I concluded fourteen years of pastoral ministry on July 30. Over the course of the seven weeks since, I have preached every Sunday in six different churches. Anytime I have the privilege to open God’s Word, there is a mixture of emotions that range from fearful wonder to exuberant joy. Preparing to preach, I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility in handling the Scriptures, knowing that I am not merely handling the words of men, but the very words of God. Every preacher—no matter who he is or where he proclaims it—remains under the same solemn charge to faithfully interpret and present God’s truth.
Yet in spite of the fact that I have preached every Sunday since leaving the pastorate, I have noticed something very strange over the course of these past weeks. The weight I feel waking up on a Sunday morning is completely different. Honestly, I am having a difficult time pinpointing the exact reasons for the change, but fundamentally I believe it comes down to the difference between being a preacher and being a pastor.
Pastoral ministry is a grave and glorious burden that is extremely difficult to describe to those who have never experienced it, yet very familiar to those who have. The sense of this weight has crushed many, while it has driven others to their knees in humble dependence upon the gracious Lord who counted them faithful by placing them in the middle of it (1 Timothy 1:12).
Pastors bear the grave and glorious burden to not only proclaim God’s Word, but to shepherd the hearts of those receiving it week in and week out. A pastor looks out upon a congregation that he has prayed for, wept over, celebrated and mourned with. He sees defects all round him, whether it is in his own glaring faults, in the church leadership, attenders, or just in the church building and property. He wonders if his ministry has been effective, is effective, or will be effective. He rejoices in lives that are transformed by the power of the Gospel, while mourning over those who turn aside from Christ.
Considering this grave and glorious burden, there are two passages I would like to bring to your attention. The first passage comes from Revelation 2. We commonly refer to the larger section of Revelation 2-3 as the letters to the seven churches. I am not out to change our designation of this passage, but something I would simply point out is that each of these letters are actually addressed to the “angel” or “messenger” of these churches rather than to the individual churches themselves. Certainly the “letters” were to be read within the churches, but the addressee is the messenger of the church. Beginning in Revelation 2:1 we read, “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write…”
From my study of this text, I believe the “angels” of these churches to be the “pastors” of these seven local congregations in Asia Minor. For pastors, this single—often overlooked—fact alone offers an impacting challenge to recognize the responsibility they have in leading the congregations God entrusts to their care. Within the letters to each church, Jesus will either commend or condemn them (and for most of the churches there will be a combination of the two). But what I take away from what Jesus has to say (since these commendations and condemnations are addressed to the pastor) is that it is a pastor’s responsibility—his grave and glorious burden—to labor within His congregation until Christ is formed in them (Galatians 4:17).
A final text that has been a challenge to me, as well as a source of encouragement, over the course of my pastoral ministry comes from 1 Peter 5:
“1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” (1 Pet. 5:1-4 KJV)
Peter begins by finding common ground with the pastors that are a part of his audience. To those pastors he is basically saying, “We are in the same boat. I—as a pastor—am exhorting each of the pastors who reads this.” Thankfully this inspired exhortation has been preserved to challenge and encourage pastors down through the ages to this very day. We can directly apply what Peter had to say to the pastors within the first century church to pastors in the twenty-first century church.
Within the middle of Peter’s charge, he reminds pastors that the burden of leading God’s flock is not to be borne by constraint (by force), but willingly (voluntarily) with a ready mind (eagerness). You may ask, “Who in their right mind would take upon themselves this enormous burden?” First of all, the answer is men like Peter who have witnessed (and have been transformed by) the sufferings of Christ. Certainly we did not witness Jesus’ sufferings with our physical eyes, but those who come to faith in Christ witness His sufferings with greater force than anything that can be seen with corporal eyes.
But Peter does not solely focus on suffering. In fact, when Peter ends out his charge to pastors, suffering is but a distant memory. His focus permanently shifts to glory. I love how glory serves as bookends to this passage. In verse one, even though we are witnesses of the sufferings of Christ, we are also partakers of the glory that shall be revealed. And finally, we are given a promise that every faithful pastor should cling to: When the chief Shepherd shall appear, you will receive a crown of glory that will never fade.
For this reason, I call the work of shepherding God’s flock a “grave and glorious burden.” Sometimes the weight of this calling seems to be more than a man can bear. Yet if that man casts himself in humble dependence upon God’s grace and keeps an eye on the glory that is to be revealed, and the crown that awaits him, he will find strength for his labors and joy to eagerly shepherd the flock.
As I have expressed before, one of our highest goals in this period of raising support is to encourage pastors, their wives and their families. I pray that God will encourage every pastor that reads this post. Our faithfulness to the Lord truly matters. The example we leave with our children will have an eternal impact. May God grant grace so that we will finish the course he has laid before us with joy to testify of our Savior.