Ten Challenges Pastors Face: Challenge #1-Hard Work

When I was in seminary, one of my professors told our class a cautionary tale about a student who explained his rationale for entering the ministry in these words: “It’s easier than digging ditches.”

The unworthiness of such a motive is so obvious it needs no comment. What is worth noting is the falsity of that student’s assumption. In his book Pastoral Theology Alexandre Vinet identifies “much labor” not only as one of the pastor’s primary difficulties but as one of his obligations: “The smallest parish should become, by the zeal of him who cultivates it, as onerous as the largest; this work has no limit, no spot where the material fails.”

 It is the breadth of the pastor’s duties that often makes it difficult. Most pastors do not enjoy the luxury of being specialists. They visit the sick, teach the youth, share the gospel, and prepare sermons on a weekly basis. Add to this the responsibilities of leadership and it is easy to see why we feel so tired.

 At the same time, the bulk of this work goes unobserved. Pastors do not punch a clock. They do not have a supervisor. True, the expectations of the congregation may make them feel as if they have a hundred employers. But in reality most church members trust the pastor to do his job. The broad nature of the pastor’s responsibilities combined with the relative freedom given to them to execute their duties without someone looking over their shoulder can lead to two dangerous temptations.

 The first is the temptation to exaggerate. Because we are aware that most of what we do is hidden from view, we overstate the nature of our work. This is not peculiar to the pastor. I have found that it is a temptation in academia as well. This tendency may be due to pride or it may be the result of a misguided attempt to reassure others that we are “earning our pay.” Whatever the reason, it causes us to put on airs like the hypocrites of Jesus’ day, who looked somber and disfigured their faces to show others that they were fasting (Matthew 6:16). It prompts us to carry out our duties with drooping shoulders and long sighs and  to claim that we are doing more than is actually the case.

The other great temptation is to be lazy. Congregational ignorance over the nature of a pastor’s duties combined with the absence of direct oversight are often a toxic combination when they come into contact with a pastor’s self-pity or self-interest. There is perhaps no other profession besides the pastor’s where it is so easy to look so busy and do so little. “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:5

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John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

3 thoughts on “Ten Challenges Pastors Face: Challenge #1-Hard Work”

  1. Dr. Koessler,
    I wanted to ask a follow up question to your post. I’m a 2005 graduate of Moody and have spent my entire time since graduating outside of full-time ministry. There is a number of reasons for this but one fear I have of ministry is that I tend to be more successful in job positions where I have visible tangible daily duties. I’ve actually been somewhat successful in the market place recently but I believe the job that I currently have is geared perfectly to my skills. I still feel what I believe to be the call of God on my life to pastoral ministry but I’m very fearful that I would not do well, and especially grow lazy, if I was put into a position where much of my work is left to my own “self-starting.” Should I take this as wisdom and put away my one-time call to pastoral care or press on in faith? Some thoughts would be helpful.

    1. Great question, Curtis. I suspect that the problem you face has more to do with the way you structure your work than it does with laziness. It is hard to be successful in the the marketplace and be lazy. If you have been “somewhat successful” you are probably not a lazy person. Some pastors are very structured, self-starters and others are less structured. Pastoral calling does not require one specific personality type. One thing that might be helpful is to ask yourself what it is about your current job that makes it so perfectly geared to your skills. Is there a parallel ministry context where those same skills could be used? Those who have trouble being “self starters” may need help to organize their work. This could be as simple as outlining a daily and weekly schedule and keeping a time log or it might involve something more intensive like making yourself accountable to someone. The deeper question you are asking has to do with the question of vocation (something I hope to address in a future blog). It sounds to me as if you are saying that your are happy and successful in your current position and wondering if you should remain in it or pursue a calling in pastoral care. Obviously, I can’t give you a definitive answer. I would suggest that you begin by asking yourself what your really want to do. The first mark of a pastoral call is desire. The phrase “sets his heart on” in 1 Tim. 3:1 could be translated “aspires to” and has the idea of longing for something. You might also want to consider whether the call you sense is to exercise pastoral care within the context of the office of overseer/elder rather than the primary preaching pastor who serves full time. Perhaps God’s place for you is to continue down your current career path and fufill your pastoral calling by serving as a congregational leader (cf. Acts 20:28).

  2. There are some days I’d rather be “digging ditches” but most days I can’t imagine doing anything else. There are weeks like this last one when I was encouraged over and over by God’s people, but there are also weeks when it seems the world is caving in around me. When those weeks come I remember what the apostle Paul went through…and also the myriads of faithful Church History pastors down through the centuries.

    Your blog describes the tension and temptations of my pastoral ministry almost perfectly.

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