I wear a lot of hats: mom to 4, author and speaker, academic, and pastor’s wife to a church planter. Most days my life looks small: walk kids to school, get in some writing, go to the grocery store, build relationships with neighbors, work towards growing our church plant. It can be a lonely, isolating and confusing space when you work in full-time Christian ministry.
You may have been hurt by the church. You may have been burned and confused and unloved and unwelcome. For that, I’m sorry and my heart breaks. Life in church community is messy and broken, but it’s only there where I’ve found real life. Worship reorients my heart towards God. It takes my eyes off myself. It helps me see other people. It helps me love and see my neighborhood. We need the church. Yet it’s easy to think we’re too good for church — we have to protect ourselves from it because of past hurt.
But here’s where I stake my claim: Jesus died for his church; He calls her his bride and so we can’t just “have church” by the ocean or in the woods — though those may be important spiritual experiences. We’ve got to be a part of the visible Body of Christ. And that means there will be hurt and conflict and gut-wrenching pain. But there will also be joy, love, forgiveness and grace that abounds like wine.
All that said, today, I wanted to leave a bit with you from life on the “inside” of this messy, beautiful place called the church. Here’s what us pastors and married-to-pastors types would love to let you know in an attitude of humble confession:
- We’re not better than you.
We’re not super spiritual or extra holy. We’ve simply been called to living out our faith in full-time vocational ministry. This doesn’t mean that being a pastor/elder/priest/missionary is better than other work. We, too, struggle with living out our faith day-to-day. We’re tempted to turn ministry success into a story about how great we are. We’re tempted to despair when we hear criticism or people leave or aren’t happy. But we can’t just compartmentalize it into “work” and “home,” and we can’t just cut and run when conflict happens. Pastors are people, too.
- Our kids have their own stories.
Our kids fall apart, don’t “do church” right, and may not be the model pastor’s kid. When there’s added pressure to look and act a certain way, kids get messed up. Please don’t expect more from a pastor’s kid than you would any other child. We all have our own stories where we travel away from God either in self-righteousness or in rebellion, and we expect our kids will have those stories too. We trust those are theirs and God will shepherd them through it, just like he does for all his little and adult children.
- We do have qualifications.
While we aren’t “better” than our congregants, most pastors do have unique qualifications. Most have gone through several years of seminary, interned in churches, gone through extensive ordination exams, and are a part of some cohort or denomination for further professional development, prayer, and accountability. This means that your pastor isn’t (usually) spouting off opinions just because she/he can. When you disagree, expect to talk it over with your pastor and presume your pastor does have a level of expertise in biblical exegesis, doctrine, and church history. This knowledge should always be used to build up the church, not as a trump card of spiritual superiority. And it means as congregants we should listen with generosity.
- We need friends, grace, community, forgiveness just like you.
We like to hang out, laugh, have a drink, workout. Pastors are real people with real sins, personality issues, and experience God’s grace just like you. When a pastor is preaching, it’s to remind the pastor’s heart of the gospel as much as to encourage and challenge the congregant’s. We’re all in this together. This means your pastor needs friends where they get to be fully themselves. Invite your pastor and family over for dinner, share a meal together, ask how you can help or pray for him/her. And when your pastor messes up, know they need the same grace and forgiveness you crave.
- Church is personal.
We can’t choose to jet off for the weekend or skip out on church for champagne brunch. Our lives are wrapped up in church, church activities, and looking for ways to make the gospel tangible in our neighborhoods — to invite more people not into a social club, but into the wide expanse of the Kingdom of God.
That means when you speak poorly about a sermon, or about all the ways the church isn’t “right” for you, it’s personal to your pastor. It’s not that your pastor doesn’t want to hear good, thoughtful critique and it’s not that you can’t leave a particular congregation, but please realize that as we stay put Sunday after Sunday that our call is to put our lives on the line for the church.”Church” isn’t just something pastors do, it’s part of who we are.
The church is our art. So don’t go into the art gallery and start telling the artist everything that’s wrong about the painting. Value the work that went into it, ask good questions, and extend grace for its flaws.
Pray for your pastor and missionaries you support. Give your time and resources generously. Let’s work together — in all our flawed and redeemed humanity — to live the life of the church well and more fully together.