Several years ago, my wife (Carol) and I boarded a plane at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport and flew to Taipei, Taiwan, to adopt our daughter Lauren. She would be our first child after almost nine years of marriage. After landing, we discovered that our host didn’t show up, and we could not speak Mandarin. Carol glanced across the information desk and noticed the logo of our hotel. She pointed it out to a taxi driver, and we were on our way. The next morning we were greeted in the hotel lobby by social workers who placed into our arms our daughter. This fragile, beautiful child felt as if she weighed thousands of pounds; I had never felt the weight of responsibility of being a father. My joy was inexpressible!
In a few days, we boarded the plane for home. Family, friends, and the church I pastored waited anxiously to meet our daughter. I buckled in and prepared to hold our amazing, squalling infant for the seventeen-hour flight. The flight attendant handed me a bag of pretzels, and I began to snack away. My wife leaned over and calmly whispered to me, “I think I am expecting.” I began to cough and choke on the pretzels as the news sunk in. The tiny airline-sized can of soda did little to wash down my shock, delight, and amazement. “Could it be that God gave us this beautiful child by adoption and had planned all along to bless us with a birth child!” I said. Carol’s doctor’s visit after our return home verified that her suspicions were fact.
Eight months went by. I am sitting in my study preparing a message on the faithfulness of God and the phone rings. Carol is hysterical: “The doctor says we have to go to the hospital now!” After the pregnancy went to full term, our precious, red-haired daughter Julianne was stillborn.
The grief that set in was unbearable. My father had to make the funeral arrangements for our daughter. I was surprised by the flood of emotions overwhelming me. I prayed, “God, I thought you were blessing us with an adopted daughter and a birth child! This was your plan after nine years of waiting! Why did you take our daughter from us? How can I comfort and support my wife? I am hurting too, Lord! I feel so guilty for mourning for this child because you have given us another precious child from the other side of the world! Help me, Lord.” We clung to the promise of 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Simultaneously, we were new parents and we were suffering the loss of a baby. Our family needed the support of our church more than ever. I discovered that as the pastor of the church, I needed the help and support of my church family. Frankly, that was a harsh realization for me.
I was a driven, self-sufficient leader. The church was launching a second campus and expanding our ministries. I was arrogant and proud, thinking that I always had to be the strong luminary—giving care but seldom receiving support. The staff had to push through the wall of pride that I built to minister to my family and me. One friend put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Pastors are just people too.”
October is a month that many designate to appreciate pastors and affirm church leaders. Churches will host dinners, present gifts and cards, and recognize ministers and their families for the sacrifices they make to serve the local church and advance the gospel. I support all of these efforts. By all means, do whatever you can to express your kindness to these anointed servants. “We ask you, brothers, to acknowledge those who work diligently among you, who preside over you in the Lord and give you instruction” (1 Thess 5:12). My caution to you is that you don’t make your October pastor appreciation emphasis a “one and done.” Your pastors and church leaders need the ongoing ministry and support of the body of Christ.
All Year Round
With sincere gratitude, I wish to thank my church family for supporting me through one of my darkest seasons. God’s people displayed grace when the quality of my sermons dropped due to my emotional state. Faithful deacons stepped up financially to cover the cost of my wife’s medical exams and to pay for our child’s funeral expenses. Later, on my tenth anniversary, the leadership council of my church provided me with a much-needed sabbatical so that I could be refreshed and revived in the Lord’s work. The church understood that pastors and leaders need the church to give them grace, support their spouses, and lighten their load.
Find a way to honor the ministry leaders in your church this October. More importantly, remind the church family that your pastor and staff need others to carry their burdens during the entire year—not just in October. My desire for every pastor is that they will experience the kind of love and support that I did from my church family during my times of need. Pastors are just people too!
Pastors, hear me out. I am grateful for your strength and courage as a shepherd to your flock. However, don’t make the same mistakes I did. You are not omnicompetent or omnipotent. Be as vulnerable and authentic with your leadership as possible when going through significant struggles. Sometimes it is wise to reach beyond your congregation to a confidential biblical counselor or another experienced pastor. Reach out for the support you need.
Pastor, allow your church minister to you. In doing so, you honor your people with the opportunity to fulfill the Word of God: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).