The Spirit must descend and produce new birth. Pastors are primed to long for the Holy Spirit. Every day, they are being backed further and further into the corner of God’s sovereignty, where they realize that they are weak, fearful, trembling, unpersuasive, and unwise (1 Cor 2:3-4). Many will dig a hole in the ground, hide, and quit. But others will fall to their knees with tears in their eyes and desperation in their hearts. When they do, the Lord will respond with faithful mercy because even when we are faithless, He remains faithful. He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13).
1) Sisyphean Striving – The Job Can Feel Pointless (Ironically)
Work is difficult when the purpose is obscured. The story is told about two janitors working in the NASA building during the 1960s. One janitor was depressed because he thought he was insignificant compared to the literal rocket scientists in the building. He found so little purpose in his mopping the floor compared to their space exploration that his work began to feel completely meaningless. His friend, on the other hand, was always whistling while he worked. Finally, someone asked the second janitor, “Why are you so happy at work while your coworker is so dejected?” The happy janitor replied, “I love my job. I’m putting a man on the moon!”
The two janitors perceived radically different levels of fulfillment in their identical jobs solely because they had different perceptions of what they were doing. Fulfillment came to the second janitor because he thought what he was doing was important. The exact same work was drudgery because the first janitor thought it was meaningless. Pastors are a lot like the first janitor. They enter their calling hearing that it is the most exalted calling in the whole world. I heard the story a few times in seminary that a pastor immediately denied requests that he run for president of the United States because to do so would be a demotion in his eyes. This is true.
Every pastor has this expectation of the work—it will feel like the most important thing in the world because it is! Nothing is more important than sharing the gospel of eternal glory. However, most pastors do not experience this level of meaningfulness for long stretches of time. Though they expect their work to be meaningful, when they actually do the work, they don’t see the fruit. They know that preaching the gospel is the hope of the world and that it changes people’s lives. But they often preach the gospel, and nothing changes. Actually, that’s not true. They preach the gospel, and things get worse. This is why Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet.
Imagine you were a farmer, and you worked tirelessly to grow various crops—wheat, corn, and other vegetables. If you saw your job as growing as much food as possible and storing it safely, you would likely have a degree of satisfaction. You might not be doing anything important with the food you grow, but it’s safely stored, and the future possibility of using the food for something good would encourage you. That is like studying the Bible, which is the pastor’s main job. A pastor can study the Bible and enjoy the work because it is storing up biblical wisdom and helping him grow spiritually.
Now, imagine that your job as a farmer was not only to grow and store that food but to cook the food for people. That is the second half of the pastor’s job. He not only must study the Bible, he must take what he learns and feed it to the Lord’s sheep. He must teach. If the farmer was tasked with cooking but the people he gave the food to didn’t seem to benefit, it would be discouraging. If the people said, “This food is too cold, too hot, too bland, too spicy, not what I like, better down the street, etc.” It would be hard to hear. Furthermore, if the people did not seem to benefit from the food, it would be crushing. If they didn’t grow and in fact, were getting sick, the farmer would want to give up. Why on earth do all the work of growing the food then cooking and serving it if the people not only don’t like it but aren’t benefitting from it? No sane farmer would stick with that task.
This is what many pastors feel like. They study the Bible and prepare sermons, but the people often complain. Some complaints are bearable because we know it’s going to happen. The desire to quit occurs not when people complain but when the preaching doesn’t seem to “work.” Nobody gets saved, the people don’t grow in godliness, the church culture doesn’t get any better, and maybe it even gets worse. The pastor spends 20 long hours slaving over his sermon, and when all is said and done, in the words of a pastor I know, “it’s like it never happened.” Many churches today are in this exact situation—no growth, lots of complaints, and it just gets worse. In these circumstances, the pastor feels exactly like the farmer whose food gets rejected. We expect pastors to continue on happily in this situation, while we would never expect the same of the farmer!
In a word, many pastors feel like their work isn’t accomplishing anything, and it may even be making things worse. Complaints and critiques ring loud, and compliments hollow. Fruit is unripe, and sin is rampant. When I joined the Army, I was sorely disappointed at the reality of the work. The recruiter videos have almost nothing to do with what the job actually was. But I couldn’t quit because I had great friends, and the government forced me to stay. Pastors often find themselves in a similar situation, yet they are often the loneliest people on the planet and feel like everyone wants them to leave. It’s a miracle so many stay!
This might sound pretty bad, but it gets much worse. Many pastors think they are joining the ministry to serve God as humble servants. Unfortunately, some don’t understand what their true motive is. Though they say and think that they want to serve God, in the back of their minds, they imagine the ministry to be about them—they get pats on the back, people listen to them, they don’t have to work very hard, they even get famous with megachurches and book deals. If a pastor has this secret idol of the heart and the Lord is kind enough to give him a failing ministry, he may find himself not only questioning the point of his work, but he may also question his calling! He may realize that he was never called in the first place because he isn’t willing to serve the Lord if it hurts. He didn’t really want to serve the Lord as a servant, but he wanted to speak as a celebrity. The pastors who find themselves in this situation have salt poured into the wound. They find the work much less fulfilling than they thought it would be, and they find their hearts much more sinful than they thought they were. It’s a double whammy of pastoral burnout.