We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jesus & the Successful Pastor

The Christian Post website recently posted an editorial entitled, "The Recipe for a Successful Pastor," which caught my eye because I knew instinctively even before I read the posting that I would find it a "challenge".  There is a huge literature out there today dedicated to unlocking the secret(s) to a successful pastorate, and I have to confess that I have given up on it for the most part.  In my experience, capable pastors generally don't benefit from all of the insights, real and supposed, contained in the literature while less than capable ones are usually not able to apply those insights.  And there are some things you can't teach, such as when to address conflict and when to leave it alone, which is one of the most important skills any pastor has to develop.  So, a brief article purporting to provide the recipe for pastoral success can inspire only skepticism from the get-go.

In this case, the author contends that the key to pastoral success lies in heart of the pastor. The article states, "The pastor must be enthralled by, in awe of, and in love with his Redeemer so that everything he thinks, desires, chooses, decides, says, and does is propelled by love for Christ and the security of rest in the love of Christ."  Or again, "Only love for Christ can defend the heart of the pastor against all other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry." That is, "Only the glory of the risen Christ will guard him against the self-glory that tempts all and destroys the ministry of so many." The article concludes, "Thankfulness for the grace of Christ expresses itself in grace to others. Gratitude for the patience and forgiveness of Christ enables you to be patient and forgiving of others. Your daily experience of the rescue of the gospel gives you a passion for people experiencing the same rescue. This is the soil in which true ministry success grows."

In short, the recipe for a successful pastorate is to be profoundly in love with Christ.  That love will flower into humility, patience, a forgiving heart, and a passion for service that is the bedrock of pastoral ministry.

There is no little truth in this recipe for success so far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn't take us very far.  There are any number of pastors, even some whose churches are overflowing with members, who profess this love of Christ and yet are not successful in their pastorates.  That is, they demonstrate that arrogant "humility" and self-important "selflessness" that is always the danger of the intensely pious pastor.  The very intensity of their apparent love of Christ is a mask for an underlying idolatry that transforms that love into self-love.  Such pastors can do immeasurable damage to people because they appear to be selfless servants of the Lord but aren't.

Let us grant, however, that there are pastors who do feel this deep love of Christ in a liberating way.  They are humble, patient, forgiving, and passionate in their ministry.  This is all to the good, but it does not guarantee success in pastoral ministry.  This love of Christ may be a condition for a successful pastorate, but it is not a recipe for one.  There are times when one must put humility aside and not wait on patience.  There are times when passion for ministry is a recipe for burnout rather than success.  And there are times when a pastor has to confront bad behaviors that have been forgiven too often.

This injunction to have a heart filled with love for Christ can lead pastors in one of two dangerous directions.  In some (perhaps many) it can breed self-doubt, anxiety, and a feeling of inadequacy.  Love of Christ is like all loves, stronger some days and weeks weaker on others.  We can't maintain intense emotions, such as expected in this posting, for long periods of time.  The question will haunt the honest pastor, "Do I really love Christ so deeply?"  In others, as mentioned above, the sense that the pastor deeply loves Christ can breed the arrogance of one who "has it made" with the Lord.  I'm not sure that the level of enthrallment proposed in the article is even healthy, mentally or spiritually.  It sounds almost like an addiction, and we are not called to be addicted to Christ.  Addictions are self-destructive whatever the substance abused might be.

Finally, the article does not address at all the question of what "success" means in pastoral ministry or how it is measured.  One of the truths that drives many out of pastoral ministry is that both the measure and the assurance that one is serving successfully is an illusive, ever-receding mirage.

In sum, in a literature that is generally not helpful articles like this are particularly unhelpful.