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The Pastor is Ill

Author
Category Articles
Date September 13, 2019

The man in the pulpit is much more likely to be ill than the man in the pew. As an ordinary mortal and private Christian he is as susceptible to illness as the next man. But a few minutes’ reflection on his work and calling will reveal that what is a possibility in most people is an ever present probability in the life of the pastor.

This would be true even if I was only talking about his regular contact with disease. Next to doctors and nurses themselves, there is perhaps nobody who is more exposed to infection than the minister of the gospel. He is constantly visiting members of his flock who are in physical affliction, and has almost daily contact with people who are ill. Most of the time, it is true, the only catching complaints that he meets are colds, and children’s diseases. However, a succession of colds, and a week of flu, can be utterly devastating physically, and can leave a man with such low resistance that there is no telling what he may pick up on his travels.

Although this exposure to disease should not be underestimated, in this article I am talking about the probability of the pastor being ill through overwork, anxiety, stress and continued strain. A man may become ill, seriously, just through being worn out. This is the condition from which Jethro’s advice rescued Moses (Exodus 18:13-27). Epaphroditus was not so fortunate, and his hard work in the cause of Christ nearly cost him his life (Philippians 2:25-30). How important it is that a congregation should realise that its minister is exposed to the very same danger! The moment a man enters the ministry, his physical health is in jeopardy.

I

Few church members ever sit down to ponder just what their minister’s life involves. Many a pastor spends as long each week at his desk as the white-collar worker in his church does at his. Faithful prayer, general study and regular sermon preparation is a taxing business. The pastor’s life is one of much study, and this is still a weariness to the flesh. The world considers a forty-hour week to be about normal. Many ministers have done that much before they even walk out of the study door!

But when the sermons have been prepared, they have still to be delivered. Only those who have preached themselves can even begin to understand anything of the physical and nervous energy which is expended in the conducting of a service and the preaching of a sermon. When the faithful pastor descends from the pulpit steps, he has not only given to the congregation the fruits of many hours’ study, but he has given of himself. He has preached part of himself away to each of his hearers. In spending, he has been spent, and stands in dire need of physical and emotional replenishment. Preaching is a joyous work to the called of the Lord, but the treasure is very much in earthen vessels. This ensures that the glory goes to God. But the earthen vessel is conscious of his weakness and frailty, and how easily he can be broken. The treasure is glorious and heavy; but the earthen vessel often wonders how he can carry it any longer. How many ministers retire to bed on the Lord’s Day with a still willing spirit, but exhausted flesh! Their inward man has been strengthened in the work of preaching, but the outward man could do no more, however hard he tried.

But what of the minister’s many other duties? Did you know that the postman never passes your minister’s front door? Each letter requires a prompt but full and thoughtful answer. The wisdom of Solomon is needed, for many folk bring their most intricate and personal problems to the pastor by means of his letter-box.

And then there is his visiting. Have you ever considered what strain is involved in just one afternoon spent in this task? At each home the pastor must speak to a different individual with a different need. He must be unhurried; and yet he knows deep-down how many others could be helped by a visit from him that day. He must be on the giving end the whole time, comforting the sick in one home, strengthening the weak in the next, chiding the careless, rebuking the sinful, and restoring the backslider. And this work, be it remembered, he does not by constraint but willingly. He does it because he cares for his people. He is anxious for them, and their needs are weighty burdens on his heart.

It is for this reason that the pastor also keeps open home. The writer only has a modestly-sized pastorate, but finds that seldom do less than ten people a day call at his home. Each one has come for a reason, and each one has come in the hope of being helped. Some come time and time again, for their problems can only be settled on a long-term basis. Others come with something that can be settled that very day. Many come to scrounge, while many are in genuine need — and great discern­ment is needed to distinguish them. Some come with quite appalling motives, and have to be dealt with firmly; while with others great gentle­ness is needed, lest the bruised reed should be broken. The pastor is never off duty — for problems and Satanic attacks do not come by appointment only. When the sheep are in trouble, it is to the under-shepherd that they naturally turn. Study can be interrupted, plans for a day-off spoiled, sleep disturbed and holidays cut short. Nobody in genuine need of pastoral help can be turned away, and the pastor may literally worry himself sick because he feels that he cannot always give to his wife and children the attention they deserve. And if keeping open home in this manner proves to be a financial burden, the worry may be more than he can take.

