How We Treat Our Pastors

I shared a two-hour ride from the airport a few weeks ago with a fellow author, a volunteer driver, and a writers' conference attendee (a first-time attendee, if I remember right).

On the drive from Denver airport to beautiful Estes Park, Colorado, the conversation somehow turned toward how churches and church folk often treat their pastors. My fellow author has been a pastor herself, and a pastor's wife. The first-time conferee is a close friend to a pastor's wife. And I, of course, have been a pastor most of my adult life.

Though everyone acknowledges that some pastors give worse than they take, my fellow riders lamented the appalling treatment good pastors often receive, while I kept silent. The conferee, since we were on our way to a writers' conference, of all things, suggested that someone ought to write a book about how we treat our pastors. Then my fellow author turned to me.

"What do you think, Bob?"

I didn't think before speaking. I just said, "There's two problems with that. One, the difference between a book and real life is that a book has to be believable. No one would believe the things people say and do to pastors.

"Second," I said, "no one would want to read it. It would be too depressing."

That put a quick damper on the conversation. But I think it's true. Unfortunately.

It's not only my experience. I've seen it way too many times. Good, gifted men and women who serve God wholeheartedly--even sacrificially--and are treated abysmally. It's certainly one of the reasons--maybe the main one--why 95% of the people who train for ministry and begin in ministry do not retire from that role.

It's depressing, I know. But it's the way things are, at least in the American church culture. And it has to change, or the Lord's warning to the church at Ephesus may be fulfilled in our day: "If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place" (Revelation 2:5, NIV).

Church of the Week: Hamilton Dream Center, Hamilton, OH

I had the joy last Saturday evening of joining in the combined efforts of Oxford House of Prayer (OHOP) and the Hamilton House of Prayer at the Hamilton Dream Center, 625 Campbell Avenue in Hamilton.

With music led by some of my favorite people in the world, Sharla Racioppa and Under Cover, the room was filled with dear friends of all ages who had obviously come to worship and pray.

Hamilton Dream Center, led by Pastor Wendell Coning, is a thriving, dynamic ministry to Hamilton's inner city. They reach out to the community in a multitude of inventive and effective ways, including bookbag giveaways, providing coats in the winter, free guitar lessons, "Adopt-a-Block," and more.

It was a lovely night of worship with dear friends and sweet brothers and sisters, in an old church building that has been made young again by the vibrancy of the people who worship and serve there.

And So It Begins

Maybe that Harold Camping guy wasn't so far off. Maybe last Saturday was just the beginning. Exhibit A:

The Pastor and Personal Criticism

C. J. Mahaney blogged some time ago about the pastor and personal criticism. Here is the first of his blogs on that topic:
I have often been asked what it was like to pastor at Covenant Life Church for 27 years. Here is my immediate response: It was an unspeakable privilege and joy to serve this remarkable church. I’m not sure a single day passed that I did not receive encouragement from a kind member of the church.

And my experience is not unique. To pastor in Sovereign Grace Ministries is to be on the receiving end of encouragement every week and often every day. We have the privilege of serving grateful folks who love us and excel in communicating gratefulness. We simply do not deserve their support and encouragement. They make pastoral ministry a pure joy.

Well, most of them do.

In every church there will be those who are not particularly grateful, who normally communicate with you only in the form of criticism. And to some degree this is the norm for every pastor.

If you are a pastor you will be criticized. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually you will feel the sharp sting of critique.

Those within your church may criticize you, those who leave the church may criticize you, and even complete strangers may criticize you. The criticism will come from enemies and from friends. Some of the criticism will be true, some of it will be false, and some may be outright malicious. But it’s coming—if it hasn’t already arrived.

And there are many reasons why we can expect criticism:
  • A pastor can expect criticism because of his own sin, which will inevitably be present in his heart and service, no matter how mature or well meaning he is (James 3:2).
  • A pastor can expect criticism because there are limitations to his gifting, meaning there will always be weaknesses in his leadership.
  • A pastor can expect criticism because we often preach below-average sermons. (After one sermon, a guy asked me, “So where do you work during the week?” My sermon apparently gave him the impression that preaching wasn’t my vocation.)
  • A pastor can expect criticism because people can be proud and ungrateful.
  • A pastor can expect criticism because, well, it is a sinful and fallen world.
But we as pastors often forget one more important reason:

A pastor can expect criticism because it is part of God’s sanctification process—a tool that he uses to reveal idols and accelerate the pastor’s growth in humility.
God enlists many to serve us to this end.

