what’s so great about being a pastor?

Today is my 42nd birthday, which means I am two years past the date when I said I would re-evaluate whether to remain a professor or look to shepherd a church.

I always planned on being a pastor, ever since I was a junior in high school. So I earned a pre-seminary degree in college, taught English for two years in China, and then went to seminary.  I was about to graduate with my MDiv when Jim Grier told me that I should develop my gifts further in a doctoral program.

I had never considered a Ph.D. before, but since Jim pretty much speaks for God (though with a slightly larger vocabulary), I knew I had to do it. During the first year of my doctoral studies Joe Crawford offered me the chance to teach a class on medieval theology. I did such a great job that I inspired one of the students, Todd Tremlin, to become a professor. I believe his exact words were, “If someone like Mike can do this, then so can I!” Well, you’re welcome, Dr. Tremlin.

Since teaching opportunities are less plentiful than pastorates, I told myself that I would try this first and then reassess when I turned 40. As I said, I’m two years overdue.

I’d like to hear from you who are pastors. What do you enjoy most about your vocation? What is the best thing about being a pastor? Do you ever wish that you were a professor?

If you’re interested, I’m spending the entire day at home in uninterrupted study—there’s a professorial perk, and then Julie is going to make me an Indian dinner from scratch. Tomorrow the whole family is going out for dim sum, which leaves me only a Thai lunch short of the Asian trifecta. Life is good.

30 Comments

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  1. This saves me from having to make a phone call – Happy Birthday!

    You know, being a professor is a lot like being a pastor: you get to sit on lots of pointless committees, you get to listen to people complain about things you have no control over, you prepare countless “sermons” that no one listens to or remembers. If it helps any, I know of at least a half dozen students (myself included) who think of you as a spiritual mentor.

  2. Brian McLaughlin January 23, 2009 — 9:07 am

    Happy Birthday! I personally (and I know that I speak for many more) thank God that you are a professor. You are an excellent teacher and mentor for pastors-to-be (and current pastors such as myself).

    One of the joys of a pastor is – I imagine – similar to the joys of being a professor: seeing people “get it” and seeing their lives change accordingly. I wonder if being a pastor affords us a little more “informal” teaching opportunities where we can guide people through their joys and sorrows, but then again, I’m sure you professors do that a lot as well. Bottom line: its about being used by God to help people grow.

  3. Happy Birthday Dr. Mike….

    As a professor do you preform some of the same responsiblities? A couple of possiblities there are guiding spritual formation, encouraging people, and consuling people.

    Have a great birthday, and thanks for everything you’ve taught me over the years.

    We should do lunch or something sometime soon,

    Jonathan

  4. I will only say this:

    Buster Bluth: You know that Friday is my father’s birthday?

    Oscar Bluth: Oh yes, it’s your father’s birthday…you might also that it’s also my birthday…

    (Soap opera music plays)

    Buster Bluth: Oh yeah, cause you guys are twins!

  5. First of all, happy birthday!

    As for the joys of being a pastor, I imagine they largely overlap with those of being a professor. The way I see my job, it basically is to spend a lot of time reading the Bible, praying, teaching people and spending time with them in fellowship. This corresponds pretty well to how I’d like to spend my time if I didn’t have to “work”. It’s a real joy when you realize that God has used you for his purposes in the life of another, but with a big enough view of the sovereignty of God, that could be said in any job (although it’s sometimes easier to see as a pastor).

    I guess one big difference would be the opportunity to take part in the administration of the sacraments, which indeed is a blessing.

    All in all, I guess I would encourage you (in the words of a much wiser man than me) to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength…and in that context, do whatever you want! I’ll be praying for you.

  6. Great post! I am in exactly the opposite situation as you. When I was converted at 17 1/2 I wanted to go to college and grad school so that I could learn to teach theology. When I entered seminary my plan was an M.A. and then on to Ph.D. studies, but, a professor said something like, “We need our best and brightest to enter the pastorate these days.” So I changed my focus, got an M.Div, and have pastored for 9 years in the same church plant.

