More than one person has attributed the following quote to the late management guru Peter Drucker (1909–2005): “The four hardest jobs in America are the president of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital, and a pastor.”
A little internet scouring, however, reveals that he actually thought being a mega-church pastor was hard work—with all the managing of multiple ministries, several multisite campuses, a panoply of spreadsheets, overseeing countless pastoral staff, “casting vision,” and CEOing, all the while tweeting uplifting comments several times a day. And who can forget performing (I mean, preaching) in skinny jeans? Snarkiness aside, that someone of his stature lists pastoral ministry as a difficult vocation is telling.
Furthermore, whatever one makes of the statistics, we know that a significant number of pastors leave the ministry each year for reasons other than retirement.
In 2010 the New York Times ran an article titled, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” in which Paul Vitello reports, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.” Additionally, in his book God’s Potters, Jackson Carroll marshals evidence indicating that multitudes in ministry are unhappy and would opt for a different line of work if they had the opportunity. And lastly, long-time pastor David Hansen has a hunch as to why so many pastors fall into moral failure: “I believe many ministers who have affairs do so in order to get out of the ministry.”
Given these realities, how can pastors prepare for the demands they will face? This is no mere academic enterprise for me; I want the answers and I want to help my fellow pastors and aspiring pastors thrive in ministry.
With such a goal in view, I reached out to three seasoned pastors, asking for their input. Specifically, I wanted to know the most significant lesson(s) they have learned during the course of their ministry.
Let me introduce the participants:
Name: Andy Aikens
Church: First Presbyterian Church, Crossville, Tennessee
Experience: 28 years
Name: Steve McLean
Church: Argyle Presbyterian Church
Experience: 34 years (retired)
Combining their answers with my own research and reflections, I would group their responses under eight major categories, each of which reflects the areas aspiring pastors and novices need to consider as they navigate the trenches of ministry.
The eight categories are: Calling, expectations, preaching, praying, piety, people, patience, and plumbing.
Calling – Steve McLean emphasized the importance of calling in his answer to my question above. While avoiding the extremes of narcissistic navel-gazing, aspiring pastors must give due consideration to their calling. Are they really called to ministry or do they simply enjoy teaching and preaching the Bible?
Think of Charles Spurgeon’s (1834–1892) advice in his Lectures to My Students: If you can see yourself being happy doing anything but ministry, do yourself and your future congregation a favor, and pursue a different vocation. “We must feel that woe unto us if we preach not the gospel,” said the prince of preachers.
In sum, long term viability in the ministry necessitates a strong and enduring sense of calling.
Expectations – Again, Steve McLean was adamant about this point as well. The axiom that disappointment stems from unmet expectations applies in pastoral ministry as well.
Consider this: Most pastors are introverted, sincere seekers of God who relish witnessing people come to faith and subsequently growing to maturity in Christ. Since many crave approval (one counselor memorably described pastors as “people whores”) they did not enter ministry to quarrel with people or fight with intractable church members. Upon confronting the dark side of church politics and unruly members, many leave the church and opt to “sell insurance” instead.
Yet an honest canvassing of the Sacred Page reveals a God who has told aspiring ministers what they can expect when entering the pastorate (read the lives of the prophets and the Pastoral Epistles). Moreover, early church father John Chrysostom (347–407 AD) explained why pastors need to count the cost: “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.”
What kind of expectations? Financial hardship, meager results from one’s efforts, church conflict, the loss of cherished friendships, just to name a few.
Proper expectations furnish a pastor with the ability to love his congregation rather than hurt them when they disappoint him. Otherwise you may find yourself accusing the congregation as opposed to interceding for them: “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). He further observed that pastors begin accusing their congregations when they fail to conform to his “wish dream”—that is, for their resistance to his “vison” (to use a contemporary term).
Preaching – The bulk of pastoral ministry consists of either preaching or preparing to preach—hence why ministry practitioners frequently refer to the “relentless return of Sundays.” Elton LaBree noted his amazement regarding “how quickly time passes Sunday to Sunday in preparing messages.” Additionally, Andy Aikens pleads for pastors to exhibit a posture of dependence: “Be a good scholar,” he said. “And always ask God for help, insights, strength.”
Unfolding the Word of God for the people of God each week is a supreme privilege and a weighty responsibility. Don’t defile the sacred office by serving up “Saturday night specials” to Christ’s sheep. Read, re-read, and read again the passage before you, let it simmer in your soul, and then declare it with passion to your people on the Lord’s Day.
Praying – “Let not man put asunder what God has joined together,” might be said of preaching and praying: “We are called to the ministry of the word and prayer, because without prayer the God of our studies will be the unfrightening and uninspiring God of insipid academic gamesmanship,” thunders John Piper. Bent knees and open lexicons go together.
The inextricable link of preaching and praying aside, pastors must maintain a robust devotional life—incessant prayer, consistent Bible reading, healthy and safe relationships with pastors. As Andy Aikens said, “Even if you are reading for sermon preparation, let the Word of God nourish your own soul. Never read the Word just to find something to teach but rather let it teach you.”
