“Broken before God … bold before men.” That’s how former pastor and author Warren Wiersbe once described the ideal demeanor of a pastor.
But when pastors have time to reflect upon their emotional condition, they may admit … if only to themselves … that they have some all-too-human fears.
Paul the apostle certainly did:
For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn – conflicts on the outside, fears within. 2 Corinthians 7:5
In a moment of candor, Paul admits that he and his travelling party had some fears. Paul was waiting to hear from Titus how the church in Corinth was doing, and especially how the Corinthian believers viewed Paul.
If the greatest of all the apostles admitted to having occasional internal fears, then certainly his successors can admit they have some as well.
What are some fears that a pastor might have?
First, pastors fear church stats heading south. Several years ago, I had lunch with a former megachurch pastor and author. For more than two decades, everything this man did inside his church turned to gold.
But one day, he realized that people weren’t listening to him like they used to do. In fact, attendance began taking a dive. Nothing he tried worked anymore. It was painful for him to admit that his ministry wasn’t the success it once was. And he realized inside his spirit that it was time for him to resign.
He was treated well by the church’s governing leaders. They were grateful for his successful work over the years and gave him a separation package that reflected their appreciation.
But here’s the scary part: the pastor never saw the drop in attendance coming. He assumed that since attendance had always gone up in the past, it would continue to rise in the future.
A drop in attendance isn’t always the fault of the pastor. Sometimes it’s due to a resistant community … or a less-than-competent staff … or governing leaders who are risk averse … or dozens of other factors.
But pastors can easily personalize those empty seats and blame themselves for them … even while they are preaching the Word of God.
When I was a pastor, I sat in the front row of the worship center with my back to the congregation before I preached. I usually wasn’t aware of the attendance until I stood on the stage. Sometimes, I’d expect a sparse crowd, and the place would be packed. Other times, I’d hope for a packed house and the place would be sparse.
Most pastors know that if there are too many Sundays with sparse attendance, someone is going to suggest that the church needs a new pastor … and that prospect frightens most pastors … because pastors cannot control attendance by themselves.
Second, pastors fear people leaving the church. If a family visited our church for a couple of Sundays, and they didn’t return, I didn’t lose any sleep. And if I heard that a family on the fringe was visiting another church, that was okay with me.
But I didn’t want to lose anyone who attended our church on a regular basis.
In my second pastorate, a single woman and her son attended our small church. Since she liked to sing, we provided opportunities for her to use her gift.
But one day, I noticed that she and her son had been missing for several weeks. The right thing to do was to call her and see how she was doing … but I didn’t want to make that call.
Why not? Because I had a feeling that I already knew what she was going to say … and I was right: “We’re visiting other churches.”
The only time I’ve ever seen Rick Warren cry is when he told several thousand pastors how much pain he feels when people leave Saddleback Church.
My guess is that whenever people leave a church, the pastor views their departure as a personal failure.
Jesus lost Judas. Paul lost Demas. God the Father has watched millions of His sons and daughters walk away from their faith. The best leaders lose adherents.
But when that happens, pastors often kick themselves and say, “If I was only a better preacher … a better leader … a better listener … a better counselor … we could have kept that family.”
And there are usually others around who want to kick the pastor because the ones who left are their friends.
But pastors have an even greater fear when a family leaves: they’re afraid that one family might entice others to leave … resulting in a mass exodus that could cripple attendance and giving.
Third, pastors fear false accusations. Paul sounds a bit defensive in 2 Corinthians 7:2 when he writes, “Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one.”
There were people in and around the Corinthian Church who were claiming that Paul was not a true apostle. They were hurling half-truths and exaggerations in Paul’s direction to discredit his ministry.
And when you read 2 Corinthians … as I often do … you can feel Paul’s pain as he writes. In fact, unfounded accusations have wounded me more than anything else I’ve experienced in 36 years of church ministry.
I once completed a personal assessment on my fitness to be involved in a particular ministry. I was taken aback by a statement that went like this: “I am willing to be a scapegoat for the local church.”
Did you catch that? Even before being hired, the assumption was made that any given pastor might end up being accused by churchgoers of things he didn’t do.
When I worked for McDonald’s 40+ years ago, various crew members were called into meetings to take polygraphs. They were usually asked if they had stolen money or if they knew anyone who had stolen money. During my two years there, I was never asked to take a polygraph even once. Even then, I had a reputation for honesty.
I had that same reputation among my peers … and in my neighborhood … and at the church I attended. When I became a youth pastor, that reputation remained intact.
But when I became a pastor, I was accused of various kinds of wrongdoing on occasion, even though nobody had ever accused me of those kinds of things before.
And after I left my last ministry, I was accused of all kinds of wrongdoing even though my accusers had not spoken with me face-to-face … and still haven’t. (Why bother? They accomplished their goal.)
I’m not alone among spiritual leaders in being falsely accused of sins never committed. Here’s what I read in my quiet time today from Luke 23:1-2 (from The Message):
Then they all took Jesus to Pilate and began to bring up charges against him. They said, ‘We found this man undermining our law and order, forbidding taxes to be paid to Caesar, setting himself up as Messiah-King.”
If they lied about the perfect Savior, then they’ll lie about His imperfect servants.
Finally, pastors fear forced termination. The latest statistics – gleaned from my colleague Dr. Charles Chandler - are that 28% of all pastors have experienced a forced termination, and 46% of those pastors never return to church ministry. Charles claims that 1,600 pastors leave church ministry every month … most through forced termination.
When a pastor is told, “Either resign or you’ll be fired,” how often is the dismissal process underground, and how often is it above ground?
While I don’t have any definite statistics to share with you, I think I’m safe in assuming that at least 90% of the time, the dismissal process is underground.
For the pastor, this means that you’re constantly walking on eggshells. Every sermon you preach … every conversation you have … every board meeting you attend … every denominational event you don’t attend … can provide ammunition for those who may want to get rid of you someday.
You try to live for Jesus … and be filled with His Spirit … and be kind to everyone … but if you slip up just once, you’ll see a Pharisee writing down your offense in a little black book.
And if the Pharisees ever find each other … which they inevitably do … they’ll pool your offenses and recommend your dismissal to the powers-that-be.
And in our day, most pastors who are forcibly terminated aren’t just removed from their church … they’re removed from church ministry altogether.
Most pastors will not admit their fears to their congregations. They will not admit their fears to their boards or staffs. They may not even admit their fears to their pastor friends … or their wives.
But when they’re alone … and when they’re pouring out their hearts before God … pastors do have fears … just like Paul admitted in a candid moment.
What is one thing you can do this week to alleviate your pastor from fear?