Tale of a twenty-first-century pastor

The daunting demands of pastoral ministry and its rich rewards

William Colburn is pastor of the Ventura Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ventura, California.

My work day had begun at 7:00 a.m., and now it was after 10:00 p.m. I was sit ting in my car chatting with a church member in his driveway some 20 miles from my own. This evening, we had both participated in our small group's outreach project. I am thankful the event included dinner, because lunch had been a logistical impossibility.

A few months earlier both of us had traveled to Southeast Asia to build latrines at a mission school. There we negotiated mosquitoes, language challenges, food that carried the constant possibility of illness for our foreign digestive systems, and cultural practices different from our way of life. Despite all that, I thanked God for the opportunity to work side by side with this man of God. I delighted in his practice of Christian graciousness to everyone we met whatever their demeanor, whatever the circumstances. This man, a building contractor, had unselfishly contributed his time, energy, and expertise in his ministry for Christ.

Our late evening discussion in his drive way had surrounded his recent life-altering accident. It had cost him a large percentage of his sight. It was one of those profoundly puzzling "God, why?" experiences. My friend had been suddenly and traumatically con fronted with a life-altering handicap that effectively retired him from his career.

At first he had struggled with all the usual questions. But his faith in God admirably reoriented him.

He was confident that God would teach him through this tragedy how to use his loss to the glory of his Lord. My heart simultaneously agonized and cheered for him. As we were ending our conversation, he surprised me with a question. He asked how I was doing.

I don't like talking about myself. My work isn't supposed to be about me. My response was typically evasive and minimalist.

Me? "Thanks for asking. I'm OK. It has been a hectic week, but God is good."

He cut to the chase. "It must be very tough at times being a pastor. Our church has faced so many tragedies recently and you have been there through all of them. How do you handle all that and still have something to offer the next person?"

Through my mind there flashed the things that had demanded my attention during just the previous four days. It was only Wednesday evening, and I knew I had already put in a 50-hour week.

I responded to his question saying, "God called me to this work and for the most part I really enjoy it. I'm still learning how to unceasingly pray and trust God for the wisdom and strength I need each moment. Ultimately, He is the Shepherd and I'm just His under-shepherd."

As my friend left the car he turned and said, "I'll pray that the rest of your week will be peaceful."

What it means to be a pastor

But that night as I drove back to my home, tired and anxious to see my family doubtless, fast asleep I thought more about what it meant to be a pastor.

There were the usual role responsibilities. Each week I was expected to preach a sermon that the congregation anticipated would be words directly gifted to me from God's throne. I take sermon preparation very seriously. I ask God each week to give me the wisdom needed to expose the biblical text in a way that feeds the most inquiring mind, while being simple enough for the youngest in the Lord to comprehend. I pray for a practical illustration that will serve as an anchor for the ship of truth in the consciousness of my congregation. I ask for divine cleverness in reaching the saints of each generation under my care.

Each week I'm humbled by the realization that I have no idea how to accomplish this God-given task. Yet, I'm never disappointed by my encounters with God as I struggle to make His Word clear and life-altering.

There is much more to ministry counseling, administration, instruction, continuing education, fundraising, meetings, and the list goes on. The formerly mundane aspects of the pastorate have today evolved into intensely challenging stressors demanding decisive but wise judgment and well-processed action. Mature pas tors seek to surround themselves with a team of spiritually gifted and experienced members who can complement them in areas we now openly confess as our weaknesses.

In many parts of the world, the twenty-first-century church's complexity has all but eliminated the any-person-will-do helpers of the past; not that people stand in line these days. We all but interrogate anyone volunteering for certain roles, feeling that we must confront them with sometimes invasive questions and life scans before allowing them to be alone with our children.

An understandable social neuroticism has riveted our consciousness to the rules of ethics when it comes to relationships male/female, adult/child, and even male/male. The ever-present possibility of litigation increasingly convinces us to welcome the fiats of risk management personnel even though they unhesitatingly excise spontaneous fun from once popular church activities.

In many countries, building codes disqualify weekend volunteer warriors from quick, convenient church remodelings. Along with this, there are stricter tax laws requiring the over sight of informed financial officers.Everything about church demands pastoral expertise in budgeting and demanding accountability for every penny not to mention making sure each donor receives an accurate year-end report for tax purposes.

