I mashed the brake as quickly as I could. I had taken my eyes off the road for just a moment. Though I stood on the brake, it was too late. Distracted driving led to a crunching crescendo of steel on steel. The vehicle shuddered as I knocked a minivan into a pickup truck on the expressway. I had forgotten how in this city, when the afternoon rush began everyone might suddenly stop.
To my surprise, as I exchanged information with the two individuals with whom I collided, having learned I was a pastor, the gentleman from the pickup truck said, “Listen, don’t worry about the damage. I’m a church leader and I know you pastors have so much to do. It’s easy for this kind of thing to happen.”
Then he said words I’ll never forget: “I have a heart for pastors.”
He was right. I was averaging a work day that started at nine and worked many evenings till nine with very few days off, sometimes for months. Not to mention that I was usually up at 4:30am to spend several hours in personal devotion, sermonic study and an every other day attempt to run three miles, my only way to maintain a modicum of sanity.
Recently, a pastor shared with me that he easily has 40 hours in by Wednesday. I knew exactly what he was talking about. With 24/7 access to pastors, a kind of access we get from no other professional, through cell phones, texting, and social networks, we should not be surprised that the number of pastors getting out of ministry within their first five years has reached epic proportions—quadrupling since the seventies. Living without realistic expectations of oneself or under the tyranny of the demands of others will eventually lead one to feel empty and depleted.
That’s how I felt during the aforementioned fender bender. I had just left the home of a family whose loved one had died. After spending the morning comforting them, the afternoon was spent buying them a meal while taking a young grandson with me to see how he was processing his loss. By three that afternoon I was famished. Although I fed them, as their caregiver, it just didn’t feel right to eat myself.
As I made my way home, having eaten nothing that day, my driving distraction wasn’t a text message on my cell. It was a message sent up my spinal cord from my stomach to my brain. It was in all caps and it said, EAT! I replied TTYL, text speak for talk to you later. But it replied, not LOL (Laughing Out Loud) and again it retorted, EAT! Many times, if there was time to eat; my first meal was roughly around three. But this time I had smelled the aroma of food—and did my stomach churn! While driving, I reached in the glove compartment hoping to find something, anything. I usually keep a candy bar there in case I’m ever stranded. That’s when it happened. Screeeeeech! Bam!
As pastors go, I was quite typical. Paul Vitello writing for The New York Times maintains that “many clerics have ‘boundary issues’ — defined as being too easily overtaken by the urgency of other people’s needs.” I wouldn’t change a thing in regard to this family, but there were so many other areas of ministry that were spinning out of control. The battle with boundaries is rooted in unrealistic expectations on the part of both pastor and congregation. Unclear boundaries for pastors lead to unbelievably long hours, discouragement, and depression rates higher than the national norm. Pastors want to excel at everything, and churches often expect it. They want someone who is the consummate teacher, preacher, counselor, administrator, planner, department booster, evangelizing church growth expert and chaplain—all while maintaining a strong prayer life and visitation program.
However, when we focus on our key strengths we are much more productive and much happier too. To develop a clear understanding of our gift and skill set requires one to slow down and take time for periodic spiritual retreats, of a day or so, to reflect spiritually on where we’ve come from and where we’re going through the grace of God.
Jesus worked hard but also practiced personal retreat, and the resulting clarity showed through His “I Am” statements. When we follow His example, not only do we have a clearer understanding of our key strengths, but we also are better suited to develop the gifts of those around us.
Lay leaders who are fully engaged in using their gift sets can easily cover what pastors can’t get to and are less inclined to pass responsibilities off to their pastor. Even if they do, however, remember how Saul wanted David to fight in his armor. But David understood that God had given him a different gift and skill set than the Israelite King, thus he refused Saul’s armor. His gift was faith and his skill, using a sling. It’s alright to say no to unrealistic expectations. Just demonstrate the more excellent way.
Getting beyond workaholic behavior is not easy. While wearing everyone else’s armor, you may experience an adrenaline rush as you stretch the gauntlet over your hand to take on the giants that rule the day. But insane schedules produce an attempt to find some cathartic experience that makes up for the sacrifice of self. For me a big satisfying meal at the end of a hard day, no matter how late, was my reward for a sustained effort of moving from one crisis to the next. Possibly, this may be in part why 69% of clergy endure a constant struggle with weight control?
Anticipating the crunch of a stale Payday bar led to a crunch a driver never wants to hear. Worse yet, the candy wasn’t there! It was in my other car.
But oh how refreshing it was to hear someone say, “I have a heart for pastors.” His words were apples of gold in a picture of silver. Neither person I hit that day turned in the damage to their insurance company or charged me for what I justly should have paid. The pickup truck driver led by example, and the other driver followed his lead. Ultimately, God’s mercy prevailed as neither individual was hurt and their auto damage was minimal. What a blessing! Jesus, the Chief Caregiver, was merciful to this caregiver. Even today, many years later just thinking about it makes me want to shout, Hallelujah!
Several weeks ago Gale Coridan, first lady of Iowa-Missouri Conference, shared with me that a previous Outlook article on pastoral spouse appreciation was the catalyst needed to bring about a change in conference culture as to how the pastor’s wife should be treated. She and several others have led the charge and challenged churches there to have a heart for pastoral spouses—and what a difference has transpired in the lives of first ladies across the conference.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we took the time to really show appreciation for the pastors God has chosen to lead us? Yes, they are flawed, but so are we. They have accidents, lapses in judgment, but so do we. At times we all drive through life in a distracted fashion. Let’s refocus on the life of Christ and not take our eyes off Him, even for a moment. If we haven’t experienced the renewing power of His forgiveness, all we have to do is fall at the foot of the cross, confess our sins and by faith claim it. Once you’ve experienced His mercy, it’s so much easier to pass it on.
Moreover, take the lead. Be an example. In 1st Corinthians 13 fashion, don’t glory in the pastor’s or anyone else’s faults. Instead, pray for the gift of encouragement. We’re in dire need of a cultural shift in Mid-America to unconditionally love all leaders God has appointed to serve, even to the point of showing occasional tangible appreciation.
Most likely you are part of the silent majority that thinks well of your pastor, but kind thoughts if not expressed will never reach him. Recently, I realized I was a part of this silent majority. So I called my pastor to tell him he’s doing a great job.
Have a heart for pastors? Take a moment to share it—you might just hear your pastor shout “Hallelujah!” And please know your pastor is there to serve you and is glad to do it, not for recognition but because of a loving call placed on his life by a wonderful Savior.