Pastorate is tougher now

While having never served as a full-fledged pastor, I get to play one on many Sundays. It gives me even greater respect for those who follow that unique calling.

Some of my closest friends are pastors — and some are former pastors who gave more than 20 years to the task before needing a change of scenery. I admire them all.

Pastoral ministry, I am convinced, is more difficult today than in decades past. There are a variety of reasons for such a strong claim.

First, there are simply more options (religious and secular) vying for people’s time on the weekends. And less guilt about what God will do if you don’t show up to church, tithe and check at least 90 percent of the boxes on the offering envelope.

Second, population shifts and unprecedented pluralism are obvious factors too. In most church settings, it is simply more difficult now to bring people in and keep them engaged.

Third, the embarrassing public image of this humble profession is fortified daily — and especially on Sundays — by the pulpit showboats of the airways.

Fourth, and more locally, there are always those members who think their favorite pastor in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s would have no problem doing successfully today what he did back then. So the current pastor — though equally or more gifted and committed — is constantly being held to an unfair comparison.

Fifth, denominational conflict has taken its toll on many Baptist pastors. Systems and structures that once felt like home to them have radically changed. Finding a place to belong — and one that the congregation affirms as well — can be challenging.

The historic Baptist principles of freedom and personal responsibility that many pastors were taught to embrace and advance — from Training Union through seminary — are now being repudiated by the very leaders of their denominational powerhouse.

Yet churches are slow to recognize and react to such fundamental — and in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention, fundamentalist — change.

As one talented but burned-out pastor friend told me when he threw in the towel a few years ago: “I’ve just concluded that, regardless of what Southern Baptists do, this is always going to be a Southern Baptist church, and I’m not a Southern Baptist pastor anymore.”

A sixth reason for my conclusion is that, within many congregations, worship wars continue with the pastor caught somewhere between the battling parties. Finding compromise between congregational subgroups with very strong but differing opinions about what constitutes “true worship” is difficult and costly.

And, seventh, regardless of church size or theological bent, most pastors spend way too much time and energy on trivial pursuits that have no significance in Kingdom matters. This is not their desire. But hearing and attempting to pacify a few high-maintenance church members seems to take up a significant amount of a pastor’s attention.

While the number seven is symbolic of “completion,” this list could surely grow. But there is a strong enough case here for me to conclude that the pastoral task is more difficult today.

Sure, there are those rare times when a pastor fails to fulfill the basic responsibilities of the job. In such cases, dealing with valid concerns over pastoral leadership is needed.

But in most cases, we need to simply give them a break. Heck, we might even want to show a little appreciation instead of nitpick everything they do or say.

How would you like to attempt to satisfy such opinionated and inflexible people as you and me? And, remember, this is the person who answers our crisis calls in the wee morning hours with: “I’ll be right there.”


  1. I would add that the gap between generations is wider than it has ever been.

    Too, as I have commented elsewhere, SBC denominational conflicts are more than conflicts regarding theology. There are sociological factors and psychological factors playing in that have not been identified or thoroughly studied. The M.Div., which primarily has been a theological degree, must embrace sociology and psychology in an attempt to prepare the pastor to deal with people. For those of us who have already completed the M.Div., D. Min. programs need to be a little less “flexible” and offer some foundational education in these areas.

    However, though the times may have added to the difficulty of the job, the breaking of tradition’s barriers and the opportunity to minister in a pluralistic society is invigorating.

    The Pastorate is exciting and rewarding if the pastor remembers what Andy always tried to teach Barney: “It’s about the people.” The Andy Griffith Show is an excellent resource for pastoral ministry!

  2. Well said, Tim. I agree with every point you make.

  3. Twenty something years ago the Southern Baptist world shifted, and the moderate Baptist world wisely adjusted to the shift and placed a restrictor plate or governor on an existing engine…”lets make moderate congregations with SBC parts.” The retro fit was justified and necessary, and now twenty years later, that retrofitted engine is tired and sluggish, and nowhere is that more felt and known than within the pastorate. I hope we can articulate a new paradigm, a new narrative that meets our world in this new day.

    From the perspective of a relatively neophyte pastor (ten years) and from the persepctive of having graduated from a CBF seminary, it is my opinion that the world that I was prepared for in seminary does not exist in the local congregation. Systems Theory and cultural plurality is not a known entity in most congregations, and if the status quo of 1950 is the model that most pastors are held to, the exit doors will still swing widely.

  4. Kevin-
    Good point.
    The openness of congregations to purposely respond (rather than carelessly or fearfully react) to sociological change is indeed a frustration for many pastors.
    While it may be obvious for your generation, it is not exclusive to recent years.
    I once heard the late John Claypool (Baptist pastor turned Episcopal priest) say that Southern Seminary “taught me to pastor churches that don’t exist.”
    And he was trained there in the ’50s.

  5. Excellent points, John. In some ways, the same could be said about lay people as well. For example, we, too, are subject to comparison and association with TV showboats and “polichristians” (i.e. Land,etc.)

  6. This is a great and badly needed area of discussion. When I left Cliff Temple last year under duress, a friend said to me, “You forgot you were just a guest.” I didn’t appreciate it until he said it. But, he was right. Even after ten years, I was a newcomer to that church’s culture – and always would be. Unless they personally start the church, every pastor is just a guest pastor. It’s only a question of how long until he wears out his welcome.

  7. Right now JP, you got me thinking about my Dad’s last Sunday at Bethany in Gaffney, SC in 78.
    Also about my reputation as “high maintenance” here in Collinsville; but it is tough call when you try to weave Barry Hankins and Uneasy in Babylon into the “Church cornerstone” mendacity of your Mother’s Hometown fellowship when Gladstone’s Outlier’s Chapter on Harlan, Ky and “asses” may be more in play than anything resembling prophetic witness.
    I say you follow up with conversation with Bruce Gourley to see if upshot of all this is profile of SBC pastor and our friend William Thornton in Statham to see how he does it–I think he’s got the thread going right now at–or my friend the 2nd VP of the Bama SBC John Killian.
    Would be fascinating indeed to see how two fellows who stayed in SBC maintain with some aplomb, even though you and I are convinced they were wrong on the denominational struggle of the last 40 years.
    I think you woulda get lot of readers on that one if you use the paradigm of this blog to profile them in Baps Today.
    Just a thought; at same time main point is; Proud of you for another timely and well executed blog. No brainer, this is the one you should publish in the March issue.

  8. I was intrigued by the private emails from pastors about this issue. They were appreciative that I would say some things they cannot. Giving attention to reasonable expectations of a pastor would be a good exercise in most congregations.

  9. It’s takes a genuine “call” to stay in the pastorate. No other reason can sustain the pastor.

    Why anyone would go into the pastorate without a sense of God’s calling is a mystery to me.

  10. I am in disagreement with the current trend of the pastor as a CEO and outreach guru. I believe the role to be that of an equipper and trainer. The book entitled The Master’s Plan of Evangelism by Robert E. Coleman has had a profound affect on my ministry philosophy. While I have a ministry to the mass of the congregation I am looking for a dozen at a time to impact personally. I think much of the unreal expectations we feel, we have fed by not realistically understanding our role.

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