Among Paul’s list of the ways he had suffered on behalf of the church he drops this little line, “my daily concern for all the churches…”
The vocation of a pastor, when practiced by someone actually committed to that vocation, is a weighty thing.
Often, people remark about the appearance of a man who has been the President of the United States and how he has visibly aged, more noticeably than others his age, over the span of his time in office. I’ve seen the same kind of “road wear” on men and women who serve as pastors and I’ve seen it accumulate in far less time than it takes to become evident on those politicians.
I realize there are some “bad hombres” out there who have managed to get a gig or are serial gigging as pastors. Clear back in the book of Acts, Paul warns about “wolves”
that will appear from among the leadership of a local church, dress up like sheep and turn the church into a mutton buffet. It’s not a recent development. I have a friend who invests a lot of time gathering, illustrating and telling the stories of these carnivores to a receptive, appreciative audience of people who have themselves been cooked, carved and served up by some of these lupine in lamb’s drag.
But I love pastors.
I’m not oblivious to the wolves, I’m just in awe of the men and women who willingly choose to serve the flock of God of which they are a part. I’m in awe of their devotion to a vocation that is a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year vocation. As highlighted in Paul’s list of sufferings, even when they’re not right beside someone from the church, they’re still caring the church inside their hearts and heads.
These men and women don’t set the thermostat for themselves, they constantly juggle the needs, desires and expectations of a community of people, all at various stages of faith and spiritual, emotional and personal maturity. These men and women have been at the deathbed of more people than is normal. They have grieved and mourned with more families of saints and ornery buggers, seeking to comfort both, (sometimes at the same time) than is normal. They make every vow that they invite yet another couple to make sound as fresh and as hopeful as they did the first couple they married; despite the countless couples with whom they’ve suffered through divorce.
These men and women, most of whom serve in churches with fewer than 200 people in attendance, have often graduated with a degree that cost them more than they will be able to earn enough to repay on the salaries they will make.
They listen to horrific confessions and confer forgiveness and grace to fallen saints without a hint of judgment or condemnation.
Their children live under microscopes and have to deal with spoken and unspoken pressures unique to them.
Pastors are often accused of things they would never dream of and they dream of things this life will never afford them. They anguish over decisions and work hard for things that will ultimately benefit others and not themselves. And regularly they get to entertain the wisdom of the “arm chair pastors” in their churches who tell them how it could, should, ought and would be if someone else was doing the pastoring.
These brave souls regularly get in trouble with those who want a human master to tell them what to do. Instead these pastors choose the harder but better work of walking beside people to help them make their own choices and their own decisions and take their own steps to grow up to be more like Jesus.
Week after week these pastors come up with one or two or three new messages to share with the church. Can you imagine being a pastor of a church of 75 people, counting everyone including the unborn, and preaching a new message every week to a YouTube and TEDtalk generation?
Imagine having people who compare you, generally unkindly, to the TEDtalk their friend just sent them a link to or the megachurch pastor they watched on the 'net. Usually they don't consider that mega-pastor has a team of writers working for him or that it was still his third service they broadcast because it always goes much better than the first two and by that time he hardly had to look at his notes at all. And they can always edit in a joke from the second service if it got more laughs.
Imagine having to answer more than once the query of a well-meaning church goer, “Why can’t your talks be as engaging as a TEDtalk?” Imagine having to answer them with a kind tone in your voice after having been out the night before at the hospital beside a family whose oldest teenage daughter tried to OD herself into eternity. Imagine having someone critique the energy you brought (or lack thereof) to the morning service and responding to them gently while you are still thinking about the couple you sat with the night before and tried to help them navigate the meltdown of their marriage and guide them into a healthy conversation.
Imagine the restraint it takes not to suggest they call Brene Brown the next time they are in crisis so you have time to polish up your talk.
Proverbs says that if you find a good wife you’ve managed to do something extraordinary. Can I suggest that it’s also true that if you’ve found yourself a good pastor – someone who cares more about your soul than you do, who listens to you, who seeks your best and wants to see you discover and fulfill your vocation, who wants to help you grow up and not stay a perpetual baby in Christ – that you’ve found yourself something miraculous.
I love pastors for who they are, for what they do and for all the crap they put up with to do it. Shepherds get dirty, there’s no way around that. True shepherds don’t grind on about the smell, the mess, the poo, they just embrace the vocation and get on with it. To those men and women pastoring day in and day out, I say, thank you. You are a gift from God to all of us, whether we ever meet or not, you have made the world a brighter and tastier and more creative space for being in it. Thank you for the gift of life you bring, however perfectly imperfect that you do it. You are a gift, a treasure, a little wind of heaven into the souls of the men and women, boys and girls that you pastor.
I have a pastor friend who was senior pastor of a very large church in a very large city. One Sunday morning, between one of their three morning services, while my friend was running down a hallway from visiting with people in the lobby as they left and re-entering the sanctuary for worship, he was stopped in the hall by a woman he recognized as an occasional attender at their church. "I'm so glad I caught you," she said, "my mother and I were wondering if you could do something about the volume of the music and get someone to turn it down?" I know my friend well enough to know a million appropriate responses ran through his mind but what he chose to do was answer firmly but kindly this inappropriately timed request. Now imagine this happening to every pastor, every Sunday times infinity.
Cheers to you, pastors. I admire each one of you.
I'm going to be launching a podcast soon where I'll be exploring my admiration for pastors and their stories more in depth. If you've got a question you've always wanted to ask a pastor, leave it in the comments and I'll pass it along. Stay tuned.