What Happened at the RCA General Synod?

Jul 09, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

As the usual, this year’s Synod, which met in Pella, Iowa June 20-25, 2013, tackled a wide array of topics, from the mundane to the controversial to the political. You can read about the way our Synod works and about some of main issues facing this year’s body in my earlier post. You may also want to consult the RCA site for its summary of Synod and check out this helpful page which shows how Synod voted on 87 recommendations.

There is much I could mention and comment on from this year’s Synod (my friend and fellow pastor Ben Kappers has posted a fuller summary here). Let me simply highlight four of the most important areas. The last three areas pose particular problems for conservatives in the denomination.


What happened? The Synod adopted a set of strategic goals called “Transformed and Transforming: Radically Following Christ in Mission Together.”

What’s the background? In 2003, the Synod adopted a series of decade long initiatives under the banner “Our Call.” “Transformed and Transforming” is to focus our agenda for the next 15 years now that Our Call has expired (so to speak).

What’s the take home? For good and bad, the RCA is fully committed to a missional agenda. This is good in that we are trying to plant churches, be active in the world, and look outside ourselves. This emphasis is also troubling at times because the view of the mission of the church is overly expansive (e.g., lowering unemployment), the theology of the kingdom is not very careful, and the strategic goals are so broad as to have room for a multitude of interpretations and applications.


What happened? Congregations now have to report on how they are being shaped by the Belhar Confession. Every year, RCA consistories have to answer questions about the vitality and commitments of the church. To date, the only question about our confessional standards as been a line about teaching the points of the doctrine in the Heidelberg Catechism. Now churches will be asked “How have the Belhar Confession and its principles of unity, reconciliation, and justice shaped your congregational life and witness?” (R-27). There are no specific requirements for congregations teaching or being shaped by the Belgic Confession or Canons of Dort.

What’s the background? In 2010 the RCA added a fourth confessional standard, the Belhar Confession, which comes out of South Africa’s struggle with apartheid in the 1980s. Some in the denomination, and I am one of them, did not support the addition of Belhar, both because of specific assertions that are problematic and because the three big categories of unity, justice, and reconciliation are easily co-opted by liberal agendas (see also this interaction from Todd Billings).

What’s the take home? The RCA has typically held its confessionalism loosely. But Belhar is getting a bigger platform and becoming more central in the life of the denomination. Already, ministers making ordination or installation vows must consider whether they can subscribe to Belhar in good conscience. Now congregations are being asked to make this new confession an important part of their identity. How can one be committed to a confessional denomination when it adds a confession you didn’t vote for?


What happened? R-83 was adopted: “To acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, in the proceedings that led to the adoption of R-28, demonstrated a lack of decorum and civility, and a general atmosphere in which delegates were not always treating one another as sisters and brothers in Christ; and further, to acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, usurped the constitutional authority reserved for the classes when, in R-28, we stated that “any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.”

What’s the background? In 2012, the Synod passed a very strong statement on homosexuality (R-28). This produced a significant push back from progressives in the denomination. This year’s Synod apologized for last year’s Synod and declared that the guts of last year’s declaration was illegitimate.

What else happened? Two of the three recommendations from the “Way Forward Task Force” were approved. The most significant recommendation was not. The first recommendation asking for clarity from the Commission on Church Order about the nature of General Synod pronouncements was approved. The third recommendation calling for “grace-filled conversations” and resources to help “preserve unity, purity, and peace” regarding homosexuality was approved. The second recommendation was to initiate an investigation into wholesale polity changes which would have likely resulted in some clear direction as to whether we can agree to disagree on homosexuality or whether we will hold each other accountable across the denomination. The most controversial part of the recommendation was an open door at the end of this process for churches and ministers to leave the denomination “without recrimination.” This second recommendation was defeated.

