I’ve been in ministry more than five decades. During that time I have discovered what might sound basic and obvious—but believe me, it took years to learn. In fact, I’m still growing into the reality of what it means. I have learned that relationships come just below one’s walk with God.
Even Jesus illustrated this principle by the relationships in His life, didn’t He?
- The Lord ministered to the multitudes.
- Within that crowd He had His followers.
- That group narrowed further to the Twelve, then to the three (Peter, James, and John).
- Finally, Jesus had John, the beloved disciple.
I have found that a minister of the gospel has at least four key areas of relationships.
4 Key Relationships for the Pastor
Picture these people as concentric circles around you—somewhat like those whom Jesus had around Him. Let’s start with those closest to you and work our way out.
- Your immediate circle is your family. Obviously, if you are married, I’m referring to your relationship with your wife. But prior to marriage, and now in tandem with it, you may have a continuing relationship with your parents. And then you and your wife have a relationship with your children, your grandchildren, your in-laws, and even further relationships within the family.
- The next circle out would be those who serve with you on a pastoral staff. You may serve in a church with a multiple-staff, or perhaps you are the only staff person. Maybe you employ someone on a part-time basis, or you may have volunteers. All of us have those like these who serve faithfully and consistently. Those relationships are unique.
- The third circle would be fellow leaders in the church. Perhaps they are elders and deacons, or you may have other titles in your denomination. These would be those leaders who serve alongside us.
- Finally, the fourth and largest circle represents those in our local congregation. And I’ve divided those into five categories: the attendees, the friends, the attractive, the troubled, and finally—the most difficult of all—the troublemakers.
A pastor’s relationships are essential.
I want to take my time in addressing these with you over the weeks ahead. We’re in no hurry. Relationships take time to develop . . . and talking about them does as well. These are the lives that touch us, shape us, minister to us, mean the world to us, or drive us nuts if they could.
Relationships come just below one’s walk with God. So easy to say . . . but so challenging to live.
Despite the pessimistic headlines announcing that the family is an endangered species, I refuse to sigh and give up hope. Who says “endangered” means doomed? If we’re ingenious enough to preserve the bison, the whooping crane, and the humpbacked whale, I’m convinced we can preserve the family. The “want to” is certainly there with a lot of us—especially us preachers.
Professor Nick Stinnett launched a fascinating study some years ago. All sorts of questions were asked to families from many backgrounds, cultures, and countries. His research represented a wide swath of the families of humanity. The goal? Very simply, to discover what makes families strong.
Dr. Stinnett writes of his findings:
All together, we studied 3,000 families and collected a lot of information. But when we analyzed it all, we found six main qualities in strong families. Strong families:
- are committed to the family,
- spend time together,
- have good family communication,
- express appreciation to each other,
- share a spiritual commitment,
- are able to solve problems in a crisis.[ref]Nick Stinnett, “Six Qualities that Make Families Strong,” chapter one in Family Building: Six Qualities of a Strong Family, ed. Dr. George Rekers (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1985), p 38.[/ref]
Look back over that list. There is enough there to fill out your preaching calendar for the rest of the year! When I first came across this information, I used it not only as the basis for a miniseries of pulpit messages on the family, but I also posted that list in my home. It became the topic of numerous conversations among the Swindoll tribe! I would suggest you try the same experiment with your family.
Then preach it.
I spent the first ten years of my marriage trying to make Cynthia into me. I can’t think of many things worse on earth than a female Chuck. And I’ll be honest, it almost broke us apart. We didn’t separate though, because she stayed and stuck it out.
I’ll never forget when Cynthia said to me, “I don’t want you to keep telling people we’re ‘partners’ because we’re not partners. I bear your children and I cook your meals, and I clean the house, but I’m not a partner.” Then she added, “You’ve never accepted me for who I really am.” I said, “Yes, I have.” She said, “No you haven’t.” I said, “YES, I have.” She said, “NO, you haven’t!” And I got louder and she got louder, and she finally walks away in tears. And I was left with the dishes. While doing those dishes I thought, She’s right.
