It doesn’t seem like I’ve been a pastor as long as I have. Fifteen years means my pastoral ministry is still a teenager. But I think I’ve been through enough at this point to have a few reasonable thoughts about the endeavor.
I’ve been teaching Homiletics for 7-8 years for Greyfriars Hall, the ministerial training program of Christ Church, where I received my foundational pastoral training. Although I should hasten to add that the foundation for that foundational training was growing up in a pastor’s home where I saw firsthand what faithful pastoral ministry looks like from the inside. More on that below.
Every year I give the same lecture for the first class, and it’s titled something like: Why you probably shouldn’t be a pastor. I tell the men that I consider it my job to try to get them to quit for the right reasons, or failing that to stay in the program for the right reasons. In Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon quotes an old divine answering the question of one who sought his counsel: “Do not enter the ministry if you can help it.” Spurgeon continues, “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 on the other hand, you can say that for all the wealth of both the Indies you could not and dare not espouse any other calling so as to be put aside from the preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, depend upon it, if other things be equally satisfactory, you have the signs of this apostleship.” I took this to heart when I first read it probably 20 years ago, and I figured that settled it. I was a happy teacher at the time and could imagine a number of things that I could do. But the Lord slowly closed those other doors, and there I was staring ministry in the face.
Brothers, We Are Not Pansies
I don’t recall everything Spurgeon said about it, but the thing that comes to my mind is simply that pastoral ministry is hard work. Nobody enlists in the military thinking it will be easy, but far too many men head off to seminary for all the wrong reasons. And unfortunately many seminaries are factories of emasculation. While the military is quickly being emasculated as well, it has been one of the longest hold outs because frankly in war, things get real. But we have so softened pastoral ministry, turning it into a relational, coffee date with some administrative duties that no wonder everyone wonders why a woman can’t do that. In point of fact, given the kind of ministry expected by most churches and seminaries, women would be far better at it than men. But pastoral ministry is immortal combat. We are warring for souls; we are waging war against the powers of Hell. Our job as preachers is to taunt sin, death, and Hell, in the name of Jesus and do daily rescue missions down into the heart of demonic strongholds, bringing out the captives through the blood of Christ. The plan is to get shot at, and if you’re not getting shot at, you probably went the wrong way.
A seminary education should be a lot more like boot camp than it typically is because in pastoral ministry things also get real. If I had my druthers, I don’t think a man should graduate seminary or be ordained without at least 30 hours of open air preaching and another 30 doing one-on-one evangelism and apologetics. I’m not sure we should ordain a man who hasn’t been cussed out, flipped off, or had his life threatened. I would also recommend that his presbytery enquire into whether he has any enemies at all, what are their names, and diligently confirm that they are enemies for the sake of the gospel (not because he’s a jerk), and that the man in question has been diligently loving them in the truth.
Far too many Christians are disobedient to the command of Christ to love their enemies, and they are disobedient because they have curated their lives into pristine non-combatant grooves that ensure no conflict, no collision, and therefore no enemies. But Jesus says, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:26). And how can a captain lead his troops into battle if he has resolutely refused to step foot into the fray? How can you love your enemies if you don’t have any? How can you love your enemies if you have not allowed the gospel to collide with anyone anywhere at any time in order to make any enemies to actually love?
Real Ministerial Combat
You will have a far happier life doing something other than preaching if you are not called. On the other hand, if you have been called, I seriously doubt that you can be happy doing anything else. But it should be firmly fixed in our minds what we are aiming at: “We are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things…” (1 Cor. 4:13) Can you handle that? Are you expecting that? You will be hated. You will be despised. You will be misunderstood. You will be treated like crap. Your name will be a curse in the mouths of the enemies of God. Can your wife handle that? Can you bear family and friends turning against you? Do not become a preacher if you cannot bear the thought of losing everything. “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Mt. 10:16). The only good preachers do not count their own lives dear to themselves (Acts 20:24).
The North American church is in such shambles because we are led by so many shepherds who are in the ministry for all the wrong reasons. Maybe they’d make decent Christian school teachers, but they are not cut out for the ministry. They did not sign up for the ministry to lose their lives. They signed up for conferences, reading books, and maybe feeling helpful and encouraging to people in their Christian walks. But you could have done all of that as an academic or maybe even as plumber if you scheduled it right.
But it’s not just endurance, we’re talking about, it’s a deep profound joy in the struggle and turmoil of ministry: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Mt. 5:11-12). When the bullets start flying, do you freak out, do you break down, or do you grin? When your name is smeared in the paper, do you think, now we’re finally engaging the enemy, or do you think something has gone terribly wrong? Jesus says you are blessed when they revile you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for His sake. Rejoice and be even happier than usual. Are you up for that? Are you practicing that right now?
“And when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:40-42). We could barely get churches to open in 2020. And apart from a few courageous Canadian pastors, most were cowards. But the apostles endured an unjust rebuke and beating, and they immediately left the courtroom rejoicing. They didn’t leave thinking that maybe this whole gospel thing was wrong. They didn’t leave talking about different strategies for reaching Jerusalem that might be more winsome. They left rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And then the real kicker is that Luke says that every day in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that Jesus is the Christ. They did not cease. They did not stop. They redoubled their efforts in the temple where there were arrested and house to house. They found the hot spot in the battle, and they threw themselves into it joyfully.
