Introduction to Part 1:
Take care of my sheep
This first part of The Pastors’ Manual deals with what it means to be a pastor. Jethro’s first advice to Moses is: ‘You must be the people’s representative before God’ (Exodus 18:19). The pastor is called to carry his congregation to God in prayer and at the same time represent God to the church. This is a special position, in which the pastor speaks on behalf of both the church and God. The pastor’s entire life is marked by this responsibility. In this book we will look at how this ministry affects his spiritual life and his daily existence. We will also consider the task itself, typical pitfalls, and how to persevere as a pastor. While reading and studying this chapter, never forget the promise of our Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5:24: “The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it”!
The pastor as a shepherd
The best-known Biblical image of a spiritual leader is that of a shepherd. The Bible often speaks of shepherds. Abel was a shepherd. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds. Moses herded goats for 40 years. David was a full-fledged shepherd. Jesus called Himself ‘the good shepherd’. Peter was referred to by Jesus as ‘shepherd of the church’. And finally, in the epistles, those leading the church are also called shepherds. A pastor guides and nourishes the church the way a shepherd feeds his flock. So in order to discover Biblical guidelines for pastors, we must look at what a shepherd does.
I have often stood watching a shepherd as he slowly leads his large flock of sheep across the heathland. It looks pretty easy-going. He walks ahead of his sheep at an easy pace. When he reaches a patch of heath that needs grazing, he positions himself on higher ground, leaning on his staff. From a distance being a shepherd looks like an easy, undemanding job.
It wasn’t until I once attended a ’shepherding demonstration’ put on for the public by a shepherd and his dog – a real English Border Collie – that I began to understand how hard those two have to work to keep the flock together and to lead them to the right places. Their apparent serenity hides a constant watchfulness. The shepherd has to be on the alert all the time, scanning his animals and the surroundings. He has to keep an eye on the weather and the time of the sunset. He has to know which areas need grazing on a partciular day and which don’t, in order to effectively manage the vegetation in the longer term. He has to monitor the flock to know which sheep are strong and which are weaker, and which of the sheep are ready for lambing. He has to be able to see whether newborn lambs are going to make it on their own or need help. He has to provide sufficient water. Particularly in the lambing season, he lives with the flock night and day. He loves his sheep and will do anything for them. The sheep, in turn, know him and follow him, no matter where he leads them. Not that they all follow spontaneously all the time – some wander off, others get hurt and occasionally there is trouble between flock members. But at the end of the day, the shepherd makes sure the whole flock safely gets back to the fold.
As I consider the work of a shepherd, the words of Psalm 23, the shepherd’s psalm, come to mind. The amazing thing about this Psalm is that it is a song about God’s shepherding qualities: ’The LORD is my shepherd.’ David knew exactly what he was singing about. Shepherding was in his blood. As a seasoned shepherd praising the shepherdry of his Lord, he powerfully summarises what God the Shepherd does for him: ‘I lack nothing.’ This neatly sums up what a shepherd is supposed to do: make sure the sheep lack nothing. Next, David considers rest and receiving what one needs, as he sings in verse 2: ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures.’ God the Shepherd supplies new strength and spiritual nourishment. In His presence, the psalmist asserts, goodness and love will always abound.
These things are what shepherding is all about and should be all about for every person to whom the care of God’s church has been entrusted in His name. So the first priority of every pastor is to give rest to those entrusted to him. Urging and admonishing don’t come first, but giving rest in God’s presence comes first. From that place of rest and deep trust all other things that must be said and done appear in their proper perspective. Leading people towards this rest in God can be done through preaching, teaching and personal counseling. Most people regularly pass through dark valleys in their lives, and our job as a pastor is to give them rest and to supply them with spiritual food and water, so that their strength is renewed. This rest is the restfulness of a child, as described by David in Psalm 131: ‘I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother.’ Paul speaks of this rest in Romans 8:35: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’
Following all their many wanderings in life, a pastor always leads his church members back to the quiet waters and the green pastures of the forgiveness of sin, and the tender mercies of Christ. How wonderful it is to sit
together at the feet of Jesus. To stop labouring, toiling and achieving and instead to receive and to consciously experience God’s presence. This is the rest every believer may enjoy; it is a place to which the pastor may often lead his ’harassed and helpless’ flock. As a pastor, always make this a priority in everything you do. Keep asking yourself: ’How can I guide the believers entrusted to my leadership towards the restfulness of living with Jesus?’
Good and bad shepherds
The Bible gives us beautiful descriptions of the pastor’s role as a good shepherd. But it also speaks of bad shepherds. In Ezekiel 34:7-10, God is deeply angry with the bad shepherds who should have been leading the flock of Israel in His name. ‘My shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock’ (verse 8). This is the greatest danger facing both the shepherd and the flock: that the shepherd, and not the flock, starts to take centre stage. This is not God’s view of things. In the rest of Ezekiel chapter 34, God clearly outlines the tasks of a shepherd. A good shepherd rescues his sheep from all the places where they are scattered on a day of clouds and darkness (verse 12). He searches for the lost, brings back the strays and has them lie down (verse 15). He binds up the injured and strengthens the weak (verse 16). He judges between one sheep and another (verse 22). This is how God takes care of His people, like a good shepherd. And He wants every shepherd who leads people in His name to do the same. If they don’t, God gets rid of them and appoints other shepherds who will serve the sheep the way He wants them to (verse 23). So we see that there are clear differences between a good shepherd and a bad one.
When Jesus uses the image of a shepherd to discuss spiritual leadership in John 10, He, too, makes a distinction between good and bad shepherdry. He does so in response to the Pharisees, who have confronted him after he has healed a blind man. Previously, the Pharisees had decided that anyone who acknowledged Jesus as Lord would be put out of the synagogue and out of the Jewish community (9:22). But the healed man ignores their decision, honours Jesus for his healing and then, in fact, gets thrown out of the synagogue (9:34). Jesus hears about it and quickly finds the man, who soon comes to faith in Him. Then Jesus explains the difference between how the Pharisees have treated the man and how He Himself has treated him. He compares it to the difference between a hired hand and a good shepherd (John 10:10-15). A hired hand works for money, for his own gain, he says. When the sheep are in danger, he abandons them, showing that he doesn’t care about them. His own wellbeing is more important to him than that of the sheep.
A good shepherd’s behaviour is just the opposite, says Jesus in verse 11: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ That’s what David did when his father’s flock was attacked by wild animals: he chased away the lion or the bear (1 Samuel 17:34-35). It’s what every good shepherd would do. As a good shepherd, you’ll do anything to protect the flock. At this stage, Jesus points to Himself: He is the good shepherd who will lay down his life for his flock (verse 17). Only a real shepherd will be truly followed by his sheep. Because he is always with them, shares his life with them and will do anything for them, they know his voice and follow him. God is just such a shepherd and His son Jesus is just such a shepherd. And He wants every person who leads His church in His name to be just such a good shepherd. The words Jesus used to commission Peter when appointing him as a pastor apply to every pastor: ’Take care of my sheep’ (John 21:16).
Leading the church, then, is identical to shepherding God’s flock. Once you’ve grasped this, you know what your assignment is in the church. You know the difference between a good and a bad shepherd. You have the greatest shepherd of all as your example. And in His name and strength you may be a pastor, a shepherd.
There is immense encouragement for pastors in the words Peter writes towards the end of his epistle about shepherding: ’Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7). The truth that applies to every other child of God applies to the pastor as well: the Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing!
A church leader in Iraq told me that pastors in his country must often lead their flocks under very difficult circumstances. In Baghdad, they can hardly move through the city or beyond it for fear of shootings and kidnappings. Yet they, too, wish to take care of their flocks. How can they be good shepherds? ’There are two kinds of shepherds’, this leader told me. ’Those who go out ahead of the
flock are the shepherds with vision and with a goal. They want their congregation to grow, to move forward and to be a part of the advancement of God’s Kingdom. But because they are out in front, they’re not aware of what is going on within the flock, they don’t know the sheep that are wounded, they don’t see those about to give up or wander off. The second walk behind the flock. These shepherds see exactly what is going on among the sheep, they know them well and take good care of them. But meanwhile the flock doesn’t get anywhere, its development stagnates and it wanders about aimlessly.’ When I asked him which kind of shepherd the church of Iraq needs most, he answered with a big smile: ’Every church needs both kinds.’ The lesson I learned from this persecuted colleague is that there are indeed very few pastors who combine both qualities. The church will be best cared for if it is served by two kinds of pastors: the visionary and the comforter.
The calling of a pastor
Anyone who has discovered what the task of a pastor involves will know it is something you can never do on your own initiative. Moses did not decide to lead the people of Israel of his own accord, David did not anoint himself king, the prophets did not prophesy at their own discretion. Even the slightest awareness of the great responsibility of a pastor should be enough to discourage anyone from taking up the task on his own initiative. How could anyone speak for God and lead his church on their own initiative? In 2 Corinthians 2:16, we can almost hear Paul heave a sigh as he exclaims, “And who is equal to such a task?”
The New Testament clearly tells us how the future leaders of the church, the disciples, were personally called by Jesus. In John 15:16 Jesus emphasises this: ”You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” Later we hear Paul, who himself was so powerfully called by Jesus near Damascus, say in Romans 10:15: ”And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” Without a clear calling from God, you cannot be a pastor. But how does God call a person, how do you recognise that He is the one directing you towards pastorship?
A special calling
The church affirms that every believer is called to be a witness of Jesus in this world. In that sense, everyone who knows Jesus has a calling to serve Him. In addition to that, we read in the Bible that God calls some people to a special assignment. So there is a general calling to be a witness and a special calling to perform a special task in God’s kingdom. These special tasks are all aimed at supporting the believers in their calling to serve God and to testify about Jesus. Here’s how Paul explains it in Ephesians 4:11-12: ”So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service.”
Among his brothers and sisters, a pastor, therefore, has a special place. This doesn’t mean he is better, more spiritual or holier, but only that he has received a special assignment. In the Bible we see that Jesus gives the gifts of the Spirit to the whole church. The body of Christ is made up of the church as a whole and each member is gifted to serve the others and to build them up in their faith. Within and for the benefit of that whole, God’s Spirit appoints pastors to provide the church with spiritual leadership (Acts 20:28).
An inner compulsion
How does this calling by God’s Spirit work? In short, it is a special way of being touched or spoken to. Sometimes it is a portion of Scripture, sometimes a dream or a vision, sometimes another person’s advice, sometimes a real, audible voice that you hear inside your head. God calls his servants in different ways, but the result of the call is always that the person being called is completely overcome by it. It becomes an inner compulsion pushing you towards becoming a pastor. It becomes bound up with your heart and it won’t let go.
