The Contented Pastor?

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For many pastors, sadly, I suspect this title will seem like a distant hope. Pastors tend to live in a world of ambiguity where boundaries are often unclear: where their role is open-ended; their people fickle; where demands on them unrealistic; and where it’s easy to question the effectiveness of what they do. That may sound overstated and negative, but I am increasingly encountering pastors for whom there is little joy in ministry. They work hard, make great sacrifices, slog away faithfully week after week, but find little sense of joy along the way.

I am increasingly encountering pastors for whom there is little joy in ministry. They work hard, make great sacrifices, slog away faithfully week after week, but find little sense of joy along the way.

Some possible reasons

No doubt there are many reasons why this may be so, but there are several factors which seem to be increasingly apparent among pastors today:

1. A results-driven view of ministry

This creates a pressure to achieve quantifiable goals, produces a competitive spirit and leads to disappointment and soul-searching when God doesn’t seem to ‘deliver’ as expected. Linked with this, could be a commitment to the ‘church growth’ model of ministry where constant performance pressure can become draining.

2. The unrealistic expectations of others

These may come from the congregation, the denomination or colleagues. And trying to live up to these expectations can be exhausting.

3. Personality factors

An insecure person may have a need to be seen as ‘successful’ by statistical growth indicators in the church. Or for those with driven or obsessive personalities, it could be a need to prove themselves in some way. Or in those with more introspective or depressive dispositions, it could simply be the overwhelming effect of the relentlessness and frustration of ministry life.

4. A weak view of the sovereignty of God

For some pastors, there is a real fear that ‘If I’m not successful, the church will fall apart and I’ll let God down.’

A realistic view of pastoral ministry

1 Peter 5:2-4 spells out a brief job description for pastors:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (NIV)

Notice that there is no mention of numerical success, no guarantee of public recognition, no expectation of job satisfaction and no promise of earthly reward. From Paul’s charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:10-4:8, and his autobiographical references 2 Corinthians, it is obvious that a call to pastoral ministry will almost certainly not be an easy assignment (2 Corinthians 6:3-13).

In my experience, the work of shepherding the flock involves a mixture of joy and pain—not always in equal measure. People’s lives are messy and complicated. And measuring the spiritual temperature of the church is tricky. Each week we stand before our people, wondering whether the Word we preach will make any difference. Are they growing spiritually? Have they grown at all over the past 10 years? Are they becoming spiritually hotter, or are they lukewarm or perhaps even cold? We are thankful when some people show evidence of God’s grace at work in their lives. But how we long for more of this fruit!

99% of us won’t ever see spectacular growth in our churches. Few people will know our names. But we’ll front up faithfully week by week, preaching the Word in season and out of season, caring for God’s flock the best we can

Let’s be honest! 99% of us won’t ever see spectacular growth in our churches. We won’t be invited to pastor a multi-staff megachurch. Few people will know our names. But we’ll front up faithfully week by week, preaching the Word in season and out of season, caring for God’s flock the best we can, and wondering how much fruit will remain after we’ve gone. Our primary purpose as pastors is to consistently proclaim Christ, admonish and teach God’s people and, only by his grace, present them on the last day—in spite of all their various states of sinfulness—mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28). 

Regardless of any church metrics, that should be our goal. It sounds rather ordinary but that’s okay! That’s the way humble, faithful pastors should view their ministry.

Finding a ‘sweet spot’ in ministry

Idealistic younger pastors may feel disappointed by the seemingly slow progress of pastoral ministry, while older pastors can become cynical and lose their zeal. Some pastors will question themselves and their call to ministry. But if pastoral ministry is meant to be a noble task and worth aspiring to, how can we ‘learn to be content whatever the circumstances’? (1 Timothy 3:1, Philippians 4:11)

Here are a few suggestions that may help:

  • Don’t assume you can change individuals or churches through your new ideas or methods (you’ll often be disappointed).
  • Don’t become obsessed over your statistics (they don’t tell the full story).
  • Be careful who you listen to when evaluating your effectiveness as a pastor (even many well-meaning people don’t really understand).
  • Trust the gospel and not your programmes (it’s still God’s means for growing the church).
  • Intentionally seek out opportunities to share the gospel one-to-one (it keeps you gospel-focussed and warms your heart).
  • Don’t stop sacrificially loving your people, even the annoying ones (they’re still part of the flock).
  • Don’t lose heart when disappointments come (God hasn’t abandoned you).
  • Rejoice in little victories and as you see God at work (seeing change in one life or one answer to prayer can beat a hundred discouragements).
  • Keep a humble view of yourself and your capabilities (it’s okay to be an anonymous pastor).
  • Usually change happens slowly, so be patient and have a long view of pastoral ministry (the results that really matter are only revealed in eternity).
  • Realize that you are in the front line of a spiritual battle for the hearts of your people, so pray ….. and keep on praying (Ephesians 6:18).
  • Persist in faithfully doing the basic things of pastoral ministry well (God’s methods actually haven’t changed!)
  • Keep telling yourself that it’s a privilege to walk alongside your people through all the twists and turns of their imperfect lives (just as Jesus the Chief Shepherd puts up with us).
  • Share the joys and sorrows with other godly people (especially encouragers).
  • Keep reading your Bible and praying and loving the Lord with all your heart (this is the well that refreshes and revives the thirsty soul).

We need to remind ourselves regularly that we are God’s co-workers, and he alone determines the ‘success’ of our ministries (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). If this is our theology, then we must rest in it. 

A final word

As pastors we should not aspire to a life of personal fulfilment. A call to pastoral ministry is a call to deny ourselves, serve with humility and make sacrifices. There will inevitably be an emotional, physical and spiritual cost. But Jesus experienced joy in enduring the cross (Hebrews 12:2). And, through the cross-bearing pain of ministry, we discover what it means to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). 

Certainly there will be times of disappointment and ‘holy frustration’ when we feel defeated, see people falling away, and Satan opposes our good work. But we have a faithful God and he generously gives his Spirit to strengthen, encourage and give us peace. 

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. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NIV)

So be encouraged, pastor. Work hard in caring for your flock. Keep ‘giving yourself fully to the work of the Lord’ knowing that it will not be in vain. And find your contentment and joy in the certainty that the results and the glory are his.

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