This article is written by Rick Ludwig. It was originally published in Clarion 73.5 (April 5, 2024).

The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask) by Christopher Ash. The Good Book Company, UK, 2019, 126 pages, $13.99 CDN.

The relationship between a pastor and his congregation is vital to the well-being of a church. Yet, it is often embarrassing to talk about it openly because, like all relationships, it is shrouded in weakness from both sides. In the covert conversations that often take place analyzing how things are going, an imbalance usually skews in favour of the congregation. After all, the minister is there to serve and encourage and care for them. He is the shepherd and they are the sheep. How the pastor is personally doing is of secondary concern, and his perceived well-being is closely linked to the assessment of how good of a job he is doing for the congregation. How satisfied or dissatisfied God’s people are with his work usually dominates the discussion. Christopher Ash, former pastor and seminary instructor, puts all the cards on the table with his little book that challenges the church to consider how well they are looking after their leaders for their own benefit.

A summary of this book, rather than a review, will be helpful for the churches to take up the challenge offered in its final chapter: to put right what is wrong in your church or to guard what is right to ensure it does not go wrong. Fostering constructive discussions and prayer at the leaders’ meetings, in the Bible study fellowships and small groups, at the coffee socials and around the family table can all serve to self-examine how the relationship in your church is with your pastor. Are you loving and caring for your pastor as well as you can?

Joyful Fruit

Ash’s starting point is Hebrews 13:17 where the writer encourages the Jewish Christians to honour and submit to their leaders as people who will have to give account for their work and so that the work will be a joy and not a burden to them.  He points out that if the leaders can do their work with joy, it will ultimately be to the congregation’s benefit. In other words, a healthy and happy relationship between the pastor and those in the pew bears its own fruit. The opposite can also be true, a sour and sullen relationship is life-sucking and fosters a dry and barren season for the church. The congregation has an important responsibility to ensure that this relationship is good. A lot hinges on this for the flourishing of the church! 

The author begins with identifying pastors as people with real life backgrounds, experiences, personalities, and particular gifts that all shape how they will serve in the role. They have feelings and sensitivities, strengths and weaknesses, and often their own family circumstances as well. They are people like you and me. Yet they have a special calling as minister of the Word and the scriptural expectations are clear: regular preaching of the gospel of salvation within the context of God’s revealed purpose and plan in a way that connects with hearts and minds and encourages thankful living. Prayer for the congregation, and in doing so seeking to know them individually as well as possible either personally or through delegation. Careful watch over the flock and equipping them for lives of service in the kingdom. Finally, also the provision of sound leadership. This is a big and comprehensive task. Ash reflects that it is not a work load that is born ox-like through self motivation, discipline, and by grinding it out. It requires much encouragement, prayer and loving concern.

Seven Virtues for the Congregation

The balance of the book outlines seven virtues of the church member that would benefit the pastor and strengthen this crucial relationship. A brief summary of each one follows.

Daily repentance and eager faith

The apostle John reports in his short letters the delight of the leaders who find believers walking in the truth. This is evident in the life of God’s people when they are honest about their sin and weakness and eager to explore God’s word for the evidence of his grace and mercy and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The congregation is hungry to hear the preaching and share in bible study and prayer together. There is a palpable vibrancy in these activities each week. The opposite can also be revealing and stagnating, when the congregation becomes lazy and unmotivated in their listening and participation. Getting fellowship and study initiatives started is like pulling teeth and the worship service attendance is lacking and discouraging. This is a sign of a disintegrating relationship between the pulpit and the pew.

Committed belonging

The growth of unity in faith is a marker of the maturing of a church. While the weekly preaching and teaching reaches individual ears, it is aimed at the body of believers. A great encouragement to the leaders is when it is clear that the congregation receives the preaching and encouragement with an eye for each other. A sign of a healthy church is the congregation functioning as a body, serving each other out of the love received in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is a tremendous boost for a pastor when his visits and follow-ups in the congregation are not filling a void, but are a supplement to a robust and welcoming congregational life. When the concern for the church is a mutual one, a pastor does not feel like he is walking in isolation, but alongside his congregation.

Open honesty

Perhaps the most glaring evidence that a church is unwell is when everyone asserts to the pastor that everything is fine. No issues here! The apostle Paul chided the church at Corinth for hiding from him while he and other leaders had openly shown them affection and a loving frankness. This is a two-way street and does require the pastor to “lower the drawbridge” and give something of himself to also live under the preaching as well. The encouragement in this is when the congregation responds in kind and moves away from pretense to a more honest self-assessment and repentance. Efforts to impress the minister with a veneer of religion usually end up being discouraging for all, where sharing and confession (in confidence where necessary) lead to a deeper bond and a real experience of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Like Jesus, the pastor is seeking to serve those who need healing, not the self-sufficient or self-righteous.

