“For anyone who is about to enter upon this walk of life needs to explore it all thoroughly beforehand and only then to undertake this ministry. And why? Because if he studies the difficulties beforehand he will at any rate have the advantage of not being taken by surprise when they crop up” ~ John Chrysostom (AD 347–407)
Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan provide a biblically informed definition of ministry: “Pastoral ministry is a local campaign in the broader war between the living God and the principalities and powers of the air.” In short, ministry is war, which means it never has been nor ever will be easy.
Reflections on the challenges of pastoral ministry have been the subject of many a blogpost. As a novice, I have no business adding my voice to the fray.
I know someone who does, however—John Chrysostom. Reading through his Six Books on the Priesthood recently made me think his insights might be helpful to those prayerfully considering seminary or pastoral ministry. In what follows, I’ll show you what Chrysostom says and then add my novice-y comments. Fair warning: You should give more weight to Chrysostom’s words than you should mine.
Here we go:
Guard against ambition. While aspiring to the office of overseer is “noble” (1 Tim. 3:1), Chrysostom insists that aspiring pastors must purify their souls from ambition (80). When a man with an unhealthy craving for the pastoral office finally enters the pastorate, he might cling to the office too tightly, leading him to turn a blind eye to the sinful patterns at work in his congregation. According to Chrysostom, a pastor must be so satisfied in God that he doesn’t need the approval of his congregation and is therefore willing to accept their dismissal: “I think a man must rid his mind of ambition with all possible care, and not for a moment let it be governed by it, in order that he may always act with freedom. For if he does not want to achieve fame in this position of authority, he will not dread its loss either. And if he does not fear this, he can always act with the freedom which befits Christian men” (81).
A few comments: There’s a fine line here. We should have goals and ambitions. But ambition is a double-edged sword. It’s both a gift and a curse. Given that fallen human beings are complex creatures whose motives are rarely, if ever, entirely pure, it’s possible that our ambitions and drive to succeed are rooted in feelings of inadequacy and a desire to prove ourselves to others or ourselves. It’s quite possible that our “gospel ambition,” or our desire for ministerial success stem from our competitive nature rather than a devout longing to glorify God—that it’s all one big project of self-validation, nothing more than a quest to reinforce our self-importance. Kyrie eleison.
Learn self-control. While all Christians are called to practice self-control, pastors need an extra dose of restraint in both their actions and words—and it’s the latter that Chrysostom harps on, especially controlling one’s temper: “. . . so a man who cannot control his temper while alone or in the company of a few others, but is easily thrown down into a passion, is like a wild beast baited by crowds all around, when he is entrusted with the rule of an entire congregation. He cannot live at peace himself and spreads evils galore among the people committed to his charge. . . . Nothing muddies the purity of the mind and the perspicacity of the wits as much as an ungovernable temper that fluctuates violently” (83–84).
A few comments: He who restrains his speech is wise (Prov. 17:27). He who gives full vent to his temper is a fool (Prov. 29:11). He without self-control is like a city without walls (Prov. 25:28). Pastors must control their tongues. Their words must be gracious, gentle, loving, and appropriately timed (Prov. 16:24; 15:23; Eph. 4:29). At the same time, however, they can’t give way to fear. We must confront error—both doctrinal and moral (see Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians), we must deal with church bullies, we must address sin in the congregation. Cowering in fear is not allowed; it must be resisted. Through it all, pastors must cultivate forbearance, “the source of all human blessings, which guides the soul to anchorage and escorts it into a fair haven” (95).
Prepare for criticism. You knew this one was coming. Some say pastors should simply get over it and move on. But just because criticism is inescapable doesn’t make living through it any easier. Still, it’s helpful to know that it’s nothing new. Even during Chrysostom’s time, dealing with criticism was something pastors dealt with. In this vein, then, Chrysostom warns pastors to prepare for “merciless critics” (101); to prepare to be “assailed with . . . accusations” (89). Consequently, they must learn to “bear the mischief of the mob” (102). But there’s more: Because pastoral ministry is like a “fish bowl” experience, you will not be able to hide your faults and imperfections. Indeed, even the most trivial will be noticed (85). Inasmuch as the vocation of a pastor places one in the public eye, your inadequacies will be exposed for all to see. Far from being able to cloak your private faults, Chrysostom noted that pastoral ministry entails exposing the nakedness of your soul (85). In short, you can’t hide who you are.
A few comments: While I suppose no one enjoys criticism, some deal with it better than others. Some can hear it and move on quickly. For others it’s the equivalent of having needles stuck in their eyes. Either way, prepare for it because it will happen. And know that you need to prepare to receive it from two different kinds of people. Some will approach you out of love and truly desire to help. Others, unfortunately, will offer their words in outbursts of anger, and with the intention to hurt. Some genuinely want to inflict pain and tear you down. As someone who has received both, I can tell you that the loving kind is easier to receive than the hurtful kind.
Either way, here’s what I do: 1) Listen to all criticism and respond with grace, love, and humility. 2) Consider the source. Is this person spiritually mature? Do they exhibit the fruit of the Spirit? Does this person truly know you? Is the purpose to build you up? 3) Report their criticism to your inner circle, to the people who truly know you and love you. Ask them if they think there is any credibility to the criticism you’re receiving. 4) Pray. Open yourself up to God and ask him what he would have you do. Ask him to help you grow and develop. Beg him to give you a love for the person or people who brought the criticism, especially those who spoke them in a cruel and mean-spirited way.
 John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 94.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015), 38.
This should be required reading for ministry prep.