The Phantoms of Pastoral Ministry

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I must confess: I am a pastor, and I have anger issues. No, not issues because of ministry or because of church members. Just issues — because I’m me. I want what I want when I want it. And if I don’t get it, I tend to get mad. I’ve learned to hide it well, I think. But if you get close enough you’ll pick up on my anger. Yet God sees it all. I can’t hide from him. That even tempts me to anger. Goodness, I have issues. Can anyone relate?

For the past several years I’ve invited others into my life to help me study the ebb and flow of my anger. Close Christian friends, recommended biblical counselors, and yes, even my spouse. Here’s what they’ve helped me discover — I don’t have anger issues! It’s worse. I have worship issues. Oh me.

The Idols of Your Heart

The Bible has a word for my “issue.” It’s called idolatry (Ex. 20:4; Psalm 115:4-8). The false worship of idols always leads to anger. Just ask yourself, “What loss, missed opportunity, or accusation would make me angry?” Not sad, but mad. Find the answer to that question and you’re well on your way of discovering the idols of your heart (notice, I used the plural). Trust me, we all have them and it’s not a pretty sight.

It’s idol “show and tell” time: I worship phantoms. I worship an illusion, a mirage, an image of — me. He’s what I should be, what I ought to be. He’s a real pastor. If I really knew what I was doing in ministry, I’d be this guy. He doesn’t have my struggles. He doesn’t make my mistakes.

In fact, my devilish double looks mighty handsome, especially with all his ministry success. Therein lies the core of my anger, because I believe the phantom is real. I worship an idol made in my mind. I have tied my heart to the likes of a spiritual hallucination.

Pastor, please listen to me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only pastor who struggles with anger, or worships a phantom. Wouldn’t you say? So here’s the truth— the devil is a murderer and a deceiver. He is an accuser and a liar (John 8:44, Rev. 12:10). He is a master at twisting what is right. He corrupts the good and negates the true (Gen. 3:1-5). He will plant thoughts in your mind and help you find water. If you can think it, he can make it happen. He runs a diabolical design-build machine shop just down the road from your heart. Give him an idea and he will draw it up, turn the lathe, and deliver the product to the doorstep of your life — free of charge. Just remember, it’s your idol, your phantom, on your path. And it will ruin you.

Over time I’ve learned the hard way that idol worship runs you dry and tires you out. I believe that’s at least part of the reason behind the hellish propagation of phantoms. The devil wants you, and me, out of the ministry. Sidelined, burned out, dropped. He wants us to quit. He wants us to resign any and all holy endeavors. That, if anything, should get our attention.

What Happens When we Worship a Phantom?

1. We chase after the phantom. It’s a fool’s errand. Phantom chasing is to live in the world of the “if only” and the “I’m almost there.” It’s a ladder climb to nowhere. The phantom becomes an ever-dangling carrot. All the while, a voice says “just a little further,” or “just a little more.”

Four “if only” statements that pastors may be thinking right now:

  • If only I could find a nicer place of ministry.

  • If only I could get a better equipped staff.

  • If only I could have a more supportive wife.

  • If only I could make a little more money.

Ever have those thoughts? That’s phantom talk. That comes from “listening to yourself, instead of talking to yourself,” as Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say. So shut them down and turn them off, and preach Christ to yourself. If you chase on, you will never be content and find yourself to actually be quite irritable. You’ll always be on the move and on the hunt. Just when you think you’re getting close, the phantom gets a second wind and picks up the pace. Pastor, we will never catch the phantom because he is not real. Don’t waste your time or your energy. You may just find yourself on the sideline.

2. We compare ourselves to the phantom. Social media can ruin you. Image after image, and everybody looks so happy. Ministry looks easy and pastors look so cool. What’s the problem? Well, if those photos could talk they’d say ministry is not easy, they are not on a chronic happy-trip, and they would confess there is nothing cool about being a pastor.

Oh, but the phantom is always happy, never struggles, and seems to always look the part. What a deadly, deceptive thing it is to compare yourself with something that is not real. The phantom says:

  • If you were a real pastor … You’d spend more time in prayer.

  • If you were a real preacher… You’d preach better sermons.

  • If you were a real leader… You’d organize a better team.

  • If you were a real evangelist … You’d win more people to Christ.

