1) Sisyphean Striving – The Job Can Feel Pointless (Ironically)
Work is difficult when the purpose is obscured. The story is told about two janitors working in the NASA building during the 1960s. One janitor was depressed because he thought he was insignificant compared to the literal rocket scientists in the building. He found so little purpose in his mopping the floor compared to their space exploration that his work began to feel completely meaningless. His friend, on the other hand, was always whistling while he worked. Finally, someone asked the second janitor, “Why are you so happy at work while your coworker is so dejected?” The happy janitor replied, “I love my job. I’m putting a man on the moon!”
The two janitors perceived radically different levels of fulfillment in their identical jobs solely because they had different perceptions of what they were doing. Fulfillment came to the second janitor because he thought what he was doing was important. The exact same work was drudgery because the first janitor thought it was meaningless. Pastors are a lot like the first janitor. They enter their calling hearing that it is the most exalted calling in the whole world. I heard the story a few times in seminary that a pastor immediately denied requests that he run for president of the United States because to do so would be a demotion in his eyes. This is true.
Every pastor has this expectation of the work—it will feel like the most important thing in the world because it is! Nothing is more important than sharing the gospel of eternal glory. However, most pastors do not experience this level of meaningfulness for long stretches of time. Though they expect their work to be meaningful, when they actually do the work, they don’t see the fruit. They know that preaching the gospel is the hope of the world and that it changes people’s lives. But they often preach the gospel, and nothing changes. Actually, that’s not true. They preach the gospel, and things get worse. This is why Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet.
Imagine you were a farmer, and you worked tirelessly to grow various crops—wheat, corn, and other vegetables. If you saw your job as growing as much food as possible and storing it safely, you would likely have a degree of satisfaction. You might not be doing anything important with the food you grow, but it’s safely stored, and the future possibility of using the food for something good would encourage you. That is like studying the Bible, which is the pastor’s main job. A pastor can study the Bible and enjoy the work because it is storing up biblical wisdom and helping him grow spiritually.
Now, imagine that your job as a farmer was not only to grow and store that food but to cook the food for people. That is the second half of the pastor’s job. He not only must study the Bible, he must take what he learns and feed it to the Lord’s sheep. He must teach. If the farmer was tasked with cooking but the people he gave the food to didn’t seem to benefit, it would be discouraging. If the people said, “This food is too cold, too hot, too bland, too spicy, not what I like, better down the street, etc.” It would be hard to hear. Furthermore, if the people did not seem to benefit from the food, it would be crushing. If they didn’t grow and in fact, were getting sick, the farmer would want to give up. Why on earth do all the work of growing the food then cooking and serving it if the people not only don’t like it but aren’t benefitting from it? No sane farmer would stick with that task.
This is what many pastors feel like. They study the Bible and prepare sermons, but the people often complain. Some complaints are bearable because we know it’s going to happen. The desire to quit occurs not when people complain but when the preaching doesn’t seem to “work.” Nobody gets saved, the people don’t grow in godliness, the church culture doesn’t get any better, and maybe it even gets worse. The pastor spends 20 long hours slaving over his sermon, and when all is said and done, in the words of a pastor I know, “it’s like it never happened.” Many churches today are in this exact situation—no growth, lots of complaints, and it just gets worse. In these circumstances, the pastor feels exactly like the farmer whose food gets rejected. We expect pastors to continue on happily in this situation, while we would never expect the same of the farmer!
In a word, many pastors feel like their work isn’t accomplishing anything, and it may even be making things worse. Complaints and critiques ring loud, and compliments hollow. Fruit is unripe, and sin is rampant. When I joined the Army, I was sorely disappointed at the reality of the work. The recruiter videos have almost nothing to do with what the job actually was. But I couldn’t quit because I had great friends, and the government forced me to stay. Pastors often find themselves in a similar situation, yet they are often the loneliest people on the planet and feel like everyone wants them to leave. It’s a miracle so many stay!
