On April 9th, 2017, I was ordained to pastoral ministry. I count it one of the greatest moments in my life, and as a young pastor who has been in the game for a grand total of three months, naturally I am now an expert, so I thought I would bless the internet with this mass of wisdom I have accrued. Seriously though, I have nothing utterly unique to offer here. As a seminarian, I’ve read my fair share of books on pastoral ministry, and these three discoveries ring with the same familiarity as the standard cliches of parents and spouses. “Marriage is all about communication!” “Kids just grow up so darn fast!” The ridiculousness of someone like me, with so little pastoral experience, writing another article on what to expect in pastoral ministry is not lost on me. However, I still think it’s worth my effort to write and your effort to read, so long as it serves the same function as the observations of newly weds and new parents when they confirm the cliches they’ve heard over the years: “Marriage really is all about communication!” “Kids really do grow up so darn fast!” So allow me to confirm the legitimacy of pastoral cliches.
The Burden is Heavy.
I was expecting this before my ordination. In fact, I think to some degree, I felt it before my ordination. The burden is what compelled me to pursue pastoral ministry so carefully and self-consciously. It’s what frightened me for the judgment of irresponsible pastors who so clearly handled their role so flippantly. And this burden is what compelled me to continually strive to be the kind of member I would want to some day pastor. But I’m telling you, I had no idea how visceral this burden would feel when it landed on my mind and heart. Sunday morning, I woke up as a church member. Monday morning, I woke up as a pastor. In a matter of 24 hours, I had a newly heightened awareness of how little I knew of some of our members, and that awareness terrified me. Suddenly, I realized that there were some members in the congregation I had never before prayed for by name, and that realization terrified me. Where I once suspected I was inadequate in my own resources to serve this body sufficiently, I now knew I was inadequate. Let me just give you three examples of how this heaviness took me by surprise.
First, I discovered that as a pastor, every problem is your problem. This became real for me, quite unexpectedly, in a staff meeting. Before I was ordained and installed as an elder, I was present in nearly every staff meeting we had as a church, representing the area of ministry our elders delegated to me. And every meeting we had, I would come with one or two things that needed to change–one or two problems that needed to be solved. No big deal. What I hadn’t taken stock of at the time was that every other staff member also had one or two things that needed to change–one or two problems that needed to be solved–at every single staff meeting. At the first staff meeting I attended as pastor, I began to feel a sinking in my stomach as “one or two things” multiplied across the table. Children’s ministry needs more volunteers and a training. Production team needs more volunteers and a bigger budget. Hospitality team needs more volunteers and overall more intentionality. Etc, etc. Things really pile up, and for the first time, I was on the bottom of the pile with my fellow elders.
Second, I discovered just how deep of a reservoir of issues existed in my church. Don’t hear me saying that our body is uniquely dysfunctional, because I don’t think it is. What I’m referring to is the deep ache for hurting members that is unavoidably present in any church that exists in a fallen world. As a member of a church, you’re likely aware of some of those issues in your community group or close circle of friends. A couple just had a miscarriage. A marriage is on the brink of divorce. A brother is in the full throws of pornography addiction and can’t seem to get free. A sister was just diagnosed with a serious illness. In all of these cases, you feel the burden of the people in your immediate community. This is good and intentional on God’s part; he intends for members to bear the burdens of one another. So as and individual in your immediate circle is undergoing a catastrophic life-alteration, you feel it with them. All this I had the privilege of experiencing as a member of the church. What I didn’t realize is that it wasn’t just my immediate circle of friends or community group that had a catastrophic life-alteration occurring in it any given time. Those stories are all going on in just about every community group and every circle of friends at any given time in the local church. As a pastor, the curtain of ignorance was yanked open in a moment and I was suddenly made aware of sensitive information that weighed heavy on the minds and hearts of members I hardly knew beforehand.
Third, the relational dynamic in conversation with members changed drastically. Honestly, this change many not even be apparent to some members, but it became incredibly apparent to me once I began to sit across the table from members as they disclosed sin and insecurity and worries and needs, expecting pastoral counsel from me. The raw material of such meetings wasn’t new to me. Before I ever became a pastor, I had my fair share of coffee meetings with brothers who were struggling with pornography, or who are at a loss for the future, or who struggle with insecurity, or who are in need of confrontation. Those conversations weren’t new to me, and I’ve spent a good deal of time on both sides of that table. What was new to me was my role in that conversation. Before, the conversation was member-on-member care, which is a glorious thing, and I cherish it now as a pastor more than ever before. But now, the realities of those conversations are different; now the words I offer are words of a shepherd to a member in his flock–a flock, mind you, that has been purchased by the blood of Jesus for the Father, and has been entrusted by the Holy Spirit to pastors as stewards… no pressure (Acts 20:28). Seldom am I more aware of that dynamic than when a member comes to me–as their pastor–for help. More than once I have thought to myself, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to say when this brother or sister is finished talking.
The Privilege is Great
I am aware that all of this can sound like the office of pastor is a drag. Almost like I’m saying, “I had no idea how terrible this would be! If I had, I wouldn’t have gone through with it!” Nothing is further from the truth. Being a pastor is one of the greatest joys of my life. I’ve not been in this long, but God has been gracious enough to already let me see some fruit of my labor, and the heavy weight of the burden of pastoral ministry makes such fruit that much sweeter. To see a brother break free from pornography addition; to see couple endure a miscarriage and come out praising God for his sovereign goodness; to see a sister experience for the first time the life-giving joy of confession; to see a brother come alive for the first time to the doxological payoff of theological meditations, these things make every difficulty in pastoral ministry well worth the struggle.
The Church is Christ’s
In light of everything I just mentioned above, there are three possible outcomes for the pastor. He will either cave under the pressure and burnout, he will shirk his responsibilities in order to manage, or he will throw himself entirely on the mercies of Jesus in prayer. And I’m talking, on your knees, desperate pleads from the bottom part of your gut that you were unaware of kind of prayer. To be honest, I used to secretly look down on pastors who would always talk about the boogie man of burnout (dun, dun, duuun)! Oh no! Not BURNOUT! I used to think it was pathetic to dread such a seemingly ridiculous foe. “Just suck it up! Be a man and deal with it!” was my general response. But I am telling you, three weeks into pastoral ministry, and I found myself weeping in my car, begging God to save me from impending burnout. The temptation to claim ownership of the church–explicitly or implicitly–is manifestly present for every pastor, and that temptation is nothing less than an insidious trap which ensnares unaware pastors for that boogieman, burnout, to come and devour them. Pastors can’t take ultimate ownership of the Church. It’s not ours. We are stewards, doing our best to manage God’s possession well, by God’s power, to God’s glory. We will be crushed under the weight of ministry if we forget that Christ’s church is Christ’s. Or we will reduce the church down to something we can manage, which is to say, we will make it less than a church. The only faithful option is for pastors to submit to the fact that they are in infinitely over their heads, and their final hope is that God will show his glory precisely by using such puny means to build his Church. What pastoral ministry has helped to produce in me is a keen awareness of my own neediness. It’s hard to forget how needy you are when you are forced to ask for help constantly in every endeavor, and that never-letting-up reminder is a gift of grace.