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Daily Pressures in Pastoral Ministry

The daily pressures in pastoral ministry can be a pressure cooker. Listen to how the apostle Paul describes them in his ministry:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.


2 Corinthians 11:24-28

I find it interesting that in light of the physical pains and dangers Paul faced, he lands on the daily pressure of anxiety for all the churches as his greatest concern. Pastors today may face different circumstances (though many are facing similar persecution). However, there are still external and internal pressures that make pastoral ministry dangerous.

External Pressures in Pastoral Ministry

Like a pressure cooker, there’s a lot of external heat applied to pastors. This comes in the form of expectations to perform and live up to certain standards – standards that don’t come from scripture. Among the many sources of pressure, three that stand out are culture, critics, and so-called “experts.”

Culture

American pastors live in a culture that says value is determined by size. So a bigger budget, building and congregation must mean that the pastor is better. This is a lie – bigger is not always better. The pressure to become bigger in every way can seriously damage a pastor’s identity. He needs to remember that Jesus is the one who builds his church (Matthew 16:18).

Critics

Pastors can face some ridiculous criticisms that are easy to brush aside. Sometimes, however, the criticisms from within the church are painful because they contain an element of truth. A pastor can hear this little bit of truth and focus on it too much. We do need to learn from constructive criticism, but we can’t focus on it so much that it takes us away from our calling. When we do this, the dissonance can create an unbearable pressure.

We need to learn from constructive criticism but we can’t let it take us away from our calling. When we do this, the dissonance can create unbearable pressure. Click To Tweet

Experts

Pastors often look to those who have built big churches as experts in church leadership. They listen to how megachurch pastors do things and try to replicate that in their own church. This rarely works because the context is completely different. They have a different cultural setting, different supporting leaders, and a different personality than the other pastor. So when these attempts fail, the pastor can become more desperate for something that works. The pressure of another’s success can make a pastor feel like a failure. Instead, as pastors we need to ask “What does faithfulness to Jesus look like in my context?” If we strive to be faithful, we can rest in whatever results Jesus provides.

Internal Pressures in Pastoral Ministry

In addition to external pressures, the internal life of a pastor can cause the pressure to build. Like the steam in a pressure cooker, if there is no healthy outlet the pastor will fail – often with catastrophic results. Here are a few of the many internal pressures pastors can face.

Impatience

Most leaders have a strong desire to make their church better. This desire is good because it can lead the church to greater health and effectiveness. However, when change doesn’t go smoothly or when it takes a long time, this otherwise healthy drive can turn into an obsession. An impatient leader will become frustrated and depressed. For centuries, pastors have been frustrated by the slow rate of spiritual growth in their churches and in their own lives. This should cause us to stop and seek the Lord. When we learn to trust in his timing we can lead with patience. Instead, we often try to fix the problem by working harder. Soon frustration turns to desperation, and concern turns to despair. If a pastor isn’t careful he can lose himself in the anxieties of ministry.

If a pastor isn’t careful he can lose himself in the anxieties of ministry. Click To Tweet

Perfectionism

Striving for excellence is a good thing. Paul tells us to think about excellence in Philippians 4:8. However, in some situations excellence is too lofty a goal. Small churches don’t often have the resources to hire for excellence, so they have to make do with what they have. Expecting excellence out of a group whose current ceiling is barely good will just frustrate everyone. Such perfectionism will create a negative atmosphere for all. Sometimes excellence is out of reach for now and we need to let people grow in smaller steps.

Perfectionism is especially deadly when a pastor demands more of himself than he is equipped to do. Every pastor has limits – things that he will never be excellent at. In these areas, he should delegate the work to others so that he can focus on what he is gifted to do. Chasing limits is a never ending merry-go-round of frustration. Accepting limits allows us to serve with freedom and grace for both ourselves and others.

Pride

The driving factor behind impatience and perfectionism is often pride. So many pastors have fallen because of pride. We need to learn the warning signs that our pride is creeping into ministry. If we aren’t careful, pride will put increasing pressure on a pastor as he tries to maintain a perfect image before people. This is why Paul warns us, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). The antidote to pride is humility – thinking rightly of yourself. A pastor needs time alone with God to be humbled and to learn to see himself as a creature who is dependent on the Creator.

Healthy Pressure

The pressure that Paul experiences comes from a healthy desire to see people grow in Christ. He feels the weight of concern for them but he does not respond in unhealthy ways. Instead, he recognizes this anxiety shows his need to depend on Christ.

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.

2 Corinthians 11:30-31

Paul isn’t concerned with what other people will think. He’s not driven by cultural influences or by internal pride. Paul’s one concern is that the power of Christ might be seen in his weakness:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

How do your expectations for your pastor (or your church’s expectations) encourage him to either hide his weakness or be free to share it?

Pastor, are you embracing your limits and accepting your weakness so that the power of Christ might be shown in you?

Please, leave a comment below. I personally read all the comments and I try to respond within a day. Or we can interact on Twitter (@PastorsSoul) or on our Facebook page.

© Sean Nemecek, 2018. All rights reserved. Request permission.



(M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet, and freelance book editor. Together, they have one son.

4 comments on “Daily Pressures in Pastoral Ministry

  1. Spot on. For many, not handled well, these pressures can contribute to burnout.

  2. Great critique Sean. Spot on!

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