“Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. As you carefully observe the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith. . . .Obey your leaders and submit to them, since they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There are several passages like this scattered across the New Testament. Given the position in which I serve, I pretty unfailingly feel really uncomfortable talking about them with other people. As someone who Paul would have (hopefully) identified as one of these leaders, it feels terribly awkward to me to imagine myself standing in front of my congregation and telling them, “you should submit to and obey me.” And yet, passages like these are nonetheless in here, and we have to deal with them. Let’s talk about what this means both for church members and also for church leaders as there’s a little something for everyone here.
The first part of this week I have been attending the State Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. Most years it is a two-day event. It starts Monday evening and runs all day Tuesday. This year, I decided to attend the Pastor’s Conference that begins Sunday evening and goes through Monday afternoon. Essentially, it adds another day to the event. The theme of the pre-conference conference was simply, “The Pastor,” which seems a bit like they phoned it in on that. But the emphasis on encouraging pastors coming out of what was a very difficult Covid season for many, and in the midst of what is already being called “The Great Resignation,” in which pastors by the thousand are quitting vocational ministry, was very much on point.
I say all of that to observe the “coincidence” of my writing on these two verses this morning that were mentioned more than once during the Pastor’s Conference. It was intended to be a reminder to us of the weight and worth of the office. And it surely was.
I don’t say this with any arrogance or pride, but the office of pastor is a burden that no one who hasn’t carried it can begin to understand save his wife who has to carry her own heavy burden on the journey. There are many things that add to its weight as well. The pastor is expected to be morally without blemish in all things and all the time. The trick is that what exactly this means is defined differently by different people in different contexts. As a result, there is a constantly shifting set of expectations that you may know about ahead of time, but probably not. And if you violate them, you will lose all of your moral authority and ability to effectively do the job.
Pastors are expected to be constantly available to meet the needs of their flock. There is not a time limit on that either. While I personally don’t think I’ve gotten any calls in the middle of the night (that’s not because they’ve never come, but because I never take my phone off of vibrate and am a pretty heavy sleeper), I’ve heard lots and lots of stories about them. There also aren’t any location limits to that. I once got a call about something that had gone wrong at the church…while I was on my tenth anniversary trip to Hawaii.
Then there’s the emotional weight of hearing about all the burdens of the congregation. You are the person who is supposed to be safe to unload all the baggage they have been carrying. You’re also expected to be able to help them unpack it. You have to be able to bring the wisdom of the Scriptures to bear no matter what the situation is. Speaking of which, you have to know more about the Bible than anyone else too. Given a seminary education you probably do, but the expectation is there all the same.
You have to be proficient at managing money, people, and aging facilities. Last Sunday morning, I installed new toilet seats before Sunday school. I still have three more to do. If you stay in one place very long, the odds are decent that you will have to lead a major fundraising campaign which will likely cost you your job if it doesn’t go very well. I’ve seen that happen at least once.
There’s all of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the bad stuff. If people don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll come tell you about it. Sometimes they’ll be loving and gentle when they do…sometimes not. And if there are power struggles or a dispute on vision rooted in unknowingly bad theology on their part, you’ll hear about that too. I once had a member come sit in my office with a purple 4×6 note card (yes, I still remember the color) on which he had written in small handwriting everything he thought I was doing wrong. We went through the whole card together. Front and back. All of this and you don’t get to not love them afterwards because that’s what Jesus did.
Fortunately, I have pretty thick ministry skin. But I also have the job of protecting my wife and kids from such nonsense as people are not above going after them when they learn they aren’t going to be able to get under my skin. Every pastor faces the challenge of teaching his children to love the church in spite of their having a front row seat to its ugly underbelly.
As tough as the tough stuff can be though, the good parts are even better. Seeing someone grasp the Gospel and have their life totally transformed by it is pretty spectacular. Most people might get to see that one or twice in their lifetime. Pastors get to see it happen over and over again. Better yet, they get to participate in it. We get to see people who once claimed atheism fall in love with Jesus. We get to be encouraged by people who God gifted to do that very thing. We get to celebrate with people at their highest moments and experience the pure gratitude of it from them. We get to walk with Jesus as He leads His church.
This is all something to which you must be called. We as a church need to do better about encouraging people to listen for that call, and to accept it when it comes, but not everyone is called. Yet there is a reason Paul told Timothy that those who do it and do it well are worthy of double honor. There’s a reason the author of Hebrews here tells his audience to remember them and to obey them and to make the task as easy for them as possible.
Yet for all of these human expectations, there is a set of divine ones as well. If you are called by God to this, He is putting you in place to shepherd His sheep. You aren’t the chief shepherd by any means, but you are responsible for those under your care. He will hold you accountable for the state of their souls. He fully expects you to live a life which they can follow in order to get to Him themselves. That’s part of the expectation here in v. 7. If God’s people are to imitate the faith of their leaders, those leaders must have a faith worth imitating. And you have to love your sheep like the chief shepherd does. Otherwise you won’t be willing to lay down your life for them should the moment come.
When all of this is done faithfully and well, lives are transformed, the kingdom is expanded and advanced, and your store of heavenly treasure grows very rich indeed. It is not often easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it is worth it. It’s worth every single bit of it. If you are a pastor, keep up the good work. Serve faithfully and well and enjoy your Master’s pleasure. If you are a church member, love your pastor. Love him and his family with words, yes, but also with deeds. Make his load light so he can continue to bear it. Such cooperation brings God glory and you joy. The kingdom will rejoice that you did.