And what shall I say about the ‘care of the churches’ of which the apostle speaks? The pastor’s longing is to present every man perfect in Christ. But how slow some appear to be in their spiritual progress! Like Moses, he sometimes tires of his people. Their backbiting and false accusations bite and tear into his innermost soul. Every backslider, immature believer and quarrelling saint weighs on his spirit, and makes his grieving heart heavy all the day long. And do not think that those who are doing well cease to be a care to him, for he watches over them jealously, and prays and earnestly beseeches the Lord to keep them from evil. It is the jealousy of Christ that moves him to yearn in this way, and his spirit sighs to see them edified more and more. All his people are always on his heart, and even at leisure or on holiday they are never for long out of his affectionate memory.

No earthly labour makes such demands on a man’s spirit. Others come home in the evening, their work done for the day. This happy experience is entirely unknown to the minister of the Gospel. His work is a life work, and knows no conclusion except the Judgement Seat of Christ, where he will give his account. Until then he seeks to work, not doing the work of God slackly, not relying on the flesh — but redeeming the time, knowing how evil the days are. Overwork, anxiety, stress and strain are his lifelong companions. Only thoughtlessness will overlook the fact that all this lays him more open to illness than others.

II

‘Prevention is better than cure’, says the old adage. Jethro knew this truth and used it to keep Moses from a serious breakdown. The preventive steps that he took involved support and sharing. Many a minister would be free from illness today if Christian people had copied Jethro’s example, and not just eulogised his wisdom.

The church can support its minister by giving to him the necessary tools to do his job. It is quite immoral to expect a pastor to visit his flock if he has not been provided with a suitable vehicle. Yet many a minister of Christ walks dozens of miles each week, while his congregation wonders why he constantly looks so jaded and tired, and speculates as to why he hasn’t seen Mrs. X for quite some time. But it wasn’t because Mrs. X was forgotten. She was probably on his mind all week. But his concern was frustrated by the fact that to visit her was a physical feat beyond his strength, or that he simply could not afford the appropriate bus fare. The church which makes the small financial sacrifice involved in providing its minister with a car will do much to safeguard his physical health, and its own spiritual health, both at the same time.

Which leads us to the subject of finance. Of course, a true under-­shepherd serves his sheep from a willing spirit and a ready mind, and has no affection for filthy lucre, knowing well that such an affection is the root of all evil. But it does not follow that he should live on a pittance. If a labourer is worthy of his hire, as God himself has declared, countless congregations are robbing God by paying their ministers so little. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself commended the practice of tithing, and if each wage-earner did so, the churches would be free of all financial worry. They would be well able to pay ministers what is their right, as well as being able to meet all other contingencies. No minister should receive less than the average wage of the members of the church. But as it is today, many spend hours each week minutely budgeting their money, and worrying, quite naturally, how they are going to manage. This worry is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And the hours spent considering how each penny is to be spent could be so much better employed.

God’s servants also need holidays. This too is taught in Scripture, but is conveniently overlooked by carnal Christians who seem to be intent on breaking their pastor’s mortal frame in the shortest possible time. They moan that they only get two weeks a year, (how many do?), and that the pastor gets a month. But if they counted the other odd days and Saturdays, they would see that their pastor gets over a month’s holiday less than they do. After several years of consecutive ministry it is my firm conviction that the average pastor needs several breaks a year, when he can get right away. Both pastor and church benefit from such times of genuine refreshment. Churches should encourage their ministers to relax, and should ensure that they are given the wherewithal to do so. Elders should be frank, and should tell the pastor that the holiday is for resting, and should actively discourage him from preaching while he is away. Too many men rely on the honorarium that they get from such preaching to pay for their time away, but we have seen that this should not have to be so.

Support in these three matters of vehicle, finance, and holidays, would have prevented many a man from breaking down. But added to this is the whole concept of sharing. A return to the scriptural practice of having a plurality of elders and deacons would solve most problems in this respect.