Give those thoughts to Christ. Have him take them captive. If not, they will destroy you and everything you hold dear. If anger doesn’t set in, depression will. (Depression is often the flip side of anger.) “Woe is me” will be your tune. When you compare yourself to the phantom, the mirror will be your best friend and perhaps your only friend. You place yourself under a sinful microscope and risk being overwhelmed with your weaknesses. Newsflash – you will never live up to the phantom. He is a lie. He is not real. Stop comparing yourself to something that does not exist.

Is there any Hope for the Angry?

Yes, there is. In Jesus, and not yourself. Don’t miss that. You are not the hero, but Jesus is. Get over yourself. But let’s be honest: we likely struggled enough with our phantoms before the COVID-19 pandemic and now it’s like they’re rushing us from the tree line. I’m tempted to chase and compare like never before! And when I fall for a phantom, I grow tired and weary, I get angry and depressed — every time. Phantoms are no fun. So, what do we do? Where do we go from here? Because personally, I tend to see phantoms when I’m preaching to a camera.

Pastors, let’s resolve to:

1. Crucify our flesh. The phantoms lose their strength (Gal. 5:24). If you are a Christian, your old self (or, “man”) is dead. He was crucified with Christ, and he no longer lives (Gal. 2:20). We are called to put him off (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9). Yet our flesh is alive and it stinks. It is upon the flesh that we are called to wage war by the power of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18, 25).

Idol worship — phantom following — is the result of being led by the flesh instead of the Spirit. Our flesh craves satisfaction from this world. It craves carnality. It is an earth dweller. So, we mortify it. We kill it. We subject it to the cross. We leave it and let it die.

2. Trust God’s economy. He uses weak men to do strong things (2 Cor. 2:1-5). We are living under a COVID-19 pandemic, and pandemonium. It’s flipped the world up-side down. Though we grieve the loss, heartache, and disruption of this season, there are silver linings. One of which is that idols are being crushed. We do not have many legs to stand on. There are no big crowds. No big offerings. No big programs, events. None of the typical measurements, the nickels and noses, in which we attach ourselves are able to give us pseudo-strength.

All we have is all we need: The power of the gospel coupled with the power of the Spirit. Are you experiencing ministerial success in ministry during the pandemic? Good. Only God could do that. Now we have the right perspective.

3. Leverage our life (and lunch). Be ourselves, at our best, under Christ (John 6:9). Besides the resurrection of Christ, the feeding of the five-thousand is the only miracle of Jesus that occurs in all four Gospel accounts. I’ve always liked preaching it from the Fourth Gospel. Only John includes the little boy, said to have “fives loaves and two fish” (cf. Matt 14:17; Mark 6:38; Luke 9:13).

Jesus stole the boy’s lunch! Well, maybe the boy handed it over, but don’t miss this — God used a little portion from a little boy in a great way. God will require something of you if he’s going to use you to bless other people. God is looking for people willing to lay down their lives and their resources for Kingdom purposes. And that’s what we want. To be used by God for his glory. It’s not an issue of whether or not your lunch has value, but whether or not you’re willing to give it to Jesus. Lay down the lunch of your life and watch the Lord feed a multitude. God wants your little bit. That’s all you have anyway.

So stop worrying about what you don’t have at your disposal. Start considering what God has given you. Yes, there will be others with more on the tool belts – but that is not your concern. God is in the business of feeding multitudes. He can do a lot with your little. If we are honest, on our best day all we have looks like nothing more than a few loaves and a couple of fish. You can’t feed them if you tried, but Jesus can.

4. Build God’s Kingdom. We’ll find true joy in what lasts forever (Matthew 16:18). Among the church fellowship that I have the privilege to serve, we have a slogan that’s caught on — “It’s all about Him!” We use it in normal conversation, we shout it during baptism services, we celebrate with it, send mission teams and vote in new members. What’s the point? We want to remind ourselves that we are called to build God’s kingdom, and not our own. It truly is all about Him.

So, about that anger issue. What are you so angry about, pastor? Keep yourself from idols. (1 John 5:21).

  • Anger
  • COVID-19
  • Editor's Picks
  • Idolatry
  • Neal Thornton
  • Pastoral Ministry
Neal Thornton

Neal Thornton (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of Coats Baptist Church in Coats, North Carolina.

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