Confessions of a Happy Pastor
by Craig Corkill
Interact Magazine 1997
Volume 8 Number 3
Having read the title of this article, the question racing around your mind is probably whether there can be such a thing. Isn’t pastoral ministry meant to exemplify having our nose to the grindstone and being able to leap tall theological problems in a single bound? Is it possible for happiness, a sense of contentment and joy, to be associated with pastoral ministry? In my experience the answer is that it is possible, but it is dependent to a large degree on a number of factors involving both the pastor and the congregation.
A Strong Sense of Vision
Throughout the Scriptures, God has raised up leaders to instill a sense of vision in His people. Moses provided a vision of freedom and a place for Israel to call home. Nehemiah instilled in Israel the vision of a rebuilt wall around Jerusalem. Paul’s vision was of lives being changed by the gospel. Indeed Proverbs 29:18 reminds us that ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. When leaders neglect their role of facilitating vision people are left frustrated at having not achieved anything worthwhile. A crucial pastoral role therefore, in consultation with the church, is establishing and maintaining vision. Leaders should give people a sense of excitement about where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that if a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. Real vision motivates people!
Yet the issue of vision does not only have relevance for the pastor and leadership team: the congregation must be willing to be led into the future. A pastor may have a real sense of vision, but if the church does not ‘own’ that vision, it is more than likely that the pastor will become dejected, frustrated and despondent. Perhaps the flip side of Proverbs 29:18 should read ‘Where there is no ownership of vision, the pastor perishes’. Indeed it has been said that without a clear commitment to a specific vision the church is like a glacier: fascinating to observe, but going nowhere fast.
At Wattle Grove, we have agreed together on where we’re heading under Christ. Our Mission Statement speaks of our passion for evangelism, discipleship, worship and fellowship. Each year we develop a one-year plan which spells out goals for each area of the Mission Statement. These goals must be achievable, measurable, understandable and God-honoring. At present we’re looking at developing three and five-year plans as well. The product of this planning and its execution is a corporate belief that we’re going somewhere special and that we’re heading there together. For a pastor there’s no place more exciting than a church that’s going somewhere. Vision, therefore, is a two-way street: pastors and the leadership team presenting a challenging lead, and congregations owning and executing the vision.
A Healthy Heritage
Strongly related to vision is the concept of heritage. After being involved in pastoral ministry and speaking with many pastors I am aware that a church’s heritage is often perceived by the pastor as a millstone around his neck. Stories and experiences from a church’s past are communicated to the pastor, and sometimes there is a tendency for him to feel inadequate and limited in light of the church’s apparent former glories.
As a new pastor I was shown a useful perspective on this issue by a Bible College lecturer. He encouraged me to seek to deeply understand the church’s heritage and then utilize it. Whilst the church I am pastoring does not have a long heritage, it did have a history before I came along. One of my first priorities therefore was to understand that heritage. I spoke to those who had been at the church from the beginning and those who since had joined and progressively gained a picture of where the church had come from. While much of that heritage has been positive, there have been some difficult times as well. At one point when the church had less than 20 members, there was a major split over certain issues, resulting in over 25% of the members leaving – not a healthy start for a young church. Yet I have often been able to point to both the positives and negatives in our past and use the lessons learned there to help us move on into the future.
Like vision, heritage affects both pastor and congregation. Like the pastor, church members need to understand their heritage, but they also need to look forward to what God will do in and through them in the future. Churches have a heritage from the past, but have the possibility of establishing a great heritage for future generations as well. In the Old Testament we continually see God reminding His people of their past – the Exodus, Mt. Sinai, etc. Yet when recalling the past He often challenges them about their future – their need to persevere as His people (Psalm 81). It’s my guess that the faithfulness of God has been demonstrated in the heritage of your church too. Yet the purpose of that heritage is not that it is something to be relived, but rather something that spurs us on to trust God for even greater things in the future. Congregations which only rest on their laurels soon find they are sitting in the middle of dead vegetation.
From the time I was 12 years of age I’ve enjoyed playing basketball. It’s a game that requires skill, agility, discipline and stamina. Yet perhaps the greatest need in basketball is to be a team player. Not even the world-renowned basketballer Michael Jordan is able to take on the opposition by himself. He needs his team-mates, his coach, his trainers and even the kid with the Gatorade bottle; it’s a team effort or it’s defeat. The same can be said of pastoral ministry. For too long many pastors have bought the lie that ministry is the sole responsibility of the paid professional. While the ministry of preaching, teaching, pastoring and leadership is certainly important, we have often created a chasm between ‘the clergy’ and ‘the laity’ which plainly does not exist within the New Testament model for church life. The unfortunate consequence of this has been pastors who burn out under a ministry load that no person is capable of bearing. At the same time, church members often feel frustrated as they are not using the gifts God has given them.
