"We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. For you remember our labor and hardship, brothers and sisters. Working night and day so that we would not burden any of you, we preached God’s gospel to you."
-- 1 Thessalonians 2:8-9
I've been out of pastoral ministry now for 5 years, and while I am not asked as often I was in those first few years, I still get the question a fair amount: "Do you miss it?"
It's an interesting question. I used to feel a little self-conscious about it, and was frequently tempted to a bit of soul searching. I found giving up pastoral ministry very spiritually discombobulating, as I had unwittingly made an idol of it. Pastoring became my identity, and I didn't really realize that until I believed the Lord was asking me to set it aside. So when people would ask, "Do you miss it?," I usually misinterpreted them to mean that what I do now is not as important or as noble or as spiritual. Or as understandable, maybe. (I mean, for the last 4 years I served in the position of Director of Content Strategy, the meaning of which hardly anybody knows, apparently.)
I'm less internally defensive about the question these days, and much more circumspect. The truth is, I miss pastoring. And I don't. That is, there are aspects of pastoral ministry only those in it get to enjoy, and I really do miss those aspects. And then there are aspects of it I definitely don't miss. First things first:
What I Miss About Pastoral Ministry
1. Preaching through books of the Bible to the same flock every week.
I get to preach all the time. That itch gets scratched in my public ministry, and I'm grateful for all the opportunities to serve God's people in the word near and far. The Lord has been kind to grant me favor in the use of this gift. He has called me to preach and he has not bridled me. I even get to preach in my local church probably 2-3 times a year, and that's always the most special preaching occasion, as it's to those my family has covenanted with.
But there's something so special about preaching through books of the Bible to the same church week after week. To take the flock assigned to you on a journey through the word is an exceptional privilege. The rises and falls of the text. The ebbs and flows of attendance. The sweet way the Lord providentially matches a long-scheduled text with an applicable need unforeseen but arising at its divinely appointed time is a pastoral thrill I miss. It is very satisfying to feed the flock.
2. Men's discipleship.
This is a very specific instance related to my last pastorate. I miss meeting on Monday evenings with a group of men, young to old, to dwell in the word a little and open up to see how the gospel might help us in our everyday lives. I do get to disciple young men today through my leadership of the Pastoral Training Center residency at our church, so I don't miss discipling per se. Every Christian ought to be serious about discipeship, not just pastors. But aside from weekly preaching, watching the sanctification of those men from the first row each week was my favorite part of my last pastorate.
3. Baptizing new believers.
Administrating the ordinance of baptism to people previously unchurched who had come to Christ through my or my church's ministry was a joy reserved for my office that cannot be replicated.
What I Don't Miss About Pastoral Ministry
1. Sleepless nights.
When I have trouble sleeping now it's usually because I ate something funky and too late in the evening. But when I was in pastoral ministry I frequently suffered sleepless nights. Sometimes because something stressful was happening in the life of the church, but often simply because the weight of pastoral ministry is heavy even when things were relatively peaceful. I really took it seriously that I would have to give an account for the souls entrusted to me. Every serious pastor does.
While worry is a sin, and I definitely should have trusted the Lord much more than I did with the spiritual wellbeing of others, I still spent many nights staring at the ceiling thinking of people in my church and their struggles and appealing to the Lord on their behalf (and mine!) that we would care for each other well. I am grateful now for ministry positions where I get to serve the Church -- which does come with burdens of its own -- but I do not miss that peculiar weight of a church on my shoulders as one who is responsible for leading them and feeding them.
If, like me, you are not a pastor, this is a good grounds for interceding for your shepherds constantly and striving to be as low-maintenance a member as God allows you to be, as faithful pastors far outnumber unfaithful ones, and they carry burdens we do not often see from our vantage point.
2. The anxiety (and reality) of not "being there" for everybody.
Oh, I still disappoint people. But when I was pastoring, I was always conscious of those who needed my time who I couldn't quite be there for. Or be there for enough. I didn't pastor a large church, and I had several lay elders sharing the burden of pastoral care with me, but as the full-time pastor, my weeks were a constant collision course with the limitations of me and of time itself. I couldn't be there for everybody. And that's not really the pastor's job anyway. Only Jesus can be available 24/7 for his people. But in juggling preaching, evangelism, administration, and of course being a faithful and present husband and father, I often had to prioritize needs and the people who felt them. I didn't enjoy that at all, despite the fact that it is necessary for effective pastoral work.
Now that I'm not a pastor, I feel much more free to "stay in my lane," to prioritize my ministry work according to my gifts and the flourishing of my family. The number of people I feel anxious about answering to has shrunk, and each of these authorities has given me the freedom to produce and perservere with cheerful trust. I worry much, much less now about "being there" for everybody, which is not a good thing in pastoral ministry but something I found myself given to time and time again by disposition and weakness.
3. People disliking me for no reason.
Or, at least, for unclear reasons. This is really the weirdest part of pastoral ministry and maybe the most unfortunate. When you're a pastor, you discover you disappoint some people just by being. You're not enough something for some, or you're too much of something else for others.
Of course, in public ministry I still have people who don't like me, but I am not responsible for the caretaking of their souls! In a general sense, I am responsible for the souls of my brothers and sisters -- I am my brother's keeper (and he is mine) -- but not in the same intense, authoritative, intimate way as I was for those with whom I shared a covenant of membership and for whom I was spiritually responsible.
I always did my best to ask how or why I had offended someone or what had come between us, but some people can't give a reason (or won't). This was always frustrating. And when it resulted in hard treatment of my wife, it was angering. But I never could quite get used to pastoring people who could not or would not explain why they were rude, disruptive, or divisive. And in my pastoral coaching, I know this is a widespread problem in churches. It is the most hurtful and confusing part of pastoral ministry for so many good brothers and their families. I don't miss that at all.
What I Both Miss and Don't Miss About Pastoral Ministry
The sweetest and at the same time bitterest privilege of being a pastor was helping saints die well. I hated it. And I gave all my heart to it. Sitting by bedsides, in hospice care and hospital rooms, holding hands and reading the Bible and praying and laughing and crying. Sitting with family members in living rooms and waiting rooms. Watching last breaths and hearing last prayers. Evangelizing lost family members and sending the departed out with funerary grace.
I can't say I carried out this ministry perfectly, but I had the opportunity to carry it out multiple times with brothers and sisters dear to me and, more importantly, dear to the Lord. It was awful and glorious at the same time. Let the reader understand. Pastors do.
In all, I don't miss pastoring. This is mainly because the Lord has been exceedingly sweet in confirming year by year the calling he has placed me under for the foreseeable future. My family has found a place to grow and flourish both as individual followers of Jesus and as committed churchfolk. I get to preach, I get to disciple, I get to serve churches all around the world in my writing and speaking ministry. And yet I am still conscious and in awe of the high privilege and lowly estate of the undershepherd. I love pastors -- mine and yours. I want to do all I can to serve them and encourage them in the gospel, because having seen their vantage point of the sheep pen, I know it is not easy, even when they make it seem so.
Love your pastors well, friends, and do your best, by God's grace, to make it so if they ever find themselves out of that office, they will miss it like crazy.