Buried somewhere in the piles of boxes in my garage is the composite picture of the graduating class of Concordia Theological Seminary in 1996. There’s a whole lot of black and white in that color picture, what with all the clerical shirts and clerical collars and clerical teeth smiling for the camera. I learned theology with these men, debated with them, partied with them, prayed with them. And through it all, one truth arose to the surface, over and over again. It’s an obvious truth, but sometimes it’s the obvious truths that we tend to ignore the most. And it’s a truth that the congregations these men serve frequently forget: these pastors, although they stand in the stead of Christ to minister to the people of God, are full of the same fears and flaws, loneliness and lust, desires and desperations, as the folks in the pew. Pastors are built from the same stuff as everyone else. And that’s good, and that’s bad. It’s good because the more they’re able to identify with the people to whom they minister, the better ministers they’ll be. The more they’re acquainted with grief, the better comforters they’ll be at the graveside. The more they know of depression, the better they’ll be at walking with the downcast through their dark valleys. They can sympathize with the weakness of the human heart, and apply to other hearts the same divine, healing words that they apply to their own. It’s a good thing that pastors are built from the same stuff as everyone else. And it’s a bad thing.
It’s a bad thing for lots of reasons. It means that some of them, when they struggle with the same lust that bedevils all men, will succumb, will fall, and will likely find themselves divorced both from marriage and ministry. It means that a few of them will become so lonely, so depressed, that when the pills and booze no longer do the trick, they opt for the loaded pistol next. It means that sometimes they will quarrel with members over stupid things, that they’ll sulk because of wounded pride, that they’ll show favoritism. That they’re built from the same stuff as everyone else means that they’re sinners, and, as such, they’re going to suck at their job sometimes.
It also means that you’re not always going to like your pastor. He’s not always going to be the charming, polite, patient, thick-skinned, wise, caring soul that you want him to be.
Did he not seem all there last Sunday? A bit red-eyed, maybe even hung over? Did you ever stop to consider that perhaps he and wife got into a fight late Saturday night about something that’s none of your business, that he drank too much, and got maybe two hours sleep on the couch? It happens. And I bet some version of that happens at your house, too. Cut him some slack. He’s built of the same stuff as you are.
Did he not seem happy to take your call last Friday? Did it cross your mind that it might have been the one day off he has, or that he’s worked 70+ hours this week, or that he has a migraine, or simply that he’s worn down from caring for hurting people and desperately needs a vacation that he probably can’t afford? Cut him some slack. He’s built of the same stuff as you are.
Christians live by the forgiveness of sins. And pastors do too. They turn to the same crucified and resurrected Lord as you do. They confess. They hear the absolution. They believe. They drink from the same cup of His blood, eat of His same body. For they fail—they fail themselves, they fail their wives and children, they fail their congregation. They are mortal men beset with weaknesses, most of which they keep hidden deep within. Do not expect them to be perfect. Do not expect to like them all time. But do forgive them. It’s one of the greatest gifts that you can give your pastor: to cover his multitude of sins with your love, to extend to him the same forgiveness that he extends to you, to welcome him as a fellow sinner who lives by the same Lord of grace as you do.
This Sunday many congregations will celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday. When they do, I hope they remember that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the only truly good, truly perfect pastor that will ever serve the church.