“Why would anyone want to be a pastor?” a fellow customer in the mechanic’s shop asked me. His question caught me off guard, not because I didn’t have an answer, but because it wasn’t one of the two responses I’d come to expect. When I say “I’m a pastor,” people either shut down and avoid me or they try to impress me (which is just another way of avoiding the truth too). This man didn’t avoid truth; he asked a genuine and honest question. It was refreshing, even if the tone of the question made me feel like I must be crazy.
“I love Jesus and his church,” I said with a shrug.
“I guess that’s the only real answer,” the man mused, then he changed the subject to the high cost of auto repair.
That question stuck with me for years: “Why would anyone want to be a pastor? [Read: Are you nuts?]” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, sometimes called the Prince of Preachers, reportedly taught that if you could be happy doing something other than pastoral ministry, then you should do that thing. Why? Because pastoral ministry is hard. Really hard. You have to be a little bit crazy to even consider it.
Now, as I sit at my desk after almost eighteen years of pastoral ministry, I’m looking back and wondering, why didn’t anyone tell me how hard this would be? So I’m dedicating this article to a couple of young men I know. They want to be pastors but they don’t know what’s coming.
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
I grew up in a pastor’s home, so I knew pastoral ministry would be hard. I knew about the long hours, the pressures of public speaking, the pain of ministering in times of grief, and the difficult reality of church meetings. I’d watched all of this from a distance. What I didn’t know, is that it’s the things that happen behind the scenes are what make pastoral ministry hard. These things can’t be observed, and few pastors are willing to talk openly about them (except to other seasoned pastors). Here are a few of the things that surprised me:
The intensity of spiritual attack
I never realized just how much of pastoral ministry is a daily fight against Satan and temptation. Every Christian fights these battles, but pastors, missionaries, and other church leaders are prime targets for the enemy. Satan will use every means at his disposal to get us to fall – especially the people in our own church. Be ready for “friendly fire.”
The darkness in my own heart
Pastoral ministry can bring out the worst in people. Maybe it’s the spiritual attack, maybe it’s the refining fire of the Holy Spirit. Could it be both? Whatever the cause, I never realized the capacity for evil that resided in my own heart and how hard it is to fight it without the support of others. Most pastors are reluctant to share their struggles because they receive judgment instead of help from their churches. This was true in my ministry. Whenever I shared my struggle with sin, people would withdraw or criticize. I’ve since come to realize that my awareness of my own sin makes me a better pastor and a more gentle guide to those who are ready to confess sin and turn to Christ.
Betrayal from those closest to me
Criticism, false accusations, assumptions of wrongdoing, and many more painful encounters are the reality of ministry. One pastor told me, “Being a pastor means learning to live with a knife in your back – a knife that no one else can see.” I always expected that ministry would involve persecution. Jesus taught as much. However, what I didn’t realize was that most of the pain would come from within the church. I never saw it coming. Betrayal is always worse when it comes from someone you are serving. It amazes me that Jesus loved Judas even though he knew what was in Judas’s heart.
The loneliness of leadership
A leader must be prepared to say or do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason. Sometimes this means that people will get hurt. Some will walk away after years of friendship and loving service; they will leave it all in an instant.
These are a few of the things you don’t see by observing a pastor, but they are the reality of pastoral ministry. So if you enter pastoral ministry (or missionary work) for the wrong reasons, you will not be ready for the pain. Here’s how to know if you are ready to bear the scars that come with serving Christ.
You are not ready to lead if you . . .
- Like being the center of attention.
- Want to teach people how to be right.
- Are trying to earn someone’s favor.
- Need to be seen as intelligent.
- Have all the answers.
- Are in it for the money.
- Don’t have a strong prayer life.
- Are undisciplined – you can’t even lead yourself.
- Read the Bible only for what you can teach.
- Don’t love people.
- Aren’t willing to do menial tasks.
- Think authority comes from position or from a seminary degree.
- Are impatient, unkind, not gentle, or unable to overlook an offense.
- Are easily angered.
- Let fear control you.
- Don’t have an intimate relationship with Jesus.
You may be ready to lead if you. . .
- Love Jesus (sometimes to the exclusion of everything else).
- Love the church (because Jesus loves the church).
- Are willing to be overlooked and underpaid so you can serve Jesus.
- Aren’t easily offended because you know how much you’ve been forgiven.
- Find your life in Jesus.
- Cherish your time in prayer as a regular habit of life.
- Read the Bible often to nourish your soul.
- Know you are loved and accepted by God because of Jesus.
- Aren’t trying to earn anyone’s favor, because your identity (indeed, your very life) is in Jesus.
- Recognize that Jesus has all authority, so you must be faithful to his word at all cost.
- Are willing to be mocked, called a fool, and criticized for the sake of Christ.
- Are a good listener who asks good questions.
- Have a relationship with a mentor who can help you in ministry.
- Know a good counselor who you can trust to lead you to Jesus.
- Are quick to confess sin because you hate it and you desire to follow Jesus.
- Submit to God as the only right Judge (i.e., you don’t judge yourself or let others judge you).
The hardest and most important work of a pastor
The first and most important work of any pastor is to be constant in prayer – to seek God’s face, to know his will, and to confess and kill sin in his presence. The prayers of a pastor are not about getting God to do what we want. Rather, they are about getting ourselves on God’s program. When pastoral ministry gets hard or busy, prayer is often the first thing to get set aside. “I don’t have time to pray,” we say to ourselves. Nothing is more important than being in God’s presence and worshiping him in his holiness. We cannot call ourselves ministers of Jesus Christ if we neglect prayer – for prayer was of first importance to him.
If you want to be a pastor, first learn to pray. Do not say, “Once I become a pastor, then I’ll have time to learn to pray.” It won’t happen. Or if it does, it will only come with great pain and deep sorrow. If you want to be a pastor, learn to be with Jesus every day. Learn to gaze on his holiness and be filled with his love for you. Let his grace wash over your sins every day. Draw strength from him through prayer. Let your prayers be shaped by the Scriptures. Learn to discern the will of God through prayer. Learn to pray first. Then you can think about becoming a pastor.
Do you still want to be a pastor?
Being a pastor is hard, painful work, but there is nothing like it. If you would become a pastor, count the cost because it is high. Don’t stop there. Consider also the joy and wonder of being used by God to proclaim Jesus. The Apostle Paul paint a beautiful picture of this joyful struggle:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.Colossians 1:24-29, ESV