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How To Fall In Love With Your Church

By Neil B. Wiseman

“Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” the song goes. But centuries before that song was written, the apostle Paul wrote similar lyrics about love and marriage that may never have been matched to a melody. The two songs agree — love and marriage do go together.

However, the apostle adds several significant components to his song. In the short 11 verses of that lofty, though difficult passage in Ephesians 5:22–33, Paul discusses a pure, holy, radiant church; the headship of Christ over the church; mutual submission; and love between wife and husband. Then, as if the ideas were too mind-boggling for even him, Paul wrote this vigorous sentence, “This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all” (Ephesians 5:32, The Message).

Commentators argue whether “mystery” refers to marriage or church. I think both. Every happily married couple knows marriage is a miracle and a mystery and a satisfying connection — all rolled into one. Who can explain how a woman and a man so different from each other physically, emotionally, and hormonally can build a happy life together? Paul is right — this is a huge mystery.

As one reads this Scripture passage and tries to unpack its meaning, it speaks profoundly concerning how ministers can develop a happy, loving relationship with their congregations.

Listen with your heart as Paul describes Christ’s love for us and for His church: “Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything He does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness” (Ephesians 5:26,27, The Message).

Our love can never compare with Christ’s love, yet He is our pattern. To complicate our assignment even more, some churches are easier to love than others. The same is true of pastors.

The Love Connection — An Essential For Ministry

Easy or hard, a love connection must be forged between pastor and people because a church’s effectiveness depends on healthy relationships between the congregation and its minister.

A two-way love relationship between pastor and congregation is not the only thing that matters in a church, though little else matters much without it. Sadly, this love factor seems nearly nonexistent in too many congregations.

Here are ways you can deepen your love connection with your congregation and cause them to love you more.

Start right — could this be love?

When the first flicker of a call to a church comes to a prospective pastor, it’s time for the minister to ask, Could this be the start of something wonderful? Is God bringing us together? Would I fit there? Is this love at first sight? Is the chemistry right?

Like a marriage, the answers will be uniquely personal. Ask any married couple how they met and fell in love. The story will likely be unique and sometimes almost ludicrous. Even those who have been married 50 years may giggle like teenagers as they tell their story. As their story unfolds, the ingredients of their relationship may not sound like a solid basis for a strong marriage. But that is exactly what they have built. How it looks to an outsider is not really that important.

In a similar way, strong, affectionate, spiritual-emotional chemistry between a pastor and a congregation is needed at the start of the relationship. Like a marriage, the ingredients will be unique. But the prospective pastor needs to be convinced a loving relationship can be established and maintained or there is no point in going to a new assignment.

Say, “I love you.”

Tell your people how privileged you are to be their pastor. I heard about a pastor who was always in love with his previous assignment and talked about it often. One wag in his present church said, “Maybe he’ll love us more after he is gone.” An unspoken implication seemed to be, “Maybe it should be soon.”

There is a better way. Speak up. Then watch how much good comes when you communicate love. Every loving word reminds someone of the love of Jesus. Every loving word serves as a boomerang; someone in the congregation will return that love to the pastor. And every loving word grows the soul of the one who originates it.

Practice the words at home and in your study so you can say without a hint of hesitation, “I love you with the love of the Lord.”

Thank them for loving you.

Some pastors live in a state of perpetual fear because they think their church doesn’t do as much for them as the church across town does for its pastor. Such an attitude may be as silly as comparing two engagement rings. The least costly one may represent the greatest level of devotion and love.

Others believe a church is obligated to treat them like royalty. At midlife and beyond some pastors believe they have “paid their dues” and the church owes them something for their years of service. That false notion does not sound like the sacrifice, obedience, and death-to-self that starts at the Cross.

Think how rich you really are — a child of the King in service to the King’s people. We preach from His pulpit and work in His office. We represent the King every day among His people. We speak for Him and oversee His church. But we wisely remember we are not the King. The King never intends that any of us be exalted or pampered.

Be worthy of honor.

