As a pastor who often hears other ministers teach and preach, I am disturbed by the number of times pastors allude to their jobs as being particularly difficult. Yes, we face many challenges—ministry may involve times of high emotional and spiritual duress—but I don't think these difficulties merit special recognition with regard to other vocations. After all, being a pastor involves almost no manual labor, which makes it physically easier than most other occupations in history. It doesn't require a 60- to 80-hour work week, unless you somehow equate longer working hours with more of the Holy Spirit's presence. And although the emotional and spiritual challenges faced are difficult, teachers and social workers—to take just two examples—face similar or greater obstacles.
In many ways this issue reflects a broader trend in how Americans approach their vocations. We generally derive our value from what we do rather than who we are, so those who do more are more important than those who do less. To prove your worth in society, you must continually boast about the difficulty of your vocation. For pastors in America this trend is particularly ironic given the relative ease of the job compared to other parts of the world. I recently had dinner with one of our bishops from northern Nigeria who stated that the work of a pastor is hard, then proceeded to instruct us on how to minister to members whose churches had just been burned, and how to pray when you're about to be executed.
I do not intend to denigrate the work of ministers, nor to whitewash over the real hardships faced by ministers. Ministry often requires you to get involved in the messiness and brokenness of life, and to labor in such situations in relative obscurity. However, I want to caution against such an overabundance of vocational teeth-gnashing, as it can create specific problems for local congregations.
First, it can help build a mystique around the pastoral office, erecting a barrier between clergy and laity. Laity grow up learning about the pastor's difficulties and begin to believe that pastoral duties can only be performed by such highly trained and skilled artisans. This can work in a mutually reinforcing downward spiral. Laity do not think they can teach, preach, disciple, and counsel others, so they place all of this burden on the pastor, who then complains about the difficult job of masterfully performing each of these duties. One of the primary duties of a pastor is to help release gifts in the laity for building up the entire body of Christ. To do so a pastor must model various duties with simplicity.
Second, pastors need to be mindful of what they are implying about the men and women they serve when they complain about their jobs. No one appreciates feeling like a burden to others. So pastors who appear exhausted by their job may find a congregation less and less willing to bring forward valid cares and concerns.
Third, pastors who continually complain about the difficulty of their job set poor examples for how Christians ought to approach work as a whole. Vocational crises often result from a faulty theology of work. We elevate the quest to discover the perfectly fulfilling career above all other purposes of labor, such as fulfilling duty to family or accumulating resources to help expand Christ's kingdom. Pastors who portray only the hardships of their jobs may tend to mirror or enhance the vocational anxiety in their parishioners.
The apostle Paul explains to Timothy that those who aspire to become overseers desire a noble task. May we as pastors handle this vocation with the upmost nobility, working hard in our daily tasks while modeling with dutiful and joyful obedience to the Lord the simplicity of the pastoral life.
Mike Niebauer is pastor of Redeemer Anglican Parish, a family of seven congregations on Chicago’s North Side. This article is part of an ongoing series of reflections on work. Part 1 can be viewed at thecommonvision.org.