Pastors: The Importance of Being Absent

PJ SmythBlog, News

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One of the blessings of Corona isolation is that it is helping pastors wean themselves off their need to be needed, and wean people off their over-dependence on pastors. When a more conventional form of church resumes, make sure you don’t slip back into bad habits.

There is a spectrum of how people treat church leaders, ranging from dismissive to dependent. Neither of these extremes is healthy. We should be bang in the middle. Philippians 2:12-18 gives us a great portrait of Paul helping the Philippians be neither dependent or dismissive of him. From this passage, here are four things I do to help our people stay in the middle of the spectrum:

Think “drink” and “food”

Paul borrows an Old Testament image of sacrifice in which the major offering was the food offering, accompanied by a lesser drink offering. Paul says they are the food offering, and he is the drink offering. This is vital: I think of myself as less than our people and our church. I think of myself as a bridesmaid, not the Bride. Isn’t it terrible when bridesmaids try to make the day about them rather than the Bride?!

Team preaching

Although I do the majority of the preaching, I deliberately do not do all of it. This is not primarily because I need a break, but because our congregation need a break from hearing me, whether they think they do or not. They need to learn to drink of God’s word through different straws, not just the PJ-straw. They need to have God’s Word as the constant, not God’s-Word-and-PJ as the constant.

Team pastoring

Paul stresses that God himself is at work within them (v.13). The captain of our pastoring team is Jesus. He does the bulk of the pastoring. I will often say to someone needing care, “I am happy to add my faith to your faith in Jesus” or, “I am happy to stand with you as you look to Jesus for strength” or, “Here is what I think you should do, but you digging into Jesus is the critical success factor.” I want the after-taste of every pastoral encounter to be Jesus.

Paul also stresses their role in pastoring themselves: “work out your own salvation” (v.12) and “do all things…” (v.14). I try to teach people to speak to their souls like the psalmist did (Ps. 42:5); to fan their God-given gift to flame (2 Tim. 1:6); and to rouse themselves to worship, prayer, Bible-reading, and other spiritual disciplines. The virgins at the wedding in Matthew 25 needed their own oil. Each of us needs to bear our own load (Gal. 6:5).

Paul is equally clear in the importance of his (the leader’s) role in pastoring them. Crucially, he loves them (v.12 “beloved”)! And he works hard for them, running, laboring and being poured out for them (v.16-17). And he is not scared to tell them the tough stuff. He unequivocally calls them to obedience, holy living and holding fast to God’s Word (v.12-16). Therefore, I try to be confident and faithful in discharging my pastoral responsibilities.

Elsewhere Paul calls for us to pastor one another. (Gal. 6:2, Col. 3:16). In a healthy family, not only the father’s voice is heard, nor is fatherly care the only type of care that is given. Mothers, brothers, and sisters need to join in. When people come to me for help, I regularly connect them to others to receive advice and care. I never say, “I am too busy so…” Rather I say, “So and so is going to help you better than I could, so I am going to connect you with them.”


I think my Texan friend, Bob Roberts, coined this phrase, meaning a blend of local and global. In addition to local voices, I deliberately keep our church aerated with voices from outside our church, and keep our church aware of the outstanding things other churches and leaders are doing in other places. This keeps anyone from thinking that our church (or me) are a “big deal.” Jesus is the big deal, and his worldwide church is magnificent!