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7 Ways You Might Not Know
You Need to Pray for Your Pastor
by Pastor John Chester
This is Part 2 of the article. You can read Part 1 here.
He is affected by counseling
It is a great privilege and joy to counsel God’s people. It is an absolute joy to point them to the cross and the sure hope we have in Christ. It is a wonderful privilege to see people change in response to God’s word and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I love counseling and I’m sure your pastor does too. I don’t want anyone to reach the wrong conclusion that your pastor would be served by your not coming to him or that you can serve him by keeping your trouble to yourself. We need to and should rejoice in bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). Yet the fact is it can take a toll. A true shepherd loves the sheep, and he hates to see them hurting. Your pastor knows the pain in your church family in ways you do not. He knows who has trouble in their marriage, who is struggling with a rebellious teen, who is living with acute chronic physical pain, who has a besetting sin, who is on the verge of hopelessness and so much more. And his heart breaks over all of that. I don’t know a single pastor who hasn’t wept after a counseling session, and I don’t know a single pastor who hasn’t had some version of the conversation with their wife where their wife notices right away they are obviously down and sorrowful and asks why and they respond, “It’s a counseling thing, I shouldn’t talk about it.”.
And it can be even harder when he has to rapidly shift gears from weeping with those who weep to rejoicing with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). Counseling is my absolute favorite thing to do in ministry, it brings me great joy, but one hour of counseling wears me out as much as ten hours of studying or four hours of administrative work.
How you can pray for your pastor: Pray for the empowering of the Holy Spirit during counseling sessions, pray that counseling would make him long more intensely for heaven, and pray that he would be able to sleep at night.
He lives on wartime footing
Once, when I was fly fishing at a small hike-in lake in the reassuringly-named Bear Tooth Mountains in Montana, I was having such good luck I fished the entire evening rise. As I packed up my gear in the gloaming for the 3½ mile hike down single track to the trail head and my car, I realized that I smiled like fish, and my wader, wading boots, net, and the rest of the gear I was about to strap to my back smelled like fish too. So, to any bears that happened to live in the Bear Tooth Mountains, it would smell like a giant trout was walking through the woods.
As I hustled down the two foot hide trail that wound through dense woods, I was hyper-vigilant knowing that an attack could come from the right, left, front, or back, and that if it came it would be sudden and savage. Not only was I an the lookout for the attack to come, I was expecting it. So, as I made my way down the trail yelling, “Hey Bear!” I was thinking about how to respond to the various ways the attack could come.
Thankfully the attack never did come, but the memory of that dark jog through the woods is etched upon my mind. I’ll never forget that feeling. And it is the closest thing to the feeling of being faithfully vigilant in ministry I can think of. Paul told the Ephesian elders that ravenous wolves would rise up from among them and that they needed to be alert and to follow his example of persistent vigilance and purposeful teaching (Acts 20:29-31). Vicious, violent attacks against the church can come from anywhere and at anytime.
Lest you think I am exaggerating, let me tell you that every man I know in the ministry who has served for ten years or more has faced at least one serious existential attack against the church he serves. And truthfully it averages about once every 2.5 years. Let me tell you about the two serious existential threats we have fought off in our five years here at Piedmont Bible Church.
One that I saw coming was that we had a number of families (a large enough number to alter the complexion of our small church) who came with the intention to take directional control of the church and steer it toward the Family Integrated Church movement. I saw this coming because I am friends with a pastor in a neighboring town whose church had been attacked by this group of marauders. I was able to recognize them and drive them off before they could cause any mischief.
One attack took me entirely by surprise. A man who had been vetted for years, who had been examined by the church and appointed to the office of elder, within sixty days of becoming an elder demanded that the church functionally abandon sola scriptura in favor of making the traditions of men binding for the church. He sought to elevate the traditions of the church he grew up in – regarding music, dress, and the exercise of Christian freedom in a myriad of areas – to be on par with the authority of Scripture. He went so far as to say that there were no categories of preference or wisdom in the Christian life or the life of the church and that if you were truly sanctified, the Bible gave you a definitive (yes or no) answer to every question. Although he would angrily say his position was scriptural, he saw things as diverse as VBS, singing Amazing Grace accompanied by any instrument other than the piano, and people wearing the wrong colored shirt when teaching or leading in any capacity in a corporate setting as fitting into the phrase “and things like these” in Galatians 5:19-21.
And here is the remarkable thing, when I confided in a mentor that in the midst of this crisis I was so stressed and worn out that I hadn’t slept in weeks and that I had been vomiting blood, he didn’t say that was the worst thing he had ever heard (as I expected), he said, “Welcome to ministry. You need to learn to take care of yourself.” It’s not that he was unsympathetic or compassionate – without his advice, comfort, compassion, and actual practical help I don’t know if I would have made it through – it was that out of love he wanted me to know that this is what it is like. Ministry is a battle. It is no accident that Paul uses so much military language and imagery when he wrote to Timothy and Titus.
The kicker is that while this conflict was raging I worked hard to protect the church from it and from the knowledge of it. Although the battle raged for eight months, until the final week of the conflict (by which time other pastors and counselors were deeply involved), no one in the church outside of leadership knew that this battle for the life of the church was going on. A good shepherd doesn’t alarm the sheep, he protects them. If you have been at your church for five years and you have never heard of anything like this happening, it is more likely that you have a very good shepherd than a church that has never come under attack.
Additionally, pastors (and their wives) are often subjected to personal attacks. I’ve been told angrily that I am a liar who is disqualified from ministry because I turned over a cushion without telling anyone. I’ve been told I dress too nice/not nice enough for a pastor. And I’ve been led away from the church in handcuffs for removing political signs placed on church property without permission.