Anything else related to homosexuality? A paper on “Moral Discernment”, arising out of  disagreements about homosexualty with our Formula of Agreement partners (the UCC, PCUSA, and ELCA), was commended for study and use in the denomination. The paper concluded that “Shared affirmations of Christ’s lordship do not in themselves guarantee consensus on particular moral judgments; our disagreements can be real, substantive, and painful. Yet we believe that dialogue concerning our ecumenical differences in the context of our common confession and Scriptures can be an occasion for God to lead the whole church more deeply toward living into our radical confession of Christ’s lordship.”

Anything else? R-81 was adopted: “To instruct the Commission on Theology to draft a paper on human sexuality from a Reformed perspective to be presented to General Synod 2015.”

Are you missing anything? The case involving the ordination and installation of Ursilla Cargill, a practicing lesbian, was remanded to the Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics where they will reconsider the case of the appellants (R-59).

What’s at stake? A lot. On every front, conservatives lost ground on the issue of homosexuality. Instead of trying to strengthen our resolve, the RCA backpedaled. Instead of making up our minds after thirty years of dialogue, the denomination has called for more conversations and another study committee. There is little doubt how this will end up. Progressives do not stop calling for dialoge until their side is accepted, and eventually mandated (see below). In the meantime, the Regional Synod of Mid-Atlantics will surely uphold the ordination of Ms. Cargill (they already sided with the classis once). The formal position of the RCA on homosexuality is being weakened and the informal position, we will soon discover, is that classes can ordain whom they wish without fear of disciplinary action.


What happened? The “conscience clauses” relative to women’s ordination were removed from the Book of Church Order.

What’s the background? The clauses were added in 1980 to maintain peace and unity in the denomination given the diversity of opinion on women’s ordination. Over the past three decades, as the RCA has become overwhelmingly egalitarian, the clauses mainly protected the consciences of complementarians who did not agree with women in office. In 2012, General Synod voted to remove the clauses, a move later approved by a required two-thirds of the classes (31 out of 45). This year’s Synod ratified the decision and officially removed the conscience clauses.

What’s at stake? It’s hard to know for sure. Presently there are no quotas forcing churches to ordain women, but clearly removing the clauses spells trouble for complementarians. 1) Some conservative students are already blackballed for their views on women’s ordination. Removing constitutional protections makes their ordination process even more difficult. 2) Our ministerial vows make clear that we will conduct our work according to the Book of Church Order. Now that the BCO affirms women’s ordination (which it has for years) without an explicit allowance for those who disagree (what just changed), it remains to be seen where complementarians can make their vows in good faith. 3) Ministers who refuse to participate in the ordination of women open themselves up to the possibility of discipline.

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Monday Morning Humor

Jul 08, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

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Liberty: God’s Grant to Man

Jul 05, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

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These Self-Evident Truths

Jul 04, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

It has often been said that America was founded upon an idea. The country was not formed mainly for power or privilege but in adherence to a set of principles. Granted, these ideals have been, at various times in our history, less than ideally maintained. But the ideals remain. The idea persists.

If one sentence captures the quintessential idea of America, surely it the famous assertion contained in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Almost every word of this remarkable sentence, 236 years old today, is pregnant with meaning and strikingly relevant.

The United States of America began with the conviction that a nation should be founded upon truth. Not simply values or preferences, but upon truths. Self-evident truths that were true, are true, and will remain true no matter the time, the place, or the culture.

And central among these truths is the belief that all men are created equal. No one possesses more intrinsic worth for being born rich or poor, male or female, artisan or aristocracy. Of course, this truth, as much as any, unmasks our history of hypocrisy, for 3/5 of a person is an eternity from equality. But truth is still true. We all come into the world with the same rights and the same dignity-whether “gated community” in the world’s estimation or “trailer trash.”

These unalienable rights, we must note, are not granted by the Declaration of Independence. Our rights do not depend upon government for their existence. They are not owing to the largesse of the state or the beneficence of any institution. The rights of man are the gifts of God. The Creator endows; the state exists to protect. These unalienable rights can be suppressed or denied. But they cannot be annulled. We possess them-no matter what kings or parliaments say or presidents and congress decree-by virtue of being created in the image of our Creator.

