Fight for your pastor
The ideal advocate for struggling Christian leaders
Pastoring a church has never been easy. Few vocations are more intensely personal.
With biblical literacy declining, pastors are increasingly burdened with unrealistic expectations. As a pessimistic culture turns against Christianity, pastors face criticism from within the church, contention from without, and even complaints filtered through their family and friends.
With unlimited access to influential pastors of every stripe, many of us bring a consumer mentality into church, which can put pastors under unfair scrutiny. During the pandemic, many pastors were burdened with responsibility for their own wellbeing, along with that of their families and their congregations. The first two were hard enough for me!
All this is not to mention the immense responsibility of simply leading a congregation well amid personal and spiritual battles.
Someone had to advocate for struggling pastors, and Dr Peter Orr took on the task.
“It’s hard for a pastor to write a book saying, ‘This is really hard’,” he points out. During a decade teaching at Sydney’s Moore Theological College, Orr has helped hundreds of students enter pastoral ministry.
“I’ve seen the pressure, which was made acute during COVID,” he reflects. “I felt that I could write this book in a way that a pastor might be seen as self-serving if they wrote it.”
The main thing Orr wants readers to apply is being intentional towards their pastors.
The book lays out biblical ways to Fight for your Pastor. In our conversation, a handful stood out.
Orr sees the biblical theme of ‘fighting in prayer’ (as in 2 Cor 10:4) as a fundamental way to support our pastors.
“I was struck in preparing the book,” he reflects, “how often the apostle Paul asks his churches to pray for him. If we think of anyone as a super-Christian, it’s the apostle Paul. Yet time and time again, he said he needed prayer.
‘Fight for your pastor!’ Paul pleaded.
The main thing Orr wants readers to apply is being intentional towards their pastors. “Spend some time thoughtfully praying for your pastor,” he recommends. “Not just ‘please bless pastor X’. Spend five minutes thinking and pray thoughtfully, then send a message: ‘I don’t necessarily expect a response, but I just spent some time praying for you; I prayed this and that.’ I think that’ll be a wonderful encouragement.”
Encouraging your pastor goes far beyond simply not causing problems, especially since those who do are typically vocal.
What flows naturally towards our pastors should be encouragement.
Orr recommends giving specific encouragements such as, ‘The second application in today’s sermon really clarified some things in my life.’
I have noticed this dynamic at my own church, when congregants tell pastors, ‘I really liked tonight’s sermon.’ They often respond by asking what specifically was helpful – not to stroke their own egos but because everyone benefits more if encouragement is specific. The pastors learn what works and at the same time, are encouraged in their ministry.
While accountability and constructive feedback are crucial, Orr thinks that what flows naturally towards our pastors should be encouragement.
By forgiveness, Orr clarifies that he is not talking about a theology of atonement and that there are times when pastors should be ‘checked’ or when congregants should leave a church. An entire chapter and an appendix are devoted to these issues.
But he does see an idea throughout the New Testament of covering over sin. We should be slow to confront our pastors and quick to forgive. “Forgiveness is the oil that greases all of our relationships,” Orr explains. “The alternative is to bear a grudge, but there’s a place for just forgiving and moving on. Your pastor is human; your pastor will let you down.”
When asked how Jesus’ work on the cross should shape our relationships with our pastors, Orr responds, “Reconciliation.” Jesus took our sin onto himself, reconciling us to God and to one another. In the same way, forgiving our pastors and covering over their sin promotes reconciliation between the people of God.
Orr emphasises again that he means not sweeping serious issues under the rug, but covering over the everyday expressions of a person’s sinfulness, especially as it is brought out by intense pressure.
Since a crucial part of most pastors’ tasks is teaching, a vital part of supporting our pastors is listening. In Fight for Your Pastor, Orr writes, “We should go to church with an expectation that we will meet with God in the preaching of his word.”
Listening well means listening carefully and actively, letting God’s word confront us and encouraging our pastor to preach faithfully.
This is especially important when our pastor is not a great preacher. Orr naturally draws a sharp distinction between a heretical teacher and a simply boring one. In the latter case, rather than switching off, “we have to listen even more actively”.
We can benefit from and be nourished by boring preaching. “If our posture is more generous and eager,” Orr explains, “that will go a long way to the sermon being a more positive experience.”
This might mean spending time in the text before Sunday. It might mean discussing the sermon with other members of the congregation afterwards. It might mean asking the pastor thoughtful questions.
Fight for Your Pastor is packed with anecdotes from pastors, including this:
“I am genuinely not too worried if it was a ‘good’ sermon that people enjoyed and found memorable, insightful, or even challenging. I want the word to dwell richly among the church community. I love it when, after the service, I hear the buzz of people talking about the implications of the passage. And then I love to see them actually do something about it.”
A modern challenge
Orr is wary of a peculiarly modern challenge: online resources. He emphasises that our relationship with our pastor is not primarily intellectual.
“There is an intellectual element,” he clarifies. “But it’s a relationship of love, submission, respect, honour.” We relate uniquely to a pastor who prays for us and who mourns and rejoices with us.”
This personal connection extends to preaching. “Your pastor is preaching to you in a way that the great preacher in America or the UK is not preaching to you.”
Of course, Orr acknowledges that technology is a gift from God. “So go for your life,” he adds. “These things don’t have to be in competition with one another. We can benefit wonderfully from online resources without using those to harden a critical spirit towards our pastor.”
Orr sees in Scripture a responsibility to submit – under the Lord himself – to our pastors. When pastors rebuke us in line with Scripture, we are to receive the rebuke. When pastors, in consultation with church leadership, make a decision, we are to honour it.
But when asked what it looks like to submit to our pastors, Orr begins with the negative.
“What it doesn’t look like is that you have to do everything your pastor tells you. We’ve seen tragic cases of all sorts of abuse, but particularly spiritual abuse. That’s terrible and that’s an abuse of the idea of submission.”
Rather than criticising the notion of submission itself, Orr thinks we generally know what it means and what it doesn’t. We respect our parents (although Orr suspects we Australians may be challenged here too!). We submit to governing authorities. We know how far that submission extends.
Far from commanding something harmful to us, God calls us to submit to our leaders as those chosen to tend the sheep of the Chief Shepherd, the ultimate Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25; 5:4).
In fact, the New Testament lays out the immense responsibility undertaken by these leaders and the upright character required. These are doubtless the subject of other books. Orr’s point is how we can encourage and strengthen our pastors to bear the weight of their ministry.
Which of these could you apply today, this week and beyond, seeking intentionally to fight for your pastor? You might start with a simple prayer and a message.