4 Reasons Pastoral Work is Different (and What You and I Should Do About It)

I’ve been a pastor and I’ve not been a pastor, and I have to tell you, pastors are special. There is nothing quite like pastoral work, and I’ve discovered it is sometimes difficult to communicate that effectively to congregations. If you’ve never been a pastor, you may even suspect all the anxious, recent talk about pastoral stress and burnout and the like is overblown. We’ve all heard the jokes about how pastors only work one day a week.

There are also plenty of us who have served under or otherwise been led by manipulative, lazy, or even abusive pastors, giving us even more cause to raise an eyebrow about any posture toward ministers other than “keeping them honest.” There are certainly too many unqualified men in the pastoral ranks. But I’m convinced the vast majority of pastors are good and faithful men doing their imperfect best to serve the Lord and feed their flocks. And I’m equally convinced that too few church members often think about the burdens and responsibilities that really do make ministry special.

Too few pastors feel secure or free enough to speak this way in public. They fear being judged or dismissed. From my time “on the other side,” I can say that I — and almost every ministerial comrade I opened up to — felt constantly misunderstood and constantly restrained from confessing it.

Now that I’m not a pastor, I have taken seriously one of my ministerial goals in serving pastors and advocating for pastors. To that end, if you’re one of those who thinks pastors whine too much and work too little, I want to share with you some reasons you may not have considered that pastoral work really is different.

1. The qualifications are greater.

Every Christian is called to pursue holiness with the same vigor. No one is exempted from cooperating with the Spirit’s work in sanctification. But 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 all set the bar for pastors higher. They must not only be gifted to teach but be of exceptional and reputable character. This is not so for “regular” church members. The Lord himself has set the bar higher for elders.

2. The accountability is heightened.

As it should be. We should, in the biblical sense, expect more from our shepherds than the sheep. James 3:1 tells us that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. 1 Peter 4:17 says judgment begins at the house of God, and if it begins there, it certainly begins with the leaders of that house. So we know that the Lord himself holds his undershepherds to greater accountability. Pastors are to “be examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3).

But “we the people” hold our pastors to greater accountability than we often do ourselves, don’t we? In some respects, this is a good thing, as the qualifications for ministry are greater than the qualifications for membership. Yet when a member is in sin that must be disciplined, and the impact to the church is great, the impact is far greater if that member happens to be a pastor. Not to mention, not many members are at serious risk of losing their means of providing for their families due to their sin. But pastors are.

Still further, I can think of almost no situation where a church member would lose his job over another member’s disappointment with them or disagreement with them — unless that other member happened to be their employer, I suppose — but many pastors are at constant risk of this, constantly feeling the tug between convictional leadership and congregational approval. Every pastor knows at least one pastor who has been fired or convinced to resign for unbiblical reasons — if he hasn’t been subject to that situation himself. Because, in a church environment, where even minor disagreements or frustrations have the potential for becoming spiritualized, the pastor’s job is never “just a job.”

3. Pastoral work takes an enormous emotional toll.

This is the part I think most church members don’t quite get. Until you’ve experienced it, you can’t quite understand it. If you trust your pastor(s), you believe them when (if!) they talk about it, but until you’ve been in the role, you really can’t understand the emotional toll taken on good pastors. Closely analogous roles would be those who do emergency work, police officers, or even some social workers, where one constantly feels “on,” there are frequent crises that keep the worker’s adrenaline going long after the crisis is over, and there are experiences and challenges that become difficult to discuss with others who do not share the same work.

Some studies have shown that the occupations at highest risk of burnout include what are called “helping professions,” of which pastoral ministry is one. The numbers change depending on which study you’re looking at, but the burnout and dropout rates for pastors aren’t encouraging.

In 2 Corinthians 11, after Paul has listed a series of hardships severely affecting his body and soul — including shipwrecks, imprisonments, attempts on his life — he includes “the anxiety he feels for all the churches” (v.28). Just this admission from Paul helped me enormously in ministry as I wondered from time to time, a) am I a weak weirdo to feel this way?, and b) does anyone care? Paul citing the anxiety he feels from his church work is just one indicator that there is a “good” kind of anxiety shepherds feel for their flocks. It is the rare (and valuable) church member who constantly carries the weight of his or her whole church in their heart, but most pastors do this all the time. They aren’t simply thinking about the joys and sorrows in their own lives and families — they are constantly thinking about the joys and sorrows in yours. That’s different.

4. You can’t turn it off.

Though I’m still in vocational ministry, I can tell you that the difference between the end of my work day now and the end of my work day when I was a pastor is significant. While I still carry too many of tomorrow’s sorrows into today, and while there are always projects and endeavors occupying my mind outside of official “office hours,” for the most part I am able to “turn off” my job when it’s time to stop working. When I was a pastor I could not do that. Here’s what it typically looked like:

– You are “on call” 24/7 for emergencies (and situations people considered emergencies, even if they really weren’t).

– I lost lots of sleep over hurts people carried, sins people were committing, resentments people were harboring, and circumstances that seemed too spiritually daunting.

– When going on vacation, it typically took me a few days just to start relaxing. In my first few years, this would be immediately undone if I made the bonehead move of checking email or voicemail.

– It was hard to be present with my wife and kids because of frequent, intense relational work necessary during ministry engagements. They needed my best when I was at my most fatigued relationally.

– People’s spiritual needs do not tend to stay confined within a neat 40-hour work week.

Again, none of this is grounds for pastoral self-pity. And of course there are other professions where these sorts of dynamics are also in play. Overbounding stress is prevalent in way too many of us. But there’s a reason most pastors won’t talk about it. Partly because they mean to just “suck it up.” Partly because they don’t want to appear weak. And partly because they know some church members will think they’re complaining about nothing. There are very few things worse than a wimpy preacher, am I right?

But the truth is that good pastors are not able to take the pastor hat off at the end of the day or leave their heart for their flocks in the office when they clock out. It’s just not something you can turn off.

For all these reasons and more, it is fine and proper for us “regular” church members to acknowledge that our pastors are special. They aren’t better Christians because of their ministry. They aren’t more justified. They don’t have a special connection to God that we don’t have. And yet their office is unique and brings with it unique challenges and burdens that most of us do not share.

So how could we share these burdens with them to a greater extent? Here are 3 big tips, from one sheep to another:

1. Pray for your pastors.

They need it. And praying for them helps shape your heart in gracious ways toward them. When I’m praying for my pastors, I am loving them. And it is hard to have a loving disposition toward someone and scrutinize or otherwise be suspicious of them at the same time. (This is why Paul lists those things as evidence of a lack of love in 1 Corinthians 13.)

2. Take seriously not just the biblical admonitions to pastoral accountability but also to pastoral honor (1 Tim. 5:17).

This can look like anything from staying vigilant about making sure pastoral pay is commensurate with experience and tenure but also in line with cost of living considerations. It can also look like installing a sabbatical schedule for full-time pastors or just ensuring adequate vacation time and weekly days off are enjoyed by pastors and respected by the church.

3. Be a low-maintenance church member.

As a church member, I want to take Hebrews 13:17 seriously: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This means living my life in such a way that it is as much a joy and as little a challenge to be my pastor as possible.

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

We’re giving away a free eBook copy of Praying the Bible, where Donald S. Whitney offers practical insight to help Christians talk to God with the words of Scripture.