There has always been a temptation to ministry that was based on job security, earthly fame, selfish ambition, climate-controlled indoor offices, respectability, and the like. There were four hundred prophets in Ahab’s court– where there was plenty of food, respectability, a conference circuit, and I’m sure plenty of well-meaning Hebrew word studies and outreach programs and sophisticated social commentary. And there were four hundred prophets in Ahab’s court who lied their heads off, telling him to go up to battle and he would no doubt prevail. There was only one that dared to tell him the truth (1 Kgs. 22, 2 Chron. 18). And he was thrown into prison for it. John the Baptist was beheaded. Paul fought with lions. This should be the plan for every minister. The plan is to lose our life for Christ. The plan is to spend it and our reputations and earthly comforts dearly. Jesus built His church at the gates of Hell, so that it would be hard to miss the target.
A Word About Pastoral Burnout
So this is the plan. The plan is to charge the gates of Hell, to spend our lives for Christ, but there’s not a month that goes by that I don’t see posts and articles and comments from pastors about how hard their job is, articles about pastoral burnout, and the like. And let me say clearly: just like faithful soldiers in the field, pastors do need Sabbath, seasons of recovery, and sometimes God clearly indicates that your tour of service is over. So none of what follows contradicts that. But far too often “pastoral burnout” is code for pastoral cowardice and laziness. Far too often “pastoral burnout” is a siren song to get men to doubt, fear, and turn back from the fray. Of course, if you aren’t called, if you got into ministry because you thought it was like youth ministry with more perks, then by all means, please resign now and get a job at an amusement park.
But God made men strong. The glory of men is their strength. This is why Paul even urged the entire Corinthian church to “be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). All men are called to be strong for their families, in their work, and in the faith. God created men to be strong so that they would be able to endure more, and this is why the Bible calls the woman the “weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7). This is why men must go first into danger, and they must go last when danger is being fled. This is why men go down with the ship if there are not enough lifeboats. This is why men stand between their women and children and every danger.
This is why Adam was created first, so that he might be cut open for the first woman to be created. This is why Jesus was a man, who came and died for His bride the church. The glory of men is their strength, and this strength is for sacrificial leadership. This strength is for suffering, enduring, fighting, defending, protecting, creating, inventing, and overcoming in obedience to Christ. We were made to stand firm in the truth, in what is right, and to stand there smiling until God delivers us from that situation or until He raises us from the dead at the end.
This is why God made Ezekiel’s forehead harder than adamant and flint (Ez. 3:8-9). He was sent to a hard-hearted and hard-headed people, and God made his head harder than theirs. This is what it takes to be a pastor. A pastor must have a soft heart for his flock but a hard about sin, death, and the Devil. A pastor must be a man of war. A pastor must be a man because the plan is to die. A pastor must be a man because the plan is to stand firm, to be shot, to be cut, to be beaten, and to die, and do it all with a smile on his face, do it all with deep joy in his heart. All of God’s people must imitate that strength and joy, but the minister is called to lead in it, be an example of it, to show them how.
I think this is honestly one of the greatest gifts my Dad gave me as a pastor. Growing up in my Dad’s house, the thing that I look back on with such gratitude is how stable, how calm, and how joyful a place it was to be. I was certainly a handful in my days there, and no doubt there were many challenging pastoral situations, many bumps and bruises, many controversies and disagreements and difficulties, but my Dad took them all in stride. I’m sure there were times where he didn’t feel like he was taking them in stride, but I can testify that he did. By God’s grace, he didn’t flake, he didn’t freak out, he didn’t melt down, he didn’t burnout. He has been faithful, day after day, to my mom, to my siblings, to His Master, to the ministry, and he still exudes deep and profound joy.
This is what it takes, by the grace of God, and it really is all grace. But this is not a soft and flimsy grace. This is a sturdy grace, a fierce grace, a bleeding grace. And when you are called to the ministry, it is the kind of thing that makes you a better man, a better husband, a better father. And if it isn’t that, to Hell with it. Better to be a bus driver or a janitor to the glory of God and be the man your wife needs, the man your children need, because that is the man Jesus wants you to be, the kind of man who will actually be far more potent in the Kingdom. The number of pastor-kids and missionary-kids sacrificed on the altar of so-called ministry is one of the single greatest shames that can be brought upon the name of Christ and one of the greatest testimonies against the truth of Christ. If you can’t raise your own children in the Lord, if your wife is not well-loved and thriving, why would anyone trust you with the flock of God?
We live in particularly gnarly times, which ought to tell you that God is drawing up the battle lines more clearly, and the reason for that is so that we can continue to fight the good fight of faith and His Kingdom will advance. The plan is for the gospel to collide with unbelief. The plan is for God’s grace to infiltrate the darkest strongholds. And when they shriek and scream and write slanderous accusations against us or fine us or imprison us or beat us or kill us, it must be firmly fixed in our hearts and minds: this is all going according to plan. This is the plan. This is how the Kingdom advances. We stand firm. We announce the Word of God. We are attacked. We rejoice. And we keep it up until the whole world is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, until the Great Commission is accomplished, and all the nations have been discipled and are bringing their glories into the Kingdom. So come on, men, we have work to do.