Pastoral Pressure and Apostolic Anxiety

2 Corinthians 11:28 always seemed like a strange verse to me–until I became a pastor.

Here’s Paul rattling off all the ways he’s been beat up for Jesus—imprisonments, lashes, rods, stoned, shipwrecked, adrift at sea, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure, danger from everyone everywhere (v. 23-27)—and then as the cherry on top Paul mentions one more trial: “apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (v. 28). This is the mighty Apostle Paul, the one counted it a joy to “spend and be spent” for his people (12:15), the one who was sorrowful yet always rejoicing (6:10). This is the Paul who faced every imaginable opposition and yet learned to be content (Phil. 4:11) and anxious about nothing (4:6). And here he is admitting that even with everything else he’s endured he still feels daily pressure and anxiety for all the churches.

Ever since becoming a pastor I have found unusual comfort in this verse.  It’s not that I have accomplished what Paul accomplished, or suffered what he suffered, but every earnest minister will feel this burden for the church.  And Paul had several churches to burden him!  The churches were full of infighting and backbiting.  They put up with false teaching.  They were prone to legalism on one end and complete chaos on the other.  Some of the church members were making insignificant matters too important, while others were too willing to compromise on Christian essentials.  Paul loved these churches and their struggles burdened him more than shipwreck or imprisonment.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: I don’t think pastors are the only ones with burdens. We are not the only ones with anxiety. In many ways we have the best job in the whole world. I certainly feel exceedingly thankful to do what I do on most days. I have no interest in comparing the difficulty of pastoral ministry with the difficulties of other vocations. All I want to do is encourage pastors to keep fighting the good fight, and encourage congregations to keep encouraging their pastors.

I’m not surprised Paul felt daily pressure for the churches. His work never seemed to let up.  He had letters to write, visits to make, a collection to gather for the saints in Jerusalem. He had to send people here and there and manage the affairs of his churches from a distance. He had to respond to a myriad of criticisms, often conflicting criticisms.  Some people thought he was too harsh.  Others said he was too weak.  Some people in his churches were ascetics and thought Paul was worldly.  Others were licentious and thought Paul was too ethically demanding.  They complained about his teaching.  They questioned his credentials.  They compared him negatively to the original apostles. They thought him lame compared to the false apostles. They didn’t like the way he handled money.  They didn’t like his preaching style.  They didn’t like the way he arranged his travel plans.  They didn’t like his discipline. On some days they just didn’t like Paul. All this for the man who led them to Christ, loved them like a Father, planted  (many of) their churches, refused their money, and risked his neck for their spiritual good. No wonder there was no weight for Paul like the weight of caring for God’s people.

Ask any pastor who really takes his work seriously and he will tell you of the pressures he feels in ministry—people in crisis, people leaving, people coming, people falling through the cracks, people disappointed by the pastor, people disappointing to the pastor. In the midst of this work the pastor is trying to find time for study, prayer, preparation, and family. He’s trying to improve himself, train up new leaders, meet the budget, get to know a few missionaries, champion important program, manage staff, take care of administrative details, provide for deep, accessible worship and preaching, be responsive to new ideas, listen to new concerns, be ready to help when people are in trouble.

And most pastors feel a burden for all the other things they could be doing: more evangelism, more involvement in the neighborhood, more for the poor, more for missions, more for the denomination, more for the city, more to address global concerns, more to address social concerns. There will be pastors reading this who wonder if the church is still responsive to their preaching, if the leadership will ever be responsive to his leading, if the congregation will ever grow like the churches he hears so much about. On top of all this every pastor has his own personal hurts, personal mistakes, and his own spiritual health to attend to. Who is weak and are not pastors weak?

But be encouraged. God uses weak things to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). His grace is sufficient for you; his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). For the sake of Christ, then, be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when you are weak, then you are strong (v. 10).

Paul had pressure. You have pressure too. But God can handle the pressure. And he looks good when you can’t.

This article originally appeared in the August edition of Tabletalk magazine.