A Pastor’s Take on Pastoral Ministry

Milddletown Springs Vermont pastor Jared Wilson (@jaredcwilson) tweeted earlier today: “‘There every time you need him’ is not your pastor’s job description; it’s your Lord’s.” This sparked some great comments and deep thinking from a few folks, and I want to think out loud on the issue here, if you’ll indulge me.

Many churches view their pastor as an employeee (we are employees in a basic sense, yes). Hired to lead, but hired nevertheless. As an employee, the pastor is there to render a service to the church. Part of his/her job is to be prepared to answer a call to “be there”. I sympathize with Jared’s sentiments that we (pastors) are not truly called to be a an on call friend. Yes, when crisis comes, christians need to know their pastor is there to support and love them. And yes, part of the pastor’s job is to be a friendly presence to the members of the congregation. But how many pastors are being abused by a barrage of calls to deal with every single issue that arises, and is expected to carry sole responsibility (or at least the vast majority of the responsibility) for “non crisis” visitations? Crisis is a whole other issue, but even there (or perhaps moreso there) the pastor shouldn’t be alone in that ministry.

Biblically, congregations are called to have elders, who come to the sick and distressed (see for example James 5:14). Elders are also commissioned to share in teaching and preaching (1 Timothy 5:17; how many pastors get to hear a sermon done by one of the lay leaders?). Pastoral ministry includes these things as well (i.e. the pastor is also an elder in the church he is called to lead, and the elders are also called to do pastoral ministry tasks). But the pastor’s call is to be facilitator, I believe. The title means a shepherd. The pastor is to gently guide the church in which he/she serves. This means that what separates Pastoral ministry from elder ministry is not the number of hours in ministry, or title or the paycheque. The key difference is that the pastor guides, facilitates and protects the congregation. He pushes them where they might not otherwise go. He shows the way. He encourages. He identifies need, and giftedness. He sets the bar and the example. He helps bring out the best in the people of God. Elders are typically reactive (i.e. responding to a pastoral care need) in ministry, whereas the pastor is also called to be proactive. (i.e. “big picture” stuff, preparing, and visioning).

Sadly, too many churches suffer from a lack of training or understanding of pastoral care. For too long the pastor carried the image of “minister”; the guy essentially sub-contracted to do the work of the church. So the pastor is expected to preach 54 sermons a year (every Sunday, plus Good Friday and Christmas Eve), ensure all the members get regular visits, lead mid-week bible study, lead outreach ministries, evangelize the unreached in the community, counsel couples whose marriages are struggling, disciple the young people, teach adult Sunday School classes, etc. etc. Ok, in many churches, people pick up many of these tasks. Here at Centre Street we have volunteers leading adult Sunday School, and typically the Wednesday Evening Bible Study is volunteer led. We have a small but committed group who do regular trips to the nursing homes to visit elderly members. We have 2 pastors to cover preaching. Pastor Dorman takes the majority of the “crisis” visits for our members, and the bulk of the counselling. I take the outreach ministries & community service stuff, and yet still we both have full plates. How any single pastor did it all is beyond me. I typically go beyond a 40 hour work week, as do most pastors and youth pastors I know. Even when the pastor is “off the clock” the mental and spiritual stress doesn’t end. We take our work home with us. Our “job” is not a task or set of duties, but a people and a calling and an identity. It goes with us wherever we go. The stress of being “on call”, even if at home with my family is something most people who have a regular work schedule need to understand.

Why are so many churches struggling to bring about “fruitfulness” in ministry? I think it flows from this very issue. The pastor spends about 10 hours on a sermon, 3-4 hours on bible study, spends two afternoons visiting in the hospital and nursing homes, plus any prep. for Sunday School, plus doing administrative tasks, plus reporting to boards/committees, plus any community group support… when all this is done, then he can think about long term planning strategies and starting up new ministries.