Every pastor knows the biblical admonition given to the people of God to give special honor to their spiritual leaders. Paul gives the honor charge in two of his epistles. In the Thessalonian passage he said, “Friends, we ask you to honor those leaders who work so hard for you, who have been given the responsibility of urging and guiding you along in your obedience. Overwhelm them with appreciation and love!” (1 Thessalonians 5:12,13, The Message).

Again Paul suggests honor, even double honor: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).

In Pastors at Greater Risk, H.B. London and I tell the story of a lay leader who helped the church where he served do everything possible to honor, even provide double honor, for their new pastor. But then he asked the church consultant who had helped the church find a new pastor, “Does anybody remind pastors that the Bible passages about honor have two sides?”

That faithful layman is right. The passage says the pastor’s side of honor is to work hard, lead the church, and admonish the people of God. Double honor is for those who teach and preach.

In the day-by-day details, the awe of being set apart for ministry by the Sovereign Lord tends to grow dim. A renewed sense of responsibility is needed to do ministry well and please God. Then, too, a deepening realization of a final accountability for our pastoral service must also shape our long-term thinking.

Love people unconditionally.

Cherish people as trophies of grace. The basic distinctive of the New Testament church is a love that heals shattered human relationships, melts destructive misunderstandings, fosters wholehearted forgiveness, encourages authentic fellowship, and motivates effective witness.

God created His church for people, not for denominations, theological systems, social action, or even pastors. He wants the church to win people, develop people, and to involve people in service to the world.

One veteran pastor said, “The primary purpose of sheep is to complicate the life of the shepherd, and no one needs to teach them how to do it.” If we wait to love people until they become what we want them to be, we may wait a long time. Our task, by God’s grace, is to love them the way they are while believing in their potential.

Don’t be shocked by the variety in people. Some people are magnanimous, others cantankerous; some gentle, others goofy; some wonderful, others weird; some sensitive, others self-centered; some dependable, others worthless; some thankful, others touchy. And all of them need a shepherd to love them enough to show them the way home to God.

C.S. Lewis opened up the positive possibilities of diversity: “For the church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities but the body of Christ, in which all members, however different, must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences.”1

The church exists for people. Believe in them. Care about them. Help them discover their full potential.

Commit to a lifelong courtship.

The story is from the Sunday newspaper in our city. A man, now well into his 80s, was asked as his 67th wedding anniversary approached, “What advice do you have for younger husbands?”

He replied, “You have to keep doing what you did to win her heart in the first place.” There is something good and useful in that advice for a pastor’s love relationship to a church.

But what about times when feelings of love have evaporated? Ann Landers once counseled her readers, “Keep doing acts of love and the feeling will follow.”

Preach love.

Go back to the Bible and feed your soul by reading the love passages. Teach your people over and over that our love for one another grows naturally out of God’s love for us. Show them that love is a gift we receive from God and pass on to those around us. Try building a spiritual atmosphere in your church that fulfills this biblical challenge: “Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that” (Ephesians 5:2, The Message).

Become a whole person.

Character counts. Personal piety is expected. Being comes before doing, and character is the wellspring of conduct. Most congregations, if they had to make a choice between a skillful minister and a holy minister, would choose holy.

In this age of unprecedented dysfunction and brokenness, the church sometimes becomes the last stop for hurting, confused, messed-up people. And what a welcome refuge it is for them. As a result, many find a brand-new life in Christ, a life of transformed new beginnings. But in the process some have a persistent problem or two — a habit, a scar, a tender spot, or a secret sin. If you are in that group, do whatever it takes to mend those broken places and heal those hurts.

A close second to the need for having brokenness healed is the need to be utterly dependent on God. The pastor who tries to minister in human strength has no more to give than the attorney, engineer, or doctor. It is that something extra in our lives — the grace, presence, and power of God — that makes us victorious and effective and helps convince people that what we preach is authentic and true.

The apostle Paul emphasized the matter of being whole in this powerful summary statement: “Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching” (1 Timothy 4:12,13, The Message).

Do your congregation a favor; try to understand yourself.

