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The Unique Call of Pastoral Ministry pt. 1

September 1, 2009 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

“It must be nice to only work one day a week!”

Ahh, the pastor’s favorite words to hear. To those unfamiliar with church life, it may seem that the pastor does little more than stand up on a Sunday and speak for thirty minutes and then shake hands with people as they live. The reality, of course, is quite different. The pastor’s job is one of the most unique jobs out there, in my opinion, and I thought it might be instructive to share five of the challenges that are unique to the pastor’s job. Next week, I will share some of the blessings that are unique to this calling. What I write is not meant as a complaint; rather, I believe it will help you know better how to pray for me and my family, and will be helpful to any of you who are considering going into the ministry.

1) The ideal pastor has to be skilled at many different things. He has to be an engaging public speaker, a visionary leader who can raise up and inspire volunteer leaders, a manager who knows how to oversee and administrate a church full of volunteers, a counselor capable of helping people through their life issues, a social worker able to help people find tangible help for their needs, a scholar capable of reading ancient texts in foreign languages and bringing their meaning to today’s world, a mentor who can help others grow in their faith, and, of course, a mystic who understands what it means to know God and help others experience Him. And in a smaller church like ours, it will help if the pastor has some understanding of maintenance and repair, real estate, legal issues, and many other things. Of course, no pastor is all of those things. A classic strategy used by churches who are searching for a new pastor is to solicit opinions from the congregation on how they expect their pastor to spend his time. Typically, after the list has been constructed – preaching, pastoral care, visitation, administration, evangelism, leadership, meetings, building relationships with other pastors, and so on – the congregation finds that they are expecting a pastor who will work 80-100 hours a week! What this means is that the pastor is bound to disappoint people when he is not both the inspiring leader and the sensitive counselor, or both the engaging public speaker and the gifted administrator.

Personally, I am stronger in the mentor (shepherd), scholar, and public speaking areas; weaker in the social worker, leader, and manager areas (not to mention the maintenance, real estate, and legal areas). What this means for me is that I need to align myself with people who have gifts in areas that I am lacking, especially those of administration, and do my best to learn from them and, where appropriate, to give them responsibility.

2) It’s one of the only jobs where your family essentially comes to work with you and knows everyone at your job. I can think of few other professions where the boundaries between home and work are so blurred. With many other jobs, there is a natural divide between home and work, and your employer does not care what happens at home unless it begins to affect your performance at work. As a pastor, however, everything that happens at home matters, because it speaks to your character and maturity as a spiritual leader. In fact, one of the central qualifications of a church leader is that he manages his own family well (1 Timothy 3:4). Therefore, if there are marital issues or parenting problems, it could be grounds to lose your job. And, of course, you are your family’s pastor, which has its own challenges. Congratulations kids – he’s not only your dad, he’s also your pastor.

When I took the position at NewLife, the reality is that my whole family was called as ministers to the church. In a very real sense, then, the church became a part of our family. Where do you draw the line between work and non-work when dealing with people who you consider family? Is it considered work every time I spend time with someone from NewLife? Or only if it is someone I wouldn’t naturally spend time with if I were not the pastor? Is prayer time work? The pastor has a real challenge figuring out where to draw the boundaries between home and work, and I know I have yet to figure that one out.

3) You are often the only paid employee working with an “organization” made up entirely of volunteers. This has a couple of important ramifications. The first is that the pastor has to come to terms with the fact that while many things are high priority to you, especially since your livelihood depends on church ministry, the same things are often not a high priority for anyone else. Everyone else can drop out, say no, and put things off, because other things in life will be higher priorities. As a result, the pastor and his family will often be left holding the bag, picking up the pieces, and patching things together.

The second ramification, of course, is that motivating people changes when you can’t just fire them or dock their pay. In the working world, if you give someone a deadline and they do not come through, they should expect some measure of discipline and there could be real fear of losing a job. In the church world, however, what do you do when a volunteer consistently misses deadlines or doesn’t follow through? The pastor is often faced with the choice between making do with what you’ve got, doing it all yourself, or having nothing at all.

4) No weekends off. Of course, the most obvious challenge that is unique to the ministry is that Sunday is always a day of work. Going away for the weekend just isn’t an option, save the few Sundays off the pastor gets. I take Mondays off, and am off some Saturdays as well, and since our kids are still preschool age, we make it work, but once they are going to school on Mondays, I know it will be harder to carve out extended family time.

5) The job is never done. One of the biggest challenges I have found is that the job of being a pastor is never done. Sermons may come and go every week, but the work of helping people become like Jesus is never done until the day you die. The pastor has to be able to say “that’s enough for today” and be content with the lack of closure, or he can easily work an 80 hour week. Once again, this means that the pastor has to resign himself to disappointing people, because he will never be able to give everyone all the time that they want. It also means that the pastor has to learn to trust that God is fully capable of changing people’s lives, with or without the pastor’s help.

I hope that gives you a little insight into the unique challenges faced by the pastor, and helps you understand why I am always asking for prayer for good boundaries between home and work. Next week, I will share some of the blessings that are unique to this job. If you have any thoughts or feedback, please feel free to post a comment.

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