I identify with the exact feelings and emotions you conveyed. You desire to serve your people faithfully, and you want to have an impact on your community. Complicating the matter, you are likely receiving positive feedback from those in the community who see you involved and attending so much. The satisfaction that accompanies affirmation combined with the fear of disappointing those watching can make it challenging to live by your highest priority. Can I offer three thoughts that might be of benefit to you? They have certainly helped me through the years.
Realize that every yes also brings a no
Commitment to an event or task never happens in a vacuum. Your presence in one place means your absence in another. As pastors, our schedules can get crammed full because we are afraid to say no. But remember that by saying yes to something, you are saying no to something else.
You mentioned your sermon preparation is limited as a result of the other things you have taken on. Think of it this way: each time you accept an appointment, you are saying no to sermon preparation. When you attend an evening event, you are saying no to your family. My intention is not to discourage you from meeting with people or being active in your community. I simply want to help you see that the desire to say yes to everything is an impossible way to do ministry. When you fill your daily schedule with so many things, you are forced to say no to Bible study, prayer, and time with your family.
I know you want to spend your life for the gospel. Remember though, this is achieved by having a full spiritual well from which to pour yourself out. If you are truly most concerned with spending yourself for the gospel, then your priority must be adequate time with the Lord.
When I was a young boy, my dad coached me in church-league basketball. I worked hard, tried to defend, attempted to rebound, and often sought to be the most energetic player on the court. I remember one day after practice, my dad was correcting me on mistakes I had made. I protested that I was the most active player on my team. I remember his reply as though it happened yesterday. He said, “Never confuse activity with accomplishment.” It was his version of the famous words uttered by John Wooden, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” You can be incredibly busy, yet fail to achieve that to which you have been called. Saying yes to something always carries with it a no to something else. Choose wisely. The goal is not activity. The goal is faithfulness. The primary way you will serve your people is to be a holy weapon in the hand of God as you teach them the Bible Sunday after Sunday.
Lay down the idol of popularity
Forgive me for being so blunt, but there is just no other way to say it. The quest for popularity could be an idol in your life and should be exposed as such. We all must be vigilant against this! Most pastors enjoy being respected and desire to be liked. As we have all experienced, though, it is a small step from desiring respect to idolizing the popularity that may come and go. It is true that if you attend every Sunday School fellowship, community ballgame, and civic organization, you will undoubtedly receive praise. But you have to ask yourself continually, am I staying focused on my true purpose in ministry? Remember the words of Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
You are likely not making choices between good and evil, but between better and best. The decisions that will make you popular with people may not be the same ones that will make your life and ministry pleasing to God. Remember the words of 1 Corinthians 4:2, which states, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.”
Refuse to sacrifice your devotional life
Your personal devotional life will be the easiest thing to sacrifice, and the one thing you cannot afford to lose. The congregation will not know right away if your time with the Lord is suffering. You will still be able to preach sermons on Sundays, and you will be capable of recalling Bible verses when necessary for counseling. However, doing ministry from a heart growing cold will take its toll. Providing shepherding care to straying sheep will leave your heart calloused and bitter if you are not daily seeking the heart, will, and Word of God. We must love God if we are going to love people well (Matt. 22:37–39).
As Robert Murray McCheyne wisely affirmed, “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.” It is in our time of prayer and the personal study of the Bible that we find our strength, direction, and ability to endure the hardships in ministry. Jesus Himself is the perfect example of retreating in order to spend time in prayer. I fear that you will inevitably begin to cut corners in your walk with God if you attempt to keep a people-pleasing schedule. In time, it will become a trap that will ensnare you. It may not lead to your immediate downfall, but it will surely lead to your demise in time.
In conclusion, I want to encourage you to prioritize the accomplishment of what God has uniquely equipped you to do. You have been gifted and called to serve, ordained by God to lead in a way that demands continual devotion to your ministry. Yes, the affirmation of church members brings joy, but it is not the ultimate goal. Complaints from your people will no doubt sting, but do not let the aches of ministry cause you to neglect your first love. Remember this, my friend, in the life of being a pastor, applause cannot be the reason you stay, and arrows cannot be the reason you quit. We endure in doing the work of pastoring God’s people—no matter the bruises—by loving our congregation, and at the same time, choosing to be found pleasing to God no matter what anyone else may say.
I pray this letter is an encouragement to your heart. And lest you think you are the only pastor struggling with these things, please know that I could send this same letter to nearly any pastor, and it would hit home with whoever reads it. These are common struggles. Thank the Lord, there is an answer: live each day for the glory of God alone. Nothing more is expected; nothing less is sufficient.