You may not necessarily feel happy or grateful right away; receiving a calling can also make you feel frightened or uncertain. Most of the callings in the Old Testament demonstrate this: Moses was unwilling because he couldn’t speak well, Jeremiah felt he was too young, Jonah didn’t want to proclaim God’s message to the enemy and so on and so forth. And yet, once you’ve become aware of God’s calling in your life, you can’t get away from it, somehow or other it has a hold on you.
This compulsion to serve as a pastor is not just a burden, but also a token of immense grace. Paul says to Timothy: ”Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). What a privilege it is to be in the immediate service of the Holy One and to be a part of the Lord’s ministry, to be set apart day after day to dig for treasure in Scripture and to help God’s children stay close to their Saviour. You’re granted the joy of being Christ’s co-worker, of seeing God’s Spirit at work under your own eyes. As a pastor, you’re occupied with work that has eternal value right in the middle of everyday life, shedding the light of God on the lives of people you meet. It is a grave responsibility, but also a beautiful mission!
Compassion for people
A second characteristic of being called to be a pastor, besides that inner compulsion to serve God, is that you develop a great compassion for people. The realisation that all those people living and working around you are lost without Jesus pierces your heart. You’re moved with the same compassion Jesus felt when He saw the crowds, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Paul, too, speaks of this tremendous compassion in 2 Corinthians 5:14: ”For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” If you realise that without Jesus people will perish for ever, you cannot remain placid and unmoved as you work in the Kingdom; you will be driven by a holy zeal. In verse 11, Paul has already said: ”Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” In view of the approaching second coming of Jesus, a pastor’s work is always fuelled by a sense of urgency.
One summer, my family and I visited the Victory 4 All project in the slums of Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa. The founders of the project, Johan and Astrid Vos, by this time had spent over 10 years working among the poorest of the poor in this country. As we worked and spent time together, we spoke a lot about the meaning of the work. The misery in a slum area is so overwhelming that it makes your efforts seem futile. What touched me most of all was the compassion of the project’s leaders and staff members. Rather than looking for big results, they have a daily awareness of their calling to be there in Jesus’ name and to do good to whomever they meet in the shanties and in the mud. What keeps them going from day to day is a desire to share Jesus with all those hopeless people, helping them with food, education and social support. This is their motive: ”Our assignment is to sow, to present Jesus, because we love these rejected people, because God loves them and because neither He nor any of us wants any of them to perish!”
Letting go of everything
Becoming a pastor, then, starts with a personal calling from God. However, you won’t become a pastor unless you give your full consent. A calling from God must definitely be answered by the pastor-to-be. It must be followed by a deliberate choice to be obedient and to follow wherever God will lead. We can see this clearly in the lives of the disciples. Jesus calls them away from their daily activities to follow Him and to save people. They are to become ‘fishers of men’. But they have to leave their nets behind. Being called to become a pastor tears you away from your normal patterns. Serving Jesus is not something you can do on the side, it is a radically different way of living.
Jesus shows us the significance of this by the distinction He makes between the disciples and the crowd. If you were to summarise what the gospels tell us about the disciples and about the crowd, you could say that the members of the crowd listen to Jesus, witness His miracles and that many of them believe in Him. However, they do not join in building his Kingdom; they don’t become a part of the movement Jesus has set in motion. They are timeservers, not followers. They’re more like interested spectators than participants. Jesus touches them, but they do not leave their normal, day-to-day patterns of living.
Becoming a real disciple calls for more, as Jesus explains in Luke 14:25-35. In verse 26, he indicates that not everyone who follows Him is necessarily a disciple. Only those who “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life” can genuinely be disciples of Jesus. This statement is not meant to disparage family ties; it is about loving God above everything and everyone else. Your family, loved ones, friends and colleagues are all valuable, but if you wish to be a disciple and to join in the work of the Kingdom, your life – every aspect of it – must be governed by Jesus. Serving Jesus means letting go of everything that is more important to you than He is, everything that might distract you from serving Him. No longer are you governed by people around you, or by your own will, Jesus governs your life, both present and future.
Paul shows us what this means when in Philippians 3:8 he writes: ”I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage.” He is referring to the things he used to be proud of, things on which he based his identity. If you wish to work side by side with Jesus, everything that until now gave you a sense of security and stability, everything you were proud of, must be removed. In this context, your relationships also hold second place. Every disciple who desires to follow and serve the Saviour, including a pastor with a calling, must break with
anything that might hinder his service. It is a step of obedience that can only be taken on the basis of the love of Jesus. Anyone who knows His love will desire nothing more than to live nearer to Him. To such a person, pursuing Him is not a sacrifice but a deep desire.
Directly after Jesus has spoken about the obedience required of a disciple, remarkably, he goes on to emphasise that discipleship also means you will have to suffer with Him. In Luke 14:27, He says: ”And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Working alongside Jesus, also as a pastor, means that, just like Him, you must bear a cross. Not His cross, for He carried that Himself, but your own cross. Every disciple, every pastor, will in his own unique way experience the burden of people’s resistance against the cross, against grace, against the exclusive way to salvation through Jesus alone. Even Paul said he proclaimed the gospel of the cross in fear and trembling, because it was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1 and 2).
Carrying the cross in the footsteps of Jesus is characterised by being rejected, excluded, by becoming a stranger on earth. Does this mean the pastor is some sort of misfit? It doesn’t sound attractive and it isn’t. But that’s what it means to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. It won’t make you rich, popular or successful, but it will draw you closer to Him. Only then will you be united with Him in His suffering and thereby also partake of His glory (Philippians 3:10,11).
Being called to be a pastor, then, is a far-reaching destiny, a process of hearing and obeying. It is about discovering step by step the path God has for you and how you can obey, using your gifts. Often it is a long process, in which knowing God and getting to know yourself better and better, are of vital importance. This enables you to make sure the calling is genuine and that you will respond to it in the right manner and at the right time.
A church leader in Pakistan once told me that in his country, where pastors face tremendous pressure, a man who indicates that he wishes to become a pastor is not immediately sent to a theological seminary. First he is prepared for a number of years, sometimes as many as ten. He is given a support role in a church organisation and is encouraged to acquire the language and other skills he will need later at seminary. In the workplace, he learns what it means to be a Christian in daily practice. He is familiarised with what it means to be in the service of God. Only after a time, if he has genuinely received a calling from God, is he considered ready to go to seminary and become a pastor.
In view of the great responsibility every pastor carries, I believe this is a lesson from the Suffering Church that we must take seriously. We should prepare aspiring pastors for working in a church by first giving them a position that does not involve huge responsibilities. Meanwhile, help them hone their skills, their character and their spiritual life and only then send them off to seminary. It doesn’t have to take 10 years, but spending 2 or 3 years working in the kingdom before starting your formal pastoral education seems more effective to me than going to seminary before you’ve even begun this fundamental journey of discovery.
In Acts, the Biblical route followed for the calling of pastors is that the congregation gathers together in prayer and that the Spirit then appoints individuals who are to be ordained as pastors by the church. In Acts 13: 2 and 3 this same procedure is followed: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” There is an intimate interaction between being chosen by the Spirit and being sent off by the church. There is a calling from above and a calling from below and the two cannot be separated. The pastor is a servant of God, called by the Spirit, and his calling is confirmed and implemented by the church.
The anointing of the Spirit
You can be confident that you have been called by the Spirit by the fact that He empowers your life and ministry. Every believer receives the Holy Spirit, but again and again we read about people in the Bible who
received a special assignment from God and a special anointing of the Spirit to go with it. The most obvious example is Jesus, who at the beginning of His ministry was baptised in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. When He came up out of the water, He received a beautiful confirmation of His calling. Mark´s gospel describes this scene as follows: ”Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove…” (Mark 1:10). Even Jesus depended on the power of the Spirit to fulfil His divine calling and this was confirmed by the Spirit’s descent on Him. Something similar happened to the disciples on the first day of Pentecost. They, too, were commissioned to be witnesses all over the world, however, Jesus had told them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). The anointing of the Spirit means your life becomes so entwined with God’s Spirit that He is in charge of your comings and goings, He shapes your character, and you learn to sense and to obey His guidance. To receive this anointing, you do have to consciously open your heart and fully focus on the direction of the Spirit.
How do you open yourself to the anointing of the Spirit upon your life as a pastor? The Bible only gives one answer to that question. The key to opening your heart to the special guidance of the Spirit is prayer. Jesus was praying when He received the Spirit at His baptism in the Jordan. Luke 3:21 says: ”And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.” When the disciples were filled with the Spirit on the first day of Pentecost, they were gathered together in prayer, too: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31). The confirmation of your calling by the anointing of the Spirit, therefore, comes through prayer. That’s why you mustn’t let anything or anyone get in the way of your prayer time, because if your prayer life is hindered, the Spirit’s anointing of your ministry as a pastor will be hindered.
Confirmation by the church
We have seen that your calling must be confirmed by God through the anointing of His Spirit. That is the first and most important confirmation. But again and again in the Bible this calling is also confirmed by the church of Christ. From Acts 13:2 and 3 (see above) it is clear that the Spirit calls, whereas the church sends off those who are called by blessing them through the laying on of hands. Your ordination as a pastor should be done in and by the congregation. In that way your calling is confirmed not only by God, but also by His church. The church thus recognises your calling and gifts, your faith and your suitability. You will need this recognition to be accepted as a pastor. Through the anointing of the Spirit you receive God’s confirmation of your calling, and through the ordination in church you receive the acceptance of your calling by the congregation – and with that, the authority to address them from God’s Word and to lead them. You will need this recognition to provide spiritual leadership and to be respected and revered by the congregation.
A calling by God to be a pastor starts as an inner compulsion, is followed by the anointing of the Spirit for the task at hand, and is confirmed through the ordination, or sending off, by the church of Christ.
The spiritual life of a pastor
Setting an example
Being a pastor is a way of life. Your entire existence is geared to serving the advancement of the kingdom in the place to which you’ve been called. A pastor is not just someone who points the way to living a life that honours God, he sets an example, too. The credibility of what a pastor says depends on the life he lives. A congregation watches its pastor to see how he puts into practice what he teaches them about walking with Jesus. And rightly so.