No man can teach, rule, guide and discipline the church on his own, ­it is beyond the bounds of all human possibility. But a plurality of elders, a presbytery, can — and it is the will of God that it should. Must the pastor chair every meeting? Must he do all the visiting and interviewing? This is elders’ work, and elders should take as much of it on themselves as they can, leaving the pastor as free as possible to labour in Word and doctrine.

And how many pastors are there who light the boilers, open the doors, put up the hymns, tidy the notice-board and dust the hymn-books? Shame on the minister who despises such work — for all lowly work for Christ should be a pleasure to him. But greater shame on the church which allows a pastor to do such things! God has ordained the office of deacon for tasks which include these. How blessed is the church where the deacons do their work well! There you will find a people well taught in the Scriptures, because the pastor has been able to give his undivided attention to the preparation and the preaching of messages from above. Churches which submit to the Divine Word, and have elders and deacons functioning scripturally, seldom see their pastors broken by burdens too heavy for men to carry.

III

But too often it is too late. The toil of years takes its toll, and the sad announcement of the pastor’s illness is made to a surprised church. By what it does next, a church shows itself in its true colours. Often selfish­ness rules the day, and such questions as these spring to mind at once­: ‘When will he be back?’, ‘What are we going to do without him?’, or ‘Does he expect us to support him, when we are getting nothing out of him?’ Sometimes these questions are cruelly voiced. Often they are just silently pondered. Either way, they betray a carnal and mercenary spirit. A spiritual fellowship of godly people would make this its first question — ‘What can we do for the pastor during his illness?’

First of all they can recognise that the pastor is a man like themselves, and subject to pain, anxiety, and spiritual depression. In the planning of preachers, and the sharing-out of the pastor’s duties, the office-bearers should be quick to remember that at this time they can exercise a valuable spiritual ministry to the man who usually ministers to them. They should plan to visit him regularly; to keep him intimately in touch with news of the people he loves, to read to him from the Scriptures, and to be often at his bedside in prayer. But how rarely this happens! A man may give himself unreservedly for his people, but in the time of his own need be almost entirely neglected by them. This is especially true in this matter of spiritual ministry.

Early in his illness, the office-bearers should give to the pastor and his wife a definite assurance that his ill-health will make no difference to the material support that they receive from the church. Some servants of Christ, losing their health in the service of their flocks, have been materially disowned by them during long illnesses. This explains why many of them have never recovered. To be materially assured early in his illness is a great load off a mortal man’s mind, and thus a real aid to his recovery. It is too easy to say that a minister should be above such anxieties. He isn’t. When the body is weak and tired, such questions loom large. The church must recognise that it is pledged to support the pastor who labours in Word and doctrine, and that this support does not end when his holy labours are interrupted by physical affliction.

Speaking generally, it is probably best if the visiting of the ill pastor is restricted to the office-bearers. If it were not so, the constant stream of church members and friends to his home could well impede his recovery. But this does not mean that the ordinary church member can do nothing. To send a kind letter or card is something that all can do. Verbal enquiries to the pastor’s wife and children are also much appreciated, but it must be realised that by their constancy and repetition they bring their own strain to the pastor’s family. The church secretary would be wise to say a little about the pastor’s condition in the course of the weekly church announcements, and this in itself would keep his needs to the forefront of the church’s prayer ministry.

In most cases, God is usually pleased to restore the pastor to his people, but no church should receive him back to his normal duties until it is plain that his recovery is complete. Often a man comes back too early, and is soon ill again, or limps through his ministry for the rest of his life. A long and thorough holiday would be a charitable present to the recovering man of God, followed by a resumption of duties on a gradual basis. For some time to come, the elders should insist that he takes more than one day off a week, and that he works to a very reduced programme. Now also is the time for the church to see that some duties need not be handed back to the pastor at all, for they are being satisfactorily handled by others. The happiest church of all will be the one that welcomes the pastor back to his ministry of Word and doctrine, and puts no other commitments upon him.

My hope is that these comments will lead some church members to give considered and prayerful thought to the role, duties and welfare of their pastors. There is a shortage of good men in the ministry today. Let us not kill those that we have! Rather, let us do everything within our power to ensure that their ministries are long and effective.


This article was first published in the January 1972 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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