Let’s begin with a distinction and disclaimer. First, the distinction: by “most rewarding” I do not mean to describe something a pastor does that will yield the greatest heavenly, future reward. Rather, I mean to describe the greatest present reward, or joy, that comes from the task of pastoring.
And the disclaimer: my explanation of “the most rewarding part of being a pastor” is, of course, my explanation. While the title of this article might hint at some objectivity (i.e. “the most rewarding”), the truth is that not all pastors would agree, and that doesn't mean they're wrong.
Ok, here's my answer: the most rewarding part of being a pastor is friendship.
It’s Part of the Job
Few vocations depend upon friendship quite like church work. Elocution, intelligence, and charisma really don’t matter if you don’t like people. You can hold forth in a sermon like Spurgeon, but your people will roll their eyes and yawn while they look up the by-laws for the best way to get you fired. In my context (and I would wager in most pastorates), it is axiomatic: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Most congregants want you to be their friend. You are their guide in the sojourn from Egypt to Canaan. Perhaps, more than want you to be their friend, they need you to be their friend.
Isn’t that a strange blessing, unique to the “burden” of pastoring well? Just consider: it is vital to the success of your ministry that you make friends with people who really want you to be their friend. That’s like saying, it’s critical to the success of your job that you allow yourself to receive the gold people already really hope you’ll let them give you. You have to have friends; it’s your job to fill your life with that blessing, and lots of it.
It’s Joy-Giving All the Time
The rising tide of books, podcasts, seminars, and digital resources with strategies to grow your church is way beyond flood-stage. Denominational pressure to prove your calling through measurable, numerical growth is crushing. And the way in which church leadership professionals consistently and confidently link the ills of Christianity to ineffective managerial vision in the pastorate leads one to think that if Constantinople had the right leadership pipeline, we would hear a Trinitarian doxology from one of the multi-site venues of the Hagia Sophia instead of Islam’s daily calls to prayer.
Listen to me, brother pastors: If you tether your joy solely to the numerical trends of your church or your “leadership capacity,” then prepare yourself for a sorry, sorrowful, and at best schizophrenic career.
But the friends you build in your church are more reliable. And there is a joy in that family that cannot be diminished by a trend of declining attendance (nor magnified by numerical growth). It’s a river of joy, deep and wide, from which you can daily drink. Regardless of how great your resume looks, friendship has the potential to bring you joy in the pastorate all the time.
While the pastor may be further along in some areas, he is still a “fellow partaker” on the path of discipleship. And he, like all disciples, needs people to help him walk this path. The friendships you have to develop in the pastorate will naturally develop into a means of Christian accountability. I have received counsel on matters related to money, marriage, attitude, faith, leadership, godly speech, raising kids, prayer, worship service planning, and how I’m supposed to do my job . . . and I’ve yet to pay a dime for it because it has all come from my friends! I have no doubt that I am still along the narrow way largely because of them. If another vocation offers a better reward than that, I’m not sure what it would be.
Finally, friendships made in the pastorate also enrich our understanding of heaven. I’ve buried some good church friends who I know are in the presence of the Lord. I want to see them. Some days I ache, just wishing I could talk to them. The sorrow of losing friends you’ve pastored helps you realize the preciousness of heaven. Glory has a greater depth than I previously knew, because I now have more friends from my church there, and I’m eager to get together with them. The pastorate, then, can help produce a profound longing for heaven because it forces you into the awful and wonderful position of pastoring friends you will have to bury.
I’m not Catholic, but I’ll go with Thomas Aquinas who said, “There is nothing more to be prized on this earth than true friendship.” My thoughts regarding the most rewarding part of being a pastor may change over time. Some reading this may have an altogether different idea. But what is incontrovertible is the joy that friendship brings. That is why I love the pastorate, for it has brought me many friends.
Ben Stubblefield is the senior pastor at FBC Jackson in Jackson, Alabama. He also serves multiple Christian colleges as an adjunct faculty member in New Testament and Theology.