God has appointed pastors to carry out the weighty role of shepherding the souls of the people of God in the local church (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1–3). In one sense, there is no more important work to which God may call a man. Pastoral ministry is a high and noble calling. A reporter once asked Martyn Lloyd-Jones about all that he left behind in the medical field in order to become a minister of the gospel. Lloyd Jones responded, "I gave up nothing; I received everything. I count it the highest honor that God can confer on any man to call him to be a herald of the gospel.” That is the high view that believers are to have with regard to pastoral ministry.
No doubt, there are grave challenges and dangers associates with pastoral ministry. A pastor may professionalize ministry to such an extent that he functionally sets himself up as the CEO of a church. In turn, he may become heavy-handed in his leadership. A minister may ignore the needs of his own soul by so investing himself in the busyness of ministry. In turn, he will not be in a place to truly care for the people of God. Pastors may be put on a pedestal in a way that overshadows Jesus Christ, the only King and head of the Church. Additionally, pastors and elders can err in any number of decisions that they make. Even with a plurality of elders, church leaders will make mistakes, fail to act in the wisest manner possible, and even falter at times. Pastors are sinners with finite wisdom. There is only one sinless Shepherd. Nevertheless, God has appointed them to care for the flock by faithfully ministering His word, leading them in prayer, and administering the sacraments to them. As undershepherds, God has appointed pastors to be requisite to the health and well-being of the flock of the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:24).
Excoriating pastors for being abusive seems to have become par for the course these days. Much of this is in reaction to a failure on the part of churches to hold their leaders accountable. Usually, charges of abuse come in the context of a pastor who has supposedly bullied his elders, staff, or members of the church. Sometimes it is in relation to a pastor who is charged with covering sexual abuse in the church and has not done his utmost to defend the accuser and bring it to the proper authorities. Still, at other times, it may come in response to the perception of hyper-masculinity or oppressive patriarchalism that is said to foster a culture in which women are oppressed in the church and their gifts asphyxiated. In whatever legitimate form it may arise, Christians should be ready to decry pastoral abuse. However, as finger pointing commences online, the opposite danger inevitably surfaces. Under the notion of exposing "pastoral abuse," well-meaning believers imperceptibly begin to fall into the snare of "pastor abuse." A fellow pastor recently made the following important observation: "For all the prominent 'pastoral abuse' cases," he said "I hear far more about abusive congregations who chew up pastors."
While not all criticism of pastors is unjustified, "pastor abuse" is the unjustified criticism of and attack upon ministers of the gospel. In order to adequately warn against the danger of "pastor abuse," we have to acknowledge some of the general ways in which such abuse occurs. Consider the following:
1. "Pastor abuse" may involve implicit or explicit disrespect for the God-ordained officers of a church or denomination. This comes across in the way in which some speak demeaningly in public about church officers or denominational leaders on the whole. If the majority of what we say or write about pastors is negative or hyper-critical in nature, we have probably fallen into the snare of pastor abuse. If we incessantly criticize pastors–either in local or denominational settings–without praying for them and seeking their good, we may be abusing pastors. Biblically faithful pastors are constantly under the attack of the evil one. They need the prayers of the people of God. If we are intent on bringing down every pastor in a public exposé when we disagree with something they have said or done rather than seeking their good in prayer, we may be fueling pastor abuse. Again, pastors are to be held accountable; however, they are not to be perpetual objects of attack.
2. "Pastor abuse" may include demanding of pastors what one desires to see in the church (e.g., programs, meeting times, certain music, etc) in a way that undermines their role or delegated biblical authority. In many cases, when such individuals don’t get their way they proceed to blame the pastor for every perceived deficiency in the church. It is common for discontent congregants to take out their frustrations on the pastor or pastors of the church. They will sometimes threaten to leave the church if they don’t get their way. Sadly, many professing believers want a church that will live the Christian life for them. When there is a spiritual deficiency in their own souls, they can easily begin to blame those in positions of spiritual authority. If we find ourselves giving pastors ultimatums about what we want to see in the church, we may be engaging in pastoral abuse.
Pastors have a clearly defined vocational description in Scripture. They are not called to solve everyone’s problems or cater to the whims and desires of the congregants. Certainly, they are called to listen to the flock. However, they have the arduous task of carrying a local church forward through prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1–4). Whatever practical decisions they may make for congregational needs are adiaphora. In those cases, most congregants have taken vows to support the government of the local church and to study its peace and purity.
Additionally, when a pastor caters to the wants of a congregant or congregants, he will set himself up to be the object of disdain when the same individuals come to him with moving desires or complaints. We can be sure that if congregants make unreasonable or subjective demands of their pastors, they will continue to do so even after getting some of what they want. The adage, “never negotiate with terrorists,” is apropos in these settings. Even when pastors take a firm but loving stand, they are still the target of discontented and agenda driven congregants.
3."Pastor abuse" may occur when congregants complain about the pastor's salary, vacations, or circumstantial privileges. Many congregants in Protestant churches have an expectation that pastors should make bricks without straw. They expect the pastor to make as little as possible in order to do as much as possible. They may make off-handed comments when a pastor posts a picture of a vacation he took with his family. While it is wise for ministers to keep the kind provisions of the Lord to themselves, they are sometimes subject to congregants complaining about what they make rather than congregants seeking to ensure that they are cared for. The PCA Book of Church Order (26.4) uses the following language when a congregation is extending a call package to him: “That you may be free from worldly cares and avocations, we hereby promise and oblige ourselves to pay you the sum of $___________ a year. . .” While there are, no doubt, ministers who make exorbitant salaries, most Protestant ministers are almost certainly underpaid. I have heard congregants complain about the minister’s remuneration in settings where the minister was one of the lowest paid individuals in the congregation.
4. "Pastor abuse" may manifest itself in a discontent congregant stirring up other congregants to share his or her complaints. This is all too common. The writer of Hebrews warns, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb 12:15). It may come in the backroom conversation in a small group, or among disgruntled church officers. It may come in loose-lipped griping with people in the community. The abusive harm that slander, gossip, divisive speech, and vocalizing discontentment will cause a minister is often irremediable.
5. "Pastor abuse" happens when someone hastily charges pastors with not being willing to deliver justice according to the standard of the aggrieved or the onlookers. God has appointed two courts in which men and women are to be tried—ecclesiastical and civil. The rush to judgment without due process almost always results in pastor abuse. Even when there is due process, those who demand a particular form of justice will not rest until they have attacked every minister in a church court. Believers have to remember that courts can and will err. If someone doesn’t like the outcome of a trial or the way in which a board of elders have handled something, they should have recourse to higher courts. This is one of the beautiful arrangements of Presbyterianism. However, if they do not have recourse to higher courts, it may be in their best interest to move on if they do not like the outcome of the court’s decision.
While so much more could be said, it should suffice for us to examine our hearts as to how we treat ministers of the gospel. Just as we should be slow to speak ill of the church–the bride of Christ–so we should be slow to excoriate ministers—undershepherds of Christ. Ministers have a bull’s eye on their back and footprints up their chest. As much as depends on us, let us learn to live peaceably with all men—including (and sometimes especially) with ministers of the gospel.