Looking back on more than a decade of vocational ministry, the difficulties I anticipated are not the difficulties I have experienced. Would knowing these challenges in advance have helped me and my family to persevere through them? I’m not sure.
I do know, however, that I talk about them with every intern I oversee in the hopes their adjustment will be smoother than mine has been.
Attacks from Within
Maybe I was naive. I fully expected difficulty in pastoral ministry. But I expected the attacks to come from somewhere “out there” rather than somewhere “in here.” I had no category for sheep who bite. Somehow I missed the fact that Paul suffered repeatedly at the hands of those who claimed the name of Christ (2 Timothy 4:9-18). Fellow Christians deserted him in a dark hour. Alexander did him “great harm.” No one came to his defense when accusations were made. Almost every seasoned pastor I know has seen this playbook repeated in his life. I wonder how many pastors are shocked when they get the first nasty e-mail telling them that they are not a good teacher, a poor fit for the church, or that the last pastor had real vision.
I wonder how many enter vocational ministry realizing that some of the people they welcome for dinner, drink coffee with, and confide in will turn around and slander them, gossip about them, betray confidences, and even mobilize support against them.
Amid this hardship pastors must pray for the ability to love people and to walk into God’s courts with them with mutual affection, having forgiven them as the Lord forgave, even if they must forgive over and over and over again. Pastors must humbly ask the Lord whether or not they have themselves sinned in the process, or if there is even the smallest validity to the accusations. When attacks come, the temptation is to circle the wagons and play defense. Not only does this approach shut down opportunities to heal your attacker with a Christlike response, but in licking your wounds you also can also easily cut yourself off from the rest of your sheep.
Nature of the Work
I worked my way through college doing manual jobs. There were plenty of days that I hit the pillow at night physically spent, my limbs aching. The beauty of that labor, though, was that I never took it home. This is not the nature of pastoral ministry, or many other careers for that matter. There are always more people to check in on. I have never written a sermon that wouldn’t have benefited from another five hours of study, meditation, and prayer. There are always people who expect more of me than I can give. When I was planting hedges I dreamed of the day when I would get paid to disciple. I’m there. It’s a gift. But it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Pastoring is like being a Gumby doll. You will get pulled in many directions and sometimes feel a limb will fall off. There are cards of encouragement to write, sick to visit, leaders to equip, lessons to plan, staff to mentor, couples to counsel, prayer to offer, weddings and funerals to perform, your own heart to tend . . . it never ends.
If pastors and their spouses will persevere in ministry they need to accept the nature of the work. If you don’t, you will whine, resent your calling, and probably burn out and get out. The sooner you accept the fact that there will always be more to do, the sooner you can develop healthy expectations for yourself as well as boundaries for you and your family. Work with elders to develop a work/life balance plan. Strive to differentiate between a genuine crisis and a perceived crisis when your flock reaches out to you. I can’t tell you how many times someone didn’t really need to talk right away despite their desperate pleas.
The unending nature of the enterprise can become a blessed opportunity to trust in the sovereign God to magnify your small offering and make it enough.
When Money Runs Short
Money has been short for our entire ministry tenure, and at times we have allowed this lack to rob us of joy and discourage us in carrying out our calling. I didn’t pursue vocational ministry as a means for wealth. I knew we’d have to be careful. I didn’t have any idea, however, just how careful we’d need to be. How many of us have heard the quote, “Where God guides he provides”? There is faithful joy in following God forward out of our security, but there is a danger in abandoning wisdom in the pursuit.
Money struggles beset almost every discouraged pastor I know. They want to continue serving with teens but are tempted to “move up” because associate pastors get paid more. They can’t afford to send their kids to some desired activity and feel like a bad dad. They’re crippled with student loans.
Satan will use money to rob your joy and distract you from your calling. I have experienced and seen this temptation most often in relation to the family. It is one thing to be stoic when you’re single and say you are willing to deny yourself for the cause of Christ. Will you feel the same way when you have kids? A wife? An elderly parent?
If pastors will persevere they must do everything possible to make good stewardship a priority as soon as possible. Most will never be rich as pastors, but with wise planning they can provide for themselves and their families. Do everything you can to graduate seminary without debt, even if it means taking longer to do it. Also, when interviewing for a job, be humbly honest about how much money your family needs. Don’t shrink back from the truth, especially in an initial interview, because once you say yes to the salary it is hard to go back and ask for more. You will never be happy as a pastor if you feel like your calling prevents you from providing for your family.
Every statistic tells us that most pastors don’t make it over the long haul in vocational ministry. I almost got knocked out because I didn’t know where the punches would come from. Serving the Lord in vocational ministry is a crown. Being an elder is a noble calling. Being entrusted to shepherd the flock is a gift and a grace. See the danger and pray over it. Prepare for it, so that you will persevere in carrying this grace to completion.