by Christopher Cone

– As I stand in front of students at the beginning of a pastoral class, I write on a whiteboard four words in no particular order: children, God, church, and wife. I ask them a simple question:

“Are any of you perfect?”

My absurd question is met with the smirks and snickers it deserves.

“So you are going to fail somewhere along the line, right?”

More smirks. Not so many snickers.

“So pick one. Where are you going to fail? Are you going to fail as a father to your children? Are you going to fail in your relationship with God? Are you going to fail as a husband? Or will you fail in your pastoral role in the church?”

The smirks are gone now, replaced with pained looks of concern. The reality of the challenge of priorities in pastoral ministry is beginning to hit home.

Paul Vitello’s New York Times article, “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work,” paints a disturbing picture: “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” Add to that a 50% divorce rate among pastors, and an average career lifespan of less than five years, and one might begin to wonder if pastoral ministry should be avoided altogether.

Paul explains in 1 Timothy 3:1 that the role of oversight in the church (equated with pastoring in Acts 20:28) is a fine thing to desire. Desire. But who would desire what Vitello described? Well, simply put, we are often doing pastoral ministry wrong, and we pay a heavy price for it.

Inevitably some respond to my question something like, “Well, I can’t fail in my church ministry, because, after I all, I am a pastor. And I can’t fail with my kids – they need me too much. And I shouldn’t fail with God, but I suppose He will understand if I did. I guess I will either fail with God or my relationship to my wife – she understands and can handle it.”

The problem here is a simple matter of priorities. Consider this scenario: you only have enough time for three things, but you have four things on which you must focus – (again, in no particular order) children, God, church, wife. Some might suggest choosing to do all four at a lesser capacity, simply in order to make an attempt at all four. But let’s take a look at the Biblical perspective to see if that works.

Jesus describes the meaning of life in John 17:3 – to know God, to have a relationship with God. Further, He reminds us of the importance of loving God above all else (Mt 6:24, 22:37), and the centrality of abiding in Him (Jn 15:). Valuing anything – even family (Lk 14:26) – over Him is counted as idolatry. There is simply no room for disregarding our relationship with Him, unless we miss the entire point in our lives. We cannot place our relationship with Him in second place to anything.

We have also been given specific instructions regarding how to treat the woman who has given herself and whom God has given. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, having given Himself up for her (Eph 5:25). The husband’s love is to illustrate that of Christ. What a lofty standard, indeed. Peter adds, “You husbands live with your wives in an understanding way…show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Pet 3: 7). Remarkable. If we aren’t treating our wives as we ought to be, our relationship with God is hindered. I can’t maintain a proper relationship with Him, if I am not maintaining a proper relationship with my fellow heir. Clearly, in assessing personal priorities, there is no room for disregarding the marital relationship. Failure is simply not an option, unless we are ready for some very painful consequences.

As for our children, we have clear instructions there too. Fathers are commanded to nourish them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). In that same passage, fathers are commanded not to incite their children to wrath. We as pastors have been so bad in this regard that “preacher’s kid” has become a synonym for one who is rebellious and bitter. How tragic. Instead, our children should be recipients of our love and grace. They should know our undying love. They should have our quantity, and not be stuck with the scraps we so disingenuously try to label “quality.” These are the most dependent
and most helpless of the flock – young disciples needing shepherding. If we fail there, we cause our children to stumble badly and in ways that are difficult to overcome. What could be worse than for a father to be a stumbling block for his own children? Jesus puts it bluntly: “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come. It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Lk 17:1-2). Nope. There is no way we can de-prioritize our own children. Not when they are this important to Him, and not when He has given fathers primary responsibility for them.

So where does that leave us? Our relationship with God is priority one. Our marital relationship is vitally important to Him, as is our relationship with our children. We aren’t given the option of failing in any of these areas. Thankfully, He is gracious when we do fail (and of course we do). But even though there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, He still allows us sometimes to deal with the consequences of our poor priorities.

While these personal relationships are important, so are our pastoral responsibilities. However, all too often we overestimate those priorities. That’s right – we make them bigger than they really are. We are not the Good Shepherd. He is (Jn 10:11). We are not building the church. He is (Mt 16:18). We do not equip the saints for the work of service. His word does (Eph 4:12; 2 Tim 3:17). We aren’t responsible to do singlehandedly the work of service. The whole church is (Eph 4:12; 1 Cor 12:12-27). It is not my church or your church. It is His church (Mt 16:18). Get the point? The central reason for pastoral failure is we simply make the job bigger than it is, either by internal or external pressures. Instead we should look to the One who wrote the job description, and work with the structure He provided.

After some Biblical verification and thoughtful soul searching, the class all agrees that the whiteboard should reflect the Biblical order of our priorities: God, wife, children, church. But the implications of that prioritization have to be emphasized. No pastor is perfect. Every pastor will encounter failure – and fairly often. But he must be unwilling to fail in his relationships (as God defines them) to God, wife, and children. By process of elimination, that means that he must be ready to accept failure in meeting the demands of church ministry. That does not mean he can mishandle God’s word, or violate the job description God has put in place (for those things affect the relationship with Him). It simply means that God has designed the role to work in concert with the other priority relationships He has established. He has not put pastors in a no-win situation. We do that to ourselves when we add to His job description. So let’s simplify. Examine the Scriptures to define the pastoral role, and let the role go no further, lest it infringe on other Biblical priorities.

In short, a pastor who is unwilling to fail as a pastor (especially in the context of extra-Biblical expectations) has absolutely no business being a pastor. He is attempting to do the impossible, and he will fail – probably publicly and catastrophically. On the other hand, a pastor who is willing to accept failure in ministry only outside of those three relationships (God, wife, children) has a chance to excel in that ministry. How then should we avoid failure in ministry? I suggest we shouldn’t avoid it at all. Just make sure we are failing well, and failing in the right areas.

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