May Pastors Have Special Friends in the Congregation?

3888805992_ea38e68690_mPastors are not supposed to have favorites in the congregation. It’s a universal rule, but not always easy to follow.

When pastors break this rule, the effect is similar to that produced when the parents of four children regularly show special favor to one of them, or the schoolteacher shows such favor to one student that class members call that student “the teacher’s pet”.

The rule is broken when pastor and spouse single out one particular couple for special time and attention. They may be at one another’s home often, eat together frequently, or even go camping together in the summer time.

Though some members may not care, this special closeness doesn’t sit well with other members of the congregation. It makes some who are not chosen for this favor feel like second-class citizens, as if they don’t rate at the same level.

Those who disapprove of such chumminess may be called immature or jealous and may be ignored. Their opponents might ask, don’t pastors have a right to have friends too?

But there is a legitimate and crucial pastoral principle violated by such selective closeness. It is that he or she must be seen as pastor of all the people at all times. Some members may be more likeable than others but all members are equally deserving of the pastor’s love and pastoral care.

The rule doesn’t mean pastors must dole out attention with precision, like a pharmacist counting out pills. When a family has a crisis — a member is hospitalized with a serious illness, someone loses a job, a wayward child is causing distress — that family will naturally receive special pastoral attention to see them through their particular crisis.

The pastor may even give special attention for a time to newcomers to the congregation or to new converts. Mature members will understand the reason for this attention.

It’s the special attention meted out for nothing other than socially personal reasons that needs to be seen as inappropriate for wholesome pastoral care. Pastoral tenure at a church has sometimes been shortened by pastors’ lack of awareness in this regard.

Still, you may say, this kind of constraint is unfair because pastors need close friendships, just like anyone else.

Many years ago I heard the late Rev. Robert Fine address this question in a minister’s gathering. He proposed that pastoral couples with need for closeness with special friends might develop a friendship with another denomination’s pastoral couple in the community. Even then, the association should be discreet, not time consuming.

Although this counsel may seem severe, remember that it is a pastoral gift to project love and interest toward the whole flock without favoritism, and to sense needs and be motivated to serve them equally across the congregation.

The rule to work with is clear, and any pastor can measure himself or herself against it: “Am I equally pastoral to all of the people, all of the time?” If the answer is yes, love for the Lord and wisdom in caring for the whole flock will take it from there.

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Photo credit: James Emery (via

Re-post: Both Tender and Tough

Photo Credit: skedonk (via, as we saw in my first post on this topic, the Apostle John knew how to address his people with tenderness at a time when heretical wolves were threatening the flock. Is that all? Does that mean that pastors’ main task today is to console their people like a nursemaid hovering over a sick child?

I note another characteristic of the Apostle in his first letter, one that I consider complementary to the first. Without this, in fact, he would not be John. On the one hand, when it came to caring for the flock and dealing directly with them, he was gentle. But, on the other hand, when it came to upholding sound doctrine and confronting the heresy threatening the integrity of the church, he was tough and unbending — a virtual warrior.

Here’s one of his strong declarations: “The man who says, ‘I know [Jesus Christ]’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (2:4). Here’s another, “No one who lives in [Jesus Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (3:6). There’s no give there. His epistle is marked with such statements.

Here’s the hint we need: All of John’s applied doctrine — that is, doctrine that calls his people to a certain manner of life — arises from the conviction with which he begins his epistle: that God, in Christ, actually came into human flesh! We call it the Incarnation. John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at, and our hands have touched — this we proclaim” (1 John 1: 1). At this point, John reflects no give. Primary doctrine is a life and death matter. Loving pastors stake their lives on it.

This was necessary because heresies were beginning to threaten the young church before the first century closed.

There was a heretic named Nicolas whose followers believed and taught that in moral matters, anything goes. Antinomianism is the word for this position. John could not countenance this, because he knew that such teaching could permeate the church like yeast in an unbaked loaf of bread.

There was also a heretic named Cerinthus, with whom John himself apparently had doctrinal run-ins. Cerinthus believed that matter was evil and so denied that Christ actually came in the flesh.

In addition, gnosticism — a heresy that threatened the church in the second and even third centuries — was beginning to sprout as an enemy of the gospel. The church was under attack.

Pastors need both virtues today — tenderness and toughness. The saints today need to know that they are under pastors who care for them with a tender love. At the same time, they should sense that they are being guided by pastors who have a clear sense of doctrinal integrity and who will lay down their lives to guard against the heresies of today that threaten the minds and hearts of God’s people.

