The meeting was a tough one. The pastor and elders met to reflect on the growing unrest in the church. Harmony just now was eluding everyone. After the elders left, the pastor said quietly, “I think I know the real problem. It has just struck me. I do not love these people.” Despite several years of hard work and creative leadership, he left the church a month or two later.
In Love with the Congregation
Do we really love our people? What does it mean to embrace a congregation with love? Since God modeled love by giving His Son to an uncaring world, how do we respond in love for the faithful who turn up each Sunday morning? What is our heart for those outside the Kingdom? Do we love them too just like the Father does? How much genuine ministry can be exercised if we are long on vision, strategy planning and organisation but short on giving ourselves lovingly in the exercise of leadership?
It is so easy to cop out on this one. We can point to long hours, plenty of sermon preparation and program planning, the inconvenience of meetings and emergency visits. Very soon we will think of the interruptions to family life: the phone, knocks on the door at odd hours, weariness (with our partners and families getting the dregs of who we are). If we had stayed in our profession or trade we would have been financially secure without all the hassle of budgets, erratic giving and wondering where the next dollar is coming from. Great commitment! But, do we love them?
The Symphony of Divine Love
The story of Jesus is nothing less than a great symphony of love, the glorious music of unrestrained passion, the chords of tenderness echoing across the centuries. We have been wooed by an everlasting love, saved by a loving sacrifice, loved into new life with Jesus Himself.
This rugged, generous, comprehensive love calls us to a new direction, a new orientation, a new depth, a new way of being. We are now located in His love, inseparable from it, shaped by it, giving ourselves away because of it, ordering our priorities in response to it. The greatest mystery of all times is this mutual, divinely romantic, joyous love between a God Who cannot be seen and His friends who cannot live without Him.
Is it any wonder that Jesus identified love as the supreme hallmark of His followers and that this rich experience of community would arise from simple obedience? It causes us to reflect for a moment on the quality of our congregational life. Is there not a real danger that we tend to describe our church by the variety of our programs, or our numbers, or facilities, or our style of worship, may be even our doctrinal position?
If so, this is a far cry from what Jesus had in mind. We may have a brand new building or balanced budget but without love it amounts to a clanging gong or noisy cymbal. We may have a full car park, no empty seats, marvelous music and programs for everybody but without love it is nothing. We may have strategies to follow up visitors, feed the poor, support missionaries and attack injustice but without love we gain nothing.
And the love of Jesus was not meant to stop at the church door. If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, do we weep over our community? Do we long for that time when the love of God will soften our town or city, when reconciliation will bring us together, when we will put paid to violence and injustice once and for all?
A hunger for that collective righteousness which protects the weak and vulnerable is more powerful than critical, angry diatribes in the marketplace which have little to do with the love of Christ for people. We may have our principles in order but there is a risk that they may not be packaged in love. Jesus loved the wealthy enquirer even though he decided to keep his cheque book and investments.
The Pastoral Model of Love
It is about here that the pastoral example becomes crucial. If we really believe that we will known by the love which exists between us as Christians, are we loving our people? What kind of model are we offering? This is not easy stuff. More often we find ourselves relating well to those who are like us but we battle when it comes to those who are not.
We all have our short list of those who tickle our sinuses. They are our difficult people, the ones who have that subtle ability to drive us up the wall. But we need to remember God has brought them to us to be loved. This raises the key consideration about the giving of love.
The awesome truth is that we cannot love others from within our own resources. We do not have what it takes. Now we may be able to get along with the amiable ones, the people we feel at home with (but even they will test us from time to time). We have absolutely no hope whatever with the truly prickly crowd.
The only possibility is to allow Jesus to love His people through us. It is in the very act of loving each other that we discover the inner, enduring life of God within us making that divine love complete, full, overflowing. We can know that love and rely upon it. Our love for others springs up as a response to the love of God for us. This defines the dynamics of the relationship between pastor and people. As we are open to the life of God within us, we are set free to love just as He wants us to.
It is strange that so much effort goes into every other aspect of leadership and so little into helping pastors learn how to love their people. It is not solely a matter of preaching, of organising, of following up, of having great dreams. Rather, pastoral leadership is primarily about loving, of being Jesus to others, of looking past the awkward and unattractive foibles and seeing the potential for growth. It is about exercising the courage to confront thorny issues and people when there is a need. It is also about discipline, the tough love of correction and rebuke.
