100 Months: The Peaks And Valleys Of Being A Pastor…
For nearly the last ten years, the LORD Almighty has blessed me to be a pastor–
at a church of 2,000 people in suburban Chicago (Lake County: population 700,000) and also at a church of 115 people in the rural Dakotas (local county: population 10,000).
Below are some of the peaks and valleys of this noble role in the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God that I have experienced or that pastors I know have experienced*:
*(in no way, shape, or form does the list below serve as an indictment against either of the fantastic congregations whom I have been blessed to serve)
**(though it might come across as such to readers, as I write the list below I am consciously and prayerfully trying to avoid whining, complaining, ranting, or boasting; rather, I am attempting to
-relate to other pastors with the goal of encouraging them–you are not alone!
-share with future pastors with the goal of preparing them–here is a window (not THE window, just A window) into what it means to be a pastor!
-connect with church attenders with the goal of educating them–here are some of the highs and lows that your pastor(s) may be experiencing!)
1. Invitations Into Real Life: People invite pastors into the triumphs, trials, and tragedies of their lives. What an honor, what a privilege, what a responsibility to walk with masterpieces of God–humans made in HIS image–as they navigate the minefields and goldmines of life on earth! From the birth of babies to the death of the elderly, from the baptisms of new believers to the wandering of prodigals, from the celebration of weddings to the devastation of divorces, from the joy of reconciliation to the bitterness of betrayal, from the sharing of inner victories to the revealing of inner demons, many people give pastors access into the private corners, closets, crawlspaces, and kitchens of their lives. Just as the chief characteristic of eternal life is KNOWING God intimately/personally (John 17:3), so pastors are blessed to know other humans intimately/personally as well.
2. Personal Maturity: As a pastor, you grow close to God in a unique way because you must learn well anything that you teach effectively to others, you must personally know intimately anyone whom you introduce to others. I’m not at all saying that pastors grow CLOSER to God than non-pastors; but I am saying that the nature of the role of pastor often leads pastors to grow close to the LORD so that we can effectively point others toward Him. Intensely digging through Scripture for long hours, fervently laboring in kneeling prayer, thoughtfully/empathetically listening to the personal struggles/pain of others, patiently waiting for the return of wanderers, humbly apologizing for sins committed–the Holy Spirit uses all of these situations and more to mature pastors. Baseball infielders often have a very close bond with their glove/mitt–over time their hand fits in perfectly, the leather has been oiled/stretched/bent to a supple but firm condition, and rather than feel like an inanimate object the glove often becomes a useful extension of their own bodies. We pastors often similarly become a useful tool in the Hand of the Almighty, conforming to His grip over time and wielded skillfully in His employment. Pastoring is certainly not the ONLY way that the Holy Spirit matures followers of Jesus…but it is definitely ONE of the ways that He does. What a painful, potent, and profitable privilege.
3. A Divine Role-Model: Jesus calls Himself a shepherd–THE GOOD Shepherd, to be exact (John 10:1-16). What an un-deserved honor to share–in a small but important way–one of the Lord’s titles/roles. What a gift to study the Gospels and learn the ways that Jesus practically shepherded His people during His three year public ministry on earth. While there might not be a step-by-step manual with “Five Easy Steps To Being A Great Pastor!”, we have none other than the Savior Himself to look towards for guidance and instruction as we serve a local congregation of those loved by–and learning to love–the Lion of Judah.
4. Congregational Support: What a blessing it is to receive hand-written notes of encouragement, freshly baked treats, and the constant un-revealed prayers of some of those who attend a local church. While my heart breaks for pastors who do not get such important support from those they serve, the LORD has strengthened me consistently over the last 100 months as I’ve been given some delicious cups of cold water–often at timely/weary moments!–on the marathon journey that is pastoring.
