Introductory Note:

What is a pastor’s job? Miriam Dixon had years of pastoral experience before a crisis in her congregation brought her face to face with two erroneous assumptions she had made about the pastoral role. Mimi has written a letter sharing the reorienting message she received from Jesus in hopes that these words might encourage pastors and leaders in our midst.

Renovaré Team

Dear pastor,

You may have seen a recent Barna study that says over a third of all U.S. pastors are considering leaving the ministry1. Perhaps you are one of them. After serving as a senior pastor for 34 years, I can relate to many of the challenges you are facing in this season and I’m concerned about you. That’s why I’m writing this letter. Think of it as a personal note of encouragement from one pastor to another. 

In the past few years, everything and everyone has been disrupted. But as pastors, the pressure is singular. Our people are looking to us to help them stay grounded in God and find their way through the storms of change. Afraid, they are unsettled and prickly. They look to us for help in a time when, honestly, we ourselves are struggling for perspective.

If I could tell you just one thing, it would be this: Keep First Things First. This message anchored me when I was reeling from the relentless impact and dismay of church conflict.

I was seventeen years into my ministry as pastor of a church in Colorado when storm clouds began to gather and the wind picked up. There were early warning signs that something was brewing, but in my busyness I paid little attention. Then, almost overnight, our church was plunged into a blizzard of complaint.

The leader of a group of twenty disgruntled people privately announced his group’s dissatisfaction with my leadership. When I asked to know the cause for their concern, he reeled off a half dozen or so grievances. 

I was deeply alarmed. Had someone known to pass me the note I am giving you today, it would have made all the difference. Instead, I mobilized all my resources to manage the conflict and spent tremendous time and energy attempting to solve petty issues. I explored and presented solutions I hoped would be acceptable in the attempt to restore peace,” but this only made matters worse. I would solve one problem only to have another pop up. I did not realize that a personal misunderstanding of my role was fueling the storm.

I carried two unexamined expectations for myself that lay dormant like unexploded ordnances waiting for the right conditions to detonate. 

The first was the conviction that I was responsible for the choices people made (reasoning that if I properly introduced Jesus, a positive response was virtually guaranteed). 

The second was the conviction that it is a pastor’s duty to keep the church community happy and intact. 

I pursued these two goals with great care and determination, making them the measure of my success in ministry. When things floundered, when this conflict arose, I figured it must be my fault. 

I did not tell the leadership body what was happening because I was ashamed. I viewed the conflict as a failure of leadership. If only I had effectively presented Jesus and his invitation to follow him this would never have happened — so I thought. I took complete responsibility for what was happening.

I withdrew into a silent place as my prayer life devolved to a single, repetitive phrase: I failed. Jesus, I am so sorry…”

What broke the cycle was my habitual practice of the core spiritual disciplines. In Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster presents these as the way that Christians for millennia have grounded themselves in Christ and successfully navigated perilous passages. 

I meditated on Scripture, prayed, fasted, and listened. I even took a sabbatical.

To a retreat center in Scotland I carried my questions: How could I have failed so completely to communicate the kingdom life that is available through Jesus? What is wrong with me? What happened?

Jesus met me there.

One morning a question of his own interrupted my lament: When you urged your people to follow me, what did you expect would happen?

I answered without hesitation. I expected them to be smitten by you! I expected revival! Instead, everything is coming apart. I failed….

His response was simple and clear: Have you not read the New Testament?

Immediately, the stories in the Gospels ran through my mind. Jesus — the perfect Son of God — had not been well received. Conflict dogged him everywhere he went. The crowds who eagerly followed him in the beginning by the end shouted, Crucify him!”

One story in particular was highlighted: the Rich Young Ruler. When the ruler refused Jesus’ invitation to follow, Jesus did not attempt to negotiate a compromise; he let the young man walk away.2

I sensed Jesus saying to me, People get to choose; no one can make that decision for them. And what they choose is not your business, it is between them and me.”

This was an epiphany, rivaled only by the accompanying revelation. Jesus addressed my misguided conviction that it was my job to keep the community happy and intact. Your job,” he stressed, is not to satisfy complaints. The moment you make complaints your business, you lose focus. The resulting confusion is like a ship without a rudder. You are the leader. Your people will follow your gaze, so fasten your eyes on me.”

C.S. Lewis called this re-ordering of goals the Principle of First and Second Things.” In a note he passed along to a struggling friend, Lewis wrote, Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ When we put first things first, we get second things thrown in. But if we put second things first, we lose both first and second things.”3

Our church came dangerously close to losing both first and second things because I misunderstood my duty. As pastors we are not responsible for the choices made by people under our care. And we are not free to preserve the peace at any and all costs. Our duty is simply to Keep First Things First. So, stay focused, stand fast, expect a mess, and scan the horizon every day for evidence of God’s gracious intervention.



Mimi Dixon
Winter 2022

  1. 38% of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year,” Leaders & Pastors, November 162021. ↩︎
  2. Matthew 19:22 ↩︎
  3. Matthew 6:33; C.S. Lewis, First and Second Things,” God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1970), pp.278 – 280. ↩︎

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Text First Published February 2022 · Last Featured on February 2022