You Probably Have a Good Pastor

It seems like everywhere you turn there are discussions being had about bad pastors. Indeed, multiplied books, podcasts, articles, and documentaries airing on such streaming services as Netflix and Hulu seem to pop up every week or so. And, of course, there are bad pastors, and they should be refused the responsibility of leadership among God’s beloved flock. But has the focus on bad pastors been overdone? Has the proliferation of what some people have dubbed “scandal porn,” produced a skewed vision of reality? Certainly, I expect the world to cast as negative a light as possible upon Christian pastors. But when that project is taken up with equal zeal by Christians, I believe we have reason to be troubled.

I have no desire to diminish the sad experiences of those who have found themselves in the unfortunate and at times tragic circumstance of having an abusive pastor. But the attention given to those who abuse God’s people suggests, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that abusive pastors are the norm. And I think we all know why. It is because the salacious stories of bad pastors get a lot more traffic than any unspectacular account of the many good pastors who, day after day, faithfully plod away at their calling. Truth be told, there is something in us that rather enjoys the sensational and scandalous. We like reading the stories of the fiends and the failures. But the facts on the ground are much more boring. Most of us have good pastors. Perfect pastors? Of course not. Pastors who have never disappointed us or successfully mortified all of their remaining sin? Nope. But measured against the Scripture’s expectations for leadership, most Bible believing evangelical churches are served by good pastors.

In 35 years of vocational ministry, I have known very few people who can honestly say that they were bullied or abused by their pastor. Again, their stories are real and heart-breaking. No instance of a bad pastor abusing a church member is tolerable. But given the massive number of churches, pastors, and church members, such cases are not nearly as common as the attention given to them suggests.

On the other hand, I have never spoken to a pastor who has not been mistreated, slandered, undermined, or run off by church members, an associate pastor, elders, deacons, or all of the above. And I have known more than a few who have been so cruelly treated that they have been left deeply scared along with their families. Sadly, many of these men leave the ministry altogether. They are left in the dust of disillusionment, seeing no way to continue on in the call that at one time had been a source of great joy. Many others take the beating, persevere, and, by God’s grace, carry on faithfully.

So, while no one denies that there are bad pastors, almost no one is discussing the fact that there are bad churches. Where are the documentaries and podcasts discussing pastor-destroying churches? There is precious little discussion about the fact that there is hardly a pastor out there who has not been wounded, slandered, bullied, or run off from a church by bad associate pastors and ungodly church members.

In their excellent book, Handbook for Battered Leaders, Wesley and Janis Balda throw a spotlight on the well-known but often ignored phenomena of “toxic followers” that are present in most organizations from large corporations to family businesses to churches. Their exploration of “mobbing” and “triangulation,” are especially important:

A classic follower response in certain situations is the palace coup. This is the point when the mutiny begins flexing destructive muscles and everyone but the leader realizes a corner has been turned. We all know of situations where a powerful and evil despot abused followers...We are less convinced that simply misguided, or even evil, followers can bring down an otherwise competent leader on their own. However, there should not always be a presumption of innocence when confronting followers who have an agenda, as they can eventually destroy leaders and organizations" (p. 59).

Yet another problem often faced by pastors is a culture of niceness which is typically ill-defined but nevertheless pervades the congregation, elders, deacons, and staff. While kindness is a virtue and should be pursued, a culture of “niceness” can and often does turn rancid. Again, the Baldas write:

“While it is entirely a good thing that courtesy and civility attend our day-to-day work, niceness can be used to apply unfair standards and gloss over vulnerabilities. Passive-aggressive organizations employ niceness to avoid healthy confrontation and positive conflict…The fear of being seen as a complainer or even whistleblower quashes many situations where a little righteous anger might be helpful. And God help the leader who allows followers a glimpse of actual frustration or negative emotion in nice organizations – gossip and mobbing may quickly ensue, and a ride out of town sometimes follows” (p. 112).

Imagine the complexity of being called to lead a congregation of volunteers who pay your salary; men and women who often times have competing expectations of you, who are themselves still sinners. Imagine being in a position of leadership where it is absolutely essential to be liked by those you are called to lead, teach, correct, and, at times, rebuke. Imagine maintaining emotional and spiritual health when every day you are aware that you are letting someone down, failing to live up to some of the myriad and, at times, conflicting expectations. Add to that the all too common experience that pastors have of being actively undermined by an associate pastor, slandered by someone who voted against his call, or unyielding criticism from an influential church member. If young men called by God knew how they were likely to be treated in at least one church, I’m quite sure there would be very few willing to serve.

I have had the joy of serving as pastor to two congregations who received the Word with joy, grew in godliness, loved my family, and blessed me well (thank you Metro East Baptist and Covenant Presbyterian!). Every faithful pastor should be fortunate enough to serve in such warm and godly churches. I just marked ten years as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, VA. I thank God every day for the brothers and sisters I serve and serve with. I doubt you’ll find any pastor in the PCA happier than I am in his call. But I also know what it’s like to be beaten half to death in an unhealthy place. I know what it is like to be falsely accused and systematically undermined by other others on staff. I know what it’s like to be in an elder meeting so vicious that it ended in an ambulance. And while details vary from pastor to pastor, my experience is not rare.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am most certainly not suggesting that pastors ought to expect to serve churches which have been magically purged of sin and sinners. Nor am I suggesting that pastors should expect a carefree vocation filled with rainbows and puppies. The call to pastor God’s flock is a call to suffer. By its nature, pastoral ministry is hard. It is costly emotionally, spiritually, and in many cases physically. The Apostle Paul lists “the anxiety of caring for the churches” along with the catalogue of gruesome physical tortures he had endured (2 Corinthians 11:25-28). It is irresponsible and will harm the church for a pastor to expect pastoral ministry to be a pleasure cruise.

