Monday, February 3, 2014

One way to strip your pastor of his dignity

Thom Rainer, the president of LifeWay, recently posted this great piece on his blog: "Fourteen Sentences that Brought Joy to Pastors."

He's right; these sentences would, indeed, bring joy to any pastor. Why? Because they represent the combining of love and dignity in how the pastor is treated. Pastors (and their family members) deserve to be treated with the same love and dignity that those in their congregations expect from them—and these sentences are prime examples of how to do that.

Unfortunately, I recognize a need to dwell on the other end of the spectrum.

I was recently asked to write up my process for preparing a sermon, and Marcie read over it after I was done. She asked me, "When you put all that down on paper, do you think, 'ugh, I don't want to have to do that every week'?" No, I don't. I'm not averse to the sermon preparation (though it IS hard work), the difficult discipline situations, or the hard work of mourning with those who mourn and aching with those who struggle. It's not the possibility that the church may fold, or the drudgery of church budgets and hand-wringing over giving and attendance numbers that make me second-guess whether I want to be a pastor again.

The one thing that does is the people who live at the other end of that spectrum, and the words that they say to people like me.

Pastors are usually resilient people, thick-skinned people, and gracious people—but we are vulnerable to hurtful words just like you are. We are wounded by thoughtless statements, the same as you.

And yet (here's the great irony), my experience—and the experience of other pastors, as well—is that people will say things to pastors that they wouldn't dare say to anyone else. Things so tactless that they wouldn't dream of saying them to the their most disliked co-worker or neighbor. Only someone with absolutely no inhibitions would normally have the gall to say them.

I'm talking about things that, if they were said to anyone other than a pastor, they would probably get punched in the nose (or slapped in the face). Some examples?
  • There are the standards that most pastors eventually get, like, "It must be nice only having to work one day a week."
  • One guy told me once, "I was wrong about you—we made a mistake when we called you here. You're not the right guy to be the pastor of this church."
  • I was recently told, in response to a comment I made on Facebook, "It's pretty clear that your gifts are somewhere other than in pastoral ministry..."

These are just a few that come to mind; there are others (some of them even more hurtful).

Maybe you meant well. Probably so. You were just being honest, right? If you can't shoot straight with your pastor, then who can you be straight with?

But here's the thing you need to know when you say this sort of thing to a pastor: you've just undermined him entirely. In a sentence or two, you stripped him of his dignity and took away his confidence. With a brief word, you armed Satan with a memory that will be re-played in his head over and over again for years.

If your goal was honesty, you probably over-stated. But if your goal was to try to drive him out of the ministry, you probably hit your mark. And every time he faces another situation in which he doubts his effectiveness, his usefulness to God, or his calling to ministry, your words will ring in his ears—along with the words of others who carelessly said similar things.

This is not "normal" behavior for Christians. Don't be a church "pod"! Show some inhibitions.

For pastors who have had such hurtful words said to you (which means, for all pastors):

These words are not the sum of your ministry. They surely have hurt you more than was intended. I know that they will haunt you. Perhaps they have even traumatized you.

The benefit of doubt that the Gospel of grace urges us toward means that you believe that these were not meant to cut to the quick as they did. Try to hope all things and believe all things about the ones who said them, and to love them in spite of their caustic words.

You do not do what you do for the approval of men.


  1. Ed, I think you may be a bit gracious with people that say these sort of things. Many of them have a sense that they are God's agents for setting their pastor straight. Others see pastors as someone they employ and view it is the same way they would talk to someone who worked for them and needed correcting. Eugene Peterson's book is a great help in understanding how for the church has fallen in the US in terms of having a high degree of respect for the office of pastor.

  2. Lee, thanks for your comment. Which Peterson book do you mean?

  3. Ugh! Been on the receiving end of all three of these. The first is no biggie, because it's usually a joke. And if it isn't the person simply doesn't understand what pastors do. The other two are simply, as you said, caustic. I would add the word corrosive!

    What helps me deal with these words, are: the grace of God, articles like this, and the understanding that even the BEST pastors have also had things like this said to them. It also helps to understand that God loves me as much as I can be loved and I can be secure in that. That doesn't take all the sting out of criticism but at least it can give me a better perspective.

    1. Mark, thanks for weighing in. I agree that those are comforting elements; I’m glad I could contribute in some small way.