I recently celebrated five years of ordained pastoral ministry. I know this in no way makes me an expert. As any pastor knows, parish ministry is a work-in-progress. As one of my seminary professors reminded us about preaching (only one of many ministry skills we must learn): “Treat it like a thirty-year project.” This certainly puts things in perspective for me. Ministry is a long journey. And it’s important that the pilgrim begins the journey on the right path. So when I met soon-to-be-retired Pastor Neil in the first community that I served as pastor, I saw a golden opportunity. “Pastor Neil, would you be willing to give me an hour of your time before you retire and give this new pastor some advice?” Perhaps he saw a golden opportunity too, for he gladly agreed. The following headings highlight the three bits of advice that I received from Pastor Neil that day, which I comment on for the benefit of new pastors.
Pastoral ministry is not a nine-to-five job, as most of us know. “Pastor” is a title you hold and an office you carry. You are always the pastor in the presence of your parishioners, and also for many others in the community, if they know you as such. In this regard, the role of pastor is similar to that of teacher, who is always teacher to a student, even when not in school. I know that some pastors would prefer to be a friend to their parishioners—just one of the “guys” or “gals”—but I’m not sure this is possible, and probably not even advisable. Happily, I’ve been blessed with at least one or two “friends” in the congregations I’ve served, but even these friends need me to be their pastor from time-to-time. So what is a pastor to do? I suggest that you try to embrace your role as pastor as best as you can. Don’t fight it, especially in the presence of the people you serve. But of course there are times when you need to simply be you and not the pastor, so I also encourage you to find friends in the community that don’t need you to be their pastor, and also maintain old friendships. In this way, you can always have a few people in your life that accept you for you, and don’t expect you to be pastor all the time.
“Love them. Don’t depend on them!”
In spite of the fact that your people (and others in the community) will call you “pastor” and expect you to fulfill a pastoral role, don’t think they’ll always be pleased with you. In fact, some of your parishioners will never be happy with you. This is perhaps the most important lesson that I learned as a new pastor. I confess that I was somewhat devastated when the first complaints came about my “poor preaching” and “inadequate pastoral care.” My first response was to work harder. But the complaints kept coming. Naturally, this led to frustration and disillusionment, which forced me to do some soul-searching. In the end, after much prayer and seeking guidance from pastoral mentors and counselors, I came to the conclusion that Pastor Neil was right: My job is to love the people, not to depend on them. Of course you must trust others and expect them to do their work. An effective pastor shares the load and doesn’t allow herself to become overextended (most of the time!). But we must not depend on others for our affirmation. This must come from the Lord first and foremost. Only then can we face the complaints head on and not be utterly devastated when we don’t meet people’s expectations, which, in my experience, is relatively common.
“Work hard on your spiritual formation.”
This is perhaps the most important bit of advice that I received from Pastor Neil, for personal spiritual formation is arguably the foundation for effective pastoral ministry. How can you effectively nurture the souls of your people if your soul is depleted? I believe most parishioners assume that pastors are taking care of themselves spiritually, so they rarely inquire about it. For example, up until this last year of ministry, no parishioner (let alone an elder) had asked me about my prayer life. I find this puzzling and disappointing, considering the importance of prayer for the Christian in general and the pastor in particular. How will you be able to effectively lead God’s people in prayer if you’re not praying? Thankfully, there are many resources to help in this regard. But of course these resources will be useless if not applied. In this regard, I’ve found taking Sabbath to be the key to personal spiritual formation as a Christian and pastor. By this I mean taking regular time off for personal and spiritual soul-care. I suggest that pastors set aside one hour a day and one day per week for the practice of Sabbath. But beware: this requires great discipline. After all, there’s always something else to do and likely no one in your church will insist that you take Sabbath. In fact, I had one parishioner express concern that I was “praying on the church’s time” instead of my own, when I pray and read Scripture for one hour each weekday morning. Don’t expect your parishioners to understand the importance of spending considerable time in solitude and silence with the Lord. But decide today that you will do it, for your abundant spiritual life and pastoral effectiveness depend on it. Just quietly go about your business of spiritual formation. Besides, who would want to miss this sweet hour of prayer?