A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Blessing Our Pastors
October 6, 2016
October is designated on our prayer calendar as a month to pray for our pastors. Most parishioners expect their pastors to pray for them; what about the converse? Many pastors are keenly aware they are being supported in prayer, but sometimes those who may need that assurance the most are the least likely to receive it.
Every pastor goes through difficult seasons in ministry. Sometimes these struggles are obvious and public, manifest in congregational decline or dissension. But more often they are hidden to all but a few. There may be physical illness, or strife at home, or financial upheavals that are all but invisible. Pastors sometimes have significant spiritual struggles of their own, even as they provide spiritual support to others.
The first thing pastors need from their congregations, and they need this more than anything else, is prayer. Prayer for health, for loved ones, for financial stability, for spiritual and physical renewal. One of the great models for this kind of support is that given to Moses by Aaron and Hur, who lifted his hands when he could no longer raise them on his own. (Exodus 17:8-13)
Second, pastors need encouragement. They need to know they are making a real difference, something that often seems nearly impossible to gauge. It takes years for the fruit of a pastor’s ministry to become obvious. For several years I tuned pianos to help make ends meet while I was serving a small congregation that could pay very little, while also completing my graduate education. I discovered it far easier to know if I made a difference as a piano tuner than as a pastor. Within two hours, I made a tangible change for good in this world. Far more difficult was the challenge of recognizing the difference I was making as a pastor. My parishioners seemed to exhibit the same struggles over and over, no matter how hard I tried to preach or love them to the next level. How would I know if my ministry had made a real difference in someone’s life? I grew to depend greatly on the encouragement of church members for keeping my spirits strong.
Third, pastors need their congregations’ forbearance. Every pastor fails at some things. Sometimes we are serial failures – we keep failing at the same thing over and over. Sometimes our blind spots are bigger than we know, and we bump up against something we didn’t see coming. Being a pastor requires such a broad range of skills that no human being can possibly fulfill them all perfectly. Messianic expectations of pastors are deadly to their well-being.
Pastors need these gifts – prayer, encouragement, forbearance – to rise up from within the congregations they serve. It’s not enough simply to get a good review from the Personnel Committee, or to be defended by presbytery staff, or to be commended by civic leaders.
I will never forget how two simple acts of support energized and sustained me as I struggled through one of the darkest valleys of my life as a pastor. I kept soldiering on week after week, giving the best I could to preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. My congregation knew I was in a difficult place, and wanted desperately to make things better for me. They prayed for me much, and for that I was eminently grateful. But there was nothing they could do to change my life circumstances. Two little things they did rallied me at that critical juncture to continue forward with my vocation as a pastor. One Sunday our Sunday School superintendent invited me to the classroom area, where I was presented a modest little plaque with the words, “Your Sunday School votes you the best pastor ever!” Little children gave it to me. They meant it, despite my very public personal struggles. Forbearance extraordinaire. I melted. I knew I was loved more than I could possibly deserve.
Soon afterward, as we cleaned up after a hearty Sunday morning men’s breakfast, one of the men asked me, “Pastor, could you step this way for a moment?” He led me to an adjacent room, where a chair and basin were set up amid a circle of chairs, and asked me to take off my shoes and socks. One after another, the men of the church took turns washing my feet and telling me specific things for which they appreciated me. It was not that kind of a church; these were not those kind of guys. Some of them were awkward. So was I. But something powerful happened in spite of ourselves. Their encouragement got me through my season of struggle. It gave me a new lease on the joy of ministry.
Prayer. Encouragement. Forbearance. None of these is unaffordable to any congregation. Yet each is priceless. Your pastor needs them – maybe more than he or she or you may know. Go ahead. Make their day!
Yours in the bonds of encouragement,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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