Pastoring With Both Eyes Opened – Part 1

(December 2008 – Volume 14, Issue 13) 

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 and thirsty souls are awaiting his exegesis of the Word and his compassionate shepherding of their lives. With great enthusiasm and pure (as far as he can discern) motives he enters his first pastorate with visions of changing hearts, building a powerful and God-honoring church, and having an impact on the world for the cause of Christ. He steps into the arena of the church to be used by the Holy Spirit to help form the people of God into Christlikeness – and so he should. But few realize at the time 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 this is not altogether true. Having been well-trained theologically, the newly minted pastor has an excellent understanding of the enemies that oppose the believer and the work of Christ. What our man does not usually comprehend at this stage in his ministry is the shape in which these enemies will actually be appearing. He expects to do battle with the devil; he does not expect the devil to show up in the form of well-respected and well-dressed church members. He expects to do battle with the world out there; he does not expect the world to have infiltrated the hearts and minds of his congregation. He expects to do battle against the flesh; he does not expect to see such raw manifestations of the flesh among those who claim the name of Christ – or at times within his own heart and life.

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 too often with the Lord Himself. Many drop away from the pastorate and some should, for they are not gifted and spiritually mature enough to continue. Others drag through the work 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.” Far too often the result of this quagmire is that wounded and confused sheep are being led by wounded and confused shepherds. Many of these puzzled pastors lay down their swords and head for safer ground. Others, battle-scarred and weary, simply hope to survive, but the delight that drove them to the Lord’s frontlines has long since dissipated. What remains are, at best, persistence and often little more than the necessity to make a living.

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 – somewhere along the line pastors have missed the memo that if they are to have fruitful and productive 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 Nehemiah had this down as he led the returning exiles in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. There was a great work to do but also an imposing and willing enemy. To concentrate on the work was his desire – he wanted to build, not fight – don’t we all? But to naively ignore the enemy was to invite disaster. The people were afraid. They were not warriors; they were farmers, shepherds and carpenters and out of their element on the battlefield. They had signed on to build great walls, not participate in power struggles. How do you build walls in such an environment? The same way you build churches — with both eyes opened.

Seeing fear encroaching on his people Nehemiah refused to give quarter. “Do not be afraid of them,” he demanded, “Remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight…” (Neh. 4:14). There it is — one eye on the great and awesome Lord, the other on the enemy. Then theology was quickly worked out in methodology (it always is). 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 at least a sword 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. 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 knew his God – He was great and awesome – certainly not One to slink away from self-important warlords. Nehemiah had one eye fixated on his God and the task his God had given him, and he would not be moved. But he never allowed himself for a moment to forget that the enemy was still out there, ready to pounce, ready to destroy, ready to stop the work of God and rip apart the people of God that he loved. One eye on God, one eye on the enemy. This is how Nehemiah shepherded his people, and it is how we must shepherd our people.

At this point I will part ways with our need to keep one eye on God. This fixation on God is undeniably crucial and foundational. Without it nothing of real value is ever accomplished for the Lord, but I will turn my attention to the enemy. Many a man entered the ministry excited about God and enthusiastic about the work but soon broken by the enemy. And that is due, at least partially I am convinced, because they didn’t expect to encounter an enemy, at least not a serious one. When they do, they are disillusioned and totally unprepared for battle.

Let’s draw some battle plans for two enemies that will show up regularly in every church and in every ministry. One, false teaching, threatens to infiltrate the church (we will deal with this enemy in part two). The other, interpersonal conflict, comes from within – church members at odds with their pastor and/or the church leadership. How these enemies are confronted will largely define the kind and quality of the ministries that will be developed.

Personal Attacks and Conflicts

I recently spoke to a pastoral affiliation that was trying to address a problem. A number of their younger pastors were struggling with understanding the role of pastor as leader. They feared being called dictators and had become timid and passive. As a result, their ministries were weak, and the men themselves lacked confidence. In other words, they had been intimidated into abdicating their role as shepherds. Because of fear, uncertainty and doubt, 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 soft sunset, wolves were most likely 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 am unconvinced that the majority of pastors today are prepared for such combat.

Books and articles are legion dealing with the subject of pastors under attack. Often these narratives are 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. Pastors are shepherds (by definition) but they are also sheep (by nature). We are shepherd-sheep or sheep-shepherds. 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, distracted, too weak or too strong, prone to frustration, and the list goes on. We will offend people, we will wrong people, we will stumble, and we better get used to it. One consolation is that our Lord knows what kinds of people He has placed at the helm of His church. This is not an excuse for sinfulness, but it is recognition that perfection will never be the mark of human shepherds. God is not surprised by this. He intends to build local churches through the labor of imperfect people, and that includes their pastors. Our Lord has so designed things this way 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 theory becomes reality, when criticism abounds, when a power play is in full force, when the battle cry has been sounded, what’s 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. He is to love people, not confront them, and never upset the members. He is to be a doormat, willingly accepting abuse, not a stronghold demanding biblical compliance. After all, the average pastor wants everyone to like him. He wants to please people.

