What’s Love Got to Do with it?
What’s love got to do with it (pastoral ministry that is)? Mark Galli at CT’s blog says its the forgotten ingredient:
“I’ve been suffering for CT at the National Pastors Convention in, uh, San Diego. Yet despite the gorgeous locale and weather, there is, as usual, palpable angst here. The place is full of pastors who are either exhausted, burnt out, frustrated, or missional. They all amount to the same thing: a simmering anger about the church.
For most pastors that anger is directed at stupid lay people, stubborn church boards, or indifferent church bureaucrats. But ‘the church,’ and especially ‘the Western church’ or ‘the American church,’ is the object of a myriad of derisive and sarcastic comments.
The anger is understandable. Pastors are an idealistic lot, having entered the ministry because they had the mistaken idea that they could make a difference in the world. And the church is standing in their way. I know. I was once a pastor. It’s the way this works. I had great ideas for ministering to the community and the world. And all sorts of church people, from laity to church bureaucrats, got in the way. What I could have done in a church without people!
What occurs to very few pastors–I only heard it from Will Willimon and Larry Osborne–is the difficult passion to love the church. To be sure, love can be tough. But love should also be tender.
Not a lot of tender comments about the sheep that these shepherds are responsible for. Lots of desire for transforming the world, becoming a missional outpost, and enough social justicing to make mainline liberals drool with envy. But not much tender love for those people, as Willimon put it, whom Jesus loves and calls into community with him.
As I said, this is understandable. This is a place where pastors need to get their frustrations off their chests. I went to similar conferences when I was a pastor and found them to be blessed weeks of healing and renewal precisely because we talked frankly about our frustrations with our churches. I just wish that at NPC, more of the presenters would not have fed the anger with calls for revolutionizing this and transforming that, which only puts more guilt and even more unrealistic expectations on the shoulders of men and women in pastoral leadership who are trying to love the people for whom Jesus died.
I wonder what we would hear from the congregations about their pastors. I suppose we do hear it in one way or another – the complaint that wants to remain anonymous, the angry email, the silent or not so silent exit, the secret meeting that leads to a forced resignation. My guess is that there’s an equal amount of angst in the pew! Galli calls the frustrations “understandable” but it is also a toxic and destructive brew when indulged. As Moses learned too late one’s anger may feel righteous but it usually backfires to one’s own loss (Num. 20:12).
Love, the God kind (agape), isn’t placed high on the list of qualifications American pastors are supposed to posses to have a “successful” ministry – charisma, vision, cool, techno savvy, yes but love? I have to admit that for years I didn’t put love very high on my list – worship, preaching, theology, vision, promoting change, yes but love wasn’t there. In fact, more experienced pastors who advocated the power of loving one’s congregation I quietly considered overly sentimental or too tolerant of spiritual mediocrity. I too was frustrated with people who “didn’t get it” and they were obviously frustrated with me. Too often relationships ended up adversarial because we were defining things by different rules and expectations and talking past one another. So as the church I pastored voted to close and I was frustrated, angry, wounded and felt a failure in the eyes of church and God, I chose not to pursue another pastoral position and instead took a year break from “professional church leadership” (as my denomination calls it).
During that year something changed. I’m not sure when I realized it but I see it as God’s grace and Spirit at work – maybe it was when looked into the eyes of a man who had been homeless and was slowly emerging from a life on the street and I saw a rejected child but also a child of God; or maybe it was when I prayed for a fellow pastor who complained of having a heart of stone and wanted to feel again (and having that prayer marvelously answered!). For the first time in a long time I felt compassion. Not pity, but compassion in its truest sense as “feeling with another.” I realized I had forgotten how it felt because I hadn’t felt it for a long time.
I’m sure it was there but it was buried under so much that cluttered my heart for so many years – disappointment, rejection, anger, shame, feelings of inadequacy – the usual compost pile of toxic trouble in the human heart but particularly deadly for the pastoral heart. I knew that Proverbs 4:23 counseled me to “guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” but I found that harder to do than I imagined!