5. Proclaiming the Word of God: Many are awe-struck at stepping into the White House and thinking about the people who walked those very halls, at realizing the events that have taken place within those very walls. Few are privileged to hold one of Babe Ruth’s baseball bats and reflect that he held that very piece of wood to crush towering homeruns. As exciting as those historical situations (and thousands others) may be, they pale in comparison to the weekly (and sometimes daily) situation pastors are placed in: to read and teach others the same Word of God that Jesus, Moses, Paul, and many others from the Bible read and taught from. WOW! Like a parent who shoulders most of the weight of carrying a heavy item with a small child who wants so earnestly to help (!), so too would pastors–without the LORD doing the heavy lifting–be ground into dust by the weekly burden of clearly and accurately sharing God’s Word with others (Jeremiah 20:8-9); so too would pastors–without Jesus’ daily grace–be crushed by the truth that we teachers of the Bible will be judged by God more closely (James 3:1); so too would pastors be sliced into pieces–without Yahweh’s protection–by handling week in and week out the Word of God which is
-alive and active (e.g. a chainsaw whose blades are constantly spinning)
-sharper than any two-edged sword (e.g. a samurai blade)
-capable of dividing joints and marrow, soul and spirit, thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12)
-used by the LORD to bring dead bones back to life (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
1. The Expectations Of Others (As Well As Of Self): Without realizing it, many look at pastors to be “mini-saviors”–that is, to fix current church problems and to prevent future ones, to be personal enough to know specific details of the attenders’ lives while being horizon-focused enough to make the church grow to great numerical heights, to personally attend important life moments in the lives of attenders while also training/discipling other leaders for effective ministry, etc. It is often confusing for pastors–are we serving/working each day to please God or to please the people? What happens when doing one prevents us from doing the other? What if being efficient at the tasks of pastoring gets in the way of practically loving the people you are pastoring? What if loving others gets in the way of administrative efficiency? What if the people applaud your ministry but the LORD is disrespected by it? What if the LORD is honored but the people are frustrated?
2. Comparisons With Others: Another valley of pastoring is being compared to others (either by others or by ourselves!)–compared to the local church’s last pastor, the beloved pastor down the street, the highly successful pastor/writer/speaker on the radio, etc. The beginning of King Saul’s madness came as he compared himself with David–Saul was not thankful/humbled that the LORD had helped him have great military success…he was jealous that the LORD had helped David have greater military success! (1 Samuel 18:6-9) Though sometimes difficult for me to remember, a decline in pastoral fame/attention/popularity doesn’t mean that God is using us less effectively (John 3:26, 30): “[Jesus] must become greater; I must become less.” Similarly, a lack of pastoral fame/attention/popularity doesn’t mean God isn’t using us at all (Moses’ 40 years as a desert-shepherd; Eunice & Lois’ deep spiritual influence on Timothy–2 Timothy 1:5). My job is not to look at the ways the Holy Spirit is using other pastors but to focus on living out to the fullest the ways He is using me, just as Jesus gave Peter a specific command (“Feed My sheep and follow Me!”) and told him to stop worrying about Jesus’ plans for John (John 21:19-23).
3. An Increasingly Ignoble Role In Society: While there are certainly communities within the United States that still hold in high esteem the role of pastor, there are many other communities where pastor is a pejorative word. The sins/scandals of many pastors–be they financial, sexual, or others–combine with what seems to be a general societal mistrust of ANYONE in a position of authority–be it religious, moral, political, legal, corporate, etc.–to weaken/devalue (if in perception if not in practice) the role of pastor. In short, 2013 is certainly not the easiest/most comfortable time to be a pastor in the United States.
4. Balancing Spouse, Children, and Ministry: As I read popular blogs/magazines/websites regarding Christianity in the United States, I am amazed at how little is written regarding the responsibility of pastors toward their spouses and children and how much is written regarding/measuring a local church’s (and thus a local pastor’s) cultural relevance, community impact, ministerial leadership, etc. Even the myriad of biographies/articles that I read of prominent pastors/missionaries/Christians over the last 250 years tell little or NOTHING of how they washed their spouses’ feet, of how they emptied themselves in service to their children, of how they poured themselves out for their families behind the scenes. And yet many local churches want a pastor to be a “family man.” What a paradox that two of the pastoral characteristics most desired by local churches (spouse and parent) are two of the characteristics most malnourished by the local church’s other desires of the pastor (numerical church growth, building expansion, “successful” ministry, tangible results, a wide array of programs, etc.). As C.S. Lewis said, we often “castrate the gelding and bid him ‘be fruitful!” When pastors have annual reviews before the congregation and/or elder board, what if the pastor’s spouse was included in the review? What if the spouse’s opinion/perspective of the pastor’s ministry at home carried as much or more weight as the elders’ perspective of the pastor’s ministry at church? What if elder boards gave pastors a MAXIMUM limit on the number of hours they could work during a week, month or year? What if pastors and congregations realized that 1 Timothy 5:8 is not only referring to FINANCES? There are many other ways to provide for our families, and many pastors are woefully neglecting their families in these “other ways” and therefore qualifying ourselves as worse than unbelievers.
