Tag Archives: pastor

The Pastor’s Travail

In Galatians 4:19, you can hear Paul’s words of angst about the Galatian church. They had fallen into legalism, which Paul described as being deceived into choosing a state of slavery. In this passage Paul says, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (ESV). This is an excellent picture of the pastoral condition.

While it would be inaccurate to describe Paul as the pastor of the Galatian church, he does have a pastor’s heart for them. Remember that “pastor” comes from the word for shepherd. It is someone who leads people from one place or condition into another, by example and guidance. So, while Paul did not hold an office of “Pastor,”[1] he does express the heart experience of all good pastors.

In Paul’s statement, he speaks of being in the anguish of childbirth. He had addressed them as little children. This idea of anguish involved in childbirth would be very well known to the ancients. It was not uncommon for women to die from the exertion and complications of childbirth. All people understood this. Also, since there was little privacy in ancient homes, and children were born at home, most if not every individual would have heard or seen the travail of a woman in the throes of labor. Paul draws upon this shared experience to illustrate his own personal experience in dealing with their wayward behavior.

Think for a moment of this image which Paul uses. I’m a husband and father. I have watched my wife labor with four children.[2] Now, I know the worst thing a husband can do is imagine he understands what she is going through.[3] But we can see and understand that great pain and suffering is involved. We also understand that there is great promise as well. Push, struggle, strain, suffer and in time a new life is brought forth. This is what Paul is speaking of. This is also the common lot of the pastor of any church.

The pastor sees what God wants his people to be. He has been tasked with bringing forth the fruit of that, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. He sees what should be, while also seeing what is. He knows the great work that is needed and the great travail that will be involved. He struggles and strains to inspire, to teach, to transform. Of course, true transformation comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, but one tool used by the Spirit is the pastor. As just as the wrench in my hand must be tempered to take the strain of a stuck bolt, the pastor must be tempered to take the strain involved in transforming fellow sinners into saints.

The life of a pastor is often marked with depression. He is taught to keep his eyes on what should be. He is taught to expect the miraculous. But he also experiences the failures. He is with people when they confess their failures. He is there when his people reap the whirlwind because of their sin. He is there when people question his teaching. He is there when people demand he stop calling them to holiness and only speak to them of nice things. He sees them kicking against the goads, and knows (from his own experiences and studies) that discipline will be brought to bear upon God’s wayward sheep.[4] He also knows, as under-shepherd, the Chief Shepherd may task him and the other elders with enacting and enforcing the discipline. The pastor’s heart breaks. He struggles and strains expecting final fruitful delivery often to only find himself anticipating the next spiritual contraction.

This struggle is the spiritual basis for the authority which a pastor (elder) wields. The author of Hebrews tells the church to submit to the elders because the elders are working so hard for the people’s own good. They should not make it harder on them, because that would be self-destructive (Heb 13:17).

Paul gives vent to the struggle of every pastor. It is a life of travail to bring forth fruit in the lives of their people. It has its own benefits, of course. But it also has unique problems. How many times have you lost sleep over the spiritual condition of someone who was not even your own kin? I can assure you ever good pastor in this country does this regularly. He prays for you. He seeks to model the Christ-life at all times—failing miserably as often as you. But when he fails he worries about the effect on you. He sees where you are and where Christ wants you to be. He bears very heavily the weight of duty to do his best to get you from here to there. His life is defined by a powerful contradiction. When you are transformed and become more like Christ, the pastor declares it was only by the work of the Holy Spirit. But when he sees you untransformed he doesn’t place blame upon the Holy Spirit and only places part of the blame upon you. The lion’s share of the blame for your failings, the pastor takes upon himself.

[1] In the first century, there was no office of Pastor. The two offices in the local church were elder and deacon. Pastor/shepherd was a gift given for the transformation of God’s people into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

[2] I saw three born, because one was delivered by C-Section because of being breech.

