“What is a Pastor?” – For Leaders and Pastors


I was asked to write my thoughts on the office of the Pastor.  Like about everything else I have some strong opinions about this subject.  I started as a Pastors kid and then went into ministry myself.  You must know having seen the inside story of a Pastors life from the inside I grew up wanting none of it.  When God began to call me into ministry my first thoughts were; not me, why me, oh please not that, are you sure God?, ok I’ll do it.  That was 43 years ago and while I have had many regrets since I have never regretted or doubted my calling.

I say all that because I see many in pastoral roles who are not, in my mind, pastors.  Some are hirelings, in it for a paycheck.  These can be charismatic, gifted speakers.  Charming, and able to gather a crowd, but entirely disconnected from the emotion and empathy that characterizes a bible based pastor.  Then there are those who genuinely love The Lord and want to put God first, but assume success in the Christian world can only be achieved by being the CEO, I.e. Pastor.  You must know that without divine calling (more on this later), ministry is too taxing on your mind, body, and spirit to continue.

We all should love the Lord but that does not necessarily mean you are called to minister.

Several times above I use the term ministry interchangeably with the word Pastor.  That is because without a heart to humbly serve others as a FIRST priority pastoring a church will prove your undoing.  The reason for that is the demands on you will be relentless, merciless, and so draining as to render you spent and useless over a period of time.  This danger is not limited to those in ministry for the wrong reasons, but is the pink elephant in the room with every pastor.  It’s presence scares you and you are unsure you can stay from under its giant hooves, yet you dare not speak of it.  To speak about Pastoral burn out is to admit weakness and to whom would we discuss this anyway?  Certainly not to those we minister too, you dare not risk your credibility, besides they could not understand anyway.  You are limited as to how much pain you can share with your wife lest you bring out the she bear in her and she rend your church members limb from limb.  Besides her burden is great enough and she is not God called, she just had the misfortune to fall for… well, you, so do not add to her burden, you are enough of a pain as it is.  That lends whole new meaning to the phrase used in the corporate world “it’s lonely at the top”, for in your case it would be “it’s even lonelier at the bottom” (stuff does run downhill).

How do we avoid burnout? 

Way too many gifted men are lost every year because they cross that invisible meridian from which there is no turning back.  How far can I push myself once stretched to the limit before being torn apart?  If that question does not scare you then you are dumber than you think you are, or scarier still, you are dumber than your wife thinks you are.  Every pastor must be aware of the danger of burn out and take steps to protect himself from it.  Let your guard down once, think too highly of yourself for a time and you will likely be lost to the ministry.  Paul addresses this as follows;

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28 KJV).

This admonition stands on its head the teaching of most Cemeteries… Oops Seminaries, which paint a picture not just in word but in attitude that Pastors must be invincible or they are unworthy of the position.  Those who have been educated in ministry know that unspoken, subtle message that invades the cracks between the tiles on the classroom floors.  As a result we are under the impression to admit any real weakness is to demean the office of Pastor.  Yet here, Paul, says in some sense you must come FIRST, then the flock.  To understand the import of this you have to have a Pastors heart.  You must live and breath ministry as though that activity exceeds sex (by a little) as your favorite activity.  In this context of giving, then giving more, then giving all there is, you must force yourself to stop on a regular and consistent basis and let it all go for a while.  If you only care for yourself when you are on the verge of burn out you will live staring into the abyss that you created.

Franklin Covey trains the use of day planners (low tech has its uses) and the last thing they cover in their seminars is “Sharpening the Saw”, taking time to minister to yourself.  The concept is the same as Acts 20:28, without your head being in the game you are useless to others and your head will likely be somewhere you would prefer it not be.  This process of sharpening the saw. (Or grab both ears and pull), can be recreation time, I took up golf years ago and I still don’t play for score, I play to hit something besides the deacons head and to recharge me.  That being said a lot of this refreshing is more spiritual less violent.  Self reflection, personal study (by this I mean study that is not in preparation of a lesson, sermon or counseling), family time, preaching (great solace for a troubled preacher as long as the source of the trouble does not become the title of the sermon).  The point Paul makes is not about selfishly putting yourself first, it is about doing anything and everything you must do to relieve the tension between your own ears.  There is an ultimate stress reliever that sometimes is used too soon and for the wrong reasons and others use too late.  That is moving on, splitting, making like a wind and blowing town, resigning as pastor.  I bring this up because there is a crossroads we all face at one point or another where it is either them or me.  Although we know elsewhere has the same problems here has there are those Popeye moments when we have to say “that’s all I can stands, I can’t stand no more”. At best we would pastor only one church for life but your ministry is the most important thing in your life and it must be protected at all costs.  Resigning a Pastorate is very drastic and should never be made quickly.  One if my mentors taught, once you are absolutely positive it is time to leave, wait one month.  If you still feel that way move on.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been 3 weeks into that month and something changes my mind.

Protect your heart so it can be poured upon others not destroyed over them. 

Ok so having gotten that diatribe out of my system lets return to what a Pastor is supposed to be.  Everyone has an opinion on how you should conduct yourself and none of them are valid since your ministry is yours alone.  No one can rightly judge either your calling or your ministerial choices unless you are doing something the Bible forbids.  For the pastor responding to a Facebook post the other day using the F bomb.  Shame on you, your ministry of it is from God is not to teach the proper use of profanity it is to teach biblical godly living.

