Fill in the blank: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with _____ and not with _____, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Before you look it up, how would you complete that sentence? The “leaders” in this verse are pastors in the church. So, how should pastors conduct their ministry, and how should they not conduct their ministry, if they want their ministry to be advantageous for the church?
Perhaps, “Pastors should lead with sound doctrine and not with deceptive teaching.” Or, “Pastors should lead with integrity and not with hidden sin.” Or, “Pastors should lead with courage and not with fear.”
All of that is true, but that’s not where this verse goes.
Hebrews 13:17 says pastors should lead “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” A joyless pastor, a pastor who only groans under the burdens of ministry and never rejoices, is of no advantage to any church.
This verse hit me with fresh conviction recently. It’s so easy to groan. I groan about the weather, the Cubs’ bullpen, the weeds in my yard, and a whole host of things. And sometimes I groan about ministry. But this joyless pastoral attitude does me no good, does the church no good, and dishonors the Lord.
So, brother pastors, how do we fight off groaning and fight for joy in ministry? And how can churches help their pastors obey the command of Hebrews 13:17? Let me suggest three ways pastors can pursue joy for the sake of the church, and three ways churches can promote joy in the life of their pastor.
Three ways pastors can pursue joy for the sake of the church
When we catch ourselves groaning and grumbling about the ministry in which we serve, let’s call it for what it is: sin. Thanklessness and bitterness have no place in the pastor’s heart and demand confession and repentance. So when we slip into the sinful self-pity that makes us groan let’s be quick to cry out to the Lord for forgiveness, and let’s be quick to ask him to restore our joy. When we catch ourselves groaning we can pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me… Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psa. 51:10, 12).
In every situation, no matter how challenging or how frustrating, we can always find reason to thank God. This must be true. Otherwise, how could Paul command us to pray “in everything… with thanksgiving” (Phil. 4:6)? “In everything” is all-encompassing! And when we take Paul at his word, and fight for gratitude in the midst of every difficult circumstance of ministry, our joy will increase. When we read the email about the part of our sermon someone didn’t like, we can thank God that they were listening. When we receive the phone call from the person upset about a decision we made, we can thank God that they care enough about what’s happening at church to express their concerns. When we meet with the person stuck in habitual sin again and again, we can thank God that they are sill in the fight.
This is not about naive optimism. This is about fighting for God-honoring gratitude. This is about noticing the ways he is sovereignly at work in every circumstance. This is about pursuing joy-producing thankfulness in everything.
In John 15:11 Jesus makes a wonderful promise. He says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” The ultimate source of lasting joy in pastoral ministry is Jesus himself. But, we can’t miss what he said right before this in verse 10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The love of Christ comes to us as a free gift. But abiding in that love, enjoying that love day by day, demands obedience. If we will not walk closely with Christ, laying aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, we will not know the fullness of joy found in him. As a result, ministry will overwhelm us and we will groan until we quit. But if we stay close to our Savior, walking obediently in his ways, he will supply us all we need to fulfill our ministry with joy.
Pray, thank, and obey. These are three ways pastors can pursue joy for the sake of Christ and the church, and they are also three ways churches can promote joy in the life of their pastor.
Three ways churches can promote joy in the life of their pastor
After charging leaders to carry out their ministry with joy, the author of Hebrews immediately writes, “Pray for us” (Heb. 13:18). One of the greatest things a congregation can do for its pastors is to pray for them. Every-other Wednesday a group of women meet at our church to pray. They pray for many things, but I know they pray for me, and it brings me joy. It’s not only the thought of these godly women interceding on my behalf that affects me, it’s God’s answer to their prayers as well. As they pray for him to help me in my study, in my writing, in my counseling, in my leading, and in my life, God responds. I’m convinced that God’s gracious response to their thoughtful prayers is fundamental to the fruit I see and the joy I know in ministry. Churches that pray for their pastors promote their pastors’ joy.
Flattery serves no one, but genuine thankfulness is a massive encouragement to anyone. My guess is that pastors receive more thanks than most people do in their professions, but a lot of those expressions of gratitude are general. Saying, “thanks for the sermon” and “thanks for all you do” are encouraging words, but if you want to really fuel your pastor’s joy, be as specific as you can. Tell him, “Thank you for saying _____ in your sermon, here’s how I’m going to apply that this week…” Or, “Thank you for meeting with me, I’ve been re-reading that Scripture you pointed out, and here’s how it’s helping me…” Churches that thank their pastors, especially with specifics, promote their pastors’ joy.
The beginning of Hebrews 13:17 is as important as the end. It says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Simply having an official leadership role does not make someone automatically worthy of trust, respect, and following. But if you know the leaders of your church fear God, and that they are seeking to care for your soul based on what they see in God’s word, then an attitude of glad submission to this loving authority is wise. Yes, check what they say with what you see in the Bible (Acts 17:11). But listen to their counsel with a desire to obey, knowing that God gives shepherds and teachers to equip the saints (Eph. 4:11-12). No pastor is perfect, but godly pastors are gifts to the church, and churches that obey their leaders promote their pastors’ joy.
The Church Needs Joyful Pastors
The church doesn’t need groaning, grumbling, “woe-is-me” complainers serving in leadership. The church needs joyful pastors. Therefore, pastors have a responsibility to heed God’s command to fight for joy in all circumstances. And churches have a responsibility to heed God’s command to support and encourage godly leadership. When this happens, Christ-honoring good will result.