Before my first pastorate, I had often heard pastors lament the challenges of ministry. I always assumed they were warning me of the cranky congregant or divisive deacon.
What I didn’t know is the difficult person they were warning me of would not only be in my church, but in my skin.
Before I became a pastor, I had no idea that the greatest ministry challenge a pastor faces is not a “trouble person,” but a troubled heart—and that heart belongs to him. I didn’t know that the nastiest looks a pastor gets is when he looks at himself, and that his harshest critic is not a voice in the Twittersphere, but the troll that lives within.
Yes, difficult situations bear down on every pastor occasionally, but the cruel ankle weights of unrealistic expectations, unfair comparisons, and other pressures that weigh a minister down most often occur because his own heart has been deceived (Jer. 17:9).
Here are eight lessons I’m learning that are liberating me from myself.
1. Be Free from Comparison
In an age of podcasts and celebrity pastors, it’s harder than ever to be an average, unimpressive pastor. Pastors everywhere are tempted to be like all-star quarterbacks, calling the plays and throwing the game-winning touchdown. But the role of the pastor is much more like an equipment manager, providing the saints needed service to help them fulfill their missions (Eph. 4:12).
The role of the pastor is more like an equipment manager than an all-star quarterback.
People don’t need you to become like the pastor across town; they need you to become like Jesus (1 Thess. 4:3). You will serve people best by being the most Christlike version of you, not someone else.
2. Be Free from Unbiblical Expectations
On top of preaching and shepherding, pastors today feel incredible pressure to be visionary leaders, competent businessmen, professional counselors, cultural commentators, and many other things.
But pastor, you haven’t been called to do “all the things.” God has called you to simply give yourself fully and freely to prayer and teaching the Word (Acts. 6:4). Excel in what you are uniquely called to do as a pastor: feed Jesus’s sheep (John 21:17).
3. Be Free from Fixing
Some pastors are never happier than their saddest congregant, and they often feel personally responsible for every person and problem in the church.
Pastor, you can’t pull everyone from the clamps of depression, or salvage splitting marriages, or liberate addicts from their sin-shackles, or bring peace into wartime homes. But you can passionately, powerfully, and persistently point them to the One who can (2 Cor. 4:5; Acts 5:42).
4. Be Free to Say, ‘I Don’t Know’
Pastors often feel they’re supposed to be knowledgeable and up-to-date on the latest news, theological controversies, political conversations, and cultural trends (after all, we went to seminary!).
Pastor, you don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room. Your people may actually love to hear you say, “I don’t know,” because it reminds them you’ve been entrusted with only one message: Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). You don’t need to have something profound to say at all times on every topic. But know this: when you do speak, they’re listening.
5. Be Free to Rest
Most pastors hate to be seen resting while others are working. They feel guilty when they tell others they’re taking a much-needed vacation, and they feel embarrassed when they have to utter the words, “I can’t; that’s my day off.”
Pastor, you are not omnicompetent. You need to rest. A lively, well-rested pastor can do more for his people in 40 hours than an exhausted one can do in 80. Moreover, your family needs you home. Many men can pastor your church, but only you can be your wife’s husband and your children’s dad. Show your church and your family what it looks like to radically trust the Lord with all things by taking weekly rest (Ex. 20:8–10; Matt. 11:28–30).
6. Be Free from Competition
Pastors often feel like failures when they see other churches with better music, better childcare, a nicer gathering place, or a sharper website.
Pastor, God is growing a kingdom—not a castle, not communities, not commodities—and an outpouring of grace in any church is an outpouring of grace on every church. Release yourself from a corrupted spirit of competition by celebrating every evidence of grace you see in other churches, and be content in giving yourself to those under your care (1 Pet. 5:2).
7. Be Free to Surrender
Many pastors feel intense pressure to grow their churches. Giving statements and weekly attendance reports become like brutal college midterms, empirically and irrefutably revealing what an utter failure they are.
But pastor, on your best day you cannot grow your church (1 Cor. 3:6–7). You’ve been called to roll up your sleeves, get on your knees, and focus on seeds. Maybe the greatest thing you can do for your church today is to finally and fully leave the growth up to God.
8. Be Free to Be Happy
And I mean really, really happy.
When all the various burdens of ministry accumulate, the weight becomes such that few men can carry it long. Often pastors just put their heads down, keep their hand to the plow, and slog through another season. It’s not surprising the burnout rate is so high.
Above all, your church needs your joy in Jesus (Heb. 13:17). A pastor exuberantly happy in God will do far more for his church than an industrious pastor who has sacrificed joy in Jesus for optimal productivity. Slow down and become increasingly satisfied in him.
May the highest aim of your life, and the greatest prayer of your pastorate, be that of Psalm 90:14:
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.