Why your pastor has that edge
Ryan Hayden • August 23, 2023preaching ministry
When I was a younger man I remember getting around middle aged pastors and thinking “what is wrong with these people?” Many of them seemed to have a chip on their shoulder. The ones I was around seemed a bit edgy. As a group, middle aged pastors seemed guarded, inapproachable, grumpy, and obsessed with minutia. I determined I didn’t want to be anything like that.
Now, I’m a middle aged pastor, and while I hope I don’t give off the same prickly vibes I saw in others as a young man, I think I now have a lot more insight into where they come from.
The pressures of being a middle aged pastor
There are pressures in every job, but there are particular pressures in being a pastor and those pressures start to take their toll on you in middle age.
You shepherd people. You love them. You preach to them week in and out. You help them through difficulties. Then when you do not expect it, they go away or attack.
If a pastor is worth his salt, God really gives him a love for people, and when they leave the church, or worse, when they abandon the faith or deal with life altering consequences of sins, it hurts. It’s almost like watching a child leave the family and go astray.
When people leave the church or people attack you, it really hurts. Maybe one reason pastors of a certain age have their guard up is because they’ve been hit in the face a few times and didn’t particularly enjoy the experience.
Years ago, I got close to a certain family in our church. We went over each other’s houses. We met their extended families. We hung out together. Then out of the blue, they said they "weren't being fed" and left the church. I’m ashamed to say that particular wound left me limping for years. It still hurts. Seeing my church grow and many more friends come in hasn’t made that particular scar go away.
Knowing (as in this case) that the decision may have been better for that family and seeing them do well helps, but it doesn’t totally make the sting go away. This is probably because pastors have a strong (and sometimes unhealthy) desire to see their church do well. Being tied as we are with our churches, there is also a strong temptation to see any hint of rejection of our church as a rejection of us. Many pastors' self-esteem fluctuates in sync with their attendance report.
Which leads me to another inner struggle of pastoral ministry...
Dreams don’t materialize.
Our church is hidden in a neighborhood, has a tiny auditorium and a terrible parking lot. I remember when I came here 12 years ago I imagined in my hubris that in a few years we would be building a bigger building, maybe even moving to a better location. But here we are, 12 years later, worshiping in the same small building, dealing with the same location and parking problems.
In college I had a few assignments that required imagining the type of church I wanted to pastor. It was always in my native New England. It was usually a large white town square type of church filled with a diverse crowd of urban people. Instead God led us to a small town in the Midwest, which, as awesome as it has been, is different than what I imagined in almost every way.
Pastors want to matter. Some of that is ego, and some of that is just wanting to be the best that they can be for the Lord. As unrealized dreams start to add up in middle age, I can understand how it would make some pastors jaded and edgy.
But another thing happens to us in middle age...
Sacrifices hit home.
Pastoral ministry is a leadership position. Usually, the people who are drawn to it have natural competencies and abilities that would make them valuable as leaders in many other fields. A pastor could probably easily work in city government, or be a school teacher or principle, or work as a fire man or police officer. He could no doubt have chosen business or some other traditional career.
As I age, I’m tempted to look around at other men my age who didn’t go into the ministry. Men who have trained for and then stuck to a career and avoided common pitfalls like divorce and addiction. In almost every case, those men are doing very well. They are well paid. They own nice homes.
When you are young and starting out in the ministry, you are more or less on equal footing with your peers. Young people in the ministry are poor, but so are young people starting out in any profession. As you approach middle age though, the gap widens a lot, and as you realize what the decision to go into the ministry has cost you, it becomes a tough pill to swallow.
Trusted friends defect.
Another thing that might be behind your pastor’s edge is seeing trusted friends defect from the position they once held, and in some cases, from the faith. My heart is often grieved when I learn of people I went to school with who seem to have left the rebel forces and gone over to the dark side.
Being a pastor exposes you to these constant battles of position. Your friends can sometimes become ideological enemies. Managing that can be really difficult. If it happens enough, a pastor can feel lonely and even develop an Elijah complex.
Criticism is unavoidable.
Being a pastor exposes you to a lot of criticism. It is impossible to please everyone. There is always someone who thinks you should be better in some area, and sometimes they are quick to point it out.
