“What is the biggest challenge of being a pastor?” I do not hear that question very often. Though a few people have asked me, I imagine most only give it a passing thought. Before being called to the ministry, I remember hearing from several people, “Pastors are lazy. They don’t understand what it means to work like I do.” Though I do not altogether agree with that statement, there is an element of truth in it, and I confess I too was inclined to such thinking in the past. Indeed, some pastors can be lazy (as can people in other vocations too!), but the overall characterization of pastors as such is unwarranted. However, I do believe the second part of the earlier statement (“They don’t understand…”) is valid. “Agreed! No, I do not know what it means to work like you do in your vocation.” But to be fair, I could say the exact same thing, “They don’t understand what it means to work like I do.” I mention those things, not to instigate a back-and-forth about who works harder, but to offer context for answering the initial question – “What is the biggest challenge of being a pastor?” Just as I cannot relate to the challenges you face each day, so too will it be difficult for you to understand my challenges. But by the end of this post, I hope you will better understand me and the work of a Reformed pastor.
Frankly, there are any number of “biggest” challenges for me or any other pastor. Those depend on the person, surrounding circumstances, struggles with sin, family life, and many other factors. If you need a list of challenges pastors face regularly, just read the NT Epistles, biographies from Church History, works on pastoral theology, or the innumerable other blogs floating in cyberspace.
In this post, however, I want to focus on the biggest challenge I face in our current cultural climate (and cultural Christian climate) – being a Reformed pastor. The word “Reformed” might be off-putting to some (“Why does he have to use THAT word again?”) but is necessary for understanding my calling here at CPC. When I was ordained in 2016 as a Teaching Elder in the PCA, I took the following vows (PCA BCO 21-5):
1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?
2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?
3. Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity?
(Read the remaining vows here.)
Those vows, much like marriage vows, are impossible for anyone to fulfill perfectly, but they are the goal for which I must strive because I have sworn to do so before God and men. The first three vows uniquely constrain, inform, mold, and shape nearly everything I do.
Did you notice that before answering any questions about personal character and conduct, responsibilities in the local church, the local presbytery, or the practices of the PCA, I must agree to submit myself to various written authorities? Those authorities are, in order: (1) the Bible, (2) the Westminster Confession & Catechisms, and (3) the PCA’s Book of Church Order. In a very real sense, they are more binding upon me than all people serving in our denomination at this very moment.
No matter what other Christians or pastors, in the PCA or outside of it, might suggest or think, the “model” for my ministry is mostly determined by those written authorities. Thus, very little is left to my imagination or to innovation. This position is called confessionalism and has been the majority position since the founding of the PCA (admittedly to varying degrees; see bottom of this post).
Returning now to my original question, I confess that upholding my first three vows is the biggest challenge I have faced while being a Reformed pastor. In a world of celebrity pastors (especially across denominational lines), changing views on worship, a dying American church, and pragmatic approaches to growth – just to name a few! – it is by no means easy to hold fast to the doctrines/traditions I have been given (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15; Titus 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:13-14; 3:14). It is even more challenging to do so in a manner that shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Yet that is my calling, no matter how impossibly high the bar may be.
To understand these things better, PLEASE read the following article by Dr. John Fesko, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS):
May God use this post and Dr. Fesko’s article to help you better understand who I am and, for better or worse, how I am seeking to serve you at CPC! Our Lord’s blessings to all of you this week!
As a quick final aside, if you wish to understand the PCA’s “political factions,” click here and read up on the differences between strict subscriptionists, on the one hand, and good faith subscriptionists, on the other. Confessionalists range from strict subscriptionists to “loose(r)” subscriptionists, all of whom view denominational standards as binding. Good faith subscriptionists view denominational standards as helpful and wise, yet non-binding (somewhat similar to how many Baptists associate under the Southern Baptist Convention).