Paul repeatedly sets himself as an example. To the church of Corinth he says: ”Therefore I urge you to imitate me”(1 Corinthians 4:16). Being an example like this can be paralysing if it makes you feel that as a pastor you have to be some sort of perfect Christian. Thankfully, this is not the case; if it was, who could be a pastor? It does mean that in every aspect of your life you deliberately seek to serve God, to follow Jesus and to be led by the Holy Spirit. The only way you can be an example for your congregation is by consciously living in close communion with God. Here’s another way of putting it: being a spiritual leader requires you to live a spiritual life. Paul emphasises this in a beautiful statement that every pastor should keep stored in his heart: ”Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”(Acts 20:28). A spiritual leader cannot survive without caring for his own soul. Be aware as a pastor that each new day you must first receive from God before you can give out in His name! The question is: how do we nourish ourselves spiritually, how do we lead a spiritual life?
Let me mention three aspects of spiritual life that a pastor, keeping watch over his own soul, must take into account. There are other issues as well, but throughout Christian tradition these three have been considered the three most important aspects of spiritual life. A pastor who observes these three points will grow in Christ and therefore also in his ministry in the church. In a meditation on Psalm 119, the well-known theologian Martin Luther mentions these three pillars of Christian spirituality: prayer (oratio), meditating on God’s Word (meditatio) and spiritual battle (tentatio).
The first thing about the spiritual life of a pastor is that he must lead a prayerful life. Although this is such a vital issue for every pastor, it is often the first thing to be forgotten or neglected under the pressure of all the work. Be aware that unless you maintain that intimate, personal communion with God in your own life, you cannot lead God’s children into His presence! Prayer is a form of hidden communion with God, it is what nourishes your relationship with the heavenly Father. If you prayerfully share your whole life with Him, your sins and your wounds, your joys and your sorrows, He will give you comfort and strength. Spending time in prayer with your Sender will place all your labouring and your concerns in a very different light. They will cease to be your responsibility and instead become God’s. Staying tuned to God through prayer will take the worst pressure off your shoulders. Instead of you leading your life, He will lead it. Instead of you leading the church, He will lead it. Only he who daily practices the presence of God will persevere and continue to grow and to blossom spiritually.
The best example of a praying pastor is Jesus Himself. Again and again we read that He was praying, that He withdrew to be alone with His Father. In Mark 6:46, it says: ”After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” Especially before facing special events or responsibilities, Jesus takes time to pray. For instance, we read in Luke 6:12 and 13 that he prayed intensely before He chose His 12 disciples: ”One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” Other well-known examples are Jesus’ prayers for Himself and the believers in John 17 and His prayer in Gethsemane, just before His crucifixion (Luke 22:41).
In addition to personal prayer, every pastor is also charged to pray continually for the members of his congregation. When Jethro saw that both Moses and the people were burdened by Moses’ heavy pastoral
workload, he counselled his son-in-law, offering him a priority list for sound spiritual leadership. The first thing Jethro mentions is this: ”You must speak to God for the people” (Exodus 18:19). A pastor’s first priority is not to spend as much time as possible among the people, his top priority is to take the people to God in prayer. This is what Jesus did in His prayers, too. Listen to His prayer in John 17 and hear how he prays for His people: ”I pray for them. I am not praying for the world. I am praying for those you have given me, because they are yours” (John 17:9).
Another fine example of a praying pastor in the Bible is Epaphras, concerning whom Paul, in Colossians 4:12, says: ”Epaphras sends greetings. He is one of you. He serves Christ Jesus. He is always praying hard for you. He prays that you will stand firm in holding to all that God has in mind for us.”
A pastor who prays for his church members is like a man fighting for them. You pleads for them with God, praying that they will stand firm and grow in faith, hope and love. You prayerfully fight alongside them, like Moses did when the people of Israel fought against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-13). As long as he kept praying for them, they were winning, but every time he lowered his hands, they began to lose. That’s why Aaron and Hur supported his arms, so that he could keep praying for them until the battle had been won. This is what a pastor’s prayers for his people are all about. Moses, Jesus and the apostles are the pastor’s examples in praying for those entrusted to their care.
But how do you put this into practice as a pastor? People often ask their pastor to pray for them personally. Of course, you promise you will, but it’s almost impossible to actually take time out for every single prayer request. One way of dealing with this is to pray for that man or woman on the spot, while he or she is with you. Another approach is to take time out at the end of each day to intercede for everyone you have met that day. You can also use your members’ list to pray for each individual member, one by one, during a certain period (perhaps having a photo of the congregation would help). That way you will be praying for the whole congregation and not just for those in need. These are ways of taking them to God in prayer, pleading for them with their heavenly Father, representing them to their Lord. They may be too restless that day to pray themselves, but you will be taking time out to speak to God for them and on their behalf.
I have prayed for you
By the way, it’s good to let your people know that you pray for them. Jesus told Peter that He had prayed for him: “Simon, Simon! Satan has asked to sift you disciples like wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon. I have prayed that your faith will not fail” (Luke 22:31,32). In almost every letter he writes, Paul tells the churches he writes how he prays for them. It encourages people and gives them hope and expectation. At the same time, it offers them an example of a prayerful life. As church members experience how uplifting it is to hear that someone is praying for them, they will pray for others more consciously.
A lesson I have learned from the Suffering Church is that a prayerful life involves more than just praying for oneself and one’s church. You are a human being, living and moving consciously and compassionately among other human beings. Those others, too, will benefit from your prayerful attention.
Church leaders facing persecution emphasise in every conversation about their pastors and churches that they continuously pray for their country. One of them, an Egyptian, says: “We identify with our people. We pray zealously for a revival and we are prepared to pay the price if the Kingdom of God can be advanced in our country. Egypt is our mother. So our hearts cry and we beg God that revival will come soon, that Jesus will draw the hearts of the Egyptian people to Himself.”
A church leader from Pakistan says he knows for a fact that all the pastors he is acquainted with begin their personal and intercessory prayers not by bringing their own situation and church life before God, but by praying first for their people and their nation, for a revival among Pakistan’s 180 million Muslims. The compassion of these pastors for their countries, with all the fiercely anti-Christian forces at work there, is a tremendous example to us all.
Finally, living a prayerful life involves the dual movement of deliberately consecrating time and space for prayer on the one hand, while staying tuned to God throughout the day on the other. In the first instance, prayer is entering into communion with God in the inner room (Matthew 6:6). What matters most in the inner room is not so much everything we want to tell God, but our worshiping Him. Worshipping Him means you don’t focus your attention primarily on God’s hands, but you seek His heart – or, as the Bible calls it, God’s face. It is an inner attuning to His presence, a quiet delight in who He is. In this quietness and rest, you become more and more aware of God’s love, God’s glory, God’s abundance. This is what Jesus refers to in John 15:4: ”Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” In this wonderful communion with God you will receive everything you need as a pastor: God’s love, the grace of Jesus’ and the filling of the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, a prayerful life also means staying tuned to God throughout the day, walking by the Spirit: not just in those consecrated moments, but throughout your whole existence. The life of a pastor is one big prayer. This is what Paul means when he says: ”Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Daniel was in charge of the greatest empire of his day and we read about him that it was his custom to pray three times a day facing Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10,11,13). Prayer was his source of strength and he would not be robbed of it by anyone or anything – even if he had to pay for it with his life. Pastors, especially, are too busy not to pray.
A church leader from Bhutan told me how a lack of education and resources drives pastors in Bhutan to draw their strength from prayer. Prayer is their top priority. Before making any decisions or taking any action, they pray. Most pastors, he said, spend every morning in prayer. Often they find that God provides guidance during these prayer times, making His will clear to them – which sometimes means they have to change their plans after praying. “Especially when facing major decisions or difficult situations, we fast and pray. We’re used to fasting. On Sunday morning, the whole church fasts to prepare for the church service and for fellowship. The pastor fasts and prays first, then makes decisions. In Bhutan this is the pastor’s rule of thumb: fast, pray, go.”
A life dedicated to praying to God cannot do without the same kind of commitment to meditating on God’s Word. Meditation is the second pillar of a healthy spiritual life for pastors. Prayer is our answer, our response to what God has said to us. There is an ongoing interaction between praying and reading the Bible. Without prayer, the Bible will not come to life for you, and without the Bible your prayer life will soon languish. A pastor who wishes to lead a spiritual life and to breathe prayer cannot survive without regularly and attentively listening to what God says to him in His Word.
The Bible is full of texts that emphasise the importance of God’s Word to every believer. The Psalms, in particular, celebrate the great wealth and eternal value of the Word. The Word is a source of assurance, comfort and strength. The Word shows you the way, keeps you close to God. It’s a great joy to be occupied with the Word. It starts right in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the one… whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night” (Psalm 1:1,2). Psalm 119 is one big hymn to the value of the Word. In verse 11, the poet sings: ”I have hidden your word in my heart.” In verse 105, we hear these well-known words: ”Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” This holds true for every Christian.
The Pakistani church leader whom I mentioned earlier told me that in an environment in which the Quran is considered sacred and the Bible blasphemous, the value of the Bible to Christians is unrelinquishable. This pastor spends much time during the day studying the Bible, because he believes it is the living Word of God: ”The Bible contains the church’s itinerary. We can only get to know God through the Bible. The Bible is a living book, because its ‘Author’ is a living Person. He has promised to guide us through His Word.”
This applies especially to those responsible for leading God´s people and church. For instance, when God calls Joshua to replace Moses, He says: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night,
so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8). Of all people, a pastor living and working in the service of God cannot do without daily immersion in the Word of God. Paul asserts this, too, in his instructions to Timothy on what really matters in leading the church of Christ. In 2 Timothy 3:15 to 17, he says this: ”… from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Paul is not trying to convince Timothy of the truth of God’s Word here, because Timothy has long accepted that. What he’s saying is that the Word can aid and equip him as a pastor. So, again, a pastor cannot do without daily interaction with the Word. Meditating on it must be part and parcel of the spiritual life of every pastor.
Meditating on the Word is something that, in the first place, you do for your own good. The great danger for every pastor is to view the Bible merely as a vast store of sermon texts. You scour it for suitable material for sermons, pastoral care or Bible studies. Your reading becomes purely functional and the Bible ceases to represent God’s Word for your own life. But we can only pass on a message to others with any real authority, if we have ourselves read and lived through the Scripture passage in question. You must listen before you speak. This listening to God’s Word is what we call meditation.
Eat this book
In several Bible passages, meditation is compared with eating. For example: “Eat it” (see Revelation 10:8-11). ‘Eating’ God’s Word is a good metaphor for contemplating the Word. If you are offered food you’ve not tasted before, you start with a small mouthful. You carefully taste the food, you’re eager to discover its flavour. Then you want more, so you start chewing, which releases more of its flavour. Finally you swallow it, so that it can nourish your body.
