I am a Presbyterian for a thousand different reasons. One of them is relevant to this post. As a Presbyterian, I do not succumb to the very real experience Ron Edmondson addresses in this post; the loneliness of a pastor. (Please read that brief post before continuing. This post will make more sense when you do.)
Over the past couple of years, in my presbytery, we've had the sad responsibility of addressing tragic circumstances among other ministers in our presbytery. In many of the cases deception and long-nurtured secret sin was exposed. Discipline was imposed with the ultimate purpose, bathed in prayer, that repentance and reclamation would result.
Our presbytery has attempted and is attempting to put in place opportunities to address these challenges. Ideas discussed are meetings of pastors within smaller geographical regions for lunch and discussion, a pre-presbytery seminar (once a quarter) to fellowship, learn and pray with one another, designating a portion of our presbytery meeting for the same kind of thing; fellowship, discussion and prayer. I applaud these efforts and enjoy discussing (and debating) the benefits and pitfalls of each.
But my contention is that if we strive to be more consistently "presbyterian" in our local churches; inherent in the call of each elder and the vows they take, the structure and the care is already there.
I am not arguing that simply holding to the polity of presbyterianism or even seeking to practice our ecclesiology will prevent a pastor from being lonely...or worse. But I do believe that Presbyterianism, when practiced faithfully and fighting hard to do so, will make it incredibly difficult to live in secret sin or to become a lonely pastor.
Here is why, and I'd be interested in your thoughts. This is (gloriously!) anecdotal, but my experience is rooted in our seeking to live faithfully and consistently in light of our ecclesiology and polity.
- As Presbyterians we hold to the plurality of and parity of elders. In the PCA we designate elders as "Teaching elders" those who are vocational ministers and "Ruling elders", those who have family and careers outside of full-time church ministry. However, the primary function of elders, both teaching and ruling elders, is to shepherd the flock under their care. The spiritual care of God's people is a shared responsibility among the elders in a Presbyterian church.When all elders strive to function faithfully to their calling, they will be involved and invested in each others lives and in the lives of the people in the congregation in which they are ordained and called to serve.
- I serve alongside faithful elders who see as their responsibility to care for the ministers of the church where they serve. They faithfully shepherd me. This shepherding care is apparent in (at least) three ways:
- They always have a "welcome mat" laying in front of them. They have made themselves accessible and available to me. I must see this as the gift it is and avail myself of them and their wisdom and care. It is on me. So I have the freedom to come to them if I am overwhelmed, discouraged or running low. So I do and have. When there is tension in my marriage or struggles in raising 3 teenage girls, they are the first people I call. They have freed me up from feeling threatened or that I will be evaluated when I confess my weaknesses. They have a biblically healthy assessment of sin and sinners and they want me to live in that with them. They also do not impose on me some sort of clerical performance metric. They don't expect me to have my stuff together or to pretend to be someone I'm not. Together, we hate deception and play-acting and do not tolerate it from each other. It is difficult to communicate the gift they give to me as they invite me to share any particular challenges or struggles with them. They counsel me, pray with and for me and work hard in helping me see what I am evidently blind to. There is nothing better for me and our church. They know this and their commitment to me and the church is what drives them.
- Secondly, they make sure I get time "away" from the day-to-day pressures of ministry. They encourage me to spend time with my pastor friends out of town once a year. This is always one of the most encouraging and refreshing times for me, ministry-wise. They make sure I do it. This is part of their shepherding activity for me. They hold me accountable; making sure I am working hard, meeting with people, pursuing faithfulness to the Word and the shepherding of our people. But they also hold me accountable, making sure that I am taking my day-off every week, that I am taking the vacation time they have granted me, that I am pursuing a week of study-leave they have given me to benefit me and the church I serve. Because they are committed to shepherding me, these acts of accountability and openness are deliberate and intentional. They must be, or I would forgo a vacation, procrastinate, thereby missing my day off (not to mention being a poor steward of my time and resources) or allow other things to crowd out the necessary break.
- An important function of their shepherding me is their commitment to shepherd God's people with me. They help carry the burden of our hurting people. This is no small thing. If they were simply elders "in name only" and didn't invest in the hard work of shepherding, counseling and ministry to our people, I could easily feel that it all fell to the vocational guys. Because of their proactive ministry to the people of our church, I don't carry that burden by myself.
3. Crucially important in all of this, perhaps what stands behind it all is how we are together, brothers in Christ and I consider them all my friends.Our ministry together doesn't bring with it a demarcation of roles we are in. We are first saved sinners seeking to serve one and other. I love them as brothers and value their friendship and I receive as good (even better) than I give. This can't be quantified, and is therefore invaluable and necessary. This takes humility and trust, but God gives and honors both.
Much more could be said about how this supports and encourages the peace and purity of the church body, the model that is set before the broader church body, the dependent faith that is required for the men and their office, but not for this post.
I believe the post I linked to above addressing the problem of the lonely pastor is a real problem for many pastors. The suggestions to address such a challenge are good ones.
My point in this post is the structure of Presbyterianism provides the protection or needed corrective, when lived out dependently and faithfully.
So I believe that our ecclesiology and polity and our elders faithful pursuit of and adherence to both gets at the root of why, by God's grace, I am able to avoid the symptomatic loneliness that others in my role experience.
It is easy to have "Presbyterian" in your church name (or even claim to be an "elder-led" church without "Presbyterian" in your church name). But if there is not a purposeful pursuit of the three components I've outlined above (or something like them) the "lonely pastor", or worse, will be a threat, not just to the pastor, but to the church the elders are called to care for.
Because of the men with which God has blessed this church in the role of elders and the enormous responsibility that comes with the office, there is real fruit being born in the life of our church and, especially relevant to this post, in my life.