We began a process that took four years to break that habit in me. It involved some serious counseling that we both sought . . . and it was very helpful. It just about wiped me out, though, realizing how true her criticism was. I did very little encouraging back then. I had picked the people I liked, and those were the ones I spent time with. The others I just used.
It was years later at a gathering with some friends from our radio program that someone asked Cynthia, “Why don’t you say some things about the broadcast?” She walked up and said, “The best part about this is that Chuck and I are in this as partners.” In that wonderful moment her statement brought a knot in my throat. She hadn’t said that word, since she had said it to me on that cold kitchen floor many years before. I finally came to realize the importance of accepting my wife.
I often remember Peter’s words to us as husbands, and how our lives at home affect our effectiveness as pastors. I’ve emphasized the result of obeying Peter’s words: “Live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
She has a different temperament than you and a different way of thinking. Most wives do, you know; that’s why the marriage works. I invite you to make a serious study of the fourteenth chapter of Romans. It sets forth an absence of legalism. It underscores the enjoyment of freedom, the appreciation of diversity, a non-controlling lifestyle. It’s all about accepting people as they are . . . and it also applies at home.
I’ve often found it easier to be more accepting and encouraging of the people in our congregation than my own wife. Maybe it’s the same for you too.
“So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).
Let me apply this verse by paraphrasing it this way: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
Are you tearing down your kids with your words? The desire for them to be strong, well-mannered, and successful children can be a strong one. In fact, too strong. You may be focused only on fixing what’s wrong, usually by pointing it out. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, what’s wrong is they are not meeting our expectations for what we think they should be. You played sports, so your boy should. You were Phi Beta Kappa; therefore, your child should be. You had a vibrant social life, so your daughter should. You’re musical, so your son should be, too. You’re in the ministry, so . . . (you finish the sentence).
Perhaps you have one child who’s a natural with the baseball, which pleases you because you love baseball. You share evenings together playing catch in the backyard. Then along comes another. He can’t catch, he can’t throw, and he wants to go back inside to read or listen to music. The temptation is to favor the child who is most like you and subject the one who isn’t to negative comparisons. But neither favoritism nor holding one sibling out as an example for the others will alter what God ordained for each child. (Remember Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph? Talk about dysfunction!)
Some kids love sports. Some are a whiz with puzzles and math. Some are messy and artistic and messy (they go together)! Some are structured and meticulous organizers. Some are dedicated students, while others barely squeeze by academically. Why? Because God made them that way. But if we’re not careful, we’ll see their God-ordained interests and temperaments as flaws to be fixed. We might even go so far as to make their differences rebellious issues to be disciplined, rather than hidden strengths to be developed.
Allow me to repeat my opening principle: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
How’s life in your home? Are you a builder?
Good leaders are enthusiastically affirming. Paul writes,
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:10–11)
Ever spent a Friday night on hard bleachers, in front of the father of the high school quarterback? He’s his own cheering section. Why? He’s a dad! The kid on the field is thinking, “Dad, come on, knock it off.” But his old man is standing up there, yelling at top volume, loving every minute of it. There’s no question who he’s pulling for.
Perhaps you’ve longed for more affirmation from your father. Let’s face it; encouragement goes a long way in preparing a child for life. No one should be getting more encouragement from us than our own children.
Pretty convicting stuff, isn’t it?
Good leadership balances the tender nurturing of a mother with the loving affirmation of a father. Encouragement is like an oasis in a hot, barren desert. It brings needed refreshment to weary individuals whose souls are parched from time spent in the desert of self-doubt. There’s the desert of failure when we’ve tried so hard to succeed. There’s also the desert of no progress when we so want something to happen but it doesn’t. And there’s the desert of family rejection, abuse, and a thousand other arid, monotonous landscapes of life.
