There is a growing concern that pastoral ministry, as a life calling, is losing its attraction among many keen younger men today. With Bible Colleges struggling to maintain numbers, and more students opting for part-time online courses, what is becoming clearer is that there are fewer candidates presenting themselves for pastoral ministry.
Pastoral life is a tough gig and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Many pastors set sail with great enthusiasm. Not many complete the course.
Let’s be honest … pastoral life is a tough gig and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Many pastors set sail with great enthusiasm. Not many complete the course. The headwinds blow hard against many a godly young pastor. And disappointment and disillusionment have broken many, often leaving a sense of failure. With this in mind, it is understandable that potential candidates will think twice before putting their hand up.
But what is a realistic view of pastoral ministry?
A Danger and a Warning
Nearly 20 years ago John Piper wrote Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, warning of the danger of reducing pastoral ministry to the level of a church-based career:
The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man … There is an infinite difference between the pastor whose heart is set on being a professional and the pastor whose heart is set on being the aroma of Christ, the fragrance of death to some and eternal life to others (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).
The true pastor puts his body on the line for his sheep. His commitment to his sheep goes beyond the terms of his contract.
In calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus distinguished his attitude from that of the hired hand (John 10:11-13). As a shepherd under Christ, a pastor is to see his role similarly, faithfully caring for and protecting the sheep under his care. Unlike the hired hand, he does not look for financial reward, a respectable lifestyle, comfortable boundaries, fringe benefits or career advancement. The true pastor puts his body on the line for his sheep. His commitment to his sheep goes beyond the terms of his contract.
Increasingly today, however, prospective candidates are holding onto expectations around pastoral life that are false, unrealistic and unbiblical. As Paul Tripp expresses it, pastoral ministry is a ‘dangerous calling’, and to misunderstand that fact is to face the prospect of a rude awakening when reality strikes.
The Call to Die
Read the stories of the early missionaries to Africa who, in the face of such uncertain prospects, carried their meagre possessions with them in coffins. Or read of those who farewelled their families, knowing that they would probably never see them again in this life (and many didn’t). How easy it is for us to forget the call of Christ to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily in the cause of gospel ministry (Luke 9:23).
Of all Paul’s letters, it is in 2 Corinthians where he opens his heart and shares most personally what it cost him to serve in ministry. How do we interpret words like these today?
We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed … For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Corinthians 4:8,9,11)
Imagine reading an advertisement in the “Wanted” column of a denominational magazine in 2020:
Faithful Pastor Required
Expect to be hard pressed,
perplexed, persecuted, struck down, and
given over to death for Jesus’ sake,
so that his life may be revealed
in your mortal body.
No church would have the gall to frame their need in terms like these today. But why not? According to Paul, it is through people like these that the all-surpassing power of God is seen (v.7).
The call of the gospel is a call to die, whether that be literally or figuratively.
The call of the gospel is a call to die, whether that be literally or figuratively. And for those considering pastoral ministry there is a great responsibility to count the cost in terms that are true to that gospel call. Hear Paul again:
And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:15).
CT Studd, the famous pioneer missionary, put it like this:
If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.
Yes, it is the wonderful cross that still today bids us come and die.
A Complicated Life
If pastoral ministry is a call to die, what does this look like in real terms for pastors today? It’s only commonsense that anyone considering ‘the ministry’ should have at least some idea of what they are facing. And without question, pastoral ministry necessarily involves elements of sacrifice that are particular to the role, for example:
1. Personal factors
- Surrender of a career and its future prospects
- Loss of status, reputation and respectability among peers
- Loss of choice in where to live and settle (perhaps a rural or small struggling church)
- Adjustment to a new, more complicated life and lifestyle (usually more stressful)
- Downward mobility on the social scale (in most cases)
- Sometimes marital stress
2. Family factors
- Disruption to family life e.g. visitors in the home
- Extra demands on the wife (and sometimes the children)
- Unpredictability of routines due to pastoral emergencies
- Church problems spilling over into home life
- Leaving and moving churches (sometimes due to unpleasant circumstances)
- Decisions about housing
- Decisions around children’s education and the disruption affecting them
- Separation from and sometimes rejection by relatives and friends
3. Ministry factors
- Daily and weekly pressure to meet deadlines, especially in preaching
- The constancy of ‘people pressure’
- Expectations of church folk to be the perfect pastor
- Loss of control over time, especially with night meetings and weekend events
- Difficult pastoral situations to manage
- Relationship challenges among staff and other leaders
- Frustration and increasing pressure from government regulation
- Constant busyness
- Mental and physical tiredness – and associated spiritual dryness
4. Spiritual warfare
- Unexpected opposition or unexplained problems frustrating otherwise effective ministry – either personal or within the church family
- Disunity in the church
- Temptation and spiritual oppression
- Struggle with prayer and preaching
Thankfully, not all of these issues will occur in every pastor’s ministry. But for many, the call to die will include some of them. There is a cost to be counted. But is that unreasonable on God’s part?
If this all sounds morbidly depressing, let’s not forget Paul’s assessment of his lifetime of stressful ministry, when seen through the lens of eternity:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (Corinthians 4:16-17)
“Here am I, Lord, Send …”
By now it should be clear that pastoral ministry is not meant for everyone. While every faithful disciple of Christ is to ‘take up their cross’ and ‘no longer live for themselves’, not all are suited or appointed by God for the pastorate. Some may not be suited by personality, or gifting, or temperament. Certainly the rigours of ministry require a rather robust individual.
Not all are suited or appointed by God for the pastorate. The rigours of ministry require a rather robust individual.
However, we should never discount the power of God to shape a life fully surrendered to him. How often do we see God take hold of a rather average young man, watch as he grows through several years of mentoring and Bible College training, then find ourselves astounded as he flourishes in those first few years of serving in a pastoral team in local church ministry. I’ve seen that so many times over the years of my ministry. And what a joy it is!
Believe me, there’s not much glamour in pastoral ministry. Paul called himself a ‘fool for Christ’ (1 Corinthians 4:10). The ‘terms and conditions’ probably won’t be all that attractive. And the undeniable expectation is that a pastor will ‘be given over to death for Jesus’ sake’. But in the paradoxical ways of God, it is still by dying to himself, his ambitions and his earthly aspirations that a pastor is spiritually prepared for this precious ministry. By his grace God is still using humble, surrendered jars of clay today through whom to show his all-surpassing power (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Perhaps God is nudging you to consider this important step. If so, why not make it a matter of specific prayer and intentionally seek his leading.
- Prayerfully count the cost. Are you willing to die?
- If married, discuss it with your wife and pray together
- Seek the counsel of trusted godly friends or pastors
- Keep serving faithfully, humbly and sacrificially in your church
- Look for opportunities to share the gospel and teach the Bible
- Contact Bible Colleges for more information
- Patiently await God’s leading and timing
The great work of gospel ministry through local churches needs more pastors. Together let’s ask God to raise up and send out more workers into his harvest field.
Could you be the answer to that prayer?