And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
— 2 Corinthians 11:28
Beginning pastors aren’t often prepared for these unspoken agreements. Veteran pastors still struggle with them. But there are a number of “job hazards” that come with the pastoral territory for which every minister should be aware and to which every minister should adjust. Here are just three:
1. Pastors agree to be misunderstood sometimes.
It’s difficult when it happens, but very often leaders must make decisions that are in the best interest of the church — or conduct pastoral ministry that is out of view of most of the church — that can lead to being misunderstood. Take for instance a congregational nomination for the diaconate. In interviewing the candidate, it becomes apparent that the person isn’t biblically qualified. Maybe it’s a sin issue they are struggling with or battling through. Maybe it’s simply a matter of they’re not yet being mature enough for the role. Maybe they’re just not interested. But when the nominee isn’t put before the church for a vote, those who nominated the person may feel their input was ignored. The pastor in most cases cannot share publicly why this nominee wasn’t put before the church without violating their privacy or embarrassing them, especially if there are sensitive matters requiring personal care. So the pastor must be content to know he is now open to being misunderstood in some way.
The same often occurs when someone must be let go from a staff position not for a sin issue, but just because of poor job performance. It would be embarrassing to get up in front of everyone and announce “Brother So-and-so just wasn’t performing his job well.” But in the absence of information, questions naturally arise. To be a leader is to make difficult decisions, and very often those difficult decisions will be second guessed or translated into personal disappointments. In most cases, leaders just need to know this comes with the territory of leadership.
2. Pastors agree to receive criticism.
There is such a thing as sinful distrust, divisiveness, gossip, and the like. Those things must be addressed. But not all criticism rises to the level of sin. Sometimes it’s just people disagree with something done or said — or something not done or not said. A pastor must not be so thin-skinned that he cannot handle hearing people’s critical appraisal of his performance. Not all criticism is warranted, of course, or even true. But the impulse to be defensive about or — worse — rebuke every critical comment is not a mature impulse. If your plan is only to lead people who always agree with you, leadership probably isn’t for you. The wise pastor will listen carefully, weigh what is being said, separate the claims from his personal feelings (about the claims or the person making them), and be honest before the person and before the Lord. The mature pastor knows he’s not infallible. The mature pastor knows he is not perfect. The mature pastor knows he is not Jesus!
Again, if one is bearing the brunt of criticism from those with a pattern of revealing a critical spirit, it is probably worth addressing in a direct way, as gently as possible. But generally speaking, to assume the office of pastor is to agree to hear constructive criticism with a open mind and a kind heart. Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated of claims. Sometimes the criticism is spot-on. Agree from the outset to pursue a thick skin and a receptivity to feedback.
3. Pastors agree to be disliked.
This is usually the hardest agreement to make. Hopefully, the pastor is not serving a church that is unified in their dislike! But something I try to warn my students and residents about is the weird reality that they will invariably have one or two — hopefully only one or two! — people in their church who just don’t like them for no apparent reason. It’s usually because of some disappointment they cannot help. They don’t preach as well as the previous guy. They’re too much of one thing or too little of another. Sometimes the reasons are even more vague than that. It’s not okay for any believer to just not like a brother in Christ for no real reason, but it happens anyway, because people are weird and messy and different and often inscrutable.
It is a good idea to do whatever appropriate to try to win these people over. Do not return unkindness for dislike. Love them anyway. Oh sure, you’re probably not inviting them over to the Super Bowl party. Or maybe you are. You don’t have to be best friends with everybody, in any event. But of course, God’s directive is to strive to be at peace with all people, so much as it depends on you. But sometimes it just doesn’t depend on you. Someone just doesn’t like the cut of your jib. And this where you can, with the Lord’s grace, agree to be disliked, because you’ve agree upon your divine calling not to pursue the pastorate to be popular or have your ego stroked. The call to ministry is not a call to keep the customers happy. It is a call to serve others for the glory of God. And this means, in part, dying to yourself and to your need for a 100% approval rating.
These are not the agreements we set out to make when we obey God’s call or accept a church’s appointment to the pastoral office, but these are agreements we make anyway. They just come with the territory. The good news is, the Lord will never misunderstand you. He approves of you in Christ. And his delight in you is more than enough to help you bear whatever burdens come your way.
It is a privilege and a joy to tend to Christ’s lambs. It’s easy to forget that when these unspoken agreements become apparent. But it’s always true, brothers. Don’t forget it.
“We must obey God rather than men.”
— Acts 5:29