[3] The only thing worse thing he can do is say that he understands what she is going through while she is in a full-on contraction. Take my advice—just don’t go there! I promise you I’ll never do that again.

[4] Scripture uses the image of sheep for the people of God for good reason. Sheep can be very docile and obediently follow a shepherd from location to location. But the same creature can also put itself into the stupidest, dangerous situations then bawl for help. Sheep kick, butt with their heads, bite and stink. There is no better metaphor for the Church and the people who populate her.


Bad Choices

Recently I’ve been doing some reading in one of my preferred areas of study: Ethics. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, is an interesting study on the choices we make that do not line up with our ethical views and why these choices happen.

I found it most interesting that many individuals if asked to predict how they would behave when faced with a certain choice would pick the option lining up with their ethics (what they should do), but when facing the actual choice they will often choose the opposite (what they want to do). Then, after the choice and the situation has passed, that same individual realizing the dissonance between their ethics and their actions will reinterpret the situation to justify their action.  In this way they follow what they know to be unethical, then remake it to look ethical.

One problem the authors point out is that when simply discussing scenarios most people quickly realize they are facing an ethical question, but when facing an actual life scenario they fail to recognize the ethical dimension of their choices. It is easier to weigh the ethics when not faced with the actual choice—when the ethical determination is simply a theoretical exercise with no actual cost.

This got me thinking about the choices churches make, never realizing what they have actually chosen. Often we justify our choices as wise, as stewardship, as honoring God, when they are actually abusive, uncaring, and divisive.

I’ve spent years as a pastor (usually going into a church after the previous pastor made a horrible choice). I have also counseled many of my fellow pastors when facing bad choices being made by themselves or their congregations.  As I mention these, understand I am not going to say what church or pastor did what. Please don’t assume I am speaking about my church or about any particular church. Also understand that I write this, not to condemn or judge, but to get people to dig a bit deeper under the surface, step back and look at choices with fresh eyes. If a congregation or pastor could foresee what choices they could face in the future, and what could tempt them to make the wrong choice, then they can be better prepared to recognize both the ethical dimension of the choices, and see the choices for what they truly are.

I know of one church where the pastor worked multiple jobs to take some stress off the church finances. He did this because the church had a mortgage that it really couldn’t afford, but by supplementing his salary, the pastor enabled the church to pay it down sooner. He felt strongly that the church was worth it and wanted to enable them to do more with the resources God gave them. At one meeting where the church board was speaking about the growing income and the decreasing mortgage balance, the pastor in passing said, “Let me know when you think the church can afford for me to go full-time and I’ll quit my other jobs.” One of the elders responded, “Well, you should be able to be full-time on what we pay you now, depending on how you live.” This pastor felt stung. It was his sacrifice that permitted the church to do what they were doing. He used his jobs for outreach and the church was growing. By having those jobs the church did not have to pay the pastor enough to support his family on the local economy. Yet, the elder was saying the pastor should be happy with a standard of living that the elder himself would have found unlivable. Churches often make choices on pastoral compensation based on the idea: “Well. It is a calling. If you serve God, then he will provide for you.” They then see it as an excuse to not support the pastor sufficiently—to abdicate their responsibilities in that area. They forget that the Lord does promise to provide for his servants. He promises to support the pastor/teacher/elder, but he promises to do it from the giving of the local church—from the wealth with which he blesses that congregation. Using “calling” and an unscriptural view of “providence” to justify forcing those who serve the church the most to raise their families on the least is at best an affront to the God who called the pastor.

I know another church where the board constantly fought the pastor. One day, an elder got some strange ideas about the pastor and put a chain and padlock on the church doors so that no one (especially the pastor) could get into the building without the elder being there. The elder believed he was protecting the church from a pastor he did not trust. In reality he was protecting his own power and from then on the church was known as “the church with the chain on the door.” In discussions with this elder he gave many justifications to support his choice to lock the pastor out of his own church.

