Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tuesday with Thessalonians: Pastoral Anxiety




I haven’t posted on Thessalonians since before Christmas, but I am filling in some holes in my commentary and decided to share some thoughts from 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5.

 1 So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. 4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 5 For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.

We live in a world in which our anxiety levels increase almost annually. In addition to the constant onslaught of anxiety inducing news that we get via television, the internet and other media sources there is daily life. We feel anxious about our marriages, our children, our jobs. The economy and the stock market fluctuates like a ship tossed at sea and sometimes we aren’t sure how or if we are going to make it. For Christians there can be a level of guilt associated with this anxiety. We read the words of Paul in Phil 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” but on a practical level our experience teaches us that this is not always the easiest thing to do. The good news is we are not alone.

The story of Israel demonstrates that anxiety is not an unusual part of life. Sincere concern for our situation and of those around us is not something that God condemns (1 Sam 9:5; 10:2; 2 Kings 4:8-13). Many times we read stories about and the prayers of people who were anxious about what was or what might happen to them, and they express that anxiety to God (1 Sam 1:16; Ps 6; 38:8; 55:4). At times anxiety exists due to the presence of sin (Ps 38:18), but that same anxiety can also lead to repentance (Ps 51).  One thing that is consistent through this story is that those who trust in the Lord will see their anxiety relieved (Ps 127:1-2; Jer 17:7-8; Matt 6:25-34; Luke 12:22-31). Yet, there is a tension here. While on the one hand anxiety is a natural part of life for which we must put our trust in God, there is also the realization that not all anxiety will be eliminated in this life. There is an eschatological element to this trust in the way that the Bible recognizes that it is only with the return of Jesus that all will be made right (2 Cor 12:1-10; Phil 4:11-13; Heb 13:5; 1 Peter 5:7).

In 3:1-5 Paul plays the part of the worried, hand-wringing parent anxious for news from a child. In 2:18 Paul says that he and the other apostles didn't just share the gospel with the Thessalonians, but also their lives as well. In 3:1-5 we see the evidence for this in the way Paul frets over the church to the point that it seems to be so distracting to him that he takes matters into his own hands. Unable to return himself, he sends Timothy back to Thessalonica discover what is happening there. Present, barley below the surface, is both Paul’s anxiety that everything the apostles did may come to naught (3:1, 5), and the realization that ultimately only God will be able to accomplish the work at the time Jesus returns (2:19).

Paul is clearly an anxious pastor. In fact, for Paul, anxiety over the church is with him daily. In 2 Cor 11:28 he notes that in addition to the various trials he suffers as an apostle he faces “daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” The word translated by the NIV as “concern” is merimna which can also be translated “anxiety,” “worry,” or “care.”  It is a rarely used word in the New Testament, but its meaning is fairly consistent. It describes the type of anxiety that can weigh a person down to the point of feeling like everything else in life is being choked out. Although he doesn't use that word here in 2:17-3:5, Paul is exhibiting that type of anxiety over the Thessalonians. In 3:1 it appears that Paul’s concern for the church was beginning to “bubble up” and interfere with other things. His emotions and anxiety were getting the better of him and he finally had to do something to find out what was going on in Thessalonica.

Anxiety is more and more a part of the modern age and leaders/pastors are not immune to it. There is fear of failure, that you're not gifted, the lack of people and finances, of conflict, of not being respected and appreciated, of the unexpected and that you won't be wanted or needed anymore. Compounding all of this is the fear that a pastor who admits to struggling with anxiety may be perceived as lacking faith and may lose credibility with parishioners.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is not new. Paul was not the first nor is he the last to be anxious over his ministry, and he had several churches on his mind. Just as we don’t want to let the cares of the world choke out the things of God, we also don’t want the cares of the church to choke us. As we ponder this passage, especially from the perspective of leadership, there are two ways that we can apply it.

On the one hand, pastors need to be invested in the church they are leading to the point that the church is always on their mind. A church that has a disconnected pastor is not going to grow spiritually. I talked to a pastor friend who has been in ministry for over 35 years and he told me that the church he pastors is always on his mind. This is natural result of embracing, loving, and shepherding a group of people. And as the church grows so will the anxiety. Many times these people become your friends and your family. They are the children you baptize, marry and in some cases bury. Just as any parent might observe what a child will do with some level of anxiety, so too pastors and other spiritual leaders will look on as they watch the people they minister to struggle and grow. This gets back to what we saw above with the kind of nurturing care Paul provided the Thessalonians when he was with them.

The flipside of all this, however, is the dangers related to anxiety. Statistically nine out of ten pastors will quit before retirement; 1500 pastors leave the ministry every month. There are a number of reasons for these statics, but some of it has to do with burnout. For some the burden simply becomes too much. While Paul demonstrates pastoral anxiety, we should be cautious to what degree we imitate it. We can learn from Paul, but we also don’t want to get to the point where anxiety almost chokes us.

In my conversation with pastors one the thing that is emphasized is not to make anxiety the norm. This means that while there are times in ministry when stress levels rise and anxiety will creep in, it is not the way to operate continually. As leaders we are accountable to people but not responsible for them. That means that we will provide what care and attention we can, but we can’t allow the decisions they make and the things they do to adversely impact us. Like Paul, we want to do what we can to stand before Christ together with them, but ultimately it is up to them and God. Leaders need to realize that God is the only one who can ultimately complete the work.

A good way to help relieve stress and anxiety is to develop a support group. From what we can see in the New Testament, Paul rarely ministered alone. He seems to have had a support group in the person of Barnabas in the early years and then Silas and Timothy later. Along with elders and/or deacons in the church a leader should decide what his or her gifts are and focus on those and then allow the Timothy and Silas’s in the church to do what they do best.

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