“If you have the reputation of being an early riser, you can sleep till noon.”
I don’t remember where I read this bit of insight, but it reminded me that a congregation’s perception of its pastor influences for good or for ill the effectiveness of his ministry. If he’s perceived as dishonest or inept or as one who cannot keep a confidence, his words and actions will be interpreted through a negative grid; if he’s thought of as godly and competent, he will be given the benefit of the doubt even when he fails.
Often, this situation puts him at a disadvantage. If he should lose the congregation’s goodwill, his ministry might soon be over. But if he consciously attempts to establish and maintain a correct impression, he courts spiritual disaster.
Pastors are constantly open to public evaluation. Preach nine good messages and one blooper and some will remember only the one that bombed. Walk past a deacon without acknowledging him and you might rankle his feelings. And if a disgruntled church member begins some gossip, a little leaven could leaven the whole lump.
We’re also under pressure because few members of the congregation know the demands of our schedules.
One pastor asked his deacons to outline how they thought he spent his time. They had difficulty coming up with a 40-hour week, though he was working 70.
We’ve all laughed at the child who says to the pastor’s kid, “My dad isn’t like yours – he works for a living.” But it hurts just the same.
Once you’ve gained a reputation, you’re more or less stuck with it. I read about a pastor who was at a baseball game when a church member needed him. The irate parishioner spread the story that the pastor spent all his time at the ballpark. The pastor nearly ruined his health and family working overtime to correct the false impression. Even so, it lingered.
These perceptions, whether true or false, can wield awesome authority over us. If we are self-conscious, always wondering how well we are liked, we’ll soon be a slave to the pulse of our popularity. Everything will be done with an eye on our ratings.
At that point, we’ll lose our authority to minister. “The fear of man brings a snare” (Prov. 29:25). We’ll desire to remain neutral in disputes, trying earnestly to agree with everyone. Church discipline will not be administered for fear of criticism. We’ll back away from any unpopular stand, even when it’s right.
I’m not saying we should be insensitive. We’ve all met the pastor who takes pride in “not caring what anyone thinks,” callously disregarding the feelings of others. But I’m talking about a lack of boldness even in matters that are scripturally clear.
We’ll also find it difficult to rejoice in the success of other pastors. Television has brought the super church to our parishioners’ living rooms. Comparison is inevitable.
We may even take secret delight in another’s failure. One assistant pastor, who was an apparent threat to the senior pastor, told me, “Nothing would delight him more than if I were to blow it.”
When we’re overly sensitive to what others think, we’ll also live with guilt – the nagging feeling that we could be doing more. Since by definition our work is never finished, we then carry it home with us.
I’m preoccupied with the pressures of the day and the ones I’ll face tomorrow.
In the process our faith is eroded. To the Pharisees Christ directed this question, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another, and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” (John 5:44). The desire for human praise and the faith to minister canceled each other – seek the one and the other eludes you.
When in conflict with the Pharisees who were somewhat less than enthusiastic about His ministry, Jesus said, “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” (John 8:29).
Our Lord was free from men’s opinions about Him. Though He cared what they thought because He had the words of eternal life, His actions were never calculated to gain their praise. The will of the Father is all that mattered. And if the Father was pleased, the Son was pleased.
I’ve known pastors like that – surrendered, secure and free from actions motivated by a desire for human praise. No need to prove themselves or be in the limelight. No grudging admissions about other people’s successes – just freedom and joy in the work of the Lord.
What characteristics could we expect if we were brought to such a place of surrender?
First, we would not let people push us into their mold. We all live with the tension between what we are versus what others want us to be. We’d like to fulfill the exalted expectations that many people may have for us, but we can’t. If we know ourselves realistically, both our strengths and weaknesses, we’ll not think that we are God’s gift to every human need.
Christ faced this tension, too. After He fed the multitude, the crowd sought to crown Him king. But He went off by Himself, refusing to consider the offer even though He knew that He was a disappointment to His followers. His miracles generated expectations He simply could not fulfill at the time.
Yet before His death He could say He had finished the Father’s work, though hundreds of people were still sick and thousands more had not believed on Him. But the pressure of these needs did not blur His vision to please the Father only.
The more blessed people are by our ministry, the greater their expectations of us will be. If we let them, they will lead us to believe that we’re the only ones who can lead people to Christ, counsel the emotionally troubled or visit in the hospital.
