Is A Pastor’s Absence Ever More Effective Than Their Presence?

I recently came across a very thought-provoking article over at Christianity Today’s website entitled, “The Ministry of Absence” by Stephen Woodworth. Every pastor would do well to read it and form their own opinion about it since some pastors are ever-present in the lives of their people because they have their own “need to be needed.” I am certainly NOT the “last word” on the subject nor am I the “fount of all wisdom,” but for better or worse here are a few of my own thoughts after having pastored both thousands and dozens, and everything in between.

We pastors are in the people business. At the end of the day, Jesus did not die for buildings, broadcast networks, or Bible schools. He died for people and the only reason any of the other things matter is because they help us help people. If we are not willing to sacrifice our schedules and our programs for people when they truly need us, then we are not ministering out of right motives. If we sacrifice our people on the altar of our vision, our ministry has become our god and we are hirelings, not shepherds; lords, not servants.

According to Ephesians 4:11, our God-given mandate in ministry is to grow people up spiritually (i.e., “to equip them for works of service so that the Body of Christ will be built up”). At a very early stage in a healthy, maturing church – even a small church! – this means there should be other people besides the person carrying the title “Pastor” who can pray for the sick; counsel the confused; confront demonic spirits; comfort the broken-hearted; etc. If that is not the case and the pastor has been there for an adequate period of time to have begun to impact the DNA of the congregation, then the pastor is prioritizing something else besides equipping everyone else. This is sometimes where the pastoral “need to be needed” syndrome becomes apparent – even at 2am! If I as the pastor allow myself to come to the place or if I allow the congregation to come to the place that either of us thinks my prayers for the sick are more powerful and more likely to be answered than those of one of our Elders or those of a member of our trained prayer team, or if the people I serve think that I am the only one who is “anointed” enough to minister the healing power of the Holy Spirit to them when they are sick, then I need to ask myself this very important question: Where are they placing their faith? In Jesus or in me? Am I drawing them to me or pointing them to Him?

If we sacrifice our people on the altar of our vision, our ministry has become our god and we are hirelings, not shepherds; lords, not servants.

Some godly, sincere pastors and people have been taught an unbiblical paradigm of the pastor’s role and do not rightly understand Ephesians 4:11. This skews their whole perspective about all of this. When I was in Bible school many years ago, I was taught that there were three reasons God calls pastors and other spiritual leaders: 1. To perfect the saints (make sure they become more holy). 2. To do the work of the ministry (to personally serve people by caring for their various needs). 3. To build up the Body of Christ (to help the church grow by winning the lost.) As a result, pastors saw their role more as the people’s “servant” instead of as the people’s “coach.” This resulted in both the pastor and the people thinking he (or she) was the one who should make all the hospital calls; lead all the home visits (very popular in the day, much less so now); perform all the weddings and funerals; etc., albeit with some level of logistical or practical help from deacons and other congregants.

My own Dad was a wonderful man and the greatest pastor I have ever known. He was raised with this paradigm. As a result, our family had to cut short every single family vacation we ever took when I was a kid because someone back home in the church had died or was seriously ill and he was always expected to be present in such moments. Layered on top of that was as an approach to four regularly scheduled public church services every week where both he and the people wanted every service and every sermon to emotionally and spiritually “move” people toward God instead of merely instructing, equipping, or coaching them. As you might imagine, this added up to a recipe for emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational burnout. Thankfully, my Dad had a live-in, functional though not titular, co-pastor in the person of my Mom who helped carry the load. Otherwise, it may well have destroyed him or our family. Even with Mom by his side, Dad had his first heart-attack in his early fifties and four more after that. Genetic factors aside, I am sure the life-long stresses of his approach to ministry contributed to those health issues or at least aggravated them.

