Why Pastoral Work Is So Complex (And Why You Shouldn’t Try to Simplify It)

Pastoral ministry is the most difficult job in the world. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. One contributing factor to this is the complexity of the job of a pastor.

There are lots of bad ways to deal with the complexity of pastoral ministry. You could put in more hours. You could cut down on your responsibilities. But the former will wreck your family, and the latter will plummet the fruitfulness of your ministry.

So what do you do?

You signed up for three jobs

Pastoral work is inherently complex because it’s three jobs, not one. We are a prophet (teaching and preaching), a priest (ministering relationally and in prayer), and a king (providing leadership and vision). True shepherding takes place when these three roles overlap in a minister of the gospel. There is no other job in the world that requires so much from one person.

Trying to remove one of these roles is like removing a component from an atom. If you take away the electron, you no longer have an atom. If you stop preaching, you no longer are a shepherd. Shepherds feed their sheep.

How do you handle the complexity so that you can fulfill your ministry?

That question requires a long and multi-faceted answer. I hope to hang out on this topic for a little while. I’ll start by working on an answer that might, at first glance, seem elementary or quick-fixish. But I think it is fundamental.

The first step is to recognize that we stress out when the roles of prophet, priest, and king conflict with each other. For example, last week I was doing an outreach service week with my junior high students (priest), which forced me to push most of my sermon prep for Sunday morning and Sunday evening off to the weekend (prophet). Therefore I had almost no time for regular administrative tasks, and most of my inboxes are still full a week later (king).

That was an extraordinary week for me, but my guess is that it’s not for many pastors. As those weeks turn into months, and those months turn into years, men crumble under the complexity of their calling or reduce their role to one- or two-thirds of what they should be doing.

Once you recognize that the three roles of a pastor often compete for our time and attention, the next step is to focus on just one role at a time (I warned you that it would sound quick-fixish). You can’t multitask this stuff. How often do you prepare sermons with your email open? You’re mixing prophet-work with king-work. Are your meetings so overrun with “devotions” that you don’t have time to thoroughly debate important decisions? You’re mixing king-work with priest-work.

There is a time and place for each of these things, but when we try to do them all at once, rather than accomplishing more, we accomplish less. This, in turn, applies all the more stress to each of our roles as pastors. But if you devote attention to just one role at a time, you’ll surprise yourself with what you can get done in less time.

When we realize we have three jobs, recognize they conflict sometimes, and, therefore, focus on one at a time (while always relying on the power of the Spirit), we’ve taken the first step toward handling the complexity of pastoral ministry.