Many churches are divided into factions. Each group seeks to have authority and exercise it over the others. They will be rife with party spirit and each make decisions not on what will glorify the Lord, and fulfill his will for the church. They make decisions based on what will keep them and their party in authority and then, after the fact, twist their reasoning to justify their behavior. I’ve seen such in operation in worship format, in building improvements, in benevolence giving, in outreach strategy.  Even the most holy of activities, as worshipping the Lord, become ammunition for these people. Let me ask you a question. Do you think God listens to the worship of his people and actually says, “I prefer when they worship me with that type of song and don’t really like when they worship me with the others.” Many will say, “But I don’t get anything out of (insert type of music) and get much more from (insert other type of music).” That is the problem. You falsely imagine that worship is intended for you to “get something from it.” Worship is intended as an opportunity to worship and bless God. He could not care less if you chant to him or rap to him. Before you think I am beating up on the traditional music folks with this, I have seen worship leaders, pastors, congregants, on both sides using music to beat up their opposition. This is not honoring to God, when you dishonor those Jesus died to save. Doing this is unethical regardless of the style of worship you are defending.

We’ve all been in churches where any noise from anyone—especially a child—receives stern looks from others. When you choose to glower at a young mother who is struggling to keep her toddler quiet, you do it with the hope they will see your face and choose to keep their child quiet. Do you really want to send the message: “Your child is not welcome here”?  In one church, I had a couple elderly women come to me to complain, “Don’t their children know how to behave in church?” I knew the family and responded, “They’ve never been in a church before so how are they to know?” I told them to give them time and be patient because the parents were seeking and we didn’t want to make their children unwelcome just because they didn’t act like these two elderly women imagined their own children did. It is funny just how much of our own children’s behavior we forget. We imagine that our own children never made any noise or never misbehaved in church and then judge parents because their children do not act like the perfect examples we imagine our own children to have been. When we do this we are choosing to send a message that children are not welcome—at least not those who act like children. We would never say it outright, but that is because we are more comfortable with a politely silent lie, than a spoken one.

Years ago, I heard about a church served lovingly by a pastor and his wife for over thirty years. They had always lived in a parsonage and lived on low income to sacrifice for the service of the church. One day the pastor died, rather suddenly. The church board notified the widow, shortly before the funeral, that she had thirty days to vacate the parsonage. In their mind, this was just good stewardship. They only had one parsonage and couldn’t pay enough for the next pastor to rent a home, so they needed her out. The problem is that the pastor and his wife were probably in that situation because of the church’s twisted view of stewardship. We are to be stewards of what is truly important to God—the people he redeemed. We are to use the world’s wealth to care for people. This is an example of a church who thought it was the money in the bank account that mattered most to God. Such a twisted view is not as uncommon as you might hope.

One bad choice people and churches make is often found in memorials. One day a friend was showing me around his church facility. It appeared everything had little brass plaques attached showing in whose name they had been given. When a person gives such things they are giving with strings attached. Heaven help the pastor who tries to remove grandma’s memorial organ, or grandpa’s memorial pew from a small country church. The thing takes the place of the beloved person and must then be treated with the same respect as the person. I told him that I felt sorry for him because if he ever decided to remodel he would be deemed guilty of throwing out Grandma or Grandpa rather than an outdated piece of furniture. Are you giving to your church to bless the kingdom or to trumpet your generosity?

There is one other type of church choice that is too common. It too can be rooted in bad stewardship concepts or in any other number of areas. This happens when a church makes a decision that will hurt another person—often the pastor. When a church knows they can have A or B, but not both, choosing either means preferring it over the other. If the church chooses A, then that means they value it more than B. If they choose B, then they prefer B to A. I’ve seen churches take actions that will require the pastor to leave—one example is a choice that favors the building over the pastor. When they do this the church is showing the pastor that they prefer the building to the pastor.

If your choice or action is unethical, it doesn’t honor God to twist the facts afterwards to make up for it. The only thing that can be done is repent, as forgiveness and make amends.


