When ministry turns toxic: How pastors can care too much for their congregations


Is it possible for pastors to care too much about their congregations?

It might seem like an odd question. The word 'pastor' means 'shepherd'. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep. If he has a 100 of them and one goes missing, he'll search until he finds it. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: "God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus" (1:8). Most churches would far rather have a pastor who cared too much for them than one who cared too little. In my own education for ministry I remember my college principal saying: "Your congregation will forgive any number of bad sermons but they'll never forgive you if you don't visit them when they're ill." That sustained me through a good number of bad sermons.

Pastors are called to share the lives of their people, to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. It's an intimate relationship of mutual respect and caring.

But it's a very good question. Because even though pastors will have a deep desire for their congregations to grow and flourish, and will be prepared to make all kinds of sacrifices to make that happen, their commitment can't be absolute – and it needs self-knowledge and self-discipline if the relationship is to be a healthy one. So here are five questions to help in thinking things through. They're aimed at pastors, but every Christian needs to be aware of the issues.

1. Is my pastoral commitment really a way of meeting my own needs?

One of the blessings of ministry is the sense that you're needed. You have the privilege of walking with people through some of the darkest times of their lives. It's not something you look forward to, but often you feel things are better because you were there.

You also have the privilege of leading people in worship and bringing God's word to them. If you have a responsive and appreciative congregation, that can feel good.

And you are, if you have a congregation of any size, always in demand. There's always another committee to sit on, another event you just have to be at, another call to make. It's sometimes annoying, but it means you're needed – and that can feel good too.

All of these are legitimate expressions of ministry. But from time to time pastors need to stand back and ask, "Is this more about me than about my congregation? Is it about bolstering my own self-worth? How secure would I be in my Christian identity if it were to be taken away?"

2. Am I neglecting my family?

Most ministers' marriages are happy. But it's far from uncommon for a minister's spouse to feel he or she is taking second place to the congregation. There's yet another meeting, or the scheduled evening together has to lapse because Sunday's sermon hasn't been written – or the emotional demands of problem church members or other families in crisis leave the minister wrung out and unable to give to their spouse and children. It's tragic if a minister's vocation to his or her church takes precedence over their vocation to their family. There'll always be pressure points and it won't always be easy – but families should never be in any doubt as to who comes first.

3. Am I expecting too much of my congregation?

Some pastors have a very fixed idea about what a godly life looks like. It might involve encouraging attendance at every conceivable meeting, firm checks on unorthodox beliefs and unspoken expectations about behaviour. 'Caring' about the congregation – wanting them to grow into the likeness of Christian, fulfilling their destiny in him and demonstrating the growth of the fruits of the Spirit in their lives – can become an excuse for exerting control. And perhaps this desire for control is based in insecurity; maybe the pastor wants to create the sort of community he or she feels comfortable in, without the blurred edges and messy situations in which ministry often really takes place. But pastors don't get to choose their congregations. They are given them, and each person within them is uniquely crafted by God.

4. Have I remembered whose servant I am?

There is no church tradition in which the pastor should be regarded as employed by the congregation or the church leaders. Sometimes that's the sort of language that's used, but it shouldn't be. Pastors are set free to minister by the support of the denomination or congregation, and their primary responsibility might be to a particular church or group of churches, but it's always God to whom they answer first and foremost.

One of the dangers of ministry is that pastors feel they have to keep the church happy. Of course a minister who's not doing the job properly needs to be challenged. But there's a different between that and feeling they're succeeding if they're pleasing people and failing if they aren't. Sometimes there's a clash between caring about what the church feels and caring about what's the right thing to do.

Ministers shouldn't make gods of their congregations. 

5. Can I let them go?

Effective ministries sometimes last for several years. Friendships are formed, sometimes across several generations. Projects are developed and seen through to completion. Buildings might be put up, people are nurtured into new life and new pathways. But God calls ministers on, and their love of their congregations has to be subordinate to their love of God. It's a wrench, but if they can't move on when they're called to do so, they love their congregations too much and God not enough.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods