11/26/2023   by Matt Lewellyn

The sacred charge of the minister of the gospel is a simple one: shepherd God's flock and care for their souls. If there is ever a common mistake or misstep for a large number of ministers, it would seem that such a thing should be etched into the deepest parts of training programs. Training is incomplete without some measure of awareness of the pitfalls and snares lying ahead.

Of course, one such mistake would be to teach wrong doctrine. That rightly ought to be an issue of first order in matters pertaining to the gospel. The care of souls is inextricably linked to teaching the specifics of what it means to be in (or not be in) Christ as a believer. So far, so good - my experience of ministry training tracks with that (although, of course, not every seminary is faithful to that path).

But there is another mistake I have seen pastors make time and time again. I am surely guilty as well, on numerous occasions. It's a mistake that can cut down even those we saw as strong in the faith, up to and including the most steady of Christians. And, it is an error for which there was precious little training in the seminary, in my experience.

What is this pitfall that traps ministers left and right, young and old? Well, we can function as if discipleship is only about teaching truths about Christ and expecting the true followers to change accordingly. We can act as if the only difference between a Christian who is successful at managing sin, and one who is not, is strength of will.

If I'm the minister, then from this perspective, I am the one who has studied, and my training has told me that truth changes people. So I push relentlessly at truth. I speak truth week in and week out, recommend other teachers teaching the same truth, add Bible studies to the schedule, promote conferences - all to the same lack of effect. Why? Because there is another layer to human experience that I'm not addressing. There is a depth, a third dimension, that discipleship needs to have.

Whether ministers or not, we all have some concept of what it means to be stretched in a psychological sense. We know that stretching can be a good thing. Runners will often stretch before a 5k or a marathon, to get their muscles warmed up and ready for action. Rehab patients will perform stretches as a part of their therapy.

Psychological stretching is no exception - there are many times it is beneficial. But just like in the muscular sense, there is a certain level of stretching that is the limit of good. Pass it, and you run into serious problems. Have you ever had a point in your life where you felt like you were close to breaking? Like, major changes needed to happen, or something was going to give that we didn't want to snap?

Many of us have experience this at one time or another. We have had loved ones pass away - that stretches the psyche to come up with a version of the world that does not include the person we lost. We all went through the early rages of the pandemic a few years ago, when we were stretched in our assumptions about the limits of medical science, political pressures, and how all of that relates to church practice.

Also, many have been stretched well past their limit by seeing and experiencing continued physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse within the walls of the church, or with the structure of the family.

Each one of us is a rubber band. We each have a starting point of where we are right now. In our lives, the various pressures around us are attempting to stretch us to another place, to be our new starting point for the next stretch. Those pressures come from family, society, the workplace, politics, and even (or especially) the church.

Just like any self-respecting rubber band, I am only able to stretch so far. Naturally, in the well-known world of rubber banding, we know that some bands are more stretchy than others. There are the thin bands that can stretch a long way. Then, the really thick, strong bands that give a little but aren't going anywhere. Last, but not least, are the bands that are dried out and brittle, or they have a nick in one or more places - we can try to stretch them, but they're going to break.

Every congregation will have a broad mixture of all of these types of rubber bands. The question to put to each and every minister (soul-carer) is this: do the present, this-life benefits of Christianity include being naturally stretchy toward Christian teaching?

As I've indicated, for many ministers, the answer is yes. Typically, this is based on the children of God having the Holy Spirit, who will guide us into all truth. And that is true, of course, we have the Spirit. But does it follow that the psyche automatically follows suit?

No. We don't get injected with Jesus and the Holy Spirit and just magically have the psychological ability to reach every plateau. We won't naturally adjust to every doctrine, or snap into a way of worship, or relate with every personality.

Really, we have a foundation point set within our psyche from even before our earliest memories. To be sure, that point can change, or be changed - but that change has to happen slowly and with a lot of grace (lest we experience a psychological break). Everything that comes before this moment plays a part in the thickness, consistency, and tensile strength of our rubber bands.

So, when pastors want to change things a church believes or adjust practical matters, they cannot treat it as just a matter of truth. They must also bring an awareness to see how they are stretching the minds and souls under their care.

Most of us desire our beliefs to match in lock-step with actual truth, and some of us have a notion we've attained this. But no matter how dedicated to the concept of truth we are, we also have that tensile strength that can be broken.

When we get closer to breaking, that is when we get defensive. That's not to say it's always one thing that breaks us - we get a culmination of all of the pressures at any given time. But we have wounds in our souls, don't we? And we have weaker points in the structures in our minds that would cause us to lash out. Those sore spots can be activated by teachings, sights, sounds, smells, or extra-personal questions. And then, we're not talking about the truth being discussed - now we're all about feeling threatened.

Please understand: certain schools of Christian counseling and philosophy of ministry will insist that this level of experience either does not exist or does not matter. They place all of a person into two categories: fall and redemption. Sin and grace. They ignore the damage that the relentlessness of life brings into our souls and minds. They then expect everyone has an equal ability to choose to turn attitude and action toward God.

It is normal to be damaged in this creation - there is really no surprise there. And we have to acknowledge that such damage has an effect on our ability to stretch toward certain things. There is depth to soul care that requires empathy and compassion to fully develop.

I have also heard pastors express frustration at how much people fight change in their churches. They will attempt to introduce hard doctrines. They will change the worship style or structure. And they will get into a lot of arguments about it, when in a lot of cases, they are unknowingly interacting with inner defenses. Without that awareness, they will continue to meet the same kinds of resistance.

Every church service or Bible study should include something stretching, to an extent. We do want congregations to move forward, instead of becoming stagnant. But we should be aware of where our brothers and sisters are. And we should be aware of our tendency to try to validate our own stretching experience by comparing to another's.

Gentleness must be the rule. Responsible soul care demands it. Each one of us is one snapped rubber band away from being in a excruciatingly tough position. Truth is a worthy goal. But some truth, in some ways, is out past my tensile limit, and I may not be able to reach it (yet).

"A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish." - Isaiah 42:3



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