Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
— Galatians 6:2
A few nights ago, I was searching for a completely unrelated message in my email app and inadvertently stumbled across a series of exchanges with a particularly troublesome person in the last year of my pastorate. Against my instincts, I read through most of them, and I was instantly sucked back into the heaviness of those days. It prompted me to revisit this old post. I wasn’t in a place to talk about the conflict eroding my joy and confidence at that time. But even years removed from the experience I was nonetheless overcome with recent feelings of anxiety, nervousness. The heaviness overtook me all over again.
I realized a few things in the experience. One, it is hard to shake what my friend Jeff Medders calls “pastoral PTSD.” Not to diminish the experience of severe trauma that survivors of war or abuse suffer, there is a nonetheless a physiological impact leaders carry from a steady exposure to anger and hostility, conflict, and divisive sabotage. (I felt it overtaking me the first few years of membership meetings at my current church, during which nothing remotely tense would take place, but during which nevertheless I felt tense and anxious.) And on top of that, there is the enduring grief of pastorates full of crisis counseling and shepherding people through suffering and death. All of this came rushing back to me, as I was transported back to one of the most difficult years of my life.
Another thing I realized was how I had then—and have since—sort of been “gaslighting” myself. I tried to talk myself out of hurt feelings by telling myself it wasn’t really all that bad, that I was being (internally) dramatic or even exaggerating. Looking back with so much time in between at specific words and accusations, I realized it was actually worse than I was even treating it at the time. I allowed myself to be victimized and excused it as being “gentle,” “peaceable,” “patient.” I labeled passivity as being pastoral.
I don’t need to rehearse the specifics of these incidents here, but they were occurring in the background of a very difficult year of helping yet another saint—yet another friend—walk faithfully toward their earthly finish line. So week by week, as I was helping other loved ones carry a dear one into death and feeling the can’t-turn-it-off exhaustion and grief of that experience, I was being undermined, attacked, and scrutinized. I felt lonely, misunderstood, and unsupported.
I hear from pastors almost weekly who are in the thick of this very thing now. I feel for them. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say again: abusive pastors are a real problem, and they need to be rebuked and dismissed. But we rarely talk about the many pastors who face various kinds of abuses. They suffer silently. They don’t want to lose their job. They don’t want to disrupt their families. They are desperately trying to keep the peace and faithfully plod through the normal difficulties of ministry all the while feeling there is no one they can talk to or no one who will understand or care even if they did.
Your pastor might be one of these people. How would you know?
You might not. And yet it is our duty as lovers of Christ and his church to remember:
(a) Our pastors are human beings.
They feel like we do. They hurt like we do. They have the normal stressors that any finite person living in a fallen world does. But on top of that, they carry responsibility for an entire flock. They are not supermen. They, like Paul, “on top of everything,” feel an anxiety for the church (2 Cor. 11:28).
(b) Our pastors need pastoring.
Many of them do not receive it. A great many do, often from fellow elders. But leaders need to be led, need to be fed. They give and give and give, and too often they are surrounded by sheep content only to be fed, to be loved, rarely to return the favors.
(c) Our pastors are sinners in need of grace.
They aren’t holier than you. They aren’t more justified. They stand on the same level as their flock at the foot of the cross. But we expect more from them—and for the most part, rightfully so! But what they need is what we all need, and what we presumptuously expect from them often unidirectionally, which is a gracious consideration that overlooks faults, excuses mistakes, and forgives sin. We do not want our pastors to be constantly measuring us, holding up all the ways we fall short in their eyes. They undoubtedly wish we were more faithful, more zealous, more devoted to the Word and to each other. But we are loathe to reciprocate. Their falling short of our expectations and preferences becomes a cardinal sin. Their making decisions we wouldn’t make becomes un-overlookable.
The truth is, especially in this weird, polarized, hostile season, your pastor probably needs more grace than you think he does—or more than you think he deserves. Shepherds are also sheep. Which means sometimes they need to be carried.
During this Pastor Appreciation Month, one great gift maybe you could give your pastors, along with and after the gift cards and notes of appreciation and celebratory desserts, is a letting him off the hook and a having of his back. Exonerate him of your idiosyncratic charges.
Maybe this doesn’t apply to you. And that’s great. God bless you. But I know it applies to many, including many who don’t think it does. Just remember that sometimes leaders need to be carried, and the Lord has charged us with doing the carrying.
And pastor, if I’ve described your situation even approximately in this post, please know two things:
1. The Lord sees, and the Lord knows. You are not forgotten or forsaken by him.
2. You don’t have to be anyone’s martyr. Christ took our condemnation, and his work was sufficient. You don’t need to replicate it.
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.
— Hebrews 13:17