How to ensure your pastor stays in the Slough of Despond

UnknownSo you want your pastor to stay humble.  You want to make sure he doesn’t get ideas above his station but keeps his feet firmly anchored on the ground.  Here’s how to do it:

  1. Contrast and compare him unfavourably to your preaching heroes past and present.  Obviously it’s your job as a church member to ensure that your pastor doesn’t get too full of himself.  So at the door suggest a few good sermons you’ve heard recently from the likes of Tim Keller, John Piper, Hugh Palmer, Paul Washer et al that were better than what he has just preached.  Suggest he emails the congregation a link to those sermons, just so they get the most from the passage possible.
  2. Phone him regularly in the evening and on his day off.  Of course you’ll always preface your response with “I know it’s your day/evening off but…”  If it’s something that could have waited all the better.  That’ll make sure he knows who calls the shots.
  3. “You only work one day a week.”  This old chestnut is bound to make sure he knows who has the real job and works real hours, it’s best followed up with a laugh, that way it looks like you’re joking, but he’ll know there’s a ring of truth to it.
  4. Convey your boredom during the sermon.  There are lots of ways to do this, slouch down in your chair with your shoulders slumped, count the ceiling tiles, or find animal shapes in whatever wood or stone there is in the building.  Avoid eye contact at all costs.  Close your bible before he starts to preach.  Use your phone to tweet or repost meme or gifs whilst he’d preaching, and make it obvious that’s what you’re doing, either by posting it in his timeline, or through your facial responses.  If you can distract others even better.
  5. Attend sporadically.  If encouragement begins with attendance, discouragement 101 is non-attendance, but not too much.  Be there on Sunday morning once a month, just enough so he knows you’re one of his sheep he must care for, but not enough that he can count on you, or that you benefit from any consistent ministry.
  6. Prescreen any compliment you are reluctantly giving him with the phrase “I wasn’t going to say this because I don’t want you to get big headed but…”    That way you feel like you’ve encouraged him, but the fist in the velvet glove ensures he doesn’t get ideas above his station.
  7. Ensure he doesn’t have enough time to prepare.  Phone him with questions that don’t really need answering, or just to “let him know about” something you fear is coming up.  Do it regularly, it’s best to ring, wait ten minutes then ring again so he doesn’t get too into his preparation.  Or alternately get him so busy in every single ministry of the church that he’s totally distracted from preparation and study so that unlike the Apostles in Acts 6 he spends more time waiting tables that preaching and praying.  If he’s not at something let him know you noticed, with a frown!
  8. Don’t pray with the Church.  Living out the gospel in community is a spiritual battle.  So if you want to discourage your leaders don’t engage in it.  Don’t pray with them or for them, make it abundantly clear that’s what you pay them for.  It’s their responsibility.
  9. Criticise his kids and his wife.  Timothy and Titus both say elders must manage their households well.  Make sure your pastor knows every time his kids step out of line.  Express surprise when they are children rather than mini-theologians on step perfect parade.  Make the pastor aware of how you don’t pay his wife but you did expect a bit more from her if you’re honest.
  10. Create disunity.  Stir up as much trouble as you can in the church.  The church meeting is a great time to do this.  Make abundantly clear how much better this all should have been communicated.  Sigh at those you disagree with, loudly.  Walk out if you don’t get your way.  It always works better if you canvas opinion beforehand and try to win a few people to your side.  Alternately if that doesn’t work there’s always the CC button on email with the whole church directory copied into your stinging email of criticism of somebody.

If you regularly do all those then your pastor will never get ideas above his station.  He’ll stay bogged down in the slough of despond.

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Helping your pastor out of the Slough of Despond

handSo far we’ve thought about the nature of the Slough of Despond and how we can help ourselves avoid it, or minimise it’s impact.  But how do churches, or rather congregations, help their pastor avoid the Slough, or pull him free from its sucking clutches?

There are a number of things that help and none of them are rocket science, but I wonder if we often miss then because they are so obvious.

