Pressure and Priority in Pastoral Ministry

At any given moment pastoral ministry presents pressures, real and perceived, upon the pastor. Sermons need to be written and then delivered; members need to be cared for, visitors contacted, plans developed and vision casted. The church won’t run or grow itself after all.

These pressures can leave the pastor overwhelmed about where to begin or exhausted because of all the unfocused beginning he has already done. The uniqueness of 2020 has only exacerbated these problems. We are living in the middle of a global health crisis, a fractured society still struggling to repent and reconcile over racism, and political polarization that gives the appearance that even Christians loath their neighbor rather than love them. This is the field that pastors are navigating in 2020. This is not a complaint. Shepherding the flock of God through this minefield is the pastors joy (1 Peter 5:1-5).

However, this unique season leads to a number of new pressures. Social media often calls pastors to do a number of things. These calls often imply that pastors are generalists who must play CEO, counselor, sociologist, advocate, activist, and social worker. All of these are good things, but the pastoral vocation is much more particular than the general pressures often placed upon pastors. The great tradition of pastoral ministry refers to the pastor as the spiritual director and refers to his work as the care/cure of souls. Pastors have the unique task of unapologetically connecting God and his Word to people’s coming and goings: life, work, and play.

Where do pastors begin and what should they spend their time doing?

Eugene Peterson in Working the Angles defines a pastoral work as “…a ministry of word and sacrament.” This is the primary task of the pastor: to minister through the preaching of the Word of God and to minister through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Prepared for opposition Peterson recognizes the difficulty of this sin-plagued life and asks, “But in the wreckage what difference can a little water, a piece bread, a sip of wine make?”

A great deal actually, but let’s come back to that. The question we need to reflect on is this: who will do the ministry of Word and Sacrament if not the pastor? Of course there are many good and important things a pastor could do, but why do them when there are particular vital tasks a pastor is called to do.

In response to the expected opposition Peterson writes, “Yet century after century Christians continue to take certain persons, set them apart, and say, ‘We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel…This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.”

Paul highlights the particular focus of the pastoral vocation in his letter to Timothy.

 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:13-16

Notice the language that Paul uses, “devote”, “do not neglect”, “practice”, and “immerse.” The ministry of the Word is not one of many equal things the pastor does. It is the primary priority of what the pastor does. In the wreckage of life the pastor ministers the word of God to “save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim. 4:16) The Spirit works to save us through the ministry of the Word of God.

In the Supper we feast on the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ as we remember his body broken for us and his blood shed for us. We proclaim his death and wait with hope for his return (1 Cor. 11:23-26). What difference can a little water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make? A great deal actually.

The pressures that pastors feel during this tumultuous season can lead to doubt, discouragement, and feelings of failure. But pastors have never been called to be everywhere and do everything.

To borrow the language of Peterson, they can find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.