    Now I am working on a ThM and after that, Lord willing, a PhD.

    As far as the blessings of being a pastor, they do outweigh the negatives (stress, pressure, time away from family, getting blamed by unhappy parishioners, listening to a grumbling congregation a la Moses). Preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, seeing lives truly changed, being there for people in crisis and knowing you had a small part in bringing them through the trials of fire, etc.

  7. Happy Birthday, Mike!

    Just prior to moving down to the Grand Rapids area, I had filled the role of interim Pastor (while employed full-time in County government) at a small UP Church for two years. I do enjoy teaching the Word of God. However, I see the role of a Pastor as being more than a good speaker or teacher. Oh, I can be a bit passionate on issues, and it drives me nuts when I see the Church heading down the wrong path. By the way, can you picture your wife as a Pastor’s wife? Or your children as PKs? There are a lot of changes that go along with the title. Personally, I think God has you where you are for a reason.

    Have a great day!

  8. A friend of mine recently asked a twentysomething pastor the same question you’ve posed: What’s so great about being a pastor? To which the man said, “Definitely the flexibility of my schedule.”

    What?!? That’s the GREATEST thing? You can have flexibility driving an ice cream truck (not that there’s anything wrong with that… and in your hometown you’ve only got three potential wage-earning months)! But anyway…

    For me personally the difference (between life in the trenches and in the ivory tower; I’m using inflammatory language in jest), I think, lies in the depth (and length) of the relationships pastors are able to establish with their people. I’ve attended six universities (I should have more than a ThM at this point!) but I may only talk to two or three of my professors semi-regularly. The window of opportunity for influence that professors enjoy, generally speaking, seems to be brief. But as a pastor, I get the privilege (and burden, sometimes) of building into lives for years, even decades.

    So, while I’ve flirted with going to the classroom (and I can’t wait to teach Sys II in Australia for Bob Rapa in 2010), I still prefer the daily grind of preaching and ministering to people in the milieu. True life-change usually happens over time (unless God has more expeditious plans in mind). Relationships are the same way; they take time. As one of my mentors says to me on occasion: “You can’t build a tree, you have to grow it.”

    I don’t know if that’s deep or just dumb. But I like it.

    Have a great birthday, Mike. And thanks for investing your time and energy in the blog. Yours was the first class I took in seminary (Philosophical Perspectives), and you continue to wield influence on many in a powerful way. (But lest I unwittingly I disprove my argument above, I should say: you are the exception, not the norm.)

  9. Happy Birthday Mike!!!

    As a former classmate of yours (didn’t we have a Dr. Beals class together in the early 1990’s?) and you being a sure favorite prof of mine during my 14 year journey at GRTS, you helped me realize that I didn’t have to choose between scholarship (my area being mission theology) and urban ministry. That I could pursue both. Also, thank you for inspiring me to teach and your guidance in setting up a syllabus and a Curriculum Vitae when I was teaching urban ministry across the pond at Cornerstone.

  10. Thanks for the encouragement and well wishes, all! John, I think that you nailed what is probably the biggest difference between being a pastor and a professor. Both have the privilege to teach and apply God’s Word, but pastors have the advantage of a long period of ministry and being invited into the middle of the most important moments of people’s lives. I am jealous of you for that.

    It strikes me as extremely sad that men like Joe Crawford, Carl Hoch, and Paul Beals can invest decades of their lives in a school, and five years after they are gone no one in the student body knows them.

    On the other hand, I don’t own a cell phone. Which wouldn’t be the case if I was a pastor.

  11. I know you want to hear from pastors, but I’m a pastor’s wife and I thought I’d put my 2 cents in. My husband is a great pastor, but he would also be a great professor. In our urban/suburban church of about 100-150 members, he does have some opportunity to teach Bible and theology aside from Sunday sermons. But I have seen him frustrated by his “students” and their seeming lack of interest in some of the more exciting things (I think) he has to teach. So many of them are decades beyond their school days and many never went to college, and it sure isn’t the same trying to teach them as it would be teaching eager young students with a call on their lives to go into ministry. So I think there is a bit of frustration there. I know he’d like to teach Greek but he’d probably only have two or three willing students. So many in the American church are lackadasical about serious Bible study.