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Re-post: Tenderness Plus

Photo Credit: the bpp (via recently taught seven lessons from that little gem of truth tucked away toward the end of the Bible called First John. Seven lessons by no means exhaust the richness lodged in this epistle, but amidst all the riches, two things about pastoring stand out to me each time I read the letter through.

Today, I’ll write about one of them, tomorrow about the other. The first one is about the writer’s loving tenderness for his flock.

First, some background. Tradition says that the writer is John the Apostle, aged and living now in Ephesus. But, aged or not, he continues his pastoral work. Perhaps the letter is written to a special congregation in Ephesus. More likely it is to a string of churches that he is superintending in that region of Western Asia.

One thing is obvious — the young church is besieged by false teachers (1 John 2:18,19, 26; 4:1-3). It needs inspired pastoral protection and guidance. That is what John’s first letter is about, delineating the truth that separates true believers from heretics. And how does he go about this task?

In the midst of an heretical attack on the church, he shows his tenderness toward his flock as reflected in his repeated words of address: “My dear children” (2:1); “Dear friends” (earlier translated, “Beloved”) (2:7); “Dear children” (2:18); “My brothers” (3:13). And on and on throughout the epistle, at least 15 times. The believers he addresses must have already been torn by uncertainty over the teachings of the antichrists who had come among the flock. They needed to feel the regard of a tender and loving shepherd.

Is pastoral tenderness, whether expressed openly or covertly, needed by congregations today?

Toward the end of the twentieth century, reports began to surface of some pastors who were treating their parishioners very roughly. At that time some leaders on the seminar circuit were promoting the idea that pastors should function more like CEOs do in the industrial world. The irony is that good CEOs don’t mistreat their employees. Even so, some pastors tried.

For example, one parishioner went to her pastor to speak of a concern. To her shock he responded: “If you don’t like my leadership, go somewhere else.” That was not an isolated case. It is reported that another pastor told a faithful parishioner bluntly: “This church has a front door and a back door.” The implications were clear.

It’s true that a church member may sometimes need to find a different place to fellowship. But in civility challenged times like ours, we could all stand to pray for the gift of gentle love such as the Apostle John displayed toward his flock as he taught them. Or that made Jesus be forever remembered as the “great shepherd of the sheep”
(Heb. 13:20).

But there’s a matching aspect to John’s leadership, and I’ll write about that in my next post.

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Re-post: 10 Tips for Young Pastors

Photo Credit: "Outside the camp" via flicker.comPastoral work is demanding. It has its peculiar stresses. But, it is also deeply satisfying when done with wisdom and care. Here are some suggestions gleaned from 22-years of pastoral ministry and another 19-years as a general church overseer.

1. Ground your ministry in daily Bible reading and prayer. Pray daily for your people. Pray often through the day. Consider that pastoral labors grounded in prayer are the “gold, silver and costly stones” the Apostle Paul speaks of as durable building materials used in pastoral labors (1Cor. 3:10-15).

2. If your study is at the church, be there at a set time each work day. I suggest 8 A.M. God honors a good work ethic.

3. Spend your mornings in sermon preparations, reading, and related study. Be diligent. If you have a secretary, have her guard these hours. Don’t allow legitimate resources to become time-wasters — the Internet, TV, video games, long telephone calls, news papers, news magazines, etc.

“If in the morning you throw moments away,
You’ll not catch them up in the course of the day.”

4. Get an exercise program and stick to it, whether it be jogging or swimming or walking or exercising to a DVD. If you have no better idea, consider, as one possibility, incorporating this routine into an extended noon hour. A jog, then a sandwich, an apple, and a beverage need take no more than an hour-and-a-quarter.

5. Do not have favorites. If your attachment to one person or couple or family becomes obvious — you meet regularly for meals together, even go camping together — this will make other members feel second rate. The pastor must be pastor to all the people all the time. If you need more intimate friendships, form them outside the congregation — with a neighboring minister, for example.

6. Never, discuss church problems in the presence of growing children.  They do not have the wisdom to handle adult problems.
Their trust may be damaged, and eventually their respect for Christ and his church.

7. If division develops over some issue (whether to launch a building program, add a staff member, change the music program, etc.) give leadership through proper channels. But don’t take sides by talking informally with one faction or the other. To do so will deepen the congregational rift and likely shorten your tenure.

8. Develop a clear understanding of your boundaries and observe them — with the opposite sex, the aged, children, young people, church officers, staff members, etc. Strive to keep all pastoral relationships above reproach.

9. However modest your income, set an example of responsible stewardship. Show leadership in tithing your income. If you have debts that are out of hand, seek professional counsel. Your care with money will increase the congregation’s trust in your leadership.

