Few roles are as demanding and challenging as the role of a pastor — at least when we’re talking about conscientious pastors who truly love the people they serve and who take their responsibilities seriously.
Depending on their particular traditions or communities, those who serve as pastors are generally called upon to fulfill a variety of responsibilities in complex, often shifting, and occasionally unpredictable circumstances and situations.
And based on personal experience, I can tell you that pastors cannot succeed without the help and support of the communities they serve.
Most faith communities have a spiritual leader
In the United States alone, it’s estimated there are over 350,000 religious congregations from various faith communities and denominations. Nevertheless, one thing that over 90% of faith-based congregations have in common is the presence of a singular religious leader. For most Christian denominations, this leader is referred to as a pastor, minister, priest, elder, or bishop.
Since my background is entirely in the evangelical and Baptist traditions (there is considerable overlap between the two), and since I myself serve a small church in the Washington, DC area, I will opt for using the title in this article that I myself go by — the title of “pastor.”
Pastors carry a heavy burden
The role of pastor dates back to the New Testament. The term of course derives from the word “shepherd,” emphasizing the nature and importance of the role. The Apostle Peter lays out the pastor’s responsibilities clearly in his first epistle:
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.
(I Peter 5:1–4, NKJV)
Those pastors who take this charge seriously understand they must attend to the congregations they serve with the same care and dedication that a shepherd has for his sheep.
What do shepherds do for their sheep? They lead the sheep, watch out for the health and safety of the sheep, ensure the sheep have access to food and water, and even shear the sheep. Shearing is crucial for the health and hygiene of the sheep since most cannot shed on their own.
Pastors are therefore responsible for leading their congregations, watching out for their spiritual health and protection, ensuring they receive biblical instruction and holding them accountable in their growth before the Lord.
According to the writer of Hebrews, pastors are to “watch out” for the “souls” of the members (Hebrews 13:17).
Anyone who thinks this is easy doesn’t fully understand or appreciate the implications of I Peter 5:1–4. The harsh reality is that, if spiritual shepherds don’t do their jobs honestly and well, the sheep suffer.
Unhealthy pastors hurt churches
It is a simple and irrefutable fact that people are hurt by unhealthy influences. This is a truism of life. And it’s true for any organization. Unhealthy leaders hurt the communities they purport to lead.
It should therefore be beyond dispute to say that spiritually unhealthy and morally compromised pastors damage the spiritual health and safety of the churches with which they are connected.
We all know there are pastors who are corrupt, dishonest, abusive, and frankly wicked. There are also pastors who, while free from scandal or ethical misconduct, are egotistical, domineering, overly stubborn, insensitive, lazy, negligent, or otherwise derelict in their responsibilities.
Many people have been hurt by bad pastors, and if your church is suffering from such a pastor, I pray that God will show His grace to you and your fellow church members. I pray sin will be brought to light, that people will be protected, and that leaders will be held accountable.
Churches need healthy pastors. It’s in the best interest of the members of any church to seek out and help maintain healthy church leaders.
Of course, the vast majority of pastors are not scandal-plagued or living double lives. The media tend to focus on the pastors who mess up rather than those who do their jobs faithfully — just as the media cover the planes that crash rather than the ones which take off and land safely.
Pastors are human
This is where a word of caution is necessary. While most pastors aren’t toxic or scandalous, all pastors are human. They are mortal. They have faults. They are not perfect. And congregations everywhere need to understand this and accept it.
Pastors aren’t superheroes. They can’t solve all the problems of all the members of the church. They can’t know or remember everything. They can’t be everywhere at once.
Even those pastors who are sincere, conscientious, and do the best they can make mistakes, forget things, show poor judgment at times, and fall short of God’s standards.
It’s crucial that congregations have reasonable and healthy expectations of their pastors because unhealthy congregational expectations and demands can lead to unhealthy pastors.
Pastors need help and support
You’ve undoubtedly heard the humorous adage about “inmates running the asylum.” Well, in the case of the church, Jesus has asked sheep to lead sheep. That means flawed, imperfect people leading and ministering to other flawed, imperfect people.
The only way this arrangement will work is if pastors and congregations work together, helping and encouraging one another in this journey we call life.
Fortunately, the Apostle Paul told the church in Thessalonica exactly how they can support their pastors:
And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.
(I Thessalonians 5:14–15, NKJV)
Thanks to this inspired passage being canonized and passed down through the centuries, Christians today who are part of a church family or fellowship have a simple 4-step “formula” (for lack of a better term) for helping and supporting their pastors. Here it is:
- Recognize pastors and their role: Paul says to “recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you…” Identify who those leaders are and acknowledge what they do. Do you understand your pastor’s responsibilities and the demands your pastor often lives under? Do you recognize, accept, and support giving your pastor the discretion and ecclesiastical/organizational authority that the pastor needs to fulfill those responsibilities? Do you recognize your need to be “admonished” and instructed by a pastor?
- Value and respect your pastors: Paul says we should “esteem” our pastors and church leaders “highly.” That means literally to place a high value on them. At a minimum, this means extending respect and courtesy to your pastors. You do this not because they “earn” it (from your point of view), but because you “love” them and appreciate “their work.” Do you value your pastor’s work? Do you appreciate what your pastor does not just for you, but for others? Do you value the position and role of the pastor?
- Love your pastors: Paul says we should “esteem” our pastors “in love.” That means there should be a context of love in our relationship with our pastors. Do you love your pastor? Love is not a feeling. It’s a decision. It’s choosing to “will the good of the other” (to use Thomas Aquinas’ famous definition of love). Do you desire what is good for your pastor? How committed are you to your pastor’s good?
- Cultivate a peaceful church family: Paul concludes these two verses in I Thessalonians 5 with a simple request: “Be at peace among yourselves.” In other words, work toward a peaceful, drama-free church. Dial down the criticism (of the pastor and of others). Be patient. Be kind. Be loving. Don’t use your words to hurt others. Use your words to build others up. Be a peace-maker in your church family.
One may wonder why prayer isn’t mentioned in these two verses. Well, I would say the reason is that Paul addressed prayer multiple times throughout his many epistles. It is a common theme throughout the New Testament.
Indeed, just a couple of lines later, Paul says we should “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).
Prayer should be an ongoing and integral part of a pastors’ lives and a part of church members’ lives. Everything we do should be bathed in prayer.
I would also argue that, when church members truly love and value their pastors, they will be praying regularly for them.
If you want a healthy church, help keep your pastor healthy.
This is not to say that, when pastors fall into sin or scandal, it’s the fault of the church. Each individual is personally responsible for his or her life and fully accountable to God accordingly. And God will hold pastors accountable for their lives, their ministries, and any hurt they may have caused.
Nevertheless, even though each person is responsible for his or her own life before God, the fact is that we do influence one another. We can contribute to the good of others or we can contribute to the harm of others.
It’s in your best interests to contribute to the good of your pastor. This is precisely what the writer of Hebrews gets at, when he (or she) says:
Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
(Hebrews 13:17, NKJV)
If your pastor toils in stress, turmoil, or “grief,” it’s frankly “unprofitable” for you. Therefore, help encourage and support your pastor. Work for the spiritual health and good of your pastor.
As Paul lays out in I Thessalonians 5:14–15, you can do this by recognizing your pastor and the responsibilities your pastor carries, loving and respecting your pastor, and doing your part to cultivate a peaceful, drama-free church environment.
If more Christians would consistently follow Paul’s exhortations concerning pastors and churches, we would have healthier pastors and healthier churches in our world.
There are few things that our world — our mission field — would appreciate, respect, and benefit more from than spiritually and morally healthy churches and faith communities.