Tom was a young pastor on a large pastoral staff. There were decisions being made by the senior pastor that he found concerning. When he spoke up, he was maligned. Ruling elders would harangue him. He was occasionally pulled from preaching duties even though his name was in the bulletin. He sought out help from other ministers in his Presbytery but was left to fend on his own.
Darrell, another young pastor, made the mistake of crossing swords with his senior pastor. He had slight theological differences with the pastor—still within the bounds of Scripture and the confessions—and this led to endless critique and disparagement. The pastor would even critique Darrell after he preached in front of the whole congregation and would openly attack him from the pulpit.
Mike arrived at a new church, ready to partner with the senior pastor and session in a fruitful and vibrant life of ministry. Soon after arriving, however, he realized that the pastor and elders were more likely to talk about him than to him and would often leave him out of the decision-making process. Without his realizing it, Mike’s position was being undermined from the beginning. By the time he was able to engage these elders in the light of day, he had already become a caricature and was subject to an ongoing stream of abuse.
All of these young pastors were driven from the churches where they served—dispirited, despondent, and wounded. No seminary class prepared them for dysfunctional and toxic ministerial relationships. The mechanisms for outside intervention were either undermined or thwarted. All of them were sustained by friends and mentors outside of the church who regularly prayed for them and encouraged them with precious truths from God’s Word.
Over the past several years, a good deal of attention has been paid to ministry killers like burnout and moral failure, but there is a silent killer that has ended many a fledgling ministry: A lack of care and often—proactive harm—of young ministers by dysfunctional ministry cultures. This problem is far more pervasive than we’d like to believe, but by God’s grace, there are many tools at our disposal to address this problem.
The Vulnerability of Young Ministers
Young ministers are exceptionally vulnerable when they first enter the pastoral ministry. They often think they know far more than they do and can be particularly strident and polemical in tone. Many have not yet been chastened by suffering and the pains and pleasures of the ministry. As with marriage and parenting, patience and gentleness develop through ongoing sanctification.
They also don’t know what they don’t know. Churches are reflective of the culture around them, and there are often decades of accumulated wisdom and customs that are outside the reach of a young minister. He doesn’t know that the flower arrangement in front of the sanctuary was picked out in honor of a beloved member who passed away and that suggesting something new might prompt conflict that could’ve otherwise been avoided.
Finally, young ministers come into the church with baggage like everyone else. They have their own unique sin struggles that could undermine their ministry to others. They also may have suffered at the hands of those in authority—whether at home or in the church—in childhood. As a result, a young minister might be particularly sensitive to the critiques of those in authority or need affirmation.
These are just some of the factors that make young ministers particularly vulnerable. Thus, they can be easy prey for others—particularly those in leadership roles—if they are not careful or have reliable guides to help them. This problem grows exponentially if they unwittingly enter a dysfunctional ministry culture.
Dysfunctional Ministry Cultures
As a young minister, how do you recognize the warning signs of a dysfunctional ministry—especially when a church, like the minister, is trying to put their best foot forward? Paul David Tripp describes pastoral ministry as a “dangerous calling” because it is so easy for a minister to find his identity in ministry rather than in Christ. This false identity then corrupts all the fruits of an otherwise faithful ministry. Most perniciously, it can lead pastors and elders to feed upon the flock rather than feeding them.
As Michael Kruger explains in his book, Bully Pulpit, a culture develops around an abusive shepherd that both defends and perpetuates the abuse. Such shepherds resist accountability and are often defended on the pragmatic grounds of a visibly fruitful ministry. Loyal supporters will disbelieve accusations of abuse and will circle the wagons around the abusive shepherd. Often times, attempts are made to discredit those who are believed to be discrediting the pastor.
Alongside of this, there is a tendency among sessions to act more like corporate boards than shepherds. Their contact with the flock is largely relegated to the realm of church discipline and they are much more comfortable overseeing committees rather than trying to manage organic community. As with abusive shepherds, such sessions might see simple questions and observations—let alone critiques—as an inexcusable affront.
This resistance to critique is often rooted in a false vision for ministry—be it traditionalism or cultural relevance—that does not have explicit biblical warrant. Since such visions are often rooted in false identities and are reflective of those in power rather than God’s Word, they are defended as sacrosanct. If you question such a vision, you are really questioning the minister, the ministry as a whole, and even God himself.