So How is Pastoral Love Expressed?
There are endless possibilities:
* We will be more concerned about building people up rather than being critical of them. It is all to easy to see the rough edges, at times quite forgetting that we have our own peculiar collection too. We live in a culture where criticism has almost become an art form and we must stand out against this.
* We will not be put off by early setbacks in relationships. Even the most caring and sensitive of pastors will find a few people who delight in residing in the too hard basket. They are the ones divinely appointed to help us develop our patience.
* We will put in the long haul to bring reconciliation. There are no magic formulae here. People do fall out of fellowship with us and each other. The reasons may be complex and difficult to identify. Our task is to work hard at leaving out the welcome mat. Sadly, not every fracture in the Body of Christ will be healed though.
* We will be careful in our use of the pulpit. It is one thing to preach, equip and teach. It is something else to even a score (yes, that temptation is there), or take a gentle dig at a problem person, or even inadvertently breach a confidence in addressing a touchy matter. If we have unfinished business with a member of the congregation, we have no right to use the pulpit to make a point which should have been attended to one on one.
* We will regulate busyness and leave quality time to enjoy our people. Love is stifled and stunted when every waking moment is accounted for. There is the real danger of never having a good belly laugh, or sharing a funny story, or seeing the funny side. The pastor who is forever wound up tight like a spring and constantly engaged in bringing in the Kingdom come what may has lost the capacity for joy. We need to hang around much more and waste time with our people.
* We will not hide away in the study when we should be out encouraging our people. Some pastors hibernate all week in their private burrow. No one knows where they are. Wonderful opportunities for informal contact are lost when the pastor fails to show up at a special event even though it may not necessarily require the pastor’s attendance. Just being there is a great statement of support. Sporting occasions, outings for the seniors or the young people, waving good bye when the bus leaves for the camp do not take acres of time but they communicate interest, care and love.
* We will choose to be good listeners. Staying in touch with what is happening within the collective life of the congregation requires good listening (and not just the kind exercised in the offering of pastoral care in times of need). The small talk after the service, the informal prattle which precedes most leaders’ meetings, the chit chat in the car park are all thermometers of where people are at. A good lead which has emerged in casual conversation can be followed up quietly, effectively and lovingly.
* We will be honest and offer correction and advice sensitively when it is needed. Genuine love, the real McCoy, will sometimes call for frank conversation on issues which are bound to be hard to address. The perennial gossip, the carping critic, the errant partner, the over zealous deacon will all need “a word in season.” Each pastor will have their own way of tackling these situations and, with experience, will become increasingly adept at so doing. It is how these matters are raised which counts and it helps if such are seen to arise from a loving commitment for the well being of the person concerned and the church as a whole.
* We will model those behaviours which we long to see in our people. The leadership of love will be alert to the power of an authentic example and not rely on words alone for an impact. This has nothing to do with feigned perfection or pious pretence. It is about a real follower of Jesus living the Gospel: being the Good News for their own family, taking time to relax, pursuing a hobby, and going on retreat as much as putting in the hours to shape that sermon, or visiting the terminally ill, or attending those meetings and all that vast collage of being which constitutes sincere pastoral engagement.
Love as an Expression of Call
To love a congregation is to give real substance to the call of Jesus. The pastoral love affair with the people of God is subject to all the mountains and valleys which are part of any great commitment of love. There are times of profound delight, satisfaction, joy and reward. But there are also times of desolation, misunderstanding, disappointment and frustration.
The love of Jesus embraced the loneliness of the cross and we are naive indeed if we imagine that our love for His church can flourish without our own Gethsemane and Calvary along the way. It is the hope of a recurring resurrection which keeps us going when the way is hard and the returns for our labour seem to be minimal or nonexistent.
With all the courses for pastors these days, there are none which offer a Diploma in Affection for the Congregation. It is a course which cannot really be taught, of course. For this loves springs from the activity of the Spirit within us; it is His gift to us; it is the mediating of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to all whom we serve. It is not too much related to our personality type, or background, or academic ability.
On those days when we are ready to tear our hair out, when our leaders seem unreasonably resistant to change, when a crisis is tearing the place apart, let’s not lose the plot ourselves. It is time to remember that we have been invited primarily to love this tiny part of His Body into wholeness. Rewarding? Absolutely. Painful? Certainly. But that’s the price and the privilege of serving the Great Lover of our souls.
Rev. John Simpson