Friday, February 17, 2012

Pain and the minister

Hebrews 13:17 reads, "Obey those who rule over you and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.  Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you."  Those who accept the responsibility of ministry must realize that they will give an account to God for their service.  As a pastor I always knew that I would one day stand before God and give an account for what I taught and how I served the people He had given me.  It is a sobering thought.

But, it should be no more sobering than the responsibility of the ones being served.  The writer directs them to submit to those called to lead them so their service would be one of joy and not grief.  The idea of submitting is one that many of us in the church struggle with and will be the subject of another post on another day.  In this post I want to focus on the pain that many in ministry must live with.  Too many in the ministry do not find joy in their service primarily because of the pain that is often inflicted upon them by those they serve.

For the past twelve years I have been involved in judicatory ministry, and I have seen some pastors poorly treated by congregations.  In fact, in some cases it went beyond poor treatment to abuse.  I have coached a number of pastors whose pain was almost unbearable.  At least one had left the ministry because of the mistreatment he had experienced from churches, and the fact is that clergy leave the ministry every day because they cannot stand the pain ministry has brought them and/or their families.  To see persons called to ministry by God leave because of abuse by congregations is a shame and one for which those congregations will be judged by God for.

What is a pastor to do when he or she is treated unfairly by the church?  The first response is often to seek another place of service.  At times that is the only solution because some churches are so dysfunctional that they will abuse any pastor who attempts to serve them, and no minister and his or her family have to tolerate abuse at the hands of such churches.  However, leaving isn't always the best option because no matter where one goes to serve, there will be unhealthy people who will fill your life with grief if you allow them to.  Any time I was tempted to leave my church because of the actions of an individual I reminded myself that he or she probably had relatives in any church I went to.  Before leaving, there are some things to do when your ministry is under attack.

  • Look for whatever truth there might be in the attack.  Even though the pain of the attack may be great, if you can find some truth behind it, that pain can be a learning experience that may help you become a better minister.
  • Pray for your accusers.  That isn't always easy to do, but God can do things in their lives that you cannot.  Even if they don't change, your prayers will change you.
  • Recognize there are some things you cannot change and shouldn't try.  You should also remember that just because a critic demands you change something about yourself or your ministry that doesn't mean you should.
  • Recognize that a certain percentage of most congregations are made up of controllers who believe their job is to contain you and limit anything in the church that could become a threat to their position in the church.  Such people are bullies who need to be challenged and stopped or the church will never move forward.  Like Queen Esther, you may be called to such a time as this, but you cannot confront them by yourself.  You need to enlist others in the church who care more about God than they do for the controllers to join you in challenging them.  You may fail and lose your pastorate, but if you are bivocational your other job will support you and your family while you seek a new place of service.
  • Refuse to focus on the critics.  In most churches, the people who support their pastor far outnumbers the critics, but we tend to focus on the critics.  Listen to their criticism when appropriate, but focus your primary attention on those who support you and your vision for the church.
  • Find people with whom you can confide.  That may be a judicatory leader, another pastor, or a coach.  Do not carry your pain and grief alone, and do not expect your spouse to carry it alone either.  You need to talk to safe people about your feelings so they do not become overwhelming.
Ministry will always have its peaks and valleys.  Your church is made up of imperfect people who will sometimes disappoint you.  (It helps to remember that if they were perfect they probably wouldn't have chosen you to be their pastor!)  Learn what you can from the valleys, enjoy the peaks, and give grace to those who may not deserve it but need it most.  Finally, thank God every day that He chose you to serve in the most blessed of all work.

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