  1. Treat your pastor (and his family) as people.  Yes your pastor has been called to pastor the church, but they don’t magically change.  They aren’t one of the Avengers, exposed to gamma radiation or able to create marvels of technology that enable them to fly and fight evil impervious to all the suffering us mere mortals face.  They are flesh and blood humans made in the image of God, with all the great blessings that brings, but also with fallibility built in.  They will be prone to illness, weakness, and emotional ups and downs.  Treat your pastor as such, not as overly fragile, but as a person.  And care for his family, speak to his kids, as well as asking after them, care for his wife well.  Make sure they have time together and regular holidays.  Just do what you do for anyone else.  You may be surprised at what a difference this makes to them.
  2. Engage with the Bible.  You may think your pastor is the best preacher since the Apostle Paul, you may not.  But whilst a pastor needs to work hard to preach well, we also need to work hard to listen well.  How can you encourage your pastor in his preaching?  Resource him well both in terms of time and books and conferences – especially on preaching if you think it would be a good idea, but be careful how you broach this.  And engage with his preaching.  Read the passage before you come, ask questions of it, so that you are pre-engaged.  Work hard on cultivating a face that invites someone to speak.  We all have a facial screen saver that is on when we’re listening – some look bored, some are eyes scarcely open/awake, others look like they’re chewing a wasp, a few look engaged make eye contact and maybe even nod (or perhaps even verbally respond – I know shocking right!).  Which of those are you most likely to talk to?  Now imagine what it’s like preaching to them.  Could you change your screen saver so it encourages those preaching?
  3. Disciple others.  Pastors go into ministry longing to see people come to know Jesus and then grow in maturity as disciples.  The job is (Ephesians 4v11-16) to equip God’s people to grow in Christlikeness.  That means the pastor’s job is to be discipling disciple makers, not slogging hard to disciple those who think that is where discipleship stops – with them.  Encourage your pastor by being involved in discipling others.
  4. Pray for and with your pastor.  Prayer is something many churches struggle with.  But there is nothing more encouraging for a pastor than to know that his flock are praying for him as he battles to prepare to preach.  Except when his people gather with him to pray for the work of the church.  Praying with your pastor encourages him that you are with him, you are on mission together, he’s not alone, you are committed to seeking God’s will and help.

I wonder what other things you’ve found help?

Surviving the Slough of Despond

We all go through it.  That sense of being stuck.  Of being unable to see what God is doing 7bcd79143f295e397a45653a4415c375through our preaching and pastoring and so wondering what the points is, if the grass is greener, struggling for the motivation to preach and prepare.  We thought about that in yesterdays post.  But how do we avoid revisiting the slough as often as we can, how do we pull out of it?

There are a number of things I have found have helped, but first here are a few things that don’t.

  1. Escapism – An always tempting option is escapism, doing something else to take your mind off it.  Hobbies are good and helpful but when they become a form of escapism they become unhelpful distractions.  Where do you tend to run when you want to take your mind of the despondency you feel?  Computer games, sport, porn, maybe even the attention of someone else?
  2. Longing for the greener grass over the bridge –  It is often tempting to day dream about the what if…  What if I left and went somewhere else?  With more resources?  More people?  A church where people really wanted to hear God’s word and change…  But such day dreaming only fuels the despondency and leads to the next unhelpful friend.
  3. Bitterness – The sense of despondency coupled with the way evangelicalism so often seems to ape the world in promoting the success stories (seriously, when did you ever hear a conference speaker who hadn’t published a book, successfully revitalised a church, or started 7 parachurch ministries alongside his successful church plant).  It can fuel the despondency, as you hear from conference speakers or meet people with large churches, large staff teams, and so on.  The despondency can so easily turn to bitterness about how hard it is where you are, how they hoover up all the young people, the disposable income, how they only planted into student area and so on…  I’m not denying they’re real issues, they are.  But dwelling on them leads to bitterness that leads us to sink deeper into the slough.

So what actually helps?  How can I avoid, as much as possible, the slough of despondency, and how can I get out once I’m in it:

  1. Recognise patterns and seasons.  Note down over a few weeks how you are feeling about ministry.  You will probably spot a pattern, Mondays are often blue days for the pastor, if so rethink what you might do to minimise the impact of that.  Should Monday start with a prayer walk, a 1-2-1, a prayer breakfast, a day with other pastors?  What would help?  Secondly ask your family and some close friends if they’ve spotted any seasonal patterns in you.  Are there certain times of year when you tend to despondency?  It may be a mild form of SAD exacerbated by pastoral pressure.  It may just be that at certain times of year you need to programme in a rest, and change your existing holiday pattern.
  2. Build real friendships.  I’m real grateful for a few select friends, both in ministry and outside of it, who I can speak to about these sorts of things.  With whom i can share the discouragements, who I can say I feel like quitting to, and who know that wisely they just need to listen.  That I’ve not divided off a theological cliff, I’m not falling into some naval gazing self introspected funk, I am just weary of pastoring in a broken world, and need listening to, loving and sometimes telling to rest.
  3. Sleep and eat well –  We know we’re not just spirit and yet we so often neglect the physical side of ourselves when we’re ministering to others.  The extra visits, the extra prep that we’re convinced will make this sermon have more impact.  The inability to switch off where we need to.  But we are flesh and blood.  God made us, he knows we need sleep and nourishment.  How is your sleep?  Are meetings leaving you buzzing with ideas and unable to sleep because they are scheduled too late?  Are you taking rest?  How is your eating?  Is it too hurried, rushed refuelling rather than an opportunity to enjoy the goodness of God’s gifts of tastes and variety and company?
  4. Exercise and the outdoors – The other side of that is physical exercise and spending time out in God’s creation.  How far do you walk in a day and where do you walk?  Could you take a break and have half an hour outside on a prayer walk?  Or just walking and being without pastoring.
  5. Develop you eldership not a genuine team – how does your eldership function?  Are they your bosses?  If so you won’t feel you can open up to them.  Or are they your co-workers in the gospel?  A team of elders should be exactly that, one of the challenges for the pastor and for elderships is developing that sense of team and commitment to one another spiritual wellbeing, shepherd self care matters.  Do our elders meetings share honestly about the slough?  Do we look for opportunities to grow, and learn and train and review – not just to critique but to grow and develop a love for Jesus an for his church.  Often the slough is fed by the brackish water of under investment and development.  When we don’t feel our pastoral and preaching skills are being developed its harder to see ways out of a rut and this feeds the slough of despond.
  6. Patterns of discipleship – too many of us think of ourself as just pastors, not primarily as disciples.  We need to put in place good patterns of spiritual nourishment to fuel our discipleship as well as good patterns to sustain us as pastors.  The two may overlap but they are never the same, think of it like a Venn diagram, not a pie chart.

In the next post we’ll think about how churches help pastors avoid the Slough of Despond, or help pull them out of it.

Regularly Revisiting the Slough of Despond

Most pastor’s will, like me, regularly revisit the slough of despond.  Maybe it’s on a UnknownMonday morning after a full day on Sunday.  Maybe it’s on Sunday evening as you run through what you should have said as well as what you really really wish you hadn’t said.  Maybe it’s just triggered by that strange feeling that somehow despite everything seeming good in manuscript form, despite the hours of labour and craft, the church didn’t connect and the sermon never took off.  You just felt like you spent 30 minutes taxiing to and fro on the run way.

Or maybe it’s a bit bigger than that.  Maybe it is the feeling that church is just not going anywhere.  You love your congregation, and so you’d feel guilty for even thinking this and you’d never voice it, but you’ve begun to look at other flocks of sheep.  The soil where you are feels stony, in fact you wonder if it’s permafrost.  There is little if any discernible change.  The gospel coin seems total jammed and no matter how much you bang it it just isn’t dislodging and doing its work.

You’ve tried working harder.  Doing more prep, more visits, more praying.  But still the permafrost won’t thaw.  And you know why, you know the church is full of suffering people, and it seems to have few leaders.  People serve but few disciple one another.  And to be honest you are tired.  The battery is drained and you can’t find thecharger, or if you do, even a full nights charge is only giving you 15% of battery.

And so you find yourself daydreaming about another flock on another hillside.  Or maybe even wondering about spending some time out of ministry.  Maybe you are just not cut out for this.  Mentally you begin writing your letter of resignation.

Many pastors in the UK will resonate with this, not all of it, but certainly some of it.  Pastoring is a hard job.  It is draining being the 4th emergency service, as a friend of mine refers to it.

I’m hoping to post some later reflections on how I endure those seasons when church feels like this.  But for now for those in ministry I just want you to know you are not alone.  Many of us feel at times like this.  For church members, I want you to know that sometimes your pastor feels like this.  What can you do to help him persevere?  Or even better not end up here?  I’ll hopefully post some thoughts on that later in the week too.

Is a lack of holiness our real problem in evangelism?

mind the gapI’m all for cultural engagement.  There are lots of echoes of the gospel story in music, film and books.  And it is good for us to watch with eyes wide open and spot those and talk with others about them.  They can be great conversation starters about Jesus and we ought to take them.

But here’s my slight concern.  In the rush to be culturally aware I worry that we’re basically trying to be less holy so that the world likes us and therefore likes Jesus and will listen to the gospel.  Here’s the problem, firstly that doesn’t work, when was the last time a non-believer said ‘Wow!  You’re just like me there must be something in what you believe.’  Secondly, the world doesn’t need us to be more like them it needs us to be less like them and more like Jesus.  It needs to see what purified believers look like.  It needs to see people sold out for God.  What God’s radical kingdom looks like not a half hearted compromised version of it.

