Fighting Cowardice in Pastoral Ministry

Like many in my generation, I grew up watching the Wizard of Oz. I can recall a stretch of years where the movie would come on annually on a Saturday morning—and in an era without streaming on demand, this was something my sisters and I looked forward to. I loved the movie, but one character always irked me: the Cowardly Lion. I never could grasp why he couldn’t just get it together—he was a lion, after all! Now that I’m older, though, I understand more clearly how difficult life can be. People are mean. Consequential decisions are weighty. Compromise is expedient. And though I wouldn’t have understood this years ago, I now see just how vital courage is for pastoral ministry.

For pastors, courage is needed in three main areas:

(1) To maintain convictions. It may have seemed easy to take a hardline stance on divorce and remarriage in that seminary class. But applying that conviction to individuals who will be affected—and potentially angry or hurt—is more difficult. This reality actually makes for better theology—doctrine articulated from compassionate pastor-pilgrims on the way rather than detached academic-automatons. But courage is required to think faithfully and to properly apply the truths of Scripture—especially in the face of opposition.

(2) To confront sin. Good shepherds pursue straying sheep, and this means a commitment to the loving rescue operation that is church discipline. It takes courage to confront a brother or sister in their sin, not least because pastors are sinners too! But public, serious sins must be addressed, lest harm befall both the local body of Christ and the straying sheep. This is uncomfortable. It is difficult. It can be scary. But it is profoundly unloving to allow a brother or sister to destroy themselves with sin. Pastors must have the courage to truly love—blending grace with truth—that the health of the body may be preserved and the struggling saint returned to fellowship.

(3) To lead when its unpopular. Leaders make decisions—lots of them. But good leaders don’t shrink back from making the hard ones, and in particular, the ones that will not be well received. With the majority of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention plateaued or declining, many pastors are leading churches where the looming decision is to either change or die. Both are painful, but courage is required if life and health are to emerge in the place of business as usual.

Fortunately, pastors don’t need a snappy pep talk from the Wizard of Oz to draw strength! Instead, two simple remedies will serve them well:

First, they must fear God, not man. When convictions are challenged, when decisions are difficult, when confronting sin is messy, it is tempting to take the easy way out. To compromise. To fall into people-pleasing. To be lazy. But as uncomfortable as man can make a pastor’s life, man will not be our judge. Pastors keep watch over souls as those who will give an account, and this future judgment should steel the spines of any who find themselves wavering. Brother pastor, think often of that day when you will stand before the Lord and give account not only of your own life, but of the souls whom you have shepherded. Consider both the approval of the Father (“Well done, my good and faithful servant”) and also his disapproval, and may the consequence of that Day grow courage mixed with holy fear.

Second, they must trust God, not themselves. Though pastors know better, too often they are guilty of taking matters into their own hands—choosing to do what is expedient or what preserves the peace rather than what is required. This reveals self-trust rather than faith; their perspective, their fear, their self-protection trump other considerations. A pastor’s fundamental confidence must be in the Lord and his Word, or he will readily fall prey to the whims of the moment—doing what seems wise in his own eyes rather than trusting the righteousness of God. God is the sovereign One who holds lives and churches in his hands. When self-trust wanes and faith waxes, courage will grow too.

No pastor wants to be a cowardly pastor. But ministry is difficult, and job security is nice. But better than job security and man’s approval is the eternal weighty of glory that awaits all who labor well. Therefore, brother pastors, “be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13), knowing that he will hold you fast.

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