Imagine the young minister entering such a church and simply asking “Why?” This question could lead to harsh rebukes and retribution that call into question the minister’s calling, if not his faith. He could’ve been protected from all of this if there were older pastors to guide him and if there were more faithful mechanisms in the church to protect him.
The Need for Shepherd Ministers
Younger ministers need to have strong relationships with older ministers in order to hold fast in their own ministries. At least some of these relationships need to be with other ministers outside of one’s own church. Retired ministers are particularly valuable because they typically have more time and more experience.
Men such as these can warn off a young minister from going to a church that has run off every pastor before or is in the throes of a controversy that is best managed by a more mature, steady hand. They can also bear with the foolish zeal and idealism that often infect young ministers. Shepherding on the front end may prevent scandal or shipwreck on the back end.
Ministry mentors are even more valuable during times of great trial. The Lord calls neither the minister nor the Christian to live a life without suffering (Phil. 1:29). Rather, he will call a minister to plunge into the storm and hold on to the cross throughout. It is older and wiser ministers who can help younger ministers do just that.
In almost every case of a young pastor who perseveres through an abusive ministry relationship and tenure, there is an older minister behind the scenes helping the younger one hold fast. When I weathered a challenging season years ago, two ministers who were aware of the situation regularly called and encouraged me. I described situations in detail so they could either validate my actions or challenge my behavior.
A retired pastor who was blissfully unaware of the situation met with me weekly for coffee, sharing the fruits of decades of ministry with me along with ample doses of biblical encouragement. Another minister was ready to nurse my family back to health when we finally escaped our ordeal. Older ministers who play the part of accuser can easily drive young ministers from the ministry. Yet those who play the part of advocate, imitating their Savior, can sustain and restore many a broken heart.
A More Pastoral Connectionalism
“Our denomination only knows how to relate doctrinally, not pastorally or personally,” one young minister once confided in me. A minor theological dispute became an occasion for a celebrated pastor to engage in abusive behavior and rhetoric toward several ministers, including one serving on his staff. The denomination studied the doctrinal issue at stake but largely left the sinful behavior unchecked.
Just as prospective ministers are often examined more for competency than for character, the same is often true of sessions. Both congregants and wider pastoral bodies are unaware of the inner workings of a session—especially in terms of relationships. Are these shepherds of the flock encouraging one another, confronting hard issues and engaging in conflict with humility and charity, and repenting and forgiving one another?
Some denominations have visitation committees that assist a session with known and often public conflicts. What if such committees met with sessions ahead of time to help assess abusive tendencies or other indicators of spiritual dysfunction? Every group of elders—like all Christians—have blind spots that other Christians can identify and engage. Perhaps a session is “peacemaking” by avoiding an important issue because there are dissenting opinions. An outside committee might recognize this and help the session to proceed on the issue with love and charity.
Alongside these more structural considerations, young ministers must have formal mechanisms for seeking help and have confidence that those mechanisms can work. Those who are bullied by senior ministers or sessions are often dissuaded from seeking outside help. They are told that they are being too sensitive, or divisive, and will end up hurting all parties including themselves. They need to know that help is just a phone call away.
Ultimately, the vulnerability of young ministers—and the temptation to prey upon or neglect them—is spiritual in nature. In Acts 20, Paul warns the Ephesian elders of wolves who would seek to devour the flock. We often assume that such wolves would come from the surrounding culture, but sadly, they are sometimes masquerading in shepherd’s clothing.
The Lord Jesus Christ provides his church with the tools necessary to expose abusive ministers and protect young ministers. For example, he provides a roadmap for godly confrontation in Matthew 18. Most importantly, as the Good Shepherd, he models what it is to effectively shepherd the flock of God (John 10). Instead of preying upon the sheep as many of the Old Testament shepherds did, he laid down his life for the sheep.
He calls ministers today to do the same, and we are given a model in the Pastoral Epistles of how young ministers can be protected and nurtured by older ministers. Look closely at the passages that deal with Paul’s heart for those younger ministers entrusted to his care. He knows their backgrounds, their sin, and their struggles. In the name of Christ, he loved them and committed God’s Word to their hands and mouths for ministry long after he was poured out like a drink offering (2 Tim. 4).
Protecting our next generation of ministers is not optional. The living God does not take this matter lightly. Brothers, protect our young ministers—even if from themselves—so that they can fulfill their God-given, Christ-ruled, Spirit-equipped calling to the flock. We will give an account.