I am a Pastor. For four decades people have allowed me to love them, to lead them, to live life alongside of them in every situation, to share the Scripture with them. It is hard to imagine a better life than I enjoy, being a friend to many, enjoying hundreds of relationships through the years that enrich me.
In October many churches observe “Pastor Appreciation” Sunday. It always makes me uncomfortable to be praised for simply doing my job, to be publicly ‘appreciated’ for just responding to the Spirit’s call. In writing today, I am not fishing for compliments, nor I am registering a ‘poor pastors’ complaint! I’d like to try to let you see my heart and to understand my calling.
People greatly misunderstand the person of the pastor much of the time. One of the aims of my ministry is to be ‘authentic,’ not projecting an image. This can be difficult for those who apparently believe that with ordination (taking vows for service to the Church) the sinful nature disappears, who prefer the fantasy of a “perfect pastor.”
They are shocked when I become discouraged, when my temper flashes when pressed or fatigued, when I somehow fail to say ‘the right thing’ all of the time. Though you ‘know it’ I’ll say it for the record, I wake up to the same kind of day that you do, with the same kinds of mood swings, my faith sometimes weak- sometimes strong. My dad, a pastor as well, used to say, “I wish people understood I pull on my trousers one leg at a time just like they do.” It was his way of saying he was not super-human.
Some think that the work of the pastor begins and ends with the public preaching and teaching he does. In fact, when you hear a 30 minute sermon, you are seeing the result of hours of work and the overflow of a life. Depending on the person, preparation to preach for that time can take from 10 to 20 hours! “I saw my pastor just sitting in the office reading. Must be nice!” someone remarked. In order to preach well, the mind must be fed constantly. Then too, time in reflection and prayer is also critical to effective preaching to assure the inspiration of the Spirit. To me, the worse preaching is that which is dry, disconnected from real life, and without passion!
One of the most stressful parts of pastoral work involves the range of emotions required! In a single 24 hour period, it is not uncommon for me to rejoice with someone who has a new baby or a new job, to weep with someone who is walking through divorce, grief, or job loss, to advise a person who wants my perspective on a pending life change. In between, I have to think about how the Word (in my life) remains relevant to the world in which I live. I stand beside the bed of a person in a nursing home and ‘feel’ their loneliness. I text with a young adult and ‘feel’ the uncertainty. I refuse the ‘professional distance’ that could protect me from the stress because I love the flock God has entrusted to my care.
I will open my heart here. The most difficult part of ministry is experiencing loss of friends who leave the church, often without a word of explanation. Paul told the people he cared for that he was like a father to them. His words may seem prideful at first, but consider his heart. “For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me.” (1 Corinthians 4:15-16, NLT)
I feel that kind of love as well as responsibility for those that the Lord brings into our church, especially those who first find Jesus Christ as Savior under my care. It is heartbreaking to sense that a person is wavering in faith and not be allowed to talk about it. It is even more painful to experience a broken relationship, especially when it is because I fail (or seem to) the expectations of a Christian.
Visiting with 3 of my adult children this week, I was delighted to see their choices, to learn of their successes, to watch them parent, to understand how they live. In much the same way, when I watch someone grow in faith, becoming mature in Christ and fruitful in the Spirit, I feel tremendous joy. Yes, friend, though you may not always perceive it, my heart is that of a father, the love deep, the weight heavy at times.
Pastoral ministry is not a career choice and God help the person who enters it as such. It is a way of life, a calling. Jesus spoke of being the Good Shepherd and is the model of those who serve as His undershepherds. He compares the careerist with the called saying “A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.” (John 10:12-13, NLT) Sobering words, at least for me.
This month, whether you are a part of the church I lead or another, you may be asked to participate in “Pastor Appreciation.” Thank you for your love. The best gift is a daily prayer – “Lord, keep my pastor’s heart tender towards You. Renew the vision. Sharpen understanding. Give him (or her) love, patience, and joy in equal measure.”
Here is a word from the Word. “Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them? Pray for us. We have no doubts about what we’re doing or why, but it’s hard going and we need your prayers. All we care about is living well before God.” (Hebrews 13:17-18, The Message) Amen