Getting a compliment or two seems like the least of my worries as a pastor. If criticism is one of ministry’s pernicious pains, then it’s a relief to occasionally receive some recognition. Yet congregational esteem can rattle a weak pastor’s reliance on the strong Christ.
The Problem of Esteem
Congregational esteem can rattle a weak pastor’s reliance on the strong Christ … pride is ever-lurking.
What is this threat of compliments? In my years of ministry, I have learned that pride is ever-lurking. Any acclaim for my efforts, abilities, or accomplishments, brings with it a real temptation to glory in myself. On Monday a pastor might have pleaded with God for wisdom, endurance, or boldness. Yet just a few days later he is applauding himself: “From what everyone said, it was a successful sermon because of my insightful exegesis and strong delivery.” Or: “The elders were really happy with how I led that difficult meeting.” God gets mentioned in the footnote, but the pastor is the main character.
Because other people’s praise feeds our pride, compliments can become addictive. Commended once for a powerful worship service, celebrated twice for his approachability, a pastor can find himself always needing to hear more. The desire for praise is never satisfied, and it is a most unpleasant hunger.
Compounding this problem is the changeability of our moods. The feeling of being appreciated is hopelessly subjective. A pastor can feel loved and cherished for a few weeks, but he bases this on little more than a handful of positive comments. Just two months later he might bitterly conclude that he is being taken for granted. The fact is, if a pastor is listening for compliments, he will probably hear them. If his ears are open for criticism, he will likely detect it, whether intended or not. Again, the approval of others can be a desperate idol, where we are always eager for more offerings of praise, compliments, and recognition.
Paul’s Model of Humility
In 2 Corinthians, Paul teaches us many valuable lessons for ministry—here too. As the adjunct pastor of the Corinthian church, he had been heavily criticised. Compliments were rare. Yet from his reaction to criticism, we can learn how to handle praise.
When Paul was blasted for his weak demeanour and uninspiring preaching, a simple response suggested itself: just send the Corinthians his resumé. After all, Paul had impeccable credentials as a Jewish scholar. He had established churches and performed miracles. He had even seen the risen Savior and had visions of inexpressible things. But he will not glory in any of this. Instead he insists, “On my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (2 Cor 12:5).
Why does Paul boast in sufferings and shortcomings? So that the attention falls not on him, but on the Lord.
Why does Paul boast in sufferings and shortcomings? So that the attention falls not on him, but on the Lord—on his grace, his strength, and his great works. Paul writes about his reluctance to glory in human accomplishments, “I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (12:6). This statement is so counter-cultural that you might think Paul is being disingenuous: he doesn’t want people to regard him too highly! This is precisely the opposite of what we so often fear. But Paul’s singular concern is that sinners would look only to Christ and not to him. This is a difficult lesson for the complimented—and the criticized—pastor: Christ’s glory is always more important than our prestige. Christ’s honour is always more crucial than our own reputation.
A key truth from Paul’s answer to his critics is that he conducts his ministry in the sight of God. He deliberately places himself and his work before God’s assessment: “It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ” (2 Cor 12:19). This awareness of ministering under God’s scrutiny means that he is not overly concerned with other people’s judgments. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians previously, “It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4). Infinitely weightier than any human opinion, whether positive or negative, is God’s evaluation of us. Have I proved faithful in the gospel ministry that he entrusted to me?
Glorying in the Lord
A focus on pleasing the Lord alone relieves pastors from the gnawing hunger for praise. To be sure, it is welcome when God uses people to encourage the minister in his task. And it can be helpful to know that the Sunday sermons are communicating effectively. But the wisdom of Proverbs is apt: “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise” (27:21). Pastors—like all people—are tested by the praise we receive. What does esteem reveal about my heart? Will these compliments uncover pride? Or am I moved to godly humility and gratitude to the God who supplies strength for service?
Paul teaches that pastors should glory in Christ and in his gospel alone. Jeremiah teaches the same when he says that Israel should boast in more than outward things:
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jer 9:23–24)
Instead of equating compliments with ministerial success, here is the only thing in which we should glory: that we know the Lord in his greatness. As we minister in all our frailty, we are thankful that Christ is using us to bless his people. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:7 are suitably humbling for every pastor, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
Article adapted from Dr Reuben Bredenhof’s recent book, Weak Pastor, Strong Christ: Developing a Christ-Shaped Gospel Ministry (Reformation Heritage Books, 2021).