And what are these rights? The Declaration mentions three: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Obviously, these rights are not untethered from all other considerations. Life should not be lived in a way that means death for others. Our pursuit of happiness should not make others miserable. The Declaration is not calling for anarchy. It believes in government, good limited government rightly construed and properly constrained. But the rights enumerated here are still surprisingly radical. No matter how young, how old, how tiny, how in utero, or how ill, every person deserves a chance at life. Every one deserves a chance at self-governing. Everyone has the right to pursue his self-interest. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers did not wax eloquent about safety and security. It’s because they believed freedom and liberty to be better ideals, loftier goals, and more conducive to the common good.

I understand the dangers of an unthinking “God and country” mentality, let alone a gospel-less civil religion. But I also think love of country-like love of family or love of work-is a proximate good. Patriotism is not beneath the Christian, even for citizens of a superpower.

So on this Independence Day I’m thankful most of all for the cross of Christ and the freedom we have from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But I’m also thankful for the United States. I’m thankful for the big drops of biblical truth which seeped into the blood stream of Thomas Jefferson and shaped our Founding Fathers. I’m thankful for our imperfect ideals. I’m thankful for God-given rights and hard-fought liberty. I’m thankful for the idea of America.

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Does Calvinism Kill Missions?

Jul 03, 2013 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

It is often asserted that Calvinism creates a barrier to evangelism and missions. The accusation usually comes in the form of questions. How could those who believe the Scriptures teach predestination and election truly have a heart for missions? If God has determined who shall be saved, why would there be any need to engage in evangelism or missions? And yet, we can safely say that this is an argument lacking historical proof (and theological basis).

It must be acknowledged that Calvinists have not only robustly encouraged, engaged, and propagated missions, but have led some of the great mission’s and evangelistic movements in the history of the church. Even a cursory glance at the history of missions and missionaries produces a hall of fame filled with Calvinists. It could rightly be argued that Calvinism is not only not a barrier to missions and evangelism, but has actually proven to be a spur to missions and evangelism. In fact, it has often been the driving force in missions. This is just a sampling of the history of missions and some notable Calvinists, who have led the way into foreign fields. One doesn’t have to be a thorough going Calvinist to be struck by the impact of Calvinism upon missions.

  • John Calvin: Calvin sent missionaries from Geneva into France and as far away as Brazil. Most of these young men sent to France died a martyr’s death, but the church of Geneva continued to send them.
  • John Eliot: A missionary sent to the American Indians in the 1600′s. He is believed to be the first missionary among this people group. As many have said, if William Carey is the father of the modern mission’s movement, then John Eliot is its grandfather.
  • David Brainerd: A missionary to the American Indians in the 1700′s. Many historians believe that he has sent more individuals into the mission field than any other person in the history of the church via his diary, An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend David Brainerd.
  • Theodorus Frelinghuysen: The great evangelist and preacher, who set the stage for the First Great Awakening in the middle colonies.
  • Jonathan Edwards: The great theologian, writer, and preacher of the First Great Awakening. He was also a missionary to the Indians.
  • George Whitfield: The great voice and preacher of the First Great Awakening. He journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean thirteen times and scholars believe he preached over 18,000 sermons.
  • William Tennent: He founded the Log College, which later became Princeton University. This college trained pastors and provided many of the revivalist preachers of the First Great Awakening.
  • Samuel Davies: The famous President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), preacher of the First Great Awakening, and evangelist to the slaves of Virginia. It is believed that hundreds of slaves came to saving faith through his evangelism efforts.
  • William Carey: He is the famous missionary to India and is considered the father of the modern mission’s movement.
  • Robert Moffat: The first missionary to reach the interior of Africa with the Gospel. He translated the entire Bible and Pilgrim’s Progess into Setswana.
  • David Livingstone: Arguably, the most famous missionary to the continent of Africa.
  • Robert Morrison: The first Protestant missionary to China and the first to translate the Bible into Chinese.
  • Peter Parker: An American physician and missionary to China who first introduced Western medical techniques to the Chinese. He also served as the president of the Medical Missionary Society of China.
  • Adoniram Judson: The famous missionary to Burma, translated the Bible into Burmese, and established multiple Baptist Churches in Burma. His mission work led many to enter the mission field and was foundational for forming the first Baptist association in America.
  • Charles Simeon: The vicar of Holy Trinity Church and the founding figure of the Church Missionary Society. This organization was instrumental in leading many students to the mission field. The Society itself has sent more than 9,000 missionaries into the world.
  • Henry Martyn: The renowned missionary to India and Persia. He preached in the face of opposition and translated the New Testament into a number of languages.
  • Samuel Zwemer: He is affectionately known as “The Apostle to Islam.” His legacy includes efforts in Bahrain, Arabia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. His writing was used by the Lord to encourage and mobilize an entire generation of missionaries to labor in Islamic countries.
  • John Stott: Scholar, preacher, pastor, and evangelist of the twentieth century. He was one of the principle authors and the influential leader in establishing the Lausanne Covenant, which promoted world-wide evangelism.
  • Francis Schaeffer: Pastor and found of L’Abri, which has been used by the Lord to draw many to saving faith as they intellectually wrestled with the tenants of Christianity.
  • D. James Kennedy: The founder of Evangelism Explosion, which many believe is the most widely used evangelistic training curriculum in church history.
  • John Piper: Pastor, writer, and theologian, who has been used by the Lord to define missions and send many young people into the mission field.

