Five years, that is the average tenure for ministry; although I suppose it might be higher or lower depending on the denomination in question. Nonetheless, it points to the daunting task set before a young man going into ministry. I have been a pastor now for sixteen years. I have seen a thing or two, but not all. Satan is always coming up with new strategies and new ways of attacking pastors. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV). We must be crystal clear about this. If you have mental health issues, know that pastoral ministry will only complicate them. Depression will intensify. The Devil knows your weaknesses, and he will work them. So, I would like to offer some hard-won advice on how to persevere in this cosmic wrestling match.
I tremble as I write this article, but it weighs heavily on me as news begins to circulate concerning pastoral suicides and depression just now when so many young men are graduating from seminary and getting ready to be ordained into Holy Ministry. Of course, these articles are circulating because these men were famous, pastoral rock stars, the kind of men many young pastors aspire to be, and the sort of pastors many congregation members think they want. Be careful what you wish for. I do not believe fame is a bad thing or opposed to the Gospel. However, fame comes with its own trials and tribulations, and it is best to be prepared for them ahead of time.
I have had many a good friend who end up leaving the ministry, one way or another. I have even had men I considered to be mentors, men who have encouraged me in my darker days, leave the ministry, and disappear into oblivion. Their congregations suffer from the blow to this day like sheep without a shepherd. So, I shudder a bit as I find myself at the stage where I first met these men. I remember briefly thinking I had accomplished something when I hit the five-year mark and still found myself in the pulpit. I will be honest, after sixteen years I can get cynical from time to time, but I do love pastoral ministry. Perhaps that is why I find these days I am spending a little more time fielding phone calls from pastors going through hard times, looking for encouragement, and asking for advice.
Here are some things I have found helpful in my sixteen years as a pastor. Your early years serve as a foundation for the rest of your ministry. When I was first ordained, an older pastor told me, “You will never have more time in your ministry to read as now.” He was right. Take advantage of this and spend time reading classics in pastoral ministry, such as Fritz, Walther, and Reu. Develop a devotional life and hold onto it for dear life. Set time aside for prayer, Scripture, theological reading and writing every morning. It will serve you well. There are two books I especially recommend for pastors to read in their devotions. “Then Fell the Lord’s Fire,” by Bo Giertz, is a collection of his ordination sermons filled with pastoral perspective and encouragement. The same goes for the second book, “The Pastoral Prophet,” by Steve Kruschel.
Theological reading is also paramount for preaching and keeping your sermons fresh. You have the time. Read a chapter or subchapter a day of Reu’s “Homiletics.” “Homiletics” is perhaps the most thorough book on preaching, history, theory, and practice written in English. The one takeaway for here is this: Read sermons and sermonic literature constantly. Read from within and outside your tradition. Immerse yourself in this. You can never stop improving the craft of preaching. Make this reading part of your devotional life. Sermons make great devotions, and devotions make great sermons. Without a devotional life, your sermons will fall flat. You must feed yourself if you are going to have the energy to feed others.
Read sermons and sermonic literature constantly. Read from within and outside your tradition. Immerse yourself in this. You can never stop improving the craft of preaching.
Theological fitness is vital, but so is physical fitness. I have not always been tenacious with exercise, and everything suffered when I was not exercising regularly. I want to stress the importance of this. Exercise benefits a person’s mental well-being and creativity. It does not have to be strenuous. Try to go for a walk every morning. It is a great way to meet members of the community and you can also listen to books while you walk. It is not cheating to consider exercise as part of your job. Do not apologize for it.
How about time off and what to do with it? Here is the thing, pastors do not get weekends. You just do not. Perhaps a Saturday here and there. But you do not even have Saturday morning if you are preaching Saturday evening. Do not fool yourself. Your Sunday afternoon is gone. Troubles at the church, sick members, sermon critiques, they all rob you of your Sunday afternoon and compromise any family time you might have left. So, pastors take time off in the middle of the week, but this is also hazardous, especially to your family. Your wife probably needs to work and will find it hard to take days off in the middle of the week to spend time with you. You will have to be diligent about scheduling time and playing catch as catch can with her. Your children will be in school, but they do not have to be in school. You are their parent. You can sign them out. I recommend you do, at least once a month. Believe me, if anything, their grades will improve, and they will be more attentive when they are in school. I took my son out of school once a month to spend time with him and I do not think he or I could ever have come up with a better plan. We just did things together. His grades were always a lot better than mine ever dreamt of being. If you homeschool, I still recommend you take time for your kids individually once a month to just do something fun with them by yourselves.
Finally, find a mentor. When you get to your parish, find a pastor who lives close by and pester the hell out of him. Schedule time to sit with him and discuss the things you are going through. Do confession and absolution with him. Make him preach the Gospel to you. Your friends that happen to get placed nearby do not count. The pastor with barely two-years more experience but happens to have a growing church and a book deal is not the man you want. You want the guy who has been at this gig for thirty years. Maybe he still has a small congregation and his entire ministry has been a humble one by worldly standards. A man that has managed to be faithful in ministry for so long is a man you want to learn from because he has seen a thing or two more than State Farm Insurance.