All relationships are subject to stress and strain, including that between a pastor and a congregation. People sometimes complain. ‘The pastor never visits me.’ ‘He doesn’t preach the gospel.’ ‘He is not like our former pastor or the American preachers.’ ‘He tries to do everything himself.’ Pastors sometimes grumble. ‘Some people have such stony faces.’ ‘They have a lot to say but are hardly ever in the prayer meeting.’ ‘The officers behave like CEOs.’ ‘Nothing I do makes any difference.’ On occasion the relationship is so fraught that it breaks down altogether.
So what can be done?
Every relationship has two sides and carries mutual responsibilities. Here are six ways in which this is true of the pastor/people relationship.
- The pastor is a teacher of the Word. If he is to do so with faithfulness, balance, clarity and warmth he will need time to pray and study. The congregation therefore will expect him to open up the Scriptures. Their eagerness to receive the Word will encourage him to feed them well.
- The pastor is a preacher of the gospel. His calling is to inspire and move his hearers to praise God for his mighty work of redemption and to equip them for their own witness. The congregation will pray for him to do this with freshness and passion.
- The pastor is a shepherd of the Lord’s people. A skilful shepherd will accompany, feed, tend, protect and lead the flock. He will be available, approachable and accessible. The congregation will be willing for this and ready to inform him of their pastoral needs.
- The pastor is an overseer. As such he is set aside to watch over, look after, warn, encourage and equip the people. He will do so in partnership with his fellow officers, delegating and sharing the workload where possible. The congregation’s responsibility is to value pastoral oversight and serve the Lord according to their gifts.
- The pastor is an elder. Eldership involves a degree of spiritual maturity sometimes in advance of a person’s age. It is about prayerful and efficient teamwork: praying together, sharing functions, combining gifts and being mutually accountable. Elders should always seek to work as a unit and to speak with one voice. They are not to dominate or control others by force of personality, eloquence, strictness or dependence. The congregation needs to call the right people to be elders, people who stand out for their godliness and giftedness.
- The pastor is above all a servant. He is a servant of Christ, a servant of the gospel and a servant of the Church. Being a servant involves humility, self-sacrifice, patience and gentleness. It is the essential quality in pastoral leadership. The congregation must appreciate the honour of being a servant of Christ, neither flattering nor demeaning the pastor. If he is to think of himself as a servant, they are to think of him as a servant of the Lord.
These six features of the pastor/congregation relationship are important. They are, after all, the biblical teaching, under-girding everything else. Clarity here is fundamental to maintaining a healthy relationship.
Two other requirements
Jesus spoke of taking his yoke and learning from him because he ‘is gentle and humble in heart’. What a difference it would make in many a Christian community if this kind of discipleship existed!
- There would be no more invidious comparisons. Congregations would value all the Lord’s servants, warts and all. And pastors would be far more self-aware, self-effacing and self-critical. They would be far more grateful to God for an imperfect congregation in the process of being sanctified.
- There would be far less power seeking, far less personality prominence, far more Christ-centredness, far more sweetness. Believers would receive one another just as Christ received them in order to bring praise to God.
- Expectations would become much more realistic. Fellow Christians would learn to appreciate each other’s strengths and understand each other’s weaknesses. There would be far less huffing and puffing about the behaviour of others and a greater honesty about our own failures.
- Older Christians would be much more patient with younger pastors who are learning the ropes and making a few mistakes along the way. And pastors would have the imagination to try to understand the reasons why some members of their congregations have such struggles with their temperaments and circumstances.
- Instead of uniting around personalities and personal preferences, Christians would unite around the gospel itself and the great truths of the faith. They would be more willing to lay aside legitimate (and illegitimate) likes and dislikes for the greater good of the church and the glory of God.
- Where honest and seemingly intractable disagreements occur, there would be a much greater willingness to listen, to understand, to agree to disagree and to maintain fellowship without bitterness. Far fewer splits and defections would occur; far less individualism masquerading as honesty.
- And there would be a sincere spirit of forgiveness where wrongs exist. The fear of losing face and reputation would be replaced by the fear of God. The preciousness of being forgiven would be translated into forgiveness. And one on one confession would prevent the harbouring of resentment. Love would cover a multitude of sins.
A closer walk with God
In Christian experience the vertical relationship determines the horizontal. It enables us to see that if God has received us we ought to receive one another. It encourages us to pray for and with one another. It arms us for war against the devil. And it helps us with our struggle with self and the world
When M’Cheyne said that his people’s greatest need was his own personal holiness he was never wiser. At the heart of a healthy relationship between pastors and congregations is the pursuit of godliness.
Living before God will give us a true understanding of ourselves. We will learn to ask ourselves some pertinent questions: ‘Why am I so angry when I am contradicted? Why am I so contentious when contending? Are my so-called convictions on secondary matters simply prejudices?
Living before God will also help us to see others differently. The Biblical injunction to submit to one another will become much more than theoretical orthodoxy. We will be willing to listen carefully to others, and to learn from them.
The Lord Jesus Christ washed the feet of the disciples to show what it means to be a servant of the Lord. He came to serve others by cleansing them from sin through his atoning sacrifice. At the same time he commanded them to obey his commandments by loving him and one another. Such people would be loved by the Father and the Son who would come to them and give them the Holy Spirit. As a result the world would know that they were his disciples.
In a world where religious hatred, political feuding and family break-up dominate the headlines, the unity and peace of the church has never been so eloquent. May the Lord draw us all – pastors and congregations – closer to himself and to each other so that today’s unhappy world will see that the Father sent the Son to be its Saviour.