Pastors and teachers are the gifts of our ascended Lord to his church, so they are a great blessing to the churches and should be greatly loved and highly esteemed because of their work. They’re under-shepherds who serve under the Chief Shepherd.
The Bible makes it clear that the greatest leaders of God’s people were godly men but also men with all the frailties of other human beings. These are the people God uses. Highlighting the prophet Elijah’s great faith, James wrote, ‘Elijah was a human being, even as we are.
The challenges of pastoral ministry today
We should recognise that pastors have frailties and vulnerabilities similar to those of other Christians. They shouldn’t try to fulfil the unreal expectations some people have of them or the unreal expectations they may have of themselves.
Pastoral ministry, like other professions and callings, is very demanding and tiring. A pastor fulfils many different roles. He preaches publicly two or three times every week and spends many hours preparing for this ministry. His pastoral ministry is more private — visiting members of his congregation in their homes, including those who are elderly or housebound. There will be hospital visits and pastoral crises that require many hours of pastoral care and can be emotionally draining. Pastors are glad to be available 24/7 when their people are in need.
Pastors and their wives need fellowship and encouragement. Pastoral ministry can be a very lonely task. Pastors spend many hours in private study and prayer. Their interaction with their congregation at weekly meetings may provide limited opportunities for real fellowship. They are often out of the home in the evening and so miss out on family life. If they have young children, their wife may miss out on Sunday evening services and the main prayer meetings. The pastor and his wife may have few friends of their own age in the church. Younger pastors may also have church officers who are old enough to be their parents or grandparents. These people may be wonderfully encouraging but cannot provide the friendship and fellowship of peers.
The temptations of pastoral ministry today
Every occupation has its privileges and its temptations and pastoral ministry is no exception. Pastors must organise their own working schedule. This may seem to be only good but is, in fact, one reason why some pastors experience depression. The fixed hours of most jobs, with a starting and finishing time and scheduled breaks, may seem restrictive but, actually, are psychologically helpful.
Pastors experience discouragement. It is not easy to achieve a balanced assessment of the outcomes of their ministry. There may be little positive feedback, but some criticisms and complaints. In some churches today there seems to be a spiritual lukewarmness. Some Christians attend only on Sunday mornings. The sermons pastors prepare for a Sunday evening or midweek Bible study take just as much time and effort but are often preached to a small number of people. It is like a mother cooking meals for her family only to find that some family members often don’t turn up to eat them!
Pastors, like other Christians, may fail through serious sin
It is always sad and tragic when a pastor falls into serious sin. In my experience it is rarely the case that the pastor has set out to sin. Rather, it has been the consequence and culmination of the circumstances in which they find themselves. It was like that with King David. For many years he had been a man of war fighting against the enemies of God and of Israel. When the time came to go to war again, he was weary and stayed at home and succumbed to immorality. This had devastating consequences for him and his family and for Uriah. He didn’t sit down in cold blood to plan committing adultery with the wife of one of his bravest and most honourable soldiers and then to arrange for him to be killed in battle. He fell into temptation.
We tend to judge him harshly rather than to see him as a human being who could be ensnared by temptation, just like us all, and commit the darkest of sins. Yet he really was a man ‘after God’s own heart’. He was also vulnerable to temptation and the devil’s schemes. When he was convicted of his sin through Nathan, the prophet, he experienced forgiveness and restoration. Amazingly David and Bathsheba’s first son, Solomon, became king and was in the Messianic line. God really is the God of second chances!
Knowing how to restore pastors who sin to faith and active service
It is important for us to be able to pastor pastors who fall into serious sin and their wives and children. I have always been saddened when men whom God has called to be Ministers of the Gospel, and who have grievously failed, have disappeared from the life of our churches and lived in the spiritual shadows for the rest of their lives. Sometimes this has been because they have not been able to cope with their failure and have withdrawn from the fellowship of the local church. But sometimes it has been because, as church leaders and congregations, we have not known how to help them and restore them.
Many pastors who fail have been ‘wounded in action’. The resurrected Lord’s restoration of Peter on the shores of Galilee is a supreme example of pastoral care to a fallen leader. Marjory Foyle’s book Honourably Wounded has also been a great help to many missionaries and those who care for them.
We must be able to make distinctions. Where there is no evidence of a broken and contrite heart we must continue to pray and exhort. Where there is godly sorrow we must seek to lovingly restore those who have fallen to healthy Christian living and to being valued members of a local church. Some will also return to active service in the right place and at the right time. John Piper has written very challengingly on how the Lord restores Christian workers who fall into sexual sin. He bases what he writes on Micah 7:8-9 and urges Christian workers who have fallen into sin to recognise that their guilt is real and so is God’s grace. He writes of ‘gutsy guilt’. His concern, together with George Verwer, is to see Christian workers overcoming sinful failure and being fully restored (see this article).
The care and support of the pastor’s family is also very important. It is hard for those who have not been in pastoral ministry to realize the degree of integration there is for a pastor and his family of their ministry and whole life. When the pastor leaves his ministry everything changes – work, home, income, children’s schools! As church officers and Christians we must lovingly surround the pastor and his wife and children and seek to support them in every way we can. It is important to respect and protect their personal privacy as much as possible. Galatians 6, verses 1-6 teaches us how to ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’
So let us with all our hearts thank our ascended Lord for the pastors and teachers he has given us. Let’s love them, encourage them and pray for them. They ‘keep watch over our souls’ and we want their work to be a joy to them so that they and we may together know the Lord’s richest blessing.