by Loren Sanford
I meet former pastors almost everywhere I go – men and women who gave everything they had to give and yet found they could no longer carry the burden that came with pastoral leadership. Even among those still in active service, questions like the following reverberate through the wounded heart. When is it ever enough? Have I failed? I’ve poured everything I have and all that I am into the people of the church I pastor, and still the fruit seems so meagre while the quiet criticisms and murmurings pile up. Have my words been twisted by others into things I neither said nor meant and then been passed on to others so many times that I can no longer overcome the judgments that have resulted? Can the damage ever be repaired? Am I such a poor preacher that I cannot win people to Jesus, much less to fellowship? How can I represent Father God and my Savior better? What have I done that is so wrong? Have the people grown tired of me? How can I equip the saints when so many don’t seem to want to be equipped? What must I do to bring them together in real unity in Jesus instead of this constant splintering and relational trouble? Why does it seem that so many just don’t get it? Was I ever really called?
People who have not been in pastoral ministry propose all kinds of solutions, thinking, for instance, that somehow we pastors should be setting boundaries to protect ourselves, as if those boundaries could actually shield us from the hurts and pressures of ministry. In practice this is neither helpful nor practical. When one’s words are distorted and accusations fly, it hurts. No one will ever be immune to the pain of unjust criticism or the stress of dealing with the various relational currents and people problems that flow through the church.
Others naively suggest that if we are truly flowing in the Spirit, we’ll be constantly refreshed and the burden of ministry won’t really be felt. Nonsense! Listen to the apostle Paul! “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves” (II Corinthians 1:8-9). Or this: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves” (II Corinthians 1:8-9). Pastoral ministry remains one of the top three most stressful and taxing professions anyone can take on.
A similar scenario prompted Paul’s letters to his spiritual son, Timothy, pastor of the church in Ephesus. Pressured and criticized by those who wanted to lead the people back to the Law with salvation by works, he found himself worn down wanting to quit. In response, Paul exhorted him to fight the good fight, not to give up or back down (I Timothy 1:18-19). He pled with Timothy to exercise his authority to counter those who would impose burdens on people that God’s grace would alleviate. Thus the battle raged.
People criticized and put Timothy down because of his youthfulness. These things had caused him to fall into a state in which he suppressed or failed to exercise the gifts of the Spirit he had been given. Emotional hurt and external stresses can do that to the best of us, and so the apostle had to say, “Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery” (I Timothy 4:14). And again, in II Timothy, “For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (II Timothy 1:6). Such exhortations became necessary because his fire had nearly gone out under the pressures brought to bear on him.
In the Old Testament, Elijah collapsed in the face of threats from Jezebel as he suffered the effects of long term stress associated with confronting apostate Israel and its kings. He had witnessed the deaths of many of his fellow prophets at the hands of those offended by their calls to remain faithful to God. After calling fire from heaven in the confrontation with the 450 prophets of Baal and then overseeing the slaying of that mob, he fled to the wilderness under threat of death at the hands of the king’s wife. As he hid out in that place, licking his emotional wounds and whining a bit, God confronted him. Elijah responded with an outpouring of complaint from his stressed and broken spirit. “He said, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away’” (I Kings 19:10). Twice he poured out his brokenness in this way until the Lord told him to return, appoint his successor and anoint a new king over Israel.
Never therefore assume that some failure on the part of your pastor has caused his or her wounding and burnout. That may be part of it, but you won’t help by heaping your conclusions upon that brokenness. Unless you’ve actually been there, you won’t know what you’re talking about. Hebrews 13:17-18 holds the answer and the prescription. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things.” There is no such thing as the spiritual gift of criticism. Instead, God honors prayer offered with power, passion and love. Your pastor, any pastor, whoever he or she might be, needs your support, love and prayer. Mistakes will be made. Character flaws will surface. But love works. Prayer lifts. Encouragement empowers. Holy Spirit convicts. Truth spoken in genuine love can be received, while condemnation never changed anyone.