I don't think of myself as an unusually negative person, but I find it too easy to focus on what's not working rather than what is. This was true, I confess, during my years as a parish pastor. I might get ninety-nine appreciative comments from church members, but the hundredth, if negative, would cancel out all the rest. An objective appraisal of my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian would have concluded that things were going pretty well and that I had an unusually committed, cooperative congregation. But one little problem, one petty disagreement, and my joy would disappear.
Thus, I was continually challenged by my one of my pastoral mentors, the Apostle Paul, who seemed to have an unusual capacity for joy, even though he suffered plenty during his apostolic career. In particular, Paul challenged me to be grateful for God's work in my life and church, and to communicate that gratitude to all who deserved to hear it.
This column is the third in a series called "A Master Class for Pastors." (You can find the first two installments in this Master Class series here: 1) A Master Class for Pastors; 2) Who Are Your Partners?) The Apostle Paul is the master teacher from whom we are being tutored in our pastoral work. The letter we call 1 Thessalonians supplies our course curriculum because it is doubly pastoral. It is a pastoral letter from Paul and his colleagues, Silvanus and Timothy, to the Christians in Thessalonica. And, it contains the most extensive description in the New Testament of Paul's actual pastoral ministry. Thus, we can learn from observing Paul and his colleagues in practice, watching both what they did and what they wrote.
After a fairly standard letter opening, Paul and his colleagues immediately tell the Thessalonians about how grateful they are for them: "We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:3). In fact, the thanksgiving continues beyond this verse, as Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy explain the reasons for their gratitude (through at least 1:10). This theme will reappear in chapter 3, which has led some commentators to see 1 Thes. 1-3 as one long thanksgiving. I'm more inclined to see it as ending in chapter 1, with an echo later on.
Why is it important that Paul and his pastoral colleagues thanked God? And why does it matter that they shared this with the Thessalonians? Let me briefly offer several reasons.
Focusing on the Positive. When Paul & Co. thanked God for what he had done and was doing in the lives of the Thessalonian believers, several things happened. First, they focused on the positive rather than the negative. They paused to see what was going well and to acknowledge it out loud. Even if God were not around to hear their prayers of gratitude, this acknowledgement would have helped them have a good attitude about their ministry.
God's Work. Moreover, it would have reminded the apostle and his partners that what was happening among the Thessalonians was really God's work. Things were going well in this church because God was moving and blessing, not primarily because Paul & Co. had worked especially hard or had been especially brilliant in their labors. This would help the pastoral team feel thankful and humble. Every now and then, we pastors need to stop and say to ourselves, "It's not about me. It's not because of me. This is God's work. Thank you, God."
Giving God His Due. Of course, thanksgiving is appropriate because it renders to God his due. God deserves to be thanked for his efforts. Failing to say "Thank you" deprives the Lord of fitting worship. Pastors need to be the leaders of worship among their people. Therefore, they need to be initiators of thanksgiving.
Affirming the Thessalonians. Paul and his colleague did not simply thank God in the privacy of their prayer closets. They also communicated their thanks to the Thessalonian Christians. On the simplest human level, this affirmed the Thessalonians. If you've ever had someone say, "I thank God for you," you know how good it feels. No doubt, the Thessalonians were encouraged by the first verses of the letter from Paul & Co.