Things I couldn’t do when I was a pastor…

You were probably expecting me to say something like – “I couldn’t drink or smoke cigars!” No, I could’ve done those things if I’d wanted to, but I hate the taste of beer and the smell of cigars. No, I’m talking about stuff I just couldn’t do while pastoring even though I tried with all my might.

A.W. Tozer was ordained by the Christian and Missionary Alliance when he was 23 (I was “ordained” about the same age). After the ordination service, he prematurely left the fellowship celebration to spend time alone with God. Years later the private prayer from his ordination day was written and published, called “For Pastors Only.” Here is a portion of the text as it later appeared in the “Alliance Weekly” in 1950.

O Lord, save me from the error of judging a church by its size, its popularity or the amount of its yearly offering. Help me to remember that I am a prophet; not a promoter, not a religious manager—but a prophet. Let me never become a slave to crowds. Heal my soul of carnal ambitions and deliver me from the itch for publicity.

Amen! He nailed it 60+ years ago. The pastoring gig today is, in my opinion, a strange anomaly for many reasons, not the least of which is the bizarre blend of the spiritual, moral, and professional. He or she has to be accomplished in oratory, crisis management, anger-management, and business-management. (Ladies, forgive me, but I’ll use “he” and “him” from now on, not because I object to women being pastors, but just to make it easier for me to write and for you to read.) Instead of following a call from God, he’s got a “job” to do and a “career” in which to excel. But now that I’m just a guy who loves Jesus trying to live a simple life of service, I’m finding an unexpected new freedom to serve God and people without many of the self-and-people-imposed expectations.

If you’re a pastor or church staff person I hope this will provoke you to evaluate your life of service and how you go about it. If you’re a church member, I trust that you’ll rethink your expectations on your spiritual leaders, and see them for what they are – initiators and equippers.

So, here are some things I couldn’t do (with any consistency anyway) while I was serving as a pastor.

When I was a pastor I couldn’t stop trying to succeed… I know that probably sounds backwards, but for me, I’ve pretty much eliminated the term “success” from my vocabulary when talking about spiritual life. The kind of success that God compels me toward now is an altogether different species than the one to which I aspired as a pastor. I don’t blame anyone else for this – it was my own fault that I was shooting at the wrong target!

Today, my target, instead of “success” is the pleasure of God. I just want to please my Father, and make him happy. I’m aware of and enjoying the reality that he’s already accepted me, forgiven me, and called me pure; but his pleasure is something more. He loves me, and as a result I so desire to please him, and then someday – in the eternal state – I want to enter fully into that pleasure. I can’t wait to hear, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!” (I’m pretty sure they speak King James in heaven.) To my mind, the connotation of the term “success” is much more institutional than spiritual, more human than divine, and more about me than about him.

Benjamin Franklin’s morning question was “What good shall I do today?”  And then his evening question was “What good did I do today?” I’m more inclined to say something in the morning like, “Lord, what would you have me do today?” and then in the evening, “Did I do what you wanted me to do?” One of my many mantras is to live for “the glory of God and the good of people.” But I want him to decide what “good” is and then which particular “good” he’d have me do on any particular day.

I admit that it’s easier now that I don’t have any reports to fill out or anyone paying me to be good (the rest of you are “good for nothing”!). Don’t get me wrong; I am accountable to God, my family, and my friends for personal behavior. But I found that the kind accountability that exists in the modern ministry model has more to do with performance than with lifestyle.

If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to get off the treadmill of “success” and just live for his pleasure. Trust me, you’ll a better pastor for it. You’re only in charge of he depth of your life and ministry, and he’s in charge of the breadth of it.

