Walking the High Tightrope of Pastoral Ministry

A young pastor reflects on the many pulls and pressures of pastoral ministry and offers three lessons on how to flourish and serve well in this tension.

Paul Tripp, in one of his books, calls pastoral ministry a dangerous calling, a khataranaak bulawa. 

In Hindi it sounds like a bad Bollywood movie. But the phrase does resonate with what James warns us in his letter. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

On the other hand, Paul tells Timothy that it is noble to aspire to be a pastor. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task (1 Tim 3:1). A task that is good and honourable, a divinely bestowed position (Acts 20:28).

So, which one is it? Is pastoral ministry a dangerous calling or is it a noble task?

From my limited experience, full-time pastoral ministry is like walking a tightrope between a dangerous calling and a noble task. The joys and the perils of the pastoral calling always go hand in hand.

Many aspects of serving as a pastor demand the skill and precision of a daredevil gymnast walking gingerly on an inch thick rope between two high-story buildings. One has to balance, walk the tension, and slowly move forward to reach the other end.

You cannot afford to make any mistakes as the danger is real. But at the end of the rope, there is great joy and fulfilment, even exhilaration, in finishing such a high walk.

Here are three thoughts to help pastors walk this tightrope.

Clarity on the ‘Why’

Why do you want to be a pastor? There may be many different reasons. 

One reason quite often heard in India is a special divine calling similar to God’s call of Abram (Gen. 12), or Paul meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).

Others have been blessed and influenced strongly by other pastors. So they desire the same pastoral path for themselves. Then we hear of some who were dedicated to ministry before their birth. There are also others who slowly and progressively became convinced of the need to be in full-time pastoral ministry.

In every pastoral role, many external and internal pressures will always work to undermine our identity in Christ.

Of course, there are other not-so-healthy reasons too, such as opting for it because there is no other career option. A few are also unwillingly thrust into the role as a son pressured to continue his father’s ministry.

Whatever their path into ministry, every pastor must constantly reflect on, sanctify, and internalise their answer to this one question: “Why am I in ministry?”

‘Why’ is our driving purpose. The people who keep their “why” clear year after year, are the ones who will become great leaders, says Simon Sinek, best known for his Ted Talk, “Start with Why.”

There may be many ways and contexts in which to answer this question, but the core of every answer must always be Christ.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16). Jesus asked Peter this question just before recommissioning him to pastoral ministry.

Paul echoes the same reason. The love of Christ controls him and his ministry (2 Cor. 5).

If Christ and our love for him is not our central reason and motivation for pastoral ministry, all our labour is in vain.

Secure Identity

Our love for Christ is always a response to his love for us, and to what he has done for us.

A core identity flowing from a deep trusting and resting in Christ’s work on our behalf is crucial, especially in India where churches tend to place pastors on a pedestal.

In every pastoral role, many external and internal pressures work to undermine our identity in Christ.

External Pressures in Pastoral Ministry

Churches often tend to forget that their pastor is a person. They only see his role and function as a pastor and are blind to him as an individual.

Churches often place high, demanding, and often, unrealistic expectations on their pastor’s shoulders. A pastor cannot say this and that, or a pastor should do this or that. There are many spoken and unspoken pressures from others.

Internal Pressures in Pastoral Ministry

Pastors can define their identity and worth by church attendance, giving, and numerical growth. The constant demands of ministry and loving people sometimes do not leave room for the pastor to be himself.

Relationships are complex because those whom you pastor are not simply friends or peers, but someone who is also under your spiritual care.

Paul Tripp says being a pastor often defines him and the ministry becomes his identity. Of course, many vocations are a threat to one’s identity, but the pastoral office is very high on this list.

In Christ, we are first and foremost, beloved children of God.

The antidote to these challenges is to constantly remember and rehearse the gospel which offers us an identity in Christ through grace, not performance.

We are limited, fragile created beings. Once we were lost, but now we are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are empowered by the Spirit daily to fight sin. Like all believers, pastors are also being sanctified in the image of Christ.

There is room for grace and growth.

In Christ, we are first and foremost, beloved children of God. This is who we are. Being a pastor is receiving the privilege of serving God and serving people. This is what we do.

Loving God and Loving People

The two greatest commands in the Bible are to love God and to love people.

We are called to love God and to love people on God’s holy and compassionate terms. But there is always internal sinfulness to love people on our terms, and external demands to love people on their terms.

Because of our sinfulness and the sinfulness of others, pastors often see loving God and loving people in tension with each other.

God is honoured when pastors preach his Word faithfully with sound doctrine and great compassion.

But sometimes, people are not keen to hear sound doctrine. They only want pastors to meet their felt needs. They desire empathy without truth.

Pastors can also be overzealous and fail to be patient enough to allow the gospel of grace to transform people.

On the other hand, some pastors have amazing people skills. They are patient, kind, and gracious. People feel a lot of freedom around them and they are happy and comfortable. But they may avoid difficult conversations and compromise the truth.

Every pastor has to walk this tightrope everyday. The tension is real.

God needs to be honoured at all times and people need to be loved at all times, on God’s terms. Every pastor will slip up on this tightrope many times.

Which is why though there are many pastors, there is only one high priest—the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 4:14-16). Good pastors not only point their congregation to him, they also turn to him and find rest in him (Matt. 11:28).