A Pastor’s Greatest Burden

Among the many responsibilities a pastor must juggle, which causes the most distress?

Bible text: 2 Corinthians 11:21-28

In the latter portion of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13), the apostle Paul defends his ministry against a group of traveling preachers who charge that Paul is a weak and unimpressive apostle, if not a false one. What the Corinthian church needs are bold, assertive, eloquent leaders. Paul in their eyes does not measure up. He is too meek, low-key, and self-effacing.

This debate over what kind of leadership the Corinthian church needs reminds me of much of what we read in the media and business journals about what makes for an effective CEO. Our preference, too, is for bold, assertive, and eloquent leaders, not for someone who is meek, low-key, and self-effacing.

In his response, Paul adopts the same techniques we see in good resumes. He brags about his leadership. We get a sense he is uneasy doing this. He apologizes for it. But he employs the same rhetorical cannon that his opponents do.

In particular, in chapter 11, verses 21-28, he lists all the many trials and tribulations he has endured in his ministry. It is a long list. It includes floggings, imprisonments, stonings, shipwrecks, constant dangers in his travels such as flooding rivers and bandits, hunger, and nights sleeping in the cold.

It is an impressive list. As we read on we feel a sense of crescendo as the trials and tribulations pile up. Life has been hard for Paul.

In such rhetorical flourishes, the last item in the list is usually the capstone. Its position as last makes it the most prominent item in the list. There is nothing that exceeds it in its ultimacy.

And what holds this position in this ascending list of troubles? “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (Verse 28).

What is Paul’s greatest burden among the many burdens he has endured? It is his pastoral anxiety for all the churches he has founded. He worries constantly about their welfare. And as we all know, worry can lead not only to unsettled days, but also sleepless nights.

I find what Paul says about his ministry rings true with my own experience as well as the experience of many pastors. There are many things that can make a pastor’s job difficult. There are stewardship campaigns to run. There are programs, like Sunday schools, to manage. There are buildings to keep up. There are volunteers to recruit to do the work of the church. There are ministerial meetings to attend. There is the need to work in time and space for service to the community. And then there is the constant pressure to write sermons that not only hold a congregation’s attention, but that also feed its spirit.

But I am not sure that any of them matches the burden of anxiety that a responsible pastor feels for the welfare of his or her congregation and the welfare of every individual in it.

Have I said the right thing to that parishioner in the hospital? Have I provided the right counsel to the couple who are contemplating divorce? Have I fed my congregation with the right kinds of sermons? Are my parishioners growing in faith, hope, and love? Have I provided the vision that will help my congregation sense and claim its call? How do I reconcile two feuding members of the church?

In the midst of all these anxieties about the congregation, there are also the anxieties over whether I am giving enough time and attention to my spouse and my children? How will we manage on the inadequate salary my church is paying? Am I finding time for the spiritual disciplines that will enable my spirit to grow as well as others’.

These are the kinds of anxieties that can assault a pastor’s peace of mind. And they can take a toll on the pastor’s health, emotions, relationships, and ultimately his or her commitment to the call.

When Jesus calls upon his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him, maybe that call becomes concrete for pastors in their willingness to accept this burden of pastoral anxiety. We certainly have in Paul a welcomed role model.

A special note: I want to acknowledge that this posting comes out of a conversation I recently had with a fellow pastor, the Rev. Katie McKown, pastor of Scottsville Baptist Church in Scottsville, Virginia. She is the one who called my attention to this remarkable statement by Paul. I had never seen it before.
Katie, too, writes a blog in which she reflects on the joys and challenges of serving as a pastor. She titles its Hermeneutics in High Heels. I am blown away at times by some of the touching, yet profound things she writes about. I commend it to your reading.