Wounded shepherd: When is it time to leave the flock?

When does the wounded shepherd need to turn the care of his or her flock over to others? Obviously, there are no pat answers, but here are some questions to carefully consider. (From Focus On The Family magazine.)

Bob has kidney failure and must take debilitating dialysis treatments three times a week. Peter’s 18-year-old son has left home and been arrested for drug possession. Dan has had an emotional breakdown and his wife doesn’t know where he is. Joe has been accused of having an affair with at least three women.

All four are tragic situations, but perhaps more so because each is pastoring a large, growing church. How does a pastor and his or her church respond to life crises?

Ideally, our lives as ministers would become a life-long illustration of God’s grace and power. The Apostle Paul writes:

      Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

But how much of the pastoral and personal struggles should pastors share with their flocks? Ken Heer, who has served in the pastorate as well as denominational leadership, has a wise answer. “The information should be as public as the issue.”

Psalm 73 seems to imply that some struggles and crises need to be kept private:

      This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

      If we were to express all our struggles, doubts, temptations, failure at the moment of crisis, we may run the risk of betraying our flock by undermining their faith in God, and as us as God’s servants. Your congregation may not be able to handle a message on “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

So we must ask:

Will my sharing of my struggle build up or hinder the work of the church?

Or am I using my congregation as a group therapy class?

On the other hand, some of the most effective ministry has occurred when I have confessed to my shortcomings and temptations. After admitting to our congregation that I was now a citizen of “Prozac Nation” and that my wife and I had been in counseling, several parishioners came to me visibly relieved that they were not alone in their struggles.

But when does the wounded shepherd need to turn the care of his or her flock over to others? Obviously, there are no pat answers, but here are some questions to carefully consider with your spouse and governing boards.

Should I continue pastoring with no changes?

Find out if denominational or church government policy addresses your crisis.

In the case of Joe, my denomination has a mandatory five-year suspension from the ordained ministry for pastors with moral failures. (During this time the district board is to assist the pastor in repentance and restoration of relationships.) In other cases, it is often at the discretion of the governing body whether a local board, elders, or entire congregation.

Seek counsel to determine if you are emotionally and spiritually fit to continue your responsibilities.

In the case of Peter with the prodigal son, he was able to continue his responsibilities. And, through God’s grace and redeeming power, was able to become a much more compassionate and effective minister to the many families in his church with wayward children.

Should I continue at the church in a limited capacity?

As pastor, you are the key person who assures that the ministries of the church are fulfilled.

Bob, as he fought a losing battle with kidney failure, was senior pastor with a large staff. He scheduled staff meetings at the hospital while he was undergoing dialysis and scheduled treatments so he could preach on Sunday. But most of his week was spent confined to bed. If not for a supportive staff, he could not have continued.

While I was speaking in India for three weeks, my wife contracted laryngitis – not a good thing for a senior pastor when the associate minister is out of the country. She, however, found creative ways to continue ministry. She wrote out her sermons and had laypeople deliver them. Our son relayed phone messages to key leaders in the church. Laypeople took up the challenge and assisted in various ways.

Should I take some time off to heal?

During this time of crisis, the focus needs to be on what is best for you, your family, and the church.

Dan had finished a four-year degree in three years while working full-time with a family. Within months of taking his first pastoral assignment, he had an emotional breakdown. The church board very graciously gave him six months off – with pay – and offered to help pay for professional counseling. Laypeople took over the day-to-day responsibilities of the church while engaging me to speak on Sundays. (At that time I was writing and speaking full-time.)

Unfortunately, many churches don’t have the finances to cover such a cost.

Should I resign from the church?

Obviously, this should be the last resort. Wounded shepherds should resign only if the flock will be harmed or not adequately cared for during the time of crisis.

As the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:4, this may be a providential time to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” I’ve found that hurting sheep respond well to a wounded shepherd who is gaining his or her strength from the Great Shepherd.

Text copyright © 2001 James N. Watkins. Photo copyright © 2015 James N. Watkins.

Related posts for pastors
“The church is a whore”
Do you really want a “biblical” church?
“Cyber church” has bats in belfry
The Watkins New World Church Dictionary
Dealing with church conflict
Top ten signs your church may be prejudiced
Finding still water in the storm: The Book of Joe
A case for women in ministry
Top ten list: When you’re voted out
Considering a post-pastorate career

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