The Incredible Inefficiency of Pastoral Ministry

Long before I ever had aspirations of church planting I worked as a welder in a fabrication plant that made magnetic cores for MRI machines. It was nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, it was assembly line work. One advantage of working in an assembly line is that your stats are tracked meticulously. You can always look up in real time exactly how productive you are (or aren’t) being.

A decade later when I found myself in pastoral ministry, the expectations of what could be accomplished in a workday didn’t translate. Often the to-do list I’d create on Monday was almost unchanged by the time the next Sunday arrived. Goals I wanted to accomplish with people and ministry I wanted to see finished inched along at a snail’s pace. How do you find satisfaction in pastoral ministry when the to-do list is never done?

Why Does Ministry Seem So Inefficient?

When Paul writes to encourage the church at Rome, he tells them that he’d often been prevented from coming to visit them despite his best intentions to do so (Rom. 1:13). The obstacles blocking him from visiting the church there were most certainly of the flesh and blood category, and herein is the reason pastoral ministry frustrates our to-do lists: When you work with people the work is never done. A church planter is above all a shepherd, and that job description is much different than that of the manufacturer on the assembly line.

People are not products, and as such no amount of time we spend working with (let’s avoid the temptation to say “working on”) people will ever complete them. Even more complicating is the fact that pastors are incomplete as well. While we might be a little further along the path than those we shepherd and have a clearer view of sins pitfalls, we have our own areas of need and improvement as well. When your to-do list consists of various meetings with people, you might be able to cross off the meeting, but you can never cross off the person.

People being incomplete, however, isn’t the only thing impeding our efforts of accomplishment. The bigger threat is the fallen human nature.

A Pastor's Biggest Threat

The people that call us pastor are sinners, and even after meeting with them and doing our best to bring them closer to Jesus they may reject our counsel and undo any progress we thought we had made.

Here too, we are not unlike those we shepherd. Our sin is an even greater threat to us than the sin of others. We may see someone make great strides over a looming sin only to turn around and dive headlong back into it and shipwreck their faith. This should humble us and increase our own dependence on the Lord in prayer—sin is the universal ailment of the human heart and no pastor is immune to it. If anything, pastors' names are written in bold on Satan’s hit list.

The journey of discipleship is, as Eugene Peterson unforgettably noted, “a long obedience in the same direction.” If pastors import the idea from secular vocations that they will ever be done with their “work,” then they set themselves up for failure. Rather than thinking of discipleship as a job to be completed, it’s more helpful to think of it as a journey that we won’t see completed in our lifetime.

We encourage and impress people to move farther up the mountain, but the summit will not be seen until glory where we see Jesus face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Our joy is to play some small part in their growing closer to him in the here and now even as we trip and accumulate bruises and those we shepherd do the same.

A Pastor's Callings

Our call is not to be efficient but to be faithful. God in his kindness will give us perspective, but discipleship is no microwave effort. We have to put in the time. As weeks accumulate into years, you’ll have the opportunity to look back and be encouraged at the progress people make in their sanctification. Don’t despair at those who backslid, to use an old-fashioned word, but worship the one who has carried you this far for the growth he’s produced in your own life. From time to time you may steal a glance back down the mountain and see that while you’re not where you want to be, you’re no longer at the start of the trail either. Don’t bemoan the cross you’re carrying but rejoice in the one who carried the cross for you.

Our call is not to accomplishment but to dependence. We will not see people glorified this side of eternity, but we should not stop begging for the Lord to work in their lives. We should not get off of our knees for the sake of our own souls or that of our sheep. The more aware a church planter is of his own need of Christ the more effective he will be in seeking him and taking others with him. The journey is long and toilsome but best made on our knees. Take encouragement that he is interceding for you and for your people. Apart from him, you will accomplish nothing.

Our call is not to complete a to-do list but to draw near to the One who did it all for us. At the end of the day it is not being able to cross off the items on our to-do list that makes us effective in ministry but looking to the cross and seeing that he accomplished completely the work of securing salvation on our behalf. Plant a church out of the deep overflow of that reality and we’ll see much accomplished in our midst.

You may accomplish much as a pastor, but who knows if the person that succeeds you will run it into the ground (Ecc. 2:18-19)? Jesus said that he would build his church (Matt. 16:18) and we have the pleasure of laboring alongside of him. If our satisfaction comes from looking for a job well done on this side of eternity, we miss out on the joy of watching his nail-scarred hands build the church as we watch and worship.


Sean Nolan grew up in New York’s capital region. He married the girl that told him about Jesus and they have three children together. After three years pastoring in the suburbs of Baltimore he is returning to Albany to plant Engage Church. He also writes on staff for Gospel-Centered Discipleship and has contributed to Desiring God and For The Church. You can follow him on Twitter.