Posted by: Andrew Webb | October 23, 2008

The Loneliness of the Old School Pastor

Those of you who are pastors or elders of old school conviction may already be very familiar with the experience of ministerial loneliness. This is not a loneliness that comes because of a lack of friends or family, but rather it is a feeling of being alone in one’s convictions and of being an outsider in a larger society. For instance, the Old School pastor can be a member of a large denomination such as the PCA, and yet when he goes to the Presbytery or the General Assembly of that denomination he has an overwhelming sense of being different and not really an accepted part of the larger body. It is a feeling similar to Elijah’s, who even when he was in his own country surrounded by his own countrymen, lamented repeatedly “I alone am left…” (1 Kings 18:22, 19:10, 19:14)

To walk in the old paths is not to walk in the easy or the broad way, and it means going against the prevailing tendency present in every age to tell men what they want to hear by preaching “smooth things”(Isa. 30:10) and saying ‘Peace, peace!’ When there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14) it should not be surprising then, that one meets with this loneliness, or what we could call “the Elijah complex,” again and again in the biographies of the spiritual giants.

For instance, in his biography of D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Iain Murray writes:

Given Dr Lloyd-Jones’ family, his congregation, and such constant invitations from all parts of the country as are only received by very few preachers, it may seem absurd to describe him as lonely. Had he been able to multiply himself tenfold he could scarcely have fulfilled the hopes of the multitude of correspondents who sought his help on behalf of their churches or organizations. Yet loneliness was to be the accompaniment of his ministry. Not in any physical sense, nor in any lack of company. It lay deeper, in his conscious isolation from the prevailing thought of the church at large.

When people sought to explain what set ML-J apart in terms of his convictions they usually did so in terms of ‘Calvinism’. ‘Dr Jones must almost be last of the Calvinistic preachers,’ reported the Merthyr Express, after he had visited Merthyr in 1947. Kenneth Slack, one of the rising leaders in the Free Churches, was thinking of the same thing when he said of the minister of Westminster Chapel, ‘His systems of thought were too rigid to enter into the thought-world of others’.

[Iain Murray, Life of D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Vol. 2 - The Fight of Faith, Banner of Truth, (p.192-193)]

While to a certain extent this ministerial loneliness will be inevitable for Old Schoolers, we should remember certain things.

1) First, keep in mind that Elijah was wrong when he repeatedly declared that he alone was left a prophet of the Lord.

While we may indeed feel that we are all alone and “the last of the Calvinistic preachers”, we are not. As the Lord reminded Elijah, “Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:18)

The Lord has ever preserved a remnant to Himself and He ever will. We need to remind ourselves of that fact on a regular basis lest we become prone to despair or develop the kind of siege mentality that will cripple our ministry. Ministerial fraternities will often help in that regard. Every year I am buoyed up by attending the Banner of Truth ministers conference in Grantham, PA. There I meet with men who, although they come from a many different denominations, are united by a shared love of Experimental Calvinism and a Puritan ministerial philosophy. I have often commented that the ministerial collegiality and rejuvenation of spirit I experience at the Banner is what enables me to persevere despite feeling like an outsider at the PCA General Assembly the following month.

2) Remember too that the devil can use this feeling of loneliness to achieve his own wicked ends.

a) He can use it to build up envy and discontent. Inevitably this results in a sour and sometimes cranky demeanor. Many a pastor who otherwise would be an asset to the kingdom has gradually become a bitter kook who only appeals to those who share his spirit of discontentment.

Yes, it isn’t “fair” that shallow men of liberal conviction whose only real skill is an ability to pander to the popular ethos have historically been praised by the people, lauded by the world, and advanced by their denominations. But if we consider the end of such men and what will happen to them at the judgment seat of Christ we would not envy but pity them. John Brown of Haddington warned a gifted young student who felt that the church that he had been called to was to small for a man of his talents:

“I know the vanity of your heart,’ wrote the Professor, β€˜and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself, on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at His judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.β€˜

Consider also that the ear ticklers of their age are quickly forgotten. In Lloyd-Jones’ day liberal preachers like the Methodist Leslie Weatherhead were the “film stars” (as a contemporary put it) of the pulpit, but now they and their work are largely forgotten and a hundred years from now they will be nothing but dusty footnotes in the history of the decline of the mainline churches. The works of Lloyd-Jones, on the other hand, continue to be reprinted and eagerly consumed by thousands world-wide and will be for many years to come. A man’s work may not be popular, but if it is full of Christ and sets before men the themes of eternity rather than time, it will endure.

b) He can use it to create a man-pleasing spirit. Many a pastor after years of being “an outsider” has jumped at an opportunity to enter the broader society and shed his pariah status. The knowledge that just a little compromise or a little silence could be the ticket to greater acceptance has worked a terrible transformation in some men and tarnished what would have been a spotless reputation. History is full of men who, by following the siren’s call to influence, power, popularity, and fame, have ended up leaving the old paths by a gradual process of compromise. While they may have enjoyed far greater influence and admiration during their lifetime, they will find that having sought their reward here on earth they have built ministries made of wood, hay, and straw without any enduring value.

Therefore remember to guard your hearts you men of Old School Convictions. You are not called upon to suffer anything that the men who went before you were not, and very few of you will ever suffer anything like the loneliness and alienation of the prophets and apostles. So when you are downcast remember to keep that eternal perspective before you, and meditate on the glorious promise contained in the words of one who suffered more than most in the service of the Lord: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

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Responses

  1. [...] October 23, 2008 in Planting Churches, The Mission: Reaching and Teaching, old school presbyterian ministry At Building Old-School Churches. [...]

  2. Hi Andrew, Great post and great blog! I’m glad that I’ve discovered you thanks to the Heidelblog. Keep it up!

  3. I agree and can see this often in myself. I too find the Banner conference a time when I am refreshed and reminded that I am not alone in my convictions.

  4. Thanks for this! Self-pitty is always lurking at my door as well. And yet, the servant is not above his master.

  5. good post. makes me all the more glad that my hubby can go to banner yearly. :)

  6. Andy,

    Good post. I just enjoyed the Ligonier Pastors’ Conference, and was encouraged by how reformation is slowly spreading in non-Presbyterian circles. It was even more encouraging to meet several young men (I can say “young” now, as I turn 39 tomorrow!) in the PCA who long more for the Old Paths and the ordinary means of grace. There is nothing more encouraging to the minister, I think, than being able to be an encouragement to others.

  7. I believe the Banner conference is a “must do” at least once. I was invited to attend 7 years ago and have put it on my calendar ever since. The fellowship and friendships transcend denominational connections. The “Elijah effect” is a common experience for the reformed pastor today. As I attempted to explain my feelings of aloneness in my first church in 1968, I realized that as a man in ministry I was often tempted by the forces of evil to compromise my preaching and my stand against the evil I encountered just as Elijah was. I called it “being under the Juniper bush.” Thanks for your comments and help in understanding in this important reality for those in ministry today.

  8. Andy,

    This is not helpful only for old school pastors, but also for those men like myself who have been brought to the recent realization that it’s time to step down from pastoral ministry, at least for a time. I have been fighting the possibility tooth and nail but an inescapable circumstance forced me to conclude that I need to be getting about something else. I’ve been struggling quite a bit recently with envy and discontent (2a) above moreso now than when I was planting a small and struggling church.

    Not only is it humbling to work as pastor of a small congregation, it’s also quite humbling to be brought down from that position and into other work, esp. when you’ve poured so much of yourself into it.

    Daily trying to learn contentment,
    Brent


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