Pastoring is Tortoise Work: A Lesson for the Young and Aspiring

by Tyler Greene March 20, 2024

Talking with a fellow pastor I know and trust, I recently asked a question. “What’s one quality you believe is indispensable for an effective pastor?” After a moment’s thought, the answer came: patience.

If you aspire to pastoral ministry, you likely envision yourself preaching the Word and rightly administering the sacraments. Perhaps you also envision counseling sessions, praying with those who hurt, and leading the ministries of the church. All good things, no doubt. But have you taken time to consider the kind of patience these things actually require? Have you envisioned yourself learning the hard lesson of being patient and moving slowly? If you would rather not, then one of two things will eventually happen after you enter ministry: you will be crushed or you will change.

When I was in my twenties and aspiring to the pastorate, I gave little to no serious consideration to my need for patience. And on certain days, I find that I can still be this way. Pastors, like most people, struggle with impatience concerning life’s circumstantial ambiguities, those unresolved things we are chagrined to live with. Ministry is so filled with such ambiguities that a pastor must learn what do to with them. As much as I may not like it, pastoring is slow, steady work. It is “tortoise work,” not “hare work.”

Of course, a temptation every pastor faces is that of “making things happen.” According to Zack Eswine, our tendency is to do “large things in famous ways as fast and as efficiently as [we] can.” I’ve found that this very thing is widely incentivized, often marketed to me as the model of ministry success. After all, pastors who are thought to “make stuff happen” are the ones who get book deals and amass high follower counts on social media. Is this the kind of pastor I must be? Experience enough ministry setbacks, though, and that question answers itself. It doesn’t take long for the hoped-for glitz and glamor of pastoring to fade. And you’re left with the reality that much of your pastoral success is measured by something you didn’t expect: capacity for patience amidst the crises, criticisms, controversies, and conflicts that beset congregational life.

As a young man, aspiring to the noble task of pastoring, do you recognize your need to learn patience? Do you see in yourself a tendency to idolize immediacy? Are you frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly as you expect? Consider two observations, both drawn from events described in the book of 1 Samuel.

First observation: bad things almost always come from impatience. The text provides two examples. First, the people of Israel are impatient for a king (1 Samuel 8:4–6, 19–20). Because of their insistence upon being like other nations and the impatience which accompanies such insistence, Israel ends up with Saul, an epic monarchical failure.

Second, once king, Saul acts with haste. At one point, he is impatient for Samuel to arrive in Gilgal. Panicked and unable to wait any longer, he takes matters into his own hands, offering a sacrifice he was not authorized to make (1 Sam. 13:8-14). The divinely ordained expiration date of his kingship is now immanent. Impatience triggers the downfall.

Second observation: better things—the best things, even—tend to come with time. The ark of the covenant remains at Kiriath-jearim for twenty years, at which time the people of Israel are ripe for renewal under Samuel’s leadership (1 Sam. 7:1-4). The absence of the ark, a material emblem of Yahweh’s presence among Israel, becomes felt. They’d had their fill of what the Baals and Ashtaroth had to offer.

So the people began to lament and long for Yahweh’s presence. But to reach this point, it took time. Conditions for spiritual renewal almost always develop gradually. When a widespread return to God takes place, it is often preceded by years of preparation, an extended time of God working patiently in quiet, unseen places. Yahweh is not one to rush the achievement of His purposes. He is satisfied to play the long game.

Ecclesiastes 7:8b thus seems a fitly spoken word for us, whether we aspire to ministry or have already “arrived.” It says, “better is the patient in spirit than the proud in spirit.” The contrast here is striking. Pride is the antithesis of patience. This reveals what lurks beneath impatience—Israel’s, Saul’s, and ours.

Let’s be honest. Much too often “making things happen” is a fruit of nascent pride. The proud in spirit feel they must force a quick fix when faced with prolonged circumstantial ambiguity. They are compulsive and cannot trust God with what they do not understand about His timing. Too self-interested to wait, they attempt to supplant His unhurried work. However, God honors those who wait patiently upon Him. Humility accompanies the learning of this lesson. Ultimately, a pastor does not control his ministry circumstances. And our best efforts to eliminate their ambiguity may well make things worse.

To pastor effectively, then, learn to feel at home in the reality that your circumstances are a matter of divine purview. God makes things happen, and most of the time it is not ours to know the what and the when of his good providence; the secret things belong to Yahweh (Deut. 29:29). He will cause His purposes to prevail at a time of His sovereign choosing. He will bring resolution to life’s ambiguities in accordance with His wisdom. We must not only learn to accept this; we must learn to embrace it with a heart that is quiet and full of trust.

Mark these things well, all who aspire to such a noble task. God’s ways are not our ways. In His always- wise estimation, the best things come with time. Therefore, alongside your study of Scripture, theology, preaching, and ministry methods, befriend patience also. Though often underestimated, it will be your pastoral superpower. Slow and steady wins the race.