That’s what meditating on a passage of Scripture is like:
Take a few verses, or read a short passage, and reread it several times, slowly and attentively. Read it out loud once, so that you can actually hear the words. Listen to the text as if you’re hearing it for the first time. This will give you a first impression, helping you to get familiar with it and to internalise it. The best way is to memorise the words of the text, so that you can take them with you into the day or week. This is how to ‘taste’ a text.
Now try digging a little deeper, by trying to bring the words and images of the text to life. What do you see as you read them, what do you hear, feel, think? What is happening in the text? This is how to ‘chew’, or ‘ruminate’, on the words.
Next, allow the words and their effect on you to penetrate you deeply. Do they make you happy or sad, grateful or angry? Can you wholeheartedly embrace them or do they provoke resistance? Do these words call for a change in your life? Do they affect your view of God, the world around you, or yourself? Questions like these will help you digest the text. You’re allowing God’s words to enter into your life and change things. This is how you ‘swallow’ God’s Word, as it were, allowing it to enter into your inner being.
Conclude your meditation by praying that the Spirit will renew your life through this Word. Surrender to Him. Then you can rest in His presence. Finally, thank God for who He is and for the Word of grace and truth, which you have just received.
You will understand that meditating on the Word, like prayer, requires you to consciously set apart time and space. If possible, set aside a fixed hour of the day and find a quiet spot where you can listen to God’s Word without being disturbed. Make sure you really take time. Meditating is like digging for treasure: it can take quite a while before you unearth the riches you’re seeking. But the more you search, the more beautiful the treasure will often be.
When I once asked a church leader in Egypt what motivated his pastoral candidates above everything else, he answered without hesitation: ”Their love for the Word of God.” No matter how difficult the circumstances faced by pastors in Egypt, their deep desire to read God’s Word, to meditate on it and to pass it on overcomes all. In the past, many pastors used to add the letters ‘VDM’ to their surname. They stand for the Latin words ‘Verbi Divini Minister’, or servant of the divine word. Essentially, that is what you are as a pastor, both on Sundays and during the week: a servant of the Word. You live with this Word and work with it. The Egyptian pastors are truly ‘VDMs’.
A pastor’s interaction with the Word not only nourishes his life with God, it is also the source of his authority in the church. People do not believe a pastor because of what he has to say, but because of what God has to say through him. Your authority is given you as a servant of the Word, as one who opens, explains and applies the Word to the believers. It is good to remind ourselves of this again and again. Admittedly, there are other ways in which God makes Himself known. Sometimes people receive prophecies or visions in which they recognise God’s voice or instruction. But in such cases, there is never a 100% guarantee that the message received is entirely and exclusively from God and that it is not mixed with personal desires or motives. The Word of God is the only pure source by which we can get to know God’s will. That’s why a pastor must always be able to trace back everything he says in his preaching and counselling to the Word. If, as a pastor, you speak without living intensely from God’s Word, your words will soon become superficial. Being allowed and empowered to speak genuinely on behalf of God calls for the discipline of daily meditation.
The third aspect of spiritual life mentioned by Luther is struggle. This aspect is less a matter of spiritual exercise than prayer and meditation are. Rather, the spiritual battle is the situation in which every Christian – and therefore every pastor – finds himself. It is of vital importance for your spiritual life that you realise you are in a battle zone. Paul explicitly warns us that this battle is not against people, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”
(Ephesians 6:12). This explains why whenever we pray, meditate, preach and provide spiritual leadership, there is always a tension, a sense of being in a struggle. Sometimes we feel pressure from within, sometimes from without.
The Bible tells us that these experiences are trials we must face. Such trials can appear in your life in many different ways. You may pass through a spiritual desert, a period in which your fellowship with God seems all but barren. These are times in which it seems as if God has turned His back on you. Psalm 27 speaks of such a time of seeking God’s face without finding it. In verse 8 and 9, David sings: ”My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger.” At the end of this Psalm, however, he tells us how best to deal with these situations. In verse 14, David sings: “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” Be patient, keep on expectantly seeking His presence, because at some point He will draw near again.
Another trial you might face as a pastor is when you are criticised by members of your congregation. They may say you’re not doing a good job, they may complain about your sermons, or disagree with you on some principal issue. Everyone holding a leadership position in a group, including those in the church of Christ, will experience this. What matters most when it happens is that on the one hand you take your critics seriously, honestly asking yourself whether they are right, while on the other hand you make sure that your identity as
a pastor is not anchored in the favour of the people, but in the calling and commission you have received from God.
In times of trouble, it is also vital that you follow Jesus’ example. When out in the wilderness the devil threatened His ministry and His very life (Matthew 4), He did not start arguing with Satan, but consistently responded with a word of God. He parried the attacks in that spiritual desert with the words of God spoken during Israel’s desert journey, as described in Deuteronomy. This teaches us that we should always search the Scriptures for situations similar to ours, so that we will learn to react to our trials with the wisdom of God.
A key characteristic of Satan’s attacks is that he tries to undermine our trust in God, so that we revert to acting on our own natural impulses. Take a look at the three attacks he launches on Jesus in Matthew 4. They’re typical of how he tries to trip up people who are committed to serving the Kingdom. First comes the temptation of prosperity (tell these stones to become bread); then the temptation of manipulating God and using Him for one’s own purposes (throw yourself from the highest point of the temple and the angels will carry you); then the temptation of power and status (bow down to me and all the kingdoms of the world will be yours). Every honest pastor knows these temptations. Know that they do not come from God, but from within. James 1:13 puts it this way: ”When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” … but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” The challenge is to resist and overcome temptation through the power of Jesus, who knows exactly what it’s like: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Every pastor, then, is tossed around and tested by trials from within and temptations from without. Once you know this through God’s Word, you can be on the alert. Trials and temptations are part of the spiritual battle you are in. A pastor, in particular, operates on the front line. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself under attack. It would be more alarming if you never found yourself under attack.
When you are attacked, and you’re struggling to hold your ground and stay close to Jesus, remember what Paul told the church of Corinth: ” No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The daily life of the pastor
Living and working in the service of God as a pastor calls for a spiritual lifestyle. Your life with God is not limited to the inner room, but expresses itself in the practical realities of everyday existence. What people see and hear of you shows them what matters most to you deep down inside. And you can be sure that church members keep an eye on the life of their pastor. You’re the one who proclaims the Word of God and teaches them how to live to His honour, so it’s only logical that they look at you to see how you practice what you preach. Particularly in his letters to Timothy, Pauls talks about being an example to your congregation as a pastor. God’s great desire is for the stamp of Christ to become more and more visible in our daily lives. When that happens, people will see it and long for it themselves. That’s how Christ works in and through His servants. It’s not about the pastor, it’s about Christ. By your sacramental living, you will be passing on to the congregation the salvation you received from Jesus, even as you walk and talk with them from day to day.
In 1 Timothy 4, Paul offers a number of specific instructions for the pastor’s daily life. He says in verse 12: “…set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” So there are five areas in which as a pastor Timothy may set an example, not because he’s so perfect, but because Christ is at work in him.
The first thing Paul mentions is that as a pastor you set an example by the way you speak. A pastor spends a lot of time talking, as a counsellor, during meetings and in the pulpit. The way you speak says a lot about what lives in your heart. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34: “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” People will know who and what matters most to you by what you say and how you say it. In verse 37, Jesus continues: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Both in the Old and the New Testament, a lot of attention is devoted to our words, because they can be a force for good or for evil. With words you can both damage and restore people. Especially those who live and work in Jesus’ name, must be aware of the healing power of the right word spoken at the right moment. Paul says in Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” This means that as a pastor you always have to be on the alert, especially if you are a regular public speaker, because your words are a testimony of your walk with Jesus. I always pray the words of Psalm 19:14 whenever I am to speak in public: “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight…”
The second area in which as a pastor you are called to set the example is your conduct, or lifestyle. What this means in practice, Paul shows us in 1 Timothy 3:2, where he is dealing with those appointed as overseers in God’s Kingdom. He mentions four characteristics that apply specifically to church leaders: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…”
Firstly, then, a pastor must be faithful to his wife. In other words, he must be monogamous in his thoughts and actions. This was an important instruction to pastors who were formerly unbelievers living a very different lifestyle: they were now called to reflect the love and faithfulness of Jesus in how they lived with their wife. This meant in those days: do not beat your wife, do not take more than one wife It is also an important instruction to pastors who regularly interact with women or conduct intensive counselling sessions with women. There is always the risk of – often unconsciously – stretching the boundaries. It’s vital to combine spiritual fellowship with physical distance. In counselling, make sure you don’t touch the other person, not even as a gesture of comfort. If you are pastorally engaged with a member of the other sex intensively and for a long time, it is advisable to avoid meeting her alone, but rather to involve another (female) counsellor or your own wife.
The next characteristic of a pastor’s lifestyle is temperance and self-control –Paul mentions these to counter the love of money mentioned in the following verses. As a pastor, you’re not pursuing wealth and success, trying to amass more and more wealth. It may be in your nature, as it in everyone’s to a greater or lesser degree. But Jesus Himself constantly warns against riches and the power of money, the unrighteous Mammon. It is a serious risk, especially for pastors. They often work hard for little money, while many church members around them are better off than they are. You may experience fierce temptations in this area, an inner desire for more, bigger, better. However, as a pastor you are not to focus on worldly success; rather, you may enjoy the riches of God’s blessings. Keep reminding yourself of this. Your identity is not determined by what you possess, but by who you are in Christ: you are a child of the Father, Who says to you: “…everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
Another temptation you may face as a pastor is to use your position and spiritual authority in the church for financial gain. This already occurred in Paul’s day. In 2 Corinthians 2:17, he says: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.” People tend to give more easily to someone who offers them spiritual guidance than to anyone else, because of the relation of trust. It can be easy to abuse that trust. A pastor must be inwardly independent of money and possessions. If he isn’t, his work will not bear fruit, because he will be serving ‘two masters’. All over the world, one of the ways in which the unique differentness of “the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ” (Ephesians 4:20) is expressed, is how believers handle money and possessions.