Thoughtful watchfulness

Paul encouraged a young Timothy to be diligent in progressing in his role as a pastor. In fact, he told him it should be evident to his congregation and he should give himself wholly to it. How does this happen? Through an incessant workload and a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude? Seasons of study, rest and refreshing all serve to equip a pastor for his work and they should rank high on the leadership’s list of priorities and be well advocated to the congregation. They should also be a priority and expectation for the pastor. Lack of attention to this leads to stagnation and a stationary congregational life with no progression. It may inevitably lead to regression. Thoughtful watch over the doctrine and life of a minister is not simply a matter of scrutiny and critique, but one of upbuilding and encouragement and equipping. This includes generous financial support for both daily needs as well as opportunities for improvement. And it is not simply a matter of the money, but also the enthusiasm that comes with it to ensure that it happens. Everyone should be excited when the pastor is refreshed and re-tooled.

Loving kindness

A little kindness goes a long way is a well-known expression that also resonates between a pastor and his congregation. A temptation may be to run a church business-like, checking all the boxes to measure ministry success along the way, but this hardly fits the type of sensitive and personal work that is required of a minister. A minimal kindness is expressed in the diligent running of a church and fair treatment of the pastor. Loving kindness is the overflow of care for a pastor and his family, where the congregation is eager to look after them, protect them, encourage them and express their thankfulness to God for them. This is not only manifested in a well-organized operation, but spills over responsively from the hearts of God’s people. It is displayed in a sensitivity to the needs of the minister and his family, and an ungrudging courtesy and kindness towards them in many practical ways.

High expectations

To have low expectations for the pastor is not a kindness from the congregation. The Scriptures call them to a noble task and the church leaders and members should also expect that. This is different from expecting the pastor to be superhuman or to place him on a high pedestal. It does mean guarding their reputation and promoting their work to the best of our ability. It also requires honest accountability with the church leadership when things are lacking. Not gossip and dissatisfaction, but equipping, encouraging and expecting what is reasonable and profitable for the church. Church leadership is not for the spiritually lazy and rarely benefits from a laissez-faire approach. Exalting God’s name is serious work for the whole congregation with the pastor.

Zealous submission

Do we expect the pastor to lead the congregation or is he simply one of a number of elders, with a specific role limited to preaching and teaching? There is no doubt that the scriptural guidelines for the work of the elder and minister overlap here. However, relegating the pastor to a ministry employee of the church is not the biblical model. He is a significant part of the leadership of the church with a specific role that requires an eager submission by the congregation. That submission is not absolute but is shaped and curbed by his submission to God’s word and his shepherd’s heart. A pastor who lords over his congregation will face much resistance while the one who leads to green pastures and quiet waters and who is faithful to accompany through the shadowy valleys brings soul restoration for the people of God. On the other hand, a pastor who is unwilling to lead will soon be found wanting by the other leaders and the congregation. Encouraging a pastor to take the lead is very important.

Final Thoughts

The second last chapter debunks the idea that the pastor should remain at equal distance from everyone in the congregation to maintain impartiality. Pastors (and their spouses and families) are people too! They need friends. They also need close friends or confidants. This is not a role for everyone in the church. It is an important role for some members and others should not begrudge it but rather encourage it. Allow the pastor to get to know the congregation and decide who is best suited to support him personally and be brought into a closer bond with his family. This is a healthy development that should be highly respected by a congregation who cares for their minister. Set jealousy aside and be thankful for the pastor and family who is well supported in the bond of loving and close friendships.

Christopher Ash is right in suggesting that this is often an embarrassing conversation for a pastor to have with the elders and more specifically with his congregation. Some readers may even be busy thinking at this point about what they would include in a book entitled The Book Your Church Member Wishes the Pastor Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask). It is also embarrassing for a congregation when the relationship with their pastor has soured. In my daily work I enter many churches of various denominations and it is quickly evident when the love between pastor and congregation has grown cold. It is also very sad. What is most embarrassing for all is that we defame God’s Name when this happens. We can all do better in caring for our pastors and committing to make their work a joy and not a burden for the benefit of God’s people and for the glory of his Name. Let’s take up the challenge of this little book!

Rick Ludwig