In my first church, a deacon began a meeting by yelling at me. He stood inches from my face before storming out. Nobody in the meeting knew what to do.
I called a friend of mine — a pastor — for lunch the next day. He cleared his schedule and took me to a nice lunch. He was older than me, and he’d been there. He offered me little advice but lots of understanding, and I remember that lunch to this day.
That’s the last time I had a deacon yell at me. But I’ve experienced all kinds of pastoral disappointments since then: with myself, with people who questioned my leadership, people who criticized my preaching, people who left the church. Garden-variety pastoral stuff. I’ve experienced a lot of joy, too, more than I have sorrow. But I can’t imagine going through all of this without pastoral friends.
The Hardest Part of Ministry
I benefit from reading 2 Timothy, in part because I know Paul understood the pain of being hurt by people. People had turned away from him, deserted him when he needed them most. Hurt? You’re not alone. Paul was there. Every pastor’s been there too.
“The most difficult thing I have found in Christian ministry is opposition from people I thought were friends, or at least colleagues, fellow-workers,” says N.T. Wright. I don’t think there’s a pastor around who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
To make it worse, we’re often not prepared to deal with this hurt. Charles Stone writes:
Seminary taught me about sound theology, effective evangelism, sermon preparation, discipleship methods and much more. But I didn’t learn how to deal with my own emotionality or that of others in the church. I didn’t learn how my brain contributes to my anxiety or how I fit into emotional processes . What do I do when the board treats me unfairly? How do I handle nasty rumors? How should I respond when I get an angry email or a scathing unsigned letter?
If you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you’ve probably felt the weight of criticism and relational hurt, and you’ve struggled to respond.
Get a Friend; Be a Friend
I have a lot of ideas about how to respond now that I’ve been at this for a while, but here’s probably one of my biggest pieces of counsel: get some pastor friends who’ve got your back.
Find a friend you can call on short notice who’s been there too. Get some who are more mature and even a little battered who remind you a little of Jesus. Avoid those who are cynical and jaded against the church. Look for those who’ve been beaten up but who still love God and God’s people.
Find that friend. If they are anything like what I’ve described above, they’ll listen and love but not give you a lot of advice. If you’re lucky they may even take you out for a nice lunch when you need it most and pick up the tab.
Find a friend like that, but also be a friend. I guarantee that someone around you needs it. If they don’t yet, they soon will.
Pastors need pastoral friends.