Getting Ready for Somebody’s last General Assembly
The 2012 PCA General Assembly will be the final assembly for some pastors. In addition to faithful saints in the final months of their natural lives and those who suffer an untimely death due to illness or accident there will also be a few tragic train-wrecks of ministry. Ministers who, next week, will vote on the business of the denomination and, by next year, will be selling insurance or real estate.
I’m not speculating. Such has been the case for each of the last 10 years that I’ve been at General Assembly on behalf of Covenant Theological Seminary. There are the very public cases, like that of Jason Stellman, who months ago was prosecuting Peter Leithart on charges of deviating from the reformed faith. But there are others, like the (multiple) pastors recently removed from the ministry because of moral failure. Another pastor, after four consecutive two-year stints at different churches, is now working in a non-ordained ministry capacity. And there are more, only you won’t see them at GA this year. They won’t be there.
Ignore the Economy
None of these men, or the handful of others that I could reference, left the ministry because of money. That is, none of them left ordained, pastoral ministry because they couldn’t pay their bills. I greeted many of these men last year in Virginia Beach, and now couldn’t reach them by phone if I tried. They came to GA, visited, voted, debated, argued, and maybe even laughed and cried a bit. But already they were walking ghosts of the men they once were. Emptied of passion by the unending and thankless service provided to their local congregations and contexts.
And this year, others will come. Others who are equally shell-shocked by the sin of their congregants and communities, angry, depressed, afraid, battle-worn and sin-weary and, above all, alone. In such environments, the fight against their own temptations and doubts are, at best, feeble. At worst, these men have given up fighting. This will be their last General Assembly.
Don’t Ignore the [Spiritual] Economy
The solution isn’t another committee or new initiative by an agency. More seminars—as beneficial as those are—aren’t the answer. I don’t claim to have the answer, but I know some of what it must include. It must include a pastor being able to say to another pastor, “Can I tell you what I’m struggling with and have you pray for me? Can I trust you with my heaviest burdens? Will you be my friend, my brother in arms?” Listen, these pastors don’t need another man to “be their pastor”. You don’t have the capacity or the solution. These men need to be listened to, for someone to ask questions, to pray, and to cry.
This week, the wife and daughters of a deployed US soldier stayed at our house. For five hours this woman talked with my wife after all the children were in bed. This soldier’s wife is tired, worn out, and living with the daily recognition that her husband’s name might show up on a KIA list. Above all, she’s alone. Civilian wives don’t seem to get it at all, while fellow soldier wives get it all too well. This woman recounted how regularly conversations with other military wives sound like this: “If your husband comes home without some of his limbs, which limbs would you rather he lose?” If it sounds gruesome, it is. And it’s reality.
But the spiritual reality of the Christian battle isn’t treated with half as much seriousness. Based on the conversations I overhear or am involved with (e.g. nearly a hundred each year), the biggest issues are how to maintain the church budget, or pay off the new building, or start a building campaign; or what overtures are up for debate, or how secular the culture is getting. I am praying for the day when I get to General Assembly and it’s assumed by all that these men of Gospel ministry are soldiers coming back from war. Some are just tired. Others have been dismembered. This is the gruesome reality of the spiritual economy of ministry.
Brothers in Arms
Pastors aren’t congregants. They are human with the same struggles and proclivities, temptations and hardships. But they are different. A layman in a corporate position who confesses adultery may lose his marriage, but often he’ll still have his job. An elder who confesses sexual temptation may lose everything. And the wall of risk is so steep that few are willing to try and climb it.
Too many of the fights tend to be about rules and regulations. Is another guiding principle really the answer to the bleak disposition that most pastors face? No. They need brothers who will fight. Fight—not just about the business of the PCA, nor even primarily—but fight for them, for their marriages, for their ministries, and for their spiritual condition. Some will suggest we need Jesus. Yes we do. And when the word of God sounds void, and the Redeemer seems far away, and the Father is seemingly silent to our prayers—Jesus is the hands of a brother that hold us up.
History in the Making
I first attended General Assembly in 1981 in Fort Lauderdale, FL. I’m a pastor’s kid (PK). The next GA I attended was in 1990 in Atlanta. What I recall about both was the image of my father and other pastors sitting around a table for dinner, engaging in exchanges that were mostly devoid of personal narrative or struggle, and centered instead on corporate solutions to church problems, achievable through (judicial) litigation and (floor) legislation.
The last decade has had less litigation and fewer legislative actions. But for many pastors, General Assembly remains one more place where pastoral proficiency—measured in the size of one’s budget and congregation—veneers the gray decay of spiritual lethargy.
Left unchallenged, some such men will say, “Since the Christ isn’t doing enough, I’ll be the Christ” and climb the mountain of self-advancement. Others will say, “I am not the Christ, but I’m not sure anymore there is One” and will find self-protective recluse in indulgence. Others will drum the drum of orthodoxy and shift the perpetual crosshairs of critique until there are no more allies, only temporary alliances. Others will pass out their ministry days looking great from a distance, but leaving the tatters of broken familial relationships in their wake.
These are no imaginary men of speculative choices. These are evangelical, reformed, orthodox pastors who have confessed—at the end of their ministry—by phone, by email, some in person, and on blogs. What they could not find while in the ministry—namely, brotherly support—they will at least seek one last time in confession and resignation. And what some of them won’t even say then, their children will and do. Remember, I’m a PK. As far as many PKs are concerned, I’m a safe place. And these are their farewell stories to the church, to spouses, to friends, and sometimes to an alumni director.
A Different Path
My hope is that, in such a temper of sober reflection, we would come to GA this year on the lookout for the broken, the maimed, the weary and depressed pastor suffering spiritual PTSD—not so we can report them or feel good about ourselves. But that we might do good—for why should we “withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in [our] power to do it”? (Prov 3:27). My hope is that we would come ready to ask how people are struggling, where they are hurting, and how we can love them best. My hope is that we would come ready to share the same thing. My hope is that we would come with more questions, greater concern, and more compassion than in years past when we have come with answers, solutions, and resolutions. My hope is that this would not be the last General Assembly for any of our pastors. Because, God forbid!—it could be my pastor.
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