And if we believe that we are God’s answer to every need, we’ll also accept every invitation for lunch, attend all committee meetings, and take outside speaking engagements when asked – all this at the expense of our health and most of all our relationship with God.
Let’s not let our successes propel us into a role that is beyond our strengths and abilities. Our self-image must always be adjusted to fit reality. Saying no graciously is an essential characteristic of a man who has submitted his will to God.
Second, we would profit from criticism. No one likes criticism, particularly when it’s unfair. Furthermore, we usually don’t get a chance to give our side of the story without risking additional misunderstanding.
Yet sometimes, even when the criticism is valid, our pride prevents us from learning during the experience. When we think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, we may believe we are beyond rebuke.
Paul also received criticism. He was under fire for going to the gentiles and was imprisoned because he refused to compromise the inclusive claim of the gospel.
Sometimes the condemnation was personal and vindictive: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive, and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor. 10:10). But he was undeterred. He knew that God would vindicate him.
Every leader has his critics. If we are especially sensitive, if we cannot tolerate differences of opinion and refuse to learn from criticism, we’re still clinging to our reputations.
Many lies were published about Whitefield to discourage the crowds from hearing him, but he responded by saying that he could wait until God rendered the final judgment. Such a man of faith cannot be destroyed.
Third, we would not be afraid to let our humanity show. Our congregations believe that we are different, free from the emotional and spiritual struggles of others. After all, if we are not walking in uninterrupted victory, who is there left to lean on? Heroes are in short supply, and a pastor who has been a blessing to his flock is a good candidate to fulfill the role.
If we refuse to talk about our failures and share only our victories, we’ll reinforce this distorted perception. Eventually, it will give way to myth.
One pastor confessed in exhaustion, “My congregation expects me to be perfect.”
Our lack of authenticity creates a burden that is too heavy to bear. Struggling under its weight, we’ll assume we have indeed arrived spiritually and hence be blind to our shortcomings or kill ourselves trying to live up to others’ expectations. We’ll also tend to withdraw, fearful that people will get to know what we’re really like.
Yet, what pastor hasn’t done some things he is ashamed of? If the congregation could open our minds for inspections, we’d all resign in shame and disgrace.
We can help our people better when we let them know that we stand with them in the quest for righteousness, neither above nor off to the side where the arrows of Satan and the passions of the flesh can’t touch us. Honesty communicates much better than a false sense of perfection.
A letter written to a pastor by a member of his congregation said in part, “Are you as human as we are? Have you struggled with some of the same problems we face during the week? Is there discord in your home? Heartache? Anguish? Won’t you share that with us too as you share your doctrine, your theology, your exposition?”
Finally, we would not see the success of another as a threat to our own ministry.
When the Holy Spirit came upon the 70 elders during the ministry of Moses, two men continued to prophesy. Joshua, jealous for Moses’ reputation, suggested that Moses restrain them.
But he replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them” (Num. 11:29).
Here was a man who could rejoice in the success of others. He did not want to keep his gift to himself nor did he have to defend his call to the ministry.
Many pastors struggle over the success of another, especially if that individual is on the same staff. The fact that God sometimes uses those who are less gifted, or even less authentic than we would like, brings the sin of envy screaming to the surface.
But the person who has died to himself will bow humbly, resisting the temptation to be envious simply because God is generous.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the landowner said to those who had worked longer hours and grumbled about equal pay, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:15).
It’s God’s prerogative to bless some people more than He should. Apart from such grace we’d all be lost.
Friends of John the Baptist were concerned because some of his disciples were leaving to follow Christ.
John responded, “A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given him from heaven” (John 3:27). If we believed these words, we’d be free from all comparisons, competition and self-consciousness in the ministry. We’d serve with a glad heart, accepting our role.
Later, John added, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Even if our ministry should be diminished, we can accept it more easily if Christ is honored through submission to His will. Since it is God-given, we can take no credit for it nor can we insist that it continue.
If we have become men-pleasers, let’s repent. Such an attitude is an affront to God. Subtly, we are preaching ourselves, not Christ.
If you have the reputation of being an early riser, you can sleep till noon. But God knows when you get out of bed, and His perception is the one that really counts.
Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer, Moody