To take up the analogy from basketball again, pastors need to consider themselves members of a team rather than sole players. They also need to be sure they play the role of ‘team leader’, although this does not mean being the only one on the court.
Similarly, pastors need to have coaches and trainers in place as part of their support network. From the time I was in my senior years at high school I’ve had mentors/disciplers who have taken on the role of my personal ‘spiritual coach’. They have kept me accountable, spurred me on in my ministry, challenged me with who God is and how I’m relating to Him, and given me a big vision of what God can do. As a pastor I find that I am even more grateful for the input of my coach. He is someone who is independent of my church situation, has many years of pastoral experience and has walked with God longer than I have, so I am able to draw upon his experience and wisdom in my present situation.
It’s also important to have people on hand with the ‘Gatorade bottle’. In pastoral ministry I have found that there are certain people with a special ministry of encouragement who refresh and regenerate my enthusiasm and energy, much like sport drinks do to athletes. When I’m feeling frustrated, confused or dejected these people have the uncanny ability to lift my spirit and keep me going. If you are a pastor I’d encourage you to seek out these special people. Their ministry may not be spectacular or ‘up-front’, but in my experience they are some of the most valuable members of the team. If you’re a church member, I’d encourage you to be a ‘Gatorade Christian’. Encourage each other and particularly encourage your pastor.
Love in Action
If you’re anything like me, as a pastor, it’s sometimes easier to recite the Scriptures, give assent to its instructions and preach its principles than it is to actually love some people. In any church there are folk whom we find hard to love. They think, look, behave, smell, dress, and speak differently to us, and if we’re honest with ourselves that can sometimes be threatening and cause us to step back from loving them. Yet I am challenged by the apostle Paul who loved the Corinthian church with such a passion that he was moved to tears for them (2 Cor. 2:4). This church which had so many problems and conflicts was still the focus of Paul’s undying love.
In my own experience I’ve found that the best way of growing to love the congregation I pastor is to pray for them and spend time with them. It’s hard to feel anything but love for a person for whom you are praying with thanksgiving. Similarly, if we’re spending time with people, the initial differences we notice tend to become irrelevant in light of our friendship.
I am told that in days gone by pastors were taught to maintain a ‘professional distance’ from their congregations lest they be compromised or seen to be playing favourites. Yet the result of that logic more often than not has been lonely pastors. I enjoy great relationships with folk in our congregation. We picnic together, play sports, dine and occasionally even holiday together. In fact, even if I wasn’t their pastor I can safely say that I would still choose to spend time with these people because we love each other so much.
Again, the congregation has a large part to play. One of the greatest things a congregation can do for its pastor is to love him and his family. 1 John 3:18 encourages us not just to love with words (even though they are vitally important), but also with actions. Wattle Grove continually demonstrates its love to me and my wife in both words and actions. The consequence of that is security and enthusiasm in ministry, with an accompanying desire to show the love I’ve been shown.
A Strong Sense of Call
But what keeps the pastor going when the wheels fall off vision, when the heritage of the church contains more hang-ups than the N.S.W. Art Gallery, when support networks are shipwrecked, and when the only love you seem to receive is from your pet dog? The anchor or stabilising factor for pastors at times such as these is a deep abiding sense that not only has God called them to pastoral ministry, but He also provides the resources to continue in it.
In his introduction to both Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul revisits his call – his understanding that it was God who had appointed him to this ministry. Indeed as we look at the span of Scripture we see that for many of God’s servants, their call must have been the only thing keeping them going. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the prophet Jeremiah who was ridiculed, mocked, imprisoned and eventually thrown into a cistern for his preaching. Yet we read in chapter 20 that the word of God was like a fire in his heart that could not be held in. God’s call on Jeremiah’s life and the message He had given him were such driving forces that if all other things failed, Jeremiah would continue to persevere. Such is the power of call and the enabling of God.
While the pastor’s sense of call is personal by its very nature, the congregation still has a role to play in encouraging and affirming their pastor in his call. In any church situation there will be those who seek to discredit and discourage the pastor. If I receive ten affirming comments and one discouraging one on a Sunday, there are no prizes for telling what will stick with me for the rest of the week! Pastors need affirmation like anyone else. In fact even Jeremiah had a friend by the name of Barach who stuck with him when everyone else was ridiculing him and his call.
It’s been said that ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy’. I think that the same could be said about pastoral ministry – it’s tough. Yet when we embrace vision, own our heritage, develop strong support networks, genuinely seek to love one another and live in the affirmation of God’s call to us, we as pastors will have a greater sense of fulfilment in ministry, and churches will be healthy, growing places.
Craig Corkill is the Pastor of the Wattle Grove Baptist Church, NSW.
© Rev Craig Corkill (1 November 1997)