(Photo: Paul Tripp)
Why do so many pastors report being over-burdened and over-stressed? Why do so many pastors report tension between family life and ministry life? Why does pastoral ministry often seem like more of a trial than a joy? Why is there often disharmony between the private life of the pastor and his public ministry persona? Why are there often dysfunctional relationships between the pastor and his ministry leaders or staff? Why is the ministry life of many pastors shockingly short?
Perhaps we have forgotten that pastoral ministry is war and that you will never live successfully in the pastorate if you live with a peacetime mentality. Permit me to explain. The fundamental battle of pastoral ministry is not the battle with the shifting values of the surrounding culture. It is not the struggle with resistant people who don't seem to esteem the gospel. It is not the fight for the success of the ministries of the church. And it is not the constant struggle of resources and personnel to accomplish the mission. No, the war of the pastorate is a deeply personal war. It is fought on the ground of the pastor's heart. It is a war of values, allegiances, and motivations. It is about subtle desires and foundational dreams. This war is the greatest threat to every pastor. Yet it is a war that we often naively ignore or quickly forget in the busyness of local church ministry.
Kingdom of Self and Kingdom of God
First, pastoral ministry is always shaped by a war between the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God. The reason this war is so dangerous and deceptive is that you build both kingdoms in ministry by doing ministry! Perhaps some theological background would be helpful here. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:15 that Jesus came so that those who live would no longer "live for themselves." Paul is arguing something significant here, something that every pastor should remember. He is arguing that the DNA of sin is selfishness. Sin inserts me into the middle of my universe; the one place reserved for God and God alone. Sin reduces my field of concern down to my wants, my needs, and my feelings. Sin really does make it all about me.
Because the inertia of sin leads away from God's purpose and glory toward my purpose and glory, as long as sin is inside of me there will be temptation in ministry to exchange God's glory for my own. In ways that are subtle and not so subtle, I begin to pursue the accoutrements of human glory. Things like appreciation, reputation, success, power, comfort, and control become all too important. Because they are too important to me, they begin to shape the way I think about ministry, the things I want out of my ministry, and the things I do in ministry. Remember, a pastor's ministry is not just shaped by his knowledge, gifts, skill, and experience, but also by the condition of his heart. Could it be that much of the tension and despondency that pastors experience in ministry is the result of seeking to get things out of ministry that we should not be seeking?
War for the Gospel
This leads us to a second battleground in the war that is pastoral ministry. The war for the gospel. Not only should we actively battle for the gospel as the fundamental paradigm for every ministry of the church, but we must also fight for the gospel to be the resting place of our hearts as pastors. Pastor, no one is more influential in your life than you are because no one else talks to you more. The things you say to yourself about God, you, ministry, and others are profoundly important, shaping your participation in and experience of ministry. My experience with hundreds of pastors is that many pastors sadly function in a regular state of gospel amnesia. They forget to preach privately to themselves the gospel that they declare publicly to others.
When you forget the gospel, you begin to seek from the situations, locations, and relationships of ministry what you have already been given in Christ. You begin to look to ministry for identity, security, hope, well-being, meaning, and purpose. These are things you will only ever find vertically. They are already yours in Christ. So you have to fight to give the gospel presence in your heart. Also, when you live out of the grace of the gospel, you quit fearing failure, you quit avoiding being known, and you quit hiding your struggles and your sin. The gospel declares that there is nothing that could ever be uncovered about you and me that hasn't already been covered by the grace of Jesus. The gospel is the only thing that can free a pastor from the guilt, shame, and drivenness of the hide ("never let your weakness show") and seek (asking ministry to do what Christ has already done) lifestyle that makes ministry burdensome to so many pastors.
So, in the war of pastoral ministry, are you a good soldier? Remember that the Holy Spirit lives inside of you, and he battles on your behalf even when you don't have the sense to. Remember too that in Christ you have already been given everything you need to be what you're supposed to be and to do what you're supposed to do in the place where God has positioned you. And remember that since Emmanuel is with you it is impossible to ever be alone in the moment-by-moment war that is pastoral ministry.