When most of us first start out in ministry vocationally, it’s because we love the Lord. Jesus is lovely to us, and His grace is marvelous to us. We can’t imagine anything greater than coming home to God. But oftentimes, as we go through life as ministers, all the “other stuff” (church duties, our platforms, etc.) begins to crowd in and take our first love away. And we’re reminded that we are limited human beings, susceptible to distraction.
Part of this comes from our culture. In America we have a wonderful freedom to be able to choose what we’d like, but that becomes a way of life; for instance, if we order food and it comes to us cold, we send it back. And so, we approach church that way. Many pastors feel a great deal of pressure to produce a good product so that their congregation will continue to consume it.
Our culture also values efficiency, but the pastoral ministry congregational life is so human, and so imperfect, it’s often not efficient at all. Lastly, we are a celebrity culture. If someone can get a crowd or get a following, we praise that.
This consumerism, efficiency, and competition makes it tough to have our first love front and center, and that impedes our ability to care for and bless our congregation in the way we desire. As a result, I think we as pastors face the temptation to fall in one of two categories: being arrogant or afraid. Sometimes we’re just arrogant. This wanting to produce something good, wanting to be successful, wanting to compete, can draw out an arrogance and a pride. Other times we’re afraid that if someone knows us as we really are, it won’t be a safe place for us to be. It is difficult to be a pastor who is human and has normal, everyday flaws. Admitting our limitations can be hard to do, but the benefits to those under our care are worth it.
Why must we be aware of our limitations?
We might like to believe life would be easier if we could just ignore our limitations. But there’s an important reason why we must be aware of our flaws: Jesus requires it. He opposes the proud. He gives grace to the humble. To be a child of God means humbling ourselves, knowing our limitations, and owning them. But this is countercultural.
There are three major temptations we cannot overlook: the temptation to know it all, to fix it all, and to be everywhere at once. The fact is that people love it if you know it all. As a pastoral leader, if I always know the answer, people will praise that. If I always have the solution, people praise that as well. And if I’m always there every time, then it’s praised.
The truth is, only God can know it all, fix it all, and be everywhere at once. Let me state it a different way: you and I were never meant to repent because we don’t know everything. We’re meant to repent because we’re trying to. We’re not meant to repent because we can’t be everywhere at once, but because we’re trying to be everywhere at once. And we’re not meant to repent because we can’t fix everything, but because we’re trying to fix everything. We’re trying to be like God, which is the same temptation Adam and Eve faced.
Remember, though, it’s not that we have to be all these things or we can’t serve Him. It’s that we can’t be any of these things, so serve Him. Surrendering to that fact brings us into fellowship with the Lord Jesus. It reminds us of why we needed a Savior in the first place. It’s freeing when the grace of the Lord takes our heart like that and recovers our first love.
I can’t know everything, but I can know something. I can’t fix everything, but I can participate in the healing of some things. I can’t be everywhere at once, but I can be somewhere. And it’s a grand privilege to be able to do that.
How do we figure out our own limitations?
First, we need to pray. We can pray like the psalmist, “Show me my hidden faults.” We can ask Him to deliver us from having a log in our own eye while we’re trying to remove specks from other people’s eyes. So we begin by praying an honest prayer.
Second, we really need God’s help to listen, first to the Lord and His Word, because the Lord will show us His strengths and our weaknesses through His Word. Then we confess any sin, and we turn to Him. We must also listen to people who love us and are for us, those who will risk telling us when we have a blind spot.
Finally, we’re going to have to trust. Because if the Lord shows us our weakness from His Word, or through those who love us best, then we come back to the very thing we preach every week: can we trust the gospel for ourselves? And while that can feel scary, it’s also very freeing.
How might I turn these imperfections into blessings?
“Redemptive vulnerability” is what we need for our limitations to be a source of blessing. It’s the kind of vulnerability expressed by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Paul often talked about his weaknesses, but we never come away from the Apostle Paul thinking, “Poor Paul,” or “Wow, that Paul, he’s really such-and-such.” We always come away thinking, “Wow, what a Savior. Our Lord is something else.”
Similarly, if we can become redemptively vulnerable, then it allows us to bear witness to the Lord in a way that we can’t if we always have it all together. The whole point is to show His strength, not ours. And so, in our weakness we can more readily do the thing we were called to do: we can point to Him.
Understand that there’s a cost to this type of vulnerability. It’s a magnet to most, but a monster to some. The proud will not like humility. So, if you humble yourself in the presence of a proud person, it forces the person to have to change, because pride is accustomed to fighting pride with pride. But if we humble ourselves, and we admit our weakness and that our strength is not our own but the Lord’s, then the proud person is confronted and has to choose to either soften or harden.
Continuing with the clay jar and treasure analogy, we also have to keep a good balance. Some of us are always talking about the clay jar—we’re terrible, everything’s bad, along those lines. Others are only ever talking about the treasure—Jesus is great, He’s wonderful, etc. But if you’re always talking about the treasure, then I’ll think you can’t relate to me with my brokenness. And if you’re always talking about brokenness, then I don’t know why I’d come to you, because I’m needing hope. And so, we need to bring both of these together—the clay jar and the treasure—in humility.
What if I haven’t done this well in the past?
Remember, first and foremost you are a follower of Jesus. And how do followers of Jesus handle it when they realize they’ve sinned or they’ve made a mistake? Followers of Jesus own it and say they’re sorry, and they repent, taking steps in the direction of the new way, the gospel way. Most of the time this starts by repenting to those who are closest to us, those who know us best and love us. Then, if necessary, involve the congregation, maybe through a short testimony or personal application from a sermon. But we confess, we receive His love, and then we take steps in a new direction.
If you’re wondering whether you’re truly showing humility in the face of disputes or conflicts at church, read Sam Hodges’ article One Reason Humble Pastors Get into Fewer Arguments.