We’re Pastors and We’re Anxious

He sat in my office exhausted and discouraged. No, he wasn’t about to abandon the ministry to which he’d been called. In many ways he lived with a deep sense of privilege. He had been chosen and gifted to be a minister of the gospel, but he was tired, and his work had taken a toll on his family. He was able to admit that he said yes too much, sought to establish personal control over too many things, and worked way too much. He had thought that his deep dedication and unending schedule were the result of the motivation and loyalty of faith, but in midst of his exhaustion and his family’s protest, he began to wonder. Could it be that this life of frenetic energy and constant ministry focus was driven by something else?

His wife told him again and again that he needed to be around more for their four children. She told him that even when he was home, he often wasn’t “there.” And in his quiet, self-reflective moments he had to admit that his heart wasn’t at rest. Little did my pastor friend know that he was not alone. His story is the story of many pastors.

Could it be that one of the dark secrets of pastoral ministry is that a whole lot of what we do is driven by worry and not by faith?

Could it be that at the functional level much of ministry is shaped by a long catalog of “what ifs”?

Could it be that this causes us to load the health of the church onto our shoulders?

Could it be that too much of our ministry is shaped by subtle pastoral self-sovereignty?

Could it be that in pastoral ministry the sin of unbelief is often recast as commitment, discipline, dedication, or a willingness to suffer?

Is it not possible in pastoral ministry for unbelief to be perceived as maturity?

Worry Is the Problem

Permit me to use Matthew 6:19-33 as a lens for understanding how in pastoral ministry worry becomes the problem and how the gospel is the solution. It is important to note that as Jesus exegetes the kingdom of self in Matthew 6:19-31, one  of his major topics is what I would call anxiety-bound needs. It all starts with us doing something we don’t do very well: deciding what we need. We all tend to load into our need category things that may be important but are not actually needs (if need is something that is essential for life). Then we work to secure all the things we have become convinced we need. This way of approaching life and ministry always ends in that range from low-grade anxiety to paralyzing fear.

Think of everything you can worry about in ministry. There is always that lurking fear of failure, the fear of what to do with the problem people that populate every church, the fear that perhaps you’re not really gifted to do what you’ve agreed to do, the fear of conflict, the fear of the lack of people and financial resources, the fear of not being respected and appreciated, the fear of the unexpected, and the fear that at some point you won’t be wanted or needed anymore. So to make sure your fears aren’t realized, you say yes too much, you try to control too many things, and you work too hard.

Three Gospels

What Jesus says next is may be hard to accept, but it is vital to hear. He essentially says that the reason our lives are driven and shaped by fear and not faith is that we have forgotten the gospel. Christ lays down three gospel arguments for us to consider.

1. The gospel of creation. First, Jesus points to the surrounding creation (the lilies and the birds) and says that there is ample visible evidence every day that God will not abandon the work of his hands. If he cares for the flowers and the birds, will he not care for those he made in his own image? So the gospel of creation preaches rest to the pastor. Would God gift a man then abandon him? Who could be more committed to the welfare of the church then the One who established it? The welfare of the church is not the pastor’s job—it is the Lord’s promise. The pastor’s job is simply to use his God-given gifts in public and private gospel ministry.

2. The gospel of relationship. Jesus then reminds his listeners that they have a Father who knows their needs and is at work meeting them. This means, first, that it is God’s job (if I can use that language) to define our needs. No one knows better what we need than our Creator, Savior, Father. Second, it is God’s covenantal family commitment to meet each of those needs. Once your ministry is driven by your attempt to meet your needs, you are ministering for you and not for others. Others-centered ministry is always propelled by a quiet rest in the Father’s love and care. This also calls us to trust the Father’s wisdom and timing. If he is meeting our needs, then we must conclude that if we don’t have it right now it is because our Father knows that we don’t need (in the true sense of the word) it right now.

3. The diagnosis of “little faith.” So, what is the problem? Gospel-amnesia. When you forget who you are, you quit resting in the Father’s provision, you start relying on your own wisdom, and you try to do God’s job. All this results in functional ministry anxiety and a catalog of bad personal and ministry choices. Jesus’ diagnosis is quite stinging. He says that the problem is that no matter what we say we believe, there are moments when we essentially live like pagans. We live (even in ministry) like there is no God, let alone a God who has adopted us into his family and showers us moment by moment with his forgiving, empowering, and transforming grace. Because he is my Father, it is impossible for me to ever be alone in ministry, to ever be left to my own resources.

Seeking God’s kingdom in ministry means many things, but surely it means remembering his fatherly presence, relying on his fatherly care, resting in his fatherly wisdom, and trusting in his fatherly grace. Then we can say no when it is the appropriate response of faith, we don’t attempt to control what is already under the Father’s wise control, and we aren’t tempted to do more than we are able to do.

Pastor, preach this gospel to yourself today for your sake, for the sake of your family, for the sake of those to whom you minister, and for the sake of the Father’s glory.

  • Michelle

    Thank you! Very needed! This is a link I’ll be sharing.

  • Ellis Brazeal

    Paul: Wonderful and timely piece. In our small group at church last nite, we talked about this very thing–letting good things become “ultimate things.” I have seen so many pastor’s wives and children deeply hurt and wounded, because of the way their husband and father comports himself in his job as pastor. I know that church members place tremendous expectations on pastors–I was a pastor’s son. Fortunately, my mother, sister, and I never felt that my father put the church before us. But that is not true for so many.

    Thanks for exposing this problem and for giving the answer–finding our affirmation, not from man, but from Christ–the only One who can truly satisfy us. I am going to post on Facebook for my friends.

    Blessings, Ellis.

  • Tabitha

    Very timely and important piece and definitely not applicable only to pastors. This is also very applicable to Christian counselors or anyone in ministry of any sort. No matter who you are, you can be in the place of not truly trusting God and making it sound all Christian and pretty. Important for us all to ask God to search our hearts and show us the motivations therein.

  • Mark

    I have been processing this in my own life and how free of burden living with out worry can be. I also have been discussing this with several of my staff and how its eroding their health and effectiveness. Thanks for putting this together, it does a far better job encapsulating what I wanted to say than I ever could.

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  • Kesavan Balasingham

    Thank you for this article. It comes with wise observations and biblical wisdom. It has been very helpful to me and I am sure for many others.

    In Christ,

  • Johnny Johnston

    Obviously,this article rings true for pastors and their families. Having been a pastor for a little over 50 years, I can remember not scheduling regular quality time with my wife and children. Were it not for my godly patient wife, I could well be a divorced man today.
    I would add just one observation – Some wives(and children)are an additional strain and distraction to pastors because they are more demanding than they should be. Some wives in particular do not seem to think about taking up their cross and becoming a helper to their pastor husbands. I know of one pastor in particular who spends a great deal of time ministering to his wife. He is kind, thoughtful and sacrificial when it comes to his wife and family. However it never seems to be enough for her.

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