Pastors typically don’t sign up for this blindly. We know going in that the demands are high. We know our families will be dumped on. We and our families all know the fear of the 2am phone call (my wife is a pastor’s kid, so she knows all too well what it means when the phone rings at weird times). When I began the process of training for this, my mother, a God-fearing Saint asked “why would anyone want to do that?”. She had watched her beloved friend, a pastor, have the joy and energy drained by the demands of a job where you’re never truly “off the clock”; where 50-60 hours is “normal”- if there’s a crisis or two you’re family may not see you at all that week.

Western Churches still have this mentality of clergy run ministry. The pastor “does” ministry. But the title pastor comes from the shepherding image. The shepherd doesn’t do everything on the sheep’s behalf, but guides the sheep, makes sure they are safe and “on course”. Churches cannot sub-contract or outsource mission and ministry. Far too many pastors are jaded, weary, tired, “burned out”,  and/or cynical. Just a week ago, I sat in a room with more than a dozen pastors from around St. Thomas, most of whom are feeling clobbered, exhausted and over-stretched. Their love for their people, and commitment to see the work of the Kingdom come to fruition has led to them carry far too much of the burden.

One pastor at this meeting posed the question, what if you’re on vacation and someone dies- do you come home? Not an easy question to answer for a pastor. Our hearts want to jump into action, and be there for our people. But should the pastor be expected to come home? What if the pastor is vacationing far away? My wife and I have only ever vacationed in the Martimes. That’s a 15 hours+ drive home. How many congregants would expect the pastor and his/her family to end their vacation early? Or what if we trusted the elders of the congregation enough to call on them when grief hits? Why should the pastor be the only person trusted enough?

If those called to guide the flock are in this kind of a hole, what hope is there for the church? What if the pastor felt confident the whole congregation had his/her back? Like (s)he wasn’t being evaluated, or that his/her job didn’t depend on the perception of the congregation whether or not (s)he was doing enough? Or like (s)he was there as God’s called leader and not the guy the search committee nominated and the church hired? It’s toxic for the pastor and the congregation, to heap the responsibility of the spiritual vitality of each person on one set of shoulders… even on two sets of shoulders. We are all called to bear each other’s burdens.

Churches are earning a reputation for abusing their employees. Should the pastor be someone to be trusted as a faithful presence in the church? Of course. Is the pastor called to be there “whenever”? No. The pastor is a person too. A parent, spouse, child, friend, sibling, etc. to people beyond the congregation. The pastor, as a human being and fellow Christian is entitled and called to be a person of Sabbath and shalom. The pastor is only effective when rested, when prepared, when not trying to meet the expectation, but responding to the voice of the Saviour.

The pastor should be trusted enough to form his/her ministry under God, and not under scrutiny of boards and committees (yes, we still need accountability, but all to often the ministry is informed by avoiding criticism not by Holy vision). So, when a member needs someone or something, is the pastor the only name that should come to mind? No. If everyone assumes the pastor is the one responsible, there’s a serious problem.

Dorman and I am fortunate to have a supporting cast here at Centre Street; Holy Saints blessed with a calling and gifting; people who go without being asked; people who think out loud about ministry ideas; people who pray for their pastors and check on them regularly; people who pray for our wives and children; people who open their homes and share a meal; even a couple of folks who have pitched in with a sermon. But there is still a lingering element in all congregations that still see their pastor as the one who ministers on the church’s behalf; an employee with a set of duties, one of which is to “be there” whenever.

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3 Responses to A Pastor’s Take on Pastoral Ministry

  1. Lay Pastor Chris Stire says:

    Well put Pastor Graham, and I for one am here to support you both 24/7

  2. calvinwilson1956@yahoo.com says:

    my Pastor do not never go to the nursing home or the hospital and really he do not care about people that older then37 is he reallt a man of God

  3. Calvin, I’d be concerned with a Pastor who doesn’t participate in visiting hospitals and nursing homes… but perhaps his focus is elsewhere, and maybe he has trained and equipped other Saints for the visitation work. I don’t want to jump to conclusions without knowing him or observing his ministry.

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