Joe Stowell, President of Cornerstone University, tells a story about his grandson’s eighth-grade football game. Apparently there was a penalty flag on the field that resulted from a late hit on the quarterback. Nothing unusual about that. It happens all the time on the gridiron.
The unusual part came moments later when the announcer from the press box said, “There is a flag on the field. The penalty is roughing the pastor . . . I mean, roughing the passer.” A former pastor, Stowell says, “As soon as he said it, I thought to myself, God could give that penalty to some churches today!”
Sadly, Stowell is right, and every pastor knows it from his own painful experience. If given the chance, most of my colleagues would like to throw a penalty flag on a parishioner or two. But roughing the pastor is no kid’s game. It’s serious business and it happens more often than we care to admit.
Consider these haunting statistics from a nationwide study for Your Church by John LaRue, Jr.
- Nine out of ten pastors (91 percent) know three to four others who have been forced out of pastoral positions.
- One-third of all pastors (34 percent) serve congregations who either fired the previous minister or actively forced his or her resignation.
- Nearly one-fourth (23 percent) of all current pastors have been forced out at some point in their ministry.
- 46 percent of pastors cite conflicting visions as the precipitating cause for their termination.
According to a study by Focus on the Family, 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month in the United States because of burnout, conflict or moral failure. Pause and read that sentence again! The church is losing her best leaders at an alarming rate. No army could sustain such loses in its officer corps and expect to succeed on the battlefield.
I played quarterback for my high school football team. I remember how much it hurt to receive a late hit by a snorting defensive end weighing more than 250 pounds. Shortly after I released the ball into the cool, Friday night air, BAM! Lights out. Usually I didn’t see it coming and somebody on the team failed to protect my blindside. I was always glad to see the yellow flag on the ground. But in some cases the damage had already been done to my body.
Over the years, I’ve been roughed up by more than a few church people. It, too, always hurts and does damage to the body of Christ. Power struggles, personality conflicts and petty church politics produce far too many of the late hits and cheap shots in the ministry. It’s not if but when it will happen to a pastor. The blows that have hurt me the most come from people I thought were on my team.
King David experienced his own version of roughing the shepherd. In Psalm 55:12-14, he writes these heartfelt words, “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng in the house of God.”
It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one of God’s servants who has received ill treatment. Even one of the twelve disciples who enjoyed “sweet fellowship” with Jesus betrayed him into the hands of evil men for mere pocket change.
Pastors are not perfect people, which is all the more reason we need grace from the congregations we serve. Such grace attracts people to Jesus and creates the kind of community we all desire. But the opposite is true as well. If you strike the shepherd you’ll scatter the sheep. It happens every time.
The ministry is a rough and tumble calling. Most pastors I know are starving for encouragement. Instead of roughing the pastor, join the team that honors him. Celebrate him as “God’s man” to lead your ministry in this season. And above all else, pray for him. I’ve always asked my church leaders to celebrate my strengths (which are few), help me with my weaknesses (which are many) and accept my limitations (which I cannot change).
As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). If we do that, I’m convinced we’ll always put the ball in the end zone.