An Egyptian church leader told me that the pastors in Egypt are all poor. They know from the moment they start their theological training that their future will be one of poverty. There are several reasons for this. One is that the church assumes God will take care of His servants, which means pastors are underpaid. They’re not allowed to take a job on the side either, because as pastors they are expected to be available for working in God’s Kingdom 24/7. When I asked how they solve this problem, the church leader answered: “They learn to trust God and live soberly.” One of the advantages of their sober lifestyles is that they can connect easily with Egypt’s many poor church members, who would have difficulty accepting a rich pastor. On the other hand, the families of Egyptian pastors have to endure a lot of tensions because of their economic position. What we can learn from this is that a sober lifestyle will enable you to connect with everyone in your congregation, including those with the lowest incomes. A pastor should never belong to the elite, but rather should be free to interact with everyone.
A third characteristic of the exemplary conduct of a church leader is that he must be respectable, hospitable and above reproach. These qualities all have to do with avoiding self-centredness and instead placing the interests of others above your own, thus practicing genuine love for your fellow man. This is not some artificial, sentimental or professional niceness, but real, authentic interest in others. A pastor does not only love God, he also genuinely loves people. And people notice. He has a large heart. Deeply loved by God, he finds within himself the space to love others, to truly see them, hear them, and receive them. This means you will often have to efface yourself and forgo your own plans. Your family, too, will often have to make sacrifices for the sake of letting others go first.
This sacrificial living can take on quite extreme forms, particularly in countries in which the church suffers severe persecution and the pastor is the believers’ only hope and comfort. In Bhutan, for instance, Christians are often evicted from their homes, along with their families, as a result of their outspokenly Christian lifestyle. Evicted families have nowhere to turn and often end up knocking on the pastor’s door the same evening, carrying all their worldly possessions with them. Without a moment’s hesitation, the pastor will take them into his home. Often, it takes weeks for the family to find a new home. The pastor who told me this summarised the hospitality of the pastors of Bhutan as follows: “They live a sacrificial life.”
However moving this example may be, a measure of balance in these issues does seem appropriate to me. Your very first and highest calling is not the church, but your marriage and family. The congregation really does come second. Most pastors tend to give the church and the needs of church members first place, at the expense of spending time with their own family. This is not honouring to God. In the long run it will not strengthen the church either, as it may result in an overworked pastor with a disappointed or even embittered family. That’s why the next characteristic Paul puts forward, managing your family well, is so intertwined with the previous ones.
This last characteristic mentioned by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 is quite remarkable: a pastor must be a competent educator. Both in teaching the church and in managing his family and children, he is an example to the congregation. This means that as a pastor you don’t angrily impose your will, but rather you balance fairness with grace as you raise up your family and lead the church. You are attuned to the needs of others, which also means you lovingly provide clear boundaries and direction.
These are very practical guidelines offered us by Paul for the conduct a pastor should exhibit in his daily life.
A third area Paul touches on in 1 Timothy 4:12 is love. The Greek word Paul uses here is ‘agape’, which means serving, or sacrificial, love. A pastor loves his church and will vouch for her.
This love does not develop automatically; in your own strength, you cannot love so many different people with so many different characters. However, the Bible speaks of an inner attitude from which this love springs up like water from a well. Paul mentions it in Philippians 2:5: “…have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” This mindset, or attitude, makes you deeply aware of how much God loves you, and of the fact that you are His beloved son or daughter, in whom He is well pleased. Once you realise this, once you realise Who you belong to and what riches you have already received in Christ, you will find room in your heart and life to consider others rather than living only for yourself. You will experience what Paul talks about a few verses back in Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (verses 3-4). If this mindset of Jesus permeates the way in which you deal with people around you, they will start to notice and it will be a testimony to Jesus’ love and an example to your church. It will enlarge your heart, making it big enough for many church members, and you will serve them a loving heart.
How this serving love operates in practice within the church is summarised by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 – a passage that applies to all believers, but that according to 1 Timothy 4:12 requires a special example from pastors. Here’s how Paul sums it up: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Again, there is a strong emphasis on not sticking up for yourself, being patient with others, bearing one another. If you want to be a servant leader, patience, forbearance and perseverance in relationships are indispensable. Every pastor runs out of patience now and again, and feels a powerful urge to give that brother or sister – maybe even the whole congregation – an earful. Those are the moments in which it is important for you as a pastor to read the words of 1 Corinthians 13, to meditate on them and to draw on your relationship with Jesus to put them into practice once again – not as some impossible assignment, but as the natural result of having the mindset of Christ. You don’t have to force it, it’s a gift from God’s Spirit. Whoever reaches out for it will receive it.
The fourth area of Christian living in which as a pastor you are to set the example for the church is faith. What Paul means here is that a pastor must be firmly rooted in his faith in God. In 1 Timothy 3:6, he has already pointed out that a pastor should not be someone who has only just become a believer: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.” If you are to show others the way to a life with God, it is important that you have travelled that road yourself, with all the trials and errors along the way. You can only be a guide if you have made the journey yourself. This doesn’t
mean you have to have experienced everything a person can experience in his or her walk with God. That would be impossible; God leads each of His children on a different and unique path. But it does mean that you know God well enough and are sufficiently familiar with His words and His ways to be able to help others understand what is happening in their lives with God.
The last area in which Paul appeals to young pastor Timothy to set an example is purity. He is not just talking about sexual purity, which we referred to earlier in the context of being faithful to one’s wife. Here, Paul, is talking about self-control in general. It has to do with living purposefully. You’re aware of your calling and have made everything subordinate to it; you want everything in your life to contribute to it. In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul uses the image of an athlete: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” So don’t let anything come between you and God, or you and the church. Avoid giving offence by your words or actions, but instead make sure that in everything you do you keep your eyes on God’s purpose for your life and the church. Then you will no longer be worried about earthly treasures, and the temporal, transitory things of this world will lose their hold on you. You will be in control of your natural impulses and desires, and equipped to serve God with your whole life.
In Matthew 5:8, Jesus says: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” He’s referring to the disciple who lives by what he professes to believe, who has an undivided heart. It means you put into practice what you believe. If you say Jesus is everything to you, than your life shows that everything else takes second or third place. It’s a matter of setting the right priorities. If you believe you’re living in the end times, that the game is almost over, you’ll focus on what really matters in life, not allowing yourself to be distracted by things that do not match with godly living. In Romans 13:13, Paul, thinking of the approaching second coming of Jesus, puts it like this: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.” If we control ourselves and concentrate on what really matters, we will be useful instruments. In 2 Timothy 2:21, Paul offers young pastor Timothy the following summary: “Those who cleanse themselves (…) will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” Every pastor must regularly examine himself or make confession to a confidante in order to remain pure in serving God and thus to be a useful instrument. The best of me for the Most High!
A living sign
Timothy, and with him every pastor, is given five very practical instructions on how to live a life that will be an example to his church. But how can you set an example as a pastor if you still have to learn and discover it all yourself? The amazing thing is that as a pastor you, too, have an example you can follow. If you want to know how to live with God as a believer and how to set an example to your church, fix your eyes on Jesus. He demonstrated what a life lived in accordance with God’s will is like. And he gave us His Spirit to teach us.
The tasks of a pastor
Almost every pastor is busy. You have to be available for people all day and you can be called on in many ways. The strange thing is that even when you don’t have church members on your doorstep or on the phone, your thoughts are incessantly turning to the church. Being a pastor means you’re never finished. You can’t shut the office door behind you at the end of the day and step out into another world: the church is always present. And if you´re not being called on by a member, then there’s always a meeting to chair, a Bible study to prepare, or next Sunday’s sermon that you ought to be starting on.
Regardless of the size of your congregation, perhaps the toughest part of being a pastor is the fact that church members have so many different expectations. Every congregation is a colourful blend of unique individuals, often with totally different wishes. And each one expects the pastor to be there for him or her in good times and in bad – especially if there is a strong bond. They assume you will have time for them, think along with them, pray with them. They expect you to understand their desires and disappointments, including those related to church life. Sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, people try to draw you into their ‘camp’, ignoring the fact that as a pastor you should remain above the various groups that exist within every church. On top of all this, you need quiet time as a pastor to pray, study and meditate, personally, and as a part of your sermon or Bible study preparation. So although a pastor can only pass on what he has first received in his quiet time with God, he is often so busy that real quiet time is hard to come by.
It’s no wonder that many pastors feel permanently over-stretched and spiritually drained. This is not just bad for them and for their families, it’s also detrimental to the church. Most pastors realise this, but in many cases they have been stuck in certain working and living patterns within the church for a long time and do not know how to break out. The work has to be done, it’s all equally important, you can’t just leave people in the lurch. And if you don’t do the job, who will? You might say most pastors suffer from the ‘Martha syndrome’.
Martha is the woman who had to take care of the temporary house church of Jesus and His disciples – and got pretty frustrated in the doing. Her story is recounted in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus is passing through with His disciples, and probably quite a few others. On arrival in Bethany, Martha graciously welcomes them into her home and sets about making arrangements for this unexpected gathering. There’s nothing she’d rather do than serve Jesus and His ‘church’. While Jesus speaks, the disciples listen. Mary, Martha’s sister, also sits at His feet. But what about Martha? We read that “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (verse 40).
Martha strongly resembles a busy pastor who, like her, is totally absorbed in serving Jesus and ministering to His church. Somebody has to do it, right? At the same time, she’s not doing it very wholeheartedly anymore, as we can see from her indignant complaint to Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” (verse 40). As a pastor, you often work alone. This can frustrate you deep down inside. If it does, you may start complaining inwardly that the church is sitting back and enjoying itself, while you seem to be doing all the serving. If this is your story, you’ll find the reply Jesus offers to Martha’s complaint rather confronting. “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one” (verse 41-42).
The worry and fuss of a pastor over his congregation is completely unnecessary, according to Jesus. What is truly necessary, especially for busy pastors, is, before all else, to do ‘the one thing needed’, that is, to sit at the feet of Jesus. So before doing anything at all in the church as a pastor, begin your day by sitting at the feet of your Lord. There you will receive everything you need for another day of serving the church. You’ll receive His love and forgiveness, comfort and encouragement, and the power of His Spirit. Then the words spoken by Jesus in Matthew 6:33 will become true for you: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
The common denominator in my conversations with pastors in the Suffering Church is that they all have to do everything for their congregation. They provide spiritual leadership, preach, do visitation work, often get called at night by people whose troubles are keeping them awake. In Pakistan, many believers consider the pastor to be a kind of father figure, in Egypt he is seen as a husband and in Bhutan they expect him to always sacrifice everything for them. In these countries, such leadership patterns tend to be the norm in society and therefore they are easily copied within the church. It can be very difficult to change them.
