This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.
A Wearying Season for Pastors
In December of 2020, I stumbled across a meme on the Internet in which five portable restrooms were lined up in a row at a construction site. All five of them were on fire. The meme read, “If 2020 were a scented candle . . . ”
That sounds about right. The combination of a global pandemic; mass social isolation; emptied communities, classrooms, and congregations; and the most divisive political season of my middle-aged lifetime created a perfect storm that has left almost everyone—especially pastors—feeling tired, lonely, insecure, overwhelmed, under-encouraged, and paralyzed with fear that we will say or do something that will get us called out, attacked, canceled, or worse.
In a recent text exchange with a fellow Christian leader and pastor, I mentioned several reasons why, as a pastor, I am feeling more tired in my calling than ever. My friend replied, Indeed, we are all ready for 2020 to end, even if we have to wait until 2030 for that to happen.
As I write this, it is September 2021, and the year 2020 is still showing no sign of fading. If there were a competition for word of the year, top contenders might include words like polarized, racialized, tribalized, politicized, divided, and outraged.
Pastors feel the weight of such words as we get stuck in the crossfires that exist between Christians and even among our own church members. The more diverse our churches, the more at-risk we become of such crossfires. Among Christians, there are as many opinions—about getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and being on the right or wrong side of history—as there are people.
It is not uncommon for pastors to be treated as if we are the rope in a tug of war between disputing parties. When we opt out of taking other people’s agendas and politics into our pulpits (our primary calling is to preach Christ, not “the issues”), it may only be a matter of time before we are accused of being too “left-leaning” or too “right-leaning”—often at the same time! I am beginning to understand why Paul Tripp, himself a counselor and pastor, has called pastoring a most dangerous calling.
The exhaustion that comes from trying to hold things together in such a hostile climate eventually takes a toll on pastors. The weariness factor is so pronounced that, according to researchers, over thirty percent of pastors are actively looking to leave the ministry. Within my own network of pastor friends and colleagues, the percentages are higher than this. I can understand why so many have considered it. Since the pandemic began, ministry complexity and demands have been unrelenting. I have foregone a scheduled sabbatical and almost all my allotted vacation time so I can stay at my post. I am not the exception in this, but the rule, as most pastors would attest.
Solidarity with Christ
Enter Jesus, who reminds us that in this world we will have trouble. No one should be alarmed by the existence of thorns in the flesh or even fiery trials, for it is in such trials that we receive the opportunity to share in what Paul called the fellowship of Jesus’s sufferings. When people persecute us and say false or misleading things about us, we can rejoice, for so they treated the prophets before us. Great is our reward in heaven, our Lord reassures us. The wearying things that happen to us are also things that happened to him first. As we suffer similar things, we enter even deeper, more intimate solidarity with Christ.
I once heard an anecdote about St. Teresa of Avila and a conversation she had with the Lord. It was a time of deep weariness and suffering for her. She asked the Lord why he allowed things to get so hard for his children, to which the Lord allegedly replied, “This is how I treat my friends.” To this, Teresa responded, “Well, then, it’s no wonder why you have so few friends!”
The wearying things that happen to us are also things that happened to him first.
Amid seasons like 2020 that feel like a long, unrelenting winter, the promises of the gospel and the rest it provides remain. In the gospel, there are resources not only for coping but also for thriving in weary times. It gives us resources that help us nurture and lean into counter-cultural communities and witness. As Don Carson has said, as “a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’s sake,” Christians are capable in Christ to pursue harmony between people and groups who could not possibly unite outside of Christ. In Christ, dividing walls of hostility between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free were torn down in early church communities. If Christ could accomplish this back then, could he not also accomplish it right now?
A Witness for the Gospel
This might be our best current opportunity for counter-cultural witness—to simply be kind to one another in Christ, especially across the lines of our differences. There must be a reason why Mr. Rogers is popular again and Ted Lasso is such a celebrated TV series. The world is bent, battle-worn, and tired. It craves a kind of grace and kindness that Mr. Rogers and Ted Lasso offer to us. Both embody the Proverb which tells us that a gentle answer turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1). Both also point us to Christ himself, whose eighth and most memorable “I AM” statement invites all who are weary to come to him for rest, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (see Matt. 11:25–30).
Pastors, it is important to recognize that Jesus’s invitation to come to him comes a full seventeen chapters before Jesus asks us to go and do for him. His great invitation comes long before his Great Commission. This being true, perhaps it wasn’t necessary for me to forego my sabbatical and vacation to stay at my post. Perhaps it was even wrong to do so. It is in Christ, not by my willpower or wisdom, that all things hold together.
Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: in this (or any) hostile climate, I will only become a gentle rest-giver to the degree that I enter the Sabbath rest of Christ. If we pastors are going to embody his gentle and humble ways in the culture, we must first address the messy, restless, anxious culture that can take residence in our own hearts.
It is good to remind ourselves and each other that there is no bypass road around Matthew 11 (the great invitation to come to Christ in our hearts) to get to Matthew 28 (the Great Commission to go and do for him in the world). To become like Christ in the world, we must pull into the rest area to abide with Christ. For the fruit of the Spirit—including the fruit of rest-giving gentleness—can only grow and be shared when we ourselves rest in and rely on Christ.
What this means for you, pastor, is that the Sabbath was made for you, too.
Scott Sauls is a contributing author to 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me edited by Jeff Robinson, Sr. and Collin Hansen.
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