The pastor was distraught. The deacons were reluctant to make changes. A patriarch controlled a lot of people in the church, and if they all left it would hurt attendance and giving. A few women ran outdated programs that nobody attended. A couple of guys critiqued the pastor’s sermon every Sunday, and one of them had started to share his critiques with others in the church. And a couple of the women were engaging in passive-aggressive behavior with his wife.
The pastor wanted some advice.
Jared Wilson describes his response in his book Gospel-Driven Ministry. “I listened to all this, and I said, ‘Brother, you know what it sounds like to me?’ ‘What?’ he said. I said, ‘It sounds like you’ve got a church.’”
Later, Wilson confesses that he’s often asked, “Do you miss pastoring?” He admits, “Part of the reason I don’t miss it, honestly, is those scars. I don’t feel the itch to jump back in (yet), but for the most part, it’s because I am still tired of the suffering.”
I appreciated his honesty. If we’re going to pastor well, and pray for other pastors, we need to be honest about the joys and challenges of pastoring.
I am blessed by the church I get to pastor. We began to plant a church in Liberty Village in 2012. It’s been a long, slow, humble work, but I regularly look at the people on our weekly Zoom call, or look at pictures from when we were allowed to meet in person, and give thanks. I love the privilege of pastoring these people, and of serving our local community.
But I have scars. After almost 30 years as a pastor, I have a list of joys, but I have a list of sorrows that’s almost as long.
I’m not alone. I heard two veteran Canadian pastors reflect on their ministries recently. One spoke of the petition that circulated calling for his removal; the other spoke with tears about the lost friendships, attacks, and depression that he experienced. Both of them had effective ministries. Both of them suffered. That’s what pastoral ministry is like.
We signed up to suffer. When Paul listed his suffering, he included the daily pressure of anxiety for the churches along with beatings and external trials (2 Corinthians 11:28). It’s the daily pressure that gets to you, the relentlessness. “Paul’s great heart rose and fell with his people. His greatest pains were heart-pains over his people!” observes Kent Hughes. “There was not an ounce of indifference in Paul’s heart.”
Rather than discouraging us, let’s normalize our expectations. Expect to suffer. It’s what we signed up for. Our suffering isn’t necessarily a sign that we’re doing something wrong. It’s a sign that we’re pastors in churches with real people.
As we suffer, let’s not lose sight of the privilege we have to suffer. We follow the example of the ultimate Shepherd who suffered for his sheep. And let’s not lose sight of our reward. Speaking to elders, Peter wrote: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10-11).
To pastor is to suffer. And it’s worth it.