Bleeding Shepherd: 3 Ways Pastors Can Get Comfort from the Church
Recently one of my church members posted this photo on Facebook.
I had seen it before, but the power of the image still stopped me.
The fact that one of my people appreciated my struggle enough to post it warmed my heart.
The first time I read those words and saw the image I was floored by the tenderness of the sheep. I sat in my office and cried. I prayed that God would send people like that into my life.
As I looked at it more, my feelings skewed a bit. I felt somehow vindicated by the picture because I have fought some pretty brutal spiritual battles.
I still have scars.
I saw this photo and thought of all the people who didn’t comfort my wife and me during those dark times.
I was struck that even a simple animal like a sheep knows to comfort the dog that defended it!
I remembered how difficult those seasons of ministry were and how bitter I became.
I wanted to share this picture on my personal Facebook page so that all the former church members who had abandoned us after our battles would feel convicted.
I didn’t post it, of course.
I don’t want to be bitter or angry or disappointed in the people that we’ve been called to serve.
So I pushed those feelings to the side and tried to forget about the image.
But I woke up in the middle of the night with a realization about this photo.
I think pastors should learn some lessons from this sheepdog so they can get comfort from the church.
1. The sheep saw the battle
When the predator came to attack the sheep, a lot of sheep saw it.
They saw the predator approach the flock with the intent of picking off one of the sheep on the edge.
They heard the dog bark and growl to scare the threat away.
They saw the predator continue to advance.
The sheep saw the dog fight the predator until it won.
So often when church leaders are fighting spiritual battles, they keep it to themselves.
Sometimes they’ll tell a few close friends if they have any, but rarely do they shout from the pulpit that they are under attack. (Honestly, that cry would be issued often.)
Instead, they bear the burden themselves or with the help of their families.
They get a little support from leaders in the know but don’t draw the attention of the entire flock. The result is that most people in the church have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. They don’t know that their pastor needs comfort, nor the ways that pastors can get comfort from the church.
They see their pastor with dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep or hear a less than stellar sermon because he didn’t have as much time that week to work on sermon preparation. They notice these obvious things, but they don’t know the cause.
They don’t know of the battle.
They don’t know to comfort.
2. The sheep see the wounds
The dog’s wounds are obvious.
There’s red blood all over his white coat.
Even if the sheep missed the fight, the wounds are clear. The stain and the scars will be obvious.
He will carry the smell for days.
What wounds are pastors carrying?
Are they obvious?
Have we made it impossible for our congregations to see them?
There are a lot of reasons why we do it, but pastors tend to hide their wounds.
Some may hide them because they don’t want their congregation to see them as weak.
Some hide them because they don’t want to give credit to their adversary.
Some hide them because they don’t want to shame the person who hurt them, especially if there has been repentance.
Whatever the reason, our inability or refusal to show our wounds prevents our sheep from giving us comfort.
3. The sheep know how to comfort
Earlier, I mentioned that I remembered all the people who had abandoned us during battles.
It felt like they saw that Christian life could be messy and dangerous and they ran to a cleaner pastor with less obvious wounds.
I failed to mention all the people who stood beside us the whole time.
They were right behind us during the fight. They supported us when the battle was raging. They were brave, strong, and they fought along beside us.
And then they comforted us when it was over.
For sheep, giving comfort to the dog is pretty easy. They help him clean his wounds, they give physical affection, and they stay close by. These are things that church members could do as well. But often the aftermath of a battle is messy and people get squeamish and uncomfortable.
So what’s the difference?
Why do some church members run when church life gets rough and some dig a trench and settle in for battle?
Experience and relationships.
The people who have stayed by us during difficult times of ministry had either experienced spiritual battles with other ministry leaders, or they were very close friends. They were sort of friends who would have stood with us no matter what, and they knew how the church could comfort their pastor.
So what can pastors do to get support during and after spiritual battles? How can pastors train their flocks to support him? What are some ways pastors can get comfort from the church?
Here are three ways pastors can get comfort from their congregations.
1. Build Relationships
You need friends.
We live in an age of wide connections, but the great need of our soul is for deep connections.
Our calling alienates us.
Nobody ever invites the preacher out to the bar. You don’t invite the guy who has been giving you marriage counseling over for your wife’s birthday party.
We have to find people who are willing to push past the awkwardness and really come to know us.
There are reasons pastor suicide is on the rise. Making sure that you have real-life friends who would support you no matter what is crucial.
And sure, having real, honest, relationships with church members is scary.
They’ll see your flaws and they’ll have the opportunity to hurt you. And some of them probably will.
But if you’re spending all your time guarding yourself against all the people in your church, trying to present a front of perfection, you are leaving your back and your flock unguarded.
It is impossible to guard your own front and back. And while all pastor’s wives love the image of standing back to back with their man as they fight together, it’s not how we’re meant to do life.
We are called to model our life after Jesus.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – Jesus had 12 good friends and 3 best friends.
They did life and ministry together every day for years.
Jesus discipled them and helped them to grow in their faith and they constantly disappointed him, and he frustrated them. But he loved them anyway.
And then one betrayed him.
