When church members are hurting or in trouble it is their pastor who is often the first to hear of it. People often turn to their pastor to confess their struggles or sins. It’s very likely that the pastor knows more about the pain inflicting the members of the congregation or about their besetting sins than anyone else. Despite this burdensome knowledge, the pastor is expected to go on loving everyone in the church and be a continual source of encouragement.
When I was in Baptist Student Union in college, we did a skit called “The Perfect Church.” In the skit, two ladies were sitting back to back getting their hair cut and were chatting with their barbers about church. One lady complained that her preacher’s sermons were too long; the other complained that they were too short. They continued to compare churches, each time coming to opposite conclusions. When their haircuts were done the ladies stood up to face each other and laughed. The barbers, surprised, asked, “You two know each other?” “Of course, we do,” one lady replied. “We go to the same church!”
This illustrates the precarious position pastors often find themselves in. No matter what they do, they are likely to create a negative perception for someone. Someone will think the sermons too short, someone will think them too long; someone will think them too “doctrinal”, someone will think them not doctrinal enough; someone will think them “too political,” someone will think them not explicit enough about the crises of the day; etc.
In ancient times, pastors were often rather uneducated men who only knew enough Latin to get through the Holy Communion liturgy. Today, pastors are often expected to be scholars, philosophers, and philologists (and amateur experts on pretty much everything, from marriage and family to finances). This can be a challenge for the pastor who is drawn to ministry more because of his love for visiting sick people in the hospital and comforting the mourning than his love for medieval theology.
Consider some of the daunting responsibilities of a pastor: (1) Meaningfully preaching the gospel to a congregation made up of people from different age groups and different vocations (and hopefully different socio-economic backgrounds and races as well). (2) Shepherding people’s souls, meaning that if they start to go astray spiritually, bearing a responsibility to reclaim them. (3) Exercising church discipline, meaning withholding communion from those known to be living in unrepentant sin. (4) Performing wedding ceremonies and providing pre-marital counseling. (5) Performing funerals
Of course, these only scratch the surface. The pastor who, in the eyes of his congregation, fails to fulfill number one will likely be labeled “boring” or “irrelevant.” The pastor who even attempts number two is probably going to have his fair share of sleepless nights. The pastor who succeeds in fulfilling number three is likely to be labeled “judgmental” or “self-righteous.” Preaching the gospel and confronting sin, even in the “Bible Belt,” is not exactly the fastest track to winning a popularity contest. Of course, some pastors are judgmental, which means that as pastors seek to preach repentance alongside the good news of forgiveness, they must be ever on guard against this temptation.
Pastors that do number four have the awesome responsibility of trying to go against the cultural tide by communicating the sacredness and permanence that God intends marriage to have. This is a difficult task in any generation, especially the current one. Pastors that attempt number five will taste firsthand the difficulty of providing real comfort that sounds neither trite nor clichéd.
These jobs are not for the faint of heart. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that with increased knowledge comes increased sorrow. Consider how this plays out in the life of a pastor. When church members are hurting or in trouble it is their pastor who is often the first to hear of it. People often turn to their pastor to confess their struggles or sins. It’s very likely that the pastor knows more about the pain inflicting the members of the congregation or about their besetting sins than anyone else. Despite this burdensome knowledge, the pastor is expected to go on loving everyone in the church and be a continual source of encouragement. If you knew as much as your pastor about the brokenness and tragedy your fellow church members are experiencing, could you be as hopeful/cheerful as your pastor?
Steve Brown, a Presbyterian pastor and seminary professor, once told the story of a man in his church who’d committed suicide. The man’s wife called Brown, explaining what had just happened. Then she dropped a bomb shell on him: she, understandably, couldn’t bring herself to break the news to her son, so she wondered if Brown would be willing to go to her son’s high school and do it for her. Brown’s point was that, though some mistakenly assume that pastors spend all their time cloistered in theological libraries, tucked away from the real world, pastors often have more nitty gritty “real world” experience than most people—tattooed motorcyclists included.
I’ve only addressed challenges pastors encounter within the church. Consider also the fierce challenges they face from outside the church. With very few exceptions, pastors are typically portrayed on television as being, at best, buffoons, and at worst, hypocrites. Satan has a bull’s eye painted on the back of pastors because he knows that if he can lead a pastor to fall, he can often take down numerous others with him. The spiritual warfare that some of history’s greatest pastors have had to endure is mind-boggling. Once, while translating the Bible into German, Martin Luther is said to have had such a horrifying encounter with Satan that he literally threw an ink well at him. To this day the stain remains on the wall of the castle where Luther was staying.
In places where it is against the law to be a Christian, those who serve as pastors literally put their lives on the line every day. Jesus’ original twelve disciples, who became the first pastors of the 1st century Christian church, were practically all martyred for their faith. Two thousand years later, the world still bears as much malice towards Christ as it did then. Every pastor, no matter where he lives, should remember when being ordained that he is accepting a job that could, in the not terribly distant future, lead to persecution.
October is Pastor Appreciation Month. As you consider the special but difficult vocation your pastor has been called to, choose to show some form of appreciation to him this month; even a small pat on the back and an, “I appreciate you.” Finally, consider not limiting such displays of appreciation to one month out of the year. It’s a tough job year round.
Daniel Townsend is a graduate of Belhaven University in Jackson Miss., where he currently works as a tutor in the Adult Studies program.