It is hard to pin down what is difficult about pastoral ministry for people unfamiliar with it. Many laypeople see their pastor once or twice a week during Lord’s Day worship or a church activity. A few may see him more frequently if they are involved in volunteer ministry or are being discipled or counseled personally by the pastor. So while we sometimes joke about the congregation that thinks their pastor works only one day a week—and even then, he’s just talking—the stereotype of the pastor who “gets no respect” is regrettably a real thing.
And this is difficult to talk about for pastors. It is difficult to explain to their own congregations how pastoral ministry can be so difficult. It can be and often is a great joy. But it is difficult in ways that are hard to express, because doing so runs the risk of appearing as complaining, shaming, or nagging. The pastor may find it not difficult at all to exhort his congregation in submission to God, faithfulness in service, and joy in discipleship. But exhort them to submit to himself and his fellow elders? In faith? With joy? Well, that’s something else entirely. Out of all the biblical texts the Christian may hope his pastor neglects to teach, Hebrews 13:17 may sit near the top of the list:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
We may assume, based on all of the Bible’s instructions on such matters, that the author of Hebrews is not instructing Christians to submit to sin. This caveat is embedded in all the New Testament’s words on our submission to each other. So let us set aside immediately the “but” we want to bring up about immoral or abusive leaders. Set aside as well the image of the perfect pastor custom-tailored to your way of thinking, quite easy indeed to submit to. Think instead of the imperfect, unpolished, ordinary pastor. Think of your pastor. Think of your leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says to obey them and submit to them.
When we think of submission, we often think in terms of ruling and overruling, of conflict and wielded authority. I want to encourage you to think of obedience and submission differently in this context. Certainly, it does mean that when sin is evident, when you are in need of confession and repentance, you ought to obey your leaders’ rebuke and submit to their biblical discipline. But assuming such a circumstance is not the case, think of obedience and submission this way: encouraging your leaders with faithful graciousness.
Faithful graciousness means consistently and diligently choosing to glorify Christ with your words and deeds rather than satisfying your own wants and needs. Faithful graciousness is a way of Christian living that contributes to the overall peace and harmony of a church body. It means not nitpicking. It means not complaining about personal preferences. Faithful graciousness is intentionally and quietly minding one’s own business, having a productive presence rather than a critical spirit (1 Thess. 4:11). Faithful graciousness works toward being low-maintenance, not working at any of those puny-hearted and petty things that cause pastors to groan (1 Tim. 5:13).
Certainly, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But what we really want is grace. The way to align with God’s will is through the humble encouragement of your pastor by faithful graciousness. The benefits are mutual.
Hebrews 13:17 reminds us that our leaders will have to give an account. Do we want them to have to bring to the Lord in prayer our selfish neediness, our unwilling submission, constant criticisms, and questions? Or do we want them to go to the Lord in great thanksgiving out of the joy of being our leaders? I want those in authority over me to be able to say, “Oh, Lord, thank you for the gift of Jared! What a great joy it is to lead him,” rather than “Oh, Lord, help me with this guy. He’s so difficult.”
In the short term, disregarding commands like Hebrews 13:17 is a great way to gets lots of attention and, perhaps, even lots of satisfaction. In the long run, however, it is spiritually dangerous. Giving your leaders cause for groaning is “no advantage to you.” In the end, obediently submitting to our leaders with lives of faithful graciousness in the church is a commitment of faith in God, because he has placed these leaders in your church. By submitting to God-appointed authorities, we submit to God. No, the pastor isn’t perfect. No, he doesn’t always get things right. Yes, he too is a sinner—just like you. But when we know this and submit anyway, we give God glory and our pastor grace. This is good for us. We may not be immediately interested in our leaders’ joy, but if we are interested in our own spiritual advantage, we will repent of our selfishness and seek our leaders’ joy.
Let it be a great joy to our pastors to have us as their sheep. Let us give them great cause to “boast of us” in Paul’s godly way (2 Cor. 8:24; 1 Thess. 2:19). Your leaders probably won’t tell you to do this. They will fear that it will seem self-seeking or self-pitying. And this is all the more reason why you should obey and submit to them, encouraging them tremendously with your commitment to faithful graciousness.