One Way God Brings Pastors Low

Editors’ note: 

For more reading on long-term faithfulness in ministry with practical wisdom from veteran pastors, see Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime from The Gospel Coalition.

From church splits to angry elders, Dave Harvey provides counsel for the lows of pastoral ministry in this video.


The following is a lightly edited transcript provided by a transcription service. Please check video before quoting.

What hope would I offer pastors who have lost people?
Well, I mean first I would say you’re in good company because I think there is a catalog of leaders in history. I was talking earlier about the apostle Paul, you read Second Timothy and he says that in my last defense, “no one stood by me” and he goes through this long list of people that have abandoned him; Phygelus and Hermogenes and “all of Asia left me.” So we see that as part of the Ministry of Paul but I know that sometimes new pastors can’t identify themselves with Paul, so I think we could look at at some of the prominent leaders throughout history.
Spurgeon, Whitfield, and even today John Piper has his stories about losing a hefty portion of the church. John MacArthur talks about how he walked in one day and and greeted his elders and said, “Good morning, my friends,” and over a majority of them said “If you think we’re your friends you have something else coming” and stood up and walked out and resigned. So while this is a heartbreaking experience this is not an unusual experience, and I would want to make sure that he understood that so that he could understand that God is locating him in a a fellowship of suffering that has a biblical precedent and a historical precedent and that God has a unique purpose in it.
I don’t understand why this this has to happen. I mean when I was the lead pastor of a church we had the privilege of planting a bunch of churches. But we also had two churches that we planted unintentionally because there were folks in the church that just kind of grouped up and left and then moved down the street with a leader from the church and started over again. That happened a couple of different times. That kind of stuff cuts deep for a pastor, and it’s been the experience of pastors through history. And if one doesn’t understand how to interpret it, I think it can be the jumping off point for a lot of guys out of ministry because it can just be so condemning, such an identity assault, it can be so discouraging.
But as I think back upon different experiences that I’ve been through like that and then just sitting with different pastors that have been trying to work through that, I see God working in some pretty amazing ways in their life. I also see certain consistent patterns that if I’m counseling somebody that’s in that situation I want to show them. I want to say, “There are things that God does. There are ways and places in your heart that God reaches through a feeling of abandonment or betrayal that can be reached in no other way. And there are ways that God will use that to teach you to stoop low.”
Paul says in Philippians 4, “I’ve learned to be brought low.” One of the ways that God brings pastors low is he will reach into their church and allow people to be agitated and then have some folks leave which then throws the leader upon the mercy of God, throws them in desperation before God and causes him to have to apply what he says he believes. And we begin to encounter God in that. What we begin to see is that it really is about God, that it really is about preaching the gospel, and it’s not really about numbers. You may say this sort of thing all the time, but this will make that functional. God does that. God purifies the love of a pastor for his people by by allowing people to leave at times because you’re so tempted to want to withdraw in those moments, to want to narrow your relational margins, to want to turn inward. And yet you begin to realize over time that love––if it’s biblical love, if it’s true love––requires risk and that you have to open up your heart despite the fact that you can’t always protect your heart. Sometimes you’re going to open your heart in ministry to people that won’t respond. You’re going to be loyal; they might betray you. You’re gonna be loving; they might be condemning.
Again I still think ministry is an amazing vocation. It’s an amazing thing to be called to. We’re encouraged more than we should be, but there is this reality where, in the way that God deals with with men in ministry, people leaving touches a unique place, but God uses it to touch a deeper place to create a better leader.