Editor’s note: The questions we ask are oftentimes more revealing than any answers we provide. Here, we have excerpted part of a frank discussion on pastoral ministry and leadership between several Chinese house church pastors and Paul Tripp, an American pastor and author. The house church pastors lead the conversation as they question Tripp about isolation in ministry and changing the leadership culture within the church.
Pastor Hu Yongjie: Most Chinese pastors are solo ministers. Isolation and loneliness are very common. We know it’s unhealthy. Do you have any suggestions as to how to break through this situation?
Paul Tripp: The pastoral epistles are very clear that a pastor is a member of the body of Christ. No pastor lives up, above, or outside of the body of Christ. Christ is the head of his body; everything else is just body. A pastor is a man in the middle of his own sanctification. He needs the ministry of the body of Christ. You have to break down that wall of separation and be self-disclosing enough that people understand you need their comfort, encouragement, and insight as much as anybody else. A pastor is a member of the body of Christ, who has been given particular gifts by God, but needs the body.
Around the world, there are hundreds of thousands of pastors living in separation, isolation, and alienation from the body of Christ. Nothing in the Bible tells me that that is healthy. You need to work to change that culture so that you are part of the body. If you have small groups, you as a pastor should meet with a small group you don’t lead so you are presenting yourself as a member of the body. In preaching, make a point of saying, “I wish I did this well, but I don’t, so pray for your pastor.” Work to break down that separation. It is not spiritually healthy to live without the essential, sanctifying ministry of the body of Christ.
No pastor is a grace graduate. All the graces that God has designed to come to the body of Christ, you need as well. You have to change the culture and the way people think about you so you can receive the ministry that your soul needs.
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Pastor Hu: How can we change or create this type of culture? Do you have ideas or practical suggestions?
Tripp: Pursue relationships that can become deep, spiritual friendships. You want to get to the point where that man has confidence he can speak into your life. I have people in my life who confront me. I need that; I take those relationships very seriously; I pursue those relationships. A pastor needs to be pastored. In an informal way, I ask people to pastor me. People will not presume to do that unless you make the invitation, because they have put you in a certain category.
S.E. Wang: What causes people to put pastors into a different category than others?
Tripp: The global assumption is that a seminary degree or pastoral position is a statement of spiritual maturity and independence. That is rooted in a misunderstanding of grace. The move of grace is to move me from independence to greater dependence.
The spiritually mature person is more dependent on God and on brothers and sisters than the immature person is. The more mature a pastor is, the more aware he will be of his need for God and the body of Christ. The assumption is that, once you have a seminary degree, you are mature enough to live independently. That is the opposite of what the Bible teaches about grace. The closer you get to God’s holiness, the more you see the sinfulness of your own soul. The more you cry out for God’s help, the more you love the ministry of the body of Christ.
I try, as part of my devotional time, to pray these three prayers every morning. The first is: “God, I’m a man in desperate need of help.” That is confession. The second is: “I pray that, in your grace, you would send helpers my way.” That could be a passage of Scripture, a book, a person. The third prayer is: “Lord, please give me the humility to receive the help when it comes.” Those three prayers remind me that I am not done yet. Sin has not been eradicated from me. I need the ministry and resources that God has ordained in my life.
Go after the assumption that a pastoral calling means you are mature enough to live an independent life. That is false. I don’t think it is just in China. I’ve been around the world, and everywhere I go, people make that assumption of their pastors.
Pastor Wu Qiang: We should express our needs and weaknesses; we need other people’s ministry. We are part of the body of Christ. If we try to be independent and show we are very strong, then that goes against what we say when we preach total depravity. We should express our need of grace every day, so people can change their expectations of their pastors. Then we can be on the same level as and make friends with people in our church. My idea is to meet people in more informal situations—not just preaching in church, where there is a great distance. Sometimes I look for other brothers who can jog with me, so they can see what a normal pastor’s everyday life is like.
Tripp: You use the word weakness. We have the mistaken notion that leaders don’t project weakness. That is not a biblical model. The Apostle Paul was a great example of confessing weakness. The gospel should break down our fear of weakness, because it teaches that our weakness is a workroom for the Redeemer.
Jesus is able to relate to all forms of human weakness. My Redeemer is never surprised or disgusted by my weakness. He never gets mad at me. He never mocks me. He brings me mercy that has been formed fit for that moment of weakness.
As a leader, I ought to model candor and confidence in weakness. I can confess without fear, because I have confidence that grace meets me in my weakness. In Acts 2, Peter says that Jesus was delivered to the hands of evil men. He is saying that God has the power and willingness to bring very good things out of very bad things. What could be worse than the killing of the Messiah? What could be better than the cross of Jesus Christ? We have an unbiblical view of weakness. We think it only produces bad, so we deny weakness. I won’t confess weakness, and I lack confidence in weakness. But the Bible teaches the opposite.
God’s grace is so deep, glorious, and powerful, that he turns very bad things into very good things. We should not be afraid of weakness, but confess it with candor and with confidence, and model that for people. If you model denying and hiding weakness because you are projecting false strength, your people will do the same. They will think that is mature Christianity. If you begin to confess your weakness, with confidence in your Savior, your people will learn to do the same.
Dr. Paul David Tripp is a pastor, event speaker, and author. Paul’s driving passion is to connect the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Chinese pastors to intentionally cultivate real community that ministers to them within their local church bodies.