Encouragement for Pastors
And a Much Needed Education for Our Church Members About What a Pastor Does
Mondays can be difficult days for pastors. My seminary did not hold classes on Mondays so that students and professors, who were filling pulpits on the Sabbath, would not have to travel on the Sabbath. The idea was (and remains) that they should use Mondays as a travel day so that can be ready for class on Tuesdays. For my part, as a student, most Mondays served as a time to catch up on reading, to finish a term paper, or to prepare for an exam. When I began serving as an assistant pastor, however, in 1987, I learned that Mondays for pastors are different than they are for most other folk. Properly, Sunday is the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. Amen! For most Christians, Sunday is meant to be the beginning of the new week, a day of rest and worship, a day of refreshment and fellowship. Ideally, the Lord’s Day begins to close when the Christian hears the minister pronounce the benediction at the close of the evening service. They continue the new week renewed with the law and the gospel ringing in their ears.
THE PASTOR’S EXPERIENCE
Nevertheless, in the experience of most pastors, the entire week builds to and culminates on Sunday. Monday is the day after. In that respect, pastoral ministry is like an American football game. American football games are played once a week. If it goes badly, the player must wait another week. On Mondays he has a tendency to re-hash Sunday. He is tempted to self-recrimination: “Why did I say that? Why did I not say the other? What did Mr. Smith mean when he said what he did?” If attendance is down he blames himself. If attendance is up, he tries not to take credit even as he feels relief. He struggles not to think of Sunday attendance as ratings.
The faithful pastor is like a general practice physician. He does not get to pick and chose the sorts of medicine he practices. He has to diagnose and seek to heal whatever presents itself to him. During the week, the faithful shepherd of the flock,
Prays for his flock, sometimes praying over the church directory name by name
Makes scheduled and emergency house calls, hospital calls, and nursing home calls
Holds counseling sessions (not to mention pre-marital counseling)
Attends a weekly 6:30 a.m. prayer meeting
Prepares for and conducts new members classes
Holds meetings with the elders and deacons
Prepares for and teaches Bible studies and catechism lessons
Prepares the liturgy and picks the Psalms (and worries that the bulletin is done)
Fields phone calls, text messages, and direct messages.
All this mainly has in view his ministry to the local congregation but a Reformed minister has obligations to the churches in his region (presbytery or classis) and even to the wider church (synod or general assembly). He might even serve on a presbytery or synodical committee. Certainly he has to attend classis (presbytery, the regional assembly of ministers and elders) twice a year and General Assembly (the national assembly of pastors and elders) annually. GA or Synod can take as much as a week and some take two. Presbytery usually requires a couple of days at least.
Then there is the telephone. Like the GP, the pastor’s life and schedule can be radically changed by a single phone call. What was supposed to be a few quiet hours in the study preparing for this week’s sermons can quickly become a run to the emergency room to meet a parishioner or preparation for an unexpected funeral and time spent with a grieving family. Unlike the GP, the pastor does not have a “service,” to take his calls after hours. He is the service. The telephone haunted the pastor before the advent of cell phones. One can hardly imagine how demanding the cell phone is today.
The faithful pastor’s most important job is one that his congregation hardly understands. First, after prayer, his primary responsibility is to prepare two sermons every week. The Sunday morning sermon is typically an exegetical sermon in which the shepherd has labored over the Hebrew or Greek text, worked through textual-critical questions, sought to put the passage in its broader redemptive-historical context, in its canonical context, in its narrower context, and in its immediate and historical and social context. A good pastor does not simply pluck a theme out of his head, find a text, and ride the text like a hobby horse. Time permitting, he might spend 10 to 20 hours on such a sermon. Some ministers spend even more. Then there is the second sermon, which in the tradition of the European Reformed Churches, requires a catechism sermon. This is a doctrinal or practical sermon, wherein the sermon is organized by a Reformed catechism and where the pastor might preach from a single text or from a collection of texts organized by a theme determined by the catechism question, which, in the case of the Heidelberg Catechism, is divided into 52 Lord’s Days for just this purpose. This sermon too has its demands. The pastor needs not only to address the biblical texts carefully (and in their contexts), but he has also to pay attention to the guidance the church has given through the catechism, confessions, and canons. He might need to spend some time reading church history, commentaries on the standards of the church, faithful (and less than faithful) systematic theologies, and articles so that he enters the pulpit intelligent about what is before him. Preparation for the second sermon might take 10 to 15 hours to prepare.
