Sometimes your pastor is not okay. You know that, right?
For some reason, there is a dangerous functional assumption that happens all the time in our churches that the pastor has an unending supply of encouragement and wisdom, always given with confidence and assurance.
If you ask church members if you think their pastor is perfect, more than 90% of them will probably acknowledge that “of course they aren’t.” (Some sweet, naïve souls just can’t be convinced). But functionally, how often do churches act as if their pastors are still very much in need of personal, relational support? How often are church members taking ownership of ministry opportunities off of their pastors’ plates? How often are churches making sure their pastors have sabbatical rest, opportunities for more training, and accountability in their leadership and personal lives? Who is pushing and discipling the pastor to fight for holiness in the midst of church leadership? Who is pastoring your pastor?
Pastors Needed Saving, Too
When any person is overwhelmed—by inordinate discouragement, an intensely stressful schedule, lack of sleep, a threatening sense of failure or insecurity—usually some cracks start to show. In that kind of perfect storm, any person may be short with those they love, unmotivated or withdrawn, or haphazard and unbalanced with their responsibilities. Usually in these times, such a person would turn to their closest friends or mentors for help and encouragement.
This is what pastors need in such times, too. Pastors need friends—long term, all-in friends. Pastors need ministry friends and mentors who will listen and encourage them in the midst of difficulty. But they also need friends who will challenge them, point out their blind spots, and refuse to allow the abdication of their stewardship from God.
Every pastor needs the ministry friend(s) who will kick out the unhealthy pedestal from underneath them, dust them off, and take them to lunch. A transparent and brotherly relationship like this will keep any pastor—any Christian—from some real stupidity (read the Proverbs, for crying out loud). An encouraging and life-giving relationship like this will sustain a pastor through those days that make him want to quit.
In short, every pastor must have the friends that one day might save their ministry, and even their marriage. It’s already a pattern in each pastor’s life to need saving. As we can all say, “Being needy is our basic condition.” We all have the capacity to blow up the stewardship handed to us; we’re capable of much worse than that. That’s why Jesus came. So it’s not only okay for a pastor to admit that he needs help. It’s irresponsible to neglect an investment in these types of friends.
Are you training for pastoral ministry or ministry leadership? Who are these friends for you, and how are you investing in them for the long haul?
Isolation: A Pastor’s Enemy
In previous parts of this series, I have mentioned that we aim to help our students at Midwestern identify roots of sinful behaviors (the deep and dark ones). We want them to know themselves well enough to know what tendencies they have which might run wild and dangerous if those roots are allowed to grow. Is it a desire for control? Is it lust? Is it comfort? Friends help us make those honest evaluations. And then those friends are the ones to help us to chop away at the roots under the surface of the soil before they sprout.
Paul Tripp, in Dangerous Calling, writes of growing up in a privatized, individualized Christianity. These characteristics could be said to be ubiquitous in American Christianity. Think about virtues Americans hold most dear: liberty, autonomy, privacy, individuality. These lie so embedded in the American culture many of us grew up in, that we don’t even see the way they pollute our Christianity.
As a result, Tripp says, “No one helped my father to see through the blindness that allowed him to live a double life of skilled deception and duplicity. No one knew how troubled my mother was beneath her encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture. No one knew.”
Longevity in faithful ministry is our hope for our students and ourselves, for all in church leadership. How many pastors have you heard of who forfeited or were disqualified from their ministry roles? How many of those situations could have been prevented if a faithful ministry friend knew what was developing much earlier and had permission to cut it off at the pass?
Instead, too many pastors either choose or are forced into the great enemy of longevity: isolation. Sure, they have some friends. But no one knows.
How does isolation happen? Well, it can happen in myriad ways. Those sweet naïve church members who love their pastor and think he hung the moon? Well, you know who really hung the moon, and it wasn’t that pastor. He’s now being thrust against his will onto a pedestal he can’t survive. There is a sweet, naïve, and sinister expectation that the pastor—God’s man for us—always has the answers, is always reliable, always stable, and always doing fine. They might again admit that the pastor isn’t perfect—but functionally, who is checking on him? Who is mentoring him? Look, pastors are intended to be examples to the flock as imitators of Christ. They must meet qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9) that substantiate them as examples of Christian living to other church members. But pastors aren’t Jesus. Pretending to be unassailable is about the dumbest thing a pastor can do, and churches mustn’t aid and abet that stupidity. It isolates the pastor, and may destroy him.
Another way isolation can happen is when a pastor lets the roots of sin grow without letting anyone in to know. In these cases, they can either hide their sin, or dominate others into submission through force. They can assert ungodly control over a period of time that keeps distance between the other leaders and themselves. Or they can live the double-life, allowing no one to have a transparent view into their most subtle and private behaviors.
Inside or Outside?
Variations of the following question often arise here. “Should my closest friends be those in my church? Or should I pursue these from outside our faith family?” Or, what does one do in a situation where there are not peers or mentors available to him for friendship at the church? Most pastors I talk to would prefer to have at least one or two of these friends from within the church or serving alongside them as elders; but most of them also would like at least one or two of these friends to come from outside the church. There is great value in keeping someone close who has a clearer view from outside your ministry. Even if you have to go outside the church to find the kind of person who can be trusted with the role of isolation-shattering friendship, do whatever it takes. Longevity isn’t going to happen without these friends.
Pastors in training, this is something to be working toward right now. Put whatever effort is necessary to make sure you have at least one faithful ministry friend who can correct you, rebuke you, mentor you, encourage you, and fight for you, even against yourself.
Who is already doing this for you? Lean in to that relationship with everything you have. It helps when it’s someone whose company you already prefer. But do the hard work of letting them in, and let them see everything.
The stakes are high. After all, which of these hard conversations would you rather have?
“Brother, I have realized that I am (lingering in conversation with ___ in an unhealthy way; tempted to control our meetings and I respond negatively to disagreement; pursuing comfort over ministry; giving in to discouragement…). Can we pray about this? And can you help me take some practical steps away from this?”
“Honey, I need you to sit down. I’ve done something terrible, and I need to confess this to you now…”
“Church, I regret to inform you that I will be resigning today as your pastor, as I am no longer qualified to serve in this capacity…”
That may seem a bit dramatic, but is it possible that an intentionality with faithful friendship is a primary guard rail to protect each of us from the second set of conversations needing to occur? The privacy, autonomy, domination, etc. that have destroyed brothers’ ministries in the past could have been prevented by faithful friends who were given permission to refuse to accept these behaviors.
Friendship is serious business for pastors. As I write, I am looking at the back cover of Dangerous Calling, on which I see the names of five ministry leaders who were commending the book. Three of those names are no longer qualified for the ministry roles they held at that time.
If you are training for ministry leadership, you need to get real about your capacity to destroy your own ministry. But good news! God designed us for friendship. God designed us to need others, and He provides the strength we need in His Word by His Spirit, and through His people. Faithful ministry friends will help you stay the course and persevere to the end of the race, when the Lord calls you home.
 Edward T. Welch, Side By Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 15.
 Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 83.
Editor’s Note: This post is a part of ongoing series on real-life advice for pastors and pastors-in-training. Read the previous posts in the series:
Part One – Walk with God
Part Two – Cultivate Humility
Part Three – Learn Patience