That Inner Voice
Pastor David’s church was flourishing until the split.
That started with a young, good-looking, and charismatic member who had shown great leadership promise. Unknown to David, he was also secretly plotting to take over David’s position as lead pastor. So successful was his execution of the plot that the church was nearly destroyed. David had to take those who remained faithful to him elsewhere to continue the church’s ministry.
David clearly was angered by this. But he also felt an unimaginable weight of hurt and pain. You see, the member who ousted him was his own son.
Such things never happen quietly. David struggled to keep his church together while confronting intense public criticism. One member never had cared much for David. Now he felt free to speak his criticism publicly. He cast stones and raised dust on social media, and people began to take notice.
Pastor David’s own social media team advised him to reply in kind. They felt that with the proper moves, they could not only silence Shimei, for that was his name, but effectively destroy him. David decided against this. “Maybe,” David thought to himself, “I deserve this cursing. Maybe it’s the message God wants me to hear.”
At this point in this imaginative recasting of the middle chapters of Second Samuel1 we come very close to a pastor’s real experience. We don’t have to have a church split initiated by our children to know the reality of the voice of Shimei.
Sometimes that voice is a composite of whispered discontent, and sometimes it is much more public. But eventually it takes up residence inside our own heads. It whispers, “You really did screw up, you know. You really are a fraud.” Before long, like David, we give that inner voice authority far greater than it deserves. “Perhaps,” we think, “this is God’s voice.”
That inner critical voice batters the sensitive pastor. We can find ways to ignore, perhaps, the public criticism, at least for periods of time. But when the criticism, the doubt, and the questioning lodges in our own heads, we can’t escape.
Desiring Wings to Fly
I received an honest email the other day from a pastor friend who was struggling. His words revealed that this internal voice was rattling him.
Like many of us, he spent years preparing to do what he does, and he’s doing it well. He’s given his life to his church, and many have been blessed. His leadership has been exemplary. His heart is pastoral. To preach the gospel gives him joy, and to see others respond, especially men and the young, thrills him.
Nevertheless, some members, some of them leaders, unhappy because of some gaps in the church’s ministry or bothered by what they consider to be my friend’s faults, have decided to leave the church. Their decision was made and communicated without giving him a chance to respond, much less to change.
“They were friends,” he said.
“It hurt,” he said.
Some of these who are leaving have been quite public with their criticisms, stirring up my friend’s inner Shimei.2 And where that leads is entirely predictable.
“It’s been rough,” he said. “I’ve really considered the possibility of doing something else.”
A pastor’s best efforts nevertheless receive public criticism, and that often leads to intense internal doubt. Our spouse and our kids feel it, too. We can come to the place where we just want out. I’ve known some for whom this has, frighteningly, led to suicide. Most of us begin to see something like buying a farm and raising okra and emus as a more viable, safe, and healthy career choice.
It led David to write a song.
“Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.”3
Oh, had we such wings.
Yet, We Stay
As I’ve said before, this job was never meant to be easy. So why do we stay? Why do you stay?
I’ve asked that of several pastors recently. For some, it’s the only thing they can do; for others it’s because that, even with the difficulty, they love what they do. Few are honest enough to admit that they stay because they are stubborn, fear change, or have children to feed, reasons that have kept me at it over the years. But there have been times when that emu farm has seemed to be pretty appealing.
It’s here that I hijack Jackson Browne’s song “Stay” and apply it to pastors:
Oh, won't you stay
Just a little bit longer . . . .
My friend’s flirtation with the “possibility of doing something else” is real and something we all entertain.
But he has stayed, as have I.
Why we stay is what I’d like to take up in our next post.
In the meantime, go do something you enjoy. Watch Ted Lasso, shoot a round of golf, go fishing. And tell your inner Shimei to just be quiet for a bit.
That is not the voice of God you hear.
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Particularly found in 2 Samuel 15 and 16.
On such inner voices, Sinclair Ferguson notes this:
“The children of God hear the whispers of the Evil One: ‘Look, you have sinned. You have broken God's law. You are under condemnation. You are not qualified to be a believer.’ Nor, surely, is there a gospel minister to whom he has not added the words, ‘. . . far less fit to be a pastor.’”
The Whole Christ (United States: Crossway, 2016), p. 133.