How do you think? What are your predictable reactions? What is the driving force in your life? What are your motives?

Self-understanding is an important key to understanding others. Question your motives by asking, Why did I do that? Cross-examine yourself about the way you chair meetings. Check yourself on how you spend your money. This reveals a lot about your character. Question yourself to determine if you manipulate administrative tasks to get your own way, then justify your action by calling it the will of God.

Consider your call as a divine assignment.

The apostle Paul looked at his work as an assignment from God. For example, he said to the Galatians, “When it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood” (Galatians 1:15,16, KJV).

What a declaration! Look at the components of the apostle’s call: set apart for ministry before he was born; called by grace; a credibility and joy as Jesus was revealed in his life and ministry; and a divine call to the heathen, probably the Jews of his time.

A divine call provides muscle, might, and motivation for ministry. It helps develop a sense of mission and an awareness of holy enabling, so the man of God can attempt and accomplish more than he thought he could. The call lived out gives an authority for preaching, perseverance, and empowerment to love all whom the Lord loves — that is, everyone we meet.

Enjoy ministry as a way of life.

Though ministry may be viewed both as a profession and a calling, its essence is the greatest cause known to humankind. Like parenting, ministry is day in and day out, year in and year out. This reality of ministry can be happily accepted or resisted with kicking and screaming, but it is still a fact.

Refuse to be a professional recluse.

Pastors are sometimes taught to believe they are supposed to live in professional isolation. I was trained that way. The idea is to have surface relationships with everyone and not allow anyone to get too close to you. The rationale for this advice is if someone gets too close, others will be jealous. And if people get too close, they will break your heart when it’s time to leave.

The logic is laughable, isn’t it?

In the closing days of my first pastorate, I followed the prevailing custom of isolation. I announced, “In the will of God, we are leaving to take a new assignment. That means no letters, no greeting cards, and no phone calls will be either sent or received.”

One of the older women in the church thought my position a bit strange. Soon after we were settled in our new assignment, our first child was born. Within 2 weeks of his birth, our baby received a letter from this older woman at our former church. Among other things it said, “Your daddy told us we could not write him, so I am writing you. Please tell your mommy and daddy that we love them and always will.”

Could it be that many frustrations in ministry are rooted in social isolation? While we talk about love, fellowship, and community, we practice suspicion, privacy, and individualism.

Check God’s perspective of your assignment.

When God sends you to a place, He knows all about that place and He knows your abilities, background, and potential. When an assignment is offered or taken that seems in the will of God, ask yourself what God has in mind for you to accomplish in that place. When God sends you, you need to remain there until His plan has been accomplished.

Share dreams, imaginations, and creativity.

The church often seems incredibly bound by her traditions. The amazing, maybe humorous, reality is that much of what is considered tradition in our time started out as a new adventure in some previous era. The history of Sunday School, modern missions, and scheduling service at 11 a.m. on Sunday to give farmers time to finish their chores before coming to church were all cutting-edge innovations in their day. And the people then were probably saying, “We never did it that way before.”

Keeping the future, past, and present in a healthy balance is hard work in the ministry. Every church and individual is shaped by their history. Traditions have to be acknowledged, and change sometimes comes slowly. Meanwhile, the present is significant and the future is as bright as the promises of God.

Some ministers spend their days hoping against hope for a future that never comes. Others live in the present, without much regard for what was and without dreaming about what could be. Often their work is like a cut flower — beautiful but with no roots. A good remedy is to think of the past, present, and future, as history, hope, and achievement, and to keep them in a creative tension in your mind. Every day in a ministry partnership with God is a good day if we know what to do with it.

Grow great people.

For decades, church growth and outreach programs have provided ways to grow great churches. Could it be that when a congregation grows great people, the result of their relationships with the Lord and each other is the growth of great churches?

Build great people by encouraging them to give themselves to a great cause. A poet said, “Give yourself to a great cause. You may not do the cause much good, but the cause will do you a lot of good.”

Give people value when they come to church.

