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“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:28)

That’s how the apostle Paul capped off a long list of afflictions suffered in service to Christ. He spoke of his hard work, imprisonments, floggings, exposure to death, stonings, shipwrecks, natural disasters, bandits, betrayals, sleeplessness, hunger and thirst, and physical need. That’s a partial listing of the “everything else.” Yet, there’s a “besides” that’s always intrigued me. Besides, in addition to, over and beyond, on top of the many sacrifices and afflictions, there’s one more thing. We get the sense that this one thing stresses Paul more than all the other things. We have the sense that this additional thing nearly breaks Paul. Perhaps it’s his wording. Or perhaps it’s the placement at the end of the list. Or, maybe it’s the opening clause, “Besides everything else,” that sets this apart to the reader. Maybe it’s all three.

What is it?

Paul writes, “I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” We might say the great apostle was “burdened” for the local churches. He carried that concern or burden for “all the churches”–not just the churches he knew or served. We witness him writing letters to congregations he never visited or saw personally. We read of his concern for churches that were rejecting his ministry and teaching, even questioning his apostolic authority. And we have the privilege of eavesdropping on his love for the churches he nursed like a mother and guided like a father, even if only for a matter of weeks. Wherever Christ’s bride was found or known, Paul cared. “All” magnified his concern.

Moreover, that concern felt to him like “pressure.” It was a vise, gripping and squeezing him. It was a weight, mashing him beneath. It was a kind of cooker, sealing him in and turning the very air around him into pressing heat. The apostle felt like the church was on his shoulders, a responsibility, a calling, an inescapable duty or charge or trust. All the words fit, and they all magnified the concern into a “pressure.”

Finally, Paul “faced” this pressure “daily.” He couldn’t avoid it. He wouldn’t shirk it. He played the man and looked into it. And there was no time off, no long weekends, no holidays or vacations as we know them. Daily. That’s how often he felt the pressure of his loving concern for all the churches. Waking, traveling, eating, praying, preaching, visiting, teaching, suffering–each and very single day.

We all want a pastor like Paul. So we tell ourselves. But I wonder if we all have a good idea of how heavy with care Paul’s heart must have been? If we have a pastor like this, will we stop long enough to consider how much pressure he endures every day in order to be “a pastor like this”? Will we consider how many things turn his care and concern into pressure and heartache?

The most difficult part of pastoral ministry is keeping a caring heart. The caring heart makes the pastor, and the caring heart nearly kills the pastor. He wouldn’t have it any other way, like Paul. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a thousand deaths, weeping nights, deprivations, and afflictions.

It breaks his heart to see people leave the church. It doesn’t really matter why they leave, and it only helps some if they leave well. The leaving is a breaking and he feels the pressure of it if he is concerned for the church.

It breaks his heart to see saints taken in sin. “Big” sin. “Small” sin. He feels as if he’s watching a grotesque monster devour his babies. And when repentance is not forthcoming he aches all the more.

It breaks his heart to watch spouses tear their covenant in two. Few things can feel so dis-empowering. Few things can make a pastor feel his inadequacy like watching a dear couple do violence to matrimonial promises and affection.

It breaks his heart to hear the people embrace error. He wants them to feed on the pure milk of the word until they can eat the good meat. He knows health comes with truth. So he feels a certain horror at the thought that any of the people in his charge might be given over to soul-piercing and destructive lies.

It breaks his heart to discover dissensions and strife. He’s the leader of a family. He knows the blessing of peace, unity and love. His heart rips even as the people tear apart.

It breaks his heart to receive unfair criticism. Part of him doesn’t mind it at all. He’ll gladly bear the reproach. But the other part, the part that wants to be liked, the part that rightly wants the people’s affection, the part that’s trying to please the Lord, can hardly endure disparagement. His heart is wide open to the people and he wants their hearts to be open in love to him.

It breaks his heart to have his family judged or attacked. He’d rather be drawn and quartered himself than to watch the woman he loves endure harsh judgment, misrepresentation or unrighteous standards. He rather lose his own life than to lose his children from the church because they couldn’t face the daily pressure of living in a congregational fish bowl, unable to be themselves, unable to find grace all the other children receive.

