This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.
How gracious the Lord is to have given you wise elders! May I suggest that you get to know them well? They can serve as remarkable friends to you in days ahead when you need to pour out your heart about the life of the church or any other matter. Unfortunately, many pastors have no resource persons. These pastors sometimes bottle up their anxieties and frustrations internally, remain unchecked in their mistakes, indulge in huge rounds of self-pity, and become very lonely. This is harmful to themselves, their families, and their churches.
Brother, we need one another in ministry. You should not try to be an evangelical superman and by yourself direct all the principal tasks of the church. This posture will lead to disenchantment for both you and your people. The fact of the matter is that you need the laypeople in ministry and they need you.
Did you happen to read Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria (“Pious Longings”—1675)? To my mind this work remains one of the great classics on the life of the church. You may recall that Spener warns that pastors sometimes forget that the laypeople are spiritual priests, just as pastors are (in line with the Bible’s teaching on “the priesthood of believers,” a doctrine Martin Luther greatly emphasized). When pastors forget this doctrine, they tend to take on themselves the whole responsibility of running the church and thereby lose the fellowship, support, shared vision, and cooperation of others. Fatigue sets in rapidly. Intriguingly, this can easily happen with gifted pastors who can do everything (at least for a while!) but shouldn’t.
In Pia Desideria (Fortress, 1980, pp. 92–93) Spener highlights the wisdom of Luther’s counsel:
Nobody can read Luther’s writings with some care without observing how earnestly the sainted man advocated this spiritual priesthood, according to which not only ministers but all Christians are made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts. Peter was not addressing preachers alone when he wrote, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Then Spener offers his own solution to what we today call pastoral burnout: reliance upon laypeople in ministry. He writes:
No damage will be done to the ministry by a proper use of this priesthood. In fact, one of the principal reasons why the ministry cannot accomplish all that it ought is that it is too weak without the help of the universal priesthood. One man is incapable of doing all that is necessary for the edification of the many persons who are generally entrusted to his pastoral care. However, if the priests do their duty, the minister, as director and oldest brother, has splendid assistance in the performance of his duties and his public and private acts, and thus his burden will not be too heavy. (pp. 94–95)
When laypeople are taught that they are spiritual priests and understand their duties and opportunities, then the burdens and joys of the local church are shared more equitably and the church prospers. When laypeople are taught that they have spiritual gifts to exercise in the church, then they begin to realize how important their own contributions are to the ongoing work of Christ. Brother, your laypeople can do things you can never do. Many of them have spiritual gifts different from your own. The spiritual health of the church depends on laypeople working together with you in a common ministry.
Why do laypeople frequently not assume their God-given roles? Often we clerics are to blame for this failure. Sometimes we have seized everything ourselves; more commonly we have simply neglected to teach them about their position and functions in the church as spiritual priests. We have failed to lead them to the joy of discovering what their spiritual gifts are and how to exercise them.
The spiritual health of the church depends on laypeople working together with you in a common ministry.
Without this instruction, laypeople will often assume that their principal task is to pay the preacher and the staff whom they have hired as “professionals” to do the work of the church. It is the preacher’s job to put on a “program” for the church. If they, the laypeople, like the program, they will keep the preacher. If they do not, then they will force him out, or they may leave the church in a huff to find another with a better program. Fearful that laypeople will vote with their feet and with their pocketbooks if they do not like the program, pastors will often feel harried and hurried. They will go along with these spiritually enervating “rules of the game.” Thus a cycle is set up by which clerics and laypeople corrupt each other.
To put the matter another way—often in our suburban churches, “professionals” in ministry (i.e., pastors) encounter professionals from the workplace, and neither group has a genuine commitment to the premise that all parties are spiritual priests. The professionals from the laity apply business standards to evaluate the “success” of the church; the pastor and staff largely accept these same standards in order to keep the good will of the laypeople. In this context church life is often assessed as “very successful” because the program runs well and attendance is good, even though spiritual power may be lacking, prayer is not deemed a priority, and very few people are finding Christ as Savior and Lord. The church becomes a comfortable place where few demands are placed on anybody but the pastoral staff which must produce an excellent program.
I wonder what the apostle Paul would think about contemporary evangelical churches that have fallen into this pattern. Do you recall the characteristics of the Thessalonian church Paul recommended as a model for others? “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia . . . your faith in God has become known everywhere” (1 Thess. 1:2–8a).
Brother, I long for you and your people that your church will become a “Thessalonian” church, one in which all its members share in “work produced by faith,” “labor prompted by love,” “endurance inspired by hope.” What a joy it would be for someone to write about your church the way Paul wrote about the Thessalonians. But a church like this involves everyone—all the spiritual priests with their diverse gifts working together as the body of Christ. Even an elder with whom you disagree on a particular issue can use his gifts in the church. May I suggest that you invite him out for breakfast again and get to know him as a person? If he brings up his “unique” interpretation of Revelation 20, just listen to him.
Then move on to another topic. Perhaps after you have gained his friendship, you could suggest to him that in the history of Christian doctrine and biblical interpretation, it is rare for someone to emerge with a sound viewpoint that no one has ever proposed before. Then you might provide him with a mini-course in hermeneutics. He will listen more carefully if he sees you as a friend rather than as an authority figure pulling rank over him with your expertise in the biblical languages and theology. And if instead he turns out to be one of those obstreperous people who simply cannot be taught anything, then at least you will have assurance that you did everything possible to win your brother.
We send our warmest greetings to you. Please remember, brother, God is faithful. He will take care of you and your family and your church. He certainly has proven his faithfulness to us over these many decades.
With love and prayers,
Don and John
This article is adapted from Letters Along the Way: From a Senior Saint to a Junior Saint by D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge.
Popular Articles in This Series
What the Lord requires of us is faithfulness. And while it’s perfectly normal for every pastor to want his church to grow, it’s also idolatrous to marry our validation and our justification to our attendance.
Our limits and weaknesses are not in the way of what God can do through us, but our denial of limits and our delusions of independent strength are.
Monday is the preacher’s dog day. Ask any of us. In the cold light of day we see just how far short we fell from what we wanted and hoped for.
The exhaustion that comes from trying to hold things together in such a hostile climate eventually takes a toll on pastors.