5. Isolation: Leadership in general is often lonely…pastoring is no exception. Pastors must always be careful to whom they express the deepest frustrations/wounds/emotions of their hearts: sharing with spouses can turn the spouse against the local church as their wounds continue to fester long after yours have healed; sharing with church members can create factions or weaken their confidence in their pastor; sharing with non-pastors can be difficult because of overcoming their stereotypes of pastors and because of a possible lack of understanding regarding what it is like to be a pastor; choosing NOT to share your heart is probably the worst option of all, leading to burn-out, bitterness, and brutal physical health issues. For four years the LORD used a ministry called 67Pastor to mitigate some of the challenges of this particular pastoral valley. During those years I met with a group of pastors once per month for four hours in a confidential group where I received consistent prayer, genuine encouragement, godly wisdom/advice, compassionate listening, and lots of wholesome laughter. I can honestly say that I would not still be a pastor today if the LORD hadn’t connected me with the men of my 67 group.
6. Running On Empty, or Who Pastors Pastors? Again, this list is not intended to be a rant or a whine-fest, and I do not mean to make pastors sound like martyrs or paint pastoring as the most difficult profession. And yet, many pastors wrestle with the following question: as I strive to consistently and sacrificially pour into others, how do I stay filled up? Who pours into pastors? A gasoline station can provide fuel for many different types/sizes of vehicles (motorcycles, coupes, sedans, vans, mini-vans, pick-ups, SUVs, etc.), but only a unique and specific type of vehicle/machine–not just any kind–can provide fuel for the gas station itself. In other words, the role of pastor creates a necessity for pastors to creatively/specifically/intentionally look for ways to keep themselves filled up with the presence, joy, and love of Jesus so we can continue to pour that same presence, joy, and love of Jesus into the lives of those we serve. Pastors counsel others, but who counsels pastors? Church members are often spiritually fed each week by the different components of a church worship service, but can pastors be fed in the same way when they have such an up-front role in the service? That is, does a person planning, preparing, and presiding over a dinner party have as much fun/relaxation as those who attend? I have found the following activities to be helpful in keeping me filled up for the long-haul:
-listening to the Bible on CD as I drive in the car (when I’m reading Scripture it’s usually to prepare for a sermon/message),
-listening to sermons of pastors I respect via radio or YouTube (Vance Havner, Tony Evans, Erwin Lutzer, etc.),
-taking long, quiet walks in nature with the LORD (I call them “Holy Spirit Board Meetings”),
-listening to Christian music that soothes my soul and stirs my spirit (please click HERE),
-reading biographies of Christian pastors and missionaries and learning how they handled the pressures of Christian leadership (please click HERE),
-consistently sharing the deepest waters of my soul with a core group of three or four men who do not attend my local church, who faithfully/genuinely/actively love Jesus, and who truly care about me as a man (not just as a pastor)–men I could call at 2am.
7. Temptations: Many of the temptations for pastors are similar to the temptations for others in positions of authority/prominence; some pastoral temptations are somewhat unique:
-making the role all about you (“If I don’t do it no one will” or “No one else can do it as well as I can!”),
-engaging auto-pilot (going through the motions, getting into an unhealthy rut/routine, ceasing to listen to the Holy Spirit for wise risks/inspired innovation),
-turning your living friendship with God into the clinical study of a fossil/cadaver,
-equating pastoral success with attendance numbers, book deals, increased budgets, personal/congregational recognition, etc.,
-turning to sin to make it through the cold winter seasons of pastoring.