When I was a pastor I couldn’t stop trying to make people happy… Many years ago I took special notice of John 5:44 and tried to make the adjustments necessary to apply it to my life as a pastor who wanted to make God happy rather than please the people in the church. Here it is in several different translations:

  • How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? (New Living Translation)
  • No wonder you can’t believe! For you gladly honor each other, but you don’t care about the honor that comes from the one who alone is God. (English Standard Version)
  • How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (New American Standard Bible)

This verse has become pivotal to my thinking about my life of service. People-pleasing is an insidious addiction particularly among pastors. I’m not free from it entirely by any means, but it’s much easier now that I’m not “working for” a whole church directory full of people. I sincerely loved God and people when I was pastoring, but still I sought their approval, especially in relation to the “success” of the church. Now, as a sort of “Vagabond Preacher” (one of my favorite answers when people ask me what I’m doing nowadays), I have no one to make happy except the Lord. And I like living for his pleasure because he’s so pleasable!

If you’re a church member, tell your pastor this week that you love him and that you’re glad that he only has God to please.

When I was a pastor I couldn’t stop and ponder about all the weird stuff in the Bible… I’ve been reading and pondering the Bible for almost 40 years now. It’s not like I’ve never run into things that puzzle and even confuse me. Since I was, as a pastor, sort of constrained by the need to have something coherent to say on Sundays (and other teaching times), I commonly shelved many of the mystifying passages, knowing I’d come back to them someday and maybe even understand them. I’ve put a lot of question marks in the margin of my Bible throughout the years to identify these “shelved verses.” The problem is, when I came back around in my reading to many of these “hard sayings” I still had no time, brain cells, or energy to go off on a tangent from my study routine for Sunday. Plus, to be honest, I was unconsciously guarding against following rabbit trails that would lure me away from the mainstream of evangelical thinking.

Now that I’m free from those constraints (not imposed by anyone but myself) I’m finding that I’m reading the Bible a bit differently. I’m admitting my ignorance and asking the Author more questions than I used to. I guess I’m more inquisitive and more open to a wider range of options of interpretation. I’m less sure of my intellect but more sure of God’s intent in saying what he said in Scripture and I tend to be willing to listen to a broader spectrum of voices while musing on the mysteries of the Creator.

Now, when I’m stumped or offended by something God said or allowed in his book, or even when I’m inspired or absorbed in some theme, because I’m in no hurry to do sermon preparation or lead a business meeting or get to a counseling appointment, I can camp out in that passage for as long as it takes to mine out what God has to say to me today. At least for now, I’m not trying to read a certain number of chapters, I might meditate on the same paragraph for a week or two while I wonder about what God might be saying to me.

If you’re a pastor, believe me I know the challenge of weekly or bi-weekly teaching. I know what it is to bring something fresh, engaging, relevant, prophetic, and informative every week. But I do urge you to read the Bible, ask it questions, and be willing to admit that you don’t understand it entirely. I think the day of the pre-packaged theology is nearing an end, and the postmodern generation resonates more with the fellow journeyer than the expert guide.

When I was as pastor I couldn’t seem to focus on stuff for which I was gifted and led to do… Since I have been away from the traditional pastoring role, I’ve rediscovered my innate passions for things like evangelism, disciple-making, mentoring, and teaching people. These are my primary loves and the things for which I’m gifted. But when I was in the “pastoral office,” people sort of expected me to be “in the office,” if you know what I mean. Buildings, budgets, and bureaucracies often kept me too busy to do what I was actually called to do.

It wasn’t like I expected my life of service to be easy. I’m a pretty hard-working guy. I don’t mind long hours, and I seldom shirked my responsibility to do the hard work of ministry. It’s just that a lot of how the modern church pastor’s role has, in my opinion, degenerated to a more managerial and performance-oriented job.

When a pastor is weary or burned out, people often think it’s because he has to bear the spiritual weight of the church and endure the spiritual attacks against him and against the body of Christ. There’s no doubt that this is an enormous component to church leadership, but I think that what we’ve determined to be the exhaustion from spiritual labor is often really a weariness from the not-at-all spiritual tasks that the modern pastor is expected to do. Yeah, I dealt with demons assaulting the church and me, but what wore me out the most was the pressure to be politically correct, socially capable, and institutionally competent.