    However, as was mentioned by someone else already, he has many years to walk with people and watch them grow, whereas the professor has thousands of students passing through his sphere of influence and only a brief time to make a big difference in their lives. Some of my husband’s greatest joys in the ministry come from just sitting and visiting with the elderly and the shut-ins and listening to their stories–since so few listen to the elderly in our culture. He gains wisdom from our church members and passes a different kind of wisdom on to them. I don’t know that many professors get a lot of wisdom from their students. Some, but certainly not at the level a pastor can get it if he listens.

  12. E.

    I know your husband, and I agree that he is a wonderful pastor, one who combines a deep knowledge of God’s Word and love for people. He also does a great deal of teaching in his preaching, which is something the American church sorely nees. Now only if he’d give up his cigars!

  13. I am beginning to think this post was a shameless plea for “Happy Birthday” wishes. If that is what you are after, I’ll condescend. Happy birthday, Dr. Wittmer!

    I agree with others when they say that you are a wonderful professor. I know you had a profound influence on me during my time at GRTS. I think you have had a tremendous impact on the Church, even if it is in an indirect way. If you heard me teach, you would probably hear many of your own words (only the good stuff, of course). I am sure other students of yours would say the same.

    That said, my favorite thing about being a pastor is working with so many different types of people who are all at different levels of understanding and watching them grow and contribure to one another’s lives. It is fun to be a part of a church community where the people truly love one another and are committed long-term to each other.

  14. I wonder…in the seminary you are able to share your passion for historical theology with many students, who are then able to move into vocational ministry and pass that along. Would you have the same opportunities to do so as a pastor? Would that influence have the same scope as your present calling?

  15. I never knew that story. I always assumed that academia was your goal all along… Having been a pastor for a few years now, my favorite things are 1. Weekly being able to preach God’s Word, and 2. Weekly being able to teach God’s Word. Of course, professors also have these same opportunities.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy doing pastoral care, visitation, etc., but they aren’t what made me put “Zachary Bartels loves being a pastor” as my facebook status a few days ago. I also enjoy the rather flexible schedule (although averaging 55-60 hours a week, it isn’t *overly* flexible…) What’s funny is, in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking that I”d probably get a doctorate in about ten years (I’m 30) and re-evaluate whether to perhaps think about a shift to teaching.

    I remember having a discussion with my room mate in college about how Dr. Mayers was better suited as a prof than a pastor because, as a prof, his wisdom/outlook/ideas were then disseminated to many budding pastors and (through those pastors) to many, many thousands of church members, year after year). I have the same thought about you. I’m not one for flattery (unless it’s tongue in cheek), but I can say with all honesty that I would not be nearly as prepared to present right doctrine and God’s Word on its own terms to my people if I hadn’t had you for a dozen classes, readings, independent studies, etc.

    There were so many comments already that I didn’t bother to read them, but I’m guessing that many have said the same things I have said. You can’t imagine GRBS (as a student) without Joe Crawford having been there. Well, Dr. Crawford died after I only had him for one class… Many of us can’t imagine GRTS without you being there.

    -Z

  16. Okay, now I read the other comments. 2 things:
    1. I think it’s inaccurate to say that you only have an impact as a professor for 3 years (or five in my case… or 14 in Joel’s). I continue to think of you as a mentor. Even though I only see you quite rarely, I continue to read interact through e-mail, reading your books, teaching your class notes, inviting you into my pulpit. And, clearly from the other comments on this post, I’m not the only one on whom you are having a continued and ongoing impact. Factor that in as you reflect on whether to transition to the pastorate.

