What pastor worth more than his weight in salt does not feel the daily pressure of pastoral anxiety? And how do we as pastors overcome this daily tension that we sometimes feel so deeply in our souls?
Paul actually describes this anxiety and its pressure in 2 Corinthians 11:28. By considering this verse and others, we can find somewhat of an idea as to what exactly this pressure is and how a pastor can overcome it.
In the points to follow, the first will be an attempt to define this pressure, and the three points thereafter are meant to help us think about pastoral pressure properly in order to overcome the temptation to despair.
First, realize what this pressure is.
“Pressure” comes from epistasis, which is used in the NT only one other time in Acts 24:12. Paul claims there that he was not “stirring up a crowd,” that is, being such a problem that people passing by would stop to address the situation, thereby creating a crowd. It was actually the Jews stirred up a crowd against him in Acts 21, and synonyms for “stirred up” (Acts 21:27, syncheō; 21:30, kineō) give a picture of mass confusion in which people were recklessly beating Paul in order to immediately relieve what they perceived to be a problem.
What is similar between the “pressure” and “stirring” above is that each one involves a great agitation of soul. That’s why Paul could list it as somewhat on the same plane as all of what he suffered for the gospel in 2 Corinthians 11:23–27.
Pastoral pressure stems from a concern for people in the church. As Paul put it, his “daily pressure” was one “of my anxiety for all the churches.” “Anxiety” comes from merimna and can refer to a negative anxiety (Matt 13:22; Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14; 21:24) or an anxiety that is properly handled by giving it to God because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). The cognate verb merimnaō can likewise describe sinful worries (Matt 6:25, 27, 28, 31, 34; Phil 4:6; et al) but also a care for others as well. Christians are to “have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:25), just as Timothy was “genuinely concerned” for the welfare of the Philippians, seeking not his “own interests” but “those of Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:20–21).
All of the word study above is meant to paint a picture of what Paul means by the pressure of anxiety for a church. It is a care for others and can tend toward worry and even despair if we do not cast these anxieties to God in prayer. It is the pressure of anxiety for others that moves us to act on behalf of the ones whose needs we perceive. It usually involves being anxious over people’s sin—we hope that they will forsake sin, grow in Christ, and persevere. In fact, 2 Corinthians 11:29 describes Paul as burning within (puroō) for those who are weak and fall. It also involves being anxious over people’s suffering—we hope that they will carry on in the face of difficulty and trial. Moreover, we hope that everyone will do these things together as they carry out the mission of the church and make disciples for the sake of the Name.
Second, realize that this pressure will probably always be there.
I remember once teaching a class on the theology of leadership, and a veteran pastor asked me, “Does this ever go away?” I’ve not even been a pastor as long as he has, and my experience is that this pressure will probably never go away. Until Christ comes again, the church will struggle with sin and suffering and need its shepherds to tend its needs.
If anything, it seems to me that growing in the grace and the knowledge of God’s Word will naturally increase one’s love for the church and thus one’s burden for others, which, in turn, increases the pressure of anxiety for a church all the more. But alongside that increased pressure is the increased grace of Jesus Christ to shepherd and carry that burden.
This brings me to my next point…
Third, realize that this pressure will be occasionally overwhelming.
Some men are more gifted than others, but God will pin down each man from time to time to show him just how finite he is. When the pressure of being a pastor gets the best of us, it can indeed be overwhelming. Whether a church is unable to meet its budget, has families that move away, has to discipline a member, is on the verge of a split, or whatever the matter may be—these matters keep us up at night, rob us of sleep, and are meant to push us to our limits. Even Christ in His sinless humanity was pushed to a point to ask if there could be any other way.
So what do we do when we are overwhelmed by the pressure? What do we do when our care for the church crushes our soul like a vice?
Fourth, realize that this pressure is meant to drive you to the throne of grace.
Overwhelmed, men will either despair or find peace of soul in the Lord (cf. Phil 4:6–7). Whatever debate there may be over the condition of their souls, pastors, too, commit suicide from time to time. Pastors drop out of ministry. Pastors secretly flee their calling to find pleasure in pornography or solitaire or whatever lesser things supposedly keep the suffering at bay.
But a true pastor will know that he has been called to share the sufferings of Christ and the burdens of his flock, overwhelming though they may be. A true pastor will furthermore know that that very same Christ sits with the Father on a throne to dispense grace in the time of need. He has been tempted as we are, even as pastors, and knows what burdens there are. Only when we are overwhelmed and turn to the Lord can we learn as Paul did, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). We are weak, and He is strong. Only when we are overwhelmed can God show Himself mighty through us.
To be a pastor is to face the daily pressure of anxiety for a church—caring for people and sharing their burdens and being occasionally overwhelmed. May we go to throne of God in such times and find His grace to handle this pressure.
I cannot promise that finding grace in the time of need also means that God will have ended the sin and suffering in your church. But I can say from His Word that His grace will make you able to bear it.
When the load on our shoulders causes our knees to bend, only then can we see that has God postured us to lift our heads to Him in prayer. Only when we are weak can God show us just how strong He is. May we as pastors persevere through pressure.