In the Bible, we encounter quite of a few bustling pastors. The most famous of them all is Moses, who led the people out of Egypt and set out to guide this huge congregation across the desert to the promised land. He was a shepherd guiding his flock through some very rough circumstances. Many pastors will recognise this. Moses was as busy as a beaver leading and serving all those people God had entrusted to his care.
We read in Exodus 18 that one day Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came to visit him in the wilderness, where he was camped ‘near the mountain of God’. They talked for a while and the next day Jethro observed Moses at work as the pastor of the people. “…they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening? (…) What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Exodus 18: 13-14,17-18).
Blessed is the pastor who meets a counsellor like Jethro! Someone who sees you at work and honestly shares his observations with you. Blessed is the pastor who has an elder board or church council that quotes these words of Jethro. Blessed is the pastor whose wife, children, relatives or friends are prepared to say things like this to him. An overly busy pastor is not a blessing – not to himself, not to the church and not to God.
Jethro goes on to affirm that all that work does indeed have to be performed. There’s nothing wrong with the tasks in themselves, they lie at the very heart of community life. But if all the work rests on the shoulders of one individual, something is wrong. That’s why Jethro gives Moses a wise piece of advice that to this day applies to pastors all over the world. He appeals to him to divide the work more evenly. He identifies the core activities to which a pastor must restrict himself. He points out which tasks a pastor must perform himself and which can be delegated to other gifted members of the community. The pastor’s most important assignment is to keep a sharp eye on these core responsibilities and to make sure he has enough time and energy to fulfil them properly.
In his summary of Moses’ core responsibilities, Jethro puts forward five tasks a pastor must perform. In verse 19-22, he says: “You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.”
Five core responsibilities
Jethro offers a crystal-clear priority list for pastors. These are the five core responsibilities he identifies:
The first is intercession for the congregation: “You must be the people’s representative before God.” A good pastor is always a praying pastor. We saw in Chapter 3 that it is not good for a pastor to spend the whole day among people, but rather that he must daily commend the people to God. After all, it’s not the pastor who offers comfort, support or healing, but God’s Spirit; the pastor’s first task is to carry the needs of the people to God in prayer. Blessed is the church whose pastor doesn’t spend all his time knocking on people’s doors, but who instead goes to the inner room to plead for them with God. Obviously, as a pastor you have to know what’s going on among your congregation and be familiar with the issues people are facing, but rather than
constantly visiting them in their homes, it is better for you to return to your own home and represent them before God, praying fervently and confidently for them. So the pastor’s first core responsibility is intercession.
The second task, according to Jethro, is to “teach them God’s decrees and instructions.” This is the task of proclaiming the Word spoken by God, first through Moses, later through the prophets, evangelists and apostles. The word used here for teaching suggests urgency. It is a matter of great importance. When you proclaim the Word, you’re not just telling stories; you’re dealing with the choice between eternal salvation and eternal damnation and you must make this clear. The preaching of God’s Word is the church’s heartbeat. We gather together to listen to what God wants to teach us about who He is, how Jesus Christ has brought us salvation, and how He wants us to live with Him. Instil the Word of God in the people, Jethro says. Paul offers Timothy similar advice when he urges him to keep proclaiming God’s Word. In 2 Timothy 4:2, he says: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season…” So the second core responsibility of a pastor, after prayer, is to proclaim the Gospel. In the second book in the Jethro Series, ‘Passion for Preaching’, we will deal with this topic more extensively.
The third task Jethro mentions is to “show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.” This is all about the practical application in daily life of what has been preached. This aspect of teaching is a vital part of church life. It should be aimed at showing believers how the Biblical message proclaimed among them is designed to direct, change and renew our lives. How does the sermon you heard affect the way you live with God, with your fellow man and with yourself? Teaching takes preaching a step further by seeking a practical application for the church. Through teaching, the proclaimed Word can be applied to specific situations, brought nearer, made more practical.
This teaching also implies systematic coverage of the whole of Scripture. You can use different passages of Scripture to clearly outline themes and principles, highlighting the key truths and enabling church members to really apply them in day-to-day life. In ‘the Great Commission’ in Matthew 28, Jesus mentions this quite emphatically: “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (verse 20). Preaching and teaching cannot do without each other, they complement each other, draw the church together and bring the believer nearer to God. So in addition to praying and preaching, the pastor is also responsible for the spiritual development of the church through systematic, practical teaching.
The fourth aspect of church life for which Moses is responsible, Jethro says, is dealing with disputes among the people: “…have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves” (Exodus 18:22). Tensions and troubles are bound to occur within a group of people journeying through the desert together. Most of Moses pastoral work consisted of settling disputes. Pastoral counselling – which largely consists of comforting, encouraging and visiting people – is a core responsibility of every pastor. It is often the most visible aspect of a pastor’s job. Whenever your church members face a personal crisis or a relational conflict, you’re there. You encourage, comfort, share words from the Bible, pray with your people. But another necessary part of your pastoral work is admonishing and correcting people, with the Bible in your hand, or condemning wrong situations or sinful patterns.
A good shepherd will lift up the weary or wounded sheep and carry it a while, leaning on his rod and his staff. But he uses that same rod and staff to bring straying sheep back to the flock, or to goad them onto the right path. A real pastor is concerned with the wellbeing of his people and will do whatever it takes to draw them near to Jesus and to keep them there. This is what pastoral work is all about. And it is one of the core responsibilities of every pastor.
The fifth piece of advice Jethro offers deals with the question of how to provide leadership to a bustling, dynamic group of people. Jethro here offers Moses a mini-course on church management. Find competent, devout, reliable men and make them responsible for the wellbeing of larger and smaller groups within the church. “Select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). In other words, Jethro advises Moses to divide the people into smaller units and to appoint pastoral workers for each one.
Then the people will know who they can go to, the pastoral workers will have clearly defined responsibilities, and Moses will no longer have to deal with all those issues on his own. We see, then, that organising the church efficiently is another core responsibility of the pastor. Don’t do everything yourself, but appoint people who are able and willing to share in the responsibility. Essentially, this is about team-based leadership: Moses is to deal with the most difficult cases himself, while all other concerns and questions can be taken to the group pastors. In this way, the pastor does not get overworked, the gifts of other church members will be put to good use, and the work will not be done reluctantly but in gratitude for the opportunity to work together to the glory of God.
Jethro offers pastors a priority list outlining five clear tasks. The beautiful thing is that this same list reappears in Acts 6. After the first day of Pentecost, the apostles soon were so busy leading the rapidly growing church and coping with an increasing range of material demands that they began to neglect their primary responsibilities. Then, in verses 3-4, they intervened: “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” The apostles cut back their core responsibilities even further than Jethro does in his advice to Moses. They said their task was to pray and to administer the Word of God. Clearly, those two tasks rank right at the top of the pastor’s priority list, both in the Old and the New Testament.
Leaving a trail
In order to be this focussed in your work, you will have to make firm decisions and stick to them consistently. Don’t take your cues from the expectations of church members, but from your Biblical assignment. This calls for vision – and the courage to put that vision into practice. But as you do these things, you’ll begin to see things happening in the church. You’ll be working purposefully, rather than rushing around putting out fires. An experienced and wise pastor summed up his work in the church as follows: don’t just wear out your shoes, leave a trail.
Pitfalls for pastors
Like any other believer, a pastor knows temptation: sinful thoughts and feelings that well up from the depths of our soul and lure us away from God. As James puts it: “…each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:14). Everyone faces temptations. Christians can battle and overcome them in the name and the power of Jesus. Typical examples include material temptations, sexual temptations, the temptations of self-centredness and so on. We’ve already looked at some of them in Chapter 5, when we discussed the pastor’s daily life. Like other believers, a pastor is familiar with these dangers. Paul exhorts the young pastor Timothy to be an example right there in those tough areas of life. Show others, he says, how to deal with such temptations as a Christian.
In addition to the common dangers every Christian faces, a pastor has to cope with several other risks that are part and parcel of his ministry. Throughout church history quite a few different lists have been drawn up, varying from ‘gold, girl’s and glory’ to lengthy catalogues of up to fifteen possible threats to a pastor’s spiritual wellbeing. In this chapter, we will focus on five pitfalls. I have based this selection on my own experience, conversations with colleagues, and books and articles I’ve read on this topic down the years. These are the five pitfalls we’ll be looking at: pride as opposed to gratitude, ruling as opposed to serving, self-interest as opposed to the interest of the church, mediocrity as opposed to zeal, pessimism as opposed to faith.
Let’s face it: it’s quite something to stand up in front of a group of people every Sunday whose eyes and ears are trained on you; to regularly be told that your sermon has been such a help to someone; that your visit was such an encouragement; that your efforts are so appreciated; and so on. The danger of receiving praise as a pastor is that – unconsciously, of course – you become proud of what you do and who you are. And you actually believe you have good reason to feel that way, because, after all, you’re the one everyone relies on all the time. Rarely does a church member appeal to you in vain. You work hard for God and for your fellow believers. And unintentionally, you adopt an air of subtle pride. You may not want to face it, you may not readily admit that a thing like pride smoulders deep within you, but it is a very real pitfall.
Pride always has to do with seeking and enjoying appreciation. This can be a healthy tendency, as long as you welcome people’s appreciation for your work, or your personality, without depending on it. But especially if you hold a central position in your community, the church’s simple appreciation for what you do can quickly grow into an unhealthy admiration, or even idolisation. The pastor can start to take on a more central role than his Lord. And that is a serious sin.
Pride is the desire to be important. Pride is a feeling that you can do things better than others can, which soon leads to a hidden conviction that in some ways you actually are better than others. Pride is what we see in Peter, when he declares: ”Even if all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). Ever since the Fall of man, pride has been the root of evil. It was pride, after all, that caused the fall of Adam and Eve in paradise: they wanted to be more and better. The opposite of pride is gratitude. A proud person views everything that is going well in church and in his own life as a personal success; a grateful person realises that all good things are the result of God’s blessing and grace.
That’s exactly why pride is so dangerous: it keeps you away from the life based on grace. Pride creeps in subtly. Pride is a warning signal that as a pastor you are no longer living in intimate fellowship with your Lord. You start to behave as if you did it all yourself. The more you are at the centre of attention, the greater this pitfall becomes. And if you claim to be immune to the disease of pride, chances are you’re already infected. Pride usually comes disguised as false modesty. You brush off compliments, pretending to be modest, but on the inside you’re burning with pride. Anyone who knows God and himself just a little bit, will realise more and more that we must join in Jesus’ confession: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing…” (John 5:19). Rather than fuelling your pride, this makes you grateful. The words of David in Psalm 19:13 have always been my personal prayer, again and again: “Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression” (New King James Version).