Does Calvinism kill missions? The evidence suggests something wholly other. This is just a small sampling of some of the influential Calvinist missionaries and mission’s leaders in the history of the church. Biblical Calvinists understand that God uses means to call His elect to salvation. Therefore, we don’t shy away from missions or evangelism. As history shows, Calvinism actually encourages missions and evangelism. In fact, many of the greatest missionaries and leaders in missions throughout the history of the church have been Calvinists.

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Singles and Loneliness

Jul 02, 2013 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

“Loneliness is my least favorite thing about life. The thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone who will care for me.” Anne Hathaway stated this in a recent interview, but it isn’t a rare statement. I have sat opposite a fair number of young women (and sometimes men), who have expressed this same sentiment. It could be a sign of our digital age as we are connected to more people, but in reality are less connected to everyone. It could be a sign of the selfishness and self-centeredness of our culture. It could even be a sign of the “godlessness” of our generation. I am not sure what all the contributing factors are, but I do know that this fear is a reality in the lives of many young women; and Christian young women are not immune to it.

It may even be more heightened in the lives of young Christian women. For many have been raised to desire, and have rightly embraced, the calling to be a godly wife and mother. As the college years pass and the mid-thirties are looming over the next horizon, discouragement, hopelessness, and even depression can set in as the fear of being single for a lifetime becomes a real possibility. It is no small thing. Every wedding invitation feels like salt to a wound. Friends are beginning to have their second and third child before you have your first. Vacations seem less appealing. Buying your first home isn’t quite as exciting. And church can be awkward as you are too old for the singles and not exactly comfortable among the “young marrieds.” I have great compassion for these women and have spent hours counseling them, grieving with them, praying with them, and praying for them.

And even as I want to see them comforted in Christ, so I also want to give them one very clear warning. It is a warning that many young Christians need to hear: Loneliness in a godless marriage can be even more severe than the loneliness one experiences in singleness.

Most singles cannot imagine this being true, but it is. Even as I have sat with multiple young single men and women in counsel regarding their loneliness, so I have sat with multiple individuals who are grieving over the loneliness they are now enduring in their godless marriage. In many cases, these Christians were warned to refrain from marrying the unbeliever they had “fallen in love with.” They were warned as to the dangers, trials, and struggles that they would endure in an unequal union. But they saw singleness as a greater danger, trial, and struggle. And yet, on this side of their marriage vows, they have experienced the reality that loneliness in marriage can even surpass that which they endured as a single.

