I was recently listening to two retired pastors talk about their many years in ministry. Both men had been in pastoral ministry for over thirty years. One pastor asked the other pastor, “What was your greatest achievement in ministry?” Without missing a beat the pastor said, “Survival.” There was no laughing after the answer was given. The pastor being asked the question went on, “The greatest achievement in pastoral ministry is survival.”
When I told my wife about the pastor’s comment, she said, “Wow, that’s depressing.” Her response got me thinking that perhaps some of you reading this wonder why a retired pastor would say such a thing. Allow me to let you in on the pastor’s world. Here are some thoughts as to why survival is the greatest achievement in ministry.
Pastoral ministry is mentally taxing. A large part of pastoral ministry is sermon preparation. And make no mistake about it, this is hard work. A pastor doesn’t read a passage a few times, jot down some thoughts, and then step into the pulpit on Sunday mornings. (That might be what some pastors do, and hence their poor sermons.) No, sermon preparation involves hours upon hours of study, breaking down a passage into its component parts, looking for the natural breaks, flow of thought, and logical connections. Then comes studying it in the original Greek and Hebrew, doing word studies, all with an eye toward trying to find the main point of the passage. After that’s done, then you start reading commentaries. A pastor may consult anywhere between 5 to 25 commentaries, trying to learn what other people have said about the passage to be preached.
All in all, this can take up to 25-35 hours of your time. And some churches require their pastors to preach two sermons a week! A pastor in my denomination just transitioned from being a seminary professor to being a pastor. He said by far the most demanding part of being a pastor is the constant sermon preparation. And he only had to preach 40 times a year! When I read that I thought, “I would love to only have to preach 40 times a year! Quit your bellyaching!” The professor-turned-pastor said, “It’s like . . . as soon as you’re done with one sermon, you have to start preparing the next one.” Right.
In addition to sermon preparation, there are small group Bible studies, Sunday school classes, membership classes, one-on-one discipleship meetings, denominational meetings and responsibilities, etc. On and on it goes. And all of this requires study and preparation.
Pastoral ministry is physically draining. As already mentioned, there are meetings, meetings, and more meetings. This leaves you feeling tired, of course. But in ministry, remember, you’re never really “off the clock.” You’re always on call. This is what causes so many marital problems. Your wife begins to feel like you’re out all the time, sometimes every night of the week. But here’s another kicker about the ministry: There’s no separation between your private life and your public life. This means that, while the church expects you to be at all of its functions, they also expect you to have a great marriage. I had one pastor tell me, “My congregation wants me to clean the church, shovel the snow, change the light bulbs, preach great sermons, be at every function, and have the perfect marriage.” Listen: It ain’t gonna happen. Eugene Peterson said once, “The only one who could fill the job description that some churches write for their pastors would be Jesus Christ.” Hence, why pastors are often so tired.
Pastoral ministry is relationally challenging. This is what makes ministry tough. All of the statistical data revolves around this one issue. According to “Lifeline for Pastors,” 85 percent of pastors say their biggest challenge is dealing with people. Another survey revealed that 90 percent of pastors say the hardest thing about ministry is dealing with people and their problems. But here’s another interesting fact: The majority of pastors who resign from their churches or quit the ministry altogether do so, not because there are bunch of people who are mean to them, it’s usually just one person in the church. That’s right. Even though the majority of people in a church may be extremely loving and encouraging to the pastor, it only takes one to make his life miserable.
Long-time pastor Paul Zahl observes, “Most members of the clergy will tell you that the phenomenon most damaging to their morale is the emergence of the difficult person.” In an interview, Zahl confessed that the reason he left his first church was due solely to one man who kept criticizing him. Included in relational challenges would be unrealistic expectations people have on the pastor. This continues to weigh on us. When a pastor feels like everything he says and everything he does is being scrutinized down to the smallest detail, it becomes demoralizing. Paul Zahl’s son, David, says that all of life at times begins to feel like a test, and “an evaluative atmosphere produces self-consciousness at best and resentment at worst.”
I appreciate that sentence by David. He’s right on the money: A persistent, unending evaluative atmosphere is crushing. And we pastors can deny it all we want and our congregations can deny it all they want, but pastors are judged to be successful based upon the number of people who attend their church and the financial stability of the church.
Christian counselor Paul Tripp, like most young men, studied and prepared for ministry. He went to Bible College and seminary. Yet in a recent interview he said, “After two years of ministry, I was done. I couldn’t take it anymore.” From the men I know who have stayed in ministry for 20 to 30 years, most of them didn’t retire because they were tired or had planned on retiring at a certain age. Most of them simply confessed that they, too, couldn’t take it anymore either.
I realize that a lot of this is depressing. If you’re not a pastor, you’re probably not aware of half the battles your pastor is facing. I’m not asking for you to feel sorry for my band of brothers and me. This is more of a plea than anything else. Friends, pray for your pastors. Encourage them. Love them. Support them.
 Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 245.