This approach to pastoral ministry is traditional, but according to Ephesians 4:11, is in no way scriptural or biblical. Teresa and I encountered an even more extreme example of this paradigm as missionaries in France where we heard a precious father and mother in the Lord say that when they were young they heard their leaders preach from the pulpit in their conventions that if they were called to spiritual leadership they had to be willing to “sacrifice their children on the altar of ministry.” That is patently unbiblical and flies directly in the face of the qualifications Paul gave to both Titus and Timothy regarding the family lives of potential leaders. In their sincere desire to please the Lord and obey their mentors, that precious French couple did what they were told and put the needs of their congregation ahead of the needs of their kids. Today, not one of their grown children is serving Jesus, something which causes them great pain as parents.

At the end of the day, there is a profound difference between leading people and allowing yourself to be led by them. Jesus willing laid down His life, but He did not allow anyone to take it from Him. (John 10:17-18)

At the end of the day, there is a profound difference between leading people and allowing yourself to be led by them. Jesus willing laid down His life, but He did not allow anyone to take it from Him. (John 10:17-18)  As Woodworth points out, it is one thing to get up in the middle of the night and drive across town to minister to someone who is truly desperate or in a crisis; it is entirely another thing to allow “pushy” people to blow up your schedule in the name of what they choose to label a crisis and in the process of give them so much of your time and energy that you miss an opportunity to effectively minister to someone else in your flock. That is very easy mistake to make. I have more than once allowed “the squeaky wheel” in the congregation to “get all the grease,” while some other member of the church community who really needed my attention failed to get it. In one instance, Teresa wisely confronted me years ago about the way I was allowing one individual to monopolize my time after the service by asking me questions about my text,  when in reality all they really wanted was an opportunity to preach their own sermon to me from the text! Allowing them to pigeon-hole me after the service caused me to miss invaluable opportunities to interact with the other members of our congregation each Sunday. The person in question became very upset when I told them I would no longer have those discussions with them each week, but I “let the chips fall where they may” and I am very glad I did.

The ministry of Jesus gives us a better template for ministry, including the way He modelled godly “proactivity” regarding the multitudes of genuinely needy people who flocked to Him. Mark 1:35 shows that He got up and left town a great while before day to go be alone with the Father. Why did He do this? Because He knew that once the sun came up, there would be a line of people needing ministry outside His door and that as one who modelled the Father’s character before them, it would not be right for Him to just brush them off and leave town in the name of “being about His Father’s business.” Jesus also knew that He would be incapable of actually doing His Father’s business if He reached the place of spiritual or physical burnout. This is why He told His disciples in Mark 6:31 to “come apart and rest a while.” He knew they needed to charge their emotional and spiritual “batteries” and to get adequate physical rest in order to fulfill their ministry calling. As Vance Havner once put it, “In ministry, you either ‘come apart and rest a while’ or you will just come apart after while!”

As Vance Havner once put it, “In ministry, you either ‘come apart and rest a while’ or you will just come apart after while!”

It is important to qualify this last thought by reading the following verses in the Gospel of Mark. They show Jesus nevertheless took the time to minister to the multitude when He reached His “vacation destination.” Jesus performed one of His greatest miracles when He refused to turn away the people who had followed Him there or to “send them away into the surrounding towns to buy food for themselves” as His weary disciples demanded. On a personal level, I never cease to be amazed how people somehow sense the gift of God in Teresa and me when we are travelling in places where we do not know anyone and where we do not have any formal ministry role, title, function, responsibility, or reputation. We have seen God do some amazing things in such instances when we have responded to people’s needs, no matter how tired or drained we were, instead of fleeing from them.

A very important passage every pastor needs to wrap their heart, mind, soul, and faith around and stand their ground on no matter how they may be criticized is Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Here is the “bottom-line”: If the way we go about pastoral ministry robs us of our sanity or destroys our family, then we are not doing ministry the way Jesus wants us to. Period. If people in our congregation were raised in church, they may or may not understand it when we adopt a biblical, Ephesians 4:11 approach to our calling. We just need to have “the mind of Christ” on the matter. Like Him, let’s purpose in our hearts to “seek the praise that comes from God alone.” (John 5:44)

What do you think?

If the way we go about pastoral ministry robs us of our sanity or destroys our family, then we are not doing ministry the way Jesus wants us to. Period.