A Holy Conspiracy of Joy

The Heart of Healthy Pastors and Churches

Money and joy. Across the passages in the New Testament that speak to Christian leadership, these are the two most repeated themes. And we might see them as two sides of one motivational coin. That is, what gain are pastor-elders to seek (and not seek) in becoming and enduring as local-church leaders? Why pastors serve really matters.

What Makes a Pastor Happy?

The apostle Paul worked with his own hands, making and mending tents — which made him a good man to make the case for “double honor” (respect and remuneration) for pastor-elders who give themselves to church-work as their breadwinning vocation. However, necessary and good as it is for staff pastors to receive pay, Paul would not have greedy men (paid or unpaid) in either the pastoral or diaconal office. “Not a lover of money,” he specifies in 1 Timothy 3:3 (memorable in the King James as “not greedy of filthy lucre”). For deacons, in 1 Timothy 3:8: “not greedy for dishonest gain.”

So too, the final chapter of Hebrews moves seamlessly from “keep your life free from love of money” (Hebrews 13:5–6) to “remember your leaders” (Hebrews 13:7), and it’s no wonder. The one should go hand in hand with the other — as they do right at the heart of Peter’s passage for elders: “Shepherd the flock . . . , not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2). The apostles would have us speak, in the same breath, of lives free from love of money and local-church leaders who exemplify that lifestyle.

The other side of the coin, then, is the positive motivation: joy. Paul begins 1 Timothy 3 by not only condoning but requiring the holy pursuit of joy in ministry: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Pastor-elders must aspire to the work, that is, want it, desire it, anticipating that it will, in some important sense, make them happy. They should not have their arms twisted to serve, but genuinely desire such work from the heart — as Peter says, “not under compulsion, but willingly.” Even though prospective church leaders hear (and may have observed or even experienced) that this line of labor can be especially taxing emotionally and spiritually, they can’t seem to shake a settled desire and aspiration for the work. They desire it, from and for joy.

Gain That Matches the Work

Peter succinctly captures the two sides (not money but joy) of our motivation coin: “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” Notice he doesn’t say “not for gain.” Rather, he says “not for shameful gain,” meaning that there is a gain without shame that he is not excluding. And in fact, he requires it. “Eagerly” presumes some motivation to gain — just that this gain is not “shameful.”

“Honorable gain in Christian ministry is benefit that befits the work.”

What, then, might be honorable gain in Christian leadership? We wouldn’t be right to rule out any financial remuneration (which would require ignoring Paul’s case). But we would be correct to rule out money as the driving motivation. What gain, then, are pastors to seek? We might say it like this: honorable gain in Christian ministry is benefit that befits the work. Or we might say: gain that is commensurate with the work. We might ask the potential or present pastor, “Do you have joy in the work, and receive joy from the work, that strengthens the work itself? Or does the gain you seek from the work of Christian ministry take you away from the work?”

In other words, Is the gain you seek from ministry in, or apart from, the good of the flock?

Joy, Not Groaning

Hebrews is particularly striking in that it puts the pursuit of joy at the heart of the work of pastors, both for the pastors and for their people. Addressing the congregation, Hebrews 13:17 says,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

In the healthiest of churches, the pastor-elders aspire to the work and do it willingly and eagerly (1 Peter 5:2), and (now we add) the people do their part to “let them [labor] with joy.” Which makes for a kind of holy conspiracy of joy in three critical stages.

1. The Leaders Aspire

First, the leaders aspire to the work, as we’ve seen, and joyfully undertake it. Good pastors want to do the work of pastoral ministry, from joy and for joy.

“Let them [labor] with joy” assumes that the pastors are starting out with joy; they are operating from and for holy joy in Christ, and in his people. Let’s be honest, pastors don’t get into this line of work for the money; the pay is modest at best in the vast majority of pastorates. Rather, God moved on these men, whether over time or seemingly in some particular moment, to give them an unusual desire to give more of themselves for the good of the church. They came into the work with a particular joy-fed and joy-led desire to love and serve the church through diligent teaching and humble governance.

“Unlike other vocations, mere willingness is not enough in pastoral work.”

Unlike other vocations, mere willingness is not enough in pastoral work. Christ appoints and provides a kind of eagerness in pastors for the calling, not just to make a living, but to give of themselves, beyond what can be fully reckoned and remunerated, for others’ progress and joy in the faith.

2. The Church Cooperates

The people then, encourages Hebrews, “let them do this with joy.” That is, the people try not to disrupt or derail that happiness by turning pastoral joy into groaning. Healthy congregants don’t want to interrupt happy labor with needless and sinful complaining and grumbling.

Note well, the church is not charged to make the pastors’ work joyful, but to let them labor with joy. In other words, “Church, your pastors are working with joy. Don’t make their work miserable or unnecessarily difficult. Your miseries might want company, but for your own good, don’t seek to make your pastors groan.” The church is not responsible to make their pastors happy; neither is it the church’s job to make them miserable.

Now, to be sure, there’s a word here for pastors too: brothers, labor with gladness, not groaning, even when ministry gets hard, for both your own joy and the church’s, which is the third and final part.

3. The Church Gains

Finally, ongoing, resilient, joyful labor by the pastors brings about the joyful gain of the congregation. That’s the explicit reason Hebrews gives: “Let [your leaders labor] with joy and not with groaning,” he says, “for that would be of no advantage to you.” When the pastors labor with joy, and the people don’t unnecessarily interrupt that joy, the people themselves benefit. Those who undermine the joy of their pastors do so to their own disadvantage.

And the pastors, who have been aiming all along at the holy and enduring joy of their people, have their own joy made complete in seeing the advantage and gain of the flock. So it is, in the apostles’ complementary callings on the pastors and their people, a kind of holy conspiracy of joy: the leaders aspire to the work and joyfully do it; the people “let them do this with joy,” striving to not give their pastors reasons to groan; and that joyful labor by the pastors then brings about the greater joy, advantage, and benefit of the whole church.

In it all, why is joy so central to the work of pastoral ministry? Because Christ is most glorified in his people when they are most satisfied in him. Joy in Christ in the heart, radiating out in audible and visual expressions, and life together in the church, magnifies its source and focus. So if pastors want Jesus to be glorified in their work, then one major, even central, reality to take into account is joy — the pastors’ joy in the people’s joy in Christ.