The Greatest Office
The Christian pastor holds the greatest office of human responsibility in all creation. He is called to preach the Word, to teach the truth to God’s people, to lead God’s people in worship, to tend the flock as a caring shepherd, and to mobilize the church for Christian witness and service. The pastor’s role also includes an entire complex of administrative and leadership tasks.
Souls are entrusted to his [or her] care, the truth is entrusted to his stewardship, and eternal realities hang in the balance. Who can fulfill this job description? Of course, the answer is that no man can fulfill this calling. The Christian pastor must continually acknowledge his absolute dependence upon the grace and mercy of God. As the apostle Paul instructs us, we are but earthen vessels employed for God’s glory. On his own, no man is up to this task.
Albert Mohler Jr., foreword to On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work, by Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, Moody.
Narcissism in the Pulpit?
A colleague of mine often says that ministry is a magnet for narcissistic personality—who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week? While the vast majority of people struggle with public speaking, not only do pastors do it regularly, but they do it with “divine authority.”
The Pastor’s Visit
The story is told of a man who had gone to church for several years but suddenly stopped attending. His pastor dropped by one evening unannounced. The man answered the door and invited him in. Of course, he knew why his pastor was there. They went and sat in two chairs in front of a roaring fire. Neither man said anything. After a few minutes, the pastor picked up the fire tongs, took one of the logs out of the fire, and laid it on the hearth. The flames died down and flickered a few times before going out. They watched in silence as the log started to grow cold.
After a while, the pastor once again picked up the fire tongs and put the smoldering log back with the other burning logs. It immediately burst back into flame. The pastor got up and said, “Well, I need to go now. But I’ve enjoyed our visit.” The man rose too and said, “I appreciate your message, pastor. I will be in church on Sunday.”
The Perfect Pastor
The ideal pastor preaches exactly 20 minutes. He condemns sin, but never hurts anyone’s feelings. He works from 8 AM to midnight, and also serves as the church janitor. He makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, and donates $30 a week to the church. He is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience. He is both tall and short, thin and heavyset, and has one brown eye and one blue eye. He makes 15 house calls a day and is always in his office.
If your pastor does not measure up to these criteria, send this list to six other churches that are also dissatisfied with their pastor. Then, bundle up your pastor and send him to the church at the top of the list. In one week you will receive 1,643 pastors. Surely one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this letter. One church broke the chain and got its old pastor back in three months.
Pastors & Therapists: Human Like Every One Else
Perhaps you’ve never thought of this before, but there are a lot of commonalities between therapists and pastors. Both therapists and pastors are given an inside view into the joys and mess that make up the human experience. Many who come to them for advice share intimate details, secrets unknown to even their closest friends and family.
They also both have to deal with the awkward responses that inevitably come with, “so what do you do for a living?” But perhaps what binds both together more than anything else is the expectations that are placed on them to be somehow above their lay counterparts in maturity, and in the case of pastors, holiness. Lori Gottlieb, in her immensely successful 2019 memoir, describes this phenomenon:
Therapists, of course, deal with the daily challenges of living just like everyone else. This familiarity, in fact, is at the root of the connection we forge with strangers who trust us with their most delicate stories and secrets. Our training has taught us theories and tools and techniques, but whirring beneath our hard-earned expertise is the fact that we know just how hard it is to be a person. Which is to say, we still come to work each day as ourselves—with our own sets of vulnerabilities, our own longings and insecurities, and our own histories.
Of all my credentials as a therapist, my most significant is that I’m a card-carrying member of the human race. But revealing this humanity is another matter. One colleague told me that when her doctor called with the news that her pregnancy wasn’t viable, she was standing in a Starbucks, and she burst into tears.
A patient happened to see her, canceled her next appointment, and never came back. I remember hearing the writer Andrew Solomon tell a story about a married couple he’d met at a conference. During the course of the day, he said, each spouse had confessed independently to him to taking antidepressants but didn’t want the other to know. It turned out that they were hiding the same medication in the same house. No matter how open we as a society are about formerly private matters, the stigma around our emotional struggles remains formidable.