This might sound pretty bad, but it gets much worse. Many pastors think they are joining the ministry to serve God as humble servants. Unfortunately, some don’t understand what their true motive is. Though they say and think that they want to serve God, in the back of their minds, they imagine the ministry to be about them—they get pats on the back, people listen to them, they don’t have to work very hard, they even get famous with megachurches and book deals. If a pastor has this secret idol of the heart and the Lord is kind enough to give him a failing ministry, he may find himself not only questioning the point of his work, but he may also question his calling! He may realize that he was never called in the first place because he isn’t willing to serve the Lord if it hurts. He didn’t really want to serve the Lord as a servant, but he wanted to speak as a celebrity. The pastors who find themselves in this situation have salt poured into the wound. They find the work much less fulfilling than they thought it would be, and they find their hearts much more sinful than they thought they were. It’s a double whammy of pastoral burnout.
2) Boys Doing a Man’s Job
The job of pastoral ministry is difficult by its very nature. I’ve heard of (but am unable to find) studies that have determined pastoral ministry to be at the top of the list of jobs that require diverse ranges of competencies. This makes sense: in no other job are you required to have scholarly abilities (facility in ancient languages, philosophical/theological knowledge, research capabilities), leadership skills (the first two cut out 95% of jobs—how many scholars are leaders?), emotional intelligence (can you listen to someone complain about their cold when your dad has cancer without being a jerk?), training in counseling (how do you help a couple that hate each other, love each other?), public speaking skills (and the ability to write the “speech” every single week), and an exemplary spiritual life (which is hard enough on its own!). In other words, in no other job are you required to go from studying an ancient document to counseling someone who just got cancer, to leading a board room meeting, to writing a public speech, to burying a dead person, all in the same day (yes, pastors often do all these things in a single day). Of course, the list can go on—administering the sacraments of communion and baptism, writing spiritual materials, planting churches, planning events, leading prayer meetings, casting vision, hiring and firing, officiating weddings, etc.
It is easy to see that a job with so many requirements can be discouraging if the employee is a finite human being (and unfortunately, most pastors aside from John Piper are). What’s not so easy to see is that the nature of this job runs contrary to itself. By that, I mean there are two main components of pastoral ministry that are at war with each other—the need for pastors to be contemplative, intentional people and the need for pastors to be able to multitask constantly. To get all the things mentioned above done, pastors need to multitask. But, to be spiritually mature leaders who cast biblical vision and lead others toward God’s purposes for them, they need to spend lots of time praying and reading the Bible for their own personal growth. You can’t do that while multitasking. Prayer and Bible reading don’t mix with text messages, agenda writing, and event planning.
Therefore, many pastors find themselves in a constant state of frustration. They feel like their boss is telling them, “Write me a research report and take all the leaves out of the gutters at the same time.” Pastors feel like they’re up on a ladder with one hand in the rain gutter and the other on a keyboard, with a nagging feeling that they’re going to fall.
3) The Perception
The first two problems are difficult, but the third problem intensifies them both. Namely, in the midst of feeling like too little butter spread across too much bread, people around the pastor often remark that his job seems easy. They joke with him that he only has to work for 30 minutes a week (the time when he’s preaching). They get upset when they don’t immediately get a visit in the hospital or a returned email. They may even suggest that the church should pay him less.
Like in the Army, it’s possible to do a really difficult job when you are doing it for people you love. War is bearable just because of the friends you fight for. But, really difficult jobs often become unbearable when the people you serve constantly ridicule your efforts. It’s commonly understood that pastors are some of the most critiqued people around. Every single week, they give a brand new “speech” (sometimes two) that can be critiqued. But that “speech” isn’t just about anything; it is supposed to accurately explain an ancient document written by God in three different languages that the audience is already intimately familiar with.
So, that means the sermon can be critiqued not only because “I didn’t like it” but also because “it wasn’t accurately explaining the text.” That could be enough to make some people anxious. But, add to that the fact that the pastor is supposed to be living out the sermons he speaks, and we see that everything he does is subject to critique (“You preached on humility, but the car you drive is ostentatious!”). But there’s more. Today, pastors are compared not only with the pastor down the street (who is supposed to be a brother in Christ) but also with every pastor on the internet (“Why don’t you preach like John Piper?”). Imagine if every time you played a pickup basketball game at the park, people came up to you and negatively compared your game with Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron! The worst area of critique, however, is the pastor’s family. Any pastor will tell you that a harsh critique of the sermon he spent 20 hours laboring over hurts, but criticism of his family kills him.