As a single person, who desires to be married, this may seem like an impossibility to you. However, I want you to think about this: What are all the things that would be affected by being united with someone who does not have the most important thing in common with me? What would it be like to be united in one flesh with someone who does not value what you value, desire what you desire, define good by what you know is good, have the same view of marriage, recreation, eternity, money, church, children, serving, death, life, and the list could go on and on. They will not be united with you on the most important thing, which shapes everything else, and yet you will be united in one flesh. As I have sat with grieving Christians, struggling to know how to live in a godless marriage, I hear in their cries the reality that there are few things more lonely than knowing that the person you are the closest to in this life is far from you in almost every way. If you don’t have Christ in common, it is hard to have much in common.

Dear single Christian, there is a loneliness that can surpass the loneliness that even now you are experiencing and achingly want to end. Be patient. Continue to pray to the Bride-Groom you do have. Be wise in selecting the individual that you would willingly give your heart to, and only allow a Christian to place that ring upon your finger. You are not less of a child of God in your singleness. You are not less important in the Kingdom. Your service is not needed any less. No matter what others may say or you may think, you are not inferior, less holy, or less valuable. You are a child of the Heavenly Father and are united to THE Bride-Groom. And He cares for you. Therefore, you can be patient and content as you wait. You are not alone in your loneliness.

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Monday Morning Humor

Jul 01, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

Here is to hoping that Kevin’s study leave is filled with quiet libraries:

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Pressing into the Kingdom

Jun 29, 2013 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

Reading great sermons from the ranks of earlier generations of Christians is a good discipline. This pursuit helps to provide perspective in our own era, with the added benefit of sitting at the feet of some of the ablest teachers the church has enjoyed. One of my favorites is Jonathan Edwards. Here is an excerpt from one of his sermons. It addresses a subject of the Christian life that I seldom hear of in our day and age. Edwards is concerned that we truly press into the Kingdom of God. That by God’s grace, we throw off every encumbrance and lean into the Kingdom with all our energy and strength. Here is an excerpt, with the hope that it will lead you to read the whole sermon and onto reading other sermons for the good of your soul:

“He that is pressing into the kingdom of God, commonly finds many things in the way that are against the grain; but he is not stopped by the cross that lies before him, but takes it up, and carries it. Suppose there be something incumbent on him to do, that is cross to his natural temper, and irksome to him on that account; suppose something that he cannot do without suffering in his estate, or that he apprehends will look odd and strange in the eyes of others, and expose him to ridicule and reproach, or anything that will offend a neighbor, and his ill-will, or something that will be very cross to his own carnal appetite-he will press through such difficulties. Everything that is found to be a weight that hinders him in running the race he casts from him, though it be a weight of gold or pearls; yea, if it be a right hand or foot that offends him, he will cut them off, and will not stick at plucking out a right eye with his own hands. These things are insuperable difficulties to those who are not thoroughly engaged in seeking their salvation; they are stumbling-blocks that they never get over. But it is not so with him that presses into the kingdom of God. Those things (before he was thoroughly roused from his security) about which he was wont to have long parleyings and disputings with his own conscience-employing carnal reason to invent arguments and pleas of excuse-he now sticks at no longer; he had done with this endless disputing and reasoning, and presses violently through all difficulties. Let what will be in the way, heaven is what he must and will obtain, not if he can without difficulty, but if it be possible.”

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Pastors Need Your Care–Part II

Jun 28, 2013 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

As we said in yesterday’s post, pastors need your care. They are not above it or beyond it. Yesterday, I gave a few suggestions for members of the congregation in their care for pastors. Today I would like to offer some ideas for elders.

