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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

An Impossible Vocation
October 15, 2015

Some years ago acclaimed organizational expert Peter Drucker opined that the four hardest jobs in America are President of the United States, college president, hospital CEO, and pastor. These four vocations have many things in common, including long hours and much work that nobody sees. What raises their difficulty level above all other vocations is the unparalleled breadth of skills and aptitudes they require.

This was crystallized for me one evening years ago in the living room of a member of a Pastor Nominating Committee that was interviewing me as a candidate for their pastoral vacancy. There were nine of them, and it quickly became clear to me that each of them had a somewhat different take on what their ideal pastor would look like. One person emphasized the expectation that the pastor would be a scholar, a resident theologian deeply informed by the latest literature in biblical studies, psychology, history, economics, law, social science, and so on – and also a brilliant public communicator of all that learning. Another person stressed that the pastor must be engaged deeply with community leaders, from city hall to industry leaders to non-profit executives to heads of hospitals and universities. One committee member declared that the pastor must visit the sick, homebound, and visitors regularly, while another insisted that the pastor be available in the church office during most business hours. One held that the pastor needs to be an extraverted people-person, while another said the pastor should be quietly humble. Another said the pastor had to be a great therapeutic counselor. One was concerned that the pastor be fully capable of understanding and directing the administrative challenges of personnel, property care, and budgeting in a large congregation. One insisted that the pastor be a visionary who starts new programs that generate new growth in the congregation, while another said the pastor’s main role is to provide comfort and assurance to faithful members being tossed about in a world of constant change all around them. I told them I wasn’t up to the position.

This scenario may seem extreme, but in my work with presbytery I often find similar colliding expectations of pastors. No one human being can excel in all these fields. However, unlike the other three most-difficult vocations, pastors rarely have the luxury of a staff of people with complementary expertise to assist them with various aspects of the vocation in which they are less adept. Most congregations understand this and appreciate their pastor greatly despite the fact that he or she is better at some things than at others. Thank God, we pastors receive much generous slack from God’s people!

October is designated as pastor-appreciation month. I urge us in this month to be especially mindful of the breadth of expectations our pastors bear, and to thank them for all they do for the sake of the church’s welfare that is not easy and natural for them. Many who receive this letter are themselves pastors, and I am asking them to forward it to their session and members – I know many of them won’t be inclined to do so, except that I prod them. Even then, it may be hard. But I urge them to do so, if not for their own sake, then for the sake of whoever will follow them.

This is no call for a pity party for pastors. Pastors have one of the world’s most blessed vocations. It is in many respects the most fulfilling of all vocations, if the Lord has called someone to it. Healthy pastors know that what matters most is hearing “Well done!” not from their parishioners, but from their Lord. Still, a word of appreciation from those they serve is a great encouragement, especially when it expressly acknowledges that they are beloved and appreciated even though they may be less than stellar at some parts of their job.

The apostle Paul declared his intent to become all things to all people in order to be able to communicate the Gospel with them effectively. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) He was always ready to push himself beyond his comfort zone in order to fulfill his calling. Yet in the same book he acknowledged that “one plants, another waters” – different pastors have different gifts, for different seasons in the life of a congregation. (1 Corinthians 3:1-11)

And so, dear ones, give thanks for your pastors, and give thanks to your pastors, for all they contribute to the welfare of your congregation – and bear with them gladly in their weaknesses. I am unspeakably grateful that you are willing to do so with me!

Yours in pastoral vocation,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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