through, I had to examine the theology that went with it — and my theological perspectives would grow and change. This process continues to this very day, but such changes can be unsettling to churches and can even erode the confidence congregations have in their pastors.
There may be changes in theology
Church leaders’ theology will change. It must, since the Bible is hugely complex, and Christian doctrine is so deep and wonderful that it would take many lifetimes to make a significant dent in understanding either one.
Sometimes my theology was shaky, especially during the Jesus Movement, when I was faced with charismatic expressions of Christianity after having earlier been immersed in dispensational theology. I can count four distinct eras of my doctrinal life — the usual for many American evangelicals — because I tended to follow the trends.
The second coming of Christ is a good example of my theological wanderings. I have embraced several models. I was probably right at some point — I just don’t know for sure when! Also, I have moved from an Arminian theology, where human will triumphed over God’s will, to a Reformed viewpoint. For twenty-nine years I was a solid believer in the power of human decision-making; now I see God alone has that prerogative. I changed, and it shocked the congregation. Instead of throwing me out or fighting me every time it could be seen that I was changing views, they supported me. They did not necessarily embrace my new directions, but they struggled with me as I worked through what I had to work through.
Miller Avenue is a rather curious group with some even holding to more Calvinistic theology than myself, some less so, and some amused at my Puritanisms, all the while remaining Arminian in theology themselves. It is indeed a spiritual, theological diversity, and I think this is healthy.
I have known pastors who have changed in some point of theology and have had to resign as a result. Their congregations were not mature enough to work through a very natural and necessary experience or did not have the personal and spiritual security to allow the pastors to work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
I have known pastors who stumbled badly over certain central doctrines but went on to make corrections along solid biblical lines. In each case, the church would have lost an excellent pastor if the congregation had had a rash reaction.
Pastors grow psychologically
It can be conveyed to seminary graduates, either explicitly or implicitly, that they are something special. A congregation desperately looking for a pastor may send a similar message, and it is quite disappointing for pastors to find that instead of being special, they are common. Congregations may be confident that time will whittle away at the preachers and teachers psychologically to make them the people they need to be.
People of God, be warned and be sympathetic — your spiritual leader’s sense of self or ego may undergo change. Having a strong sense of personal worth and security is not easily achieved by anyone, and a pastor must have a considerable amount of both. We remember that the devil is the accuser of our brothers (Revelation 12:10), and the accusations tend to damage our sense of self, stripping us of personal confidence. There have been times when I could barely stand before the congregation because my confidence had been so shaken. Gospel preaching requires spiritual and psychological courage, and a pastor beaten down by the ‘accuser’ may be rendered ineffective. Congregations need to support their ministers with their prayers and practical encouragements, a kind of lifting up of the arms of Moses.
Pastors grow spiritually
After my conversion I read a pamphlet about spiritual disciplines. In it was an account of the devotional life of Billy Graham, a Christian I have always admired. Every day the great evangelist read two chapters of the Old Testament, along with three Psalms and a chapter of Proverbs, then two chapters from the New Testament. Then he would pray; I believe he used a prayer list, too. I copied Billy Graham and held to his system faithfully for many years. As time went on, I developed my own method. Along with Bible reading and prayer, I added a time of worship. For several years during the 1970s, I would spend entire afternoons in worship and prayer. I find I spend much more time in study and preparation for sermons now, and far more time reading good Christian literature.
There have been dry periods with little or no prayer and much less Bible reading. Other times I have had an enormous hunger after God, as if I was freshly in love with God again. The nature of my spirituality has certainly changed, and I think I am more confident in my walk with the Lord than ever before. To an outsider, however, it might not appear that way.
When I was a little boy, God was very big and way, way up there. Now that I am a man, God is still very big and way up there, but through Jesus and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, I have a personal relationship with him, which is still developing and growing.
Since God does not change, it must be that I am changing. I’ve learned that I cannot hide this from the congregation, nor do I want to. Some of my best sermons are embedded in my growing up into Christ and allowing this dramatic and visible sermon to be observed. Pastors see their church members grow up in Christ and the church will see their pastors grow up in Christ as well.
Another biblically-based metaphor, that of running a race, is appropriate. I am running a race: I started well, stumbled a time or two, but have kept my eye on the goal, the upward call of God in Christ. In the grandstands are fans who encourage me, and with the encouragement given to me, I am enabled to encourage others in their races. I hope by his grace to finish the race strongly, with my last days, and especially my dying days, being among my best observable sermons.
Pastors grow physically
I am now sixty-five years old. Some of what I was able to do years ago I can no longer do. Some of what I used to be able to do I still do, but I don’t do it quite as well. Best of all though, some things I did poorly I now excel at. My preaching is stronger, according to some of the church family who have heard me for nearly two decades. My teaching is stronger, as I know more of the Scripture now than ever before. Like a good old piece of hickory wood, I am seasoned, tough and useful.
There may come a time when I will not be able to preach and teach as much or as often as I do now. Those days will come. Miller Avenue is a small church, and I do many tasks, happily and willingly, but I know some of these side jobs will have to be done by others.
Dear friends at Miller Avenue know changes must come and have already begun to talk about how to share the work and spread it out amongst the fellowship, in order to allow me to remain at my primary work. There is talk of my preaching until I am eighty; there are those pastors who do, and even longer. Whether I die in the pulpit or not, I am comforted that the congregation recognizes my aging and have some plans in mind.
Giving the resources to grow
Churches that understand that their leaders are constantly developing emotionally, theologically, psychologically and physically are more likely to provide the freedom and resources to do so.
Pastors love conferences where peers gather for fellowship and teaching. Some of my most significant growth, vertical and horizontal, has come as a result of such ministers meetings. Churches can see to it that their pastors are able to attend these from time to time. Then there are books, magazines and journals, which require money. Pastors may be reluctant to express their need for books. Maybe the church could arrange a sabbatical to attend classes, even earn another degree — the church will benefit too.
Helping to find a mentor, perhaps an older, experienced pastor, can also be valuable. And vacations — vacations are important, and not merely a weekend once in awhile.
If a congregation accepts and understands that pastors change and grow and allows for these processes to take place, the whole experience can be a great blessing to both pastor and congregation.