The reason Israel failed to be the light to the nations it was intended to be wasn’t that it did not engage enough with Canaanite culture, but that it aped Canaanite culture too much.  It became just like them.  It was not holy.

I’m very aware that that brings challenges.  I’m not suggesting that we withdraw from society, not at all, but that we live holy lives in society.  And yes, that does mean there will be things our friends and family and work colleagues do that we don’t take part in.  Yes it might mean they accuse us of being prudish.  But holiness isn’t just about what you don’t do but about what you do do.

To be holy is to be pure but it is also to be more loving than the world can imagine.  A love that acts and cares and provides for others, even those who oppose us.  To be holy is to be generous and merciful but to stand up for what is right.  I wonder if we’ve dispensed with the purity part of holiness, arguing that it made us seem like a prude.  Rather than adding to the purity the love that is also a part of holiness.

What if we were the most loving, gracious, welcoming people, but we also lived pure lives, if we fought sin in ourselves (not go on a moral crusade against culture) and loved in such a way that the cries of ‘prude’ or ‘bible basher’ (other far worse insults are available) died on their lips and instead they were intrigued enough to ask about Jesus?

Godly disagreement?

liarfaceThe atmosphere of our culture feels toxic.  Disagreement, division, resentment, anger, all seem to be on the increase.  This afternoon as I pulled up in a car park it became clear to me how much of an influence that has had on me as I had a visceral internal response to a sign supporting a particular viewpoint and party.  In a snap judgement, made in a flash of anger and frustration, I condemned the person and their position.

We live in a culture that cannot disagree.  Someone cannot hold a different position and be loved.  It’s played out on the stage of politics.  We get the leaders we deserve, I once heard someone say.  Our leaders both lead our culture but they are also reflective of our culture.

That’s true of us as believers as much as it is of us as a society.  How good is your church at disagreeing with others?  Good, not in terms of being every ready to go to war and fight for your position but good in terms of being charitable both in your description of the position they hold but also in the motives behind holding that position.

Too often we attack straw men (should that be people).  Instead, godly disagreement begins by trying to understand why someone else believes what they believe so well that we can articulate their position better than they can.  They should hear us and be able to say “Yes, yes.  That’s it you get me.  That’s what I believe and you’ve said it better than I have ever been able to.”  That applies whether the issue is mode of baptism, gifts of the spirit and their practice or which version of the bible you use.

In order to do that we need to listen well.  And that means not listening to defend ourselves.  In fact not even listening to respond, marshalling arguments to repudiate their point of view whilst we listen, but just listening to understand.  We ought to ask questions, not to score points, but to gain understanding.  Until we can articulate their point of view and motives well enough we will only talk passed them not discuss with them.  In fact I’d suggest until we can understand it that well we ought to just shut up.

Just stop for a minute and imagine the difference that would make.  Instead of hearing someone condemning us as they call for more people to help with mission and church in hard places.  We’d hear a heart felt impassioned plea for the lost who cannot hear because there is no one to tell them.  Instead of hearing it as a call to a class war, we would hear it as an outworking of the gospels wall dissolving power to unite the divided and bring hope to all.  And their passionate belief that the gospel is the only thing that can do that!

There is hope for our divided nation, increasingly walled off from one another by miscommunication hatred and a refusal to understand in the gospel.  But this will only be seen when rather than being like our culture; aping it’s toxicity, joining in with its smug assumptions of superiority, we humbly confess that we haven’t listened well enough and repent of such and look to build churches that cross the very divides across which our cultures wars are being fought and grenades lobbed.

Don’t assume, teach

We have started running some leadership training exploring what church is and the role of elders and deacons within the church.  We’ve put some material together and will be working through it one Sunday evening a month.  Then, with those who are interested and suitable, we’ll be doing some more in depth study using a few books on the subjects (although I have notice there are remarkable few on the role of a deacon).

What struck me on Sunday is that when it was time for questions a number of them were things I assumed people knew.  Things we have taught on relatively recently.  Positions the church has always held and taught on.  It was a reminder to me that it’s dangerous for me to assume people know and remember.  To assume a collective church knowledge, that of course everyone knows.  Repeated teaching matters.  And it’s really useful to have dedicated time to stop and examine the Bible in depth on such matters.

What are the things we’ve just assumed our people know?  Or that they can work out for themselves by observation?  Because I think we need to realise such assumptions are dangerous.