How do you handle the burdens and pressures of the church?
After Paul’s heaping-on of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 10–11, essentially proving to this church community the lengths he is willing to go for their reconciliation, he writes this line: “Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). The ESV translates “my concern” to “my anxiety,” giving it a much more modern psychological — and thereby more effective — flare to it.
By putting the concern/burden/anxiety for “the churches” at the end of this long list of misfortunes, one might see this as Paul’s most egregious suffering. I can certainly resonate. One can survive a shipwreck, heal from wounds, run from stones, but the anxiety from a congregation is a constant, inescapable suffering unique to those in pastoral ministry. I have always pastored one church through my career and, let me tell you, that has always been plenty of fodder for anxiety. I cannot imagine Paul’s mind. Without modern technology, he had to be driven to prayer far more than we are today, where we can see how our people are doing and monitor doctrine with great ease.
Nevertheless, pastors see in Paul what they feel within their interior experience: handling a congregation or multiple congregations provides a unique psychological struggle. Ministry is stressful, and the Bible confirms this — so how do we deal with it?
I had a teacher once who said a good rule for good biblical interpretation is the phrase, “keep reading.” While it’s not as simple as this all the time, here it applies nicely. 2 Corinthians 11:28 gives way to 2 Corinthians 11:30, which says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” And it is only a handful more of verses before we get Paul’s famous conclusion on weakness, suffering, and anxiety found in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 (“keep reading”):
“7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
When we look out at our churches, we should always see a burden too great to bear. When we interact with the people we care for, we should always feel weak. The more we get to know peoples’ stories, the more we should come to grips with our absolute inability to help them. Ministry puts you in touch with your weakness, which in turn introduces you to a choice: rely on the sufficiency of Christ or convince yourself of what every man does before he dies: “I got this.” I suggest the former.
“My power is made perfect in weakness,” Jesus told Paul in a vision (2 Cor. 12:9). The moment we’re able to understand there’s nothing of consequence we can do to help our people, Jesus’ power begins to work. When we stay desperate for God before our congregations, his power releases to all of us.
This certainly does not mean we bemoan our people before the congregation themselves on a Sunday morning. Nothing is more annoying and insulting than a pastor complaining about his people in front of his people. If you have to do this, I’m afraid you’re not cut out for ministry. The burden must be shouldered with a a level of confidence — not in your own power, but in Christ’s.
“Boasting in weakness” does not look like bragging about how much you give to such needy people, rather it looks like public and private cries for desperation before the God who can “bear all things.” It looks a lot like prayer. We stand before our congregations or next to a member’s hospital bed or in a counseling room with a near-divorced couple and say, “Jesus will be enough for both of us now.” Instead of trying to act spiritual, or faking our psedo-strength, we will honestly and completely admit our inadequacies before God and them and it just might save both of us.