The Pastors Workshop
Pastoring Is Always Personal: Is This Good News or Bad News?
Yet, if we think carefully about what Paul & Co. are saying here, even introverts needn't be distressed. Nothing in 1 Thessalonians 2 points to gregarious backslapping and spirited small talk as essential to pastoral work. For certain, that's not the sense of a mother nursing her children. This image suggests a deep, quiet, intimate sharing of life, something that introverts can do. In fact, some introverts might even be better at this than extroverts who prefer the safety of large group fellowship. (For more on introverts and Christian ministry, see the excellent book by Adam McHugh, Introverts in the Church.)
Yet, whether you're extroverted or introverted, I would suggest that the deeply personal nature of pastoring is good news. I've been a pastor now for over twenty years. Some of my greatest joys in ministry have come in the context of deep relationships, where I have had the privilege of caring for people in times of crisis and celebration, not to mention in the "ordinary" life of consistent discipleship.
I think, for example, of a man I'll call "Peter." He was a member of my church in Irvine. During my sixteen years as his pastor, I walked with Peter through the trauma of his teenagers' rebellion and his wife's leaving him. I wept with him and prayed with him many times. Peter and I also were able to share in different sorts of ministry together. We often talked about Scripture and its meaning. Peter was an avid student of God's Word. At one point, he was instrumental in helping me through one of the hardest periods of my ministry. Later, I had the supreme joy of officiating at Peter's wedding, as the healing grace of God was so real we could almost touch it. As I think about my tenure at Irvine, I treasure the opportunity I had to care for Peter in a deeply personal way and to share with him not just the Gospel, but also my own life.
But, you knew this was coming, the personal nature of pastoral ministry can also lead to great heartache. If you simply share the Gospel with people from a safe emotional distance, if you merely dispense truth without opening your life to people, if you lead like a dispassionate CEO, then you will be fairly safe. Your people won't be able to hurt you. But if you care for them like a nursing mother cares for her children, if, like Paul and his team, you share not just the Gospel but also your own soul with your congregation, then you are vulnerable. You can and, I'm sorry to say, you will be hurt.
Sometimes the hurt happens from a distance. A family you poured your life into decides to leave your church without evening telling you. You hear through the grapevine that one of your leaders said mean things about you—and so forth and so on.
Sometimes the hurt happens at close range. I will never forget the time a member of my church came to see me, bringing along an elder "for her protection." But she hardly needed protecting in our conversation. For what seemed like an eternity, she chronicled my failings as a pastor, some of which were true, many of which were not. She finished her speech by saying bluntly, "The bottom line is that you are simply not a loving person. You are not a loving person." The dagger of her words pierced my heart.
On another occasion, the pain came when a beloved brother in Christ, one with whom I had shared countless hours fellowship and ministry, chose to leave the church over something that seemed to me relatively unimportant. Nothing I could do would change his mind. He was set on leaving, as if our years of friendship, mutual prayer, and shared ministry counted for nothing. For months afterward, my heart ached every time I thought of him. Today, I don't feel much pain, but I do have a lingering sadness over the way our lives parted.
So, the good news is that the personal nature of pastoring will lead to some of the richest and most meaningful moments in your life. The bad news is that it will lead to some of the saddest and most painful moments in your life.
Surely it would easier, safer, and perhaps even more successful to do pastoral ministry in a less personal way. But such an approach stumbles over the example and teaching of Paul & Co. in 1 Thessalonians. Moreover, an impersonal pastorate hardly reflects the way God does pastoral ministry: in Bethlehem, in Capernaum, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on Golgotha, and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Mark D. Roberts is Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a retreat and renewal ministry in Texas. He blogs at Patheos and writes daily devotionals at www.thehighcalling.org, and he can also be followed through Twitter and Facebook.