Pastoring with both eyes open
What attracts men to the pastorate? It is rarely prestige, power or money (especially the latter). In most cases it is love – love for Christ, love for people and love for the Word of God.
The typical Bible college or seminary student can hardly wait to leave the academic world and enter the ministry, where hungry souls await his exegesis of the Word and his compassionate shepherding. With great enthusiasm and excellent motives he enters his first pastorate – with visions of Spirit-filled preaching, changed lives and a God-honouring church.
But few realise that they will soon be waging great battles with the world, the flesh and the devil – battles more intense than anything they have experienced in the past.
Of course, having been well trained theologically, the newly minted pastor understands the enemies that oppose the work of Christ. What our man does not usually comprehend at this stage is the shape in which these enemies will actually appear.
He expects to do battle with the devil, but he doesn’t expect the devil to show up in the guise of respected and well-dressed church members. He expects to do battle with the world, but he doesn’t expect the world to have infiltrated the hearts and minds of his congregation. He expects to do battle against the flesh, but he doesn’t expect to see raw manifestations of the flesh among those who claim the name of Christ – or at times within his own heart and life.
The expectations of the inexperienced pastor often crumble and morph rapidly, and soon our man is disillusioned with the ministry, with the church, with his own life and, all too often, with the Lord himself.
Many drop out of the ministry and some should, for they are not adequately gifted. Others struggle on for years, sometimes until retirement, and they shouldn’t. Long ago their hearts were crushed, their passion lost and their love for ministry drained. But, as one such pastor told me in the first year of my ministry, ‘What else can I do? I have no other marketable skills’.
Something seems to be missing in the preparation and expectations of pastors and this missing component leaves them vulnerable to failure. It may be as simple as this – they have failed to realise that if they are to have fruitful ministries they will need to pastor with both eyes open. They will need to have one eye focused on the Lord and the work before them, and the other eye scouting the horizon for the enemies.
I think our old friend Nehemiah had this sorted when he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. There was a great work to do but also an imposing enemy. He wanted to build, not fight – don’t we all? But to ignore the enemy would invite disaster.
The people were afraid. They were not warriors but farmers, shepherds and carpenters – out of their element on the battlefield. They had signed on to build walls not to fight wars. So how do you build walls in such an environment? The same way you build churches, with both eyes opened.
One eye on God
Seeing his people’s fear, Nehemiah refuses to give quarter. ‘Do not be afraid of them’, he demanded; ‘remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight …’ (Nehemiah 4:14). There it is – one eye on the great and awesome Lord, the other on the enemy.
Then sound theology quickly issued in good methodology (it always does). While half the people built, the other half stood guard (4:15-16). And even those who worked did so with a weapon in one hand or girded at their side (4:17-18).
What Nehemiah understood was that there is no building without opposition; no victory for God without a show of force from the devil – who frequently shows up in the form of ‘well-intentioned’ people. But Nehemiah would not be distracted or discouraged. Neither would he back down or compromise to keep the peace.
He knew his mission – to build walls. He had one eye fixed on God and the task God had given him. But he never allowed himself to forget that the enemy was still out there, ready to stop the work of God and tear apart the people that he loved. One eye on God; one eye on the enemy. This is how Nehemiah shepherded his people and we must do the same.
From this point on, I will take for granted our need to look to God. This fixation on God is crucial and without it nothing of real value is ever accomplished. But I want to consider now one particular enemy that every pastor will face sooner or later.
How this enemy is confronted will largely define the kind and quality of ministry that will be developed. The enemy I speak of is personal attacks by (and conflicts with) members of the congregation.
An impossible task
I talked recently to a group of pastors. It emerged that a number of young pastors in their affiliation were struggling to understand the role of the pastor as a leader. Fearing being called dictators, they had become timid and passive. As a result, their ministries were listless and the men themselves lacked confidence. In other words, they had been intimidated into abdicating their role as shepherds.
They had chosen to run (or at least lie low) rather than fight. Perhaps most of them were kind and humble men who just wanted to gently lead the sheep. But while they were gazing at the sunset, wolves were preparing an assault. And wolves are ruthless. It takes a rugged shepherd – one willing to sacrifice himself if need be – to do hand-to-hand battle with wolves. I doubt whether many pastors today are prepared for such combat.
Books and articles about pastors under attack are legion, but are often little more than sob stories and hand-holding. Most of them miss the fact that we pastors deserve much of the criticism that comes our way – and God, by the way, knew this would be the case. I mean, pastors are shepherds (by definition) but they are also sheep (by nature).
Either way, we have been given an impossible task by the Chief Shepherd. We have been called to lead the flawed people of God when we ourselves are plagued with defects and blemishes. The best of us say the wrong things at times; we may be insensitive or distracted; we may be too weak or too strong. We will offend people; we will wrong people; we will stumble and we had better get used to it.
One consolation is that our Lord knows the kind of people he has placed at the helm of his church. This is not an excuse for sinfulness but a recognition that human shepherds will never be perfect. God is not surprised by this. He intends to build local churches through the labour of imperfect people – because the interaction and even failings of God’s people, when responded to biblically, produce maturity in the body.
Be this as it may, when criticism abounds and a power play is in full force, what is a pastor to do? Far too many falter at this crucial point. Somewhere along the line they have been led to believe that the pastor is to be a ‘nice guy’. He is to be sweet and kind and never upset the members. He is to love people, not confront them. He is to be a doormat, willingly accepting abuse, rather than a stronghold demanding biblical compliance. After all, the average pastor wants to be loved by all.
Just where did we get this image of a pastor? Certainly not from Scripture. Paul, who gave us most of what we know about church and pastoral life, never backed away from a fight when one was needed.
When the Corinthians challenged his apostolic authority he lovingly but firmly called them to account (see 2 Corinthians). When Timothy was allowing some to bully him, Paul told him to not let them get away with it (1 Timothy 4:12).
Pastors are not given flocks to be admired, but to lead them in the ways of God. It is a hard lesson, but a vital one – we cannot please everyone. We cannot be what everyone wants us to be. To make this our goal is to forsake our mission which is to please Christ (2 Corinthians 5:9).
Until we understand this we will never be the pastors God wants us to be. If being liked by people is more important to us than being approved by God, our ministry is superfluous.
Over 20 years ago I read an article by Steve Brown entitled ‘Developing a Christian mean streak’1 which had a profound impact on my life. I had just gone through a most difficult time in my ministry – a time of gossip, slander and pure sinfulness on the part of a few, which led to division and spiritual harm for many.
I had taken a strong stand against this divisive group, which was not only the right thing to do but ultimately turned out well for our church. Still, I had nagging doubts about some of the difficult steps we had had to take and I felt remorseful – even about things I knew, biblically and rationally, had been handled correctly.
Reading Brown’s article reinforced my resolve, as he spoke of the devastation in churches brought about by weak leadership. I still recall that he developed an acrostic which spelled out WIMP to describe his approach to pastoring – pastors need to boldly lead and not be, well, wimps.
With apologies to Mr Brown, I would like to try my own hand at an acrostic which I believe will greatly aid pastors as they face the attacks and challenges that will come in their ministry. My acrostic is MEAN – which, while at first sounding somewhat over the top, spells out principles that can do much to enhance and guard a pastoral ministry.
We’ll look at it next month.
1. Steve Brown, Leadership, Vol. VIII #2, ‘Developing a Christian mean streak’, pp. 32-37.
Gary E. Gilley