Confessions of a Pastor: Free To Bleed

Regardless of your theological opinion of Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church, I believe he accurately describes the job of a pastor as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” He goes on to say, "Church members don't know the damage done by innumerable and incessant little criticisms, of the impossible-to-meet expectations and demands on the pastor and his/her family. The only confession they’ll hear from us is ‘Thanks for sharing your concern with me. God bless you for your honesty.’”

For the most part the pastoral role is a respected role in the church and community. Very rarely will the pastor receive an outright verbal lashing from a parishioner let alone a member of the community. “He’s the pastor after all… a person of the cloth.” There seems to be an unwritten rule that is inherent in society that the minister is off limits for blatant verbal outpouring. As a result many pastors, generally speaking, will never receive hard blows, extreme aggressive confrontations and the like. Rather, the criticisms, complaints, frustrations and confrontations come to the pastor subtly in the form of multiple 'paper cuts.' Cutting complaints can come through the gossip grape vine. Yet another 'paper cut' in a so-called 'encouraging' email. Still more slices through 'suggestions' in Bible studies, casual conversations and other passive-aggressive techniques intended to shape the pastor into the image desired by the sender.

When we get real paper cuts we rarely complain, run to the hospital or scream bloody murder. Yes, our faces cringe, we mumble an ‘ouch’ and look for the nearest band-aid or simply shake it off, but stitches, hospital admittance and ambulance? No way! When looking at the church what often seems to happen over time is that criticisms, expectations and demands leave their mark on the pastor in the form of small harmless 'paper cuts.' Each individual metaphoric paper cut appears essentially harmless. However, when the pastor (or church leader) receives 15-20 of these harmless paper cuts from multiple sources at a Sunday Morning Worship Service or church function these harmless cuts make for a much larger wound.

The difficulty with 'paper cut' criticisms is that there can be so many and most of the time they are so small that they tend to subtly wound the pastor and demoralize the pastor over time without the pastor even knowing it. They tend to go unnoticed because they seem insignificant when they are weighed against sermon preparations, counseling failing marriages, spiritual warfare and the ministry of the Word to people in life and death issues. Furthermore, when these 'paper cut' criticisms are noticed; it may seem futile to the pastor to point out and confront and rebuke the one inflicting the small cut. Two reasons for this: the first is that the church’s reaction may be, “it is only a small 'paper cut,' deal with it.” Secondly, to point out the small paper cut and confront the one inflicting it may open the pastor to greater attack leading to a much larger wound.

The results of these multiple 'paper cuts' to the pastor can be devastating. With each 'paper cut' the pastor may slowly but surely build up a wall of defense. When he sees the cut coming, he may subconsciously put up a wall of defense towards the parishioner and in reaction the pastor’s heart slides into the depth of cold defensiveness. Unhealthy defense tactics can then develop leading to a stifling of the Holy Spirit. In response the pastor continually pulls back away from the flock into spiritual isolation. This isolation attempts to prevent further cuts but it also simultaneously distances the pastor from receiving encouraging and healing comments that come his way. The very defense tactic used to protect in turn also blocks encouragement. Furthermore, after, say, 900 plus paper cuts there comes a point where the pastor simple says, “enough” and the next unlucky parishioner to bring a small complaint will receive a harsh self-defensive outpouring from the pastor. Quite frankly, this is a recipe for disaster in that the pastor’s response to the small 'paper cut' is really a response to 900 plus 'paper cuts.' His self-defensive actions towards the unlucky parishioner will often then be weighed by the congregation and result in much deeper wounds and judgment. For example:“Did you hear how the pastor reacted to Johnny? Johnny was simply sharing that he didn’t like the new blue carpet in the fellowship hall and the pastor unleashed on him. Wow, he doesn’t have much self-control and there might be some anger management problems.”

The one thing that makes 'paper cuts' so difficult is that they many times attack the ego of the pastor. While some paper cut criticisms are purely toxic there are other times that they are truthful. As a result, the truth in the criticism cuts against the pastor’s ego. Pastors can always do more visits, they can always do a better job with a sermon and they can always communicate more clearly. Possible; maybe not, but is there truth in these criticisms? Sure, pastors do fail, they do not always have all the answers, they sin quite frequently and they could always be doing a better job! This is something that, by God’s grace can freely be confessed! It is freedom for the pastor to be able to say such phrases as,“You are right in your concern, I have not been able to meet up to that calling, will you pray for me?”

While going to the pastor for spiritual concerns, biblical concerns, conflict resolution, clarifications and church life struggles are absolutely worthy endeavors there are many times that criticisms are simply so off base and irrelevant to the Kingdom of God that they fall into the toxic category, actually stealing joy and causing unhealthy doubt. When parishioners bring toxic criticisms to the pastor they are essentially distracting and pulling the pastor away from his calling to minister the Word in the church body and to the community. Furthermore, scripture calls believers to have nothing to do with irreverent silly myths (1 Tim. 4:7) and to see that the Gospel is held as the most prominent teaching, main focus and central conversation in the church body. The pastor and the church err greatly if the main discussion and church life in general revolves around powerless external conversations and things (Rom. 14:17).

So, where can a wounded pastor find healing? Should he clumsily bandage himself up and 'march on?' Praise God, no! Hope for a bleeding pastor is found in the bleeding savior, Jesus Christ. In Christ, the pastor receives continual assurance that Christ has met up to all the demands, his own and his congregation (Gal. 4:4). In Christ, the pastor receives the promises of scripture that Christ is the head of the church and that He is building the church and that not even the gates of Hades will ever overcome the Gospel (Matt. 16:13-ff)! In Christ, the pastor is free to bleed. The pastor can let the paper cuts bleed onto the cross where he will understand and be comforted in the Word that Christ ultimately bled on his behalf (Gal. 2:20). In Christ, the pastor is free to confess sin and pain to the Healer of his soul and also before the congregation (1 John 1:9).

What of the congregation; the body of believers each with their own sin? Should they 'walk on eggshells' and try harder? Praise God, no! For the church body hope is found in the depth and roots of Christ (Col. 2:6-7). For it is in Christ that the church body is freed from holding tightly to powerless externals (Phil. 3:8-ff). It is in Christ that church injustices are made right with forgiveness and grace (Rom. 5:9). It is in Christ that the church finds the 'perfect pastor,' the ultimate great shepherd of the sheep (Eze. 34). In Christ the church has His love that covers a multitude of sin (1 Pet. 4:8). In Christ, the church is forgiven, freed and converted from a deconstructive spirit to a constructive spirit (Rom. 16:17-20 & Eph. 4:1-ff).

Jesus’ deep cuts and 'death blow' wounds on the cross are sufficient to forgive, sufficient to sustain and sufficient to heal. May His cuts and wounds minister to wounded pastors and broken churches and through His wounds may we find our critical spirits transformed for His glory.