The best kind of pastor is not one who has always had it all together.
The best shepherd of the Lord’s people is one who knows what it is to go astray and be found, to fall and be picked up, to be wounded and to heal, to sin and be forgiven.
If you have ever sat in a congregation where the pastor is without sin, where his sermons show no indication that he knows what it is to be tempted, and where no allowance is given for the human condition, then you know that is no place for a sinner like you.
As a sinner – one whose heart is a rebel, whose mind strays from the paths of righteousness more often than you would like to admit, who constantly needs to repent and receive God’s mercy – you have no business in a church made up of perfect pastors and sinless members. You stand out like an invalid at a bodybuilding contest.
The best pastor is one who has sinned and been taken to the Lord’s woodshed for a time of discipline and chastisement. He will know how to warn the children from straying and to bind them up in love after they have learned life’s lessons the hard way.
The best pastor is one who has been in trouble and doubted and came close to slipping, but at the last minute was rescued by the hand of God. He will value the Lord’s mercy.
The best pastor is probably not the kind your pastor-search-committee is looking for. But it should be.
Too many pastor search committees comb through stacks of resumes looking for the man of God who has had it all together from childhood and whose life has been an unbroken succession of victories.
Whatever are they thinking?
Bring in a pastor like that and get ready to duck. That preacher does not understand failure, will not tolerate human weaknesses, and can be counted on to make life miserable for the struggling and the stragglers. After all, if his life has been one continuous uphill ascent, so can yours be. If he can do it, you can accomplish it. No excuses accepted.
This is a good place to hear from the Apostle Paul.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord that (the thorn in the flesh) might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore, I take pleasure in my infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
It is not the man who has not struggled who makes a great champion for Christ. It is the one who has overcome by the power of Christ. And there is no overcoming without the struggle arriving first.
Dale Oldham was a champion pastor and leader in the (Anderson, Indiana) Church of God for two generations. My grandmother used to speak of him and his national radio broadcasts perhaps a half-century ago. In 1969, I met him and his wife Polly. I will never forget their story.
As a young couple in evangelism, struggling to live on the pitiful offerings that came in, when the Oldhams saw they were going to have a baby, they took a pastorate. When the baby was born, their lives were fulfilled. Everything was wonderful.
However, the baby lived only a day or two and then died. The young parents were devastated. “Polly turned her face to the wall and refused to be comforted,” Dr. Dale would say. “And for a time, my soul felt as though it had died within me, I was so broken-hearted.”
“Lord,” I said, “we’ve been serving you out here to the best of our ability for pitifully small rewards. It does look like the least you could have done was to let us keep our baby.” No answer came from Heaven.
“Eventually,” Dr. Oldham said, “I was able to say, ‘Father, I do not understand this. But one thing I do know: You could never do a hurtful thing. Not ever. So I’m going to give this up to You and go forward.”
“Only then was I able to comfort my wife.”
Finally, he would say, “I cannot tell you how many times over the years I have ridden to the cemetery with the young family that is burying their child. And because I have been there, I was able to put my arms around them and tell them, ‘Give it up to the Lord. Trust Him. One of these days we’ll understand it.’” (The legendary gospel singer Doug Oldham is the son of Dr. Dale and Polly Oldham.)
The Bible tells us we have this kind of Savior in the Lord Jesus Christ.
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).
I think of Roger who used to sit in my living room floor and cry. “Joe, why doesn’t God understand what it’s like to be me?”
Roger was a misfit, plainly put. I have no idea whether he was slow mentally or whether the problem was some kind of social maladjustment. But he never fit in, not in school or with any group of his peers. He was lonely and wanted female friends. Sometimes, he told me, knowing he should not ask a married woman for a date, he would stand on the street corner and ask women as they walked past, “Are you married?” Of course, they hurried by without a word.
I said, “Roger, the one thing I can assure you of is that Jesus understands. He knows what it is to be an outcast, to be lonely and misunderstood. He knows exactly how you feel when you are tempted to quit trusting God.”
I would urge him to keep telling the Lord how he felt, and to believe that God cares and hears.
The Good Shepherd knows how it feels to be you.