What does it mean to be called by God to be a pastor? 

I believe the only effective ministry must come from divine calling and is a call for life.  Having said that the manner in which God may enlighten you of his choosing you for a leadership role in the church is an individual experience seldom clear to our minds without serious soul searching.   I could write a book about experiences I have heard from men who believed themselves called to prepare themselves for pastoring.  For now suffice it to say if God gave you the idea that you should preach take the thought seriously and seek assurance from God before doing anything.

At my ordination the older pastor who preached the charge said “it is possible to be ridiculously busy as a pastor and fail to do the job”. I did not understand that at the time but its meaning became apparent soon after stepping into the role as pastor.  It is amazing the demands on the pastors time are placed by church members in the sublime assumption that no one else needs the pastor like you do and he is waiting with bated breath for your call asking what you should do about this or that.  In my experience I have never been able to get people to see this as a problem, thus the demands on time are relentless and can be all consuming.  This is NOT, however, the Pastors job.

Here are my top ten responsibilities that must take priority for the job to be done right.

  1. Preach and Teach. The number one most critical duty of a pastor is to preach to inspire, encourage and educate, and to teach to educate, inspire and motivate.  If anyone reading this is early in their ministerial life, you must get an education and study, study, study.  If you don’t you will run out of soap your first 6 months pastoring then repeat those thoughts 212 times until the rumbling discontent from the pew drives you from the church.  The average tenure of a first pastorate is less than 2 years.  My first pastorate I preached twice each Sunday (different sermons), and taught 2 lessons.  We had 2 home bible studies a week that I led, and a mid week service that I taught.  I was single then which was a good thing because I worked, studied and taught and not much else to keep up.  That marathon 3 years I learned and grew more than 5 years of seminary.  If the church is not growing in “grace and knowledge of the truth” you are failing, you must teach.
  2. Inspire and lead. I am not speaking here of church administration, I am referring to the need to engender action from the pews (or stack chairs, or bleachers etc) by constantly seeking more.  Notice I avoided the use of the term, drive.  The bible calls Gods people, sheep, and for good reason.  You can drive cattle but it is impossible to drive sheep.  They must be led, cajoled, encouraged, and have their noses wiped regularly (oh you pastors know you are up to your elbows in snot or worse every day) they cannot and must not be driven, browbeaten, and you dare not outrun the flock.  We want to drive, but success comes from leading at a pace the sheep can keep up with.  There are too many parables about stopping and finding that slow lamb as a priority over topping that next hill.
  3. Counsel. This for me is the most taxing activity because when someone tells you a truly hair raising story then looks expectantly at you for the definitive answer what do you say?  I usually say Lord HELP, then start talking believing God will make my words coherent even though internally I am at a complete loss.  By the time you finish that counseling session. You will be thankful for Gods intervention, and exhausted.  This is like trying to communicate strength and wisdom to someone dependent on yours when you know you have nothing.  Helping the saints is critical to Jesus words to the Father “And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. (John 17:11 KJV)”. Keeping the sheep is the job, we all lose some but never without bitter tears for the goal is to keep them all.
  4. Be an example. “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12 KJV)”.
  5. Witness. From rising in the morning until retiring at night you are looking for opportunity to share the good news
  6. Hospitality and fellowship. Sometimes we would like to hide but like a ship approaching a storm front they know not of we must constantly be talking to people outside the formality of a worship service.
  7. Family. I know this is far down the list but it is on the list as a pastoral function.  This is not about how much or how little time you spend with the family that is a different list.  It is about the family involvement in being a pastor.
  8. Intercessory prayer. A dynamic active and consistent prayer life is essential to your actions as a pastor and your attitude while doing them.
  9. Fellowship with other pastors. Helps with perspective and prevents going wacko on some bible idea you have.  Accountability from a different perspective.
  10. Sharpen the saw. Guard your heart to you can effectively defend everyone else’s.

So shut up, Rick, enough already…


Rick Carter is the Associate Pastor at City Church here in Detroit, Michigan. He is married and has pastored for over 40 years.

Jon’s thoughts,

Pastoring is serious stuff. Way to many take it flippantly and are lazy or on the flip side become arrogant and dictators. First let me say, that I still have much to learn and in no way am trying to tell other pastors how to do it, but it seems to me that there are quite a few pastors that could use a refresh (at the least) on how to do ministry. 

As a Pastors kid, I was exposed to a lot of pastors both out in front and behind the curtain. It amazed me when I became a pastor how some pastors have created a facade that they present to people on Sundays and yet are quite a bit more human the rest of the time. Others have become administrators and really don’t do much people work. I could go on and give more things that discourage me about some pastors & leaders out there, but I’d rather point out what we should be doing. 

  • We need to love Jesus and pass that on to our people.
  • We need to help people where they are and bring the gospel to them.
  • We need to teach, disciple and lead from out front and in back. 
  • We must not just preach, but also talk and walk.
  • We need to major on the majors, and minor on the minors. (Preferences are not convictions)
  • We need to study, learn and keep growing. 

1 Comment

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