Puritan Richard Baxter got this. In his book to pastors, The Reformed Pastor, he wrote,
Because there are many eyes upon you, therefore there will be many observers of your falls. If other men may sin without observation, so cannot you. And you should thankfully consider how great a mercy this is, that you have so many eyes to watch over you, and so many ready to tell you of your faults, and so have greater helps than others, at least for the restraining of your sin. Though they may do it with a malicious mind, yet you have the advantage by it.*
According to Baxter, the critique of many is actually a great advantage to pastors. This is a great mercy—at least I keep telling myself it is. And I have to keep reminding myself because criticism isn’t my personal preference.

I would prefer to mature through less painful means. I would prefer to mature through a flood of sanctified encouragement—that’s what I’m talking about!

But the reality is that I have grown far, far, far, far, far more from criticism and correction than from all the wonderful encouragement I have received over the years.

So God uses correction to mature pastors. That seems to be the norm. And this is God’s great mercy to help me see my own pride and sin. (If you’ve discovered a way to avoid criticism and still grow, please give me a call!)

If you are a pastor, you will be criticized and corrected. It’s coming. We must be prepared for it, and we must see it as God’s means for our sanctification. How we respond to criticism (both from friends and from less-than-friends) is absolutely critical. I regret the many times I haven’t responded humbly to correction. I desire to grow in perceiving correction as a great mercy from God.

A Great Preacher on a Great Day

I discovered the great preacher Leonard Ravenhill more than thirty years ago. I can almost not read The Revelation without his lyrical brogue sounding in my ears. Here is an excerpt of his message, The Judgment Seat of Christ:

Good Counsel for Expository Preachers

Crossway Blog recently posted five tips for expository preachers, which Alistair Begg says he learned from an older minister when he was a theological student:
  1. Think yourself empty. Survey a passage of Scripture in the proper spirit of unlearnedness. Avoid the proud assumption that you initially know what everything means.
  2. Read yourself full. Read widely and regularly.
  3. Write yourself clear. Aside from the essential empowering of the Spirit, freedom of delivery in the pulpit depends on careful organization in the study.
  4. Pray yourself hot. Without personal prayer and communion with God during the preparation stages, the pulpit will be cold.
  5. Be yourself, but don’t preach yourself. There is nothing quite so ridiculous as the affected tone and adopted posture of the preacher who wishes he were someone else. Also – a good teacher clears the way, declares the way, and then gets out of the way.
From the new edition of Preaching for God’s Glory by Alistair Begg.

Who's At Your Dinner Party?

Brad Lomenick recently posted the following on the Catalyst blog. I thought it was thought-provoking:
Okay, you’ve got 7 spots at your dinner table. You can’t invite family. Invitees have to be alive. And has to be people you’ve never met. Who’s getting the invites?

Here’s my seven:

1. Nelson Mandela

2. Richard Branson

3. John Lasseter (Pixar)

4. Denzel Washington

5. Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs)

6. Melinda Gates

7. Jim Nantz (CBS Sports Host)

Here’s the seven for my assistant Michelle Hoeft, who is 24 and a recent graduate from Univ of Nebraska:

1. Malcolm Shabazz (Malcolm X grandson)

2. Michelle Obama

3. J.K. Rowling

4. Anne Moody (Civil Rights Activist)

5. Zach Galifianakis

6. Sister Mary Prema (Missionaries of Charity)

7. Eminem

Who’s at your dinner table?
So I thought I'd try my hand at the exercise...just in case the opportunity ever arises, ya know? Here's my list:

1. Ravi Zacharias (Christian apologist)

2. Margaret Thatcher (former prime minister of England)

3. James Taylor (singer/songwriter)

4. N. T. Wright (author, bishop, etc.)

5. Benjamin Netanyahu (Israeli prime minister)

6. Steve Jobs (Apple CEO)

7. Annie Dillard (author)

Wow, that was tougher than I thought. But man, I think that would be a fascinating group, and would certainly engender some lively conversation.

So....who's at your dinner party?