The Fearful Pastor

He got used to the bad habits of unfaith. “They’re just my way of unwinding,” he’d tell himself. He reasoned that they didn’t get in the way of what he had been called to do. He kept telling himself that he was working hard and doing well; but he wasn’t doing well. He had more sleepless nights than he was ready to admit. He had gained thirty pounds over the last several years. He numbed his brain every night with hours upon hours of vacuous TV or internet pop culture. He had incurred more debt than ever before in his life. His wife would have said that he had become increasingly irritable and distant. At home he often appeared to be a joyless, over-burdened man. His kids would say that even when he was present he was often distant. He dreaded meetings and found himself easily distracted when he needed to focus on preparing his next sermon. The door to his office was shut more than it had been before and he increasingly delegated more of his duties to his Executive Pastor.

Yet no one in the congregation had a clue. He did all his public duties and from the perspective of the person in the pew, he seemed to do them well. He lead the meetings that he was appointed to lead and did his best to do the follow up work that landed on his desk. The problem was that he was not doing well. There was a growing disparity between the public persona and the private man. There was a growing disconnect between the faith statements he made from up front and the thinking that ruled his heart. He carried with him the dirty secret that many pastors carry; the one that is so hard for a “man of faith” to admit. The dirty secret was that much of what he did was not done out of faith, but out of fear.

Perhaps this is an infrequently shared secret of pastoral ministry; that is, how much of it is driven not by faith in the truths of the Gospel and in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, but driven by fear. It is very tempting for the pastor to load the welfare of the church on his shoulders and when he does, he ends up being burdened and motivated by an endless and every-changing catalog of “what ifs.” This never leads to a restful and joyful life of ministry, but rather to a ministry debilitated by unrealistic and unmet goals, a personal sense of failure and dread.

Pastor, perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t think fear is a significant issue for me.” Well, I would ask you to take time to look at yourself in light of the following questions. How many pastors are living in a constant state of spiritual unrest? How many of us are haunted by personal insecurity? How many of us secretly wonder where God is and what in the world is he doing? How many of us are living self-protectively, saying, “I was taken once, it won’t happen to me again?” How many of us are afraid to admit failure? How many of us share with no one the struggles of faith that haunt us? How many of us fail to be candid and decisive because we are afraid of what will happen if we do? How many of us have found ways of escape, ways of coping that do not include preaching the gospel to ourselves?

How many of us wish for easier places of ministry? How many of us carry our burdens home, rendering our parenting less than gracious and productive? How many of us have become quite skilled at hiding, so that not even the people closest to us have any sense of what is going on at the level of our hearts? How many of us have moments of compromise fueled by fear of man? How many of have given particular people too much power of influence over us? How many of us have let fear cause us to be too opinionated, too domineering, and too controlling? How many of us let fear keep us silent when we ought to speak, or drive us to speak when we ought to be silent? How many of us regularly work to recast as acts of faith things that we have actually done out of fear? How many of us would have to confess that there are moments when we are more ruled by a worldly fear than by fear of God? How many of us have moments when we care more about being accepted or our leadership being validated than we do about being biblical? How many of us are weakened or paralyzed by fear of rejection? How many of us are too fearful to entrust vital pieces of the ministry of our churches to others? How many of us are afraid to examine how much fear engages and motivates us? How many of us?

How many of us daily seek the grace that alone has the power to deliver us from fear and empower us to be pastors of faith?

  • Jim Sharp

    PRESCRIPTION: “love casting out fear” while brother tripp has effectively described the too oft condition of my own heart …
    i am learning that my deeper problem is lack of love. Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her … to what extent am i willing to let go of fear on order to enter into the “fellowship of His sufferings”. Oh for more love to Thee O Christ (to love what He loves … His bride). Will we drink the cup?

    • Mike

      I don’t think fear is a significant issue for me. I think it is a colossal issue for me. This post, like so many others, is perfectly timed.

  • anonymous

    for all our beloved spiritual leaders, especially the weakest, this week :
    I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. Ps 121:1-2

  • Kevin Cauley

    Paul, thank you for this post! Can you give any guidance for how a Session can shepherd and keep accountable a pastor through care, protection, and guidance so that a pastor leds from commitment to the Gospel and not fear? It seems that a healthy Session can be a real blessing from God in strengthening a pastor’s faith and giving wise accountability to encourage the growth of a pastor.

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  • Jeff Holton

    This article hit me between the eyes like a freight train. I would be interested in a follow-up article(s) with some practical tips on getting out of this rut.

  • Sam Blair

    I agree with so many others that this hits at a very timely moment in my own ministry.

    I’ve been confronted in the past by how often our fear is a reflection of a lack of trust in God, that somehow I’m on my own this time or that the garden path I’ve been led down has reached a dead end. Often I trust but I only trust so far.

    Brennan Manning and Thomas Merton are teaching me daily.

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  • John Mackay

    Good article and just shows the importance that every Clergyman should be caringly allocated a personal Elder from his Kirk Session – if only to confide/bounce ideas/worries/fishing tips – in fact everything that is sucked into his vestments each week, like a sponge! Human being needs an outlet and it is not always the wife!

    How can this be developed? Confidence, trust and complete confidentiality have to be paramount in such circumstances and if every Minister had his own Elder, it could lead to less burn-out amongst the Clergy.
    Jesus, Himself, had his personal confidante amongst His Disciples; so there is a precedent.

  • Lance Rengel

    I think one of the reasons a pastor may find himself in this position is because of lack of accountablity. Because the “visible church” models the Roman catholic system of a pope (pastor) surrounded by cardinals (elders and deacons) it is easy for the pastor to become isolated and unaccountable. He literally becomes a king of “his” church. Paul appointed elders (plural) to lead the churches that he helped to plant; apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors and teachers to equip the saints for good works (Ephesians 4). As long as the leadership of the church is the preacher, the youth pastor, and the worship leader, we will continue to have weak and fragmented “churches”.

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