For most of my life, my pastors have been older than I am — significantly older. This always seemed right to me. As a child, then a teen, then a young woman seeking to grow in Christ, I welcomed the authority and wisdom of older pastors. But now that I’m middle-aged, I’ve begun to notice an alarming fact: the men whom God has called to shepherd me are occasionally my age or younger.
When I first began to notice this trend, I responded with a chuckle more than anything else: So this is what it’s like to grow up! You get older than the preacher. But the longer I’ve been either a peer or an older sister in Christ to my pastors, I’ve faced some peculiar pride-filled temptations.
Temptations related to pastoral authority are not unique to my circumstance, of course. Some of us may have a harder time with an older pastor, or a new pastor, or a less-experienced pastor, or a more-experienced pastor. For all of us on this side of the new heavens and new earth, authority — even good and God-ordained authority — can cause us to bristle.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, however, he commends an attitude toward pastoral authority far removed from bristling:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13)
How should Christians respond to their pastors? Respect them. Esteem them. Love them. To that end, consider three pitfalls to avoid as we relate to our pastors, so that we are able to show proper respect as we esteem them very highly in love.
Lay Aside Impossible Expectations
First, don’t let impossible expectations replace eager anticipation. When we come into any gathering with God’s people, whether the large gathering on Sunday morning or a smaller gathering on Wednesday night or a one-on-one meeting with one of our pastors, we bring expectations. These expectations are right and good if they accord with what the Bible teaches. We should expect our pastors to lead us in worshiping God, to imitate Christ in his character, and to instruct us in God’s word, not worldly ideas.
“Respecting our pastors means laying down impossible expectations and trading them for eager anticipation.”
But when our expectations for how our pastors must act or behave center on our preferences or pet agendas, we likely will lose the eager anticipation we should have when gathering with God’s people. We also may find that an unmet expectation in one area breeds more and more expectations for what our pastors should do and how they should do it in other areas. What began as an unmet expectation for them to develop a certain type of counseling ministry has multiplied into unmet expectations for what committees they prioritize and what day of the week they take off.
Respecting our pastors means laying down impossible expectations and trading them for eager anticipation of all that God will do — both in our pastors and in ourselves — by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. God will meet us in unexpected ways when we forsake our own expectations, and receive our pastors as the men God has made them to be — imperfect and growing, but appointed over us for our good.
Turn Off the Inner Prosecutor
Second, don’t let a critical spirit replace critical thinking. One important and serious duty of every church is to be like the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness,” yet also were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Their eager reception of the word was not diminished by their daily examination of it.
Unfortunately, for some of us who are students of God’s word and think we have all our theological ducks in a row, our response can be heavy on examination and light on reception. Rather than being like the Bereans, who took what they were taught and gladly held it up to God’s word to verify its truthfulness, we can be more like an oversensitive car alarm that goes off whenever someone walks by, even though no one is trying to break in.
When our pastors exercise authority through the teaching of the word, and even when they admonish us, our posture should be one of receptivity followed by careful examination of the word. If, after examination, we think one of our pastors may have mishandled the word in some way, we may need to go to him in love and humbly raise the issue. But if he hasn’t mishandled the word — if he has merely expressed it faithfully, even if imperfectly — we may need to ask God to help us turn off our inner prosecutor and “receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21).
Forsake Suspicious Judgments
Last, don’t let loveless judgment replace loving regard. In a polarized society, suspicion of those who are not in our “tribe” is everywhere, but never quite as acutely as toward those in authority. Many now consider it virtuous and necessary to suspect anyone with so-called “power” of some sort of malevolence. And there are plenty of examples all over the Internet of real abuses of power, which seem to give ample reasons for suspicion. When we let those specific cases and the broader cultural narrative color our perceptions, suspicion appears to be wisdom. But suspicion is not the same thing as godly discernment.
Suspicion, like its wicked cousin bitterness, is an invasive species. Once it takes root, it is hard to pull up. Suspicion tells us that other people’s motives are likely bad, but ours (and those of the people in our tribe) are pure. Suspicion says that our pastors are likely no different than famous pastors who have been caught in scandals. Suspicion says that our pastors are likely just in ministry for themselves — there’s no way they could actually love us. Suspicion turns minor imperfections (which every pastor has!) into evidences of massive moral failure. And worst of all, suspicion leads us to stand in the place of God, exercising unwarranted judgment over those we ought to regard highly in love.
Don’t get me wrong — God is clear that pastors ought to have good character (1 Timothy 3:1–7). “An overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7). Yet the suspicious are often convinced that they alone can see the evil lurking in the hearts of their pastors.
Esteem Them Very Highly
We will not esteem our pastors very highly in love if our expectations of them are impossible, or if a critical spirit has poisoned our ability to receive instruction from them, or if our suspicions have led us to loveless, unwarranted judgments of their character.
“Pastoral authority, despite what the cultural narratives would have you believe, is for your good.”
The solution is threefold: repent, believe, and pray. Repent of sinful attitudes toward your pastors. Believe God’s ways are good, which means pastoral authority, despite what the cultural narratives would have you believe, is for your good. Pray for your pastors regularly — without fanfare or irritation. Ask God to do outrageously good things in your pastors’ lives: to transform them more and more into the image of Christ, to keep them humble and unstained from the world, to grant them power by the Spirit in all their labors.
There may be no more potent way to esteem your pastors very highly in love than to speak to God on their behalf. Our prayers to God for our pastors will inevitably begin to soften our hearts to love them as God loves them, and our words and behavior will reflect the growing respect and esteem we have for them.