What I am calling for is careful consideration as to whether we have made too much of the bully pastor while irresponsibly neglecting the far more common reality of the bullied and wounded pastor. Has the glut of material dedicated to diagnosing and exposing bad pastors been recklessly unaccompanied and counterweighted by the far less interesting fact that most of us have good pastors? What is more, has the definition of bullying become so broad and subjective that nearly every pastor can be accused of bullying by doing no more than simply conforming to the Bible’s instructions for pastors and churches?

Given today’s standards for what constitutes bullying and narcissism, I don’t know how the Apostle Paul can avoid either charge. After all, he called the church to publicly excommunicate those in the church who violated God’s standard for sexual chastity. At times he employed sarcasm to expose error. He named individuals who had harmed him and warned the churches to avoid such people. He rebuked churches for their sins and doctrinal errors, at times, quite harshly. He even invited one group of errant teachers within the church to castrate themselves. He wrote one letter to a church that was so harshly worded that he feared they would reject him entirely. He forbid women from instructing men in the church and called wives to submit to their husbands. Paul even commanded churches to obey their elders and give double honor to those who preach. He frequently asserted his status as an apostle and expected to be treated as such. Or what of the writer of Hebrews? He told church members to obey their leaders because they keep watch over their souls (13:17). Is it even conceivable that, today, such statements would escape the charges of narcissism, bullying, or abuse?

Douglas Kelly, in his wonderful little book New Life in the Wasteland writes, "Wherever there is a faithful ministry in today's culture, it is very likely that those who begin feeling the authority of God coming through the preaching of the Word, will first of all start attacking the minister...People feel more free than ever to give the fullest reign to their dislike and their criticisms of the leadership" (34-35).

The following are specific examples of things which are not abusive or bullying or narcissistic.

If you are a member of a church…

  • Being led is not abuse (1 Timothy 5:17).
  • Church discipline (including excommunication) is not abuse (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-12).
  • Correction and rebuke are not abuse (Mark 8:33; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 2:15)
  • Being told hard things is not abuse (Galatians, 1 Corinthians).
  • Being expected to follow leadership is not abuse (Hebrews 13:17).
  • Being told you need to mature spiritually is not abuse (Hebrews 5:11).
  • Being confronted in your sin is not abuse (1 Timothy 5:20)
  • Being rebuked for holding to errant doctrine is not abuse (Titus 1:9, 13).
  • Being expected to faithfully attend and support the church is not abuse (Ephesians 4:12-13; Hebrews 10:23-25).
  • The expectation that you honor and obey your elders is not abuse (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17)
  • The expectation to care for the financial needs of your pastor is not abuse (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
  • Being disappointed is not abuse.
  • Discovering that your pastor can, at times, be in a bad mood is not abuse.

If you are an associate pastor…

  • Being expected to follow the leadership of the senior pastor is not abuse.
  • Having your responsibilities altered is not abuse.
  • Not being the senior pastors is not abuse.
  • Being told “no” is not abuse.
  • Witnessing your pastor in a grumpy mood is not abuse.
  • Having a hard job is not abuse.
  • The consequences of poor job performance and a rotten attitude is not abuse.

Since you probably have a good pastor, I am sure you want to be a source of encouragement to him. Here are a few ideas…

  • Receive the ministry of your pastor. Good pastors long to see God’s people grow in Christ-likeness. So be committed to the gathered worship of the congregation. You need to be under the preaching of God’s Word. Participate in Sunday School and small groups so you can be further trained by the Scriptures. Find a need in the church that you can help meet. Your pastor does not need you to pamper him. He’s not looking for a Rolex or Mercedes (if he is then get a different pastor). What he plans for, what he prays for, what he studies for, what he preaches and teaches for is your sanctification.
  • Be patient with your pastor. He is struggling through his sanctification just as you are. When he seems troubled it is probably because he is. Does he seem a little stand-off-ish or self-protective? Instead of criticizing him for it, consider the fact that he bears some pretty deep wounds. Now, a pastor cannot afford to live an isolated and self-protective life. If that has become a pattern, he needs to be corrected. But instead of rallying against him, try to help him in the ways you would want him to help you.
  • Mark the important moments in your pastor’s life with the church. Celebrate his anniversaries of service to the church. Mark the milestone of his ministry like his ordination. This sort of affirmation is life giving to your pastor and makes up for a great deal of the sorrow which typically accompanies pastoral ministry.
  • Be kind to your pastor’s wife.
  • Be kind to your pastor’s children.
  • Please, please pray for your pastor every day.

None of these things call for heroic acts or undue burdens. You probably have a good pastor. Treat him like a brother in Christ.

"I blessed God that my fearful experience had prepared me to sympathize...I would go into the deep a hundred times to cheer a downcast spirit. It is good for me that I have been afflicted that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary."
- Charles H. Spurgeon from The Full Harvest

Todd Pruitt has been the Lead Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church since 2013. Todd is also a cohost of the Mortification of Spin podcast and blog.