8. Difficulty In Measuring True “Success”: Ah, what a valley! How addicted we are to quantifiable results, to measurable achievements, to what we can see! And yet God says that He looks at the heart and not at the outside appearance as humans do (1 Samuel 16:6-7). Furthermore, consider that on the criteria that many churches use in evaluating pastors, very few churches today would hire the Apostle Paul–check out his resume:
-formerly a zealous persecutor not only of Christians but of Jesus Himself (i.e. guilty of serious spiritual felonies)(Acts 9:1-5);
-only one Christian reference/referral plus a host of respected Christians who had nothing good at all to say about Paul (Acts 9:26-27);
-poor preacher–no eloquence or human wisdom, much fear, obvious physical trembling, admitted weakness, words of little persuasion (2 Corinthians 2:1-5);
-“one-trick pony”/single theological hobby-horse (1 Corinthians 2:2);
-doesn’t stay in one congregation/place for very long–church-hopper;
-causes extreme emotions in/reactions from non-Christians (Acts 21:27-22:22).
My point is this: with the benefit of hindsight we see that God used Paul mightily even though Paul had characteristics that would have made him undesirable (by human standards) to many churches today. Without such hindsight, the use of corporate measurables within churches today–the same measurables that may have left Paul pastorally unemployed–make it easy for some modern day pastors to believe that they are not doing a good job, to think that they are not successful/effective, to conclude that they are not fit to be pastors! Or, such measurables may subconsciously influence pastors to serve in such a way that they deliver numerical numbers without spiritual maturity, that they strive for increased financial budgets at the expense of a focus on increased capacity to sacrificially love, that they toil to increase the prominence of a local church without resuscitating its importance. Pastors–and other church leaders–wrestle with this treacherous valley on a daily basis.
9. Always A Pastor, Always On The Clock: In the early 1990’s, future Hall of Fame NBA basketball player Charles Barkley famously stated, “I’m NOT a role model.” He simply wanted to be a rich and famous professional athlete without the drama/baggage of having to watch his words/actions for the millions of children who idolized him. While pastors are not even close to being as cool, rich, famous, or idolized as athletes or actors, the role of pastor is similar in that you never stop being a pastor, you never can act/speak in an isolated vacuum, you must–with the Holy Spirit’s help–always consider how you represent both Jesus and your local congregation, whether you are in the sanctuary or the supermarket. It truly is a role that does not allow for “punching out” (in terms of a time clock–in terms of being “punched out” by others, please see #10 below :)).
10. Destructive Criticism: While the LORD has spared me personally from this, pastors I know and respect have been deeply wounded by anonymous emails and unsigned notes–as well as face-to-face diatribes and behind the back gossip–that attack their theology, criticize their wardrobe, question whether they are even a Christian, create disension, undermine their authority, repudiate their integrity, and even malign their spouse and children. Wow. Constructive criticism–that which is prayerfully/humbly shared in an effort to build up–is essential for pastors. Destructive criticism–that which is impulsively/emotionally heaped in a conscious/unconscious effort to tear down–can sometimes send a pastor packing (not just from that church but from the profession) and often weakens that church’s KIngdom-impact both inside and outside the church building.
Please do not draw the conclusion that the role of pastor is to be avoided by the fact that I above have attributed to it twice as many valleys as peaks. The eternal Word of God, the second Person of the Trinity–Jesus–in becoming human and suffering a criminal’s torture and execution, endured many more valleys than peaks in the mission that God the Father gave Him: the three main peaks being
1. glorifying the Father (spreading His fame)(John 17:1-5)
2. forgiving forever all humans who would receive Him as Savior (“the joy set before Him”–please see Hebrews 12:2)
3. completing the mission that God the Father gave Him (John 4:34)
If people were to become pastors simply because God commanded them to…that peak alone would be reason enough to do so, even in view of a multitude of valleys.
Finally, I agree with the following statement by Eugene Peterson: “For a long time I NEVER thought I would become a pastor. After pastoring for nearly three decades, I now can’t imagine NOT being a pastor!” What a privilege from God to love, serve, and shepherd His people, from the valley to the mountain top and back again.
Please click HERE for the importance of “secular” work (e.g. careers outside of the church building);
Please click HERE for some lessons I have learned as a pastor/advice to other pastors;
Please click HERE for the characteristics of the kind of pastor I want to be;
Please click HERE for a list of some of what a pastor does in an average week;
Please click HERE for how I became a pastor.