by Al Maxey

Issue #412 ------- September 13, 2009
He preaches well that lives well, quoth
Sancho; that's all the divinity I understand.

Miguel de Cervantes {1547-1616}
Don Quixote de la Mancha

Pondering Pastoral Perfectionism
Human Expectation Versus Divine Reality

"I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." So wrote the English Puritan theologian Richard Baxter (1615-1691), called by many "the Chief of English Protestant Schoolmen," in his noted work "Love Breathing Thanks and Praise." Richard Baxter was quite unashamedly a nonconformist and a reformer who, although he remained within his own religious association, sought to bring about much greater unity among the pastors of other denominations. As one biographer observed, "He formed the ministers in the country around him into an association, uniting them irrespective of their many differences as Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Independents. 'The Reformed Pastor' was a book that Baxter published in relation to the general ministerial efforts that he promoted." His preaching and writings (which were quite voluminous) were not always well-received by those determined to protect their party interests and dogmas, and as a result he was often criticized publicly and even spent some time in prison.

Richard Baxter is a good example (and there are countless such examples throughout history, just as there are many today) of a devoted preacher of the Word of God who didn't always live up to the varied expectations of his fellow believers. Our Lord Jesus certainly was a disappointment to many of the Jews of His day. He just didn't measure up to their expectations of the Coming One. His pedigree wasn't dignified enough, His preaching was controversial, and the "pack of misfits" He surrounded Himself with ... well, let's just say that some people were less than impressed. He ate with sinners, and even welcomed their company on occasion. He was a glutton and a wine-bibber! He violated their traditions ... repeatedly ... and on purpose! Nope, Jesus just didn't "fit the bill." The apostle Paul? Well, he was probably a pretty good writer, but he sure wasn't much to look at or listen to. And that Timothy was just too young; people looked down on him for it. Plus, he had a nervous stomach and drank a little.

Let's face it: if you are in any position of leadership, whether secular or spiritual, you have felt the sting of the harsh criticisms from those who are convinced you are not the right person for the position!! You just aren't what they expected at all. You're too big, too small; too tall, too short; too loud, too quiet; too out-going, too introverted; too scholarly, too shallow; too conservative, too liberal; too controversial, too theologically timid; etc. When I first began preaching back in 1976, I was visiting the hospital and got to talking with one of the nurses (whose parents attended where I preached, although she did not). After a few minutes she commented, "You sure don't look or act like a preacher!" I was tempted to ask her what a preacher was supposed to look or act like, but instead just thanked her! I think that caught her by surprise. In her mind, I simply didn't "fit the bill" with respect to "preacher expectations" ... and I was okay with that. Hmmmm. You mean a preacher can just be himself? Just be who and what God made him to be? Wow! What a concept.

In the early days of my ministry I really struggled with this. I truly wanted to please everybody; to live up to the expectations of each person in the congregation. It didn't take me too long to realize that (1) it was an impossibility, and (2) it was destroying me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I actually quit preaching for four years (1978-1982), after having preached for only two years, because I honestly felt that if this was what being a minister was all about, then I wanted no part of it. During those four years I served as the Executive Director of a large child care facility (which dealt with abused and neglected children and families in crisis). It was a rewarding work, and for a couple of those years I also served as a deacon at the University Church of Christ in Albuquerque, NM. I had some super mentors during that time, and I matured quite a bit. I began to perceive preaching in a different light. In 1982, Shelly and my three young sons and I moved to Kaiserslautern, Germany, where I was the minister for the American congregation in that city (one of the largest American military congregations outside the continental US). It was there that I truly began developing my love for local ministry, and it was there that Shelly and I discovered that we could just be ourselves, rather than what others expected us to be. If I was just the best ME that I could be, then that was all GOD expected!

There are things I do well, and there are things I do not do well. I used to think that I had to do everything well. In fact, I used to think I had to do everything. If something was happening at the building, I had to be there. If some group within the congregation met for some reason, I was expected to show up. If someone had a birthday party, the preacher needed to go. If someone was in the hospital, he had better come by for a visit. If there was a work day, God help that preacher who didn't take part. I was to "have coffee with the boys," door-knock with those who felt "called" to that form of outreach (it didn't matter if I felt called to that work; if they did, then I had better come along), hang out with the teens, spend time at the nursing homes, etc. Good speaker, good teacher, good song leader, good games player, good counselor, with a graduate degree from a university and willing to work for minimum wage with no benefits. Congregational Expectation ... Whew!! It's a killer! They tell you how to raise your kids, how to dress, how to spend your money, what foods to eat. As one aged preacher once told me, "When you enter the ministry, you become the property of the members of the congregation; you are bought and paid for; they own you ... and they don't mind telling you so!"

Here's a news flash -- I refuse to play those games!! Oh yes, I tried to ... at first. Then I woke up to the fact that the One who owns me is my GOD, not my fellow brothers and sisters. He made me just the way He wanted me. He has given me specific gifts, and He has given me specific opportunities. If I am faithful to Him, it is enough! Thus, wherever I am, and with whatever group of disciples I may be serving, I will simply strive to be the very best Al Maxey that God would have me to be. I have learned that I can be a good team player without having to be the whole team. I don't have to play every position (I don't have the time, ability or desire anyway), but the position I am called to play on the team, I will play to the very best of my ability. If every other player on the team does the same, then we'll have a great season for our Coach!

