It was a homespun saying. It implied that the preacher’s life was hard and one should only accept God’s call to full time service if following any other course would be an act of radical disobedience. The saying seemed a call more to dutiful than joyful ministry.
It’s true that during the thirties of the last century, the preacher’s life in the West was hard. Preachers were largely self-taught, by studying such as Ralston’s Divinity, sometimes after a day’s work.
Incomes were tight. Reassignments were frequent. In our denomination Preachers were moved every two or three years. And preaching a radical gospel of sin, repentance, salvation through Christ, and holy living often brought resistance if not persecution.
By comparison, the pastor’s life today is less demanding in that radical way. College and seminary provide better education for the task; a parsonage family is usually settled in a community for much longer periods; in most cases optional housing is provided by a given choice between a parsonage and a housing allowance; and incomes are not so near the edge as they were.
But for today’s pastor who takes the calling seriously, responding to “the call to preach” still leads to a demanding life that tests and stretches. Preaching credible sermons in an internet- and DVD-saturated age requires rigorous discipline. Warm-overs from the internet will not refresh the church. Parishioner expectations regarding sermons, pastoral care, and church administration are high and disapproval is sometimes expressed roughly; expenses for children’s activities or medicines may press the margins.
Even more importantly, serving the Lord whether during economic depression or days of abundance involves spiritual warfare. As Paul wrote long ago, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood….” (Eph. 6:9). In other words, any struggle in the pastoral life is not so much with people as with powerful spiritual influences that create resistance to the gospel. To carry out this warfare successfully requires the daily disciplines of prayer both private and communal.
The scarcity of young promising and gifted pastoral prospects today is, in my opinion, related very much to the materialism of our times. I recall one young man who showed all the signs of being called to the ministry but who turned aside to another path influenced, it seemed to me, by a family that could not see adequate material rewards and prestige offered in the pastoral life.
Admittedly the rewards are not usually “material,” but they are surprisingly great. Jesus said to his disciples: anyone who leaves all for me and the gospel will receive a hundred times as much in this present age (with persecutions) “and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-31).
The pastoral life is not a job, it is a “calling.” A job is a defined task (like clerking in a store eight hours a day, or mowing lawns) that may be completed so one can turn elsewhere. A calling is a divine summons which should be answered and is only lifted when the Master himself lifts it. The minister who called his work a “career” did not understand this.
Pastors who have given a lifetime to this calling can report the numerous rewards with joy — the trust reflected in the church’s ordination; the challenge to deliver the word of God regularly through preaching and teaching; the privilege of sharing deeply in the lives of parishioners and adherents; close involvement in the rites of passage with all ages — birth, conversion, marriage, anniversaries, retirement, and death.
Who can measure the deep spiritual satisfaction of celebrating a quiet fiftieth anniversary dinner with a couple whom one had married a half century earlier? Or talking by long distance with another man whom he had led to the Lord at his dining room table forty years before? Or the e-mails, notes and calls that come regularly from Christians (and even unbelievers) who say they were influenced for the Lord even though the pastor did not know it at the time?
There’s a quiet joy that is nourished regularly in the hearts of those who heard the call while young and who responded wholeheartedly.
(If you want to read more about pastoring, get my new book on Amazon.com, THE PASTOR’S FIRST LOVE: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling)