Sometimes I wonder why I love being a pastor.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a pastor provides a front row seat to many of life’s greatest joys. You get to officiate weddings and breakdance at receptions. You get to visit new parents in the hospital and, if you’re Presbyterian like me, baptize their beautiful children a few Sundays later. You know the joy of praying before delicious meals at family reunions and holiday celebrations because, after all, you’re lovingly labeled “the professional.” The joys are innumerable.
But so are the sorrows. You might have the dubious honor of accompanying a family member to identify the body after a drowning or a car accident or a murder, and then try to comfort their soul-stricken family and friends at a memorial service scheduled sixty or seventy years too soon. You might get to usher surviving children out of a home so that the detectives can meet with the parent who didn’t just commit suicide, trying to not alarm the children even as you fight back your own grief. You might get to stand with a young mom who just found out she has cancer, or a dad who can’t break his addiction to heroin.
There are private pains, too. The loneliness of leadership. The feeling that you’ll never measure up to the celebrity preacher so many church members like more than you. The gossip and slander of your enemies. The stress of ministry on your spouse and children. The tears you shed for your children, hoping that they can see the brightness of Jesus through the darkness still at work in his people, even you.
Of course, not all of these experiences are unique to pastors. Counselors. Nurses. Police officers. First Responders. Social workers. More. They all experience profound highs and lows. However, apart from these and those like them, relatively few vocations move about the spectrum of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain so frequently as pastoral ministry. It can be downright dizzying, sometimes demoralizing.
Amidst the disorienting throes of ministry, I’ve sometimes cried out to God in frustration, “This is killing me!”
I haven’t heard him answer audibly, at least yet. After all, I’m a Presbyterian. Even so, I tend to think he’s responded something like, “You’re right.”
Soberly, I must confess that ministry is, in a manner of speaking, killing me - and that’s a good thing. I need to die.
I need to die to myself. By nature, I’m too self-centered, too self-reliant. Just ask anyone whose had the dubious honor of peeking behind my life’s curtains.
My "flesh" (the Bible’s way of speaking of that part of me still opposed to and apart from God) seeks significance, satisfaction, and security in and through ministry. That part of me looks to ministry to keep me feeling alive. I want the exhilaration of knowing all the right answers, making all the right decisions, hitting all the marks of effective leadership, and leaving everyone cheering and wanting more. There’s a part of me, and sometimes it’s not even all that deep down, that wants to people to give me a revering nod en route to worshipping Jesus. Of course, I don’t say that. That wouldn’t look good, and I want to look good - really, really badly. Honestly, I sometimes want to look good way more than I actually want to be good.
Yep, that self-reliance, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness needs to die. Big time.
Jesus seems to agree. He said things like, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25). And to put an even finer point on an already sharp truth, Jesus warned that "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27). Discipleship is simultaneously life in Jesus and death to self.
When I was younger, I liked reading the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. I sensationalized it, imagining him flipping tables and whipping money changers like an 80’s action hero terrorizing Soviets. It was gratifying to imagine a fiery-eyed Jesus confronting the sins of others, those who would dare turn his house into a den of thieves. Later, I realized that Jesus is even more zealous about cleansing me, a temple of the Holy Spirit. If it’s not of him, it’s gotta go. Uh oh.
And being a pastor is just one way that he's seen fit to slowly put my flesh to death. In the sorrows and pains of ministry, he confronts me with my inability to avert every crisis or repeal every curse. He forces me to face cold facts: I’m not enough. I’m dependent on him for everything. Apart from him, I can do nothing. More to the point: apart from him, I am nothing.
Frankly, this death to self hurts - a lot. But it gives way to my new life in Christ. And that, I’m slowly learning, is the only truly satisfying life.