These men (in our denomination, pastors are men) are called of God and assigned some of the most difficult work in the universe, and for the most part they labor well and long and you never hear a complaint out of them. They are my heroes.
Most of them.
The typical pastor in our denomination serves a church running 100 or fewer in attendance, which tells you the offerings are insufficient to provide much of a living for him. In some cases he holds down a second job or his wife works. Or both. Or, most amazing of all, he manages to live on what they pay him.
I believe in these guys. They are my brothers and my admiration of them knows no bounds.
Most of them.
But there are times when some of these ministers do the most self-defeating things. Not all of them, thankfully. But enough to warrant our addressing the issue as a caution to the rest of the Lord’s stable of shepherds.
Here is my personal list of the 5 most frustrating things pastors do.
FIRST: It’s frustrating to see preachers cut corners on sermon preparation.
What is bizarre about this is that the Sunday sermon is 50 percent of their job, as far as most of the congregation is concerned.
I grant you that in the more liturgical churches that isn’t so, with the ministers’ homilies often appearing as 5 minute reflections thrown together just before he entered the sanctuary.
But in the world I live in, the only time 90 percent of the congregation sees the pastor is on Sunday morning. If he does poorly there, he has just about sealed his fate with the membership as a whole.
From the scant attention given the Sunday sermon by many ministers, from the small study time allotted to its preparation, and from the haphazard delivery of this message during the morning worship service, one would think neither the members nor the minister put a value on the sermon.
It is the single most important thing the pastor does. If he is smart, if he values his ministry, and if he wants to go on receiving a paycheck to provide for his family, he will give great prominence in his schedule to planning that message.
SECOND: It’s frustrating when preachers miss the entire point of what a sermon should be.
Many a preacher–not all, thank the Lord–think a sermon is a rumination on some text they’ve studied or have been reflecting on. Many think this is the time to issue a grand pronouncement on some hot-button issue in the public mind. Others think of the sermon as their moment to proclaim their convictions before a people looking for answers. And, to some, it’s an instruction time when they may educate people seriously deficient in spiritual things.
A sermon is none of these things.
God said of the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day: If they had stood in my council, then they would have announced my words to my people, and would have turned them back from their evil way (Jer. 23:22).
That’s what a sermon is: the words of God, received by a servant of the Lord who has taken the time to “stand in His council,” and is willing to deliver them faithfully and with full courage.
The minister’s message is called “The Word of God” for good reason. This is what God has said for us today.
One of the most common errors of pastors when they began looking for a message to preach is to assume that since the Bible itself is called “The Word of God,” anything in it they decide to preach suffices as God’s message for this Sunday. Not so. The Bible is a huge book, a library even, one containing thousands of messages and potential sermons. It does not follow, therefore, that these are all-occasion messages, able to be preached interchangeably, with the Spirit doing with any one what He could do with any of the others.
The wise minister will tell himself, “The Lord has a message for our people next Sunday. He alone knows who is going to be present, and what each person is struggling with. Therefore, I will go to Him in prayer, asking what He would have me preach.”
Then, as he prays, the minister reads the Word. He listens for God’s voice. He waits and he reads, and thinks about what he has received. Then, in God’s own time–either at that moment or hours or even days later–he knows, “This is what the Lord wants preached. This is His message.”
It’s a great feeling.
THIRD: It’s frustrating to see ministers issue instant assessments on how well the sermon worked today.
In our denomination, it’s a rare sermon that is not followed by a public invitation or altar call during which a hymn that calls God’s people to action is sung and the minister invites people to “walk the aisle” in response to whatever God has told them. When he gets a good response to the invitation, he feels affirmed in his preaching and ministry. But when he doesn’t, when the congregation stands there like department store mannequins, he tends to feel he has failed them or God.
When a minister feels like a failure, nothing good results. Often he will adopt one of two extreme measures: he will either throw in the towel, give up and quit, or he will adopt manipulative tactics to get people down the aisle one way or the other.
Neither is wise. Both are self-defeating and unworthy.
One could wish every minister knew several critical things about the practice of preaching:
–often, it’s more planting and cultivating than harvesting. Be wise.
–just because people do not register a commitment to Christ within five minutes of the end of your sermon does not mean the message did not do its powerful work or that you did poorly. Be patient.
–people are complex beings, and build mighty defenses against the work of the Holy Spirit. Destroying those barriers–which the Spirit of God alone can accomplish–takes time and repeated assaults. Be faithful.
–you are not the judge of your own effectiveness, not now and not ever. Be trusting.
–and finally, even the Holy Spirit does not manipulate people into decision-making but allows each one to “choose this day whom you will serve,” so neither should you.
FOURTH: It’s frustrating to see ministers ignore the great sermon-building resources the Lord has put all around them.
Often when I’m with a pastor in the middle of the week, I’ll say, “So, what are you preaching Sunday?” He tells me the text or the subject, and then I say, “May I give you a thought on that?” He says yes and I’m off.
What I’m doing is what I wish someone had done for me as a young pastor: prod my thinking, stir my juices, tell me something on a text I hadn’t thought of, pass along a great story on that subject I might be able to use.
All around the minister are other pastors. Each one is a mother lode of information and insights, experiences and concerns. Tapping into that resource is as simple as making a phone call: “Bob, do you have a few minutes to meet me for coffee?” And then, in your office or the coffee shop or the fast food restaurant or down at the service station, after you’ve exchanged pleasantries, you say, “Can I pick your brain? I’m preaching Sunday on Philippians 4:13, ‘I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.’ Talk to me about that verse. Anything at all that comes to mind.’”
Have something to write with. Jot down what he says. Take the conversation wherever it goes. Then, at the end, whether that’s 2 minutes or 20, thank him and end that portion of the discussion. If you or he need to leave, do so.
Repeat as often as needed. He’s not the only pastor in your town.
Oh, and one more thing that is so obvious it should not have to be said, but it does: do not limit yourself to ministers of your denomination. Some of the best insights you’ll ever get will come from men of God who did not attend your seminary or any seminary for that matter, but who have devoted themselves to the Word and the ministry.
Ministers tend to be loners. How self-defeating this is. You will not find a pattern for going it alone in the Scriptures. We do see a few men who tried it, but rarely with positive results.
FIFTH: It’s frustrating to see ministers constantly frustrated.
A preacher will see and learn and know what he needs to do to be more effective, but because of a heavy load of administration or pastoral work, he does not have the energy or will or time to change. To make radical changes means adjusting his schedule and that frequently requires the support of the ministerial and office team as well as the congregation. That takes time and energy and patience.
And so he goes on, laboring ineffectively, digging a deeper pit for his ministry, growing more frustrated, doing more and enjoying it less, all the while seeing his efforts bearing little fruit.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
That line from “Me and Bobbie McGee” has stood me in good stead for a long time. When you are at the end of your rope and have nothing to lose, it’s actually liberating. Anything you do will be better than nothing.
So, take that courageous step, pastor. Free yourself of the frustrations that hound you when you know more than you are doing, from spinning your wheels as a result of busy work someone else could be doing to free you up for more profitable ministry.
I have a strong feeling that if we are frustrated at our ineffectiveness, the Lord is moreso. In fact, He may be the One who sent us the frustration in the hope that we would take drastic action to rearrange matters in our lives.
No one lacking courage need apply for this work.
You can do this, pastor. Stand strong. Trust God. Do right.