If you like being a parent of teenagers, you’ll love pastoring. Ministry is so much like parenting that when the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to look for mature Christian men to oversee the flock, the only “management” qualification was that the elder be a good dad. Earlier in his life Paul revealed his own father’s heart toward his recalcitrant spiritual kids in Corinth.
“I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you then, be imitators of me … be reminded of my ways in Christ.” (1 Cor.4:14-17).
Fathering was Paul’s primary metaphor for understanding his relationship with the people he brought to Christ. From this I have learned at least three things in my almost 40 years in the pulpit.
First, mature pastors, likewise fathers, accept the fact that even healthy family life is messy work and usually appears unfinished. To put it bluntly—parenting can be embarrassing and frustrating. I remember more than once getting feedback from people in the community to the effect that somebody in our church (a congregation of over 1500) had offended them in some way. This is tattling of course, and usually indicates an agenda on the part of the plaintiff. Maybe I should ask my parishioner about it, maybe not. But it’s still frustrating. Years ago, when our pastoral team was young and we all had little ones in our homes, we made a pact. At one particular meeting, we looked around at one another and affirmed that we would never hold against each other anything that our family members did. Why did we make this agreement? Because families are faulty. Life is far from perfect. Emotional and spiritual growth happens in fits and starts, with setbacks and growth spurts and many mistakes along the way. It’s the same in pastoring. Can you imagine judging Paul’s ministry by the condition of the Corinthian church at the time he wrote his letters to them? They were doing almost everything wrong, and flailing at him like angry adolescents who had just been grounded. Good dads take the innate difficulty of family life in stride. Good pastors do the same.
Second, wise pastors, like loving fathers, correct their people by instruction and encouragement rather than embarrassment and shame. Admonition, though at times very pointed, is nevertheless humble, compassionate, and clearly aimed at the recipient’s spiritual benefit. Good dads are good at this. Shaming on the other hand may be more about the leader’s own insecurities than the needs of the disciple they are “correcting.” It often stems from carnal anger (Jas.1:19-20) and “extinguishes the dimly burning wick” (Isa.42:3).
Third, effective pastors, like skilled fathers, realize that most of pastoring is mentoring. People do what you do, not what you tell them to do. “Imitate me … learn my ways in Christ,” said Pastor Paul. I once asked some men about their marriages, “Would you like to be married to you?” If pastoring and fathering are mentoring, a good question might be, “Would I like to have me as a pastor?” or “If these folks imitated me, would they be more like Christ?” Sobering questions, I know, because we pastors are also learning as we grow. But as true spiritual fathers we have a responsibility to ask ourselves the hard things sometimes.
So, Happy Father’s Day, Pastor. May your heart be soft, yet strong; your words be tender, yet truthful; your example be humble, yet courageous.