This is the first installment of our Pastor Appreciation Month series about caring for our pastors.
“If you can see yourself being content doing absolutely anything else, do it.”
I received that encouragement in the early 90s when I asked a pastor how I could decipher God’s call for me to enter ministry. He added more, but this was the short answer. Talk about shock—this was certainly not the answer I expected. However, I’ve since learned that trusted, wise and influential Christian leaders know the importance of this advice.
[W]hile the blessings of obedience are absolutely worth it, hardships abound.
In Lectures to My Students, the great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, said the following while discussing the call to pastoral ministry: “As well be a professor without conversion, as a pastor without calling…If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way.”
If you’re not in pastoral ministry, you might wonder why anyone would give such disheartening advice. The reason isn’t because of the worthiness of the endeavor. Nor is the advice intended to dishearten someone that God may, in fact, be calling to ministry. The cautious guidance is meant to help those considering the call of God; to clarify and deepen their conviction because the work is eternally important and, often, incredibly difficult.
The pain is real
I know how difficult pastoral ministry can be. Out of my 24 years of vocational ministry, I spent the majority of 15 years as the senior pastor at a church in Staten Island, New York. From firsthand experience, I can testify that while the blessings of obedience are absolutely worth it, hardships abound.
Pastors and their families share the same struggles as any other family. The distinction is that pastors are expected to respond to their struggles differently. They must remain steady in faith, constant in love, clear-headed in times of crisis and able to rise above both the temptation to sin and, too often, even say what they really think or feel.
Once, after having spent the early morning hours of a Sunday in the emergency room with a grieving family, I went to church to lead the service. I spoke with our leaders about what happened and we decided not to make an announcement about the circumstance until later.
Pastors and their families share the same struggles as any other family. The distinction is that pastors are expected to respond to their struggles differently.
At the end of the service, after we announced what happened and spent time in prayer, a handful of people approached me to pray and cry with me about the sad news. The last person surprised me, however. He was astonished at my decision to sing songs and preach instead of committing the entire service to grieving and prayer. In my exhaustion and sadness, I received this accusation with a nod of the head. I just tried to help him understand why I believed we chose the most loving course of action.
I praise God for the ability to choose the gracious response. But truthfully, my bleeding soul was further wounded from his words. And in that state of mind, I went home to be with my wife and daughter. Whatever was left of me emotionally, physically and spiritually after this rough day was what I could offer my family.
I am not trying to over-dramatize the difficulty of ministry. It’s a privilege and blessing to be a pastor, but it is often very draining. I believe this has never been more true for EFCA pastors.
Will we lose many faithful servants?
Thom Rainer, the former CEO of LifeWay, has become a reputable, trusted Christian leader. He recently stated that up to 50% of pastors are planning on leaving their current ministries once a new normal is established after COVID-19. As many as one in five pastors will leave ministry altogether. There are six prominent reasons they are leaving ministry:
Pastors are weary from the pandemic, just like everyone else
Pastors are dispirited by the division among church members about the post-quarantine church
Pastors are discouraged about losing members and attendance
Pastors are uncertain about the financial future of their ministry
Pastors are receiving much more criticism as they implement COVID safety protocols, address cultural challenges, steward resources and shepherd their flock
Pastors’ workloads have increased greatly: on top of increased pastoral care needs, most have had to adjust their ministries to provide new online opportunities that were not being offered prior to COVID-19
In addition to COVID-related reasons, several other challenges are stretching pastors to their limits. I’ll name a few: the ongoing issue of racial injustice, conspiracy theories regarding government overreach and an abnormally hostile political climate. On top of all this, many church members share their unfiltered and highly partisan opinions on social media. I’ve spoken with pastors who can’t believe what they’re observing. A pastor-friend the other day posted the following:
“Working to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4) among the family of God in our miserably polarized culture is painfully, nauseatingly, exhaustively and devastatingly difficult. Please pray for your pastor! #ComeLordJesus #Lordhelpus”
That’s a fitting summary for this season of pastoral ministry. While this season is difficult for most of us, it is exceptionally challenging for many of our pastors—including yours.
How can you help your pastor?
It is a common misconception that pastors have overwhelming care and support from their congregations and ministry networks. While the districts and national office of the EFCA work tirelessly to support local church leaders, nothing can replace the role that individual congregations play in the care of pastors. So, EFCA, what can you do to help? I offer you five biblically-rooted ways to offer your support:
1. Pray for them.
Ask God to draw them close to His heart and to let them see all that He has for them as they lead. Pray that they would be filled with the Spirit and have a vision of life and ministry beyond their meager resources.
“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers….”
2. Encourage their personal soul-care.
Let them know that while you pray for and respect them as a leader, you see them as a fellow disciple who needs time with Jesus.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:4-5
3. Respect and show love for their family members.
Recognize and connect with the family members of pastors. Spouses and children should be loved and treated well for who they are, not just because of their relationship to the pastor.
“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
1 John 3:18
4. Bless them in tangible ways.
Take them out to dinner, to play a round of golf, or simply give them a gift card for a cup of coffee. Do whatever would communicate your personal affection, gratitude and love.
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” Rom 12:10
5. Work with them towards strengthening your church family.
In your actions and in your words—especially on social media—decide to build others up, not tear them down.
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
October is traditionally known as Pastor Appreciation month. I encourage you to think of ways to bless your pastor, to share your love and appreciation for their work and to relieve some of the burden they bear in this heavy season.