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Pastors, Approach Your Calling with Joy

On pastures near the beautiful mountain peaks live in huts Hutsul shepherds Ukraine herding sheep in summer. Sometimes they remain until the fall, do not come until the cold.
Pastors are called to serve and slave and save and sacrifice. But we must do so with laughter in our bones and joy in our hearts. We must keep watch “with joy and not groaning” to bless our people.

Tucked away at the end of the book of Hebrews is a simple paragraph with a profound truth about pastoral ministry. Though Paul addresses a congregation, it can potentially reorient the way we pastors approach our calling. 

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

Here we see the fundamental task of pastoral ministry. Pastors are overseers (1 Timothy 3:1). Like shepherds who keep watch over their flocks by night, pastors keep watch over the souls of their people. As 1 Peter 5 says, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight….”

Pastors exercise this oversight by leading the flock and feeding the flock, guiding the flock, and guarding the flock. Pastors teach God’s word and govern God’s household. When I summarize the task of pastoral ministry for the apprentices at Bethlehem Seminary, I do so with this simple definition: 

God calls pastors to oversee and care for His flock by:

  1. Teaching the word of God with divine authority.
  2. Zealously guarding the doctrine and worship of the church.
  3. Organizing and mobilizing the church for mission.

Such is the calling of pastoral ministry. But Hebrews insists that it’s not enough to fulfill this calling; we must fulfill it in a particular way, with a particular attitude of the heart. “Let them do so with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This passage insists that grumbling pastors are of no benefit to their people. Other translations use the term “grief” (CSB) or “burden” (NIV) in place of “groaning.” Somehow the way we pastor is directly linked to the good we do for those under our care.

Faithful groaning vs. accusatory grumbling

To understand, we must distinguish faithful groaning from accusatory grumbling. At one level, groaning is the natural and normal human response to physical or emotional pain. The children of Israel groaned under their slavery in Egypt and cried out for help (Exodus 2:23). We groan inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8). In this sense, groaning can be faithful since it leads to an open cry for help. 

Accusatory grumbling, on the other hand, is what Israel did throughout the wilderness in complaining about the lack of water or food, meat, or the leadership of Moses. This is not mere groaning but grumbling, complaining, and murmuring. 

Whereas groaning is our natural response to pain, grumbling is an accusatory complaint about pain. Groaning longs for the pain to end.

Grumbling accuses someone of wronging us because we’re in pain. It’s the spirit of accusation that turns faithful groaning into accusatory grumbling. More than that, faithful groaning is an open cry for help; accusatory grumbling is a suppressed complaint that blames.

We grumble under our breath; we murmur and complain until grumbling bursts forth, not in an open cry for help but a bitter and resentful accusation.

That’s why a grumbling ministry is of no benefit to people. If we seek to lead and keep watch over people with a spirit that says, “You are a burden to me; I wish I didn’t have to deal with you; shepherding you brings me grief and not joy,” then no good will come from our ministry. This is because ministry is about giving, and God loves a cheerful giver. Which means God loves a cheerful pastor. 

Watching over our flocks with joy

What does it mean to watch over our people’s souls “with joy?” In preparing our seminary apprentices for ministry, I often answer this question by pointing to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:14-15.

Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. (2 Cor 12:14-15)

In this passage, Paul draws a link between the way we parent and the way we pastor. And this is fitting since managing our household well is one of the primary qualifications for managing God’s household (1 Timothy 3:4). First, Paul says he will not burden his people. He will not load them down with the weight of his unhappiness, frustration, and complaints. More than that, he will not seek to take from them; he doesn’t want their stuff. He wants them; that is, he wants their hearts. Like Solomon in Proverbs 23:26, Paul’s attitude is “My son (or my people), give me your heart.” 

And here is the connection to parenting. Children don’t save up for their parents. Twelve-year-olds don’t pay the mortgage or pay for dinner when the family goes to Chili’s. Instead, parents save up for their children to bless them and give to them with great joy.

The banner that must fly over all our pastoring (and parenting) is this: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” Yes, pastoral ministry is hard and heavy. We are called to serve and slave and save and sacrifice. But we must do so with laughter in our bones and joy in our hearts. We must keep watch “with joy and not groaning” to bless our people.

One more step

But there is one more step to take. Paul implies that we must “save up” to spend gladly. Where do we get these spiritual and emotional resources? Not mainly from our people. They are the receivers of our joy, not the primary source of our joy (though, of course, glad and grateful people are a blessing to their pastors, just as happy and grateful children are a blessing to their parents). 

The source of our joy is God himself. He is our great reward and strength for ministry. Our attitude is the same as Christ, who, when ministering to the woman the well, told his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). We serve in the strength that God supplies and the joy of the Lord is that strength. Pastoring is an overflow of our own joy in the God who has saved us and given us the glorious privilege of keeping watch over his people.


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