What’s it like being a Christian leader, being a pastor? I guess everyone would answer that question differently. How a pastor might answer that could also depend on what kind of week they’re having! If the home group you lead feels like a lot of work, or the Sunday School class you teach is testing you, I suspect words like ‘hard’ and ‘draining’ might come to mind first. Maybe on a good day we’d say, “It’s exhausting, but it’s an enormous privilege”. But I wonder how often ‘joyful’ would be one of our first responses to that question? How likely are we to say that being a pastor means joy upon joy?
Yet that’s one of the impressions we get from a careful reading of the New Testament. Of course, that’s not all the Bible says about being a pastor. It also affirms that leading God’s people can be tiring, and frustrating, and very tough. But it most certainly does tell us that there is much joy entailed in the work. This is something I discovered a number of years ago when I was preparing a sermon on the topic of joy. As I read through the New Testament with this theme in mind, I discovered a number of places where the particular joys of pastoral leadership are on view, and it was a great encouragement to me to see this. So this article is an attempt to encourage you in the same way.
At this point it’s also worth making explicit that, when I talk about being a pastor, I’m not just talking about people who are career pastors or paid pastors. I’m talking about anyone who is a shepherd amongst the Lord’s people. There are many pastors in our churches—ordained and un-ordained, professional and unpaid, full-time and voluntary. So the things the Bible teaches us about joy in pastoral leadership will be relevant to leaders of all kinds in the church family.
I’m not looking to offer here a comprehensive theology of “joy in ministry”. I simply want to draw your attention to six verses that offer us six important insights for thinking about the pastor’s joy. I hope they will refresh your vision and stir you to rejoicing!
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith. (Phil 1:25)
Technically, this first verse is not so much about the pastor’s joy as much as it’s about the joy of those he or she leads. But it’s crucial to our understanding of the ministry of the pastor, so it’s the right place to start. Philippians 1:25 comes in the context of Paul wondering aloud about whether he will live or die. He expressly says that he would prefer to depart and be with Christ if it were just about him. But because it is more necessary for those he serves (like the Philippians) that he remains in the flesh, he anticipates that this is what God will have him do. But the way he captures God’s purpose (and his) is fascinating: his continuing life and ministry will be for their progress and their joy.
It seems to me that the idea of labouring for the progress of others is unsurprising. We think in those terms often. But are we less inclined to see the purpose of our ministry in terms of labouring for people’s joy? Nevertheless, this is how the apostle understood his leadership. It speaks to the way we don’t just look for people to demonstrate faith and repentance in their daily life, but we also look for people to esteem Christ and treasure the gospel in their hearts. We’re not just seeking the visible out-workings of true conversion, but also the godly affections that demonstrate a person has come to taste and to see that the Lord is good. Part of our purpose in pastoring people is to grow their joy.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Heb 13:17, NIV11)1
Here the author of Hebrews urges his readers to show a proper regard for the role pastoral leaders have in the church. They carry a weighty responsibility (the watching of souls!) that comes with serious accountability before God. So the author pleads with people to acknowledge the God-givenness of their responsibility in the way they relate to them. This means proper submission to authority.
But notice what Hebrews tells us will be the outcome. When people are submissive to the leadership of their pastors, conscious of their role before God, it brings joy to their pastors rather than making their work burdensome. The writer also adds that when leaders groan under the burden of their work it is, in turn, no good for those they lead. The more joyful a pastor, the better it is for those they lead. So Paul urges all church members to enrich the joy of their leaders for the good of the whole body. This is why when those we lead are submissive to us and make our work easier, we find more joy in the relationships we have with them.
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3 John 4)
If point 2 above was about the joy that flows to Christian leaders through the relationship they have with those they lead, this point is about the joy that flows to Christian leaders because of the relationship that those they lead have with Christ himself. Here John addresses Gaius and tells him how thrilled his heart is to have received news of Gaius’ Christian perseverance and faithfulness. From John’s perspective, it’s hard to think of something that brings him greater happiness.
All godly pastors could give similar testimony. It is a blessing beyond description to see people keeping the faith and growing in service of Christ. If Philippians 1 taught us that pastoral leadership is labour for the joy of others, here we see the fruit of that labour. The joy of those we labour to serve rebounds to us as we see their progress.2
It is this same joy, I think, that Paul describes when he refers to the people he loves as his joy (Phil 4:1), and as he thinks about the joy he has before God because of those he leads (1 Thess 3:9)—a joy that will be at its height on the day when Jesus returns (1 Thess 2:19).3
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Phil 2:2)
This is a fascinating use of the word joy, and it provides a really important insight into the way joy works for a Christian leader. As we’ve seen in Hebrews 13:17 and 3 John 4, so much of the leader’s joy is bound up in the faith of those they lead. As a result, that joy is not always at full ebb. At times it is incomplete, as the faith and obedience of the Lord’s people is incomplete. Yet, as people make progress in faith and obedience, so the joy of the pastor follows suit.
