When I began pastoral ministry, I didn’t realize it would be my job to disappoint people. I had to tell a young man he wasn’t ready for ministry. I had to counsel a couple that they shouldn’t get married. I had to inform the church that Sunday’s text means exactly what they don’t want it to mean. Pastoral ministry is full of no-win decisions. Because of this, ministry is a miserable place for a pastor who needs everyone’s approval.
If we knew that before 2020, we know it even more now.
Fear of Man & Pastoral Ministry
This sinful desire for the approval of others is often called “the fear of man.” We were made to desire loving relationships, acceptance into a community, and the favor of those in authority over us. But the fear of man multiplies and warps these desires into an insatiable hunger for applause, honor, and status.
In pastoral leadership, this wrongly placed fear surfaces in many ways. It makes a pastor perform in the pulpit, but never quite preach from it. It makes him hide in his study with the light off, afraid the bully member might swing by. It fixates him on what would make his favorite professor proud, so much that he forgets to ask what his people need. It addicts him to fame or internet attention. It makes him easily manipulated by those who know how to hand out honor, shame, and pressure.
Every pastor struggles against this in different ways, but their hearts all say the same thing: “I need approval to be happy.” Young pastor, learn to overcome the fear of man now.
That’s easy to say. But how?
Fighting Fear of Man
There’s a temptation to fight fear of man with self-confidence or a foolhardy “who cares what anyone thinks” attitude. But that won’t work. After all, humans were made to revere something. The question isn’t whether we will tremble, but what will make us tremble. The only pastor who won’t tremble before the honor and shame of others is a pastor who has learned to tremble before God. This must be part of why, again and again, the Bible urges leaders to fear the Lord (Exo. 18:21; Deut. 17:18–20; 1 Sam. 12:14; 2 Sam. 23:3–4; 2 Chron. 19:7; Neh. 5:9, 15; Ps. 2:10–11, Lk. 18:2).
The fear of the Lord is a glad trembling before God that leads to humility and obedience. Like the word “thrill,” the word “fear” can be either positive or negative. It’s possible to be afraid of God, but the man who rightly fears God enjoys the thrill, the breathlessness, the awe of glimpsing God’s glory. This man knows his own smallness—and doesn’t mind it.
Over the years, this trembling disposition will form a man into a courageous and gentle pastor. He’ll learn to sit patiently while a church member scolds him or hurls false accusations at him. When that conversation is over, he can love that member even more than he did before. He can do this because he does not need others to tell him he is great. He is so consumed with God’s greatness that he is free from the fear of man.
Trembling before God does more than help a pastor overcome the fear of man. It actually becomes a source of strength for his leadership, giving him integrity (Deut. 6:2; Job 1:1, 8, 2:3, 4:6; Prov. 6:6) and wisdom (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7) while also blessing his wife and children (Ps. 128:3–4: Prov. 31:30). These qualities make him a more credible and effective leader. Some church members may not like the direction he takes Wednesday night Bible study, but they will recognize a gentle father whose children obey him. They will notice when he sorts out a sticky staff situation with God-fearing wisdom. A member whose husband left after two years will notice when her pastor leads for twenty years without a moral failing. In the fear of God he earns their trust while he also becomes a better steward of that trust.
What Your Church Needs
Future pastor, local churches need unwavering leaders who fear the Lord. They don’t need you to meet their expectations, but they do need to see your hand tremble when you hold up your Bible. They need to know that you would rather have the whole room turn on you than utter one word that displeases the Spirit. That means they need you to close the door to your study, read your Bible, and marvel at the God who forgives sinners. They need you to learn the fear of the Lord.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the 9Marks blog and is used with permission.