In my church I have people who think I am too conservative and people who think I'm not conservative enough. There are people who think our music is too formal and people who think our music is too contemporary. I've had people accuse me of being a calvinist, and others leave our church because I wasn't.
The criticism that hurts the most, and one that most pastors I know have heard at least once is "I'm not being fed." Imagine if your wife went to culinary school for four years then oriented her entire life around feeding you, spending 30+ hours every week preparing your meals, constantly reading and studying to do it better and you came to her and said "I'm not being fed." That's about how that particular comment hits your pastor.
The pace never slows.
Twenty years ago, I heard John MacArthur on the radio say that one of the constants of his life is that "Sunday is always coming." I really didn't get it then, but I get it now. Until you have had to prepare and preach a fresh message multiple times every week, it is really hard to understand the creative and emotional toll that it takes on you.
Three times each week, I write the equivalent of a well researched college research paper, then deliver it orally to the same group of people who heard me for the last 300 weeks. And it never ends. The study, the writing, the preaching, the teaching - it never ends. As soon as I preach one message, I'm already at work on the next one. It is constantly on my mind. Sometimes it feels like I stepped on a treadmill twelve years ago, and I can't find the pause button.
Preaching is my calling and I wouldn't want to do anything else, but that doesn't mean it isn't consuming in a way many other endeavors are not.
It’s heavy on your family.
Middle aged pastors usually have kids who are teenagers and those kids get to experience everything else on this list with their dad. When the pastor is hurt, it doesn't just affect him, it also affects his family. Very often, pastors' kids grow to hate the ministry and want nothing to do with it.
Pastors's kids live under a microscope. They are acutely aware (even if it's not explicitly said) that their behavior reflects on their dad and his ministry. They know that what they wear and what they say will be judged in a way none of their peers will be.
Some mix of all of these things are usually present in a pastor's life, and if both he (and the church) aren't careful, they can make him unbearable and derail a church. There are things that both the pastor and his church can do to combat this though:
How the pastor can help himself:
If you are a pastor, then there are things you must do to help yourself:
Reject the "great man" model of ministry.
So many of these pressures are tied to a model and view of ministry we unconsciously embrace as young men, where the people who really matter are the "great men" and where we strive to be like them and we think we do not matter unless we can build a big ministry. But ministry isn't about building a big name for yourself, it is about ministry, about serving other people. When we make it about ourselves it turns toxic and often ends in us using people instead of serving them. Root out this weed wherever it pops up.
Stay close to the Lord.
Ministry is not a substitute for living the Christian life. You must walk with the Lord just like you are encouraging others to. You must learn to find your worth in Christ and not in what others think of you.
Recognize and overcome the fear of man.
Many of the pressures on this list have as their root cause a desire to be accepted and admired by others. Nearly everyone struggles with this. The answer to this is fearing God more. As Ed Welsch writes in When People are Big and God is Small "When we have God in His proper place, we need people less and can love people more." You have to get over yourself. That's a tough hike, and a lot of preachers never make it.
Find friends and counselors and be open with them.
Do not be the lone ranger. Paul had Barnabas and Silas and Timothy and Titus and many others. You need friends you can share the struggles of the ministry with. You need to be around other pastors for mutual encouragement. You need to get people around you who can help bear the burdens of ministry.
Serve your Master.
Remember, we are called to be servants. While the disciples sat around the table and argued about who was the greatest, their Master put on servants clothes and started washing feet. Ultimately, we are serving Christ and our success is defined by whether or not we are faithful and obedient to Him.
How you can help your pastor.
If you are not a pastor, the chances are, that your pastor is struggling with one (if not all) of these pressures. The good news, is that there are things you can do that help:
- You can faithfully attend services and listen actively to preaching. This, more than anything else, will be an encouragement to your pastor.
- You can find ways to help in the church and be faithful in them.
- You can bring issues directly to your pastor.
- You can work to pay your pastor well, considering what a person with his skills and talents would be worth in a secular profession.
- You can withhold criticism.
- You can encourage your pastor to go to conferences and fellowships and spend time with likeminded brothers in Christ.
- You can ensure that your pastor is getting plenty of rest and vacation.
- Your deacons can do deacon's work, and try to take non-preaching and care responsibilities off of your pastor's plate.
- You can encourage your pastor's family and extend grace to his children.
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