My Dear Shepherds,
“I had just assumed that the energy would keep coming. Why wouldn’t it? Isn’t that what pastors are supposed to do? Stoke the fires? Prime the pump? Charge the batteries? Do the ‘American’ thing? After only three years was I already a failed pastor?” Eugene Peterson said that, according to a new biography by Winn Collier. Peterson called that period of his pastoral ministry (which stretched to seven years) “the badlands,” after the barren Dakota territory his family drove through every year traveling from their church in Maryland to Peterson’s home in Montana.
Pastors draw energy from promising and interesting challenges—a new discipleship strategy, a surge in visitors, young believers eager to grow, the next sermon series. But sometimes the rains don’t come. The pandemic drove most pastors into a wilderness of bewildering tech demands, preaching to an empty room, and trying to shepherd without presence. Add to that the debilitating conflicts so many pastors face among their people. Badlands indeed.
Pastor Paul charged Timothy and all of us in the strongest terms possible:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season … (2 Tim. 4:1-2a)
It’s the “out of season” part that takes such a toll. The interminable drought. My wife and I spent our seminary internship in a blistering, un-air-conditioned summer only a few miles from the badlands, in Rapid City, South Dakota. Temperatures every day sat in the mid- to high-90s, nary a drop of rain, and the wind blew relentlessly. We had to cancel the hay ride we’d planned for the youth group because the rancher couldn’t spare a couple bales of hay. Sometimes pastoral life is like that—“out of season,” when opportunity isn’t knocking.
I’ve heard that fifty percent of pastors want out. Sometimes God is in that but while you have my heartfelt sympathy, I need to remind you of what Paul said:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. … But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (vv. 2, 5)
Just so we’re clear, “great patience” means absolute longsuffering, endurance. “Endure hardship” means to suffer evil or afflictions. Peter said, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). We can’t just quit.
I write these things reluctantly because my heart goes out to you. I have heard some of your stories. I know pastors’ hearts are breaking and strength is failing. Some of you have borne devastating attacks not only from our enemy but from God’s own people. Perhaps you have fallen. Shepherding is harder than we ever imagined, isn’t it?
After a solid month of that life-draining drought, rain clouds loomed over the Black Hills to the west. My wife and I jumped in our old VW Bug, rolled down the windows, and headed for the hills, in the opposite direction of the badlands. Big raindrops plopped on the windshield. We stuck our heads out the windows while I drove and laughed as our faces caught the rain.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)
Be ye glad!