In this way, we see that pastors have been given jobs that are discouraging and difficult. Though this would be manageable if pastors sensed that the people they serve really loved them and appreciated what they did, but that is often not the case. Many times, those closest to the pastor inflict the greatest wounds because they know his soft spots. I think when these three things are combined, pastors quit. If you don’t see the fruit of your labors, your labors are the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and people tell you that you are bad at what you do, you will quit. These three elements combine to suck all the air out of the pastor’s sails. It’s no wonder 38% of US pastors have considered quitting.
4) Signs of the Times—It Gets Worse
We live in an age when these three elements are probably at their historical worst. The first element is probably the least severe, with the latter two being the most severe. By God’s grace, there are many churches that respond well to pastoral ministry, giving their pastors a rich sense of meaning as their work changes lives. As wonderful as this is, the church in America is probably at a low ebb in this regard, historically speaking. Almost every American church is shrinking as elderly congregations die off without replacing themselves due to the ever-increasing “nones.” Though individual people may benefit from pastoral ministry, there isn’t much church growth. That is, not many people are being positively affected by pastoral ministry in the most important way—salvation. In this way, pastors today are primed for the lowest sense of purpose.
Though pastoring is complicated work, every work is complicated. Mechanics need to be computer engineers now. Teachers need to know twice what they used to. Lawmakers need entire teams just to understand the law they’re supposed to be writing. Probably the only thing that isn’t more complicated today is flying a plane (modern planes can essentially fly themselves). But don’t worry, airlines will figure out some new tasks for their pilots very soon (maybe they’ll fire the flight attendants and make the pilots serve drinks!). The point, then, is that the complicated task of pastoring is just becoming much more complicated. If teaching was relatively simple and now it’s complex, pastoring was complex, and now it’s a maze. In this way, pastors today are primed for complication fatigue.
Finally, though pastors have always been (harshly?) criticized, today, the heat has been turned up. This is no surprise because everything is criticized more harshly today. In the Christian Reformed Church (of which I am a pastor), we are at an all-time high for article 17s, that is, firing pastors. There were 18 article 17s per year in the past two decades. In the two decades before that, there were only 3 per year—a 600% increase. If being a pastor 20 years ago earned you some criticism, today, it guarantees it. Someone in your congregation is sure to vehemently disapprove of your stance on masking, vaccines, politics, public schooling, etc. There are so many new things to criticize today, and the pastors are often the first in the shoot. In this way, pastors today are primed for criticism.
Yes, there is hope, but not in the way many would expect. I don’t think things are getting better. I don’t think congregations are getting more understanding or that the job is going to get simpler. The hope I see is in 1 Corinthians 2:3-5: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my word and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” I think pastors today are primed to experience what the Apostle Paul was referring to in this passage.
Long gone are the days when pastors were respected and slapping together a fancy ministry was all but guaranteed to fill the theater seats. Many great churches with great preachers are empty. They can’t rely on business model ecclesiology or personality-driven churches. This is a blessed fact. The Lord has removed our shortcuts. We can’t fill the pews with Charles Finney’s tactics anymore. We need George Whitefield’s instead—the Spirit must descend and produce new birth. Pastors are primed to long for the Holy Spirit. Every day, they are being backed further and further into the corner of God’s sovereignty, where they realize that they are weak, fearful, trembling, unpersuasive, and unwise (1 Cor 2:3-4). Many will dig a hole in the ground, hide, and quit. But others will fall to their knees with tears in their eyes and desperation in their hearts. When they do, the Lord will respond with faithful mercy because even when we are faithless, He remains faithful. He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13). How much better it is to sense our deep inadequacy and simultaneous dependency on the Spirit than to think we can do anything without Him? Could this historical increase in pastoral burnout be the providential means of God to create trembling pastors blessed with the Spirit of power? I sure hope so. Because if not, we’re hopeless.
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