Refreshing Your Shepherd

It is Clergy Appreciation Month. Your pastor needs encouragement. These are good things, for it means that he is human, and that you have a unique opportunity to be a servant to him.

Many parishioners have and will celebrate their pastors during this month. They will give him gifts, say kind words to him, or provide him with some extra time off. Yet other local congregations will miss this great opportunity, and their pastors will go without any special recognition – this, despite the fact that celebrating the pastor in October is now an annual tradition known throughout the North American Christian community. Many pastors will not be honored even as they watch their fellow pastors receive honor again and again by their churches. Thinking that this responsibility is someone else’s – such as the pastor’s aide committee or the deacons – many churchgoers will miss a chance to be a great blessing within the kingdom of God.

Why do We Honor Our Pastors?

For various reasons, there are churches that do not believe in showing special honor to a pastor. Some have overreacted to being stung by the greed of hirelings and wolves. They have witnessed the pastor who demands unbudgeted financial gifts at every turn: For his birthday (and his wife’s birthday), his wedding anniversary, anniversary of his call to the church, Christmas, and for Clergy Appreciation Month too! For fear of being fleeced by this rouse, some people hesitate to give any special honor even to faithful, humble shepherds.

It is important to remember that honoring the shepherd is the Lord’s idea. Through Paul, the Lord says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). Regardless of our bad experiences, shepherds, especially the hardworking and faithful ones, are due honor that is “double.”

The debate on the nature of “double” continues: “Double” of what? Is it twice what one gives widows (1 Tim. 5:3)? Is it much more than that due to other Christian workers? Is it greater than what one would give a professional outside of the church? Is it a unique measure of respect of their authority? One thing is certain: “Double” has a financial factor. The reasons for honor concern “wages” given for “labor” by the worker, and food for the ox to eat while he is pulling the plow (1 Tim. 5:18, cf. Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7). Of the later illustration, Paul writes that this Scripture concerns the payment of people (1 Cor. 9:8-12; cf. Dt. 25:4).

One church will build such monetary honor into the pastor’s salary and benefits package. Another church will provide it through a special annual anniversary gift (or annually during Clergy Appreciation Month). Still others provide special honor through a year-end bonus. These are commendable acts that demonstrate appreciation to the pastor. By some significant means, an assembly remembers the shepherd’s service for the maturity, comfort, and joy of his people.

Recently, a colleague of mine at a nearby congregation went to a pastor’s conference as a surprise gift from the leaders of his church. They recognized a particularly challenging season of work for their shepherd and spontaneously rewarded him. They paid for the conference registration and made travel arrangements. All he had to do was go. His smile was huge and humble as he recounted the story.

In stark contrast, for an unnamed number of assemblies and believers, the financial factor contributes to the caution (or refusal) of some to give generously toward their pastors: We are greedy people who love our money; we are selfish people who will spend discretionary funds on steak and shrimp, movies, and fifth and sixth mobile gadgets before we will give to one who labors in the word on our behalf.

Who Benefits from Honoring the Pastor?

In the economy of God, the great grace of the Lord toward his church is that the members of a local body benefit from honoring their shepherd. In Hebrews, speaking about leaders of the church, the writer says, “they are keeping watch over [our] souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). He then exhorts the church: “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The implication is that watching over souls with joy is of advantage to the people of God. Showing the shepherd special honor for his labors is one small way to foster this joy. Commenting on Heb. 13:17, Calvin notes,

“The heavier the burden they bear, the more honor they deserve; for the more labor anyone undertakes for our sake, and the more difficulty and danger he incurs for us, the greater are our obligations to him. And such is the office of bishops, that it involves the greatest labor and the greatest danger; if, then, we wish to be grateful, we can hardly render to them that which is due; and especially, as they are to give an account of us to God, it would be disgraceful for us to make no account of them.”

In August 2010, when it was announced that Washington Nationals rookie star pitcher Jason Strasburg had to have Tommy John surgery, fans knew that this meant he would miss most of the 2011 season. He would need a year off for recovery and therapy. Then, he would have to work his way back to the Major League from the farm system. Did Nats fans say this was too much extra care to give to a rookie pitcher? No. Did his teammates say to management that he was gaining favored treatment? No. Did anyone in the Nationals’ organization suggest that Strasburg’s incentives were sufficient and that having the surgery and time off was over the top? No. Why not? Because both fans and players knew that such a surgery would make Strasburg an even better player, which would mean wins for the entire team. In and around Washington, DC, the baseball faithful wanted this perk and the hiatus for their team’s leader so that they all could celebrate the victories the leader would gain for and with the whole team.

In a similar way, believers in a congregation benefit from showing special, non-contracted, even spontaneous honor to their leader. The shepherd, serving from the overflow of a joyous heart filled by the love his people have shown, provides ministry with excitement and not drudgery. Being human, he is strengthened by his people’s displays of affection, and he gains esteem from their acknowledgement of his faithful labors. With gladness he then gives to his people. Again Calvin writes,

“If [pastors] have their minds restrained by grief or weariness, though they may be sincere and faithful, they will yet become disheartened and careless, for vigor in acting will fail at the same time with their cheerfulness. Hence the Apostle declares, that it would be unprofitable to the people to cause sorrow and mourning to their pastors by their ingratitude; and he did this, that he might intimate to us that we cannot be troublesome or disobedient to our pastors without hazarding our own salvation.”