Many years ago, I stood in a courthouse square among a couple of hundred people – mostly teenagers – as we held a public demonstration for Christ. The speaker at our rally was a teenager himself, an 18-year-old preacher from a nearby town who had already amassed a small reputation as an effective evangelist.
As he was introduced, the young man approached the microphone, looked out at the crowd, and said, “As I travel around this great world of ours. …”
That’s the problem with all success, particularly when it comes too early in life. One tends to inflate his sense of self and to conclude that there is something special about himself.
In short, he becomes a pain to hear.
Better to hear from one who has strayed from the path and been brought back by a merciful God. He’s the one with a message of warning and redemption.
When Jimmy Carter became president, he announced that his closest White House advisers would be men like Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell and several others, who, if I remember correctly, were either still in their 20s or barely their 30s. A columnist observed, “No one should be called an adviser who is not at least 40 years old and has come through one great failure in life.”
We learn far more from our failures and heartaches, our disappointments and infirmities, than from an unending string of successes and awards.
Better to listen to the speaker who was laying in the ditch and was picked up by a Good Samaritan who bound up his wounds and brought him to the inn and made provisions for his needs. He has a message of grace and mercy.
Better to sit before a preacher whose life has paid a severe price for his rebellion and who has been made whole by the power of a risen Savior. He will have a relevant word for others who are astray from the Father’s house.
This is not to say we want the preacher to constantly harp on his failures and brokenness, his struggle with drugs or divorce or jail time. The fact that he knows what it is to sin against the Lord and to receive His loving mercy is sufficient to guarantee that his message will convey hope and power.
Our Lord probably bit His lip when the Pharisees watched the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with the costly oil and grew critical. “If this man were a prophet,” they reasoned, “He would know the kind of woman this is – a real sinner.”
The Lord told the man a story – don’t we love this about Him! – and said, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with fragrant oil.
“Therefore I say to you,” Jesus continued, “her sins which are many are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little" (Luke 7:40-50).
The pastor who has been forgiven is the one who loves. And the pastor forgiven much loves more deeply than the others.
Who would not want a loving shepherd? One who understands weaknesses and shows compassion and extends mercy?
Are you such a pastor? Then, stop dwelling on the iniquities in your life that Christ died for and God has forgiven. Sins forgiven by Him are gone forever. Doubt this? Then read and start believing 1 John 1:9 and Hebrews 10:17.
Satan loves it when God’s people cannot get their minds off the failures in their past. It means they will never seize the blessings of forgiveness and the grace of God’s mercy which will make them far better servants of the Lord than otherwise.
There is a reason Scripture says, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20).
They who know the Lord’s forgiveness are best able to encourage others to come to Him for mercy.
Those who have feasted from the Lord’s bounty are best able to encourage the hungry to enter and partake from His table.
Those who have fallen are able to sympathize with others who stumble.
Are you such a pastor? Good. Then, get your eyes off your past failures and fix them on the all-sufficient Saviour who will make you strong in all those broken places.
You will never boast of having sinned, but the day will come when you will see that you value the Lord’s grace and goodness more from having failed him than had you never strayed.
Somewhere I read of Philip Melanchthon, a colleague of Martin Luther, who was one of the most disciplined and godly men of his age. Luther is said to have told him, “I wish to Heaven you would sin a little. The Lord deserves the right to forgive you of something!”
We do not go out and sin so the Lord will have something to forgive us of and therefore to teach us. For most of us, we sin more than enough without working at it. We have failed God sufficiently for Him to demonstrate His goodness amply for all time.
“He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14).
I’m remembering the time in 1981 when Margaret and I took the Sunday evening worship service in our church and told the congregation of our marital struggles. Three years earlier, we had gone through 12 months of marriage counseling. This involved driving 90 miles each way every two weeks for two-hour sessions.
When that evening service ended, I thought that was the end of it. But the next morning, the church office phone began to ring as couples called to make appointments for counseling. More than one said, “Now that we know what you have been through, we feel you can understand our problems.”
That’s why the pastor must never leave the impression that he is without sin, without a history, and without a problem in his past or without one today. It is not necessary for him to display his failures before the congregation, but they should learn enough to see that their shepherd is one who understands.
It’s about credibility and trust and compassion. Three essential ingredients in good shepherding.