An injured point guard sees the game differently from the bench. Without a harassing defenseman, crowd noise or game pressure he is able to see more of the floor. He can see and learn from the bigger picture. He can finally see what his coach sees and hopefully better understand his decisions. What seems so clear from half-court isn’t so clear from the sidelines. When he’s ready to play again he will be better equipped in his own real-time decision making. He should be a better player and teammate.
After 10 years in full-time vocational ministry I had to get a real job. I’d had real jobs after college and before seminary but it had been fifteen years since a 9-to-5 life. While I loved vocational ministry and hope to re-enter some form of it soon, God has taught me some valuable lessons after extended time on the bench. Lord willing, I might be a better pastor if the coach ever calls my number again.
1. Church schedules can be too busy. As I pastor I assumed hard-working men, if they really loved Jesus, should drop everything and rearrange their schedules to participate in a church function. Church members work hard. Really hard. They don’t sit around and read or drink coffee with people all day. And it’s burdensome to expect folks to cap their difficult 8, 9, 10-hour day with a 2-hour meeting or event two nights a week or the like. A Sunday School teacher in the choir with an 8-year-old and teenager might well be running around several nights a week for various events. Obviously, that doesn’t include their civic or other responsibilities in the community.
Churches should simplify their schedules rather than stretch folks as thin as possible in the name of kingdom work. Churches should facilitate healthy family and neighborly life for the sake of kingdom work. More being than doing. If the pastors consider a seasonal study/event beneficial then make them short. In the meantime, good pastors help their congregants become gospel-sweet employees, neighbors, soccer coaches and school volunteers rather than incessant event attenders. Church members are not lazy bums who need pastors to get them doing more things. They are fellow journeymen pastors are privileged by Jesus to travel home with.
2. Churches can be too building-centric. Everything need not happen at the church building. Of course, when we overextend ourselves in multi-million dollar facilities we are obliged to use them. This lends itself to a “four walls” Christianity where gospel work is more important when conducted in/at the church building. It can misplace sacredness on bricks-and-mortar rather than Christ as the important Meeting Place. Jesus provides pastors to help us toward (comfort)ability with gospel conversations/work as we go about life. As much as possible, pastors can encourage and model gospel conversations/gatherings in homes and at work.
3. Pastors are often too busy planning events and running meetings that they have little time/energy to care for souls. Many church members consider the modern, American pastorate as the baptized equivalent of a corporate CEO. Most pastor job descriptions require he be ex-officio member of all committees, resident visionary, marketing genius, supervisor of all staff, financial wizard and program manager. The pastor is a glorified event planner whose success is based on numbers and dollars. After all, there is a multi-million dollar plant to keep up.
Like removing a great teacher from a classroom to make him dean, churches can take their soul-shepherds out of the field to become professional “meeters.” Jesus has provided that deacon(esse)s serve the various practical needs of the church so her pastors can devote themselves to private and public soul care (Acts 6.1-6). Churches should expect their pastors to be regularly and reasonably accessible, not tied up in committee meetings. No member should have to wait two weeks for a pastor’s schedule to clear up. If that’s the case, then there is all the more reasons to consider a plurality of elders.
4. Pastors can get absorbed into a pastoral subculture that neglects the care of souls. I was guilty of this. I didn’t realize how disconnected I became to real life. Pastors need local pastoral networks for encouragement and exhortation. The main men in the pastors’ lives, however, should be the men of his church. The pastors’ time should not be dominated by associational meetings and other pastoral gatherings.
Pastors should know at least as much, if not more, about the folks in his church than the folks in the church down the street. They should know when and where his members work and visit their workplaces, if appropriate. Pastors need not be experts but should make every effort to understand the various vocations in their churches. They should pay attention to current events that might interfere or intersect with jobs. Besides, you never know when someone will need a good mechanic or broker who will radiate Christ to customers and clients.
5. Churches can be far too segregated. Strict age and gender-based ministries can do more to divide a church than unite it. The childrens’ ministry does its thing while the senior adult ministry does its thing. One could likely live from cradle to grave without ever doing gospel work with people much different than them.
We should encourage as much intergenerational gatherings as possible (cf. Eph 6.1-4; Col 3.18-21; Titus 2.1-5). The young married couple doesn’t necessarily benefit from always being around other young married couples are who are “going through the same struggles.” Perhaps they should all mingle in with the senior adults who have 30, 40, 50 years of Christian marriage under their belts. Perhaps our young sons and daughters would learn more about Christian adulthood and vocabulary by hearing their parents talk to and about Jesus with the saints. Perhaps the college kids should get around the middle-age adults who model Christian vocation and service.
6. Churches must pray more together. A lot more. One of the primary marks of the Christian church was congregational prayer (cf. Acts 2.42; Col 4.2). Yet, the least-attended gathering in any given church will be the prayer meeting. We can pack fellowships and events but neglect or squeeze out the very thing that defined the early Christian church. As our culture spirals further into wholesale secularism and anti-Christ, churches will only be as strong as their congregational prayer life. Rather than ask how many or how big a church is, we must ask how often and well a church prays together? The church should schedule its congregational prayer regularly at a time when all the church can reasonably attend. And then do not plan anything else during that time, including children and youth meetings.
7. The ministry warriors get easily taken for granted. You know these folks. They’re the ones always getting things done. They show up early to set up what you completely forgot, stay late to clean up what you didn’t even think about, slip out the back and come back next week. Pastors can easily use them as a crutch. Pastors like me can assume them as if they’re employees. Pastors should encourage them and regularly remind them of the fruit of their efforts.
8. Pastors need encouragement and the freedom to be guys in the sanctification process. Most every pastor I know wants to quit ministry on Monday, if he survives Sunday night. The pressure to “perform” each week gets very heavy. While pastors appreciate the regular “Good sermon, Preacher” or “Thanks, I really needed that,” those compliments don’t go very far. In fact, every pastor has been told not to take compliments or complaints too personally.
Sometimes it does the pastor good when some brothers take him out for golf on Monday and let him cuss the ball he just hooked into the woods. He enjoys the freedom to not be “on” all the time and loved on, forgiven and fumbling like one of the guys. Then, at the turn, buy his hot dog and tell him how you’re considering a recent sermon point or two.
9. Church members are largely godly, loving people. Oh, how I blathered on and on about how everybody needs to be like me: more holy, more devoted, more read. Like the “core group” of truly devoted Christians. We’ll never get to “the next level” (whatever that is) with all this dead weight taking up pew space. All the while, I needed to be like them: more loving, more patient, more, well . . . Christian. Most church members are for more like Jesus in their simple faith, hope and love than I am in my convoluted definitions, parsings and abstractions. I am as much in process as they are. And if I want them to cut me some slack when I dribble off my foot then I need to give them some room to struggle with Jesus, too.
Well, I’ve done my share of pouting at the end of the bench. But maybe, just maybe, the coach might catch me out the corner of his eye. If so, rest assured I won’t waste the opportunity on silly no-look passes into the stands any more.