10. Never ask to borrow money from your parishioners. To do so puts parishioners at a disadvantage, may reduce their respect for you, and if not repaid as agreed may create a rift that puts your pastoral tenure at risk.

Pastoral ministry is built on the ability to preach and teach the Bible. But it is also grounded in genuine godliness, basic ethical competence, good interpersonal skills, and beyond these on common sense. These ten points do not tell the whole story but they offer some time-tested suggestions about how to avoid the traps that sometimes spring and limit or even shorten a minister’s usefulness to the Lord and a congregation.


Photo Credit: Outside the camp (via

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When Two Become One

WeddingPastors are supposed to bring theological grounding to all events they administer. That is one of the reasons for the years of pastoral training.

Consider the issue of marriage. Its boundaries are becoming increasing fuzzy in the secular mind. A war rages on to open up the traditional definition — one man and one woman — to other options and perhaps soon to increased numbers in a union. This means pastoral care of the modern wedding must reflect what the Scriptures teach about marriage.

In my recent book, The Pastor’s First Love: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling, I spell out in brief some ideas about marriage as a rite of passage in Christian understanding. Here’s a sampling from the book:

A wedding is a ‘rite of passage.’ Across two thousand years, the church has considered certain events to be epochal moments in life’s journey: birth, baptism, marriage, conversion, death. These have not always come in the same sequence or been given the same weight. But such events are so momentous that they deserve appropriate celebration.

When a man and woman come to the altar, what happens there in a few minutes changes them forever. They approach the altar as two single persons, legally unrelated; they leave as a married couple; a new unit in society. Their status will be forever altered, and so will the church community of which they are a part. Should not anything so crucial deserve appropriate celebration in the setting of Christian worship? The event is more than a legal moment; it is a sacred moment of life-changing significance.

For a Christian couple, a wedding may be a very personal matter, but it cannot be a private one — limited to two people only. It is the couple’s wedding for sure, but it is also the church’s, meaning it also belongs in the context of a particular unit of the body of Christ.

“So, the Christian church has a large stake in the wedding: its sanctuary provides the setting; its congregation provides the witnessing community; its ministers provide the authorized officers; and its rituals provide the theological content concerning what the event means. It can be argued that all of this is brought together best and most coherently when the couple meet at a Christian altar and the people gather with them in a setting conducive to the worship of the God who is the creator of marriage.”

I recognize that across a lifetime of ministry spanning well over 60 years, secularizing trends have had their effect on church activities. On occasion, two people raised in a church setting may still need gentle and loving instruction as they approach their wedding — that is, on what the parts of the ceremony that solemnizes the relationship mean. And of course, pastors need to teach their people some basics even at a time when no wedding is in the offing.

For example, Christians consider marriage an “institution” ordered by God at the time of creation (Genesis 1&2). Therefore, the couple must not appear at the altar as though they were creating something new. They may be demonstrating a fresh version of the event but they are entering into something that has been there from the beginning. This should make the moment for them not only joyful but also humbling and worshipful. That’s why we are not so likely to speak of “performing” a wedding as “solemnizing’ the event.

Also the words spoken in ritual should reflect accurately the meaning of the event from a Christian perspective. Rituals that are designed by the couple to make feelings the dominant element are not nearly as useful as rituals that proclaim the event as ordained by God, call for comprehensive pledging, and ask God in deep earnestness for his blessing on the couple at the altar. To achieve this in the face of today’s secularizing influences may require some counsel of the officiating minister.

It seems to me that, as never before, Christian communions ought to give special attention to the wedding’s content and meaning. Weddings, insofar as possible, should be shining reflections of the grace of God which enables two, a man and a woman, to become one — profoundly united in all aspects of their life together!

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Photo credit: Adam Woodrow (via

Strong Foundations

Gateway ArchOn the western bank of the mighty Mississippi River, at the eastern edge of Saint Louis, Missouri, stands the towering Gateway Arch. At 630 feet high it is America’s tallest monument, about as tall as two football fields standing end on end. The two legs of this towering monument are likewise 630 feet apart at ground level, increasing the sense of hugeness.

The Gateway Arch is also the world’s tallest stainless steel monument. From its observation deck, one can see 30 miles.  It has now been standing unshaken by wind, storm, and even earth tremors for 46 years.

I lived 50 miles to the east of St. Louis during the 1960s when it was being built.  When I went into the city to visit parishioners in hospitals there, I passed nearby and saw this remarkable structure rising stage by stage.