It breaks his heart to miss an appointment or to fail to “be there.” He entered the ministry to care for people. He knows he’s not Jesus. He knows he can’t be everywhere. But that doesn’t stop him from mourning when he experiences that limitation. He should have been in the hospital room. He should have been at the deathbed. He should have responded to the call in the middle of the night. He couldn’t. Might’ve been for a good reason, but he still feels the heaviness of heart.

It breaks his heart to discover himself choosing to care less in order to not hurt.

Pastoral heartbreak is in direct proportion to pastoral heart. The more the pastor cares for the people the more heartbreaking is the daily pressure of concern for the church.

But he doesn’t quit. He doesn’t shrink back–or at least he tries not to. He  counts it all joy. He discovers what Stephen Chadwick discovered: ”It is a wonder what God can do with a broken heart, if He gets all the pieces” (HT: @NancyDeMoss). So he offers to God the Father all the pieces of his broken heart so that a wonder might be performed both in his life and the church. He, like Paul, learns to “boast all the more gladly about his weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on him. That is why, for Christ’s sake, he delights in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). That’s how a heavy heart becomes a happy heart in pastoral ministry.

Brothers, let us embrace our heavy hearts, boast in our weaknesses, and look to Christ for power. “When the Chief Shepherd appears you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet. 5:4).

Saints, let us receive our shepherds’ care, submit to their leadership, and make their labor a joy. His lighter heart will mean your higher happiness.

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26 thoughts on “The Pastor’s Heavy Happy Heart”

  1. Gary Ware says:

    Thanks for this, Thabiti.

  2. Simple Elder says:

    “It breaks his heart to see people leave the church. It doesn’t really matter why they leave, and it only helps some if they leave well.”

    Oh yes it does. And Paul will prove it with flowing tears:

    “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19).

    Brother Thabiti, there is no such thing in the NT as leaving a church “well.” In 3 John Gaius is not encouraged by John to leave and start a new work but to wait until he comes (3 John 14). And that church was ruled by Diotrophes who would be put out once John came (v. 10).

    In all cases of sin, unless a believer operates submissively under Mat. 18:15-17 and 1 Tim. 5:19-20, patiently and looking carefully to his own heart for anger, malice, and schismatic fever, he cannot ever “leave well.”

    1. I agree except that one can leave a church well when having to relocate to another area. But today, Christians and churches often don’t even know how to handle that.

  3. A good, “healthy” article. Thanks for it.

  4. Pastor Thabiti,

    been reading you for a month or so….

    I get the sentiments that you’re hitting upon….but I wonder if there is something that is missing; perhaps evangelical pastors like yourself are ‘taking on too much’ spiritually and psychologically.

    This isn’t meant to be disparaging…but you’re not the Apostle Paul….

    It seems like evangelical pastors are taking themselves too seriously…as though everything hinges upon their shoulders…if they (pastors) truly view the entire church community as a living organism they would see that they are not the sole ‘minister’ at their local assembly…..

    1. SimpleKM says:

      Good pastors will inevitably feel the burden that Pastor Thabiti describes, even when they are are not attempting to bear the weight of everything on their shoulders. Pastors, even when they are righfully sharing the burden and care of the flock, are usually the first to be called into the heart of a crisis. The phone calls at 8am on a Saturday that change the whole day he had planned with his family…the shock of being one of the first to the hospital after a horrific accident…the weight of being in the middle of family arrangements for a funeral…counseling through the heartbreak of a difficult marraige…the list can go on and on. My point is that WHEN the pastor is called, it is often at the most emotional and climactic point of a crisis.

      It’s very different to hear about a bad car crash the next day once a victim has been stabilized in a hospital than it is to hear about it minutes afterward while uncertaintly about life and death remains, the victims children need a place to be while the spouse is driven to the hospital, and it’s nothing but tears. These types of events leave a long lasting impact on pastors. They break the heart. They provide an opportunity to rest in Christ. It is beautiful (as the wife of a pastor) to be called into these sacred places of people’s lives. It is also a huge burden that we take with gratitude and humility.

      1. SimpleKM,

        I am not a pastor….’merely’ laity….but your words are a little bit offensive to me; I’ve made hospital visit’s to friends, acquaintances, and church members in the amount of hundreds of time in the recent past….I sat alone in a bedside vigil as my previous pastor died last year…..