A pastor is a servant. He lives to serve God and his whole manner of leading should express this. He is a servant leader. This means that in everything your aim is to honour God and to build up the church. Whatever is wholesome for the church, whatever will encourage members and help them to grow and blossom in their relationships with God and with each other comes first in everything you do and don’t do. That’s how it is meant to be. And that’s how many pastors begin their assignment. But all too often we slip back into old, natural leadership patterns of the kind we see in the world around us. Before you know it, your leadership as a pastor can harden into dominance over the church. Jesus warns against this in Matthew 20, when the wife of Zebedee brings her two sons to Him. They’re disciples of Jesus and she asks Jesus to allow them to sit at his right and left hand in His Kingdom. She wants her sons to rule on the throne with Jesus. When the other disciples hear about her request, they are indignant. This is how Jesus responds: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Jesus makes it clear that in the world it is normal for leaders to oppress their subjects and to abuse power. Every leader has a tendency to give his own will and interests first place. The mother’s request is evidence that it even happens in the Kingdom. But Jesus holds out a clear standard for all those in leadership positions within the church of Christ. Leadership, as he portrays it, is about serving. If you want to be first, He says, you must become everyone’s servant. That was His own mission when he came to earth: “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (verse 28). With this same assignment He sends pastors off into the church. Your assignment is very simple: serve.
Servant leadership is characterised by listening and empathising. What’s going on in people’s lives, what drives them, what do they need, how can they grow in faith, how can this church blossom to the glory of Christ? These are the big questions a servant leader is occupied with.
Being a servant leader also means you want to avoid running a one-man show. Leadership is a shared responsibility, and although you may often be the initiator, you never want to do it all on your own. You can’t. Shared leadership will prevent a pastor from becoming a ruler. Together with the elders and other gifted believers, you serve the church by jointly providing leadership. As a pastor, you have a specific leadership role, but you’re never above others within the church. Your authority is never based on power, but on serving God and the church, under the guidance of the Word and the Spirit.
Never forget that serving can slowly change into ruling. Often, you won’t notice the change yourself. But your congregation will. By the time they do, however, it may be too late, as you will no longer be open to correction, to fundamental questions about your functioning, to criticism. Make sure you are always accountable and correctible. Be aware that without knowing it you might step into the pitfall of pride; accountability and honesty are vital. Regular evaluation of your approach to leadership with the elders will prevent your servanthood from turning into dominance. Remember that the norm for all our leadership is always Jesus. We lead with Him, in His name and for Him; if He says He didn’t come to be served but to serve, how much more should we apply that to ourselves as pastors?
Right next to the pitfall of ruling lies another pitfall: self-interest. The pitfall of self-interest is all about the risk of developing an antennae for people you might be able to use, situations you may be able to take advantage of, decisions that may benefit your position sometime in the future. It is very tempting for any pastor to show a lot of interest in the people who appreciate you most. You know exactly which strings to pull to make sure others are reminded of how faithful and diligent you are.
Like most other folk, pastors can easily be impressed by successful or influential church members. Sometimes there’s an element of fear in this, because you know that if a prominent member starts to criticise you, you’re in for a rough time. Giving in to these feelings means you’re placing your own selfish interests before those of others, or of the church as a whole. If the most successful or vocal church members get all the attention and the pastor indulges in upper crust friendships, the more vulnerable and unassuming church members will lose out.
Most of a pastor’s work is hidden from the public eye. If appreciation and recognition are what you’re after, you won’t keep up this ‘invisible’ work for very long; you’ll soon be searching for ways to be praised again.
Whenever self-interest becomes a pastor’s underlying motive, God and the church end up being short-changed. The glory of God is replaced by the pastor’s status as the main focus. The pastor’s position, or material prospects, begin to take centre stage, to the neglect of the growth and wellbeing of the congregation.
Paul speaks plainly about the pitfall of self-interest in Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (verses 3-4). Then he goes on to prescribe the best medicine available against self-centred living and working: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (verse 5). That is the secret to the right way of living and working. The more you realise what the mindset of Jesus is and how He gave up all power and glory in order to save you, the more you’ll learn to do the same for others. A self-centred life makes you a slave to your own selfish interests and ambitions. But if you allow Jesus Christ to guide you in these things, you will experience the freedom that comes with living in genuine love for the people around you. Then you will no longer be focused on personal gain, but instead you’ll learn to enjoy loving and serving others. It is the freedom experienced by every child of God who has heard these words: “…everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). The more you realise how much God loves you, the less dependent you’ll be on the praise of people, and the freer you’ll be to really be there for whoever needs you.
The pitfall of self-interest is recognised in the Suffering Church as well. For example, for a pastor living under constant financial pressure it may be tempting to visit wealthier church members, who are more likely to give financial or material gifts. A pastor in Egypt told me pastors sometimes indeed make visits to church members in hopes of receiving a gift of some sort. Obviously, their motive is not right. But if you have a family to support and your salary is barely enough for you to survive on, this kind of behaviour is quite understandable. There is a responsibility here for the congregation as a whole to make sure the pastor is spared from spending much of his time and energy on scraping for a living.
A pastor works hard. He is more or less the engine of the church. Particularly in situations where there is a lot of groundwork and building to do, this can be very fulfilling. You get to watch the church grow, you see more and more believers finding their niche. You are constantly challenged to pray for the church, to think about it and to invest all your abilities and creativity in building it up. But as the church begins to stabilise, the groundwork has been done and fixed patterns begin to be established, you may be tempted to start taking things a little easier. The church is generally running smoothly, all you have to do is give a little extra push or pull now and again, but apart from that it’s plain sailing. You begin to be content with more of the same. As long as nothing really nasty or out-of-the-box happens, you’re quite content. The longing for growth and dynamism you had at first gradually makes way for a longing for rest and stability. Unconsciously, you’ve shifted your focus from expansion and renewal to merely minding the shop. No pastor starts out like this, but many end this way. They’re no longer on fire, passionate about working in God’s Kingdom; their calling has become a job.
What we’ve described here is no different from what Jesus describes in Matthew 25:14-30, in the parable of the talents, or bags of gold. A master going on a journey entrusts all his wealth to his servants, giving each one the amount he can handle. None of them is given a burden heavier than he can bear. Two of the three servants immediately set about putting their money to work and both manage to double the amount entrusted to them. They’re committed and unmistakably passionate about doubling their wealth, because it belongs to the master. Their whole approach exudes love for their master. They give him their very best. On his return, they each offer him a double amount and the master commends them by saying: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (verses 21 and 23). The third servant has a different attitude altogether. His plan is to ‘mind the shop’ and he hides his one bag of gold in a hole in the ground. It belongs to his master, after all, so it has to be guarded carefully and shouldn’t be put at risk. Essentially, this servant is trying to secure his own safety. When the master returns, he’s very angry with this servant, calling him ‘wicked’ and ‘lazy’ (verse 26). The first two considered their master’s interests, the third guarded his own.
Mediocrity is a form of cowardice. If we stop taking initiatives in church and seek to keep things the way they are, if we’re content with the status quo, we’re hiding our master’s bag of gold in a hole in the ground. We need a fresh awareness of the fact that what has been entrusted to us belongs to our Master. It´s bad enough to allow your own possessions to rust away, or to squander them, but doing God´s work half-heartedly will hinder the advancement of the Kingdom and keep people from being saved. That’s why the master in the parable, like the Lord in heaven, is so angry with the third servant.
To all those burned out pastors and half-hearted workers in the Kingdom, I’d like to hold out Paul’s words as an encouragement: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:9,10).
The last pitfall to be discussed here is the pitfall of pessimism. Whereas mediocrity is really your own fault as a pastor, pessimism can sometimes just assault you. You start out with good courage, longing for positive experiences and developments in the church that will glorify God, but you see so few results. Is there any point, am I doing something wrong, am I really cut out for this work, does anything really happen when I preach? Pessimism is one of Satan’s favourite tools in discouraging and paralysing pastors. If you start looking for results, measuring and weighing them in the balance, you may very easily step into this pitfall. You might also call it the pitfall of disbelief. You give up believing that God really is at work, you give up believing in the power of the Spirit and of the Word, in God’s promises to the church.
It’s vital to realise that as a pastor you are not responsible for the results, but that God has promised to bless. Paul puts it this way: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Especially when you feel like giving up, it is important to share your heart, honestly and openly, with a few trusted people. Many pastors are ashamed of their negative feelings and keep them to themselves for a long time. Things will get better some time, they tell themselves; don’t be a weakling, just press on, the fire will return. It often does eventually, but getting there is a long and lonely road and ‘the wound is dressed as though it were not serious’. Which probably means it won’t be too long before the next wave of depression comes rolling in. Only if you have the courage to be vulnerable, to ask for help and to bite the bullet are you likely to experience real recovery.
A church leader in Iraq spoke to me about what he called the ‘fatalism’ of most Iraqis, including many pastors. They’ve given up believing in the restoration of their country and the rebuilding of the church. The constant struggle and the tensions have caused a deep discouragement, and all you can do as a pastor is try and plod on as inconspicuously as possible. Many hardly even believe the church of Christ will survive in Iraq. When I asked my friend about his own feelings, he exclaimed: ”There is still hope! God is a God of hope. I, too, see how tough things have become and how much goes wrong in our society and our churches, but I believe in a God who daily performs miracles and that gives me hope.”
Then he went on to explain the difference between optimism and hopefulness. Optimism, he said, is based on money and power. You believe things will improve, because you have the resources and possibilities to achieve it. Hope is what’s left when you’ve run out of resources and possibilities, but you do know that God is with you, that He is at work in the toughest of circumstances. “A person who is hopeful, is never alone”, he said, “because he has aligned himself with God.”
What every church needs, I learned from this brother, is not an optimistic pastor, but a hopeful pastor!
In his book ‘Christ-driven Ministry’, Ajith Fernando, the leader of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, also writes about discouraged pastors, advocating what he calls ‘a theology of groaning’. He does this on the basis of Romans 8:23, where Paul says: “…we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship.” In church we sometimes pretend to be happy and joyful – we’re children of God, after all! But the Bible shows us that hard times and difficult situations, in which we really reach the end of our tether, are part of living with God and that we must be honest with God and with one another about these things. This is what the Bible calls groaning, and Paul says those who have received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will experience it, too. In fact, the Spirit Himself groans along with us as he intercedes for us (Romans 8:26).