The clutter was further excavated by the humiliation of going into debt, working for a dollar over minimum wage, and applying for government funded health insurance! But along with the prayers of some wonderful people I re-discovered something that I had forgotten. I find it in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi and Thessalonica – his genuine love and overflowing affection for the people of God not because they are perfect but because they are Christ’s (see Phil. 1:7; 1 Thes. 2:8 as examples).
Paul’s love for the church was not the vapid syrupy kind of the latest breathy romantic song or relationship of mutual convenience and “quid pro quo” that marks so many social bonds today. It was also not simply natural skill or attractive personality type. It was the love of Christ planted in him by God’s grace and Spirit expressing itself in his sacrifice and suffering for them, and his urging them to pursue love, holiness, and maturity in Christ. Such love is first and foremost a work of grace and the Holy Spirit.
The letters of the apostles written to churches to help them be the church are disturbingly un-concerned about what most of us “professional church leaders” are driven to change about our churches in our pragmatic obsessed age. They speak to fellow believers with real caring “whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1), about things like “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil.2:12) or “that I may know him (Christ) …and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. 310)! I have seen myself and other church leaders in Dietrich Bonheoffer’s warning on vision and the ideal in “Life Together”
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself… (p. 27-28).
Bonheoffer points out the danger of the man-created but community destroying ideal but I also think that much of the complaint for pastors that Galli highlights is also concealed ambition. It’s built into us and is a source for both sin and godly motivation (shocking isn’t it that pastors, even if they have been to seminary or ordained still have a need for self-achievement!). For men it is often a substitute for what we feel lacking in or missed along the way. The trouble is pastors baptize that need into acceptable churchy terms – “serving Christ,” “spreading the gospel,” “casting a God worthy vision,” doing “something great for God” – who can argue with that? What usually results is that the people we are called to love and shepherd become a means to the end of our own un-crucified and un-sanctified ambition. When people let us down they are getting in the way of our ambition! No wonder we are mad! However, in the ambition to be great, successful or whatever is currently the fad of the hour, when godly love and God’s ultimate purpose to make us holy is forgotten, idolatry has crept in.
I have come to realize that the God kind of love disciples of Jesus are commanded to live out with one another is a whole lot different than enlisting people to achieve “my vision / our vision,” or the deacon board’s demand for unlimited growth in numbers or the Christian community’s consumer expectations of the best in religious goods and services. That is actually using one another for our own gratification – the opposite of love.
I am pastoring again and the difficulties, contradictions and challenges have not changed – but I believe I have changed if even by a small degree. I see the same sin and dangers in myself and those I am supposed to shepherd. I have no guarantee of numerical success or that I will avoid failure, rejection, hurt or unemployment – they are “occupational hazards” not only for apostles, prophets and pastors but any follower of Jesus. But I feel differently and see things much more simply – “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:9-11). Before the professional role, the official title, the job description is the love that calls us into relationship with God and one another.
The body of Christ is given a number of commands about how we talk about and deal with one another that are stated positively – “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col. 3:12-13) as well as warnings- “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15). “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5: 19). Practicing these can be life-giving and life-saving for me and my relationships in ministry. A simple re-direction of my mind, heart and tongue is to replace complaint with thanks, to stop adding up shortcomings by cancelling “the debts of others” and trading the bitterness of disappointment for praise of the God who has called us to be part of and bringing about through us something much greater than any of us can dream of. In addition, pastors need reliable, trustworthy and wise people who will pray for them to find healing when their heart, the well-spring of life becomes clogged or damaged.
I thank God for the fellowship of his grace called the church – in all its beauty, ugliness, failure and victory. Far more than I realized before its about love. I want others to know the reality of that love – outside the walls of the church and yes, even the cantankerous deacon in the back row. I find myself more able to understand and practice the thankfulness Bonheoffer says comes from recognizing the church as a gift: “Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily… The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases…” (Life Together, p. 28).