The Plague of Lazy Pastors

Real Ministry Requires Hard Work

The apostle Paul thought and spoke of Christian ministry as labor. He abhorred laziness in the pastorate.

Paul did not see the office of pastor as a nice fit for guys with soft hands who prefer an indoor job. Pastoral work, and good teaching in particular, is hard labor — labor that is not only cursed and opposed, but specifically targeted by Satan, who loves to focus his attack on opposing lieutenants. If he can cut off the supply lines and defenses, he will soon overwhelm and defeat the ground troops.

Good pastors, Paul makes plain, must be laborers (1 Timothy 5:18), hard workers, in particular in their labor of preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13–16; 5:17). Such is the ministry of pastor-elders in the local church: to teach and exercise authority (1 Timothy 2:12). To labor in, and lead through, teaching the words of the risen Christ in the inspired writings of the apostles. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13).

Christ calls pastors to labor in their feeding of the flock through sound teaching. And diligent word-work — both in preparation and presentation — is not easy work, not when it is done well.

Honor Men Who Work Hard

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Not merely “especially those who preach and teach,” as it is often paraphrased, but “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

Doubtless some pastors will labor more in preaching and teaching than others. All pastors are to be skilled teachers (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:9), but inevitably some will have abilities and proclivities to preach and teach more than others. But it’s not gifting that Paul highlights, but “labor” that he says is especially deserving of appreciation.

The labor of preaching and teaching is the central labor of pastoral ministry, and while churches should stand ready to provide financial support for all good pastors, we should have a special concern — the especially — for those who bear the burden, and do the hard work, of the central pastoral labor: preaching and teaching.

A pastor who doesn’t emotionally sweat and strain over his words is a pastor falling short of his calling. God means for pastors to be workers at their teaching. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Good teaching doesn’t just spill over. It requires diligence and vigilance. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16).

Teaching with a Tether

Part of what makes pastoring hard work is that we teach with a tether. We don’t just sit down with a blank piece of paper, or show up to address an attentive church, and speak off the top of our heads. Unashamed workers “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Week after week, day after day, the words we breathe out to feed the church are not our own thoughts on the matter.

Christians have a Book. And good pastors are happily tethered to this Book — which is the most powerful, proven, life-changing Book in the history of the world. Good pastors are unavoidably Book-men.

Being men of the Book demands headwork and sustained mental effort. We study. Many of us learn and reference the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Before making applications, we first wrestle with what the text means and does not mean. And being men of the Book requires heart-work. Before turning to tell others what the Book says, we first put ourselves under its teaching, for repentance and faith.

Most Solemn Charge

Then, when we craft words in writing, or say words in speaking, we inevitably put ourselves out there for criticism — with preaching being even more taxing than writing because you can’t edit what you say in public. Survey after survey reports modern man fears public speaking more than anything else, including death. Add to that the weight of speaking, in the context of worship, on behalf of God. There is no more solemn charge in all the Bible than this:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

Christian preachers may make every effort to “hide behind the cross,” but we cannot long hide behind the pulpit. Preaching exposes a man. In time, even when he tries to hide, a preacher inevitably reveals his own heart and life, borne witness in what he’s willing, and unwilling, to address. And in addition to what happens in the moments before our hearers, we anticipate the final day, when “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

Heart Behind Hard Work

So, good pastors are not lazy. They are hard workers — even in the face of a modern society freshly primed to criticize a leader’s workism and encourage what amounts to laziness. Outward hard work, however, can come from a sinful inward disposition. All of us, pastors included, can work hard for the wrong reasons. For selfish ambition. For mere kudos and applause. From deep emotional insecurity. What, then, are the right reasons for hard work in pastoral ministry?

First and foremost, we work not for God’s acceptance but from his full embrace in Christ. We first own, in our own souls the Christian gospel, not another. We aim to labor from fullness of soul, not from emptiness. Such is the heart of the Protestant work ethic, noticeably distinct from the prevailing medieval ethic, which came before it and challenged it at every turn.

The first word to every pastor, as to every Christian, is not, Work, but, He worked. It is finished. Look to the labors of Christ. Look how he rose early to meditate and pray, how he navigated intrusive crowds, and had patience with maturing disciples, and untiringly did the works of his Father, and fielded inconvenient pleas from the sick and disabled and disadvantaged.

Free to Work Hard

The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people — and a different kind of pastor. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God at work in and through them.

Those who best know the grace of God in Christ — and pastors should know him well, if not best — are the freest people on the planet to give themselves to work hard. The gospel has liberated us with Christ’s full righteousness in our place and Christ’s own Spirit now dwelling in us. In him, we have been freed from self-protection to pour out our energy and give our time and skill and creativity to blessing others, rather than serving self. Good pastors lead with and model, as examples to the church, a new ethic for all those who are in Christ (Ephesians 4:28) — inwardly first, and then unavoidably outward.

With such a heart, then, we receive the mantle of preaching and teaching not mainly as a privilege but as a call to self-sacrifice. Not mainly as an honor, but as a summons to gladly bear a burden for others. Not mainly as comfort, but as a calling to hard work.

Work for More Joy

As we labor in preaching and teaching, as we work hard at good words, whether written or spoken, we learn the lesson that a hard day’s work makes for a happier evening than a day of laziness and distraction. And for a happier soul. Which makes us a better vessel for the joy of the church.

When we do not eat the bread of anxious toil but enjoy the soul-sustaining food of Christ himself, we see hard work as an opportunity, not a burden. Hard work is more satisfying than laziness, both in the moment (if we have eyes to see) and, without a doubt, on the other side of our labors. “Christians will work hard,” writes John Piper, “but they will work more for the joy of all the good their work can bring to others than they will out of fear at what men will think if they fail.”

You will not find the happiest people in the world lying on couches. Pastors, let’s show that world that one of the most reliable places to find them is in pulpits.