Every service should add easily identifiable value to the lives of those who attend. Every person has a right be to be fed, encouraged, and inspired when he comes to church. People need instruction, inspiration, encouragement, and hope. People do not need to be scolded, insulted, or talked down to. That happens often enough in the world. A church’s attendance can often be increased dramatically by making the services more relevant, more inspiring, and less boring. As you prepare each service, ask yourself, What would people love to receive at church the next time we meet?

Take love into parishioners’ crises.

Loss, accident, sickness, or brokenness eventually come to every human being. To be the flesh-and-blood representative of Jesus in times of pressing need stands at the heart of Christian ministry. Be there. Go in love and go often until the crisis is past. Those going through the valley will love you forever. When others observe you offering loving care to those who need it most, increased ministerial credibility will result throughout the church.

Cherish Christian service as a love gift from God.

Today, many people who attend churches are spiritually overweight from too much fast food and not enough meat and substance. They need more exercise in service to God and people.

Many possibilities are wrapped up in the three essential foci of Christian service. Think of them as legs on a three-legged stool. First, service is what we do for God. Second, service is what we do for others. Third — an often overlooked component — is our personal enrichment when we serve others.

The preacher preaches for God to help others know God better. But when he preaches, the Word seeks him out and he becomes better and develops a bigger soul in the process.

The Sunday School teacher teaches for God to help others learn how to apply Scripture to life, and also grows in his or her own spiritual well-being. This view moves service from duty and obligation to privilege and blessing.

Accept and involve strong people.

Some pastors feel threatened by strong, capable people. Some feel uneasy when anyone asks, “Why?” Other spiritual leaders question the motives of strong people, especially those who want excellence and effectiveness. Failure to use strong people and a desire to control every ministry or program are two significant factors that keep churches small. A need to control every detail of congregational life places a ceiling on growth and undermines morale.

Take leadership of the family of God.

The biological family is under terrible siege. Nearly everyone needs help to strengthen his or her family. Some need a surrogate family to take the place of the family they never had or the family they lost. Many people have broken hearts. The friendship, acceptance, support, and accountability of a loving church are needed now more than ever before. Call your opportunity to lead the family of God anything you want: head of the clan, leader of the lost extended family, founder of the surrogate family, or pastor of the family of God. But be sure the work gets done and caring relationships are created.

Ministry Presents Magnificent Opportunities To Love And Be Loved

Remember who you were when you were called? Remember how God used your love for Him to help you see the needs of His world? What a defining moment for your ministry. That day the Sovereign Lord summoned you to unknown territory with the promise to be with you, empower you, and love you unconditionally.

Many Scriptures help us understand the work of ministry. Other passages charge and challenge us with the task and the need. But over and over the motive, mood, and meaning for ministry is love.

The importance and priority of love is shown clearly in Jesus’ response to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Then He added an incredible summary sentence, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40). Jesus considered love for God and neighbor important.

Following the example of his Lord, Paul also put love at the center of our work when he wrote, “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

After reading these passages, the evidence is incontrovertible — ministry is love for God, for neighbor, and for self. This love for God and neighbor gives us a lifetime ticket to private and public places and to sad and cheerful places. Love for Jesus gives us opportunity to represent Him at weddings, gravesides, baptisms, hospital waiting rooms, Communion services, worship, and preaching. The joy and adventure of ministry need to be emphasized over and over with words like delight, gladness, pleasure, serenity, and eternal accomplishment. A pastor sees more of what God is doing in a week than most people see in a lifetime.

Love for Christ helps keep ministry focused. When the love dimension seems to be burning low, take a reality check and it will glow again. Among the components of your reality check are: God loves you. Most, if not all your people love you and you get to love them back.

Wrap your arms around your ministry. Love the people God has given you to serve, and they will love you back in ways beyond your loftiest dreams.

Neil B. Wiseman

Neil B. Wiseman is a writer, speaker, and educator. He also serves as founder and director of the Small Church Institute. He resides in Overland Park, Kansas.

Endnote

1. Wayne Martindale, and Jerry Root (Contributors), The Quotable Lewis, (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1989), 105.

 

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