Just where did we ever get this image of a pastor? Certainly not from Scripture. Paul, who gave us most of what we know about church and pastoral life, while always loving was never one to back away from a fight when one was needed. When the Corinthians challenged his apostolic authority he lovingly but firmly called them out (see Second Corinthians). When Timothy was allowing some to bully him, Paul told him to not let them get away with it (1 Tim 4:12). Pastors are not given flocks so they will have an admiration society but so that they might 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 Cor. 5:9). Until we understand this we will never be the pastor God wants us to be. As long as it is more important to us to be liked by people than to be approved by God, our ministry is superfluous.

Somewhat over 20 years ago I read an article by Steve Brown entitled “Developing a Christian Mean Streak”[i] which had a profound impact on my life. I had just gone through the 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, along with most of our leaders, taken a strong stand against this divisive group. This action 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 about things that I knew biblically and rationally had been handled correctly. Reading Brown’s article reinforced what I knew to be true 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. Brown’s message in essence was that pastors need to boldly lead and not be, well, wimps.

With apologies to Mr. Brown, I would like to try my hand at an acrostic that I believe will greatly aid pastors as they face the inevitable attacks and challenges that will come. My acrostic is MEAN and, while at first this might sound over the top, I believe application of the following principles will do much to enhance and guard pastoral ministry.

M: Mean business with the Word of God

Most conservative pastors spend hours every week studying the Word for sermons and various Bible studies. They sincerely believe that the Scriptures are inerrant, infallible and necessary for salvation and godly living. But when it comes to the real problems of life and conflict resolution they often leave the teachings of Scripture at the door. They believe in the inspiration of the Word but not in its sufficiency. They believe in its principles but not in its authority. They believe in its helpfulness but not in its power. When an issue arises between members in the body, the truths of Scripture are treated as suggestions rather than mandates. That God has provided through the Word everything we need to correct such issues seems to skip the minds of even godly pastors and leaders. Ideas based on psychology, common sense or the latest self-help manual trump the clear and unchangeable teachings of God. The result is often a free-for-all of opinion, “he-said-she said” accusations, hurt feelings and division. All this is avoidable (unless there are serious doctrinal or moral issues at stake) by simply putting into play the principles the Lord has so graciously provided.

For example, below are some simple teachings in the Word designed to avoid and resolve conflicts that will inevitably raise their heads from time to time in any church. Every church leader needs to be well-versed in these truths:

  • The New Testament speaks of the great obligation and privilege of being a shepherd of God’s flock (1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28). Elders are to aspire to the office (1 Tim. 3:1), not be forced into it. And they are to take the responsibilities of the office seriously (Heb. 13:17).
  • One of the areas in which elders guide the people of God is unity (1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:1-2; 4:2-3). Even God’s redeemed people do not naturally gravitate toward unity. They tend to find ways to bicker, get their feelings hurt and lash out at those who offend them in ways that cause division. They need leadership who will teach and model the biblical approach to conflict.
  • One of the ways in which unity in the body is broken is through words of gossip and slander. Our Lord was ahead of the curve when He cautioned in Proverbs 10:18 that a fool spreads slander. Proverbs 16:28 and 17:9 are clear that slander separates close friends (17:9), yet Proverbs 18:17 shows that gossip loses most of its power when the other side of the story is sought and heard. Proverbs 20:19 goes so far as to command that we not associate with gossips. These are wise and valuable truths that we must incorporate into the life of the church.
  • God knew that sins of various kinds would arise within the body and He gives instructions as to how they are to be handled. When gossip/slander/conflict/evil is found among believers there are clear steps on how to deal with them: Matthew 18:15-17 tells us to start with private confrontation, followed by small group rebuke and then church discipline. But always keep in mind that the goal of this process is repentance (Luke 17:3) leading to forgiveness and ultimately reconciliation (Luke 17:4). We should constantly remember that we are a community of grace and thus a forgiving people. No one lives a perfect life and when we fail each other we are to seek reconciliation on the basis of grace. Therefore we look for every opportunity to show kindness, tender-heartedness and forgiveness (Eph. 4:32), for the alternatives are anger, bitterness (Eph 4:31) and division (Heb. 12:15).
  • The Lord also recognized that Satan’s attacks would be especially leveled at the leadership of the church. If Satan can bring down an elder or plant seeds of doubt in people’s minds, he can cause great harm in the body. Therefore the congregation must be taught the special instructions God has provided regarding elders. First Timothy 5:19 tells us not to receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. It is implied that these witnesses are willing to make public accusations, not orchestrate a whispering campaign.

