There are a lot of things that stink about being a pastor. There’s the long hours, the low pay, the unending meetings, emergency phone calls and hospital visits, and sometimes dealing with Christians who act worse than children. Being a pastor is a calling and I truly believe that if you are not called to do it, those things will eat you alive.
To me though, those are all part of the job. They might not be the most enjoyable parts of the job but most pastors have some understanding of those expectations before they get into it. Maybe the number of meetings or the sheer immaturity of Christians comes as a surprise but overall the difficulties are not hidden.
To me the real heartbreak of a pastor comes with the realization that we can’t change hearts. There are numerous reasons why pastors become pastors but probably the biggest reason is that we want to make a difference in people’s lives. This means different things to different pastors and it will be colored by their spiritual giftedness. Counselors will counsel, evangelists will evangelize, preachers will preach; regardless of the emphasis, pastors want to make a difference with their lives.
The problem is that we cannot make people do anything. That’s not to say that we don’t make a difference. What it is saying is that we don’t win every battle that we’re in. The best counselors can’t be assured that someone will take their advice. The best evangelist isn’t going to win every person to Christ. And the best preacher will not touch the heart of every person in the pews.
There are different measures of success and there’s no way to score a pastor’s true reach. The reality is though that we’re not always going to succeed and this hurts the most of all. Certainly there can be some measure of pride that causes hurt anytime we fail to change a heart but there is a real spiritual agony to failure as well. Every marriage that fails, every gospel that is rejected, every sermon ignored hurts on a real and personal level. It’s not because we think we know better, it’s because we know the likely consequences for the people we are trying to reach and that inability to reach them hurts almost as much as if we were going through it personally.
It’s easy to think that the church is full of people who have it all together and who have gathered together with a common purpose of worshipping their Lord and Savior. This is an ideal that probably does not exist in any church. Hopefully the church has some mature Christians who provide responsible leadership. At the same time, there are people who are barely holding their life together and the only thing they really know is that they need Jesus and He is getting them through day by day. And at the other end of the spectrum there is quite possibly someone who has attended the church for decades who clings to church traditions and an heir of self righteousness but doesn’t actually have a personal relationship with God.
The pastor loves these people and wants to save each one of them from whatever circumstance is dragging them down. He wants to cure every drug addict. He wants to resolve every financial hardship. He wishes he could heal every illness. And he absolutely wants every person to have a real relationship with the Lord.
What breaks the pastor’s heart is that he can’t fix everything. Even if he had every answer and the energy to address every situation, not everyone will follow his advice. Not everyone will follow biblical teaching even if they claim to be or really are a Christian. While the pastor can make a great impact in the life of a lot of people, it’s the people that he can’t reach that keeps him up at night. If he has 9 successes out of 10, the tenth one will haunt him.
It might seem overdramatic to obsess over failures that didn’t stand a chance of being successes because a person’s heart was hard to begin with. But the pastor recognizes the stakes that he lives with constantly. If a lawyer fails at his job, the worst thing that happens is that an innocent person goes to jail. If a doctor fails at his job, the worst thing that happens is a person dies. If a pastor fails at his job, lives can be ruined and people go to hell.
No, the pastor is not responsible if he fulfilled his duty and a person did not listen to him. But he will wonder if there wasn’t another way to reach the person. He will ponder if perhaps the outcome would be different if he had prayed more. Maybe he has strong coping skills and can continue on knowing that he won’t win every battle. He might not beat himself up for the losses. But he’s still likely to wonder if something else could have been done.
A pastor defines himself as much by his failures as his successes. The successes get reported – conversions, baptisms, church growth – and hopefully these are celebrated by the church as well as the pastor. But only the pastor knows about the advice not taken, the people who are still hurting within the church, the well intentioned church attendee that just seems unable to get their life on track.
There a lots of joys as a pastor. Leading a group of believers in worship of Almighty God is an experience few will ever have. There are lives that are forever changed for the good. There are wins in ministry that are worth celebrating. But all of this does come with heartbreak as well because we know some will just never get it. They see others live a joyful Christian life but they’ll never humble themselves and submit to it. It hurts the pastor to watch it happen but he will most likely soldier on because there is always another person who needs help.