Buried somewhere in the piles of boxes in my garage is the composite picture of the graduating class of Concordia Theological Seminary in 1996. There’s a whole lot of black and white in that color picture, what with all the clerical shirts and clerical collars and clerical teeth smiling for the camera.
I learned theology with them, debated with them, partied with them, prayed with them. And through it all, one truth arose to the surface, over and over again. It’s an obvious truth, but sometimes it’s the obvious truths that we tend to ignore the most. And it’s a truth that the congregations they serve frequently forget: these pastors, although they stand in the stead of Christ to minister to the people of God, are fissured through and through with the same fears and flaws, loneliness and lust, desires and desperations, as the folks in the pew.
Pastors are built from the same stuff as everyone else. That’s good, and that’s bad.
It’s good because the more they’re able to identify with the people to whom they minister, the better ministers they’ll probably be. The more they’re acquainted with grief, the better comforters they’ll be at the graveside. The more they know of depression, the better they’ll be at walking with the downcast through their dark valleys. They can sympathize with the weakness of the human heart, and apply to other hearts the same divine, healing words that they apply to their own. It’s a good thing that pastors are built from the same stuff as everyone else.
And it’s a bad thing.
It’s a bad thing for lots of reasons. It means that some of them, when they struggle with the same lust that bedevil us all, will succumb, will fall, and will likely find themselves divorced both from marriage and ministry.
It means that a few of them will become so lonely, so depressed, that when the pills and booze no longer do the trick, they opt for the loaded pistol next.
It means that sometimes they will quarrel with members over stupid things, that they’ll sulk because of wounded pride, that they’ll show favoritism.
Because they’re built from the same stuff as everyone else means that pastors are sinners, and, as such, they’re going to suck at their job sometimes. Maybe lots of times.
It also means that we’re not always going to like our pastors. They’re not always going to be the charming, polite, patient, thick-skinned, wise, caring soul that we expect them to be.
Did they not seem all there last Sunday? A bit red-eyed, possibly even hung over? Perhaps there was a marriage spat late Saturday night about something that’s none of our damn business, they imbibed too much alcohol afterward, and got two hours sleep on the couch. It happens. And I bet some version of that happens at your house, too. Cut them some slack. They’re built of the same stuff as we are.
Did they not seem overjoyed to take your call last Friday? Did it cross your mind that it might have been the one day off they have, or that they’ve worked 70+ hours this week, or that they have a migraine, or simply that they’re worn down from caring for hurting people and desperately need a vacation (not to mention a sabbatical!) that they probably can’t afford? Cut them some slack. They’re built of the same stuff as we are.
Christians live and breathe by the forgiveness of sins. And pastors do too. They turn to the same crucified and resurrected Lord as we do. They confess. They hear the absolution. They believe. They commune at the same altar of his body and blood.
Pastors are flesh-and-blood sinners riddled through with weaknesses, most of which they keep hidden deep within.
For they fail—they fail themselves, they fail their spouses and children, they fail their congregation. Pastors are flesh-and-blood sinners riddled through with weaknesses, most of which they keep hidden deep within. Don’t expect them to be perfect. And don’t expect to like them all time.
But do this: forgive them. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give our pastors: to cover their multitude of sins with our love, to extend to them the same forgiveness they extend to us, to welcome them as fellow sinners who live by the same Lord of grace as we do.
The word “pastor” simply means “shepherd.” There are not-so-great shepherds, okay shepherds, and plenty of good ones out there. The two pastors I have—I wouldn’t trade them for anyone else.
But here’s the thing: there’s only one wholly good shepherd. We call him Jesus. And he’s the only truly perfect pastor that will ever serve the church.