Some years ago, I edited a now-defunct Christian magazine called World Insight. In one issue, we ran an article I’d written entitled “Ministering to the Walking Wounded.” In it, I addressed the issue of Christians who have in some way been wounded by their church experience. Response to the article was overwhelming. Many letters poured in from people telling of their personal struggles to maintain faith in the face of what they’d been through in churches. The publisher and I realized we had touched a nerve. Many Christians out there are hurting as a result of negative encounters with ministers, denominations, and particular congregations. As a result a good number are alienated from the Christian faith. Some are angry. Others are vindictive. A few are bitter. Some have even had nervous breakdowns. Many are simply spiritually adrift.
I have long felt a deep concern for people who, like myself, have been alienated from God, Christ and the Church as a result of what they’ve experienced in churches. I know that my friend Ken Westby shares that concern. In the years since I wrote that article, I have studied the subject in greater depth. The problem is worse than I had realized. The result has been a book that is currently being printed. The title is Because There Was No Shepherd. It’s based on what I learned from my research along with a study of Ezekiel 34 and related passages. It offers hope to those who qualify for the title “walking wounded.” Copies are available through ACD and from Wild Olive Publishing (see note at end).
Years ago, when I was a young parent, I used to say, “It seems to me that the most difficult things God has given us to do is to be good husbands and wives to each other, and to be good parents.” What is harder than childrearing – especially these days? What is more difficult than being the perfect husband or wife? I now know the answer to those two questions: being a good minister.
The Politics of Ministry
One of the greatest challenges of being a minister in almost any circumstance is handling the politics that goes with the job. There’s really no way to escape it. Denominational or even congregational politics can be withering. Ministers are often under unbearable pressure to compromise their consciences in the name of maintaining denominational policy, dogma or orthodoxy. The Holy Spirit may be leading them one way, but their bosses are pointing them in another. To protect their paychecks, they must tow the party line or lose everything, including their right to minister to the flock the care of which God has entrusted them with.
The emotional and psychological pressures of ministry are sometimes unbearable. Not only is a minister expected to carry out the policies of the denomination that pays him — he is also counted on to be all things to all members of his congregation. No matter what the problem, he’s supposed to have the answer. He’s always on call, no matter how he’s feeling. He gets all the dirty work the congregation has to offer – the sicknesses, the demon problems, the deaths etc. etc. He has to deal with the fights, the marriage problems and the financial crises.
Modeling right behavior most difficult
Most difficult of all, he must model for the congregation exemplary behavior under all types of pressure and circumstances. A minister is under constant scrutiny from his “parishioners.” What he wears, how he’s groomed, how clean his home is, his wife’s wardrobe, her tastes and opinions, his children’s behavior – it’s all fair game for those who are looking for something to carp about. He is required to maintain a constant “good attitude” – to be polite, cool and on top of things. Being a minister – especially in an authoritarian denomination – is surely one of the most difficult jobs on earth.
Is it any wonder then that so many of us fail to provide the kind of leadership that is sometimes needed? Ministers, like everyone else in the congregation, are still human. Though they shouldn’t, they sin just about as much as anyone – in some instances more. They have their fears, their insecurities and their anxieties.
To add to the burden, many ministers are undereducated for the job they are doing. Few have had any serious professional training or teaching in counseling. Most have no special expertise in financial matters. Few know any more about marriage than intelligent and mature members of the congregation. None are true Old or New Testament scholars. Many possess a minimum of exegetical skills. In spite of all this, they are expected to “defend the faith” (however it may be defined by their denomination) and answer even the hardest questions. It’s not easy. It can be discouraging and disheartening.
The other kind of shepherd
At the same time, there are those ministers who are cavalier about their jobs. They enjoy the power, the perks and the privileges that come with ministry – and little else. They lord it over their flocks, coldly penalize those who get out of line, and generally neglect the true spiritual needs of their people. They are preoccupied with hierarchical power, money, numbers and control. They are of little or no help in meeting the needs of church members. They see the church as their personal fiefdom. Members are either resources or burdens. At best, such ministers are hirelings. At worst they are wolves. Conscientious ministers recognize them for what they are. Yet these ministerial predators may be firmly entrenched in seemingly impregnable hierarchical positions. What to do? Pray, or go elsewhere! God “knows them that are his,” and that includes those who are his true servants. When a congregation cries out for relief, God often grants it.
The ministry as much as anything is a mixed bag. The wheat and the tares preach together. Some ministers are part of the problem; others are part of the solution. Members should be able to recognize which is which.
For those who are disillusioned or turned off the church experience, I’ve written Because There Was No Shepherd. For those who are not, I’m contributing this column.
The goal is to help believers learn how to think outside of the box. It’s one of the greatest ways to accelerate your own personal growth in Christ.
Note: Because There Was No Shepherd may be obtained through The Association for Christian Development, P.O. Box 4748, Federal Way, WA 98063 (253) 852-3269 www.godward.org or through Wild Olive Publishing Company, P.O. Box 2203, Monrovia, CA 91017-2203. The price is $12.95 plus $2 shipping & handling. California residents (only) should add 7.25% sales tax. The ACD price is lower, but only while supplies last. Checks & money orders only please.