These simple instructions, if followed, would greatly reduce the friction found in many churches and thus enhance the ministries of those churches. Yet many churches and their leaders behave as if God never anticipated such problems and has nothing to offer in way of solution.

E: Enemies must not be allowed to define ministry

I use the word enemy loosely since I believe the vast majority of troublemakers in any church are what one author described as “well-intentioned dragons.” That is, they do not see themselves as difficult people, they usually do not mean to be demanding, and they envision themselves as being part of the solution, not part of the problem. What establishes them as enemies are not necessarily their intentions (which may be good) but their ignorance of, or refusal to submit themselves to God’s approach as described in the Word. Abandoning the biblical methodology they apply an approach that is not sanctioned by God and has ensuing consequences. They become enemies, not so much of the pastor, but of the ways of God. If these people are prevented from controlling the church, but not corrected biblically, they will prove to be irritations within the body. They will gripe, complain and whisper in an attempt to win a few more to their cause. But worse, if they are allowed to have their way, they will define the local church ministry and that in an unbiblical manner.

The problem is that most church leaders want to avoid conflict at all cost. They were not attracted to church leadership to “do battle” but to help people. Little do they know that doing battle is a key ingredient in helping people and, when tough situations show up, they look for ways to sidestep trouble. Often inexperienced leaders are heard saying, “Maybe it will blow over.” Yet, rather than blowing over, the problems become ingrained. Next comes the temptation to give in. Far too many churches are run by those who are willing to squeak the loudest and cause the biggest disruption. Of course such people, controlled by their flesh rather than by the Spirit, are the last people who should be leading the church. The simple fact is that someone will lead in any local assembly. It should be the pastor and the appointed leaders, but if they are unwilling to fulfill their biblical job description someone else will step into the gap. Pastors who are fulfilling the role that God has given them do not run from the field of battle or hand the victory to the enemies.

A: Always remember who your Master is

The pastor who is working for the people rather than for the Master is at the whim of every voice in the congregation. While it is wise to listen to the thoughts of God’s people, and in fact much of value is often gleaned thereby, only one voice must be obeyed. A church must not be modeled after the pattern of men’s minds. God has already designed His church; it is not our task to rethink the church (as many are calling for today) but to unfold God’s paradigm. I believe Ephesians 4:11-16 lays out the Lord’s blueprint for His church perhaps better than any other place in Scripture. There we find that God has given to His church specially gifted men to equip the saints so that they might do the work of ministry which in turn builds up the body of Christ. To dispose of this biblical model for a seeker-sensitive one, or an Emergent one, or for the next fad coming down the pike, or for the whims of a divisive group in the congregation, is to discard the voice of the Master.

Keep in mind that if you lined up 100 people who know you well and had them honestly evaluate your life as they see it, 100 people would be wrong to various degrees. Only Christ knows who we are at the core of our being, only His evaluation is correct, and only what He thinks ultimately matters. Our task is to live to please Him (2 Cor. 2:9), not our congregation, ourselves or the latest guru impressing Christians at the moment.

N: Never abandon the sheep to the wolves

As much as I appreciated Steve Brown’s article, one thing grieved me. He said that he kept a resignation letter on file at all times and was willing to use it. While there is a time to resign a ministry, far too many pastors pull the trigger too quickly. Most leave the field of battle during the heat of conflict, only to move to another church in which conflict will eventually rear its ugly head. It should never be forgotten that conflict is simply unavoidable; what matters is how it is handled. But to leave the sheep, during the very heat of battle, at the mercy of wolves, simply does not speak well for the shepherd. Such a move may give temporary respite for the pastor, but it will not normally do anything for the local church except to allow the wrong people to gain control and inflict more harm. I have determined, by God’s grace, that I will never desert the sheep when they need me most. If I were to leave my present ministry, it would be during a time of relative peace and spiritual prosperity, not when the wolves are nipping at the heels of the sheep.

A little MEAN streak, as described above, would go a long way toward creating more godly and biblical churches, and encourage the hearts of many a pastor in the process.

 


[i] Steve Brown, “Developing a Christian Mean Streak,” Leadership (Vol. VIII no. 2), Spring 1987, pp. 32-37.