You Are Going to Be Okay: On Staying in the Pastoral Game
Nothing on earth is more glorious than pastoral ministry.
And nothing on earth is harder.
Pastoral ministry is the shepherding of souls to glory. It is supernatural work. By definition, there can be no weightier, heavier labor on the planet. No stakes are higher than these: that you would lead the people of God to know the living God. This is, as Edwards said, “divine business.”
Some might wonder at this point about whether all callings are equally significant. It is noteworthy that the movement that recovers a meaningful doctrine of work—encapsulated in that lovely word “vocation”—is the same movement that recovers a surpassingly high view of the pulpit. Even as Luther and Calvin sounded the need for a revived pastorate, they called the sheep to see every minute of their daily toil as seen by God and infused with the glory of God.
But that is an essay for another day. 500 years after the Reformation, we must recover a sense of the highness of the pastoral call. In 2019, the pastorate is chewed up and burned over. Many today associate the role of pastor with a kind of spiritual carnival barker. Pastors get up, tell some jokes, muse on a spiritual theme for a little while, and close the shop down. They do no harm. They say nothing offensive. They make no waves. Like a leaf blown into the sea, they leave and are borne away, and you never know they were there.
The biblical vision of the pastorate is very different. The biblical pastor traffics in the business of eternity. The biblical pastor is the figure who looks closely at the fires of hell, sees people stumbling drunkenly that way, and calls them away from the fire. The biblical pastor is the one appointed by God to be present with people in the most sacred moments of their lives: marriage. Ravaging illness. The birth of children. Weekly feeding on the Word.
All this is glorious. All this is bathed in the light of heaven. If you could see things in spiritual lenses, putting on the equivalent of Theological VR, you would trip over your feet with shock at a glimpse of the forces of good and darkness playing out before you. But here is the second truth: all this is hard. It is grueling. Pastoral work is spiritual work. It is transacted on the front lines of the great war between God and the devil. No pastor can hang back from the conflict, much as we might wish to do so. By definition every pastor ministers truth amidst smoke and fire, victory and setback.
These challenges are well-documented and are not my focus at present. I do not need to trace out for pastors why ministry is challenging. Anyone who has heard the call to labor in fields white unto spiritual harvest knows the backpains, the headaches, the sometimes lasting wounds acquired in church work. Here is what I think pastors (and in particular younger pastors) need to hear: you are going to be okay. Stay the course. Keep plowing.
Pastors once viewed a call to a church as a lifelong call. E. Brooks Holifield has charted the changes in pastoral tenure over the last several centuries of American ministry. (Run—do not walk—to buy and devour this book, and this one as well.) He has found that the pastorate has gone from being the very pillar of social stability—literally the job that most symbolizes human covenantal presence—to one mirroring American business culture. Pastors hop from one church to another, the end goal of their ministry being a large church. This, in too many minds, equals “success”—a term that has little to do with scriptural soundness and much to do with statistical achievement.
There are valid and even righteous reasons to leave a church. But we cannot miss that the pastorate has changed as an institution over time. Once the most stable of callings, it increasingly seems to be one of the less stable callings. There are numerous reasons for these changes in our twenty-first century context. Many young men enter the pastorate with a history of familial brokenness. More than they may even be consciously aware, they have instability coded into their identity. This is true even for those who are redeemed by Christ and who have seemingly overcome the sadness of their past.
The darkening of American culture plays a role here as well. Ministry has always been very challenging in a fallen world, and some seasons of history are definitely tougher than others (see for example Puritans, English Expulsion of). But in a comparative sense, it is not getting easier in the West. It is getting harder, more complex, and more taxing. In terms of the American environment, people are entering churches with less training, less spiritual background, and greater personal baggage. Many godly young men are exhilarated by this situation, and rightly so. But we cannot miss that the greater darkness has begotten greater neediness which has begotten costly shepherding.
We also must recognize that we live in a transient age. People make connections easily, a truth which is trumpeted endlessly by the social-media industrial complex. But people today break connections just as easily. We might think that we ourselves are not affected by such factors. But more than we know, we are affected. (The church rarely is aware of just how much influence the culture is successfully exerting upon it.) We are all itchy today. We all keep one eye on the immediate horizon and another on the farther view. We hit some trouble spots and find ourselves wondering if we should eject and find something more fulfilling. As fluidly as we friend and follow folks on new technologies, so we change up our very lives themselves.
There is more to say here. Every church is different; every individual pastor’s setting is different. There are right reasons, as noted, to pack up and move on. (It is good, to take just one matter, to gain experience in order to take on a lead pastor role.) But let us remember this word: because Christ has washed us by his blood, we are going to be okay. Because we are indwelt by the Spirit, the Lord will not abandon us. Because our name is written in the lamb’s book of life, we will make it to glory. The best possible thing has happened to us; the worst possible thing—dying eternally in hell—cannot happen to us. This cluster of theistic truths is the launchpad of faithful and persevering ministry.
So, young pastor: you are going to be okay. Not because there is a vague spiritual gulfstream in the world that lifts everyone in the end to general happiness, but because Christ has gripped in his strong hand and will not let you go. Stay the course. Keep plowing. “Success” is a vapor; it doesn’t truly exist, and much of what constitutes success will burn up on the last day like newspaper in a fire. Life is not about you; it is not even about your temporal happiness. It is about something much greater than you. It is the ministry of truth. It is about the glory of Christ, the Son obedient to the Father by the power of the Spirit. You are but a miniscule molecule in this great redemption story, the story of the ages.
Let us end where we began, but with the accent on the positive reality of your vocation. Nothing on earth is harder than pastoral ministry.
And nothing on earth is more glorious.