Fearful of being fired

It is not an exaggeration to say that American culture which seems to permeate so many world cultures at some level has turned the leadership role of pastors on its head. The ubiquitous absence of respect even for the office of pastor is implicit if not explicit. Everyone, whether qualified for the role or not, seems to want equal input in declaring the theology of the church. A pastor can no longer march ahead tacitly expecting the flock to follow. Pastors cannot take for granted that they will be seen as expert guides in negotiating spiritual life.

We ministers cannot hedge our decisions, confident that God's grace will overlook our disobedience to what we honestly believe we should say or do. Nor can we blithely meander through the fickle mine field of constituent whims to the extent that we used to. The truth is that these days we are more fearful of being fired (sacked) at the starting gate by humans than being judged by God at the pearly gates!

In addition to these realities, we often sense little by way of a corporate safety net; often there's really no one to turn to or to confide in or, in some cases, even to safely consult with. It's difficult to find anyone safe with whom we may have an honest discussion about difficulties, doubts, or temptations.

Thus, the tenure of the successful pastor is often measured by that pas tor's adeptness in the art of avoiding anything that seems to alienate certain people or exacerbate a given "situation."

When I reflect on my 60- to 70- hour work week never expecting time-and-a-half for overtime; conceding to the prohibitions against moon lighting for extra cash overlooking the annoyance of glass house scrutiny by that practiced, self-appointed posse for ecclesiastical (and, of course, theological) purity, and the exasperating question that perpetually seems all too close to the surface: And what, besides preaching once a week, does a pastor really have to do, anyway? then I understand the catharsis I feel in penning this piece.

Pastoral emotions float yo-yo like somewhere between joy and grief; delight and horror; courage and fear. During any one day as a pastor I might officiate at a wedding and then sit with a grieving family at a hospital; enjoy a young disciple's "Aha!" as she grasps a new biblical truth and then rebuke the waywardness of some other hell-bent youth; anoint an ill member and then baptize a new believer; be angrily confronted by a seemingly neglected parishioner and also praised for being such a caring and organized pastor; be rung by a distraught parent or nearly hung by a mentally disturbed transient; back away from the flirtations of a lonely woman and yet embrace a frightened cancer-stricken woman; again disappoint my family to minister to a member and later rejoice at the confession of a child's blossoming faith; be asked to have the graduation address and later to deliver a funeral homily. Of course we are expected to remain emotionally healthy and spiritually unfrazzled through all this.

Daunting price

Naturally, the twenty-first-century pastor is perpetually tethered to a periodically useful cell phone that's equipped with email and text messaging and an early model PDA synchronized daily with his aging laptop. The "miracle" of our age is that in one afternoon we may actually maneuver through what pastors a century ago took a month to accomplish.

All this comes at a daunting price. Instant access to the caring pastor means receiving calls that include asking or demanding, suggesting or pontificating, accusing or even threatening and all wanting an equally immediate sincere reply from wherever one happens to be when the call comes in a meeting, driving, in the restroom, sleeping. The cost is often assessed in the currency of spiritual sanity.

My humanity is often tested necessarily so, I confess. I am a sinner in need of grace lots of grace. My character though often expected to be pristine is in reality a work in progress like everyone else's. I had a past before I let Christ into my life. I still have issues that need to be resolved. I have ups and I have downs. I don't always know what God is doing or wants me to do. I sometimes complain to God, even angrily. I have temptations. I fall short. I sin. I feel pain, shame, and guilt. I weep. I hurt. But, thank You, Lord Jesus, that I'm alive to feel all of these things, yet know You love me still despite my imperfect reflection of Your love.

But it's worth it!

All this reminds me of Paul, who once cried out: "People are watching us as we stay at our post ... in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing us his power; when we're doing our best setting things right; when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, [yet] having it all (2 Cor. 6:6-10. The Message).

I was nearly home when I noticed that my cell phone now finally within a zone where I could pick up a signal (another story) had several unanswered messages. The first was from my wife "Did you know there was an accident at the youth social tonight? An ambulance took one of the young people to the hospital. They want you at the emergency room." The second message was from the hospital. "Pastor, when you get this message, please come to the hospital. We need you."

At the stop sign, a right would take me home. A left would take me to the hospital.

It was after midnight when I final ly got to bed. But I can't imagine any other profession, any other calling in the twenty-first century, which could be as rewarding as this work of being a pastor.


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William Colburn is pastor of the Ventura Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ventura, California.

May 2005

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