This coming Sunday—8 October—is Pastor Appreciation Day. I must confess I’m as sceptical as the next man about the ever-increasing list of special dates promoted by greeting card companies. But I do like this one. I like the idea of intentionally showing appreciation for your minister. Firstly, this is because I know how little encouragement many ministers receive. And secondly, it’s because the Scriptures command us to honour those who work hard at preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5.17).
Chronic under-encouragement of leaders is a blight on our churches.
Occasionally I hear this directly from church leaders themselves. For example, one confided in me tearfully that someone she had served faithfully for years had betrayed her. Another told me that dinner invitations from church members dried up when he became a pastor. More often the leaders I meet don’t say it, but I can still hear the unspoken question that’s on their hearts:
Why don’t they love me like I love them?
Perhaps you think such a question is a sign of immaturity or unworthy of a servant of God, but you would be mistaken, because the apostle Paul asked this very question to a group of Christians he had loved and served faithfully.
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.
2 Cor 6.11-13
Paul starts this section of his letter by describing his ministry. He writes that he is a co-worker with God, urging people to receive God’s grace while it is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6.1-2). If you are a leader, you will have some sense of that burden. You know the weight of shouldering a God-given responsibility to watch over souls; to be a spiritual parent; to protect and guide the flock that Christ has bought with his blood.
Ministers are called to love as family the people who support them financially. Church is no refuge from workplace pressures. Church is the workplace. This means that ‘time off’ is never a complete ‘switch off’ any more than a mother can switch off from being a mum. And, of course, those who labour in prayer and the ministry of the Word face relentless opposition from the evil one.
If you’re not a minister yourself, you probably have views on the subject. You may be aware of all sorts of flaws in your minister’s character and deficiencies in your minister’s gifting. Nevertheless, I believe the vast majority have given themselves to God as his servants for the sake of the gospel. Yes, some are wolves in sheep’s clothing and others have fallen into grievous sins, but in my experience, most genuinely seek to walk humbly with their God and serve his people in grace and truth.
That is a noble calling. The apostle Paul lists some of the challenges which such a calling entails (See 2 Cor 6.3-9).
Working hard, even losing sleep and being unable to eat. (v.5)
Relating to people with purity. (v.6)
Exhibiting love from the Spirit by patiently and kindly understanding their needs. (v.6)
Speaking truthfully in the power God provides, fighting for what is right. (v.7)
These are just a few things you might see in your minister. Each is worthy of your appreciation. Consider them as a checklist and ask yourself, ‘Is my minister . . . ’
Still serving my church despite challenges and opposition?
Working hard and carrying the stress of responsibility?
Observing wise boundaries in relating to others?
Loving others, giving them time, and listening well?
Preaching and counselling others honestly and truthfully according to Scripture?
If you can tick any of these boxes, you have something to be thankful for.
But Paul’s list doesn’t end there. Paul adds that he and his colleagues had done these things ‘through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report’ (v.8). Paul was criticised and slandered. At times people even ghosted him. He knew sorrow and poverty. Yes, there was joy and a sense of fulfilment, but it was mixed with real pain.
Ministry was often a struggle.
Paul’s honesty and vulnerability is refreshing. He writes that he and his fellow-workers had ‘spoken freely . . . and opened wide our hearts’ (v.11). Many ministers nowadays are not so candid. Sadly, that is often because they don’t feel able to trust their congregations with the truth of their own struggles.
To be sure, there is an appropriate kind of sharing and a kind that is not helpful. Ministers must beware of the temptation to manipulate people through sharing their emotions. (‘He seemed so vulnerable so I didn’t feel able to challenge him.’) Equally dangerous is the use of our pain to deflect honest feedback. (‘I think something is wrong here but I can’t speak because I might hurt his feelings. He’s so soft-hearted.’)
Nevertheless, a minister should not have to pretend that all is well when it isn’t. The ability to admit to struggles should be based on love and trust. The apostle Paul knew he was taking a risk in being so honest with the Corinthians. There were other more ‘impressive’ ministers around. Some in Corinth found them appealing. But Paul knew the truth that authentic Christian ministry always flows from weakness. The power to change lives is not in your minister. It is in the gospel of Christ and the Spirit who shines the light of new creation into people’s hearts as Christ is preached (2 Cor 4). There are no powerful preachers or mighty ministers. There is one Saviour and Lord—Jesus Christ—and pastors worth their salt will do all they can to direct people’s focus towards him.
Paul was that kind of minister. One who relentlessly pointed to Christ. And the way he shared about his struggles was part of that, because he shared how Christ had met him in weakness. This was not a play for sympathy or a ploy to control others. It was Christ-exalting testimony from a man who knew that the pretence of being someone without struggles would keep people away from Jesus rather than helping them run towards him.
Paul was motivated by love for these believers in Corinth.
Having said that, Paul was troubled that the Corinthians did not love him as he loved them. He writes, ‘We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us’ (v.12). He calls them to make a ‘fair exchange’. To open their hearts to him as he had to them (v.13).
Open wide your hearts also.
If you attend church (but are not a leader), may I address this next part directly to you? You see, I doubt your minister has ever spoken in this way to you. Some people would think a minister who said such a thing was making a desperate plea for affection. But that just isn’t true. It’s a cry from a person who, like all people, wants to feel supported and loved. It can’t all be one-sided. Ministers don’t live in ivory towers, they are flesh and blood and they need to hear from those who love them. That’s you. So here’s my own plea.
Open your heart to your minister!
Do not be hard-hearted. Do not exclude your minister from the fellowship of those called to love one another. Honour your ministers and show them your appreciation through words of encouragement, acts of kindness, good working conditions and, if you can, perhaps the odd gift.
I do not know how the Corinthians received Paul’s letter. But I am glad that the Holy Spirit guided him to write it and ensured its inclusion in our Scriptures. It gives me great comfort to know that he walked a path I recognise in my own experience and that of many others.
So, If you are blessed with spiritual leaders who work hard for your sake, open your heart and appreciate them. When they think of you or write about you, may they tell a story of . . .
Encouragement, not discouragement.
Praise, not slander.
Joy, not sorrow.
For the sake of God’s glory.