The Guilt of Pastoral Ministry

Leon Brown
As I was re-reading a section of Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving, these words made a Facebook debut:

"We asked our summit pastors, 'What obstacles stand in the way of your fruitful, growing walk with Christ?' They focused on one primary issue: workaholism. Their workaholism largely stems from two sources: the belief that they never work hard enough (and that others work harder than they do) and the assumption that they are responsible for everything that happens in the church... [Pastors] were greatly concerned that, to the layperson, their flexible schedules make it look like they are goofing off. While studies we referenced earlier show that pastors work every bit as hard--if not harder--than other professionals, the anxiety that pastors carry of having to demonstrate that they are "earning their keep" is pervasive" (34).

There is a tendency--it seems--for pastors to prove themselves. In one sense, that is necessary. Demonstrating one's giftedness and ability to 'meet' and maintain the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 are required by the Lord. Books such as Called to the Ministry by Edmund Clowney and Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer further elaborate on those qualifications and provide insight into God's demands on those called to the ministry. The specifics of pastoral ministry, however, are not what cause the guilt that often lead to workaholism.

Have you ever heard this question or thought to ask a pastor: "What do you do?" Having grown accustomed to such questions, I often request additional information. It seems that the public, and more narrowly the church, have lost sight of the rigors of pastoral ministry. It wasn't too long ago ministers were somewhat esteemed as educated men who maintained a good work ethic. Now, people often wonder if we are bi-vocational, not because we need additional income but because ministry isn't laborious. Many have wrongly concluded that pastoral ministry is limited to a 20-45 minute 'talk' on Sundays. Certain popular, but wrongly focused, television series on the life of preachers and TV evangelists do not help. Some of us, therefore, feel the urge to prove ourselves. We want those who doubt our strenuous labors to retract their misinformed notions. That produces guilt, a guilt that causes man to be our chief end. That is, unless man is satisfied with the work of our hands, we cannot rest. So we work and work. Some document their hours. If the proof of long hours is in the pudding, one cannot deny the validity of one's work ethic if it's documented. This is not the yoke Jesus mentioned (Matt. 11:28-30). Rather, it is heavy, burdensome, and produces guilt that never finds satisfaction.

Have you felt guilty? Having talked to enough professing Christians who do not attend church, I'm accustomed to hearing, after urging them to submit to elders and become members in a church, "Don't make me feel guilty." There is a difference between guilt and conviction. While there may be overlap in the semantic domains and even a shared experience in how each is received, in some respects it seems the end of conviction is holiness while the result of guilt is shame and despair. The former causes you to turn to the Lord and reacquaint yourself with him. The latter, in many instances, causes you to retreat from Jesus and fill the perceived void with other things (e.g., work). When guilt is the impetus for work and people are the ones whom you ultimately seek to satisfy, pastors will run on a never-ending treadmill that leads to exhaustion and burnout.

For many, that statement isn't enough. They can agree that an endless cycle of work can lead to exhaustion, nervous breakdowns, family degradation, and depression. Nevertheless, they still want to know what pastors do. To satiate that desire, let me provide a short list. Pastors marry, bury, and diagnose. We baptize, counsel, and collect. Many of us are Google-educated accountants. We maintain church property, put out of the fires of family conflict, and are given to janitorial service. We conduct home visitations, hospital visitations, and attend your children's sporting events and graduations. We are surrogate fathers, act as law enforcement when there is physical abuse in the home, and are educators. Pastors are cultural anthropologists, novice demographers, and building contractors. We are also students, committee members, and financial advisors. Ministers are fundraisers, entrepreneurs, and graphic designers. We comfort the hurting, rejoice with the joyous, and weep over sin. Some of us are music directors, worship leaders, facilitators, and public speakers. Others are authors, professors, and administrators. This is a short list. What about our own family? What about personal spiritual growth? Where in this laundry of duties is there time for studying the word and prayer? For some, those last three areas of concern don't seem like work. After all, it is every Christian's responsibility to care for his or her family, grow spiritually, and spend time understanding God and his world through his word and prayer. The reality is pastors are specifically called to these duties for God's glory and the edification of his church, but overarching demand and ensuing guilt sometimes causes us to fill our schedules with good, though at times unnecessary, appointments because you demand that we demonstrate our viability by how much you perceive we work.

Granted, not everyone thinks this way. There are some who realize the arduous task of pastoral ministry. They've read about the long hours, the inability to detach from one's vocation, which impedes upon family time and vacations, and the burden of having a continuous concern for God's church (2 Cor. 11:28). Perchance those who are in the know can educate those who presently believe we do very little to receive our paycheck. It would be a great service to pastors if they knew those in their congregation truly believed they worked hard apart from the committee meetings, writing assignments, and travel, but that their calling to the word, sacrament, prayer, and evangelism is enough (Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Tim. 4:1-5). You can assist pastors in this regard. Frankly, it is hard enough to keep the commandments of God. When Christians add to God's commands, it only creates a guilt and unrest in pastors that finds no terminus in the glory of God; rather, its end is the satisfaction of man.

Along with educating those in the pews about the work of ministers, what else can you do to help pastors discard the guilt of pastoral ministry? As some do in my congregation, encourage pastors with the gospel. The gospel can become something pastors preach for others. Sometimes we neglect the reality that it is for us. We need to be reminded and participate in the story afresh that Jesus' ministry and the application of his finished work provided the Holy Spirit grants us acceptance with God. Bathe us in that reality. You can also keep ministers accountable. Ask them if they have enough time in their schedules devoted to the word, prayer, and evangelism. Inquire if they are spending suitable time with their family and in the Bible for personal growth. (Studying for a sermon and reading the Bible for personal growth can often be two different realities). If pastors seem hesitant or answer negatively, follow-up with how you can assist them in creating time for those important areas of life. I guarantee they will appreciate you, and, Lord willing, this will help alleviate the guilt of pastoral ministry.