In those desert experiences, we all long for an oasis where we’re able to get a cool drink of water. Though it may not have come from your father, determine it will come from you. Give the affirming words of a father, who, in speaking, dips his ladle deep in ice water, and as he pours them out, they cool the spirit and refresh the soul.
Affirming leaders create loyal followers . . . in the church and in the home.
John Donne is one of the least-known saints in history. The 17th century poet and preacher endured a life of persecution, pain, unfair imprisonment, and lengthy suffering.
It was during his term as Dean of the great St. Paul’s Cathedral – London’s largest church – that three waves of the Great Plague swept through the city. The last epidemic alone killed 40,000 people. In all, a third of London’s population perished, while a third more fled to the countryside, turning entire residential districts into ghost towns.
Donne’s life had been no picnic. Released from prison and now blackballed, he couldn’t find work. He and his wife Anne lived in grinding poverty, and Anne nearly died from childbirth more than once. Donne himself suffered intense headaches, intestinal cramps, and gout. His longest literary work during this excruciating period of his life was an extended essay on the advantages of suicide.
He decided at the late age of forty-two to seek ordination as an Anglican priest. The year after Donne took his first Anglican church, his beloved Anne died, after having borne him twelve children in all (five of whom died in infancy).
Amazingly, this was the man appointed to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. With all his trials, he hardly seemed a likely candidate to lift his nation’s spirits during that era of the plague. He stayed near his beleaguered parishioners—arising every morning at 4 a.m. and studying until ten at night. He delivered sermons of such power, the vast cathedral remained crowded with worshipers despite London’s declining population.
It was then—at the zenith of his public ministry—his dread disease was diagnosed along with his death sentence. What is noteworthy is that he never “retired” from his calling—and he refused to become a passive recluse. While surviving those dark months, he stayed engaged with people. His life modeled the priceless value of enduring companionships.
Among his best-known writings are lines from his work, Devotions, written only a few years before his death. You may remember some of them:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent … if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[ref]John Donne, The Works of John Donne: Dean of Saint Paul’s, 1621-1631, vol. 3, ed. Henry Alford (London: Parker, 1839), 575.[/ref]
The importance of our staying engaged in the lives of others cannot be overestimated. Isolation is not only unbiblical and unwise, it is, in fact, unhealthy. You get weird.
Finding and nurturing a few very close companions throughout your years in ministry is a key ingredient to surviving. If you are one of those in that category—you are miles ahead of those who think they can survive on their own.
I must add — you are also rare.
Sarcastic infighting. Negative putdowns. Stinging stares. Volatile explosions of anger. Doors slamming. Desperate feelings of loneliness. Awkward silence. Those descriptions portray the marriages in many homes and families.
And also, in many parsonages.
We are not immune, are we? It is possible that you have gotten to the place where you look for excuses not to be home. Or to be there as little as possible. It’s easy in the ministry to justify our absence, isn’t it? Even in our own minds.
For more years than I care to remember, I was so insecure and fearful it wasn’t uncommon for me to drill Cynthia with questions—petty, probing questions that were little more than veiled accusations. It is amazing she endured it. Finally, we had one of those famous showdown confrontations every married couple has had. (Yes, even pastors.) No need to repeat it, but she made it painfully clear that I was smothering her, I was imagining things she never even thought of doing . . . and it had to stop. Her words hurt, but she did the right thing. Thankfully, I took her seriously.
I went to work on this ugly side of my life. I confessed my jealousy to Cynthia. I assured her I would never again treat her with such a lack of trust. I asked God for grace to help, for relief from the destructive habit I had formed, and for the ability to love and give myself to this woman without all the choking conditions.
I distinctly recall how much an understanding of grace helped me. It was as if grace was finally awake in my life, and I could appropriate its power for the first time. It seemed to free me; first in small ways, and finally in major areas. I can honestly say today that I do not entertain a single jealous thought. Grace literally wiped that slate clean.
