There are so many joys in serving in pastoral ministry. There are so many holy moments. We are invited into some of the most spiritual and deep moments in peoples' lives. What an awesome joy it is to be called upon to share the uplifting grace of God!
However, with the joys and holy opportunities can also come real challenges, struggles and even pain. We as clergy, for the sake of the gospel and our ministry, make ourselves very vulnerable. The great moments we know in ministry can also be clouded with the realities of being broken ourselves with a calling to walk alongside and to help broken people like us in a journey of faith.
To this regard, it's sometimes helpful to name the challenges we face and share in together. Beyond the joys, let's own that together we have plenty to wrestle with as well. Let's consider a few of the lightly spoken, and sometimes hidden, truths of pastoral ministry.
Truth 1: Pastors have many critics and are often criticized.
Pastors can be lightning rods for criticism. It's not hard to imagine why this is, but even now many new clergy still find it shocking how much criticism pastors today endure. Many of us began our ministry thinking we would simply embody the gospel, proclaim grace and be well received in every opportunity.; such that our words would flow like a gentle stream and lives would be touched by God's presence through our work in our ministry.
While this at times may be true, our work in ministry calls us to walk with real people with real struggles. Heck, we're real people too. We often have a few challenges on our own plates. But with real people comes a diversity of thinking, multiple perspectives, unique interpretations and hidden agendas. Preaching and teaching the gospel can also put us into the cross hairs of offending people and their preconceived notions.
Most of us have been roundly criticized on multiple occasions. Sometimes by many people and even in opposite directions. It can be very difficult to not take criticism personally...especially if what we receive is personally critical. Criticism can be a positive thing when constructive, yet all too often the criticism we receive is negative, framed personally and filled with anger and frustration.
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I've found, and many have also shared this with me, that those in our church bodies who are the least constructively critical are also people who cannot take criticism of any kind themselves. They love to dish it out, but they absolutely cannot take it. This can make us defensive and limits any sense of conversation or reconciliation in face of criticism or disagreement.
As clergy, our best tool in the face of criticism is an open mind built on a sense of call. We do not work for our parishioners, we work for God. If criticism is constructive and can help guide us in ministry, then it, in a way, is a gift. If, however, criticism is heavy and personal and not constructive, we might do well to consider the bigger picture. Sometimes in life we need a larger perspective on our work in ministry, or we might be tempted to let any rasp criticism suggest a limited or diminished value to our work in ministry in any given time or place. We cannot please our congregants all the time, nor should we. We answer to God. Serving him well should put us into moments of conflict in a broken world.
Truth 2: It's okay to relax and take intentional time apart from our work as clergy
Very few professions hold as an expectation that one serving in that profession would be permanently "on call." While understandings of schedules and days off and vacation and such can vary across different churches and church bodies, there is a presumption that a pastor is always on call in times of emergency, including at all times of the day and night and across weekends and even when away on church trips or vacation.
While we may be regularly "on call" we are not however at our best if we understand on call as always working. There are many clergy among us who work far too many hours with far too little rest and personal Sabbath time. We can incidentally become prisoners to our churches or congregations and we must be careful that we don't over-assume our importance or take on more than we can handle. We minister among ministers. All the people of God are empowered in ministry. We hold a special role in leadership in ministry, but the ministry of our churches is far bigger than any one of us.
It is rare in our churches that many of our parishioners will step in and remind us make sure we're taking enough time to relax and be intentional in taking time apart from our work as clergy. It falls into our hands to be Sabbath keepers, and it is very appropriate we manage this endeavor well.
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Burnout is real and it's common and all of us are susceptible. We cannot be at our best without ample rest and we need intentional time apart to refocus our efforts in ministry and for our many great joys in life: including our family and friends, our hobbies, volunteering, our passions and even just to really rest.
The trouble for many of us is we just struggle to let go and really step back. We remain a little too close to our work. This said, perhaps think about it this way: A surgeon has the ability to save lives. In them resides the knowledge and the practice to operate on those in need and be God's healing hands. If a surgeon has this great ability, shouldn't they ever stop working so as to continuously use their gifts to help? It's tempting to think that maybe they should, but ask yourself this: "Would you want to be operated upon by a surgeon after she had operated tirelessly for too long without ample rest?" We are not surgeons, but we cannot be at our best without intentional rest and time apart.
Can any of us think of anyone we've ever known, who on their deathbed turned to us and said, "My greatest regret in life is that I didn't work enough?" Our work is rewarding, but it cannot stay that way if we don't intentionally rest and refresh regularly and intentionally.
Truth 3: Ministry can be lonely
Churches have many parishioners, but often only one or two pastors. The life of a pastor can be a lonely endeavor. We are called upon to set our own schedules and to meet high expectations, but through it all our work can seem so isolating. We may even get to talk and interact with many people, but our work can make it hard to have meaningful and deep relationships with others. Because of confidentiality and the unique work we do, our profession can even make it difficult to be with ones of whom we feel the closest. When we're asked about how our day went, there are often elements of our day we cannot share. When asked other innocent seeming questions, we may not be able to respond or even acknowledge what is asked. This can leave us feeling or appearing cold or rude or disinterested. In truth, living with this constant reality can leave us feeling lonesome, even in the presence of others. Sometimes too, in the face of conflict in our churches and faith communities, our hidden desire is to want to just hide. Many pastors have felt the urge to seek the comfort and safety of their offices in an attempt to avoid the outside world and the conflict ongoing around them.
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Pastors must be proactive in seeking close relationships with others while being open and upfront about acknowledging boundaries. We must acknowledge that conflict is ever present around us and best dealt with directly and forthrightly. We must seek community with fellow clergy and church leaders. Just as we are a part of our parishioners support network, we need a support network of our own. While many aspects of ministry can leave us feeling lonely, we are at our best when we are proactive in building safe, appropriate and deep relationships in ways permissible within our work.
Among these hidden truths...
Among these hidden truths is one big truism. We pastors are human.
We have a beautiful calling, but with it comes real and difficult challenges. We are not super-human, yet indeed we are valued and capable; being made so by our loving God. To own these hidden truths of our work is to know that our struggles are not unique to only ourselves, but are common among our colleagues and many who do similar work in leadership and outreach. We walk daily in the midst of our vulnerabilities, but do so with a heartfelt calling, being led by the Spirit and empowered by the gospel.
To embrace these truths is to better empower ourselves in ministry and to see our work in the greater purpose of the gospel. Fellow pastors, know you are not alone in the joys and in the struggles of ministry. God's peace be with you and know that through it all you are meaningfully uplifting the kingdom of God!
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About the Author
Hi, I'm Pastor Andrew, an ELCA pastor with a love for sharing empowering personal stewardship for fellow church leaders. I enjoy researching the financial wisdom of the scriptures and of fellow church leaders and I hope to share my findings in a way to help clergy of all types!