Before becoming one of the vice-presidents of LifeWay, I served on church staff teams for 17 years. I still serve as teaching pastor at a local church, but my responsibilities are far less than they were in the past. Many times I have heard businessmen in churches reference “the real world” as if those of us on church staff were not living in it. As if we were somehow unaware of what real work looked like, what real pressure felt like, and how a real organization was led. I heard comments such as:
- In the real world, we don’t get a day off.
- In the real world, decisions are made like this.
- In the real world, there are no such things as sabbaticals.
- In the real world, our office hours are longer.
While the division I lead exists to serve churches in their mission of making disciples, we are not a church. And while I am continually hiring people from churches to help us serve churches more effectively, we serve in a large organization with regular “business hours,” a human resources department, etc. Most would say I am now in “the real world.”
And here is what I know: In many ways, leading a church is much more difficult. In many ways, the real world pales in comparison to the challenges found in leading a local church. In these four ways, leadership in the local church is tougher than the real world:
1. The burden
When the apostle Paul listed all his persecutions, sufferings, and difficulties, he concluded his list with the daily pressure he felt for the churches he served. In some sense, the burden of loving and leading a church was more intense than the flogging and the stoning. The burden never ever goes away.
In many jobs, professionals are able to “clock-out” or “check-out” of their role for a while. Some are even able to leave their role behind when they leave the office each day. But a pastor is never not a pastor. He is always filled with the blessed burden for the people the Lord has called him to lead and serve. It is a burden from the Lord. It is a burden with higher stakes than any profession, a burden with eternal ramifications.
2. The enemy
The enemy, the Evil One, hates believers. He is the accuser, the one who steals, kills, and destroys (John 10:10) and the one who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Because a local church is a gathering of believers, the enemy is against her. Thus, the spiritual battles surrounding a local church and her leaders are fierce.
3. The volunteer army
The role of a church leader is to prepare all of God’s people for ministry, to hand ministry over to others, to engage an army of volunteers in using their gifts to serve others (Ephesians 4:11-12). While the mandate is essential, it is not easy. To gather a group of volunteers, train them, and align them around a shared mission is massively challenging. It takes more than positional authority on an org chart, a paycheck, or the promise of a promotion. It takes deep conviction and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. I once heard John Maxwell say that “if you want to test someone’s real leadership, have him lead a team of volunteers.” Church leaders do so every single week.
4. Impact on family
I am not everyone’s favorite person at my job. And you aren’t either at yours. Not everyone likes me/you all of the time. In a “real world” job, my family does not have to interact with those people who are not thrilled with my decisions. Unless I share the tensions/struggles with my family, they don’t even have to know about them. Not so in church ministry. Because the church is a family, the church leader’s spouse and kids are deeply impacted by the details and the relationships surrounding the church leader’s role. In many cases, the spouse and children go to the leader’s “job” every week, hear comments about his performance, overhear discussions about his decisions, and worship alongside people whose expectations can be unrealistic.
This, of course, is also a great blessing of church leadership. By God’s grace, the vast majority of my experiences on church staff were phenomenal. My wife and kids were cared for and treated with great respect. We were well loved by godly men and women. As a family, we have no bad memories. But I know our story is not everyone’s story and that many families experience great pain in church leadership and secretly long for a “real world” job.
I am not advocating that local church leadership is more spiritual and that marketplace leadership is more secular. That would be an over-swinging of the pendulum—unbiblical and unhelpful. But believing or stating that a church leader doesn’t face the pressures of “the real world” is simply untrue.