        To ‘assume’ on your part that it is pastor’s who bear the weight of the things you mentioned is, to put it quite bluntly; quite anti-christian in my mind.

        As a believer in Christ, I believe it is my responsibility to walk in the footsteps of my savior….I don’t need to be a professional pastor to do those things….

        A few months ago I sat at the bedside of a church member who was in a car crash and who died a week later….I visited him every day for the week leading up to his death.

        This is not to say i’m being contentious with regard to the role of pastors(or priests), I definitely acknowledge the role of pastors in the new testament church….

        I’m just pointing out that I completely disregard this notion that it is only pastors who should carry the burdens and responsibilities that pastor Thabiti referenced and you….

        Pastor Thabiti is not after all the Apostle Paul…he is not one of the central Apostle’s behind Christ whom the whole new testament church rested upon….

        1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

          Dear Kenneth,

          Thanks for joining the conversation and leaving such enthused and helpful comments. I appreciate your taking the time to do so.

          Let me offer what I hope will be a few clarifying comments about which I hope we agree.

          First, I’m well aware that I’m “not the apostle Paul.” You’ve made that comment twice now. Lest someone out there thinks I’m under some delusion, let me quickly say, “I agree; I am not Paul.”

          Second, if you’re familiar with this blog or with a couple books I’ve had the privilege of writing, you will know that I’m constantly stressing the importance of each part of the body showing equal concern for every other part (1 Cor. 12:25ff). I’m nowhere assuming or asserting that the care of the congregation falls to either one pastor or the elders as a group. The front lines of caring for one another is the congregation as a whole. I’m grateful for your example of doing your part to bear the burdens of others (Gal. 6:2; Rom. 14-15; etc).

          Having said all that, however, the NT seems replete with instances of pastoral suffering. Paul was not Jesus, yet he could write of filling up what was left of Christ’s afflictions in his body for the sake of the church (Col. 1:24). He insisted Timothy bear hardship like a good soldier (2 Tim. 2). Peter, writing to elders in a church that was suffering, exhorted them to be faithful in their charge (1 Pet. 5). One presumes they shared the suffering that all the other Christians also faced. Peter’s letter and Paul’s letters to Timothy do not address apostles, yet they’re bearing pastoral responsibility for the whole church. When Paul writes of his daily concern, I don’t think he’s writing about something uniquely apostolic. There’s no indication of that in the text.

          There’s nothing “anti-Christian” about identifying this aspect of pastoral ministry. We may argue (rightly, I believe) that most churches need much more emphasis on spreading the load to all the members of the church, so that the body functions like a body, but we don’t have to deny those unique aspects of pastoral experience to do so. In fact,what we need is more/i> caring, not less.

          Grace and peace to you,

          1. SimpleKM says:

            Kenneth, I am sorry that my comments came across that way. I agree with you that pastors are far, far, far from being alone in their duty and priveledge to love and care for people. I truly am sorry that my comments were not worded in such a way that portrayed what I meant to say which is that everyone in the church should be bearing these burdens, as you have stated that you do. This care is wonderful and beautiful. It is neccesary. It is biblical. It is not the sole job of the pastor. On this we agree.

            My point was simply that pastors are called on to care (physically, emotionally, spritually, theologically) for not only those who are in their “circles”, but those well beyond their circles. It’s a priveledge. It’s exhausting. There are burdens that simply are unique to a pastor. And pastors need care too. You mentioned that you sat at the bedside of your pastor. This would indicate that we truly are in agreement on this.

            Could I please ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt here? As a person who has devoted my entire life to the service of and love for Christ, I am hurt to be accused of views that are anti-Christian.

          2. Pastor Thabiti,

            We live in a day-and-age where Pastors and Church leaders are often more comfortable on the golf course than in the ghetto….

            I have spent much of my life in the ghetto’s of Detroit, the murder capital of the United States; I’ve had knives held to my throat while I was holding a bible and preaching the gospel, I’ve been grabbed by my collar and threatened to be beaten up and killed for the sake of the gospel…..

            When I read Paul’s pastoral letters I look at him as my hero; he was beaten, stoned, scourged, etc…he suffered immeasurably more than I have ever suffered….