How Elders can care for their Pastors:

  • Don’t let him get comfortable, but do help him to feel safe
  • Have his back. Don’t make him stand alone in the midst of conflict–dare to be disliked.
  • Grant him regular encouragement and have the needed hard conversations
  • See yourself as laboring with him, instead of under or over him
  • Brainstorm, vision, and pray WITH him about the future of the church
  • Inquire into the finances of his family on a regular basis
  • Get to know his wife and children and ask about them
  • Hire additional staff before they are needed
  • Encourage him to write, go to conferences, and pursue further education
  • Never talk about him in a derogatory or negative way with other members of the congregation
  • Monitor his relationships with the rest of the staff
  • Appoint an elder and wife to meet regularly with the Pastor and his wife for encouragement and  accountability. They should also help them wrestle through his schedule, family issues, needs, and celebrate joys.
  • Make sure your pastor takes a day off. Hold him accountable
  • Give him at least one week of Study Leave a year. You may think this is yet another week your pastor is away from the congregation, but it can be one of the greatest blessings to your congregation. He will return having been stimulated, challenged, and encouraged. Besides it is an inexpensive way to bless him!
  • Grant him adequate vacation time and require that he take it
  • Assign an elder or staff person to help with administrative tasks. Administration can steal too much of a pastor’s time–time that could be spent in much more valuable ways. It is also an area that pastors can get lost in, discouraged by, and even seek to hide in.
  • Ensure that the congregation understands his main tasks are prayer, study, and preaching. Most individuals in the church will have different expectations. If that is the case–change them.
  • Regularly encourage him that you value the time he spends praying, studying, and preaching–ask for fewer policies, spreadsheets, and even visitations.
  • Ask what he is studying and praying about
  • Help him discern what his “pastoral duties” include and what they do not include in this local church–he can’t do everything.
  • Ask penetrating questions about his prayer life
  • Give him an adequate book budget
  • Lean towards saying “yes” to his ideas, vision, and dreams, but be willing and courageous enough to say “no.”

Again, please suggest further ways that you have found helpful in the comments. The list should be long.

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Pastors Need Your Care–Part I

Jun 27, 2013 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

Pastors need your care. They aren’t above it, no matter what they may think. Even as pastors are to care for their congregations, so elders and members of the church should care for their pastors. Pastors need your care–no matter how old, seasoned, gifted, or confident. Today, we will suggest a few ways members of the congregation can care for their pastors. Tomorrow, we will look at a few suggestions for how elders can intentionally care for their pastors.

How members of the congregation can care for their Pastors:

  • Hunger to hear the Word of God preached
  • Invite your pastor and his family over for dinner (everyone assumes they receive a lot of invitations, but in many cases they don’t)
  • Pray for him regularly–that he would faithfully preach the Word, seek the Lord, delight more in the Lord, and have a love for the people he is blessed to minister to
  • Refrain from Monday morning emails, unless they are an encouragement. Mondays are hard days for many pastors.
  • Be willing to graciously challenge him if his teaching or preaching was in error
  • Respect his day off. Most pastors work long days and many evenings. They need a good day off.
  • Don’t expect him to come to everything. Your pastor still loves you even if he doesn’t make your child’s ballet performance, son’s honor society banquet, or even your mom’s funeral.
  • Send an encouragement card every once in a while
  • As tempting as it may be, don’t compare your pastor to “celebrity pastors”–Be thankful for him and his labor in your midst.
  • Babysit his kids for an evening, so he and his wife can go out on a date
  • Insist that the church provide a good salary and benefits for him–be generous.
  • If you have a new ministry idea, don’t propose it unless you are willing to do the hard work of setting it up and serving to see its vision realized
  • Refrain from telling him what you disliked about the sermon as you shake his hand on the way out of the sanctuary
  • Speak well of him to others in the congregation
  • Have no expectations regarding his wife and her service in the church beyond those you have for any other woman in the church
  • Be especially kind to his children
  • Understand that your pastor will not be gifted in every area of ministry and be content with that
  • Be teachable
  • Often remind yourself that he has a lot of different sheep under his care
  • Give him the benefit of the doubt regarding decisions, leadership, vision, etc.
  • Don’t ride your hobby horse too much and too often
  • The greatest care you can provide for your pastor is to pursue Christ with all that you are and serve the church with an uncommon zeal and humility

Please suggest in the comments further ways that you have found helpful in caring for pastors. The list should be long.

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