One of the axioms my experienced preacher friend Eddie Sharp lives by is “My elders and their families are my first church.” By this he means that as preaching minister, he is going to pay the most attention – ministerially, relationally, pastorally – to those who are shepherding the people of God. By doing this he gets to know these men at a relational and personal level and he gets to know their families and those things with which each family is dealing. He by no means neglects the church at large, but priority is placed on elder families.
Further, one of the axioms I’ve heard Elders live by is “I can’t get too close to the preacher because I may have to make a hard decision about him some day.” I can understand the need for distance relative to those that serve as ministers of the gospel, especially in times of decision. Even so, these two axioms conflict and may leave ministers to deal with life alone.
If ministers take Eddie’s advice and make Elders their first church while elders simultaneously limit their vulnerability to befriending the preacher, the relationship between them suffers, remains one-sided and caps relational trust at the level of acquaintance. If the dance of ministers and elders’ reverses with ministers remaining distant as elders pursue relationship, the lack of relational trust is no different. What to do?
My lead minister friend Pat Bills recently completed his Doctor of Ministry degree through Lipscomb University. His doctoral dissertation explored the relationship between the preaching minister and the elders of the church. I hope one day he will put his work in book form. Until then, I hope that at least one elder at every church will consider living out this axiom: “Make the minister and his family your first church.”
This is much easier to say than do. Two major things get in the way of Elders paying attention to, relating to and pastoring the preaching minister.
1. If I get too close, I’ll lose perspective on my role as elder and his as minister.
As mentioned above as an axiom, this is, in actuality, avoidance of emotional pain. Of course you may have to be part of a tough decision someday. And in many ways this is a self-fulfilling prophecy – if none of the shepherds relates well to the minister, his time is likely limited. So connecting and befriending the minister means giving him some of what he needs to do well as a minister. Making yourself available, being vulnerable and ensuring a two-way relationship provides relational sustenance to the minister and to the elder.
2. Which of us should be the one(s) to shepherd the minister? Won’t this cause an imbalance in the relationships among the shepherds?
Discussing this matter with the minister is exceedingly important. After a minister has been with the church for about a year, he should know the elder(s) with whom he best relates. Allowing him to choose those elders with whom he will have a closer relationship and those elder(s) saying “yes” to that request means the minister will have a better opportunity to be shepherded and watched over appropriately. Leaving this to chance or to the entire elder group ensures starving the minister of needed spiritual care. One-on-many relationships are rarely satisfying for the one. Where only two elders serve, this is not as important an issue as when ten serve. Those elders not chosen to give care to the minister should be provided a sense for how things are going with the minister and that shepherding care is being offered.
If these two obstacles are overcome and connection with the minister is made, the reasons for providing spiritual care to the minister will become obvious:
1. The preaching minister carries three significant church-related responsibilities: preaching every Sunday, providing spiritual care to the church, and leading the church spiritually in collaboration with the Elders.
The prep work required to preach well is weighty. Most minister require 15 to 20 hours to develop a well-constructed, well thought out lesson. Add teaching and another prep for Sunday night or Wednesday and more than half his work week is used up.
Spiritual care of the church is often ad hoc, unscheduled and demanding. Once the first church is cared for (elders and their families) comes the remainder of the congregation. Of course, the elders must carry much of this responsibility yet the minister is called in times of crisis, death, etc.
Leading the church spiritually requires much prayer, thought and energy, even when things are going swimmingly. When times are tough . . . Support from wise elders during this time is especially helpful.
2. The preacher has personal family responsibilities.
As goes the minister’s family, so goes the church. This is not always true but is true more often than not. Checking in on the minister and confirming he is taking care of his family through time and attention will speak volumes the minister and the minister’s spouse about how much he is valued. Following that up with opportunities to get away with family – to re-create – will send a clear message: this church cares about you!
3. The preacher must take care of himself.
This is perhaps the most neglected part of a minister’s responsibility. Many ministers, after years of selfless service find themselves hollow and empty inside. Pouring themselves out for others month after month and year after year takes a toll on the soul. By checking-in and confirming that the minister is paying attention to his own well being, once more, sends a message of care and concern. Questions like “How are you taking care of yourself?” and “What might be getting you down these days?” or “How are you sleeping?” will tell the minister he matters and you are interested in him. It will also encourage him to think about how he is doing caring for himself.
Consider offering the minister a month-long sabbatical at regular intervals – every 5 to 7 years. The minister if never “off” unless he can totally unplug. It often takes a full week to disconnect from ministerial life. A sabbatical helps refresh the soul and helps the minister pay attention to his own needs. This aids him in self-care.
4. The preacher and his family are a target of opportunity for Satanic attack.
Need this be elaborated? What better prize for the enemy than the minister or one of his family members.
Most ministers are not wimps. Most are hard-working, dedicated servants who strive with all their might to please God and serve their churches well. And most ministers I know are also human beings – fallible, sometimes forlorn and regularly in need of spiritual care and spiritual protection from those called by God to watch over the flock. Your ministers need your time and attention, Elders. I pray you will give it to them. Befriend your minister.