Preachers and elders especially (although this applies at times to other positions of leadership) are too frequently placed upon a pedestal. This is dangerous, not only for the leader placed there, but also for those who elevated him to that position. It puts unrealistic expectations upon such men, and these men will invariably, each of them, at some point, plummet from that lofty perch. They are simply human, after all; beset by the same weaknesses as any other member of the Body of Christ. Yes, they have certain strengths that make them fit for spiritual leadership, but to expect perfection of such men is to expect the impossible. Those who place their trust in men are doomed to disappointment, for those men will at times fail you; they simply will not live up to your expectations. I have personally witnessed a good many church members turn back to the world because their preacher, or their favorite shepherd, fell or failed them!! This great tragedy is in large part because they had placed their trust in a mere man; their faith was linked to his. When he fell, so did they. Our faith must be in HIM, not in men, for HE will never fail us. HE will always live and act above our expectations, never below them!

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707

Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Colorado:

Good Morning Bro. Al, I just opened your latest article ("The Apollos of the West") and as usual I went first to your "Readers' Reflections." The note from the New Mexico minister who was, figuratively speaking, "immersed" by his mother grabbed my attention, because it seems to be an unwritten/unspoken rule that women do not baptize. My wife spent several years as the mentor for a local MOPS (mothers of pre-schoolers) outreach ministry which is run by women for women; a group which baptized more unchurched souls within a year than most Churches of Christ baptize within a decade!! BUT, virtually all of these young ladies were baptized by other women, and it was not unusual for these young converts to later baptize their husbands. I'm sure most of our congregations would treat these young ladies as second class Christians (if they even accepted them at all).

From a Minister in Missouri:

Dear Bro. Al, God bless you. When I read your article on John Gano ("The Apollos of the West"), it took me back to 1947. I enrolled in William Jewell College (where the picture of Gano's grandfather baptizing George Washington hangs) as a Ministerial student under the G.I. Bill. After a full year of talking to the teachers about what the Bible said about the purpose of baptism (Acts 2:38), and being told by them that they knew this, but if we taught such a doctrine when we became Baptist pastors we would lose our jobs, I transferred to a school in Oklahoma.

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Al, I stumbled across your Reflections archive while researching "pattern worship" on the Internet. As a former member (1961 -- before Roy Deaver and the move to Bedford) of the Brown Trail Church of Christ in Hurst, Texas, and as one so deeply discouraged and disappointed by the embedded CENI legalism that Deaver brought there with him when he displaced Ed Wharton, I especially appreciate the material I have found on your web site!! I will be visiting it often now that I know about it.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Dear Brother Al, I just read your article "God Hates Lamb Chops." How can anyone believe that God did not approve of instruments in the OT? If I understand 2 Chronicles 5:1ff, Solomon had instruments at the dedication of the Temple, and the priests playing and singing were at the east end of the altar. God was so pleased that He came down and filled the house! The priests could no longer remain while the presence of God was there. If our God had hated instruments, then He would have consumed those boys as quickly as He did Nadab and Abihu!! Not only did Solomon have instruments, several of the courses (divisions) of the Levites were assigned to playing instruments as part of their priestly duties! Not every Levite stood before the altar serving and offering sacrifices. These critics are the same folks who try to use Malachi 3:8 to embarrass folks who either did not give or who are not giving what the "treasury" requires to fulfill all the "church" programs. Yet, they will then turn right around and say that we're under the New Testament, and we're therefore not to regard the Old Testament. Just when did the Word of God lose its inspiration?! Now, as you say, it's context, context, context. Keep the faith, brother!

From a Minister/Author/PhD in California:

Dear Brother Al, In your latest Reflections I just had to say "WOW!" to the note from "A Reader in the U.S. Navy." It is so good to hear of brethren coming out of Pharisaism/legalism and into the light of the liberty we have in Christ! It has certainly got to make you feel GOOD that your Reflections are having such a powerful impact worldwide!! So many have learned so much, and let me tell you -- it is because of your love for God, Truth, fairness, and your genuine scholarship that the light is being turned on for so many! These many readers' comments could easily puff up the head of some, but just remember -- you have ME around to keep you humble!! And I have YOU around to remind me what "P H D" really means!! God's love to both you and Shelly.

From a Minister/Author/D.Min. in Alabama:

Brother Al, My third volume in the series should be available by the end of this month. When it is available, I will send you a copy. I am also working on the fourth volume in the series, and hope to have it ready by early next year. Bro. Al, I never cease to be amazed at the clarity found in your writings as you unravel so many difficult issues that we, as Christians, have divided over. God is certainly working in and through you to bring about unity among His people. I thank you for your friendship, and for your love for all of God's people!!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, I was so moved by the letter from your reader in the U.S. Navy. And, as I sit here on this Labor Day eve, I have to wonder just how many of us have "died" pining away for the freedom our brother in the Navy has now discovered!! Cold legalism causes people to give up and walk away, not only from the church, but from God. Thank you, Al, for always focusing on Jesus and the freedom He died to give us!!

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