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The Battle Scars of Ministry Life

“From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).

“…I bear branded on my body the owner’s stamp of the Lord Jesus” (the Moffett translation).

“…I bear on my body the scars that mark me as a slave of Jesus” (Goodspeed).

At Mississippi State University, the Kenyan student carried horizontal scars across his face. “Identification marks for my tribe,” he explained to me. Wow. Tough clan.

We were returning from the cemetery in the mortuary’s station wagon. The director and I were chatting and perhaps could have been more observant. We did not notice the pickup truck coming from our right and running the stop sign at 30 or 40 mph. We broadsided the truck.

My forehead broke the dashboard. I bled and bled. And got a ride to the hospital in the EMS van.

The emergency room people decided I had suffered no serious injuries and taped up the two gashes in my face. At the wedding rehearsal that night, I sported a large white bandage on my forehead, just above the eyebrows. It made for some memorable wedding photos the next day.

That happened over 30 years ago and I still carry the scars. Interestingly, no one notices that they’re scars. They’re situated in the same place one might have frown marks. But if you look closely, you can see they are scars. I would not have those scars if I were not a minister.

My wife Bertha, bride of nearly five months now, tells me her husband Gary had scars in the same place, also from the ministry. “We were walking to our church in the French Quarter,” she said. “Suddenly, a woman screamed and ran toward us, yelling, ‘Don’t let him get me!’ Behind her a car was coming. Apparently, someone—her husband, someone—was after her. Gary handed me our child and told me to get back. He positioned himself between the woman and one very angry man. In the scuffle, the man hit Gary right between the eyes, causing a deep gash.” Bertha said, “I don’t remember what happened next, and know nothing of the outcome of that couple. But we had to go to a clinic quickly. Gary carried the scar from that fight the rest of his life.” Ministry scars.

Everyone in the Lord’s service will bear them sooner or later.

This week, I reposted an article from the 2001 issue of Leadership Journal telling of our difficult three-year pastorate of the late 1980s which resulted in my abrupt departure and a year’s hiatus between churches. Soon my mailbox filled with pastors and other ministers sharing their stories. There is so much pain; so many scars. In Word Meanings in the New Testament, Professor Ralph Earle comments on Galatians 6:17. The word stigma, usually translated scars or brand-marks, derives from the Greek word meaning “to prick,” as with a sharp instrument. He says, “Brand marks were carried especially by domestic animals, slaves, criminals and later soldiers.” And since Paul often refers to himself as a slave of Jesus, this may be translated as “I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus.” What exactly were those marks? Earle thinks Paul is referring to actual scars and wounds. After all, the price he paid for serving Jesus—see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28—surely would account for numerous physical marks left on his person.

Some of the scars on my soul are simply from sharing the pain my people were experiencing…

–I was awakened at 4 a.m. by the wife of a medical doctor. Her husband was at the hospital with a young couple from our church. “Charles just called,” she said. “He said, ‘I’ve lost Millie’s baby and now I’m losing Millie.’” He wanted her to pray. I jerked on some clothes and dashed to the hospital. Four hours later, I entered the labor and delivery room with the broken-hearted husband as he looked upon the face of his dead wife holding the lifeless infant in her arms. I weep today at the memory of it.

–Susan had grown up in our church and been the life of so many youth activities. She was born late in life to her devoted parents, wonderful encouragers of their pastor. Susan went off to college, majored in art and took a job in a New York City art store. One day while alone in the store, she “walked” a huge sculpture into place and turned away to other tasks. The massive piece fell on her and crushed her skull. She never knew what hit her. Because we had a wedding at our church that Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m., her funeral was held two hours earlier at the Methodist church a block down the street. I went from one to the other, my heart breaking, my soul in tears.

–I had to call on a beloved senior lady in our church to break the news that her only daughter had taken her own life. I recall every detail of that visit, every word that was spoken, and will never forget the grief of that precious mother.

And now that I’ve started recalling these experiences, so many others clamor to be included. The little children who lost their battles with cancer. The car wrecks. The shootings. The divorces, family betrayals, drunkenness, child abuse, the visits to prison. So many scars, so much pain and hurt.

Some of these scars were put there by church leaders, a few deacons in particular…

–The deacon who stood in the foyer of the church Sunday after Sunday telling visitors and anyone he did not recognize, “You don’t want to come to this church. The pastor is a liberal!” When I asked the deacon leadership to deal with him, no one wished to tackle the job. When he refused all my attempts to meet, finally I wrote him a letter. That was a mistake, because he made copies to pass around and visited homes of church members slandering me. Eventually, the Lord moved him away, but not before he had done a great deal of damage.

–That four-hour deacons’ meeting in 1989 in which a small group did all in their power to force me out of the church. Having nothing to charge me with—the church was growing, we were running ahead of the budget, and were having the second best year in baptisms in the last 75 years!—they resorted to innuendo such as “there is a malaise in the church” and “Joe isn’t giving our church the leadership we need.” (One wonders if they realized that the malaise could be caused by their own efforts to undermine the ministry and oust the pastor! They remind me of people who withhold their tithes, then fire the preacher because the church is hurting financially. They say, “The congregation isn’t responding to your leadership.”)

–I had gone four years with no raise in salary, even though I had taken a huge cut in salary in coming to that church. Finally, when the leadership recommended an appropriate raise in salary the criticism throughout the congregation was so widespread and painful one would have thought we were committing armed robbery. To quieten the furor, the deacon leaders asked me to go before the congregation and give a full explanation of my financial affairs—what I had made in the previous church, the amount I had come to this church for, the four years of no increase, and a few other things. After my 10-minute explanation, I ended with this: “I have not enjoyed doing this. No one wants to stand up and tell everyone what he is making. You would not want to do it. And you shouldn’t ask your pastor to, either. The finance committee and personnel committee are supposed to handle these things. I want you to promise me you will never again ask a pastor of this church to do such a thing.” The applause indicated their agreement.

