Being a pastor is hard.
Many churchgoers may not realize this because they tend to see us at our best. After all, our job is to encourage others, love them and give them hope. But our jobs are not always easy.
Recently, a reporter emailed me to ask for my thoughts on the intense stresses that clergy in America face. I told him, “People may think pastors simply preach sermons, do an occasional wedding and have a relatively easy life. That is simply not true. In reality, we often find ourselves dealing with some of the hardest situations imaginable: like trying to help save a marriage that’s on life support, attempting to give hope to a young person who is addicted to drugs or offering comfort to a family that just lost a child. Perhaps the hardest part is people find it easy to critique us each step of the way as well.”
Then I added, “Pastors are people, just like everyone else. We are broken people who live in a broken world. Sometimes, we need help too.”
These last few sentences were later quoted in an article that has gotten a lot of attention.
I know I am not alone in feeling this way.
The reporter also interviewed another pastor who said, quite frankly, “Had I known the ugly side of ministry – the hospital visits, burying the dead, being in the room when someone is dying and trying to comfort their family... Had I known all that, I don’t think I would have accepted being a pastor.”
I understand how this pastor feels, because I have been in his shoes many times and have struggled with the same feelings. Yet my experiences have driven me to draw a different conclusion: I have found that the hardest times in ministry — the points when I have felt like giving up — have confirmed my calling as a pastor. It’s in these moments I have experienced the most profound expressions of God’s love and grace.
I have been a pastor for almost 50 years, and I consider it a great honor.
Yes, I have been with parents when they heard the news that their loved one died.
Yes, I have presided at the funerals of, sadly, many children.
Yes, I have spoken to people on their deathbeds.
But I don’t consider that the “ugly” side of ministry — it is actually a great privilege. Because I, too, have been on the other end and needed a pastor’s comfort.
When my son Christopher died in an automobile accident in 2008, I was not the pastor called in for support. I was the person in need of a pastor.
My pastor was Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa. He helped me when I was at my lowest. I still remember his words to me as I struggled with the question, “Why did my son die?”
He said, “Never trade what you do know for what you don’t know.”
What a powerful statement.
I know that God loves me.
I know that my son went to Heaven, not because he was my son but because he had put his faith in God’s son, Jesus Christ.
And I know, because we are believers, that we will be reunited again in Heaven.
I knew these things. I had said them to others, but I needed to hear them myself. The Bible says, “We comfort with the comfort that we have been comforted with” (2 Cor. 1:4).
I realize some clergy are overwhelmed and discouraged with all of the demands that are placed on them. We are often misunderstood and criticized. The criticism often can be ruthless.
But when I think of how God has allowed me to help people in their darkest valleys of life — just as I was helped in mine — I’m encouraged and reminded that our work is worth it.
As an evangelist, I have the privilege of speaking in stadiums with thousands of people listening, calling them to believe in Jesus Christ. But my greatest joy is helping people one-on-one: seeing families put back together, people strung out on drugs set free and suicidal people changing course.
I think of a note a woman who reads my online daily devotional sent me.
“Dear Greg,” she wrote. “Thank you for your daily devotions that I receive via email. They have helped me as I deal with chronic pain everyday. I’ve shared them with several people close to me who are going through cancer; it helps them too. I open your email every morning, first thing, and it encourages me to get through the day. It’s like opening a present. Keep the faith!”
So, I am not discouraged.
As C.S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, “Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness; but your darkness cannot now infect our light.”
Life is not easy, and there will be days when you may question the purpose of it all. But whatever dark valley you may be walking through, remember this: hope has a name, and his name is Jesus.