The pastor’s greatest enemies, of course, are sin, the flesh, and the devil. What most Christians probably do not appreciate is how intense the pastor’s spiritual warfare can be. My life can be divided in two: before I was ordained in in 1988 and after. It is difficult to describe the spiritual challenges of ministry without appearing to whine or complain but they are intense. Suffice it to say that the Evil One likes nothing more than to discredit the minister, the ministry, and thereby the gospel. Time is another enemy of the pastor. It is a zero-sum game. Whatever time he spends on an emergency phone call is time he cannot spend doing something else. What the faithful pastor would not do for a little more time to pray and prepare for a meeting or a sermon but the clock never stops and the preparation must end. Off he goes to do the best he can with the time he has.
For the laity, Sundays can be a challenge. It can be a real chore to get everyone to church on time but imagine doing what every family in the congregation must do (e.g., get the children fed and clothed properly, loaded into the van, and to church on time) and then being required to lead the worship service, preach, teach a catechism lesson, meet with the elders, make a home visit, rest, and then do it all again for the evening service, after which he meets with the young people. The pastor’s wife is part human, part angel. Without her, well, it just would not happen, would it?
The pastor has prayed over his people, he has prayed as he prepared his sermons, he has checked one more time to see that the bulletins are done and available, prayed with the elders before the service, and entered the pulpit with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He tries to set aside the counseling sessions (is Mrs. X really going to leave Mr. X?), his worries about the young people, who seem more interested in video games than in the faith, the tensions among the elders, and all the other concerns he has to focus his mind on the text, on Christ, and to try, for 30 minutes, to draw the attention and imagination of the congregation (from age 1 to 90), farmers, bankers, factory workers, of every ethnicity and experience, out of their concerns (e.g., “I think my husband does not love me any more” or “I think the transmission on the car is going out”) through the text, to Christ and his gospel.
As he conducts the worship service, the minister lays bare his soul in prayer. In the sermon, the faithful minister must leave behind all concern about what others think of him for the sake of the Christ whom he announces, the text he is expositing, the message he is proclaiming, and the congregation he is serving. Paul called the preaching of the gospel “foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23–24). After the sermon, the minister is, to be quite frank, emotionally raw and sometimes physically and emotionally spent and when he is most vulnerable is when he gets immediate and not always thoughtful feedback about the sermon. More than one pastor has wished for a trap door behind the pulpit to be used by the preacher after the service.
Preaching is not (or should not be) like a presentation at work. Those can be tense and difficult but I suppose that almost no powerpoint presentations require an employee to indict his co-workers for their sins, to exposit and apply an ancient text for 30 minutes, and to announce that salvation is freely given only through Jesus Christ. Anyone who did that at work would find themselves being escorted from the building with their belongings in a cardboard box.
GOOD NEWS FOR THE PASTOR
Dear Pastor, we, your congregation, do not really understand all that you went through this week, but we are grateful that you answered the call, that you sought faithfully to fulfill your call by praying for us and with us, by working through the text, by dropping everything and coming to the house when Mrs. Jones died suddenly, by taking the phone call from the teenager estranged from her parents, and for doing all the other things you did for us this week. Despite all the obstacles, you preached the law and the gospel. You died to self and sought to live to Christ for us, and we are grateful.
Now we have good news for you: Jesus loves you pastor. He came to be your substitute too. He was raised for your justification. He is praying for you right now and no matter how great a failure you might think you are right now, Jesus is for you.
Beyond that, your work is not futile. The Holy Spirit is using the foolishness of the gospel to do his mighty work of bringing the elect to new life and true faith. Even as you struggled to make a point in the sermon, the Holy Spirit was operating in the hearts of your people. He was applying the law and the gospel. The Word of God does not return to him empty. Despite however you may feel today, despite the attendance to the services yesterday, Jesus is still your chief Shepherd and the Holy Spirit is still secretly, powerfully working through the Word.
Get some rest. Get away from the computer and the phone. Ask a ruling elder to take your calls. Go fishing, get in a boat, do something constructive where you can see some tangible progress. The phone and email will be there tomorrow. The ministry and the needs of the congregation will be there when you get back. You encouraged us to rest in Christ and now, dear brother, we are encouraging you to do the same.
[For more articles like this, see not only our archives, but also Dr. Clark’s extensive writings at the Heidelblog.]