I’m not naïve. I know that people have short memories. Most churches will have a few cruel members who feel a pastor should receive starvation wages just because he is God-called. The remedy is not to punish the preacher or even ask him to open his financial statement, but for spiritual leaders to show some backbone, to stand up and publicly address the subject with appropriate scriptures. “The laborer is worthy of his hire” comes to mind. And “let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” I Timothy 5:17-18. And when the mean-spirited ones persist, they should be visited by a couple of gutsy leaders who will answer their questions, then insist that they stop their disruptive behavior. But the pastor should stay out of it.

Protect your pastor from certain ones in the church.

–I had an idea for an attendance campaign in our plateaued, stagnated church (which was still recovering from a split a few years previously). The Sunday School classes would have inspiring goals and bold strategies, and at the end of the campaign at least two teachers would be rewarded with Holy Land trips, exciting rewards for those who teach God’s Word. The more I thought this through, prayed over it and talked to our staff, the more convinced I was that this would generate a great response, and we would blast our stalemated church off the launching pad into some exciting growth.

The deacons shot it down.

One man in particular, often positive and supportive, but occasionally unpredictable, took it upon himself to scuttle “such outlandish and unnecessary payoffs for teachers doing what they ought to be doing all the time anyway.” I walked out of the meeting disappointed, but determined to go forward with a smaller campaign. (The results from which were uninspiring.) Adding to my pain, that deacon would later refer to this as a moment when he saved the church from my extravagance and foolishness.

I know pastors who have had their dreams and hopes shot down by leaders sharing neither their vision or faith. Suck it up and go forward, I encourage them. Do not pout, do not take your marbles and go home. Be the adult in the room, and go forward. If you have to weep, do it in private. Moses had not planned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, but was intending to cut straight across the Sinai peninsula and occupy Canaan. The unbelief of his massive congregation, however, sentenced themselves—and therefore their leader—to four decades of misery and wanderings. Like him, we pastors do what we have to do.

Through much tribulation and heartache we enter the kingdom, Paul and Barnabas told the early believers (Acts 14:22). In the world you will have tribulation, our Lord said. “But take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

These things hurt, and nothing is going to change that. But we should take the long view.“This momentary light affliction…” (see 2 Corinthians 4:17 for the rest of this promise). Scars are par for the course.

The magna carta of our assignment is found in Matthew 10:16-42. The Lord’s disciples, He said, could expect to be misunderstood, mistreated and abused. Their enemies would sometimes be the most religious people on the planet, persecuting the righteous even in their houses of worship (10:17). Even members of their own families (10:35-36) would oppose them. Anyone entering the ministry should do so with eyes wide open, knowing full well how things could go.

God’s workers can be naïve, wear rose-colored glasses and be blind-sided by the opposition. Surely, we think, serving the Lord’s people will bring an unending succession of joys and accomplishments. We blindly go forth from seminary into our new church expecting everyone to act like Christ. Because we love them, no doubt they will love us. They will follow us because our motives are pure and we seek only to bless them. And then reality sets in.

Before the moving van is unloaded we learn some members have decided they would not like us, would not follow us and would work to undermine whatever we attempted. They did this without even knowing us, without hearing us, without giving us a chance.

Why do they do this? Why can people be so harsh and unloving toward the servants God sends to His churches? Something our Lord said keeps hammering on my soul. It’s from John 15. “They hated me without cause,” Jesus said. We may expect the world to hate us, Jesus said, because we are not of the world. But we are not blindsided by that. We were expecting the unsaved world to ignore us and some even to oppose us. But surely not the good people.

Here is what Jesus said. “All these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” And He said, “They have done this in order that the word may be fulfilled that is written in their Law, ‘They hated me without a cause’” (John 15:21,25).

Many of the leaders of our churches do not know God. They do not believe in Jesus.

They do believe in some things. Just not in Him. They believe in having nice churches and doing good things and having fine programs. They believe in ten thousand things, but they do not know God or believe in Jesus. If they did—and this is the telling clue—they would shiver in their shoes at the prospect of causing pain and suffering to those called to serve the Lord’s congregation. They would read Matthew 10:40 and Luke 10:16 and feel that in entering the church they had taken ahold of chained lightning.

And then, the Lord sends someone to heal the hurt…

They are usually not power people in the congregation, and they may not have a clue about what the pastor and his family are having to deal with. But the love of the Lord Jesus is so precious within them that an hour in their presence makes it all worthwhile. Here is my note from my journal, penned in a low moment in the difficult church…

“Today I had a letter from Aline Williams in Murfreesboro, TN. Says husband Burt (age 80?) died November 7 at 10 pm. Said he prayed for us every morning at the breakfast table. We had not seen them since we left the church at Columbus (MS) six years earlier. They were members of the church there. Aline said, ‘His love for you never failed. His health failed. His body failed. His eyesight and hearing failed. But not his love.”

I read that even today and weep. Thank you, Father, for such precious people who are the very embodiment of the love of Christ and faithfulness to His cause.

I want to be like Burt Williams. I want to love and give and serve even when the news from the doctor is discouraging and I feel awful. I want to pray for brothers and sisters in Christ whom I have not seen in years but who are still out there serving and trying to make a difference.

The battle scars are not excuses. They are just that, battle scars. “One will say to him, ‘What are these scars between your hands?’ Then he will say, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends’” (Zechariah 13:6).

Help us, Father.

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