How we lose our ministers

Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. Zechariah 13:7 refers to the Good Shepherd and his disciples but reminds us of the vulnerability of the local church when its pastor is struck. Pastors are struck in various ways. In these dark days every loss is keenly felt. We lose pastors in different ways. In some cases we can probably do little to prevent it, in others may be we can.
We lose them,
1. Through death
Paul tells the Philippians that to go on living means fruitful labour but if he dies, he will be with Christ, which is better by far. It is more necessary for you he says that I remain. He was convinced he would remain for their progress and joy in the faith and that is what we should pray for – long, fruitful lives for ministers. What we can do practically is limited but perhaps we can do something. It is tragic when faithful ministers die short of a full threescore and ten. Whatever happens, as Paul says, we must, however, conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel, thankful for the past and looking to the Lord for the future.
2. Through illness
Some remain alive but are so incapacitated that they retire early or are away from pastoral work for extended periods. Some churches get into the situation where their minister is frequently away with ill health. It is difficult to be sure of the effect but surely we ought to encourage ministers to establish good patterns of work and rest, eat sensibly, exercise and not neglect their health. Perhaps deacons should arrange regular medical check ups. A previous generation spoke of ‘burning out for God’. By that they meant being consumed with zeal in sacrificial service not neglecting physical health. Today there is little call for even the most zealous to do anything to endanger health. In some cases the pastor’s wife is unwell. Similar points could be made in that direction.
3. Through stress
In some cases ill health is psychosomatic. Men also leave the ministry due to stress. Again, there are various factors. Perhaps things can be done to lessen stress. The rediscovery of elders has helped some but increased the stress for others! Certainly all churches should have a system of burden sharing. Obviously relieving the minister of financial worries is important, where possible. Providing a pension scheme and exercising sensitivity when discussing his stipend are important. A good family situation is vital, as is fellowship with other ministers. Good churches encourage ministers to attend at least one conference a year. Regular sabbaticals are also useful. There is no avoiding stress in the ministry but steps should be taken to relieve it where possible and to be alert to danger signals. Better to give a man a month off than lose him for good.
4. Through doctrinal error
Many ministers change their views over the years. None of us has reached maturity and so we reckon with the possibility of being wrong. In most cases these are areas where the church has never formally expressed convictions. However, it sometimes happens that a minister comes to conclusions that run counter to the church’s doctrinal standards. Where this happens there has to be a parting of ways. Sadly, what sometimes happens is that the church is almost unwittingly won over to the new doctrine. This is dishonest of preachers and na├»ve of members. Often the problem stems back to lack of rigour when selecting a new pastor. Pastors ought to be doing all they can to ground churches in sound doctrine.
5. Through known immorality
A sad feature of our day is the number who fall into immorality. We think chiefly of sexual immorality but there can be financial irregularity and other open sins. Perhaps the problem of teenage rebellion from pastors children comes in here. One is very slow to say this closes the door to future ministry. We do not want to make ‘Thou shalt not get caught’ the eleventh commandment or make adultery the unforgivable sin. However, once a man falls into open sin it will take a great deal to restore him if it can be done at all. How we must pray that God will preserve ministers from such open sins. What an excuse it gives to the unbeliever.
6. Through entrance to another ministry
The question of moving from one pastorate to another can be vexed. Generally speaking, long pastorates are ideal. However, not all are able to sustain a long-term pastorate and larger churches will inevitably draw pastors from smaller churches rather than thrusting men into positions of great responsibility in their youth. The needs overseas are also very great. Nevertheless, all should think long and hard before such changes. Sometimes men leave local church ministry to engage in para-church work. It would be better for both the para-church and local churches if ways could be found of allowing men to continue their pastoral work, even part-time, while also doing other work. In these days of increased tele-working this is more feasible than ever. Far better two good men doing para-church work part-time than losing one or both completely from pastoral ministry.
7. Through rejection
There are men who minister in a local church but are forced out because the doctrine they preach is unacceptable. There is no shame for a man in this but much heartache. Sometimes there has been a lack of tact and certainly one needs to have patience and wisdom in dealing with people, especially where they are ill-taught. What fearful judgement awaits those who reject faithful ministry.
8. Through lack of opportunity
There are men who feel called to the ministry but never have opportunity to exercise their gifts in a settled pastorate. We recognise that to desire to be a minister is not the only criterion for judging whether one is called. However, surely it is possible that some men looking for pastorates unsuccessfully are victims of the failure of others – failure to trust the Lord for finance, to recognise gifts that need nurturing, to accept a ministry a little less predictable than most. Food for thought.
9. Through lack of finance
Some situations are precarious and it only takes the removal of one or two wage earners to tip the balance. There are several funds able to supply short-term support. Why do churches appeal for help with bricks and mortar but not to provide ministry? It is not ideal but there is no shame in a man supporting himself for a period. What he loses in time for ministry on the one hand he may well gain as opportunities open up through his work. Where able churches deliberately fail to provide for their ministers they sin against the Lord.
10. Through pre-occupation
In thinking about this subject and in light of the fact preparing it takes time from more obvious pastoral work one has to consider the possibility that one can be in the ministry and yet not of it. There are men who spend more time on the golf course than at their desk, but this is rare among evangelicals. More common is the temptation to spend time on delegable administration, ferrying people from place to place or sitting on endless para-church committees. This is a trap to avoid. Churches must be alert to the danger. It is important, on the other hand, that ministers do not endeavour to avoid the problem by selfishly opting out of anything not directly concerned with the local church. If all pulled their weight, may be others could do less.
This article first appeared in Grace Magazine