What matters, says Fernando, is that we learn to distinguish between groaning and grumbling. Groaning is always directed to God and is, therefore, full of hope and expectation. Grumbling is succumbing to self-pity and throwing the towel in the ring. If as a pastor you feel a wave pessimism coming your way, don’t try to ignore it, instead express your groanings to God with the help of the Spirit, knowing that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Persevering as a pastor
Pastoring a church is wonderful work. It’s an immense privilege. Yet at the same time it takes everything out of you. As you nourish and serve others, you’re constantly giving out. Time and again, the intensity of your emotional and spiritual engagement reaches peak levels. You don’t churn out sermons at the drop of a hat. You don’t offhandedly visit a seriously ill brother or sister. You don’t listen to a couple plagued by marital problems with just half an ear. You don’t shrug off the problems shared with you by a young person. You listen, you empathise, you pray. You make thorough preparations for the next meeting, Bible study or sermon. And at the end of the day, you’re often tired, spiritually drained. You can keep it up for quite a while, but if there’s no compensation one way or another, you’ll eventually hit the wall. Sooner or later, your tank will run dry.
Exhaustion is not the only reason why pastors are sometimes forced to quit. Sometimes it’s the sheer monotony of the work. If you’re plodding on with the usual counselling sessions, meetings and sermons without very much to show for it – without seeing significant change in the church or special things happening in people’s lives – you can get very discouraged. So both an overdose and a lack of excitement in church can deplete your resources as a pastor, leaving you so powerless and demoralised you hardly know how to continue. What should you do in a situation like that?
In this chapter, we’re going to look at five sources from which you will be able to draw new inspiration and strength in your life and work as a pastor. No doubt others could be mentioned, but to me these five stand out.
The first source is your calling, which we discussed at the beginning of this book. Particularly at a time when your motivation is ebbing away and the ministry has all but lost its appeal, it’s important not to focus on whether or not you’re having a good time. You’re not in this church doing this work for the fun of it, but because God called you to serve Him here. So in essence, this source takes you back to God Himself. Tapping into this source means returning to your Sender. Share your reluctance, your discontent or your weariness with God and ask Him to reconfirm your calling. Ask God to restore, nourish and renew your first love for Him and His church.
Apart from reminding you of your calling, going back to this source also calls on you to deliberately step out again in obedience to that call. It means going back to obeying God’s command. Look what happened to Elijah. In 1 Kings 19, he was so exhausted and depressed, he felt like quitting. But God led him back to the source. On Mount Horeb, Elijah’s source of renewal turned out to be God’s quiet presence. In the quietness of a gentle whisper, God asked Elijah: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13). Elijah took the opportunity to utter his complaint to God. The only answer he got was that he must ‘go back’ to work – but everything had changed. Once again Elijah knew, more than ever before, that God was with him.
Particularly when you’re fed up, you may go to God and return to the source of your calling. But realise that He will most likely put you right back to work; you’ll have no other option than to obey. But you’ll also discover that this is the best remedy for weary pastors. Keep at it, but remember Who is with you.
A second source to draw strength from is our destiny: in addition to going back to where it all began, we must also regularly direct our attention towards the final goal, our future. A pastor is not someone who presses on in naïve optimism, rather his work is based on the Biblical hope that the promised breakthrough of God’s Kingdom will one day be fulfilled.
The ultimate goal we’re all moving towards is the second coming of Christ, that day when the Master will return and ask each of his servants what they did with his wealth. Did you hide it or double it? (Matthew 25:14-28). On that day, every servant who has made the most of what God entrusted to him or her, will be invited to join the master’s feast. Their work will be rewarded. Here and now you may see few results, but again and again Jesus emphasises that your reward in heaven will be great. If you’re faithful in small things here on earth, great things will be entrusted to you in the Kingdom. Aim for the prize promised you at the end of the race, the crown of victory. There is no greater joy than one day to be with Jesus in His Kingdom, surrounded by people you led to Him. That is our future, the promise we’re building on. Losing sight of this prospect and hope is a recipe for discouragement. But keep looking ahead and you’ll be able to persevere.
Taking a retreat
The third source you can draw from in order to persevere as a pastor is the quietness of retreat. The word retreat originally means ‘to draw back’. A retreat is a shorter or longer period in which you withdraw to a place of seclusion in order to find rest and to refocus. Busy pastors need this more urgently than they often realise. The benefits of a retreat are among others:
• First of all, you need quietness and rest to reaffirm that your spiritual life with God is the absolute top priority in your life. Reading the Bible and praying without interruption will give you new strength.
• Secondly, a retreat will help you slow down your pace of living. Sometimes, the pace can be so high that you can’t stop, you just keep rushing on from one thing to the next. It becomes a pattern that has you so firmly in its grip that you can’t even find rest in God (Psalm 62).
• The third advantage of a retreat is that in quietness, both outward and inward, you will hear and learn to recognise God’s voice again. God does not shout, He whispers in your ear to express His love and His will (Matthew 10:27).
• The fourth way in which you will benefit from a retreat is that it will deliver you from the tyranny of a busy schedule. Your diary and workload can be brutal slave drivers. In many churches a busy pastor is considered a good thing, because it means he´s really there for the people. This is a dangerous mistake. We already saw in Chapter 5 that rushing about to please church members is not what you´ve been called to do.
• The fifth advantage of taking time out for quietness and solitude is that in the midst of many challenges and changes you will rediscover your source of strength and peace. Psalm 73 contains a long complaint by the poet about the intense pressure he is experiencing. Then he retreats, as it were, turning to God, and once again he finds peace in the realisation of what his life really centres on: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel” (Psalm 73:23).
There are different ways of taking time out for quietness and rest. You can retreat to a quiet place or a conference for a few days. But you can also plan a moment of quiet withdrawal every day or every week, in which you deliberately step back from the hustle and bustle to be quiet and to spend time with God. I like to spend a morning or afternoon walking in the forest once every week. There I can be quiet before God, share with Him what’s on my heart and receive new strength from Him. Usually, I take my notes for next Sunday’s sermon along, and in the silence of nature, God gives me inspiration and encouragement to preach His Word. Without this weekly retreat I would never survive as a pastor!
To many pastors in the Suffering Church, this issue poses a problem. They are under so much pressure from so many sides, as well as being threatened, that their families invariably suffer. Older pastors tend to involve their wives by giving them responsibilities in the church. Younger pastors with children have a particularly hard time.
A Pakistani pastor spoke to me about this, just after he’d been arrested and thoroughly interrogated. His thoughts immediately turned to his family and he wondered how they would handle the news, how frightened they’d be. He prayed for them. When he got home, his children, some of whom were studying abroad, said that this incident strengthened their resolve to return to Pakistan and support the church. The pressures faced by a pastor can disrupt family life, but they can also become a source of new inspiration.
The fourth source I’d like to mention is studying. This may not be the first thing that comes to your mind if you’re thinking about refreshment, but taking extra time out to study and to gain new knowledge, skills and insights will definitely inspire you. If you stop studying because you’re too busy, your development will come to a standstill. You’ll find yourself constantly drawing on the same old reservoir of answers and options. Before you know it, that reservoir will dry up.
Studying means thoughtfully examining the Bible in the first place, so that rather than becoming superficial, what you have to say about God will be deeply rooted in God’s Word. This will add depth to your own spiritual life as well as to your work in the church. Next, it’s important to read up, if you can, on what church leaders in other parts of the world and during other periods of history have written on topics you’re looking into. Remember, we’re not the first and we won’t be the last to be facing such issues. Try to gain a broad perspective on the themes you’re faced with as a pastor, so that you will develop a balanced and informed personal view.
A prominent pastor in Iraq told me he tries to spend five hours a day studying, so that in addition to rediscovering known treasures he may dig up new ones from the depths of God’s Word and from the history of the church. Studying also helps him to know how to handle the constantly changing circumstances and challenges his church is confronted with.
The founder of Open Doors, Brother Andrew, always makes sure he’s working through several study books at the same time – in addition to reading the Bible and a number of daily devotionals. When I asked him why does this, he told me: That way my backpack is always full, so that whenever and wherever the opportunity arises I can share or equip others.
Studying sharpens the mind, makes you alert, and adds new dimensions to your walk with God and with the people around you. It keeps your mind fresh, calling on gifts you may not use in your daily work in church. Make sure that in addition to studying the Bible, you also read up on what is going on in the world around you. This will help you understand the times. It will also make you more familiar with other religions and value systems, so that you can equip church members in relating to those outside the church.
Studying is also necessary for providing your preaching and teaching with a firm apologetic basis. Make sure you can intelligently join in debates and that you can offer solid answers to questions directed at you by church members as well as outsiders.
It’s good to note that there are different ways of studying. Some read books and articles, others prefer to attend conferences, seminars and training programmes when they can. Both approaches can help you come to grips with the latest information in a given field.
Fellowship with colleagues
The fifth source you can draw from in order to keep going as a pastor is regular contact with other pastors. Talking with colleagues who are in the same situation as you are can be immensely encouraging. Sharing your joys and sorrows will really cheer you up as a pastor; you’ll experience the relief and the pleasure of realising you’re not the only one facing certain issues. Sometimes, being with colleagues means you can have a good laugh about situations you’ve encountered, as they help you put things in perspective and remind you that laughter is easier in company. Sometimes they may be able to offer helpful advice or practical support. Pastors with more experience may be able to counsel you. You’ll also find that fellow pastors can challenge you more honestly than most church members would. Fellowship between pastors potentially can go further, because you’re both in the same battlefield.
You cannot take the wholesome effects of fellowship with colleagues for granted, however. You will only experience them if you’re prepared to be open and honest with each other, rather than keeping up appearances. Often the latter is precisely what we do – to our own loss. Joined together in the service of our crucified Lord, we needn’t be ashamed or embarrassed of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If we share from heart to heart, we can encourage and strengthen one another at that level, too. It will give us the renewed vitality we need to continue.
A church leader in Pakistan told me that within his denomination every pastor is required to seek out a senior pastor and to keep in touch with him intensively. The senior pastor does not only offer advice in practical affairs, but also acts as a kind of confessor. Juniors can share everything with their senior pastor, who will listen and counsel them so that they remain standing, close to God, an exemplary Christian leader in the midst of their congregation. A senior pastor, of course, must be honest and reliable and possess moral authority. This arrangement helps pastors in Pakistan to persevere.
As we have seen, there are different sources we can tap into when as pastors we’re feeling less than equal to the task. It makes good sense, of course, to make these sources a regular part of your pastorship and not just to use them in hard times. That way you can keep yourself from getting overworked or exhausted.