By Anna Ilona Mussmann
It’s hard, being a sinner and a saint. We drag ourselves out of bed and through the winter fog to church (that’s kind of saintly, right?), and then when we get there we forget to pay attention to the sermon. We think, Whoops, what was the text again? and riffle through the bulletin while our pastor starts the prayers. Or perhaps we arrive and help shred someone’s reputation in the narthex before finding our pew. Maybe even our pastor’s reputation. By the time we go up to the altar for communion, we have made it clear to ourselves (if we are paying attention) that we don’t deserve our Savior’s body and blood.
We are worthy of nothing we receive in church, and yet there we find God’s presence and His gift of life and salvation. Little wonder we rejoice. In those moments of clarity, we know that we wish to fear, love, and trust in God; to obey His commandments; and to relish all of His good gifts. This includes supporting our pastor and helping him minister to the Church.
After all, it is a great blessing to have pastors at all. Some Christians don’t. A number of Christian families that I knew in childhood gathered together in different houses on Sunday mornings for “home church.” The fathers read Bible passages as they felt led, and if theological or political debates came up, the meeting ran long. Unfortunately, the lack of training in theology, languages, and history made the group vulnerable to the same mistakes and heresies that have already been addressed by the Church in the past. As Ephesians 4:14 tells us, a flock without a shepherd is in danger of being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”
In the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, we enjoy the incredible gift of learning each week from someone who not only devotes himself to prayer and study, but who has also learned the original languages of Scripture and been taught the history of Christian doctrine and theology. This highly-trained individual also cares for members’ individual needs—he visits them when they are sick, counsels them when they are troubled, and brings Holy Communion to their homes and hospital beds. Acting on Christ’s authority and by Christ’s command, he administers the Sacraments that give us life. It’s amazing.
Yet pastors also bear the burden of working with poor, miserable sinners who use the church phone tree to inflame a war over the paint color of the new bathroom, who sleep in instead of coming to Sunday School and then complain that no one ever explains the Bible to them, who demand that sermons be delivered according to their own taste, and who otherwise make church work incredibly difficult. I think that most people, unless they are related to a pastor or deeply involved in church governance, have no idea how bitterly hard the pastoral vocation often is (I say this as a pastor’s daughter). To top all of this off, pastors are poor, miserable sinners, too. The Devil hates God’s Church, and he is not slow to use all this sin to try to make the pastor’s life as miserable (and his ministry as ineffectual) as possible. Knowing what a wonderful blessing it is to have a pastor, and knowing how difficult his job is, what can we congregants do to support our pastor’s work in our church?
I asked several pastors about this. Here is a summary of their combined replies.
Supporting the Office of Pastor
1. Who Does What?
We would not hire a housekeeper and ask her to file our taxes, or retain an attorney and send him our dry cleaning. It is important to remember why we call pastors to our congregations. If we allow them to carry the burden of too many maintenance and organizational needs, we undermine the whole purpose of having a pastor, and place an unfair burden on a conscientious man who must already juggle caring for his congregants with caring for his own family. In addition, we should remember that the way we think about our pastor’s “job description” is a witness to the world and probably an unconscious influence on our own attitude. Do we want to say that the things of God (especially intangible things like prayer and the reading of Scripture) are so important that we want to help our pastor devote a significant portion of his time to them, or do we want to suggest that prayer and study should be accomplished in odd moments leftover from more “useful” tasks?
It is an important part of our vocation as Christian congregants to delve beneath the surface and find out what kinds of mundane tasks keep our church operational, and then to share the burden of those tasks (my own generation often needs a reminder that we are the grown-ups now, and we need to step in and relieve the older members from carrying an overbalance of church duties). Even if we are busy, harried, and stressed in our own lives, we can do small things. We can wipe down the doorknobs in the kitchen, or empty the Sunday school waste-basket. We can recruit others and encourage them to notice opportunities for service. We can provide thanks and appreciation for those who help out. One pastor I e-mailed suggested that you ask your pastor what little tasks he deals with that you could do instead. Another pastor said, “Recognize and accept (and even encourage) that the pastor needs to say no to requests at times.” Yet another mentioned the fluctuating work, like delivering meals to the ill or homebound.
Financial contributions are also related to this topic. The amounts we all give will of course vary, but it is important to give something. Once again, this is an area in which my generation could build better habits (and we had better do so, since someday, we will be the ones providing the majority of our pastor’s salary). If our pastor cannot afford to serve the church full-time (or even if he can, barely, but his mind is distracted by perpetual financial stress or his wife must put their children in day care so that she can work), when we could prevent it, we are cheating both him and ourselves. What does that tell the world about our priorities?
2. That Little Member, the Tongue
It is amazing what destruction is wreaked by the tongue. That little muscle seems to be the devil’s crack weapon in attacks upon the church. In particular, congregations are damaged when members gossip about their shepherd. Every pastor I talked to brought up this issue. One said simply, “Don’t believe rumors.”