Presenting the Glory of God
Speakers and writers must present the glory of God as clearly and compellingly as human language will permit. Otherwise both preacher and people will be reduced to dreaming little dreams and attempting for God only little things, when they could be doing so much more. Otherwise they will succumb to what Annie Dillard terms ‘the enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end.’
The trouble with that, says Dillard, is that God and ‘the world is wider than that in all directions, more dangerous and more bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.’
In a book written almost thirty years ago, and yet just as relevant today, the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon laments the “professionalization” of clergy, especially as it relates to counseling. What is gained for in competence may by lost in other areas, notably our essential task of preaching the gospel:
[T]here is a tendency now to suppose that the way to train clergy to be good pastoral counselors is to give them professional competence in what are usually called the “helping professions” — to make them trained psychologists, or knowledgeable hospital visitors, or family-systems adepts, or twelve-step experts.
I have no objection to such professionalization in and of itself: competence in any department is not to be sneezed at. But I do think that in the rush to become professionals in fields chat unordained persons are perfectly capable of handling, the clergy can lose sight of their principal competence as counselors —of their calling to be authentic and authoritative proclaimed of the Gospel, the Good News of God in Christ.
Recent Research on the State of the Pastorate
Although the stresses and burdens of pastoral ministry have been highlighted for some time, recent research and surveys have revealed that the majority of pastors are significantly happy, satisfied, or fulfilled in their ministries. A smaller study of over 1,000 pastors attending conferences in Southern California reported that about 90 percent experienced frequent fatigue and had thoughts of quitting ministry.
It has also been pointed out that there are around 350,000 churches in North America and that 3,500 of them (1 percent) die every year. Furthermore, about 1,500 ministers or pastors leave their ministries each month for reasons including loss of their jobs or retirement, but a significant number quit because of burnout and other health and family issues. It is estimated that 3,000 new churches are being planted every year, but more churches are closing down than being planted in North America.
The Risk of a Professional Ministry
Ministers run the awful risk . . . of ceasing to be witnesses to the presence in their own lives — let alone in the lives of the people they are trying to minister to — of a living God who transcends everything they think they know and can say about him and is full of extraordinary surprises.
Instead they tend to become professionals who have mastered all the techniques of institutional religion and who speak on religious matters with what often seems a maximum of authority and a minimum of vital personal involvement. Their sermons often sound as bland as they sound bloodless. The faith they proclaim appears to be no longer rooted in or nourished by or challenged by their own lives but instead free-floating, secondhand, passionless. They sound, in other words, burnt out.
The Role of the Pastor
In the modern church, the role of the pastor is no longer clear cut. The pastor is expected to do a lot of things but is not sure which is “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), the essential duty. The recovery of spiritual direction in recent years has once again drawn the attention to the main focus of pastoral care, namely, to help Christians develop their prayer life and discover the will of God.
For much of the history of the church, the work of the pastor was quite unambiguous: the “cure of souls.” The shepherd is to help the sheep assimilate and live out the spiritual life. In short, the pastor is essentially a spiritual theologian and a guide to godliness. It is this work and nothing else that gives the pastoral vocation its distinguishing mark.
Trust in Pastors is (Way) Down
In my lifetime, the classic image of the devoted parish pastor who could be trusted to rightly preach the word, diligently care for souls, and wisely lead the church has shifted dramatically. With major scandals in both Protestant and Catholic churches, trust in clergy is down significantly over the last twenty years.
Clergy trust has “dropped steadily since 2009, down from a high of 67 percent in 1985, the pollster reported. Pastors are now seen as less trustworthy than judges (43%), day care providers (46%), police officers (56%), pharmacists (62%), medical doctors (65%), grade school teachers (66%), military officers (71%), and nurses (82%).
The Unnecessary Pastor
…And we are unnecessary to what congregations insist that we must do and be: as the experts who help them stay ahead of the competition. . . . They want pastors who lead. . . . Congregations get their idea of what makes a pastor from the culture, not from the Scriptures: they want a winner; they want their needs met; they want to be part of something zesty and glamorous. . . . With hardly an exception they don’t want pastors at all—they want managers of their religious company. They want a pastor they can follow so they won’t have to bother with following Jesus anymore.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Pastors. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!