What are Some Practical Means of Showing Honor?

Practically speaking, it is very easy to encourage a faithful shepherd! It is difficult to encourage a hireling because his goal is to take advantage of the flock for himself. Thus he never will be satisfied. But a faithful pastor will be grateful for a reward, because he serves out of a motive to please the Lord and serve the people. Here, then, are a few suggestions of simple ways to show special honor this month.

First, considering giving your shepherd a gift card to Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Westminster Bookstore, Christian Book Distributors, Family Christian Stores, or Lifeway Christian Stores, for most shepherds love to read. Their jobs are wrapped in reading the Scriptures, and anything and everything that helps them better understand Scriptures, explain it to their sheep, and utilize it to foster Christlikeness in their people is truly a gift. Having the ability to purchase books by gift cards will allow him to pick up some leisurely reading titles rather than titles only associated with his ministry duties and pastoral budget. In this way, your pastor can take advantage of some very encouraging books such as The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, The Faithful Preacher, The Bruised Reed, or Jonathan Edwards: A Life.

If your shepherd is one with a large family, consider giving a gift that will help stretch his family budget, such as a gift card to Walmart, Target, or a local grocery store. Sometimes vehicle maintenance or home repairs have to be deferred for long periods of time in large ministry families. So offering to help repair a vehicle or home could lift a financial burden off the shepherd’s family, and thus off him. Yes, small, non-pastoral families may suffer from prolonged deferred maintenance. However, no one has an expectation that laymen will always have means to travel to serve other sheep, or that they will regularly invite people into their homes. Moreover, laymen can ask for benevolence from the church body without concern of their ministry being suspect. Typically pastors are not given this margin of error.

Some shepherds would welcome a fancy dinner out for their entire family. They would like the experience of eating where you like to eat. They would enjoy your pleasant company too.

Other pastors would welcome a few personal days off without concern of being docked for pay. Many pastors do not use the annual leave contracted for them; even fewer experience professional sabbaticals of any form. If you are an elder and chairman of deacons reading this, I would charge that you are responsible to see that your pastor takes necessary periods of rest, and that you make it your duty to see that he has no concerns about the ministry ceasing or revolting while he is resting. Grant your shepherd free, unscheduled leave, and exhort the membership to direct concerns to you while he is away.

If you are tired of watching your shepherd wear the same three suits or blazers each month, take him to a men’s clothier and purchase him a new suit, shirt, tie(s), and shoes. If you do not take him, he probably will not take the time out of his ministry schedule to go on his own. Make him go by taking him to the store and picking up the tab. You do not have to do this alone; a small group can do this as a group gift. He (and his wife) will be glad that you noticed the pills and loose threads on his suit pants and took thoughtful actions to care for him rather than pity or scoff at him.

If you have no financial means to provide a gift, a heartfelt note of thanks and encouragement will be very meaningful to your pastor. Cards and notes, however, should not be used as excuses for not making sacrifices to show honor. Honor is not communicated by thoughtless, cheap, obligatory acts; only duty is communicated: “I gave this to you because I had to, because it is politically correct to do so, and did the minimum necessary to fulfill this requirement.” Works of this sort reveal a heart that lacks gratefulness to Christ for granting a man of God to prepare the Lord’s church to meet with God, and to care for them in the stead of Christ until our Lord returns.

Is All of this Really Necessary?

Is all of this really necessary? Shouldn’t a shepherd serve faithfully even if he does not receive encouragement from the sheep? My answer to the latter question is “Yes!” Yes, a faithful shepherd will serve diligently when the fuel needle goes past “E” to “D” and “C.” However, whether or not special honor is necessary is the wrong question.

Again, the idea of double honor is from the Lord. Giving special honor is just one means of providing double honor. So we do not have the authority to ask if it is necessary. I follow my pastoral mentor in finding that those who desire to be obedient in providing double honor look for opportunities to provide special honor.

Also, as stated above, your overseer is a human being. He therefore needs occasional refreshment—an idea common to Paul’s writings about himself. The great apostle had need for his spirit to repose and gather strength (1 Cor. 16:18, Gk. ανεπαυσαν [anepausan]), and, figuratively speaking, he had need to cool off and recover from the effects of heat (2 Tim. 1:16, Gk. ανεψυξεν [anepsuxen]). Your pastor is no apostle; his needs are greater than Paul’s. He needs acts of love that will allow him to collect his strength and recover from working in the sun of ministry—from ministry sunstroke. When he is back to full strength, you will see and feel the effects in his ministry toward you and all of God’s people.

Act Now

October is almost over. But there are just enough days left this month for you to show special honor to your pastor. Your whole congregation will relish in victory as your refreshed shepherd leads you toward the Cross. Your obedience will magnify the Cross as you show gratefulness to God for sending someone to model and point you to the Great Shepherd who gave his life for us. Because of his grace, we will spend all eternity gladly showing special honor to Christ our Shepherd without any restraint from sin.

Coda

If you are one of those shepherds who will not be celebrated by his people, I have prayed that this post will encourage and refresh you, that your people might show you a special kindness, and that even if they do not, that the Lord might be your treasure. May his grace be great upon your faithfulness. The Lord himself remembers your labor of love and will reward you.

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