    2. Someday I will get you to smoke a cigar with me. Some day (after GRTS relaxes the lifestyle statement, obviously).

  17. There are few topics closer to my heart than that of the pastoral role and the MEN he has called to it. It has long been my contention that the church is the custodian of the Truth. Jesus Christ Himself said he would build His church. He did not mention the seminary, college, or other parachurch organizations. To be clear I have nothing but thanks to offer the Lord for other organizations that hold to and teach the Truth as it has been revealed in His word.

    I am very thankful that there are still pastors who, even while shepherding a church family, are heavily involved in arcticulating a clear gospel message and skillfully applying it to the cultural context. The church needs men of intelect preaching and leading as sheperds of the flock.

    “One of the most lamentable developments of the last several centuries has been theology’s transformation into an academic discipline more associated with the university than the church.” Al Mohler “He is not Silent”

    Sorry for going long Mike but as much as I love seeing you teach and mentor through the seminary I want you to REALLY wrestle with this idea. The pastorate just may be your calling.

  18. Well, another happy birthday to you. I too am on the other side, a pastor at times thinking about being a professor.

    Certainly pastoral care is a big difference between the two roles, and since I see myself wired more for teaching than care (and seminary prepared me better for one than the other too!), I could see myself as a professor. On the other hand, while care is part of the pastoral role, I understand Scripture to point to teaching – whether in a group or one on one – as the primary task of the pastor. And we desperately need Biblical teachers in the church.

    One thing I do love about being a pastor over being a professor is that I can focus constantly on application. I want to teach to change lives, and I think the pastoral role focuses more on this than perhaps the professor role. If your first book is any clue – aimed at the average Christian rather than the ivory tower – you seem to have a similar bent towards helping people grow. Not that we don’t need that in the seminary too.

    Longevity is a plus for the pastor, though many pastors don’t stay in a church much longer than a student stays at a school.

    Impact too is different. You can have a wider impact by training pastors than simply being one, though the pastor can have a deeper impact on just a few.

    Here is an idea – let’s trade roles for awhile and see which we both like better!

  19. Hi Mike,

    I just wanted to reply to one part of one of your comments. You wrote:

    “It strikes me as extremely sad that men like Joe Crawford, Carl Hoch, and Paul Beals can invest decades of their lives in a school, and five years after they are gone no one in the student body knows them.”

    I think I see what you’re saying, but what occurred to me was how many pastors, taught by these profs, have enriched so many congregations with ministries that took careful exegesis of the Word seriously (because of Dr. Hoch), worked to keep a Biblically faithful theology connected to the life and ministries of the church (because of Dr. Crawford), and maintained a heart for God’s great mission in the world (because of Dr. Beals).

    Gifts and callings differ, so making comparisons is virtually impossible to do, but the men you mentioned show how faithful scholarship on the part of professors can serve the congregations and Church of Jesus Christ in crucially important and strategic ways.

    Happy birthday!

    Doug Phillips

  20. Happy Birthday Dr. Wittmer!

    There have only been a handful of professors that I have had who have had a deep impact upon my thinking. You’ve not only impacted my thinking but you were the reason I moved my family from Texas back to Michigan. It is a privilege and honor to study with you. Thank you for listening to mindless musings on aesthetics and prolegomena.
    As you know I’ve only been a pastor for about 2 weeks and it is an absolute joy. I am quickly realizing there is an amazing similarity between the pastorate and the professorship: there is not much time to develop a good reputation. As a professor you have a semester to make a good impression on students. Word spreads quickly among students about whether a prof is good or not. A pastor has a short amount of time to develop a good reputation with those under his care. What happens in the first few weeks can set the tone, whether good or bad, of how smooth things will go. Word spreads quickly among the congregants about the pastor just like a professor.
    Someday, I hope to be teaching in a seminary because as a professor there is a unique opportunity to influence hundreds of would be pastors. Hopefully, those pastors will pass along the elucidations learned in the seminary. Thus having a potential to reach thousands of people with good theology, ethics and ministerial practices.

    Thank you for being a positive influence and being a faithful example.

