“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:28)
That’s how the apostle Paul capped off a long list of afflictions suffered in service to Christ. He spoke of his hard work, imprisonments, floggings, exposure to death, stonings, shipwrecks, natural disasters, bandits, betrayals, sleeplessness, hunger and thirst, and physical need. That’s a partial listing of the “everything else.” Yet, there’s a “besides” that’s always intrigued me. Besides, in addition to, over and beyond, on top of the many sacrifices and afflictions, there’s one more thing. We get the sense that this one thing stresses Paul more than all the other things. We have the sense that this additional thing nearly breaks Paul. Perhaps it’s his wording. Or perhaps it’s the placement at the end of the list. Or, maybe it’s the opening clause, “Besides everything else,” that sets this apart to the reader. Maybe it’s all three.
What is it?
Paul writes, “I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” We might say the great apostle was “burdened” for the local churches. He carried that concern or burden for “all the churches”–not just the churches he knew or served. We witness him writing letters to congregations he never visited or saw personally. We read of his concern for churches that were rejecting his ministry and teaching, even questioning his apostolic authority. And we have the privilege of eavesdropping on his love for the churches he nursed like a mother and guided like a father, even if only for a matter of weeks. Wherever Christ’s bride was found or known, Paul cared. “All” magnified his concern.
Moreover, that concern felt to him like “pressure.” It was a vise, gripping and squeezing him. It was a weight, mashing him beneath. It was a kind of cooker, sealing him in and turning the very air around him into pressing heat. The apostle felt like the church was on his shoulders, a responsibility, a calling, an inescapable duty or charge or trust. All the words fit, and they all magnified the concern into a “pressure.”
Finally, Paul “faced” this pressure “daily.” He couldn’t avoid it. He wouldn’t shirk it. He played the man and looked into it. And there was no time off, no long weekends, no holidays or vacations as we know them. Daily. That’s how often he felt the pressure of his loving concern for all the churches. Waking, traveling, eating, praying, preaching, visiting, teaching, suffering–each and very single day.
We all want a pastor like Paul. So we tell ourselves. But I wonder if we all have a good idea of how heavy with care Paul’s heart must have been? If we have a pastor like this, will we stop long enough to consider how much pressure he endures every day in order to be “a pastor like this”? Will we consider how many things turn his care and concern into pressure and heartache?
The most difficult part of pastoral ministry is keeping a caring heart. The caring heart makes the pastor, and the caring heart nearly kills the pastor. He wouldn’t have it any other way, like Paul. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a thousand deaths, weeping nights, deprivations, and afflictions.
It breaks his heart to see people leave the church. It doesn’t really matter why they leave, and it only helps some if they leave well. The leaving is a breaking and he feels the pressure of it if he is concerned for the church.
It breaks his heart to see saints taken in sin. “Big” sin. “Small” sin. He feels as if he’s watching a grotesque monster devour his babies. And when repentance is not forthcoming he aches all the more.
It breaks his heart to watch spouses tear their covenant in two. Few things can feel so dis-empowering. Few things can make a pastor feel his inadequacy like watching a dear couple do violence to matrimonial promises and affection.
It breaks his heart to hear the people embrace error. He wants them to feed on the pure milk of the word until they can eat the good meat. He knows health comes with truth. So he feels a certain horror at the thought that any of the people in his charge might be given over to soul-piercing and destructive lies.
It breaks his heart to discover dissensions and strife. He’s the leader of a family. He knows the blessing of peace, unity and love. His heart rips even as the people tear apart.
It breaks his heart to receive unfair criticism. Part of him doesn’t mind it at all. He’ll gladly bear the reproach. But the other part, the part that wants to be liked, the part that rightly wants the people’s affection, the part that’s trying to please the Lord, can hardly endure disparagement. His heart is wide open to the people and he wants their hearts to be open in love to him.
It breaks his heart to have his family judged or attacked. He’d rather be drawn and quartered himself than to watch the woman he loves endure harsh judgment, misrepresentation or unrighteous standards. He rather lose his own life than to lose his children from the church because they couldn’t face the daily pressure of living in a congregational fish bowl, unable to be themselves, unable to find grace all the other children receive.
It breaks his heart to miss an appointment or to fail to “be there.” He entered the ministry to care for people. He knows he’s not Jesus. He knows he can’t be everywhere. But that doesn’t stop him from mourning when he experiences that limitation. He should have been in the hospital room. He should have been at the deathbed. He should have responded to the call in the middle of the night. He couldn’t. Might’ve been for a good reason, but he still feels the heaviness of heart.
It breaks his heart to discover himself choosing to care less in order to not hurt.
Pastoral heartbreak is in direct proportion to pastoral heart. The more the pastor cares for the people the more heartbreaking is the daily pressure of concern for the church.
But he doesn’t quit. He doesn’t shrink back–or at least he tries not to. He counts it all joy. He discovers what Stephen Chadwick discovered: ”It is a wonder what God can do with a broken heart, if He gets all the pieces” (HT: @NancyDeMoss). So he offers to God the Father all the pieces of his broken heart so that a wonder might be performed both in his life and the church. He, like Paul, learns to “boast all the more gladly about his weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on him. That is why, for Christ’s sake, he delights in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). That’s how a heavy heart becomes a happy heart in pastoral ministry.
Brothers, let us embrace our heavy hearts, boast in our weaknesses, and look to Christ for power. “When the Chief Shepherd appears you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet. 5:4).
Saints, let us receive our shepherds’ care, submit to their leadership, and make their labor a joy. His lighter heart will mean your higher happiness.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of What is a Healthy Church Member?, The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, and The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Preachers. He also blogs regularly at Pure Church.