“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).
Church leadership is hard work. Watching the flock requires constant attention. Searching for strays demands energy and endurance. Feeding the spiritual family means hours spent in preparation through prayer and study. Taking responsibility for souls can be a huge load to carry. Being out in front of the church means walking closely with God because you cannot lead people where you haven’t gone. Admonishing people requires thick skin to go along with a loving heart. And through it all, fostering a peaceful environment can be difficult.
Keeping peace is easy if by peace you mean just avoiding conflict. To maintain this brand of peace you turn the other way when someone is drifting away from the flock. You let go the strays since they might kick and run as you try to bring them back. You wash your hands of any responsibility for the stubborn in the waters of “that’s just the way she is, nothing we do is going to change her anyway.” You find it much easier to keep this kind of peace when you walk behind the flock with a shovel rather than walking in front with a staff. You dismiss admonishment as kind of an old-fashioned approach that just doesn’t work any more.
But peace, real peace, is so much more than the absence of conflict at any cost. The peace Paul calls the church to experience is in the context of a leadership devoted to watching, searching, feeding, leading, admonishing and taking responsibility. All this and peace, too? No question about it, church leadership is hard work.
While this passage reveals a lot about the difficulties of leadership, Paul’s primary purpose here is not to instruct leaders on how to lead. Instead, he is instructing the followers on how to follow. What is the responsibility of the church to their leaders? In a word, respect. Paul asks the followers to respect the work of their leaders.
How does a church show respect for the leadership? Maybe the best way to get started is to understand what hard work is involved in leading a church. Respect may well be the reaction when the hours required and the energy expended are calculated and understood. But there is more to it, I think. Respect may best be shown by following the leaders: remaining in the fold, grazing in the green pastures, listening to direction and instruction, paying attention to warnings, and living in peace. I do not know of a church leader who wouldn’t appreciate that kind of respect.
But the responsibility of followers goes beyond mere respect. It means loving the leaders. Look at how Eugene Peterson has rendered the beginning of verse 13 in The Message. “Overwhelm them with appreciation and love.” That raises the bar for followers.
So we might need to evaluate how we are doing as followers. Are we showing respect for church leaders? Are we giving them our wholehearted love? Remember, leading a church is hard work and accountability is a real blessing.