And Jesus knew he would. When Jesus asked Judas to be one of his disciples, he knew that Judas would betray him for money. Jesus knew Judas would turn him over to the Roman authorities to be murdered, and he let him be part of his circle anyway.
So if your excuse for not letting people in is that you’ve been hurt in the past or you’re afraid of being betrayed – it’s callow.
If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you’ve never had a close friend turn you over to the police for money so that you could be stripped naked killed in front of a jeering crowd.
It’s worse than callow. It’s not Christlike.
As Christians, we are called to model ourselves after Jesus. Not just in the things that suit us like proclaiming the gospel to the masses, but in everything.
Even in having three friends that see us at our best and our worst.
2. Ask for Guidance from Leaders
A second way pastors can get comfort from the church is by asking for guidance.
If your church is anything like mine, there are at least monthly meetings of deacons, elders, church council, church leadership, etc.
If you’re fighting a spiritual battle, you should share that information with some of these people. Those people have chosen to be in church leadership and should be trusted to lift you up in prayer or fight alongside you.
If there are people in those positions that you cannot share spiritual struggles with, that is a problem that needs to be solved, but it can also be worked around.
Meet with people from those groups, not as holders of a title, but as allies in the battle and ask for their help.
They may have faced something similar to what you are going through. If it is a problem within the congregation, they may have dealt with the exact situation before. (Often arising from the same person.)
Other leaders have a wealth of knowledge to help guide you.
Lean into them.
Let them be there for you, and let them know that you appreciate their counsel even if you don’t take it.
In my experience, asking other leaders for help often makes issues disappear.
For instance, if your youth minister has been serving your church for twenty years he likely has a lot of influence with some people. A gentle word from him might silence a critic or open the hearts of a family.
The chairman of the deacons might have dealt with the same group of gossips before, and he is just waiting for you to tag him so he can drop an elbow on them from the turnbuckle.
Something else to consider is how people will respond in light of the previous pastor.
Did the last pastor face the same battle?
Were the same predators picking off his sheep?
Did the fight cost him his health? His job? His marriage?
I have heard numerous confessions from church leaders of their failings to help a pastor in need.
“I knew he was struggling with this person, but I didn’t know he needed help.”
“I caused him a lot of grief, and I just hope he can forgive me one day.”
“I don’t want you to have a heart attack like Pastor Bob did.”
Seeing our past failures can motivate us.
If your leaders failed to help the last pastor, they are likely anxious for redemption. Consider carefully if you trust them enough to earn it.
3. Ask for General Support
The easiest way pastors can get comfort from the church is to ask for it explicitly.
You can (and should) ask for the congregation to pray for you.
You can say it from the pulpit or on social media or just in conversations with people.
Paul was constantly sharing his specific struggles and asking for prayer and support in his letters to the churches. And before you say that people were different back then and churches didn’t have troublemakers in them like they do today – people were the same and churches were the same.
Remember the stuff Paul was working through with the Corinthians? That is the same stuff we hear. Honestly, the part about homeboy and his step-mom is worse than what I hear.
In spite of their sinfulness, he asked for their prayers and trusted them with his troubles.
For we don’t desire to have you uninformed, brothers, concerning our affliction which happened to us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, so much that we despaired even of life. Yes, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us out of so great a death, and does deliver; on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us; you also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift given to us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on your behalf. 2 Corinthians 1:8-11
You and I don’t have to go into all of the details of the wars that we are waging. That is rarely appropriate for the entire church to hear. It is enough for most people to know that their pastor needs to be lifted up in prayer.
But there are other ways that your church can lift you up.
Here are some ways I have gotten comfort from the church.
I have gotten cards and letters. I have gotten gift cards. I had a lady give me money to take my wife out of town. I have people who go out of their way to hug me when I look like I am down. I have a group of ladies who will babysit for us any time we ask. One of them texts me every few weeks to schedule a time. Time with just my wife is therapeutic for me, so this lady makes sure that I get the time I need.
Some of these things they knew before I got here, and others I have taught them.
Help your people know how to help you, and let them know when you need it.
Sometimes we all get overwhelmed.
Sometimes the battle we are facing seems like it will exhaust us, or that the battle we’ve come through has taken the last of our strength.
In times like these, I think about that sheepdog, and I know how he feels.
When Jeremiah looked over the shell of what remained of Jerusalem after the Babylonian siege in Lamentations 2:13 he said, “What can I say for you? With what can I compare you, Daughter Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, Virgin Daughter Zion? Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?”
I have too many friends who have been damaged in ministry.
I have seen too many young men and women give their lives to following Jesus and serving His church who have left that calling bitter and broken. I look within and see too many scars, but I know my healer.
I have seen him work in through cards and letters from praying saints.
I have seen him heal through hugs from friends.
I have seen him heal through deacons who stand with their pastor against the darkness.
Ultimately, Jesus is our healer, but He often uses people in our lives to administer His healing.
I hope that you will withstand the battle that you are facing.
I hope that you will find mighty forces by your side.
I hope that you will find comfort in your flock.
Do you know any other ways pastors can get comfort from the church? Tell us in the comments!
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