Pastoring in a complex world

One pastor's journey from idealism to realism

David E. Thomas is pastor of the Village Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Lancaster, Massachusetts.

After 14 years as an Adventist pastor, the idealism of youth is gone, replaced by realism. This process has occurred amid bouts with disillusionment. Because I am not trapped in the ministry, several times I have considered transferring to another vocation. But after much thought, I have chosen to stay. And unlike many of my peers, I expect to stay for a long time. Through it all, I've come to love my work.

I find some identity with ancient Jeremiah. Zealous for the word of the Lord, he testified to having "a burning fire shut up in [his] bones" (Jer. 20:9). I feel that fire too but that's not all I feel. Permit me to open my heart and share the contemplations and meanderings of a real, live, working pastor writing from a North American perspective.

I can't know what ministry was like for previous generations, although I've read the writings of older pastors and conversed with them at length. Without question, pastoring has changed considerably over the past several decades. Pastors in the 1990s face complex challenges that have multiplied the difficulties and stresses of our profession.

Assessing our situation

Before I become specific, please remember that my reflections are descriptive, not pejorative. They are not criticisms so much as they are facts of ministry with which I live every day. Remember that in spite of them I cherish my role as a pastor.

Some of the conditions we pastors face today are societal. Materialistic trappings have diminished the sense of needing God. Beyond that, society has become thoroughly secularized. People worship science and its methods, and are schooled in skepticism. Those who make their living from religion are not highly regarded.

As respect for our profession has declined, the complexity of its demands has increased. Educated congregations no longer tolerate mediocrity. Increased counseling responsibilities complicate our workload, even after making referrals. Beyond that, pastors face mounting administrative duties. There is a blizzard of paper work to shovel through and numerous committees to attend. There are multiple constituencies to please, from the various factions in the congregation to the community.

Then there is our vital work of nurture and outreach visitation. Motivating the necessary volunteers is difficult now that our members are be coming resistant to responding out of obligation or guilt. They also are skeptical of promotional tactics. All of this makes church participation in public evangelism quite a challenge. Beyond that are the needs of our families and our own personal, spiritual, physical, and emotional requirements.


As if all of the above were not enough, pastors have been losing ground financially. I mention this not to be antagonistic or to suggest that the church is unfair. Nevertheless, pastors today do not earn an adequate wage when compared to our peers in past years. Some will take issue with this, pointing out that pastors are paid a median wage with good benefits. Certainly the benefits, in North America at least, are very protective. Yet for several decades pastors have been steadily losing ground, earning significantly less than their counter parts a generation ago. Pastors face increasing tax burdens, and education costs are rising much faster than wages. The general cost of living has risen faster than wages too. With church resources stretched to the limit, pay raises have not kept up with inflation.

All this complicates life for today's pastor. It is practically impossible to live on one salary. Having done so for nine years while raising children to school age, my wife and I can testify it can be done only with frugality rising to new heights and grandparents being generous. Now that our children are in school, one salary is simply not enough to provide, at least not where we live.

An unwilling acknowledgment

The issues discussed so far have their causes or root in society in general, flooding over to affect the church. But other challenges to pastors spring from within the church. We must be open to discuss them, even though doing so stirs some controversy and puts some people on the defensive.

Let me be specific. I believe our work is more difficult nowadays because, from my observations, pastoring is no longer a major concern of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I don't like this conclusion, and I've accepted it unwillingly. I hate to think that any church let alone mine, which was established to proclaim the gospel would reach the point where pastoring is no longer the majority concern. But look at the facts. Begin by looking at budgets. In our local conference, approximately 30 percent of gross tithe is spent on pastoral salaries. That means for every dollar a member gives in tithe, merely 30 cents or so actually goes for pastoral salaries and benefits, retirement excluded. Quite obviously, from a budgetary perspective, pastoring is not a majority concern of our conference, or of yours.

The fact that so little is spent on pastoral salaries means pastors must routinely carry multi-church districts. Members have scant pastoral resources on which to draw. Our budgets betray the fact that we do not consider pastoring as a significant means of growing churches. This flies in the face of indications showing that pastoring is critical to the advancement of the church.

Evidence to support the assertion that pastoring is not a high priority can be drawn from pay scales, too. Administrative and departmental workers earn more than pastors. While the differences in pay may not be great, it speaks loud and clear that in the value system of the church, pastoral work ranks at the bottom of the wage scale.

And look at how we allocate other resources. Administrators have many more resources available than pastors, not the least of which is secretarial help. This gives signals about priority, about whose work we really deem important. Little wonder, then, that many aspire to "rise above" the pastorate, in painful contrast to those who aspire to stay in it or return to it once they leave. The sad truth is that we regard a return to the pastorate as a demotion, as a going back, as some thing of a tragedy. The pastorate is the place of last resort.

Finally, we can determine the level of priority the pastorate enjoys by what happens at layoff time. With the possible exception of secretaries, pastors seem to be the most endangered. Savings are routinely achieved by cutting the number of pastors and increasing the size of districts. Again this speaks of low priority for pastors.

Pastoring in a church where what you do is not a majority concern makes our profession difficult today. Some would describe it as dismal. Our church must search for solutions. For that to happen in earnest, we must under stand the complex nature of the pastoral calling.

Requirements of ministry

What do pastors need to be effective today? We must have close association with God. Our affections must be given over to Him to mold and amend day by day.

Pastors also need integrity. Because our profession is not highly regarded now, it is especially important to maintain high standards in family life and other relationships. We must be true to our word, honest and genuine. We also need financial integrity and not cheapen our calling by requesting special favors and discounts.

Pastors today must have a genuine interest in people caring for them, teaching them, praying with them, binding up their wounds. We must sacrifice ourselves on the altar of service, dying again and again that others might live. Pastors also must have an ongoing commitment to excellence. If there ever was a time when the ministry could absorb castoffs from other places, that day is gone. We need excellence in the art of leading souls to Christ, excellence in solid, biblical preaching that " confronts the church and the world with God's message.

Pastors who survive and thrive need a certainty about God's calling. We need that "fire in our bones," an inner urging that compels us to keep on. This keeps our profession in perspective and provides an anchor in times of distress and discouragement.

Certainty about our call from God fosters commitment to pastoral minis try. The pastorate is not some lowly beginning place from which we hope to rise, a stepping-stone to something  better. There is nothing better, no place to rise to. Teaching, preaching, binding up wounds, bringing hope, all by the grace of God, are aspects of the greatest work. When all else in the church is gone, the work of the pastor will still endure. All other things are therefore secondary and supportive.

Rewards of ministry

In spite of the difficulties and challenges, in spite of the problems and stresses, pastoring is immensely re warding. There is no way to describe the contentment that comes from seeing the blessing of God upon our ministry. Words cannot describe the joy we feel when a burdened soul finds peace in Christ. There is no way to describe the blessing of a sermon well prepared, well delivered, and well received. There is no way to verbalize the satisfaction that comes from seeing the gospel make sense out of a life of nonsense.

I don't know what the future holds for me. The God who called me into the ministry could one day call me out. But at present I expect to remain right where I am, in the pastorate, with no sense of loss, with no sense of having been passed by. The sense of calling and the sense of fulfillment do not allow otherwise.

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David E. Thomas is pastor of the Village Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Lancaster, Massachusetts.

February 1995

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