When I was twenty-six I began my ministry at First Baptist Church in Covington, GA. I was single, and I was moving to a town where I knew no one to pastor the 185-year-old First Baptist Church. In so many ways I had no idea what I was walking into, and no idea what I would learn. I was the pastor of First Baptist for five challenging, wonderful, painful, eventful, and happy years. I can’t even begin to recount all that I learned in those years but one thing I most certainly began to learn, and something that I am learning still is the pastor’s burden.
When I went to First Baptist as a confident 26-year-old, I thought that the pastor’s burden was the busyness of the job. There is always a sermon to write, always a staff member to develop, always a member to counsel, always a committee meeting to attend, and always someone to visit in the hospital. I have pastored a small bi-vocational country church, a large suburban church, and currently, I am planting a church in the urban core of a major American city. They all have their challenges, but as one southern Presbyterian minister once told me, “there is no more difficult place to pastor than a white-columned church in a white-columned town.” I certainly concur with his assessment as the expectations on a county seat First Church pastor are broad and deep. All of this to say, I used to think that the pastor’s burden was the late nights and the early mornings and the restless weekends, and the seemingly never-ending list of tasks and seemingly never fulfilled expectations. In time though my burden has changed, maybe I am used to the pace of pastoral ministry, or maybe I have just actually learned the job.
The pastor’s burden isn’t the late Saturday nights of finishing up a sermon or the early morning breakfasts. The pastor's burden isn’t finding yourself in a hospital room trying to comfort someone you barely know or driving to a graveside service 2 hours away on a Wednesday afternoon before being expected to preach a bible study that night. No, none of those things are the pastor’s burden. In fact, the farther you go in this work and calling the lighter all of those things seem to grow. The pastor’s real burden is the weight of the souls of his members. This is the weight that the pastor must truly carry. Hebrews 13:17 tells us that one day, it is for these souls that we will give an account before God. In light of really understanding this, of really taking ahold of this as a pastor, I find myself burdened less over my schedule and more burdened over souls. I find myself thinking less about the church’s direction and praying more for the people in the church directory.
In those early days at First Baptist the things that really bothered me were when people would critique my leadership and when people tried to stand in the way of progress, but now the things that really bother me are when my people aren’t hungry for God’s word, and when they are drawn away from obedience to the Lord by trivial and worldly things. I guess you could say that it has taken me some time to understand what a shepherd really does.
In those early days at First Baptist I saw the preaching as a gift and the pastoring as a bit of a burden, but now while I still see the preaching as a gift, I see the pastoring as an even greater gift. The fact that people are willing to open up their lives to you in their most vulnerable and intimate moments is the true gift of pastoral ministry, and it is also the true burden. The call of a pastor to carry people’s pain, loss, difficult decisions, and sicknesses with them and to all the while be pointing them to Jesus who ultimately takes all of those things away. In those early years at First Baptist ten months felt like an enormous amount of time if we weren’t making “good progress,” but now all those years feel like they were yesterday.
The pastor’s burden is a heavy burden, but it is a glorious burden that I can’t believe God in his kindness has asked me to carry. I’m grateful for the members of First Baptist that helped me see this in those early days and for many others who have helped me see it since. Pastoral ministry is a busy job, but you get used to the pace. What you don’t get used to is the weight of the souls of men. I pray God’s help for me and for all my fellow pastors as we carry the pastor’s burden.