How does a man not lose his soul in the pastoral ministry?
I wish I could say that most of my time caring for pastors is spent teaching them what to do and where to take a church over time, but it’s not. Sadly, my time is mostly spent trying to get pastors to stay longer than a couple of years; trying to help pastors weather the…
I wish I could say that most of my time caring for pastors is spent teaching them what to do and where to take a church over time, but it’s not. Sadly, my time is mostly spent trying to get pastors to stay longer than a couple of years; trying to help pastors weather the difficult people, the criticisms, and the unmet expectations that lead to disappointment, even despair. Much of my effort is trying to keep a pastor’s family from crumbling in the chaos of church life.
There is a harsh reality in this fallen world that many of the labors of a pastor are incredibly hard, painful, and despairing. This is one reason why Charles Spurgeon instructed his ministerial students to go do something else if they could be happy doing it. Pastors need to know how to survive, but before I explain how a pastor prepares to survive in the work of the ministry, I want to address an unhelpful and unbiblical approach to survival in pastoral ministry.
The “easier road”
Some seek ministry survival by finding what appears to be the easiest, healthiest church they can find to pastor. Some even use this “easier road” as a reason to plant a church, thinking if they get to set the church up just like they want it from the beginning, they won’t face many of the struggles of regular pastors.
This is not a realistic understanding of pastoral ministry for several reasons. First, it is very unlikely a young man straight out of seminary will get that healthy church, even if it becomes available. Second, most pastors find that “easier church” is still full of broken sinners and no pastoral ministry post is easy.
An easier church post is not a good, nor biblical strategy for survival in pastoral ministry. The key to survival in pastoral ministry is a pastor’s diligent care for his own soul.
Struggle for identity
Many of the discouragements that come in a pastor’s ministry are about him, not his church.
God calls pastors not to be superman, but to be faithful. As pastors seek to be faithful every day in their ministries, God’s sovereign will is being accomplished. Why is that not enough? Because a pastor brings with him to his church his own brokenness, personal struggles, and unhealed scars deep in his soul where God’s grace in the gospel has yet to affect. Pastors struggle to find their true and full identity in Christ and when pastors fail to show up secure in Christ, they show up in these false ways:
These false ways of living expose the fact that a pastor is seeking the fulfillment that only Christ can provide and seeking it from the affirmation of others, his ministry successes, or self-imposed expectations. A powerful gospel-freeing truth for pastors who serve in difficult churches is that many discouragements come ultimately not from our church situation, but from crushing expectations we place on ourselves, people we fear and think we are responsible to change, and anxiety about how other “more successful pastors” might evaluate our ministries.
All this is about the pastor and his own soul—not the church. The turmoil that exists in every pastor’s soul to some degree gets activated when the struggles of ministry come. Awareness of this needed soul work in every pastor is the answer to survival in the most difficult church scenario.
Your true identity: In Christ alone
The gospel tells us our identity is in Christ. The Chief Shepherd reminds us our task is to shepherd his people until he returns for us (1 Pet. 5:4). When we as pastors realize that our worth and identity is found in Jesus, we are freed and secure to be who we are, live authentically, embrace our brokenness, emotionally connect, be gracious, love those who reject us, preach to those who hate our preaching, and lead in godly strength those who struggle to follow, knowing the Chief Shepherd is with us.
Pastors have Jesus’s approval, favor, and presence. What more do we need to survive? This is the key to survival in any church, but especially a particularly difficult one. A pastor’s diligent care of his own soul and awareness of this needed internal work will be the key not to just survive, but thriving under the sovereign hand of the Chief Shepherd, regardless the church he serves.
Brian Croft serves as senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville. He is also senior fellow for the Mathena Center for Church Revitalization at Southern Seminary. A veteran pastor and author of numerous books on practical aspects of pastoral ministry, Brian oversees Practical Shepherding, a gospel-driven resource center for pastors and church leaders to equip them in the practical matters of pastoral ministry.