The four hardest jobs in America: A mentor’s wise advice for missional pastors

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The four hardest jobs in America: A mentor’s wise advice for missional pastors

July 11, 2023 -

Black business shoes stand on two white arrows pointing away from each other on an asphalt road. © By PX Media/

Black business shoes stand on two white arrows pointing away from each other on an asphalt road. © By PX Media/

Black business shoes stand on two white arrows pointing away from each other on an asphalt road. © By PX Media/

Peter Drucker, the great management expert, once claimed that the four hardest jobs in America are president of the United States, president of a university, CEO of a hospital, and pastor of a church. In each case, one of the great challenges these leaders face is the conflict between what their constituents want them to do and what is most effective for them to do.

I spent four decades in the fourth job Drucker cited and can attest to his wisdom. You and I live daily in the tension between what our people want us to do and what God is calling us to do.

There is an employer-employee mentality in many churches by which members think they pay our salaries and thus have a right to our time and attention. Or, on a more positive level, they see us as their shepherd and themselves as our sheep and thus believe they have a right to be shepherded by us.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr testified: “I question and soul-search constantly into myself to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, that I am maintaining my sense of purpose, that I am holding fast to my ideals, that I am guiding my people in the right direction.”

How can I be sure I am “fulfilling the true meaning of my work”? How can you?

The question is more than urgent. I believe one of the chief sources of discouragement and burnout in pastoral ministry is the challenge of living and working missionally. When we know that we are doing what we are made and called to do, there is a sense of empowering and joy that comes with our obedience to our calling. When we are not sure that our work matters, it’s hard to be fulfilled in it. And yet we live in a secularized culture that measures success by activities, busyness, and impressing others with our activities and busyness.

So, what is the “true meaning” of your work? What is your missional calling within your calling?

“Faithful to the last word you heard from God”

Some years ago, a wise mentor gave me advice that still guides me today: “Stay faithful to the last word you heard from God and open to the next.” Both sides of this equation were illustrated for me today by passages I read as part of my personal Bible study.

On staying faithful to the last word we heard from God, consider Saul’s bad example in 1 Samuel 13. The Philistines had “mustered to fight with Israel” (v. 5), so while some men of Israel “hid themselves” (v. 6) and others fled across the Jordan (v. 7a), “Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling” (v. 7b).

The narrative continues: “He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him” (v. 8). So Saul took matters into his own hands by offering the burnt offering to God (v. 9). Then, “As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came” (v. 10) and said to him, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lᴏʀᴅ would have established your kingdom over Israel forever” (v. 13).

Samuel continued: “Now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lᴏʀᴅ has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lᴏʀᴅ has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lᴏʀᴅ commanded you” (v. 14). Saul lost his kingdom because he did not stay faithful the last word he heard from God.

Scripture consistently assures us that we can trust our Father’s timing:

  • “The vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3).
  • “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
  • “There is a time for every matter and for every work” (Ecclesiastes 3:17).
  • “At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity” (Psalm 75:2).

Consequently, we are told to “wait for the Lᴏʀᴅ; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lᴏʀᴅ!” (Psalm 27:14). Paul exhorted us: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). We can pray with David, “My times are in your hand” (Psalm 31:15).

What is the “last word you heard from God”? The last missional call you sensed from his Spirit? The last “north on the compass” he impressed on you? Stay faithful to that calling and trust that God’s timing, while seldom ours, is always best.

“And open to the next”

The other half of my mentor’s advice was illustrated by my New Testament reading today in Acts 8. Here we find Philip, one of the seven deacons listed in Acts 6:5, responding to “a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” by which “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). Rather than try to continue his ministry in Jerusalem, the last word he heard from the Lord, Philip was open to God’s next call.

Consequently, he “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (v. 5). Then an angel of the Lord directed him to “rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (v. 26). There he met the Ethiopian eunuch who, at that moment, was reading from Isaiah 53, a perfect passage with which to introduce the atoning ministry of Jesus.

Philip explained the text to the man, who responded by faith and was baptized (v. 38). The man then continued back to Ethiopia where, according to church fathers as early as Irenaeus (AD 180), he spread the gospel across the region.

If Philip had insisted on remaining in Jerusalem, who in Samaria and Ethiopia would have missed hearing the gospel? Because he was open to God’s next word, you and I will meet souls in heaven whose conversion was the consequence of his faithfulness.

Balancing the “already” and the “not yet”

George Eldon Ladd popularized the theological construct “already but not yet.” He explained that God’s kingdom has already come in Christ (cf. Matthew 4:17), but it is “not yet” consummated and awaits his return (cf. Revelation 19:16). We are living in the balance between the two.

This construct applies to us personally as well: we are to balance the “already” of “the last word you heard from God” and the “not yet” of his “next” calling.

Chuck Swindoll observed: “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” Whether you find yourself in such “impossible situations,” in the midst of the slower routine of summertime church life, or somewhere in the middle, I commend to you my mentor’s advice. I encourage you to identify with the help of God’s Spirit the “last word you heard from the Lord” and remain faithful to it. Trust your Father’s timing to fulfill his vision and purpose for your calling.

But also, every day, invite the Holy Spirit to “fill” and control you anew (Ephesians 5:18) and to bring you God’s next kingdom assignment whenever it comes.

When we live in the balance between obedience to what we know and openness to what we do not, our provident Father will use us to plant trees we’ll never sit under in the Samarias and Ethiopias of our calling.

Will you be Saul or Philip today?

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