How to really encourage your pastor
Have you heard the old joke about a pastor who has a terrifying dream that he’s in the middle of preaching to his congregation? When he wakes up, he is.
If you’re not a pastor leading a church,1 I’m going to ask you to engage in what you might also regard as a nightmare scenario: imagine for a moment that you’re the senior pastor of your own church. How do you feel about taking on that role? What do you think you might enjoy about it? What would you find hard? And what is just too horrifying to even contemplate? Take a moment. I’ll wait.
Have you ever put yourself in your pastor’s shoes like this before?
In 2 Corinthians 2 and 7, Paul gives us an insight into the emotional life of a church pastor. As he does, we learn some very helpful lessons about the qualities that make someone a good and godly pastor, as well as how we can encourage our pastor — perhaps in a richer way than with a quick throwaway line like “I enjoyed your sermon today”.
Back in chapter 2, Paul explained why he had discontinued his fruitful evangelistic ministry in Troas (which I have reflected upon in a previous article). At the time his "spirit was not at rest" because he was waiting to hear from Titus about how the Corinthian church had responded to the challenging letter Paul had sent them (2:13). He wrote that letter so that when he visited them in person he would not “suffer pain” (v 3). He had written “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (v 4).
You can see in these words the deep concern Paul has for his Corinthian children in the faith, as well as the deep emotional turmoil he goes through as he waits to see whether they respond well to his letter or whether they instead double down on their withdrawal from him as their apostolic father in the faith. Paul is clearly very heavily invested emotionally in the members of this church. He says later in this letter, “You are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (7:3) and “Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (11:28-29). That sounds like emotional investment to me!
But then he explains in chapter 7 why his disposition has changed and his anxiety has been relieved. He has been comforted by “the coming of Titus” (v 6), who has brought good news from Corinth. Titus conveys the positive response Paul’s letter has received there and the rewarming of their affection for Paul as their apostle (v 7). This has made Paul’s heart rejoice, not to mention causing Titus’ spirit to be “refreshed” (vv 4, 15).
But it’s not just that they are being nice to him again. Paul explains that what he was really worried about goes much deeper. He knew his letter would “grieve” them, but he didn’t regret sending it because he knew that grief would only be temporary (v 8). What he really hoped for was repentance. Good, solid, practical changes taking place in their attitudes and actions as members of the Corinthian church. This is a repentance associated with salvation, not the worldly sorrow that leads to spiritual decay and death (v 10).
In the end, Paul loves them and is deeply concerned for the spiritual health of the whole church (v 12). For that reason he desperately wants them to accept his rebuke and challenge. It’s the same reason he was willing in the first place to take the personally hard and relationally risky step of rebuking and challenging them.
Of course, he was always confident they would respond well (2:3), but it’s not actually much of a contradiction that at the same time he was still anxious and worried about what their response would be. Both things can be true, especially since his confidence in them flows out of his confidence in God’s capacity to move the Corinthians towards a good response.
It’s a very emotionally charged situation Paul is describing, isn’t it? Paul causes them pain and grief, but in turn he has no peace of mind, struggles with his inner fears, and he is downcast (7:5-6). Yet when the good news comes from Titus, Paul rejoices, is encouraged and greatly comforted.
Here’s the main point I want to make: there is no such thing as a dispassionate pastor. Can a pastor really feel no emotion about the welfare of his people?
A godly pastor loves his2 congregation members very deeply. He rides the emotional rollercoaster of their spiritual ups and downs. He feels their weaknesses and will be disappointed and discouraged when he sees those weaknesses being expressed. When members of his flock make poor choices that show a disregard for their own holiness and God’s glory, he will be downcast.
On the other hand, when a pastor observes real evidence of godly sorrow and repentance in response to being lovingly taught and rebuked, well… his heart rejoices, he is greatly comforted, and his spirit is refreshed.
So, if you really want to encourage your pastor—deeply and substantially—you know what to do. Here’s the way the writer to the Hebrews puts it:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17)
Your pastor’s job comes with great responsibility — a responsibility and authority given by the Lord for “building up and not for tearing down” (2 Cor 10:8, 13:10). And it is taxing work, especially emotionally. It can regularly make him groan. These reasons are a real factor in why many pastors burn out.
But when we obey our pastors and submit to their teaching — even when it causes us grief at first—we make their role a joy.
So if you really want to encourage your pastor, don’t just say “thanks for your sermon”. Of course, by all means thank him—to do less would be impolite. But even better, come back to him in a week and sincerely say: “You know your sermon last week? God used what you said to really challenge me, and so since then I’ve worked on changing the way I think and act in that area. I thank God for your willingness to love me with that challenging message.”
I suspect there’d be far fewer pastors dropping out of ministry if there were far more conversations like this taking place in church life, don't you?
1. If you are a pastor, then feel free to come along for the ride, but we’ll let you skip this thought exercise.↩
2. I’m using the masculine here because our example, Paul, was a man, and because biblically speaking pastors who carry the main responsibility for the health of the church are male. But women also act as pastors in many ways and contexts, and they will also feel the emotional weight of that responsibility just as keenly as, if not more keenly, than men.↩