            When I read your blog post it echoed many of the same familiar things I’ve heard my whole life about Pastors…..yet with all due respect; When I have been in the ghetto’s and working with the lowest of the low, I look around and I don’t see any Reformed Pastors or Reformed Theologians; they are nowhere to be found.

            My personal library boasts a mere 1100 volumes of reformed theology books, that is nothing compared to the library of Dr. Sproul or John Piper……but I have enough books to know that Reformers love to talk about the heart of the pastor….there are plenty of books which echo your blog post…..

            I’m NOT accusing your blog post of being theologically incorrect; I’m suggesting it missed the target; their are laity who are out working in the field, visiting the ill at the hospital, holding the hands of the dying…..AND their are laity who WANT to do more…but since very few pastors are out on the front lines….the laity don’t have pastors to take them by the hand and show them what to do.

            Pastor Thabiti, when our Savior walked this earth, he walked among the lowly, the poor, the outcasts…but please point me to the plethora of books which challenge pastors to do the same?? They do not exist Pastor Thabiti….for every book by someone like Francis Schaeffer who drove home the drunks from the bar….there are a 1000 books telling us how wonderful the pastor’s heart is.

            No Pastor Thabiti, your blog post wasn’t theologically incorrect, it was theologically redundant; I’ve heard it before…….

            what I WANT to hear is about the Pastor who is truly making disciples of his congregation; I want to hear about the Pastor who spends his days in the ghetto with his parishioners teaching them (by showing) them how to interact with the lost, the hurting, the widows, the poor, etc….

            I don’t need to hear beautiful theological prose by a Pastor; I want to SEE a Pastor do as Paul did; I want to see a pastor who is persecuted in the street for the sake of the gospel….

            It is easy to preach from a pulpit….it is hard to imitate the life of Paul and Jesus…..

            I appreciate the dialog, but unfortunately due to my own blogging responsibilities I can’t always keep threads like this going…..


            1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

              Thank you for your comments Kenneth. It’s probably best that we don’t keep the conversation going. I think you raise some useful and challenging points, but you also seem to be either angry or frustrated, and sound to me a bit judgmental. I hope I am wrong in that assessment. But you might think about the propriety of naming certain pastors or assuming that pastors aren’t discipling others, taking them by the hands, and walking in tough places. I realize that I risk my life every time I speak publicly of Christ in some contexts. You mention Piper, but you don’t mention the many years of his life he’s been in the trenches and sometimes facing arrest for applying his faith to issues like abortion. And there are thousands of “unsung heroes” who are pastors working very hard in the trenches of tough areas whose praise will await glory and whose glory will redound forever.

              It sounds like you’ve been disappointed. And there is much in the world to be disappointed about, including much in the lives of pastors (at least this one). But it might be worth asking ourselves if our disappointments, frustrations, etc. might also tempt us to impatience, criticism and judgment of others.

              This post was about pastors. It wasn’t about Christians who are not pastors. This post was about things that affect pastors.It was not about things pastors should be doing. You call for good challenges, but it’s really not what this post was about. For that reason, too, I’m glad we can end this thread here.

              The Lord bless you and keep you as you continue to make Him known both inside and outside the church. May He prosper your efforts in every way, giving you favor with himself and with men. May He greatly enlarge the number of saints and the borders of the kingdom as He uses you to call the lost to the Savior.

              On the same team,

            2. Kenneth, I do not know you, and since you mentioned Detroit, we must live somewhat close to each other, but I think you are missing a very important point, here. You did notice the title, I hope. “The Pastor’s Heavy Happy Heart.”

              I don’t know if you realized this or not, but simply from your comments I can see that this applies to YOU. You obviously have the Heart of a Pastor. We, as believers, must get out of our minds that the “Pastor” is the “guy up front” every Sunday. Yes, he MAY be, but not necessarily.

              They may be a great teacher, but do not have the heart of a Pastor. As you stated, you have many books from the Reformers and Puritans (specifically Richard Baxter), but did you catch the true meaning of a Pastor?

              A true Pastor is the guy who prays with you and for you; he knows you by name and understands what is happening in your life. So from your own description, I believe you truly have the heart of a Pastor.