But it did not begin to rise into view from the first day of construction. What I could not see for the first year-and-a-half was the labor invested to burrow 20 feet into the bedrock to establish a substructure.  Workers poured 23,570 tons of concrete into that foundation before any signs of the monument appeared above ground.

The Gateway Arch stood as a metaphor in my mind as I prepared for Kathleen’s and my recent visit to Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York.  There I spent part of an evening with a class of seminarians who are preparing for a life of ministry.  The paper I presented there was on nurturing the inner life of the minister. I selected that subject for a simple reason: Ministry only succeeds in the long pull when one’s visible ministry, carried out day-after-day and from year-to-year gains unseen support from a devotional life not open to the public, but methodically rooted and grounded in God.  The seminarians and I talked about daily reading of scripture and vital prayer above all, but also about some classics of Christian devotional literature.

But attention to the foundation of Christian life and ministry is not only for ordained men and women.  Every Christian life that succeeds in service to God will have a visible life of witness, standing as a monument to God’s grace. But it will also have an out-of-sight life of practiced daily devotion and worship that stabilizes and reinforces that witness.

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The Call To Preach

Arrows_2420989165_0ec11e57c2_nDuring my boyhood days in Saskatchewan I heard the following saying often enough for it to stick in my mind: “Don’t preach unless you can’t get to heaven any other way.”

It was a homespun saying. It implied that the preacher’s life was hard and one should only accept God’s call to full time service if following any other course would be an act of radical disobedience. The saying seemed a call more to dutiful than joyful ministry.

It’s true that during the thirties of the last century, the preacher’s life in the West was hard. Preachers were largely self-taught, by studying such as Ralston’s Divinity, sometimes after a day’s work.

Incomes were tight. Reassignments were frequent. In our denomination Preachers were moved every two or three years. And preaching a radical gospel of sin, repentance, salvation through Christ, and holy living often brought resistance if not persecution.

By comparison, the pastor’s life today is less demanding in that radical way. College and seminary provide better education for the task; a parsonage family is usually settled in a community for much longer periods; in most cases optional housing is provided by a given choice between a parsonage and a housing allowance; and incomes are not so near the edge as they were.

But for today’s pastor who takes the calling seriously, responding to “the call to preach” still leads to a demanding life that tests and stretches. Preaching credible sermons in an internet- and DVD-saturated age requires rigorous discipline. Warm-overs from the internet will not refresh the church. Parishioner expectations regarding sermons, pastoral care, and church administration are high and disapproval is sometimes expressed roughly; expenses for children’s activities or medicines may press the margins.

Even more importantly, serving the Lord whether during economic depression or days of abundance involves spiritual warfare. As Paul wrote long ago, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood….” (Eph. 6:9). In other words, any struggle in the pastoral life is not so much with people as with powerful spiritual influences that create resistance to the gospel. To carry out this warfare successfully requires the daily disciplines of prayer both private and communal.

The scarcity of young promising and gifted pastoral prospects today is, in my opinion, related very much to the materialism of our times. I recall one young man who showed all the signs of being called to the ministry but who turned aside to another path influenced, it seemed to me, by a family that could not see adequate material rewards and prestige offered in the pastoral life.

Admittedly the rewards are not usually “material,” but they are surprisingly great. Jesus said to his disciples: anyone who leaves all for me and the gospel will receive a hundred times as much in this present age (with persecutions) “and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-31).

The pastoral life is not a job, it is a “calling.” A job is a defined task (like clerking in a store eight hours a day, or mowing lawns) that may be completed so one can turn elsewhere. A calling is a divine summons which should be answered and is only lifted when the Master himself lifts it. The minister who called his work a “career” did not understand this.

Pastors who have given a lifetime to this calling can report the numerous rewards with joy — the trust reflected in the church’s ordination; the challenge to deliver the word of God regularly through preaching and teaching; the privilege of sharing deeply in the lives of parishioners and adherents; close involvement in the rites of passage with all ages — birth, conversion, marriage, anniversaries, retirement, and death.

Who can measure the deep spiritual satisfaction of celebrating a quiet fiftieth anniversary dinner with a couple whom one had married a half century earlier? Or talking by long distance with another man whom he had led to the Lord at his dining room table forty years before? Or the e-mails, notes and calls that come regularly from Christians (and even unbelievers) who say they were influenced for the Lord even though the pastor did not know it at the time?

There’s a quiet joy that is nourished regularly in the hearts of those who heard the call while young and who responded wholeheartedly.

(If you want to read more about pastoring, get my new book on, THE PASTOR’S FIRST LOVE: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling)

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