“Oh, so you only want to work one day a week.”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that when people found out that I was entering the ministry back in 1986. The sad thing is that a) they weren’t joking and b) they were churchgoers themselves.
This is Pastor Appreciation Month and what follows is an abbreviated view from the inside of ministry. I left full-time ministry four years ago but still pastor a small country church in rural Mississippi, so I’m still at it after 32 years. I’m not writing this to get my little church to do anything for me (they do plenty as is). I’m writing this for all those people who seem to be clueless concerning what the life of a pastor is like. I’m specifically addressing those who told me that most pastors are lazy and get paid too much because they only work one day a week.
I can only share what I’ve experienced, but through the years I’ve been assured by my peers that many of them have wrestled with the same things. Here are six difficulties you may or may not realize that many, if not most, pastors deal with.
The calling itself
Unless you are a preacher’s kid growing up in and around ministry (which I can assure you I wasn’t…not even close), becoming a pastor is not likely your life’s ambition. For many of us, the call itself was a complete surprise. Not very many people are thrilled about going to school as long as a doctor or lawyer knowing that the salary isn’t going to be anywhere near what theirs is. No, going into the ministry is not about money but someone forgot to tell the universities and seminaries. And for those who are married when answering God’s call, sometimes the spouse doesn’t feel that same calling. The expectations on pastor’s spouses are often just as much as the pastor…only without pay! I’ve even had people in church say something demeaning about me to my wife expecting her to agree. Children are often held to an impossible standard and then there is the moving. It gets really hard telling your kids they’re going to have to change schools again leaving their friends behind.
The tension that comes with the calling
This may be the greatest difficulty for your pastor. The calling comes from on high. As high as you can get. God. When you first begin in ministry there is no issue. God called you and you work for Him. But it doesn’t take long to learn that many people in churches believe the pastor works for them. It’s easy when you are on the outside looking in to say that if God convicts the pastor to go in a certain direction and the people don’t agree to always go with God. But the congregation is who decides the pastor’s tenure and salary. Key leaders in the Pulpit Committee or the Pastor Parish Relations Committee may not give one whit for the pastor’s explanation that after much prayer and even fasting he felt God’s urging to make a particular decision. If they say ‘no’ to what God is calling the pastor to do he either acquiesce or stands his ground. If he acquiesces he has to face God with his disobedience. If he stands his ground he has to go home and get the family ready for another move. When they are hurting, sometimes the wife and kids begin to wonder if you really did hear from God. That tension is always present which means that guilt and depression are often the pastor’s constant companions.
Judged by numbers
Any pastor who is truly called by God yearns for positive results in ministry. But it doesn’t matter how true to Scripture and dynamic the sermons are, the pastor is going to be judged on the basis of numbers. If the church doesn’t grow numerically there will be doubts from within and criticisms from without. Always. God’s plan for the pastor’s ministry may be an Ezekiel plan or a Jonah plan. God called Ezekiel to proclaim His word to the people but early on also told the prophet that no one would listen to him (Ezekiel 3:7). I suppose Ezekiel wondered why he was called if it was pre-ordained that no one would embrace his ministry. On the other hand, you have Jonah. He despised his calling (that’s why he spent several days in the belly of the sea creature) and when he did finally preach to the citizens of Nineveh, he hoped they wouldn’t listen (Jonah 3:10-4:2). Nonetheless, 120,000 people heeded his preaching despite his bad attitude! If the church doesn’t grow it hurts. If it does grow the pastor must beware the prideful thoughts that it is because of his ministry. Only God can give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7) but not everyone gets that. Sometimes, not even the pastor!
Bearing others burdens
All you have to do is Google “pastor burnout” to see how oppressed most pastors feel. Everything I’m saying in this blog plays a part in the shocking number of pastors who confess to feeling burned out or overly burdened. My experience suggests that a great deal of that comes from bearing so many of the burdens of hurting people. Day after day of dealing with the hurt and anguish of so many people often erodes the pastor’s own sense of well-being. Most pastors cannot help but empathize with those whose lives have been turned inside out from everything from child abuse to murder to job loss to the unexpected death of a loved one. You can’t just leave all that behind when the church office closes. Nor is it easy to brush aside the hurt and anger and get a good night’s sleep when you know someone in the congregation is actively undermining your ministry being used as a willing instrument of Satan. I happen to take Hebrews 13:17 quite seriously. It says that those who have spiritual authority are going to be required to “give an account” for those God has given them authority over. “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” I really don’t look forward to standing before God and saying that someone in a church I pastored gave themselves over to Satan willingly to wreak havoc in the church. Most churchgoers don’t even realize God is going to involve their pastors on the Day of Judgment. I don’t look forward to that.
There was the piano player who stopped playing the piano in the middle of an altar call on an Easter Sunday morning and proceeded to chew me out for some perceived injustice she alleged against me from months before. There was the guy I visited when I was newly appointed to his church who told me that he expected a visit from me every day. I told him that was not likely to happen whereupon he screamed profanities at me and threatened bodily harm. There was the longtime church member who marched over to the parsonage during Vacation Bible School to announce that she and her family wouldn’t set foot in the church again because they served hamburgers rather than hotdogs during refreshment time (she kept her promise). There was the midnight call I got from a parishioner who demanded that I come over and help her find her dog that ran off when let outside to relieve himself. There was the Administrative Council chair who quit the church when he tried to cancel the monthly business meeting so he could watch a Kentucky Wildcat basketball game. I told him we would have the meeting without him and that was it. There was the Sunday School Superintendent who freely admitted to cheating on his wife who threatened me with bodily harm when I relieved him of his church position. I could go on and on.
Nevertheless, God is a good God. He loves and helps pastors just like pastors love and help their parishioners. As a matter of fact, that’s where we get it from. Don’t take what I’ve said in this blog as a “woe is me” diatribe against God’s calling. It has been an awesome privilege to serve Him and the churches He called me to. Without His calling, I would not have learned so much of what I know of His strength and provision. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve as an under-shepherd to Jesus Christ. All I hope that this blog has accomplished is to open the eyes of those who think being a pastor is an easy one-day-a-week job. And I hope that you will let your pastor know of your appreciation during this special month. You probably have no idea how far a small gesture of thanks and appreciation will go with your pastor. Believe me, I know.
Dr. Ray Rooney. This article originally appeared on The Stand.