Every day when pastors go to work they are in a fight. It’s not hyperbole and there is no other way to put it. That in no way eliminates or even dampens the joy of pastoral ministry, but it is true. And living that way can take a toll. One of the risks is exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout. Find someone who boxed growing up and also played a sport in college and then ask them, “What took more out of you, three minutes of fighting or sixty minutes of lacrosse/football/hockey/basketball or whatever sport you played?”. They will all say the three minutes of fighting. Fighting and being ready to fight just takes a lot out of you.
And it can make you cynical. There is a fine line between learning to have a thick skin and building up callouses. After my battle with the false elder, my wife said to me, “Well, you learned a lot.” I replied, “I learned that I’ll never again trust a man who didn’t play Little League.” I was only half kidding (probably down to 12% by now).
[Special note: It is always enormously sad when a pastor fails morally. I am convinced that many more are casualties of war, than double agents who were exposed. A pastor who falls into sexual sin is permanently disqualified (Proverbs 6:32-33), but he should be treated according to Galatians 6:1.]
How to pray for your pastor: Pray that the Lord would protect him as he protects you. Pray that he would not become jaded and would love as described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Pray that no matter what is going on that his time of study would be a refuge and a refreshment to him.
He gets discouraged
If there is one thing I can say with 100% certainty of all pastors it is that they are all human. And because they are human sometimes they get discouraged. Some are more prone to discouragement than others, and it is not a weakness or a flaw. God uses all kinds of men. Spurgeon famously called his depressive, discouraged mood “the black dog” and said sometime he was on the verge of tears for no apparent reason.
While some pastors are more prone to melancholy moods that others, every pastor I know has experienced this acutely, sharply and often enough to talk about it. In fact, there is a kind of gallows humor among pastors about how bad Mondays are and how you should never resign on a Monday.
Most faithful pastors I know are estranged from at least some of their extended family because of ministry and fidelity to Scripture. My wife once overheard my older brother (who I looked up to and adored growing up) say he wouldn’t come to a family gathering if I was there because he couldn’t take my “Jesus ‘stuff’” (he didn’t say “stuff”). I know a man whose parents won’t speak to him because he left a lucrative, high prestige career to become a pastor. I know another who is told to just stay in the basement after dinner on holidays by his wife’s family.
Every faithful pastor has known the pain and disappointment of having someone he has poured into, discipled, and taught walk away from the faith (or at least the church), not to mention the pain that comes when people you love, have invested in, and count on as key contributors to the ministry of the church simply move away. The day after he was confirmed into the office of elder, our first elder as a new church plant was downsized and had to move away. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t find that discouraging.
Every faithful pastor has been deeply wounded by someone he thought of as a friend and ally. In fact, this is so common that a proverbial saying among seminary professors that all seminary students roll their eyes at is, “The man who brought you in will be the man who tries to take you out.” While that may not always be true, it is true often enough that no pastor five years in would roll his eyes.
Add to all of that how in pastoral ministry you can do everything “right” and not be “successful.” No other vocation that I have experienced is like that in any way. There is a popular preacher and conference speaker who often says to pastors (and those training for the ministry) that if you take care of the depth of your ministry, God will take care of he breadth. But what no one says is that sometimes the breadth is 40 people. The median size of an evangelical church in the U.S. is 184 but more than half have less than 75 regular attenders. The very best pastor I know has been faithfully preaching, teaching, and discipling for over thirty years at a Reformed Baptist church that has never cracked the 100 member mark. He has missed probably 500 weeks’ pay over that time as he always allowed his salary to be cut out of the budget when there wasn’t enough financial support to do the work of the ministry.
Oh, and everything that is common to believers and can drive them to discouragement, pastors also experience. They get sick and injured, they get flat tires, they experience the loss of loved ones, they have unexpected financial expenses, their dogs die. And they sin too. Even Paul was overcome at this, saying that he didn’t do the good he wanted to, that he did the wrong he despised, and called himself wretched (Romans 7:15-24).
You hear a lot about pastoral burnout, depression and how few ordained men actually retire from or die in pastoral ministry, but I don’t think it is really a matter of burnout or depression. More often than not I think it is profound, prolonged and unaddressed discouragement. Even in churches that are great at the “one anothers”, the pastor(s) are often viewed as “other”, not “another”. No one thinks to encourage them (other than in preaching), and their burdens are not borne (Galatians 6:2).
How to pray for your pastor: Pray that he would see enough of the Lord working that he would be encouraged that the Lord is at work through his ministry. Pray that the Lord’s grace would always be sufficient for him. Pray that the Lord would guard his heart from discouragement and pastoral jealousy. Pray that the Lord would strengthen him when he is weak and lift him up when he is down.
When Michelle asked me to write this post some months ago she said I could write it and she could publish it anonymously. I appreciated that. But the more I thought about it, the less attractive that option was. Here is why: I want everyone to know this isn’t a list of gripes written by someone who regrets being in ministry. I love pastoral ministry I love preaching, I love teaching, I love counseling, I love praying for the people of the church, and all of these things are absolutely true. Pastors are immensely blessed and privileged to do what we do, but we all (even your favorite radio preacher and your pastor) have feet of clay. And we are part of the body of Christ, just like you. But pastors have a unique role in the body, and by pulling back the curtain I hope I made it a little easier to understand and pray for your pastor.
And if you think of it say a prayer for me too. I need it.
John Chester is the pastor of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket, Virginia. Prior to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. He hails from The City of Champions: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra. Read John’s blog articles at ParkingSpace23, and read more of John’s excellent posts for Michelle Lesley here.
Pastors and pastor’s wives-
What would you add to this list of things that church members
may not know to pray for their pastors about?