After the resurrection Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. Congregations ask the same question of their pastor, and this is especially true in the smaller, family churches. The truth of the matter is that many of these churches have not felt loved by their pastors, in some cases, for many years. They have seen pastors come and go. Many of them feel used as if they were just one rung on the ministerial ladder the minister needed to take before being able to move on to the next size church. If a family in your church was abandoned every year or two by a spouse or parent it is very unlikely they would feel loved by that person. This is how many smaller churches feel. It's one thing to say that you love someone; it's something else entirely to demonstrate that love. Churches, like individuals, want to be shown they are loved. Whether they voice it or not, they are continually asking, "Pastor, do you love us?"
I recently tweeted a link to a quote that said, "You can preach a good sermon without loving your church, but not a great one." When you love your people you are engaged in their lives, and that engagement will lead to sermons that speak to the deepest needs of people's lives. One criticism unchurched people have about the church is that they do not see it as relevant to their lives. They see us answering questions that no one is asking. Their criticism is sometimes justified, and the reason for that may be that we in leadership are not sufficiently engaged in people's lives to know what questions are troubling them. When we love our people we will be sufficiently engaged.
When we love our people we better understand why they do some of the things they do. This helps us be less critical of them when they make decisions that we may wish had been different. There are pastors who are constantly criticizing their congregation, and when I am with those kind of pastors I know he or she really does not love the people enough to try to understand them. If you find that you are always complaining about your church it may be a sign that you need to leave them. A critical attitude seldom leads to effective leadership.
There is another side of this coin. When you love your people, they often love you in return and will be more forgiving of your mistakes. Perhaps the reason your congregation isn't perfect is because they have a pastor who isn't perfect! I know I wasn't. I gave our church many reasons to question my leadership during the twenty years I served there, but they were gracious people who loved me and were willing to overlook my faults.
How long has it been since you've told your congregation publicly that you loved them? Periodically, I would include that in a morning message. I might say something like this, "Sometimes you all drive me up the wall, but I want you to know that I love you and care very much for each and everyone of you." It would get a chuckle, but it also reminded them that their pastor loved them. We all like to hear that we are loved, and a congregation is no different.
It's equally important that we demonstrate our love. That means being with them in the good times and the hard times in their lives. It means bragging on them when they have an accomplishment in their lives. It means that we are willing to sit all night in a hospital room with a grieving family. It means forgiving them when they demonstrate a critical spirit and working with them during times of disagreement.
"Pastor, do you love us?" It's the most important question you can answer for your congregation.