In this way Paul gives an insight into the godly sorrow pastors often feel when people are struggling or failing in their discipleship—the sort of wise sorrow that should lead a pastor to prayer rather than despair. Here Paul is dignifying the struggle of pastoral leadership. But in the same moment he also shows us something of the intense longing the godly pastor feels for the maturing of the sheep. With that longing comes a sense that we rejoice, for now at least, only in part. But one day the Lord, the Chief Shepherd, will complete the work he has begun in his people, and he will at the same time complete our joy.
Here I’m going out on an exegetical limb in suggesting that this verse refers to the sufferings of Christ rather than the sufferings of Paul. I am not quoting the ESV at this point (or most other modern versions, including the 2011 NIV) because it translates interpretively rather than preserving the ambiguity that exists in the original language (e.g. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake”, ESV). But the word “my” is not there in the original, so the 1984 NIV version preserves and captures the ambiguity well. The original literally says: “Now I rejoice in the sufferings on your behalf”. Of course, Paul could be referring to his own sufferings as he seeks to serve them. But it’s also possible that he’s referring to what Christ suffered for them in his life and death, and I think this reading is more likely.4
If my interpretation is not correct, this is still an important verse for thinking about the pastor’s joy. If we followed the ESV here we’d conclude that there is a joy in serving God’s people even if it is very costly for us; that would be worth meditating on as well. But if my interpretation of the verse is correct, then this verse constitutes a reminder to us that one of the deepest joys in pastoral leadership is the joy of knowing what Christ has done and won for the people we serve (just as he has for us). We shepherd the sheep Christ purchased with his blood. They would not be the sheep entrusted to us if they were not first his sheep, redeemed by his death in their place, at serious cost to himself. So at the heart of all other joys in the service of Christ’s people is the joy that comes from knowing that they are indeed his—by virtue of his stunning, suffering love.
Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20)
When Jesus’ seventy-two disciples return from the mission he had sent them on, they are excited at the way the demons had submitted to them through the power of Jesus’ name. They are rejoicing in the success of their mission, the fruit of their labours. Jesus’ response is not to pour cold water on their excitement, because first (vv. 18-19) he affirms that their ministry has indeed contributed to the downfall of Satan. He rejoices with them. Yet he also cautions them. He reminds them that there is a greater joy to which they must always return—a joy that surpasses every joy in the fruitfulness of ministry (and which can sustain us even on the days of deepest discouragement in ministry). This is the joy of knowing that they themselves belong to God.
In this moment, Jesus warns all who would be pastors of the danger of ministry joys. It is the danger of being distracted by them from the all-surpassing joy. He warns us not to find our identity in our work for God but in our relationship with God. He warns us not to take pride in the success of our labours for God as much as in the success of Christ’s labours for us. He warns us not to find pleasure in the book that we might write as much as in the book God has written, which mercifully contains our name.
Here, then, is a catalogue of reasons for pastors to be joyful. As we give ourselves to the joy of others, we are joyful in the faith we see in those who are growing, we find joy in the way people relate to us and make our work delightful, and we rejoice in the work of Christ for his people. We also know that our joy is a work in progress, yet to be perfected by Christ. Above all, we know that all these joys are transcended by the joy that outstrips all others—the joy of we ourselves being God’s children. My hope is that these reflections might enable us to recapture the joy that God has designed to accompany our work as we shepherd his people.
1. I’m sorry to say that here the ESV translation does not serve us as well as it could. Whilst its translation is more accurate at a few points in the verse, it misses the crucial “so that” clause at the start of the second sentence. The NIV better captures the relationship between the first sentence and the second, and therefore the relationship between the people’s submission and the leaders’ joy.↩
2. Paul says a similar thing in Colossians 2:5: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” See also 2 John 4, and 3 John 3.↩
4. I think this is more likely given the language Paul uses here in the expression “on behalf of” (which is language used in other places of Christ’s atoning death), and also given the context (where Paul goes on to describe the way his sufferings “fill up” the sufferings of Christ “on their behalf”). I acknowledge, however, that my reading is unsupported by the vast majority of commentators, translators, and preachers that I’m aware of!↩