Don’t erect the false dichotomy between prayer or study, but opt for prayerful study, while also making space for extended times of prayer.
Piety – As an addendum to prayer, I mention “piety” as a way to highlight personal holiness. Not only must pastors be men of prayer, they must also exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). Striving for a clear conscience before God must be uppermost in their minds at all times: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Matthew Henry (1662–1714) wisely counseled Christians to embrace an “anything for a quiet conscience” mindset, rather than an “anything for a quiet [easy] life,” outlook. Love, forgive, demonstrate patience with all, practice hospitality and sacrificial service, keep short accounts with others, take a Sabbath, enjoy God. As one dependent upon God’s grace, earnestly aim for purity of life.
Patience – If you prize immediately observable results, then you’ll most likely struggle in ministry. If you cherish starting and finishing projects, then ministry might not be for you. If you enjoy looking at all your completed work at the end of the day, prayerfully consider another vocation. Because there is always more to do in ministry, one rarely enjoys a sense of completion. And this reality requires adopting a long term perspective.
Since church life is typically slow-going, you’ll need patience with others. Elton LaBree brought this out in our discussion: “I am amazed how much time it takes for an idea to gain ‘buy-in’ within a congregation. I am amazed how an idea I may suggest four years earlier, gets brought up by someone and at that time it goes through.” Ministry requires faithful plodding, you might say.
Not only do we need patience with others, we also need patience with ourselves. Pastor and seminary professor David Murray suggests that the first ten years of ministry is about being humbled, broken, and stripped. He jokes that during his early years in ministry he earned a master’s degree in “learning how to fail.”
Poet John Donne (1572–1631) correctly surmised that “there is a snake in every path, temptations in every vocation.” I respectfully submit that the foremost “snake” and “temptation” in ministry is the desire to do big things, famously, as fast as possible for everyone to see (as Zack Eswine notes). Pastors (and their congregations, incidentally) cherish feeling and looking competent. Truth be told, behind all our gallant strides through the church hallways most of us are winging it as we go.
Can I share from my own experience? My interaction with pastors during my six years of ministry has taught me that most are barely hanging on. They’re thirsty for any bit of encouragement they can get. They faithfully trudge through their weekly obligations; they pant through their daily checklist. They do outreach, they plan events, they serve people, they pray regularly, they’re trying their best. And yet their churches only see modest growth throughout the bulk of their tenure—which is why the average pastor can barely stomach the pious nostrums of the church growth gurus.
People – Pastors traffic not only in ideas, but also in people. And while people are a great source of joy, relationships are also the birthplace of pain.
Growing close with church members is a singular blessing, bringing one into sublime moments and sacred conversations. Visiting smiling church members as they hold their new baby brings a smile to your face. Sitting at the bedside while a dear soul passes into eternity makes the brevity of life palpable. Each moment is holy in its own unique way.
Nevertheless, the rise of the “difficult person” is the “menace” of ministry and the main reason men of the cloth pursue a different line of work. 
Just as my mentors encouraged me, so now I encourage other pastors: Don’t give way to the “inner arsonist” of anger. Rather, strengthen your emotional stamina through heaps of breath-prayers as you depend on the Holy Trinity—all three Persons!
Do all you can to avoid the warm bath of shame that will surely engulf you once you give in to the flesh. Deny yourself rather than rationalize your angry response. (This is why we must constantly feed our souls on God’s Word and nourish ourselves in prayer. We can’t remain static. As Maximus the Confessor [d. 662 AD] reminded me recently, “The immobility of virtue is the beginning of vice.”)
Plumbing – This is a catchall word designed to highlight all the other things pastors do: Leading, managing, strategizing, and administrating. Depending on one’s personality, a pastor may struggle to thrive in these areas. Nonetheless, a good faith effort to grow must be undertaken since a hopeless “that’s just not me” attitude will not suffice.
If you challenged me to summarize my time in ministry over the last six years in one word, I would choose “grace.” I often find myself daydreaming about how I don’t deserve to be here. I don’t deserve the kindnesses poured out on me by God’s people. I’m not worthy of the encouraging notes church members send me. God didn’t bless me with a loving and supportive wife and three children as a result of good behavior.
The blessings, delights, and joys of ministry far exceed the demanding days and seasons of ministry. Know that in advance. But also know what you’re getting yourself into.
Count the cost, pray in advance, and then step out in faith.
 Jackson Carroll, God’s Potters: Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).
 David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without All the Answers, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 142.
 Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 28.
 St. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 94.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 29.
 Ibid., 30.
 John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 63.
 James E. Rosscup, “The Priority of Prayer in Expository Preaching,” in Rediscovering Expository Preaching: Balancing the Science and Art of Biblical Exposition, John MacArthur Jr. and the Master’s Seminary Faculty (Dallas: Word, 1992), 70.
 On “prayerful study,” see Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 64–70.
 Matthew Henry, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 76.
 David Murray, Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 118–119.
 John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 5.
 Chuck DeGroat, Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life—Including Yourself (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 12.
 Language borrowed from Jane Kenyon, “Portrait of a Figure Near Water,” in Otherwise: New & Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1996), 86.
 St. Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 106.