Learning to Love People

Who in your church do you need to actively love? What will that look like? Will you take the time and make the sacrifice to learn how to love others?

I’ve been in ministry for over twenty years. The best piece of advice about pastoral ministry I was ever given came from my grandmother. Grandma had been a pastor’s wife for about fifteen years. She and my grandfather attended my graduation and she offered me her wisdom as we visited afterward.

I was slow to accept her advice. It didn’t come from a book, and back then, I thought I could study a book for anything I needed to know about ministry. 

But Grandma’s wisdom came from real life, from being in the trenches, living both the good and bad in pastoral ministry.

Grandma said to me, “Working with people is very hard work. You have to really learn how to love them.”

I’m sad to say it took me at least a decade to learn the truth of this very simple but very profound statement. Part of the problem, for me, was that my training had been largely in biblical and theological studies, with very little in the way of real-life ministry training. I believed I was going into a field where I was going to spend my life preaching and teaching the Bible to people who wanted to learn and apply the Bible to their lives.

Of course, there was some truth to the fiction I had built up. Churches are, in fact, made up of members who do want to learn what the Bible says and who do want to apply the Bible to their lives. But churches are also made up of very imperfect people. These imperfect people are likely being shaped by God towards perfection, but in our interactions with them, we often see their imperfections at play, just as they do ours.

A church is a big family, complete with the web of interactions, histories, and relationships that are at work in any family. Pastors who arrive at a new church are often unaware of the family systems that already exist in that church. These systems have been built over a number of years, or even decades, and can take a long time to fully understand and differentiate yourself within.

Pastors might also find themselves walking into a situation where they don’t understand or know what is expected of them. This is particularly true for new pastors who have a bit of naivete about congregational ministry. Churches often hire according to a template of what they think they need to hire for but grade their pastor according to the congregation’s (or leaders’) true values. These values are often disconnected from the values that were discussed during the hiring process.

In either case, a pastor will find him- or herself frustrated, unable to make headway, and at a loss for what to do. The temptation will be to close ranks, do your job, and wait to find a small fissure that can be cracked wider as a way to integrate yourself within the church.

But what if the way forward for a struggling pastor is not better leadership, but better love? What if, instead of trying to figure out how to lead better, how to manage a leadership committee better, or even how to create great programs, you simply laid down your ideas and agendas and loved the people around you?

Imagine these scenarios and how they might fit within your own ministry context:

  • A pastor has a different preaching style than what a church prefers. His leaders offer critiques and criticisms that cause the pastor anxiety. What if, instead of digging in deeper, the pastor took one leader out for coffee each week and gathered the leaders and their spouses together for dinner each month? What might be different in those relationships as they got to know each other differently and more deeply?

  • A busy pastor has several shut-in members that she struggles to find the time to visit. The pastor feels as though if she commits time to visit, she will lose out on the time she needs for sermon preparation and strategic planning. What if, instead of focusing on congregational outputs, she put her own interests aside and took an afternoon once per week and made her rounds to visit the shut-ins, praying with them, and perhaps leaving a CD or a printout of a recent lesson?

  • A pastor is torn because half of his church wants to move forward on a congregational change but the other half wants to keep the status quo. The pastor is tempted to throw his hands up and let whatever happens happen. What if, instead, the pastor held a series of luncheons at the church building where he gathered a few from each side and simply ate lunch together--no agenda, no controversial discussion, just a meal with prayer for each other at the end?

Grandma was right! Working with people is difficult, and loving them can be hard. But loving people can also be a learned activity. The challenge for pastors is to see loving others as shepherding and to adjust our pastoral understandings to accommodate time to love others. 

Who in your church do you need to actively love? What will that look like? Will you take the time and make the sacrifice to learn how to love others?

As always, let me know how I can serve you in this.

Love First,

Jeremy

P.S. If you’re like most pastors, you’ve really struggled during the pandemic to maintain healthy boundaries and practice healthy self-care habits. You’ve been torn between those members who want an in-person worship gathering and those who want an online service. It’s quite likely you’re still ministering to both groups. In a sense, you’re pastoring two diverse and distinct churches. 

You must prioritize your own spiritual and emotional health or you will burn out in ministry. My new book, Soul-Care for Shepherds, is written with you in mind. Pick up a copy, read it through, and reach out. I’d love to help you build healthy self-care habits in your life and ministry.