Another said to follow the rule of the Old West: If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all [to people who cannot solve the problem]. Instead, go to your pastor privately and share your concerns. Truly listen to his answer. It may be that you will be able to help him learn how to serve his congregation better, or it might be that he will help you learn how to understand your pastor better.
The relationship of pastor and congregation is somewhat analogous to marriage. During the call process (as during the courtship of individuals), both sides must carefully and prayerfully consider whether they are a good match. Both sides are alert to potential problems in each other. Yet once the union (itself a leap of faith in many ways) is made, it behooves both parties to see the best in each other, put the best construction on each other’s words and actions, and to love and serve each other even when the other party fails to deserve it.
Of course, sometimes your pastor will be wrong. When opportunities arise to complain, try to remember both that your pastor is a fallible human who receives forgiveness alongside you (and whose human feelings are just as vulnerable as yours to hurt and injury) and that his office is worthy of respect and honor. There are also times when the sins or inadequacies of a pastor must be officially addressed, but even if your pastor is downright bad at his job, gossip will not help.
3. Your Pastor Has a Job to Do
A pastor finds himself in the peculiar position of trying to do many things that are dependent on other, unpaid people showing up. He wants to teach Sunday School; we need to go to Sunday School. He wants to educate the laity to recognize the difference between truth and heresy in the wider Christian culture and to understand church doctrines that are under attack from the world; we should attend the seminars and classes he hosts. He wants to pray for and visit members when they are ill; it is up to us inform him when this happens (one pastor suggested writing down information about illnesses, vacation, and life changes for your information-bombarded pastor). Surely you can empathize with the frustration of a pastor who is trying to serve an elusive flock.
Interestingly, all of the pastors to whom I talked mentioned private Confession and Absolution. Intimidating as it might sound to most of us laity, there is a reason why busy pastors want to squeeze such appointments into their calendar. They want to know what it is you struggle with and what it is you need. They want you to have the assurance of Christ’s forgiveness. In order for this to happen, sometimes pastoral care must be individualized.
Continued education and perspective is important for pastors. Help make it financially and practically possible for your pastor to attend seminars and conferences (but don’t think of these events as vacations, any more than you would use your own vacation days for on-the-job training at work).
Supporting the Human Being
The human side of your pastor may be all too-evident at times (and when it is, forgive him). It is easy to be more demanding of our pastor than of any other professional, perhaps because his work is so important. We would like a profound theologian, an excellent teacher, and a warm “people person” rolled into one. We want the life experience of a fifty-year-old and the energy of a twenty-year-old. It is only fair to keep our expectations realistic and to appreciate growth instead of perfection.
He, too, needs the human support that we all desire. He, too, is vulnerable to doubt, fear, discouragement, and even depression, especially when turmoil in the church is turning his hair gray or when his work seems to bear little fruit.
Do you thank him for his work? Do you remember to show appreciation for his service, and concern for him as an individual? Asking your pastor how his week went can be a valuable way to support him. Knowing that he probably hears about everyone’s complaints and general dissatisfactions, make sure that he also hears about it when he does something well.
One pastor encouraged church members to offer genuine, thoughtful encouragement. Generic, routine comments like, “Good sermon!” are not the same thing as writing a note about how an individual sermon helped, taught, or influenced you.
Supporting the Family of the Pastor
The life of a pastor’s family includes unique challenges and difficulties. Cheryl’s article is useful in understanding some of these. My mother has experienced life as a pastor’s wife both in the LCMS and in the Evangelical world, and she appreciates the fact that Lutherans tend to avoid seeing the pastor and his wife as a “two-for-one” bargain. Still, the pastor’s wife is often under pressure to appear at every event and to fill a leadership role that may not accord with her personal gifts. Be kind to her, and don’t expect her to necessarily become the chief dishwasher and bottle washer. Don’t forget to thank her for the work that she does do.
Knowing that a pastor’s salary may not allow for all expenses, try to find opportunities to help them enjoy pursuits that might otherwise be beyond their means (especially once you know their interests). Give them tickets, take them fishing, or just babysit so that the pastor and his wife can go out without their children. These little things make a large difference. My sisters and I still fondly remember the members in my own father’s congregation who would give us little gifts at Christmas. One elderly couple bestowed a $2 bill inside a Christmas card upon each of us every year. Another lady always gave us chocolate at Easter. We were encouraged by their kindness.
What else can we sinner-saints do? Pastor Andræ of First Trinity in Pittsburgh suggested reading two titles: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christ's Church by Bo Giertz.
Above all, though, talk to your own pastor about your desire to support his ministry. He will be able to tell you what the most pressing needs are.
In addition, don’t forget to pray for him.
Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.
Title Image: "Ash Wednesday" by Julian Falat, 1881