/ pastoral ministry / Kyle Borg

"God Knows I Love You"

The voice on the other end of the phone sounded hollow and unhappy as he expressed to me his fatigue in the ministry. The busyness, challenges, needs, and criticisms had sapped him of any enthusiasm. I tried to be a friend — a listening ear — and hesitated for a moment before I asked him: “Do you love pastoring your church?” I knew that it was a searching question. I also knew that an honest answer wouldn’t come easily and could be very costly. He paused, and then said: “I imagine I feel about my congregation how Jonah felt about Nineveh.”

I sometimes wonder how widespread this feeling is among pastors. To be clear, I don’t think many would admit it. They would say they love the church and pastoral ministry, and it might even sound insane to question their sincerity. But I do wonder if a deep self-aware honesty would give a different answer. Or, to put it this way, I fear many pastors love their idea of what the church and ministry could be and not what it actually is.

The pastoral ministry certainly has its burdens. It’s striking that when Paul writes of his own suffering as an Apostle the climactic point is “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). Maybe we should remember, however, that when he makes that known he’s not doing it from the attitude of: “Hey everyone, just remember how hard I have it!” He actually says he speaks “not as the Lord would but as a fool.” Paul knew that simply trumpeting the burdens of the ministry as a public announcement wasn’t the ordinary way to speak of the ministry and could become, in its own way, a “boastful confidence.”

Nevertheless, he knew all the heartache, betrayal, fear, grief, and frustration that comes with gospel ministry. In fact, his call to the Apostleship was also a call to suffering: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). That suffering was, in a large part, lived out in the grunt and grind of ministry (see 2 Timothy 1:12). To a degree every pastor shares in that. Writing to her son Octavius, Mary Winslow reminded him: “When you accepted the pastoral office you commenced a life of trial from saint and from sinner. Oh, do not be surprised at all you meet with.”

But Paul didn’t retreat in self-pity or pessimism. This suffering Apostle simultaneously counted the ministry — with its hardships and burdens — to be the object of gratitude: “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service” (1 Timothy 1:12). That gratitude was expressed to God for those people and congregations he served, and that thankfulness wasn’t optional it was a moral imperative: “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right” (2 Thessalonians 1:3). Were these people perfect? No. Did they cause him agony? Yes. Did they always do what they were supposed to? Not a chance! But Paul understood that a pastor’s heart overflows in love for the inconsistent, often faltering, sinful sheep he was called to shepherd. For that reason, near the end of this life he could tell Timothy to follow his pattern of love (see 2 Timothy 3:10).

In fact, Paul reminded Timothy that love was the goal of the ministry. In cautioning the young pastor that there were those who devoted themselves to impractical debates that don’t advance the faith, he wrote: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). Elsewhere, Paul describes that love as gentle (1 Corinthians 4:21), abundant (2 Corinthians 2:4), genuine (2 Corinthians 6:6), and longing (Philippians 4:1) — a love that is in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 16:24).

A pastor’s love to a congregation is essential to a happy and healthy ministry. In that growing crescendo of the love chapter, Paul reminds every Christian that whatever we say, if it’s without love, is nothing; and whatever gifts we have, if they’re without love, we are nothing; and whatever we sacrifice, if it’s without love, we gain nothing (see 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). A narrow application of that to pastoral ministry is salient. A message preached without love is just noise. Without love even the most gifted ministry is nothing. Whatever is given for the sake of ministry, if given without love, gains nothing. In a very real sense love isn’t only the fulfilling of the law, but it’s the fulfilling of pastoral ministry.

The kind of love needed for the pastoral ministry doesn’t come automatically. In what can only be described as a pastoral charge to Timothy, Paul reminds the young pastor where his ambitions needed to lie. After cautioning him against false teachers who are made manifest through their discontent especially with material provision, Paul commands: “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). The word “pursue” is the same used throughout the New Testament for “persecute.” Why? Because it has that emphasis — to pursue with intense effort. A loving relationship with a congregation isn’t sealed and done as the ink dries on the pastoral call, but it’s the privilege of every pastor to pursue this love every day of his ministry.

How does a pastor pursue a love for the congregation? This is where the rubber meets the road. We might wish it wasn’t so but those we know best are sometimes the hardest to love. Ask a husband or a wife! So it is with a pastor. A pastor who knows his flock knows their personalities, quirks, weaknesses, and even sins. Unsurprisingly, Christians can be difficult people. So, how does a pastor cultivate love for those who can, by human appearances, be unloveable at times? The same way every Christian is to foster love for one another.

Thankfully, this doesn’t require a degree in advanced tactics. When Jesus gave us the command: “Love one another” (John 13:34) he didn’t intend for us to get lost in a labyrinth always seeking and never finding. Sometimes that can be a convenient excuse. We can say: “I know what God wants me to do but I don’t know how to do it.” As though God has clearly told us what to do but has been mute on the how-to.

The Christian life (including a life of love toward others) begins in the transformation of our mind. Paul wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). You’re not loving others if you just go along with the patterns of the world — thinking, speaking, behaving toward others like the world does. You need to be transformed from the inside out. How? By being mentally renewed. If you will love your congregation you need the ministry of one greater than yourself — the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit doesn’t minister to us like stocks and blocks. Central to his renewing ministry is “beholding the glory of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). If you’re aiming to love others you need to behold the glory of God’s love in the face of Jesus Christ — the love of which God is the source (1 John 4:8), the love for which he sent his only begotten (John 3:16), the love that is poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5), and the love demonstrated in every word and action of the Great Shepherd (John 13:34).

Beholding that — fixing our eyes on it and meditating on it — prepares our minds for action. It actually frees us, even as pastors, to go and show love. A love that is, as Paul so perfectly describes, patient and kind; one that isn’t arrogant or rude; a love that doesn’t insist on its own way or isn’t irritable and resentful; one that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; a love that covers over a multitude of sins. Do you get that? Paul is saying that Christian love flourishes most in environments of suffering, differences, hardship, and sin.

To get back to my point, I fear that many pastors aren’t engaged in this kind of energetic pursuit. Sometimes you hear the quip: “Ministry would be great if it wasn’t for the people.” Everyone in the circle chuckles. But is there a grain of truth in it? In my observation, the messages that are often publicly communicated emphasize the hardship of the ministry, not the love of it. We’re often told that pastors (and their wives) are strangled by needs, expectations, burdens, betrayals, loneliness, and criticisms. We're told pastors are burned out and exhausted, forced into low-income lifestyles, and friendless. Or that the pastorate, far from being the tremendous privilege it is, is a punishment and like Jonah is too much to bear. I’ll admit it, the way I hear pastors talk about ministry sometimes leaves me wondering if their pastorates are suffering for lack of love – do they love the church, and maybe more does the church know by word and deed a pastor's love to them. We need more pastors emphasizing a love for the ministry than trumpeting the real or perceived hardships.

I don’t mean this as a way to kick a guy who is unhappy, fatigued, or sapped of zeal. I understand that place. I’ve been there. But love to others is both the defense and offense of pastoral ministry. We meet the busyness of the pastorate with love, we meet the challenges of the church with love, we meet the needs of our congregation with love, and we meet the criticisms of our people with love — we meet frustrations, personality quirks, annoyances, inconsistencies, immaturities, and the daily grunt and grind of the pastorate with love. Love is the charge of our ministry, so pursue it until you can say in the sincerity of your hearts: “God knows I love you!” (2 Corinthians 11:11).