It was a roller-coaster week. Early in the week I received a letter from a former member of the church who left under difficult circumstances. The letter could have been anything. It happened to be a magnificent example of an honest and reconciling heart and it is precious to me. The next day our church celebrated a handful of middle school girls who spent several years memorizing and learning Scripture. At the celebration there were several old friends there who had also moved on to other churches. It was good to touch base with them again, even if they no longer worshiped with us. There were also people there who made the whole evening very awkward for almost everyone.
I had invested in each and every one of them. Pastors eat and laugh with people, trying to encourage their walk with Christ. We pray over their hearts, finances, and families asking for God’s good will in their lives. We provide ministry opportunities to broken and imperfect people. Pastors sometimes rejoice and often weep. The investment is real.
The ups and downs of the week caused me to reflect on what it means for a pastor to pour into a congregation without any assurances of what that investment will return. Isaiah says that God’s Word will never return void (Isaiah 55:11). There are no such guarantees on the pastor’s time.
I want to take some cues from Paul’s life. He worked hard to build the church everywhere he went, and he provides some insight for us as we do the same.
“For This I Toil”
Pastoring necessarily involves the hard work of investing in people. Paul wrote the Colossians, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:28-29). He was worried he had labored among the Galatians in vain (Gal. 4:11), and he told the Thessalonians to respect those who labored among them (1 Thess. 5:12).
Spiritual shepherding is hard work. At least we should take it seriously enough for it to be hard work. This doesn’t mean it is necessarily miserable. Paul, after all, was thankful for the people he worked for. But this work will often take more out of us than it gives back.
If a pastor has a small enough church to still be connected to most of the congregation, it is a lot of hard work. All the kids’ basketball games go through you. All the family disasters come across your desk. Everyone who leaves the church is a person you spent time with.
But Paul reminds us that we should always put effort into our congregations, because we want what Paul wants – to see people made in the image of Christ and ready for his coming. Sometimes they are a joy, sometimes they are not. But we do not invest in people because we will receive an earthly return. We are looking toward eternal returns.
Pray and be Thankful
When Paul loved a church and there were very few things to correct, he prayed for them and was thankful for them (1 Thessalonians 1:2). Those situations are easy. For the most part pastors are happy to give course correction to and admonish people in the way of Christ, and be thankful for wonderful, well-intentioned people.
Paul also told a group of Christians who required a lot of discipline he was thankful for them (1 Corinthians 1:3). They were far from perfect, but there was evidence of God’s work among these Christians who were saved by the grace of God. Even with a lot of work to be done, there was reason to be thankful.
Pastors exercise a spiritual gift when they are openly thankful for the people they pastor. In doing so, they simultaneously improve their own perspective and encourage people who need it.
Invest in Family and Friends
Near the end of his life, Paul wrote Timothy with some final personal instructions. We learn he was a normal human being with common needs for clothes and friends. In 2 Timothy 4:9-21, Paul greets friends, asks for a coat he forgot at Troas, and asks for his friends to visit him in prison. Paul poured into the lives of the people listed, and knew he needed their company at the end.
One of our most powerful buffers between investing in a congregation and burn out is our time with the family and friends closest to us. The love of friendship can be a safe place to find acceptance and affirmation. Good family relationships can provide the comfort of shared meals and memories. In these places we are filled back up when the work of pastoring has nearly emptied our tank.
Reconcile Where Possible
In that same passage in 2 Timothy, Paul says, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me” (4:11). Paul famously parted ways with Mark in Acts 15 because he thought Mark could not keep up. Now, years later, we discover not only a reconciled relationship, but Paul’s desire for his company.
Reconciliation is hard work. It takes two people who value the relationship more than their grievances, but a pastor learns how valuable it is when Christian brothers and sisters are put back together. Don’t hold grudges and let bitterness grow. Forgive, pray for people, and be alert to when God may open the door for reconciliation.
Let Go When Needed
Paul also told Timothy that at his first court hearing nobody came to be with him. No matter, he says, the Lord was with him. He concludes, “May it not be charged against them!” (2 Timothy 4:16) The wise pastor knows they need to let go of the hurt and loss that comes with the ministry. If we don’t, we will tie ourselves up in knots and get stuck dealing with the same hurts over and over.
Know that the Lord is with you. He is your defense and strong tower. He is your savior and friend, closer even then the closest brother. He loves you more than you know and wants you firmly in His grip no matter what the world – or your congregation – may do.