In one sense, it could be said that I was the biggest hypocrite in the church! I always taught people to invest their time, talent, and treasure in things that directly relate to their gifting, but then I seemed to frequently do the opposite by picking up the slack on everything that was left in the traditional church model!

If you’re a pastor, you probably know what your gifts are, and regardless of what your “job description” says, I hope you’ll find ways to focus on places of service that require those gifts. You’ll discover more anointing in those areas, God will get more glory, you’ll be happier when you go home at night, and the church will be healthier for it. I didn’t do it very well, but I hope you can! If you’re a church member, and your pastor is burned out, don’t just give him a month off, let him use the gifts that God has given him to equip the saints to do their work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).

When I was a pastor I frequently failed to be the fixer of all fixes… I heard this quip many years ago. “God fixes a fix to fix us, and if we try to fix the fix before the fix fixes us, he’ll fix another fix to fix us!” One of my many mistakes as a pastor was to feel the need to fix every broken person, every tense relationship, and every inefficient system in the church. God didn’t ask me to, but I was predisposed to be the Chief Fixer in the church. My unhealthy predisposition for this probably came from being an adult child of an alcoholic. We ACA’s tend to obsessed about being better people and making things better between other people, because we think everyone else’s issues are our responsibility. In order to feel good about ourselves we have to make others well. There are a lot of problems with this, not the least of which is what it does to the self-appointed fixer – frustration, exhaustion, and irritability to name a few!

By the way, I can think of at least three reasons that the idea is faulty that the people in the church pay their pastor to minister to them. First of all, church members don’t pay their pastor anything (except an occasional compliment). They pay their tithes and give their offerings to God, and the pastor is paid from those resources. Secondly, they don’t pay the pastor to minister at all; they support him so he can do his ministry. You see the difference, right? Thirdly, if you support the church financially and the pastor’s salary is part of that support, it’s not so he can serve you, but so he can disciple you so you can serve others. He’s not just a Doctor who sets broken bones, but a General who leads the troops into battle!

If you’re a pastor, please remember that the best you can do for people is to “help them find strength in God” (1 Samuel 23:16). You can’t be anyone’s strength; your job is to simply help them find it in God. You can be a lifeguard and try to save everyone around you from drowning if you want, but it’s a lot more fun and better for them if you’ll teach them how to swim for themselves! If you’re a church member, do yourself and your pastor a favor and learn how to swim!

These are the things that come to mind about what I couldn’t do when I was a pastor. I’m sure there are many more that will occur to me later, but for now… If you’re a pastor, I sincerely hope you’ll do better than I did at shooting at the right targets. Try to remember why you signed up for this in the first place, and review the things in God’s Word that spoke to you most powerfully about your calling, along with the prophetic words you received to confirm it. Take a look at what God actually requires of you, and if there is a contrast between his expectations and any conflicting expectations (whether institutionally or personally imposed), find a way to live for him and not for an institution or success or for the pleasure of people. If you’re a member of a church, please review Ephesians 4:11-12. Your pastor isn’t a bus driver who does all the driving while everyone sits in the back and naps! Your minister’s ministry is to equip you be the best minister you can be!

5 Replies to “Things I couldn’t do when I was a pastor…”

  1. Thank you Barney for sharing your insights and your thoughts. I will always remember, and I am eternally grateful, for how the Lord used you to reply to a few of my sarcastic questions, the answerers of which guided me to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.


  2. Barney, thank you for posting this. Your perspective inspires me and gives me hope. I thank God for your voice to the Body of Christ!


  3. Pastor Barney I’m thankful for you . I was baptized at Lighthouse church in Soquel, CA . I remembered you pray for me and I got the gift of tongues . I will never forget my experience in your church .I was just a baby Christian.
    It is great to see you being in the calling of God and helping the ones that really need a minister like you wise, godly . Blessings to you . Maria


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