By Jeff Faull
It was more than 20 years ago that October was designated as Clergy Appreciation Month. My experience and exposure is limited, but for most people I know, Clergy Appreciation Month is a nonevent. Some even perceive it as a “contrived holiday” kept alive by greeting card companies and Christian booksellers.
October passes by with many of us remaining blissfully unaware that we missed anything. And that”s OK with me. Coming from a fellowship that has historically been cautious of most clergy-laity distinctions, I”m fine with that.
But nearly 2,000 years ago, the writer of Hebrews pleaded with believers to remember their leaders and to bring them joy, not pain. Paul told the Thessalonians to respect those who worked hard among them, and who were “over them” in Christ. Christian leaders were to be lovingly held in the highest regard because of their work. Paul told Timothy that good leaders were worthy of “double honor.” Honoring Christian leaders is not merely an October thing””it”s an ongoing thing. Godly Christians have been doing that for centuries.
Most of us are inspired by those great stories of generosity and respect shown to well-deserving Christian leaders. Not the extravagant excesses of evangelistic charlatans who fleece the flock, but the genuine, heartfelt generosity of Christians toward those who faithfully lead others in Christ.
We know of leaders who have been blessed with sabbaticals, time off, and periods of respite because their congregations were grateful for their efforts. We”ve heard the joyful dismay of retiring preachers who are presented with keys to a new car or the funds for an exotic trip or a much-desired item thanking them for years of service and sometimes even enabling them to transition with financial security.
A few years ago my family was involved in a serious watercraft accident during spring break, and our church family paid to bring us home, even providing a private medical jet so we could recover from our injuries back home in Indiana, rather than in Florida where the accident occurred. That generosity is not limited to ministerial staff. Recently our congregation honored one of our faithful long-term elders and his family with a surprise banquet, an all-expense-paid family trip, and a new appliance for their home.
But I”ve noticed some leaders can get left behind when appreciation is expressed. In fact, some leaders are rarely acknowledged as leaders.
It seems the tendency of many people is to show honor and gratitude to the senior leaders or more visible ministry staff. Sometimes this happens from ulterior motives, but more often it is through unintentional neglect or ignorance of the nature and demands of ministry. Well-intentioned people simply forget and overlook some of the lesser-known servant leaders in the church.
Worse than the omissions of recognition are insensitive statements that can be hurtful or inadvertently demeaning. Often they occur in otherwise innocent exchanges of conversation.
“When are you going to be a real minister?”
“Do you ever plan to get your own church?”
“Oh, looks like the “˜B” team is on today. Not bad for JV.”
“Get somebody else; she”s just the children”s minister.”
“They sent one of the junior ministers to visit me.”
“What do they actually do at that church?”
Sometimes the distinctions are painfully obvious. All the eye contact and focus in a group conversation gets directed toward the more prominent leader. The opinions of others are minimized and brushed aside in overt deference to “the leader.” When accolades are assigned, gifts are given, and praise is proffered, the highest positional leaders are usually the recipients.
References to the success of the church are often credited to those serving as the “main” leaders. To some degree, that is understandable and even acceptable. Paul”s suggestion that some point leaders were worthy of double honor recognizes the demanding nature of certain ministry roles.
It might also be argued that truly humble Christian leaders shouldn”t worry about esteem, honor, and credit because the approval of God is what matters. While this is true, it does not take away the hurt that results from oversight or lack of encouragement. And it doesn”t mean we should not honor those leaders; it simply means they should not crave or demand that honor. Besides, I”m writing from the vantage point of a senior leader who has often received way more kindnesses, respect, and esteem than most, and certainly far more than I deserve.
We might gain some perspective as we consider some of the seemingly underrated leaders in Scripture. Philip the evangelist served in the shadow of Peter and others. Philip”s daughters could prophesy, but Agabus got the nod to predict Paul”s departure. Silas and Barnabas took a back seat to the power and influence of Paul. Aquila and Priscilla taught Apollos, though he soon greatly eclipsed their notoriety. John the Baptist rightfully decreased while Jesus increased.
These all served in supporting roles, yet the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to chronicle Philip”s work on the road to Gaza. He recorded the work and influence of Barnabas and Silas repeatedly, and he acknowledged Priscilla and Aquila”s contribution and favorably mentioned Philip”s daughters. And, of course, Jesus gave John the Baptist the greatest shout-out in ministerial history.
Several of our most sacred, time-
honored principles and maxims should guide us here. We realize the need for a plurality of pastors. We understand the diversity of gifts in the body of Christ. We insist on the ministry of all believers. All these convictions should lead us to increase and expand our expressions of gratitude toward those who lead us from different positions, and even to those who lead us without formal position.
What We Can Do
How can we respond substantively to these timeless principles of esteeming our leaders because of their work?
First, let”s make the appreciation of those who lead us in Christ a regular endeavor rather than an occasional observance. We can cultivate attitudes of esteem along with our acts of honor. We can recognize the validity and value of those whose leadership is invaluable even though it is not the most visible.
Second, those of us who are in more traditionally esteemed leadership roles need to deflect some of the honor and credit that so often come our way to those who are in supporting roles. The inclination to neglect those who serve in what are perceived as “lesser” roles can change only when we teach believers to practice purity of motive, to understand the danger of the pedestal, and to practice the appreciation of all leaders in Christ.
Finally, we must consistently highlight the supremacy and the mind-set of the ultimate Leader who alone is worthy of all glory and praise. He is the reason we lead and serve in the first place.
When we invite those on the footstool to move to places of honor, and when we elevate the least instead of the greatest, the last instead of the first, we are thinking like he thinks and leading like he leads. And in doing that, we give the highest honor to the most deserving leader.
Jeff Faull serves as senior minister with Mount Gilead Church in Mooresville, Indiana, and also is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.Â