Ministers are Human Too
I recently found myself in conversation with a pastor’s wife who was describing some of the grief her husband had endured through a turbulent time in one of his churches. Her/their experience bore all the marks of similar stories I have listened to more often than I care to remember over the past 35 years and longer. As she was speaking, the thought that went through my mind was, ‘But ministers are human too’ and by the time she had finished talking, those were the very words she used to round off the conversation.
It is one of the tragic curiosities of church life that the very men who are charged with the care of God’s people are so often treated in ways that show scant regard for their calling. It is almost as though the normal rules governing interpersonal relationships and how to handle difficulties arising within them are suspended. Ministers are slandered, vilified, addressed in anger – not by those who are the enemies of Christ and his gospel, but by professing Christians. And when the watching world catches glimpses of such behaviour within the family of God, they rightly wonder what kind of ‘family’ it really is.
None of this is to say ministers are faultless. If the greatest of them, the Apostle Paul, could describe himself as ‘chief of sinners’ (1Ti 1.15), then who are we to pretend we are anything better. Nor is it to say that ministers always handle their failures well. But it does raise questions about how well the members of the church understand and appreciate the Bible’s instruction on how they should relate to those Christ has entrusted with their spiritual welfare – even when they stumble.
There are a number of axioms and principles that should guide us as we try to frame the way we relate to men in the ministry.
The first is that we treat them with the respect their office deserves. Although they are mere men, they have been entrusted with a high calling. Their appointment has not been by their own choosing, or even merely as the result of a congregational vote. Rather, as Paul reminds the Ephesians, they are among the ‘people gifts’ the risen exalted Christ gives to his church (Eph 4.11). Or, as Peter makes clear, they are under-shepherds of the One who is the ‘Chief Shepherd’ (1Pe 5.1-4). So too, as James makes clear, the bar of their accountability is much higher than merely to their congregation or fellow-elders, or higher church courts: they ‘will be judged more strictly’ (Jas 3.1). In some church traditions, the formal letter of call to a new pastor is signed by every member of his congregation and they promise to ‘love, honour and respect him for his work’s sake’. This does not place him beyond criticism, but does afford him the respect that comes with the burden of his particular responsibility.
The second axiom is that we should encourage our ministers – even those that appear to be confident and gifted. Paul tells the Galatians (who by virtue of their regional temperament were apparently cantankerous by nature) ‘Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor’ (Ga 6.6). It takes more conscious effort to commend a preacher/teacher than it does to criticise and condemn. And when that becomes the pattern for how a preacher is treated, it is perhaps hardly surprising that he and his preaching are inevitably shaped by the way he is treated.
A third axiom is to be aware of how easy it is for a pastor’s wife and family to feel lonely and isolated. Since Paul’s injunction to the ‘deacons’ wives’ (1Ti 3.11) – if that is the correct interpretation of gunaikos in his statement – puts a high expectation on women who are married to officers of the church, it is often inferred that a pastor’s wife and family should be judged by a different standard. But, while that may be true up to a point, this should not be distorted to an altogether artificial standard – one that effectively becomes unattainable. The families of men who serve in the ministry know what it is like to live in the proverbial goldfish bowl. They are watched, scrutinised and judged in ways that are rarely true of the rest of their congregation. When this happens, it more often than not leads to far-reaching damage being done to spouse and children that in turn impacts the pastor himself and his relationship with his flock.
A fourth principle that needs to be kept in view is that when ministers fail (as fail they will) there are biblically appropriate protocols for how to handle their failures. Paul counsels his young protégé in the ministry (and through him the congregation he was serving in Ephesus), ‘Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses’ (1Ti 5.19). This counsel assumes the wider protocols established by Jesus in Matthew 18.15-21 that require a discreet one-on-one conversation as a prelude to any more formal approach or accusation. Too many attacks on a minister’s character and conduct have arisen out of misunderstanding on the part of his accusers and could easily be avoided if there was an attempt to clarify facts before escalating the situation to formal process. Surely the apostle’s wider injunction to all believers must hold true in this sphere of church life as much as any:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each others burdens and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ (Ga 6.1-2).
There are many other principles and axioms that could be added to this little list, however they must wait for another time. But hopefully the ones we have stated serve to make the point: ministers are indeed ‘human too’! They are nothing more than broken pieces of pottery that their Lord, Jesus Christ, has seen fit to call, equip and send into his service in the cause of his kingdom (2Co 4.7-12). For them (as it was for their Master) it will always be a costly service. So for those entrusted to their care, they should think twice before making their lives more of a misery than Satan and his earthly cohorts are already seeking to do.