I’ve said for years now that my favorite place on earth is just inside the door of my home. I absolutely love being home. It is there I find maximum security and acceptance, fulfillment and accountability, responsibility and harmony, and honesty and love. Why? Because we are committed to the same common denominator: Grace.
- Grace releases and affirms. It doesn’t smother.
- Grace values the dignity of individuals. It doesn’t destroy.
- Grace supports and encourages. It isn’t jealous or suspicious.
What does it take for us as pastors to be just as thoughtful and encouraging and creative with our wives as with those who sit in front of us on Sundays?
I have the answer: it takes grace.
We’re living in a day when most people are focused on one thing: economic survival. While that is certainly an important pursuit, it’s easy for that single objective to make us ignore something far more valuable.
Hard times often lead to lonely times—when we bear down on simply making ends meet . . . at the expense of no longer spending meaningful times with others. What good is simply surviving if it leads us into the barren flats of isolationism? Furthermore, by keeping the goal of getting more money in the crosshairs of our scope, what often gets shot down are those we once enjoyed as our close friends. It’s time we openly admitted that such collateral damage is too great a price to pay.
My words today are meant to sound an alarm. As important as it is for us to endure these uncertain times, we dare not diminish the value of cultivating enduring companions. No matter how bad the times may get, we need friends. Close friends. Enduring companions. They are the secret of our making it through dark and desperate times without our becoming dark and desperate people.
Are you cultivating some close friends? Even one?
For this post, I want to share with you why I’ve written my book, The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call for Renewal. Truth be told, part of the reason I wrote the book is because of you, my fellow pastors.
Ours is a whole new world, and nothing has been more adversely affected by postmodernism than the church and its relationship to God’s Word. When the Bible loses its central place in the church’s worship—even if good things replace it—the fallout is biblical ignorance. The longer substitutes replace the preaching of the Word as the centerpiece of Christian worship, the more we will witness the intensifying drift into ignorance. Over time, a congregation that is distant from the Word of God seeks more entertainment and less biblical truth.
The slumbering evangelical church has now bought into this way of thinking. I have worked hard to explain why and how in this book. But let me add that I have not written this volume just to point out all that’s wrong. That is not my intention. My writing has always had an emphasis on grace, which is God’s emphasis in the Bible. Each chapter addresses solutions—not just problems—and points to the hope that God offers in His Word.
I have written The Church Awakening primarily to two groups of people. First, to serious-thinking churchgoers, who know there is a better way. In the Bible there was a group of clear-thinking, tough-minded men called the “sons of Issachar” (1 Chron. 12:32). They were those who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” We need that same clear-headed discernment today in the church. And along with discernment, we need an equal supply of courage. My aim is to ignite that passion within those who are willing to think seriously.
I am also writing to you pastors, especially to those who are on the fence, who need a voice of permission to buck the tide and to put the preaching of the Word of God back in its central place of the church’s worship.
In my over fifty years in ministry, I have never been more passionate, or hopeful, for The Church Awakening—that is, for the church to wake up, to see how far it has drifted, to begin walking with God, and to engage the culture for Jesus Christ.
It is my hope that God will use this volume in a powerful way to contribute to the master plan Jesus is building. He was the One who promised: “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
P. S. If you want to pick up a copy of the book, it’s available in The Book Shoppe. You might also enjoy watching the video below.
Did you feel the tightening squeeze this time of year brings? On top of an already demanding schedule of preaching, teaching, counseling, and calling, you had to add Christmas parties and programs, a creative Christmas series that you’ve never preached before—and still another eloquent sermon for the Christmas Eve service.
Image from Pixabay
Such a schedule has a tendency to turn us into Scrooge-like characters, doesn’t it? (We secretly think: Humbug!) Work, work, work . . . nothing and no one will get in our way.
May I assume the role of one of old Scrooge’s ghosts for you? Let me escort you to your home. Peer into the window. Look closely. Is your chair empty at the dinner table?