The Loneliness of Pastoring, Part 2

Two weeks ago, I began sharing some thoughts on the loneliness of pastoring. Comments I received from a variety of sources suggest that this topic hits a nerve for many pastors and their families.

I recently attended a conference for leaders of some of the largest businesses in America. (Yes, I did have permission to be there.) One of the speakers was the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation that employs tens of thousands of people. This respected, highly successful leader was talking about the personal implications of his professional role. Something he said grabbed my attention: "The CEO job is a lonely job."

This confession caused me to wonder: Is the loneliness of pastoring a result, in part, of churches being modeled on corporations, with pastors playing the role of a CEO?

Over the last two decades, I've observed the debate between those who believe pastors should be more like CEOs and those who think the CEO paradigm sucks the life out of pastoral ministry. The disputants often bring radically different assumptions about the nature and purpose of the church. The pro-CEO folk are often megachurch pastors, or they envision pastors as visionary managers of large organizations. The anti-CEO people usually think of smaller churches in which pastors are primarily preachers and personal shepherds. I see strengths and weaknesses on both sides.

Ironically, however, people on both sides of the dispute tend to agree on what may, in fact, be a deeper problem for pastors and churches: the professionalization of ministry. When we turn Christian ministry into a job, when we see it mainly as a career for which one must have special training, when we talk about ministers only as those who are on the payroll, we run the risk of isolating pastors and debilitating the church, no matter how we regard the CEO paradigm.

As an ordained Presbyterian pastor, and as one who has taught in seminaries, I should clarify that I am a supporter of advanced training for church leaders, whether they are on the payroll or not. A preacher, for example, is well served by instruction in biblical languages and theology, not to mention training in the art of preaching. So I have nothing against the training of pastors and other leaders. In fact, I'm all for it.

The problem is in our tendency to see pastors as the ministers. It's a biblical problem, because it contradicts the plain teaching of scripture. It's an ecclesiastical problem, because it weakens the church of Jesus Christ. And it's a pastoral problem, because it isolates pastors from their brothers and sisters in Christ and assigns to pastors the work that belongs properly to all of God's people. It contributes to pastoral loneliness and enfeebles the church.

According to scripture, pastors and other leaders in the church are to equip all of God's people for ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). The church will do what God intends it to do and be what God intends it to be only when each part serves as a minister of Christ (Eph. 4:16). All Christians share—or, according to God's intention, should share—in "the ministry."

Moreover, according to the Bible, care for church members is not be assigned only to professionals who exercise what we call "pastoral care." Rather, "God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it" (1 Cor. 12:24-26).

The professionalization of ministry offers a competing, unbiblical model of church, one in which pastors stand apart from the body, providing care as paid service providers. Thus they are, by design, separate from their church members, who expect to receive care but not return it. When you go to your doctor, you expect to pay, but you do not expect to care for his or her needs. You want the professional to help you. And when you go to your doctor, you don't expect him or her to train you in how to care for the physical needs of others. You're the recipient of care, not a caregiver in training.

But pastors, if we take the biblical picture seriously, are less like solo practitioners than participants in a system of mutual care, and less physicians than medical school professors who train and encourage others in the proper skills and practices. Pastors are not called to do the ministry for the people in their care, but to help the people minister to one another. In the biblical design, pastors are doers and receivers of the care of the body, and their professional training should not separate them from the body of Christ but should bind them to it.

Perhaps if we form pastoral ministry more in line with the New Testament vision of the church, and stop thinking of ministry as something done only by the professionals, then our churches large or small will be healthier, and our pastors will not stand apart from God's people as paid service providers but will be enfolded within the church as practitioners, trainers, and recipients of the body's care.