Pastors have hard lives. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul referred to being “poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service” of the church. Paul uses the image again in writing to Timothy of his death. Being poured out for the church at Philippi meant Paul’s life being emptied out for the church at Philippi; it meant dying for that church.
To be sure, Paul led an outsized life. But Paul’s experience of pouring out his life into a congregation is shared, I think, by almost every pastor, no matter the size of the life or the size of the congregation.
The pastoral burden must be tremendous. The author of Hebrews writes that pastors “keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” What a huge responsibility. The flip side of this responsibility is that layfolk are supposed to “obey your leaders and submit to them” so that our pastors may keep watch over our souls “with joy, and not with grief.” And yet how often do we grieve our pastors?
Part of this seems to be built into the way pastors become pastors, at least these days. It is not a surprise that young men who show some enthusiasm for God and the gospel are encouraged to become pastors. This encouragement may come in the form of what these young men (and, one hopes, wise Christians around them) discern as an inner call from the Spirit. For others, the encouragement may come from those around them as they discern the man’s gifts.
Whatever the source of the encouragement, however, it is usually young men most zealous for God and the gospel, those who are most aware of the grace they received from God and who have responded most deeply to God because of that grace, who are encouraged to become pastors. Think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience (though calls of course do not need to be so dramatic).
This seems an obvious point: that men who become pastors usually have an exceptional relationship with God in one dimension or another. What would be the alternative? Men becoming pastors who have little interest in God and the ministry?
But consider the implication: the same thing that draws men to the ministry also separates them from their congregations. They have experienced a richer relationship with God than those they lead; they have, as the Psalmist puts it, “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”
The upside is that their only aspiration is for their congregations to taste of the life, blessing, and joy that God offers us through the gospel. But what frustration, also; it’s so often like pushing a rope. We congregants are hard of hearing, we stumble, we are distracted by the world. The pastor implores those in his charge merely to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” They know, they know, that if only we taste we will, like them, want more. It’s sitting there, right before us. They would love for us to share what they have. But we don’t even taste.
They teach, they preach, they baptize and feed us. They plead, they implore, they even cajole and admonish. But so little for so much. They are poured out as a drink offering on the service and sacrifice of their congregations. They empty themselves, yet, so often, no one seems to get filled.
To be sure, God sees and rewards. But it would be nice every now and then to receive some appreciation from those of us they serve. But too frequently we call upon them only when we’re in desperation, and ignore them when we’re not. We don’t bring our children to catechism class, and then blame the pastor for our children’s ignorance. We treat gathering together with the church as a burden, and the Eucharist as something that only prolongs the service, and then blame the pastor when our children drop their faith in college.
Pastors see the wreck that sin makes of human lives in their congregations, and the hindrance it creates for receiving God’s love. Yet we accuse them of meddling should they attempt to minister to us—until we’ve made such a wreck of it that there’s no one left to turn to. Then we wonder that the pastor is of so little help and comfort.
There’s so much to do in the church and so few layfolk willing to help. So the pastor steps in to do the needful things, and is soundly thanked with the accusation of power-grabbing. As if filling a vacuum he’d be more than happy for someone else to fill is power-grabbing. But we’re all satisfied enough to criticize from the sideline.
And then there is just not enough time for all the demands. People do the right thing for the wrong reason, and the wrong thing for the right reason. It would be great for pastors to have time to disciple us properly. But we are so hard of hearing that it takes so long just to get through to one of us, and then we’re just as apt to misunderstand as to understand. It seems as though pastors empty themselves into broken cups that cannot hold what they offer.
It is a struggle as the pastor only wants his congregation to share the passion prompted by the love that he’s received from God.
But all of this also comes along with the pastor’s struggle with his own sin. Little could be more isolating for a pastor than struggling with his own sin when knowing that his congregation, often unfairly, looks to him as model of right behavior. We sometimes, unfairly, expect them to exemplify fully the life of the age to come rather than recognizing that no man can do that on this side of the eschaton.
It is little wonder that pastors seek out each other for fellowship and consolation; few layfolk understand the fine line between honesty with God and with one’s congregants, and desire not to disappoint, and a hypocrisy that can threaten one’s soul. All of this on top of the pastor being poured out as a drink offering while keeping watch over the souls of the flock that God has given him.
Thank you, pastor.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.