After nearly four decades in this job, I believe it is fair to say that the ministry presents unique challenges.
No, despite what we like to say when we are together boasting about who is the busiest, we preachers don’t work harder than anyone else. Every job has its stress and the people in our pews work hard and carry burdens just as we do. But there are challenges that face the man behind the pulpit (or sitting on the stool?) that the person in the pew may never understand. I have lived in a pastor’s home all my life – first as a pastor’s son and then as a pastor. Our families have all the normal stressors that other families have. Our marriages are not unendingly blissful and our kids are not perfect. We often feel crushed under the financial pressures and the pressure of eternal responsibility for the souls of men and women is constant. It is a tough world and ministry isn’t easy.
One challenge exceeds all others, though, in my experience. I saw it in my dad’s slumped shoulders and I’ve heard it in the voices of friends who have tried to express their hurt. And more times than I want to remember I have felt that knife slicing deep into my back, laying open my heart and soul. Do other people in other jobs feel this pain? I am sure they do, but it is endemic in the ministry.
When you serve as a ministry, you are going to be betrayed by people you thought you could trust. People you counted as friends will speak ill of you, falsely accuse you, and slander you behind your back. It ought to be written on your job description, pastor. You are called to serve people who will love you, bless you, and very often hurt you to the core of your being.
Moses knew the pain. How often did the people God called him to lead rebel against him? David knew it. His own son led a rebellion against him and his counselors turned against him. Jesus knew it. One of his closest friends turned on him and sold him cheap. his own countrymen rejected him and called out for the life of a criminal instead of his. Paul knew it. Demas forsook him because he loved the world more than the cause of Christ. It is nothing new, nothing unique. When you lead the people of God you will know this pain.
But it still hurts.
When someone you counted a friend turns on you it leaves you with a sucking chest wound in your soul. When you hear through the grapevine what people have been saying about you or your family, it becomes a fire of rage inside you. The false accusations, often with just a shred of truth, enough to make them believable to others, make you want to scream, cry out, or strike back. When a trusted ministry partner betrays you, you want to run away and hide or curl up in a fetal position in your bed and pull the covers over your head.
But no, my friend, you do not get to do that. You have a higher calling. You are a man of God. And sometimes, it stinks. It a call to live a supernatural, Spirit-filled life that shows Jesus to a fleshly, sinful world. When you are falsely accused, you do not get to respond like a normal human. You model Jesus. When betrayed, you represent Christ. You are called to live as Paul did, so you can say as he did, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
When Jesus was insulted, did he answer every accusation? Did he repay evil for evil? No. He stood silent before his accusers and on the Cross he looked down at the people who nailed him there and said, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus commanded his disciples to love their enemies, to return good for evil, to pray for those who persecute them, and to forgive others as they seek the forgiveness of God.
And he called us not to be so much models of success but of Christlikeness before our people. Our highest goal is to show people how a person controlled by Jesus responds to insults and injuries.
Is it possible that God puts us in positions of pain so that we have the opportunity to show Christ’s love to the people we lead? That is the essence of Christian leadership. Not motivation or organization or inspiration but demonstration – showing people what Jesus looks like by the way you live. Jesus suffered for the sake of others, laying down his life and enduring betrayal, slander, false accusation, and everything that has ever hurt us. He didn’t send his resume to another place that would receive him better. He persevered in love and grace and kindness to save people who sinned against him.
When are you ever going to have a better chance to be Christlike than when someone treats you badly? When you strike back, or fight fire with fire, when you return evil for evil, your flesh may be gratified but you are losing that golden opportunity to model Jesus to your people. We want the booming numbers but it is often when things are falling apart that the man of God is most successful in the eyes of God.
It is great when one wave of blessing rolls over the other and you can be Christlike in those times. But when the tide turns and the tempest rages, but you continue to walk in the peace of Christ, you are a true success. When you are walking the Via Dolorosa you can show your people what it means to take up your cross and follow Christ. Forgiving that friend who betrayed you or serving people who give you nothing in return, except perhaps grief – that’s what Jesus did. Show your people who Jesus is! In the power of the Spirit, do what God did for Israel and what Christ does for his church. Demonstrate faithful, enduring, unconditional love. Then you can truly say, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
Ministry is never going to be easy in this world. Dysfunctional homes have produced dysfunctional children who grow up to be dysfunctional people with dysfunctional marriages. They gather to worship and bring their dysfunctional selves to church. And standing in the pulpit is a man with a heaping helping of his own personal dysfunction. You know it and I know it. My biggest enemy in the ministry is ME. We are sinners called to minister God’s righteousness to sinners and that process can be messy. There will be “dysfunction relapses” during the process and sometimes you will take the heat.
In the middle of the mess, you will feel the knife in your back. A leader you thought stood with you will suddenly oppose you. That friend you counted on will undermine you instead. You will get no credit for the things you do and you will take the blame for things you didn’t do.
Welcome to the ministry, my friend.
So, what will you do then? If you are one of those people who has to answer every insult, correct every false impression, return tit for tat, and fight fire with fire, then you will never be a man your people can imitate if they are seeking to become like Christ. For the love of God, find another job because the ministry is a call to something higher and infinitely more difficult. We are called to bite our tongues and take our pain to God. Ours is to live the Cross, not just to preach it. We must demonstrate the reality and power of redemptive suffering as we lay down our lives for the spiritual blessing of others. We love our enemies because it is more important that they love God than that we settle the score. We forgive those who sin against us because Christ forgave us and he drives our actions, not our emotions. We are good to those who are not good to us because that is exactly what Jesus did when he came into this world. God demonstrated his love by sending his Son for those who sinned against him and called us to live out the gospel by loving those who sin against us.
Can we admit something, fellow pulpiteers? We care way too much about the opinions of man and the approval of the world. We want people to like us and we want to be recognized as successful. That’s why these things hurt so much. But we are called to do two things. First, we are called to live for the pleasure and approval of God – his is the only applause we should seek. And in our relationships we should be seeking not to gain the approval of people but to represent Christ to them. Please Christ and represent him to our people.
So, when we are injured and betrayed, when we feel the knife sinking into our backs and piercing our souls, it is not a sign to start working our resumes but an opportunity, perhaps like no other, to show people how Christ lived. It is not an excuse to fight fire with fire, but to let rivers of living water flow from within and drown out that fire. It is an invitation from heaven to walk in Christlikeness in a way that no other opportunity affords.
When the knife sinks in, that pain is your reminder that you are called to imitate Christ so that those you lead can learn to imitate Christ as well.