I‘ve run into lots of pastors who are almost compulsive in their need to be liked. “Did I connect with people in my sermon today?” “How did I do in the elders meeting tonight? Did I talk too much?” “I guess you can tell I really love the Psalms. How’d you feel like I did in the Sunday School lesson today?” And, well, on and on it goes. Like me. Like me. Like me. Am I good enough yet? (Now look at this picture of the Golden Lab and say, “Please pet me. Pretty please! Just one more time?… Well, you get my point.)
And I get that because I have those tendencies. I am well-aware of the fact that I am Golden Lab who likes to have his ears rubbed. Are Golden Labs nice to have around? Oh my goodness. They are the best, and churches across the land are led by these people.
I’ve been in hundreds of appointments with pastors . And how many times have I seen this ongoing and increasing affirmation that pastors seem to need? What is this compulsive need that so many pastors have to constantly meet the needs of what their parishioners expect and then to turn the tables and expect, even “demand,” accompanying praise and appreciation for the services rendered?
Henri Nouwen in The Way of the Heart says, “These very compulsions are the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of a secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are brother and sister of a false-self fabricated by the social compulsions of an unredeemed world.”
Anger in particular can be a real vice in the ministry. I’ve seen pastors get angry at their church leaders for not leading and then angry at their followers for not following. I’ve seen pastors who are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come but come without enthusiasm.
I have met pastors who are angry at their families. Their families makes them feel guilty for paying more attention to the church family than to their own nuclear family. I have met pastors who are angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. (So many pastors I’ve encountered have a specific struggle with self-hatred, a sin that seems to attach itself to so many pastors.) The anger, interestingly, is not usually a full-out, blatant anger. It can be. And that ain’t pretty when it comes out! (As one pastor said, “I’m a pretty nice guy until I get angry. Then I start swearing.”) Been there; done that!
This anger usually is anger hidden behind, as Nouwen says, “the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes the ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.”
The only way I know how to confront this in myself, or to help any pastor who seeks my counsel, is to go to the desert, just as Jesus did. Jesus was a man of the desert. He went there to stay connected to the vine. He often rose very early in the morning and went to his “desert place” to be still, to wait, to listen, to ponder life, to commune with the Father, to stay connected.
I know I have to set apart a time and a place to be with God and with him alone. I’d say the same for any other pastor. In that place I try to quiet myself. I think. I read Scripture. I confess my sins. I wrestle.
I am seeking transformation so I can stay in the fight. So often I think we consider our times of quiet — our times of solitude — as our own times of privacy. “Just leave me alone.” The church fathers didn’t think that. For them solitude was a place of conversion, a place of struggle, a place to have their minds transformed. In solitude, the old self dies and the new self is born.
If we can ever seem to truly quiet ourselves before the Lord, we discover something crucial for pastors and parishioners alike: Jesus did not come to call the righteous, the virtuous, the good people, but sinners (Matthew 9:13). Every pastor ever called is a sinner, not a saint. Period! The struggle in our own desert, our own place of solitude, if we can every get still enough to see it, is to die to the old person, the false person, and discover that moment when we say, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Then we can ask God for the faith to do the transforming work done by our Lord on the cross.
In truth, only Christ can fight and overcome the powers of evil. That includes those buried deep within our own heart. Nouwen says anyone “who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool.” That would be like saying, “If we just will it hard enough, we will be overcomers.” I don’t think so, friends. Certainly not in this life.
The fight, the struggle, the conversion, is done in our place of quiet, our place of solitude, our desert, as the Holy Spirit comes along our spirit and contends for us. Only then is our heart transformed, renewed and given hope for another day, another counseling appointment, another sermon prep.
“O God, as I, and as other pastors and leaders of your Church, enter the desert, mold your servants — yes, self-righteous sinners all — into gentle, caring, forgiving pastors and leaders who are so aware of our own sinfulness and of our deep need for transformation. Make us so fully aware of your great mercy, that our very lives will be transformed and morphed into an act of ministry. And in your tender mercy, may the gap between our doing and our being grow increasingly narrow.”