There are many challenges in the pastoral ministry. Like all challenges they can be overcome or lived with by grace through faith.
Low salary was a challenge I faced in my first decade of ministry. I began with $300 a month without CPF. Living by faith was not a cliché. I lived it and I have many stories of God’s provision. A conviction grew over the decades of pastoral ministry that the right attitude towards this reality is to look to God as my Paymaster, and the church as merely one of his many instruments through which God pays me.
In the beginning, the church of 120 was financially stretched, with many being students, and having to support about four missionaries and as many local ministry staff, while at the same time pay for rental of worship space and office, and later on, loan repayments for a church property. Despite this, I remembered feeling indignant that a sales assistant’s salary was higher than mine. Thankfully, the salary improved when a committee was formed to look into the welfare of church workers and as more members joined the workforce.
Unstable Church Facilities
Second was the challenge of facilities. Securing a space that could be used for worship and church activities was difficult. Hotels welcomed us but the rental rates were high. Proper HDB sites went through open tenders among churches and that made it impossible for small churches to make a successful bid. Industrial sites were a risk because the rules for religious use were unclear. We had to move from residential properties, to YMCA, and from hotels to hotels, until after twenty years of existence, by God’s grace and miraculous provision, the church purchased a freehold property that allowed religious use.
Expectations and Comparisons
A third challenge was the high expectations and comparisons of church leaders. I felt pressures, through overt as well as subtle remarks, about the rate of growth of our church compared with other newer faster-growing churches. That was the period of the rise of the megachurches in Singapore – Victory Family Church, F.C.B.C., Trinity Christian Centre, Church of our Saviour, Lighthouse Evangelism Church, City Harvest Church and New Creation Church. Such comparisons were always ill-advised, unwise and sinful and exerted unnecessary pressures and discouragement on pastoral staff. Thankfully, the church growth movement, like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, has been exposed for its theological and existential emptiness and nakedness.
The fourth challenge is related to the third: consumerism. Internet informed members looked for what benefitted them and their family: for what excited, glittered, and impressed. The size of the building and the congregation, the worship and preaching experience, the excitement of the children’s program, the big-budget events, the fame, influence and accolades that the church or pastor exuded. Over the last forty years of ministry, I have seen how the traditional loyalty to denomination, gratitude to the local church that gave you birth and nurture, and the eye of God, no longer had the same weight among young people in their decision-making process about where to worship. It has become, “Will it excite, benefit and bless me? Will it be convenient? Does it have the right kind of people that I can gel with, or will potentially advance my career, or give me a higher chance of finding a suitable life partner?”
The Slow Work of God
A fifth challenge in pastoral ministry for me is that building spiritual maturity is a slow work of God. I get impatient. It’s discouraging when you put in a lot of digging, weeding, fertilizing and the growth in character and love of God is so slow. Worse, for some, regression takes place or there is no evidence of spiritual growth even after many years of active church participation. A physical project has a start point and a finish point and evidence is clear for all to see. Not so with this slow spiritual work of God. When a spurt of growth shows up suddenly it was like a rare miracle. Sometimes this lack of spiritual progress led to discouragement and frustration.
Unclear Leadership Roles
A sixth challenge was when the roles of Board and pastoral leadership were not clear or agreed by all. Who had the final say, and on which issues (programs, finances, policies, vision and strategy)? This of course had led to misunderstanding and friction. Vested interests and entrenched beliefs made it difficult to sort matters out. In addition, the government has its set of recommendations that did not agree with the biblical view of leadership as some pastors and denominations would see it.
My Lack of Inner Growth and Freedom
For me the biggest challenge was that the demands and expectations of pastoral leadership outstripped the rate of my inner growth. Even with Tung Ling Bible School, and seminary training, there were many faults, blind spots and disordered affections (idols) present in my life that were like viruses in my operating system, influencing my behaviour and decisions, and blocking me from leading, feeding and caring for the church effectively. It was in the last decade of pastoral ministry that I became more aware of the soul-care and freedom that I badly needed to in my life. It was in the spiritual desert and in silent retreats that God invited me to tread this path towards freedom. I am glad I said Yes to him. Praise the Lord.
What About You?
These were my main challenges. They were frustrating but they were interestingly the means of growth. They stretched me, tested me, exposed my weaknesses, and drove me to my knees, closer to God; they made me wiser, tougher and drew me closer to God. It was good I had no idea at the beginning of my call that it would be this challenging. The coward in me would have responded to God’s call this way, “No Master, this is not for me. I won’t be able to cope”. The good news that I have learned is that when God calls, his rhema word has packed within it the grace, poise and resources to overcome or endure all hardships and challenges we would face in the assignment he gave us. I have experienced this. We need to believe this.
What about you? What are some of your personal challenges you face in pastoral ministry? Why not take some time to reflect and list them down, label your feelings about them, and have a coffee chat of the Lord about the list. After your chat with God, notice and reflect what you were feeling and thinking? Were there any new perspectives, Scriptures, images and emotions that moved or gently arose in your consciousness during prayer. Journal them. If you found that helpful, repeat the process. God bless you and be with you.