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.”
American pastors live in a culture that says
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
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.
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.
Striving for excellence is a good thing. Paul tells us to think about excellence in Philippians 4:8. However, in some
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.
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
The pressure that Paul experiences
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
Spot on. For many, not handled well, these pressures can contribute to burnout.
Great critique Sean. Spot on!