A pastor is a sinner who, having been saved by the grace of God, has been called and equipped to lead the people of God, preaching the Word and equipping the saints. How’s that for a definition?
We don’t necessarily think of a pastor as a sinner, unless we had a pastor who sinned against us or fell into some kind of scandalous sin. Otherwise, we have this persistent notion that the pastor is above the world, untouched by the feeling of our infirmities, unvarnished by the sins that so easily beset us.
This view of the person of the pastor is false. We know this. A church is a body of sinners. The pastor belongs to that body. There may be times when we are more aware of his fallenness – like when he steps on our toes. But we know – at least in theory – that he is in our same condition in most ways.
But in a good relationship between pastor and church, we might forget that the pastor is a man, and a fallen one at that. For mysterious reasons, when the pastor is ready to hand over leadership and end his ministry to our church, we tend to forget his faults and promote him to sainthood. Woe unto the next pastor in such cases. His every move will be scrutinized and he will be measured endlessly against his predecessor, Pastor Donowrong. Frankly, this is unrealistic and wrongheaded.
In my introductory article on churches in transition, I pointed out that when a church changes leadership, the leadership passes from one sinner to another. This is fundamental doctrine, and should not require a detailed defense. The fallen nature of man is as foundational to the Christian faith as the deity of Christ or the unity of the Godhead. Why then are we surprised when someone goes off the rails?
Here’s the problem: we expect our pastors to be “above the fray.” Some of that expectation comes from our fascination with power, and the fact that some pastors are impressive and powerful men to begin with. Blame it on our humanity, but we tend to think that power means perfection. Too often, we think of the pastor as if he has a walk with God not available to the average Christian, as if he had already attained. We are shocked to learn that he even has faults.
Some of our expectations about the pastor come from the pastor’s presentation of himself. The pastor himself may believe that he cannot ever let anyone know about his faults. In order to conceal the ugly truth, pastors fake it. This can lead to disaster – be sure your sin will find you out. But some men are better than others at concealing their faults, and so the church will not be made aware of the problems in a man’s life and ministry. This is an unhelpful reality in too many churches.
Over years, a church grows accustomed to a pastor’s faults, which helps foster these delusions about our pastors. Because we love our pastor, and because we try to be gracious, we get used to overlooking those faults and sometimes even excusing them.
Enter the new pastor. He has faults, the former pastor has faults. But his faults have become part of the woodwork, and nobody notices anymore. The new guy on the other hand, his faults are all fresh and unfamiliar, and the church notices these. Especially if he is replacing a well-loved, well-respected pastor, the new pastor will find himself under a microscope.
What then is a church to do?
First, Keep Things in Perspective
If we enter a leadership transition looking for Pastor Perfect, we will be sadly disappointed. Every pastor has his own set of sins that are unique to himself. Brace yourself. Don’t look for his faults, but when you find them, don’t be surprised or shattered by it.
Secondly, Recognize That Temptations Change
Seasoned pastors have a unique set of temptations that are very different than those a new pastor will face. The new pastor has temptations unique to his new position; the entrenched pastor has temptations unique to his longevity. Older men are tempted one way, younger men another. Martin Luther has been quoted saying that a young man is tempted by girls, a middle-aged man by gold, an older man by glory. Sometimes we overcome our temptations, sometimes we simply outgrow them. Our temptations may not be constant, but temptation certainly is. We are always tempted, but not always the same way. We can expect, in a leadership transition, that new temptations will creep in all around.
Thirdly, Be Gracious
Extend the same kind of grace to the pastor that you would want extended to you.
For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
Pastors sometimes hold a double-standard. But the double-standard is not a pastor-only problem. Church members also hold the occasional double-standard. In truth, the pew is often as guilty as the pulpit. We are commanded to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). This means, among other things, that we ought to judge Scripturally rather than preferentially. we must have a true standard, which would be God’s Word. When we find fault in our pastor, we have some Scriptural responsibilities. The Bible is not silent in such cases. Galatians 6:1 gives a general command in any case when a brother is overtaken in a fault. I Timothy 5:1 gives a more specific command regarding pastors who sin.
…ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; (I Timothy 5:1)
These are not options or suggestions for dealing with sin in the pastor. These are commands. One sin is not corrected by another; nor does one sin give us an indulgence to commit another.
Fourthly, Respect the New Pastor
Respect takes time to earn. Recognize that. But it shouldn’t take time for us to give respect to a new pastor, even when it has not been earned. Respect the office, and learn to respect the man.
Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. (Hebrews 13:7)
You cannot claim to respect the office when you clearly disrespect the man.
Part of respecting the pastor involves understanding his role in your life. God calls a pastor to live among his people, and sometimes that means we see things we did not want to see. Recognize that his battles will help you with yours, so long as he approaches his own Scripturally. We do not want a pastor who has no conflict with temptation or sin. Such a pastor cannot guide us, encourage us, lead us, or help us with our own struggles. Pastors learn how to fight against sin in the arena, not in the study.
The man in the arena is likely to have a little mud and maybe even a little blood on himself. The guy with the clean uniform at the end of the game didn’t play. When your pastor comes out with his hair messed up, understand that he has been in a battle. This is good.
Finally, Pray for Your Pastor and Encourage Him
Certainly, there are times when we must sit in judgment. But those times are thankfully very rare. In most of our interactions with people, we should behave as those who will be judged, not as those who must judge. In the past century, we have become much more casual towards authority, and as our culture has become more egalitarian, we have made every effort to free ourselves from our obligations towards authority. These things ought not to be. We must act in a Scriptural way towards the pastor, just as he must act in a Scriptural way towards us.
Leadership transitions in a church become difficult when we forget this simple truth – that taking a new pastor means taking a new set of flaws, faults, and failures. It is no good to expect the new pastor to be what the old pastor wasn’t – which is to say, without sin.