Ministry and Healthy Spiritual Life

Everyone in the church would like a relationship with the pastor. And that’s a good thing, right? Leading the flock is inherently relational. Its hard to speak the gospel into people’s lives where you have no personal connection.

How many people do you think a pastor can have a meaningful relational connection with? 10? 50? 100? At what point does a church grow beyond the ability of its pastor to maintain those relationships at a meaningful depth? If they or the church continue to expect the same level of connection after that point as they enjoyed before surely that is a recipe for destructive patterns sooner or later?

The difficulty is that many pastors don’t know how or when to say “no”. And many churches expect them to work right up to capacity all the time (while not actually knowing where the line of realistic maximum capacity is). The point at which church growth means the pastor can no longer have meaningful contact with everyone is not only the point where those pastors are at their most stretched it is also the point where criticism starts to rise. Previously people enjoyed and valued having a piece of you. Now they clamour for a piece of you they can’t have but feel they have a right to.

Criticism - real or perceived (”don’t they know how much I am doing for them?” (no, they really don’t!)) - has a nasty habit of coming when we have least emotional resources to deal with it constructively. It’s easy to cave in and continue to try to satisfy all the demands. It feels easier than renegotiating expectations. However over a period our sense of who we are starts to be determined not by relationship to God but by multiply, competing, unfulfillable demands from everyone in the church. Our sense of achievement - so difficult to define in Christian ministry at the best of times - starts to be defined by how well people tell us we are doing at satisfying their requests rather than our enjoyment of being in Christ.

Add to this the collapse of clear boundaries and ministering always at the edge of capacity has the potential to seriously disrupt a healthy sense of identity. As one assistant minister put it to me recently “nobody at my training college told me that when you work for a church your work, non-work, church life, family life and leisure-time which were previously distinct now all become blurred.” The identity markers that function for most people - work, accomplishments, life-boundaries, family - can simply stop working for pastors and their families.

But we live from our identity. We pastor from our identity. We minister out of the overflow of a healthy spiritual life with God. It is ironic that church life and growth can itself be the thing that damages the spiritual life of leaders. But it is remarkably common - perhaps inevitable - where there are no healthy mutual expectations of what leaders should and should not do, that we need to receive as well as give, rest as well as work. It is critical for churches to find ways to help their pastors live in Christ.

Whenever I visit another church as a guest speaker I like to ask whether they know who feeds the people who feed them. I don’t need to know the answer - I know what it will be before I ask (”no”). The church assumes it pastors are themselves being fed, but they don’t know that they are. The assumption is almost always wrong. The result is that pastors and their spouses can easily be the least spiritually fed people in the church. Their spiritual outgoings constantly outweigh their spiritual incomings. They feed others, nobody feeds them. They are the focus of the hopes of a large number of people. When they fail to deliver they can become the sole focus of all the criticism of a large number of people. On the occasions when it all goes wrong they can become isolated, often without mechanisms for negotiation or redress at the point where they are also spiritually running on empty.

Hence the Hebrews 13:17 command to churches is critical for the health of pastors and of their churches:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they keep watch over you as those who must give account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you

Make pastors’ work a joy because pastors who have lost their joy in God and in the church through unfulfillable demands, criticism and perpetual overwork no longer pastor well. The Bible says their job is to work for people’s progress and joy in the Lord. It is a wise church that finds ways to work with them for their own progress and joy because it is out of that centre that all good pastoring flows.