19 May 2015

Walking that pastoral tightrope

by Dan Phillips

It has been remarked that I'm fond of creating lists. Like —
  1. This one
  2. This one
  3. And this one
And that was another!

I could list out a bunch of reasons why that is true (see what I did there?)... but, instead, let's just make one more!

You know I'm not overfond of literary overwordiness, so I'll let the list expound itself. Ahem:
  1. Pastor, if you see a largely empty auditorium and don't care, then outreach and effectiveness can't matter much to you (pace Matt. 28:18-20). But if you care too much, it will crush you...making you worthless for outreach, and ineffective!
  2. Pastor, if you preach the Gospel with all the passion and power that you can plead down from Heaven, and yet not a single soul responds, and you don't care...then your faith and your ardor may be defective. But if you care too much, it will crush you, and end you as a pastor.
  3. Pastor, if you preach all corners and angles of the Word of God to your congregation, knowing that they would change visibly (some of them dramatically so) if they took it to heart — and then you don't care or hardly notice when nothing whatever seems to happen in lives needing change, then you aren't much of a shepherd (Prov. 27:23; Ezek. 34). But if you care too much, it will crush you, and you will either leave the pastorate, or start crafting sermons that are bitter and petulant, or so edgeless and general that looking for response is no longer a painful issue.
  4. Pastor, if you never lay out specific applications of how to show love for God or practice the priesthood of the believer or live out the doctrine of the church (e.g. church membership, church involvement, coming on-time so the whole assembly can start together, etc.), you may be playing it safe to protect yourself from disappointment or hostility, and you're failing to provoke your folks to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). But if you do get specific... you risk disappointment (in yourself) and hostility (in your hearers)!
  5. Pastor, if you care too much what folks think of you, and modify your message and ministry to make sure you stay popular, you're no servant of Christ (Gal. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:4). But if you don't care at all about others, shut out their feelings and cares and needs and failings, and never consider the impact of your words or actions — you're just a loveless, self-absorbed jerk (Matt. 7:12; 1 Cor. 10:33; 13:4-8a).
So, there it is. To care, as a pastor, is to live with constant pain, to deal regularly with self-reproach, self-recriminations, self-doubt; with disappointment, with frustration, with temptations to depression and despair. It is to be moved with concern, deeply and painfully (Matthew 9:36; 14:14). It is to be in constant, daily anxiety (2 Corinthians 11:28; Philippians 2:20). It is to hurt and ache along with every temptation and failure in the flock (2 Corinthians 11:29).

But not to care is to fail of our calling just as surely. There is no escaping this life of joy-and-pain without at the same time fleeing from our pastoral call.

So we must care, we must care constantly and deeply... but we must not care too much!

So, there you go! On "three," now: One... two...

Dan Phillips's signature


Robert said...

This is an important list for pastors and elders in the modern western culture. We all grow up ingrained in so much worldliness and bad theology (especially ecclesiology) that is hard for us to shake off things that have become second nature to us.

I single out ecclesiology because most people think you just pop into church, hear a good sermon, help out with the events on the church calendar, and it's all good. The church really functions as one whole unit, though, and if part of that local body is struggling it has effects on the whole. It isn't just up to the pastor to hold it all together...and it would be easy to just pound your head into the wall screaming "when will they get it?!" after preaching through books of the Bible explaining how we should be applying what is written. Growth is the business of God, though...we should lament when we don't see it, but trust God that He works through the preaching of His Word. The Holy Spirit beings conviction and progressive sanctification.

I can't help but to think of a sermon I heard Sinclair Ferguson deliver where he was describing his thoughts in a class he had taught at seminary. He couldn't understand why only a couple of students were really understanding and applying a couple of things. But then he read a paper by one of his students and was reminded that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict and cause growth through the preaching of the Word and meditation upon it. He stopped and prayed for them at that point. And he said he had a little more peace about it, but still had concern. It is a hard balance, for sure.

Michael Coughlin said...

Those who need this won't read it.


Greg Lawhorn said...

I try to practice something I call "Godly apathy." This came to me while sitting in Dr. Robert Saucy's theology classes at Talbot in 1991-1993.

He asked whether God's hatred of sin was softened by His love of His people, or whether God's love for His people was cooled by His hatred of sin.

If I have a bad day, it's hard to not bring at least some of that home to the family.

But God's love for His children is completely unaffected by His hatred of the wicked, and vice versa.

And just like that, it hit me. There is such a thing as Godly apathy.

For instance, I DO care, passionately, that those I teach listen and apply the Word and grow in the Lord. But I DON'T care to the point that my own joy in the Lord is diminished if they refuse the lesson.

I DO care that the lost hear the Gospel and believe. But I DON'T care to the point that my own joy in the Lord is diminished if they mock and reject. In fact, I think it's made me a better evangelist. I don't spend time arguing with someone who shows no thirst for Christ (John 7:37-38). I easily shake the dust off my feet, and move on, praying that I will encounter a parched soul who longs for living water.

Michael Coughlin said...

Great point, Greg.

Serious question - In 1 Kings 19, Elijah's depression - was it a godly response to man's rejection or was it a failure? (or something else, not trying to set up a false dilemma)

canewbie said...

Thus is why pastors need their congregants fervent prayers.

DJP said...


Robert said...


I have a problem with the term apathy when it comes to God acting in the lives of His people. And sometimes even His people can show a lack of hunger and thirst for the Word...and they need to receive loving counsel at that point. God is always at work to make good from all things (Romans 8:28). We just can't see all of His workings in our day to day lives. I'd say apathy is a malady of man that I certainly can not apply to God. That's just my two cents, though.

Kerry James Allen said...

And who is sufficient for these things? 2 Corinthians 2:16

Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.
2 Corinthians 3:5

MSC said...

Wow, walking the knife edge of pastoral ministry is a dangerous undertaking. This short piece is better than many whole books on pastoral ministry. Thanks Dan, but ouch!!