              You stated that there “are laity who are out working in the field, visiting the ill at the hospital, holding the hands of the dying…..AND their are laity who WANT to do more…but since very few pastors are out on the front lines….the laity don’t have pastors to take them by the hand and show them what to do.”

              One role of a Pastor is to “train” those who DO the work of the ministry, but not necessarily DO the work, themselves. But I also contend that a Pastor is to care for those under their care and a shepherd cares for his sheep, and not necessarily to do the work of evangelism. That is a different calling and ministry.

  5. Dan Phillips says:

    Word. Thank you for publicly and transparently taking the ministry as seriously as Paul did.

    Paul tells us all not to be torn up by anxiety (Phil. 4:6) — yet the very thing he loves about Timothy was that he was anxious (2:20; same epistle, same verb) about those under his pastoral care.

    1. Simple Elder says:

      Good word yourself.

      So, read Phil 2:21 with this exact problem in mind – how pastors feel about people leaving and building the church with people gathered from other churches:

      “For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.”

  6. Nathan says:

    Well put. Pastoring would be easier if we didn’t care. But if we didn’t care, we’d be terrible pastors!

  7. Thomas Whitaker says:

    I have been a youth pastor for 7 years now. I have experienced most of these burdens that you talk about. After all, youth ministry is a seed sowing ministry where we guide young people in the direction of Jesus in which many of these seeds will not cultivate until long after they are gone.
    Through the heartaches, burdens, students who come and go, etc…I have become discouraged, depressed, and unhappy. More than once I have almost quit.

    I have justified it with these passages of how hard life was for Paul and the Apostles. I have taken temporary comfort in the fact that Jeremiah had a tough ministry and Elijah had a moment of weakness and wanted to die. I had settled in my mind that God was not concerned with our happiness but only that we endured with gloomy sadness all the hard things of life. This to me had become the “Christian” life.

    Some of the gloomiest, unhappiest people I have ever met are in church. Many of them are pastors. I was one of these pastors. Many pastors have settled with their joylessness and have become worried, fretting, fear mongers who revel in their self-martyrdom of a life of depression and anxiety.

    If we read 2 corinthians in its entirety and take it all in context, we see a really powerful response that Paul took to all his suffering. He states plainly that despite all of this, he is content. In other words, he is happy. See Paul believed the Gospel is actually good news. A lot of what I have heard the last 7 years in church is bad news. This leads people astray to believe that God is angry, disappointed, depressed, and on the verge of firing the church. I’ve heard sermons and even preached it myself that God is not concerned with our happiness but our holiness. Or that happiness is temporary, but the joy of the Lord is eternal. I’ve lived this way for a long time, and it’s nearly shipwrecked my faith.

    What I’m beginning to understand is that it’s not God that is unhappy and wants us to squirm under the worries and depression of this world, it’s the Devil that wants that. God created us to live with him in the Garden. The Garden was joyful, peaceful, walking with God happiness. The Devil scammed us by offering us something that was supposed to be better but turned out it stole our happiness. Jesus beat the Devil, and made it possible for us to be happy again.

    This is GOOD NEWS, not BAD NEWS :) In fact, this news is so good that Paul was able to face even the most difficult circumstances and RESPOND with contentment. The only thing that creates unhappiness is sin. Sure, the Devil’s offer feels good for a bit, but Jesus’ resurrection is better. Holiness creates happiness. They go together. Happiness doesn’t have to be temporary because the joy of the Lord is eternal.

    I still experience all the same things I listed above. The difference now is my response. I actually believe that Jesus is Good News and that I don’t have to sit around in gloomy despair but I can meet hurting people in hurting situations with happiness and joy that transcends my life circumstances.

    1. Chris Tolbert says:

      Thank you for sharing this, Thomas. I think you’ve exposed the idol of ministry. Whatever we derive our contentment from is our god and if it is anything or anyone other than Jesus we are idolaters. Paul was gloomy but content because, while he was broken-hearted over people, His joy, hope and contentment was in Christ.

  8. Doug Tegner says:

    Thabiti ~ thank you for a timely life-guving word to this fellow traveller

  9. Mark Luker says:

    I am blessed by these words today, thanks for sharing and God bless!

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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