They fired Jonathan Edwards. Think about that.
Jonathan Edwards is regarded as one of America’s top theologians and philosophers, was used to bring revivals to New England, and ended up as president of what we know today as Princeton. He served the church for twenty years. And they fired him.
Not only that, but they really fired him. The congregational vote was 230 to dismiss him, 23 to keep him. I doubt they had to recount the ballots.
There are a couple of things we can learn from this.
As great as Jonathan Edwards was, he (and every pastor before and after) is imperfect. Is his biography on Edwards, George Marsden writes, “Edwards had some tragic flaws that contributed to his undoing in Northampton.” This isn’t the complete story, but we at least have to acknowledge that all of us, even the best of us, are flawed at best. Every pastor needs to remind himself and others regularly of a fact that should be obvious: “I am not the Christ.” The clearer we are about this, the better.
But here’s the other lesson: even good pastors will get a kick in the pants rather than the double honor that might have been expected. I love how David Hansen puts it in his excellent book The Art of Pastoring. Hansen found himself freezing in a lean-to attachment to the fellowship hall of a church in Montana.
My face sinks into my hands, but the desk is too cold for my elbows. The space heater with the cloth-covered cord has warmed the air: my breath doesn’t show, but the steel desk warms excruciatingly slowly…There’s no wall heater, no thermostat, no insulation. The place warms from scratch every morning. It’s six weeks into the new year, six weeks into my first pastoral charge, 33 degrees outside and sleeting.
Do I deserve a heater in my office? Yes, I do. Are these cheap, mean-hearted people? No, they pay me pretty well. I like these people. Why don’t they do something about my office? I don’t know. Do they have the slightest idea what I do? No, they don’t. Do I want people who provide me with an office in which I face hypothermia in the winter and asphyxiation in the spring to tell me who I am and what I should be doing? No, I do not…
My employer is Jesus Christ. Serving the church is my obedient response to Christ. Jesus is my boss; he orders my day. Shivering while preparing my sermons forced me to take seriously who I was preparing my sermons for: Jesus Christ-who also had no place to rest his elbows. The church got better sermons because of it.
Every pastor will find himself unappreciated at times, perhaps even fired. Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. It’s a reminder, as Hansen says, that we do not ultimately live for the applause of those in our churches. They will let us down. We live for the applause of the One who will never let us down.
It’s good to be reminded of this. Edwards was. So was Hansen. I’ve been reminded too, as will every pastor who serves among people (and what pastor doesn’t?).
The opinion of others surely must matter, but in the end, His evaluation is the only one that counts.