Is it a crisis if it is not new?
Welcome to Greatheart’s Table.
There is a lot of conversation about pastors being in crisis. It certainly can feel like a crisis moment, and I understand the panic some feel. But perhaps that is a bit premature. Perhaps we need some perspective.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can email me — firstname.lastname@example.org — or leave comments below. The more I hear the more I know what you are thinking. Conversation befits a table.
And if you like what you hear, invite others to join us.
A reminder: Greatheart’s Table is published the first, second, and fourth Mondays of each month. This means that there will be no installment on Memorial Day, May 31st, which is a fifth Monday. We will return on June 7.
A Hard Job
My friend, Bill Mills, passed away last year after years of faithful ministry to churches and to pastors and to me. A conference speaker and a writer, Bill was one of the most Christ-like men I’ve ever known. Bill’s ministry crossed paths with many pastors, and he often observed that being a pastor is the hardest job in the world.
Though one could argue that being a Middle-East peace negotiator or a pediatric oncologist or a substitute middle-school teacher might be harder, I’ve heard others make a similar observation.
Recently, Russell Moore, then the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention,1 wrote about this in his weekly newsletter. He, like many, believes that things have reached a crisis point for pastors.
“A pastor called me to say that he’s wondering what he did wrong, and why he was such a failure in ministry. He didn’t do anything wrong (at least more than any other human leader), and he’s not a failure. But it seems like I have this conversation fifty times a week.”2
Many now are speaking what Bill pointed out thirty years ago, that pastoral ministry is hard. There is no question that the burden pastors currently bear is particularly heavy. But we cannot claim that it is new.
The intensity is real. Churches are disappearing, some explosively. Christian community is dissolving into mutually cancelling tribes. Pastors worry about their jobs, about their safety, and about their sanity. The sky is falling and panic seems justified. I get it. Panic has robbed me of sleep more than I like to admit.
But it has done so for years.
Long before COVID or QAnon, ministry has been hard to navigate. In one era pastors are confronted by congregants upset by guitars being used in worship and the next by those opposing or demanding masks. The criticism once reserved for a pastor’s position on Vietnam is now vented on pronouncements regarding the murder of unarmed Black men. The issues change, the intensity ebbs and flows, but the challenge is constant. The job is a hard one. It always has been.
This is especially clear when we lift our eyes out of the American suburbs and take in the broader world.
The wonderful Haitian American novelist Edwidge Danticat was raised by her uncle, a pastor in Haiti. When he was 80, he was chased out of his church and out of his country by a gang of revolutionary anarchists.3
A few years ago I asked a seminary student what his expectations were for his return to his predominantly Muslim country. “Martyrdom,” was his reply.
Ministry is hard. Being a pastor is meant to be noble and good, not necessarily easy or safe. Soldiers should not be surprised when the bullets start flying. John Bunyan, writing from a prison cell mind you, dressed his Mr. Greatheart in armor for a reason.
But that armor is easily pierced, and the hurt can lead us to leave ministry for just about anything else. I get it. I have written more letters of resignation than I care to admit. I’ve fantasized being a plumber. If I had not had six kids to feed and a reading habit to support, I might have followed that fantasy. I can’t condemn any who quit, but their leaving makes me sad.
To the rest of us, I say, don’t panic.
Run for the Living
We must redefine our expectations of ministry. Our calling is to love and to care for God’s people, not to build a successful business with an ever expanding bottom line. Our calling is to preach a gospel of grace and to show that grace to a world of broken people. We will do that well one day and poorly the next, but the burden of saving the world and making everyone happy is not ours.
Jesus’ ministry attracted tax collectors and prostitutes, and it attracted opposition. That’s what ministry looks like. It is our calling, and it will be hard.
One of Patrick O’Brian’s novels of the Napoleonic wars, The Truelove, follows his hero, Captain Jack Aubrey, and his men to a South Sea island where they have a skirmish with some French-led islanders. Aubrey’s lieutenant, a man named Davidge, is leading the charge that will result in victory as well as his death. Davidge, O’Brian writes, was
. . . going like a thoroughbred: he was running not indeed for his life but rather for his living, for all that made life worth while.4
The Apostle Paul, writing to you who are as well running “for all that makes life worth while,” says
. . . be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.5
Or, to paraphrase: Don’t panic.
Moore is leaving this post to take up a role at Christianity Today. https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/05/19/russell-moore-leaves-southern-baptist-convention-evangelical-future/
http://createsend.com/t/r-B2925FD6FD6866972540EF23F30FEDED (accessed 5/12/21)
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (United States: Vintage, 2008)
Patrick O’Brian, The Truelove (United States: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993) p. 266, 277.
1 Corinthians 15:58