I want to pause and think about a type of comment that I’ve heard a few times over the years. It goes something along the lines of.
“Perhaps the reason that God made me a pastor was to keep me in church.”
Such comments are perhaps tongue in cheek but personally I’m not convinced they are helpful. Even the things we say slightly flippantly can both betray something of the culture and even contribute to the culture of evangelical church leadership.
There are a couple of ways in which a pastor might find themselves saying something along those lines. One way is to say that there are other things you might prefer to be doing on a Sunday such as taking a day out somewhere, watching sport, doing a bit of DIY. Perhaps this is true for some pastors and perhaps the comments demonstrate refreshing honest here on the tension between the gravity of the calling and the constant challenge to fight sinful behaviour. But what is that saying about attitudes to worship if we in effect see church attendance as being somewhere between a hobby and a chore? What does it say about our understanding of church if we think of it primarily in terms of a place we attend, in some cases as our work on Sundays and not the family we are part of 24/7.
Now, the honesty that pastors wrestle with these struggles too is perhaps in some ways good. You see, many church members will themselves have plenty of Sundays when they are tempted to take the day off and head out to a National Trust attraction or B&Q. However, by suggesting that the solution to the problem might be for God to give some people a job is decidedly unhelpful. It is unhelpful, even in jest, because it doesn’t address the root problem, the need for the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts at such times. It is unhelpful because the pastor is basically saying that they are being treated as special. Why has God given them a job to keep them close when plenty of others facing that battle are not given a specific reason to keep them there? What does it tell the congregation about how the pastor perceives them?
I think there’s another problem with the first way of saying it and it’s that those who fal into the second category are actually much less likely to say something like this. I’m not sure that the first type shows much alertness to the feelings and experience of the second.
There are pastors who have gone through the darkest of days with their church. They will have experienced really deep struggles. For some, this will have involved experiencing debilitating depression, sometimes that will have been caused by other factors and sometimes it will have been a direct consequence of what was happening in the church. It may be that there’s been an intense period of civil war in the church, it could be that the pastor has been subject to bullying. Sometimes, there’s the sheer grind of trying to love people with God’s Word who don’t seem to want to be loved in that way – if at all. In some cases, the pastor has had to care for the church through a particularly traumatic event in its life. They are often walking alongside people who are suffering daily.
There may well be times when these men find themselves asking “why am I there?” They may be tempted to give up. There may be Sundays when it is a battle to get up and get out of the house to go to the meeting. There will no doubt be Saturday mornings when they can’t face the elders, Thursday afternoons when they struggle to open up their Bible and switch on the computer to prepare. They will at times have to really push themselves to get in the car and start the rounds visiting people. They will dread opening their emails and consider switching the phone off. It’s worth considering that before flippantly suggesting that God made you a pastor to keep you away from the cricket.
But for those who are in the second category, it is also important not to get into the kind of mindset suggested by the quote. Whilst you are less likely to say it flippantly, you may well live as though you believe it. In such cases, you are likely to keep pushing on because it’s your job. You may feel obligated to be there even though there’s nothing left within you to give and even though you are desperately at the point of running away.
Perhaps there is something initially there in terms of God putting different constraints and boundaries in place for us, just as a person may be held within their marriage through a rocky spell by the vows they made in front of witnesses. However, I would say that for pastors, that the thing which keeps them in the church, just as much as for other church members at that point needs to be the profession of faith they made in Christ and declared publicly through baptism.
Once again, if we begin to see pastoring as a job that in some way is designed to keep us in church then we risk getting a jaded view of God and communicating a horrendous message to our church’s other members about how we see them and our relationship to them.
Now, there will be days when any of us might feel like either of the examples above. I’m not talking about those kind of one off or occasional battles. Rather, I’m talking about a persistent state of mind and heart. If this is where you are and it’s your settled, persistent state then don’t go around saying “God’s made me a pastor to keep me in the church.”
The best thing you can do at that stage is to step down. The best thing that others can advise you to do is to take a break. I’m not saying that you should not be a pastor, that you re not called, that it’s the end of the road. Rather, I’m saying that this is not a good place for you or the church to be and that at least a temporary period away from the role is crucial. This probably means in most cases that the church should give the pastor and his family a sabbatical and ensure that they are practically cared for -without obligation. The aim of such a time away from ministry is to renew and refresh your relationship with Christ and with his bride, the church. It’s to help draw you back to your first love and to remind you that you are first and foremost one of the sheep yourself, that you are part of the church because you need the shepherd, because you need a saviour. It’s to get you back to that point of rediscovering grace. It’s to help you to start seeing Christ’s bride as he sees her again.