on church planting

September 26, 2010

The Pastor Who Loved Much

This is the story of an ordinary pastor who loved much. It’s also a story of sheep and wolves, of youthful idealism meeting the cynical establishment, of how the gospel affected both. When a fresh-faced, 29-year-old pastor arrived in a one-church town in rural Pennsylvania with his wife and small children, he came committing to live and die there. He came dedicating his life and energies, trusting God to care for him as he cared for them. What he came to was a flock living in fear of dominating personalities, leadership themselves too fearful to stand against the abuse, and a long-standing commitment to the status quo. But there was work to be done, so he rolled up his sleeves and dug in. His days were filled with prayer, visiting the sick, hospitality, counseling, and study. He wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. At times, he sinned. But he preached the truth of Christ to them and lived the love of Christ among them.

Predictably, his ministry conflicted with the powers that be and soon met with personal slander and financial manipulation. His family was subjected to the disgrace of food stamps and welfare. Yet he persisted, captured by the promise that God’s Word does not return empty. Perhaps one more day, one more conversation, one more something.

Finally one day he turned to his wife and simply said, “You and I suffer from Messiah-complexes, and there’s only one Savior.” It was enough. God would care for his sheep. He needed to care for his family. So with heavy heart, he drafted his resignation and submitted it to the ruling board. It was met with cool indifference.

As a last pastoral act, he determined to visit the membership personally to explain why he needed to leave them. Love demanded nothing less than to look each in the eye, thank them for their faithfulness, and commit their families to the hand of the Father. What he found was a congregation fundamentally changed by the gospel. Years of spiritual neglect and abuse had broken. “Please don’t leave,” they pleaded. “You are our pastor. You are our shepherd. No one has ever cared for us like you have.” Testimonies of marriages restored, lives rescued by Christ, and hearts alive with grace poured forth. Where fear once dominated, the power and courage of Christ had taken root.

For three long, complicated years, he had loved, fought for, and protected the flock. For three long, complicated years, he had preached Christ. For three long, complicated years, he thought that nothing had changed. He was wrong. Truthfully, for some nothing had. Their hearts had been hardened to the same sweet gospel rain that had watered the sprouts of grace in so many others. And in the end, without repentance and a structure for dealing with sin, there was no way to save the organization. The ruling personalities dug in, choosing to remove the pastor from the pulpit for the remainder of his tenure. The congregation, in turn, voted with their feet, choosing to leave what for many of them was the only church they had ever known, eventually committing themselves and their families to other true shepherds of the gospel.

If success were measured in structures and organizations, his ministry was a dismal failure. But gospel success is not measured this way; it is measured in lives changed and redeemed; it is measured in captives being set free and in judgment brought on oppressors. Remember this, ordinary pastor: Gospel success is God’s faithfulness to his Word; it is his promise to build his church; and it is his commitment to not overlook your work and love in service to his saints. Remember this ordinary pastor, and be encouraged.

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