Shut the Church Doors?

This morning, in my devotional time, I’ve been reading from a very familiar passage (Malachi 1:10f). This passage, in the NIV reads:

“’Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

This passage is heard repeatedly throughout the Christian Church as a call to give to God the best that we have, rather than trying to cheat by giving less than our best. However, while reading it this morning I was struck with a very different perspective. The problem with the usual application is that the passage is not speaking to the one bringing the offering to the temple. It speaks to the ones whose job is to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the giver—the priests. In 1:6d we read: “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.” Then, after the passage we are looking at, the Lord continues, “And now this admonition is for you, O priests.”

The priests were receiving crippled and diseased offerings from the people. Rather than inspecting them properly and refusing these offerings they are receiving them. Doing this, of course, encourages others to do likewise. So, this makes me wonder why the priests would do this. Why would the priests accept what is not acceptable?

You have to understand that there were several offerings given through the ritual calendar year. However, most of these offerings either went to the upkeep of the priesthood—the food and money to support them and their families—or were shared as a meal between the priest and the giver. A portion of most offerings went to the priests themselves. Like most human behavior we can best understand it by understanding the self-interest of the people involved. How would this work for the self-interest of the priests? Tied to this self-interest is the old adage of “follow the money.”

When a person looked through their herd to find an offering, they knew it was going to cost them. The cost would be relative to the animal selected. For example, offering a heifer with many more years of potential breeding would cost far more than offering the old tired bred-out cow which would likely never have another healthy calf—if she did breed again the chances are high she and the calf may both be lost at calving. One costs years of future wealth and the other only costs one cow at the end of a lifetime of returns. If a herdsman had two calves, one with a twisted leg, more likely to be taken by predators, and the other healthy, giving the healthy one costs more and leaves the herdsman with a chance of more loss after giving—which requires a greater deal of faith.

This adds an interesting dynamic. When giving costs more we tend to give less—staying much closer to what is the minimum requirement. When it costs less, we can give more of a lesser value which encourages giving more. If herdsmen can meet their religious duty and look good in the community while still clearing their herds of the unwanted and unprofitable stock, they are likely to give more. This is where the self-interest of the priests comes in, and inspires the Lord’s rebuke. If the priests just look the other way, they get more. If they permit a lesser quality offering they get more. Meat is meat. If the herdsman can give three cows when he otherwise would have given only two, the priest is enriched.  All that would matter to the priest is that the meat would still be good after the animal is sacrificed. This is a much lower standard. The priest is looking at the sacrifices according to their benefit to themselves rather than their honor to the Lord.

Now, let’s apply this today. We no longer offer animal sacrifices. Christ’s sacrifice was the final offering of this kind. Our sacrifices today are good deeds done in the flesh and this includes offerings given to the Lord’s service and the expansion of his kingdom. What is in the self-interest of today’s “temple staff”? I am speaking of the vocational minister—the modern professional pastor. Larger offerings provide larger salaries. I am not decrying salaries or vocational ministry. However, we can all be tempted to do what is necessary to bring in those larger offerings, not because it benefits the kingdom, but because it benefits us. When this happens the kingdom is despised, while the pastor profits.

Larger offerings are easier with larger crowds. In this way each may give less value, but more is received and the pastor’s ‘market value’ and salary grows. Malachi’s charges are lived out in the modern church by the pastor who waters down the Word; who accepts less holiness from his people; who makes discipleship as soft as possible; who would rather pat his people on the back than call them to repentance. Such churches pack in the people. Such churches gather in large offerings and pay huge salaries. But is it possible Christ would rephrase the words of Malachi 1:10a as, “Oh, that one of you would shut the church doors…”?

I don’t want to go too far with the pastor/priest comparison. The priests of the New Testament are all the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). But should this make the words of Malachi 2:7 apply any less to today’s pastor?

“For the lips of the [pastor]ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord almighty.”

We must never accept lesser from ourselves than what God demands.