I am a church planter, and while that term is loaded with all sorts of baggage, at the end of the day what that ultimately means is that I am a small church pastor. If on any given Sunday there are sixty people in the worship service, that is a banner week, no one is sick, and all of the occasional attendees have chosen that week to come. I love being a small church pastor, but there is something that weighs on my mind in a way that it might not, if I were part of a large staff at a large church. Empty chairs.
It is not the empty chairs on Sunday that weigh on my mind, God in His sovereignty will either fill them or he won’t. The empty chairs that weigh on my mind are the ones that I walk past on Monday morning, as I make my way through the sanctuary toward my study. They weigh on my mind, because I know who was sitting in them the day before.
And because it is a small church I don’t just know their names, I know them. I know who is in the midst of a gut wrenching trial due to an adult child’s health, I know whose family is being torn apart by a rebellious teen, I know who is feeling the pain of being in a spiritually mixed marriage, I know who is feeling chronic physical pain, I know who is struggling with a besetting sin, I even know who is wracked with stress because a tree in their yard is in danger of falling on their neighbor’s house and their insurance company won’t pay to have it removed, even though they would be glad to pay for any damage it might cause should it fall in the next storm. And I am acutely aware that each one of those empty chairs that was filled on Sunday morning, was filled by someone I am responsible for before God.
I have heard many pastors, elders and seminary professors speak of the gravity of the warning in James 3:1 that not many should become teachers. And I have heard more than one pastor say that James 3:1 is the “scariest” verse in the bible to them. While I don’t think any verse in the bible should be scary to a faithful pastor (2 Tim 1:6-7) it is a sobering verse to be sure. But for me, as a pastor and an elder, the most sobering verse in the New Testament is Hebrews 13:17 which says “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account.”
When I think of that phrase “for they are keeping watch over souls” and I see those empty chairs Monday morning, I have to ask myself, am I watching over their souls? Did I faithfully preach the Word on Sunday? Did I preach in manner that the Holy Spirit can use to produce transformed lives in the people I love and that the Lord has entrusted to me? Did everyone hear the Gospel, and not mere encouragement to be better? Did I spend time with everyone I needed to? Did I make the most of my time with the church on Sunday morning?
And as I walk past those empty chairs to my study, I have to ask myself am I ready to labor in prayer for them or am I feeling harried and anxious to get on with the tasks of Monday morning? Do I know how to pray for everyone? Am I committed to spending enough time in prayer for them?
And as I think on that phrase “as those who will give an account” I have to ask myself am I ready to give an account? Am I paying close enough attention to my personal sanctification so that my prayers for the precious people God has entrusted to me might not be hindered. Am I working hard enough to become the best teacher I can be? Am I loving enough to have tough conversations when they are needed? Am I studying enough so that I can speak from God’s word into their lives, no matter what the issue? Am I remembering the great grace that God has shown me so that I am gracious and loving to everyone else?
These thoughts would be overwhelming, if not for the encouraging note struck by Jesus in Matthew 7:11, God gives good gifts to His children. Why is this encouraging to me, and why should this be encouraging to all faithful elders in the face on Hebrews 13:17? Because Ephesians 4:11-12 tells us that God gave pastors to the church as a gift.
So while I feel the weight of giving an account for the spiritual well being of the members of the church, I feel a sense of relief in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be in this position unless God sovereignly placed me here. And while I know I am not up to the task, in my own strength, of keeping watch over the souls of the people of the church, I know that God is. As long as I rely on His strength, wisdom, grace and love, those empty chairs are nothing to fret over, rather they are a joy. And seeing them every Monday is an indescribable privilege, for which I give God all the thanks and Glory.