  21. If I may, one thing I haven’t seen noted is the issue of calling – pastoral ministry isn’t a vocation so much as it is a calling – and God calls folks to be professors too, and plumbers and engineers and doctors and teachers and stay-at-home moms and dads.

    However, when the going gets tough which is it? Do people want out of the professorship to go pastor a church or is it usually the other way around? While this is not always the case, too often folks are looking to teaching as a way to get out of the pastorate. They’re tired, they want a break. Or maybe they are bored. And the perks that go with teaching is always an appeal too – the conferences, the time in the library reading and studying, the stimulating classroom discussions, etc. It’s quiter, less noisy, they won’t have to deal with people so much, especially the complainers (e.g., Sons of Korah, etc) Pastors don’t usally get these benefits, especially those in the ditches pastoring the small church (150 or less, more often 100 or less).

    Yes, the Pastor gets to build relationships, some good others more along the lines of dealing with the wayward sheep. Yes, the Pastor gets to preach each week and teach too sometimes. But this is not always without its challenges.

    I think it was Ignatius that said something to the effect that no one should “want” to Pastor without a clear sense of calling. (See Tom Oden’s Pastoral Theology).

    So it is an issue of what is God calling you to do? You can still teach if you are called to Pastor – lots of Pastors teach a class or two at the local Bible College or Seminary in conjunction with the pastorate.

    Be Blessed!

    ps,. I have your Heaven book and look forward to getting into it in a few days.

  22. Happy Birthday, Dr. Wittmer.🙂

  23. Dr. Wittmer,

    I can easily see your spiritual gifts being used of God mightily in either role, pastor or prof.

    My only comment for you is that if you do choose to pursue the pastoral role I think it would be very beneficial to the greater Church body if you continued to invest heavily in your writing career/ministry. I believe that you have a very good way with words (both written and proclaimed) and I, as a pastor, hope for many more books to come from your hand. I love your passion for historical/systematic theology and pastors like me need to have people like you who write things they need to think through in a way that is accessible, and yes, fun.

    I know this is very possible in some contexts, as is evidenced by John Piper…former professor at Bethel Seminary, and preaching pastor at Bethlehem Baptist in Minnesota for so many years now. He has pumped out an incredible number of books that have been so helpful because of his combined perspective of having been immersed in the academic world and the pastoral world. I would be so excited to see that same blend through your life. However, I don’t pretend to know whether that is God’s call for you…but your gifts line up both ways very well.

    Enjoy your 42nd!

    Together for His glory,

    Tom Beetham

  24. Dr. Mike,
    I am grateful that you are asking the question on “pastor or professor.” As you know Donna and enjoyed God’s calling in our lives to pastoral ministry for over 31 years. Now we share with you the ministry of preparing others to do that ministry, exponentially impacting people beyond our expectations. All of that to say, I cannot imagine GRTS without your godly influence, theological impact and I deep concern for future leaders and their biblical moorings. I cannot imagine our team serving without you. Hardly a week goes by without hearing of your positive and dynamic impact in students and now ministry leader’s lives. God is using you… for his kingdom and in his church. Besides Gary needs you… really! All of that said, I will commit to pray for you, to know the certainty of God’s sovereign design for your life and ministry. However, be encouraged. You are highly valued and appreciated by our entire team.
    With honor and respect… doug

  25. Pastor Mike,

    Happy Birthday!!

    You can be both and not either/or!! You did it for my wife and I, and then my boys. And still do!!

  26. Sweet fancy Moses, you’re popular. I haven’t read all these posts, yet I’m curious what the popular vote might be.

    Are you wondering, “Will [I] play in Peoria?”

  27. I have the privilege of doing both. My full-time position as lead pastor allows me the opportunity to help shepherd a congregation. The continuity that our local church provides replenishes me, and it is a great privilege to serve such an awesome group. At the same time, my “outside” job as adjunct instructor at area universities provides venues to interact with students who are excited about making an impact in their unique settings. In both contexts (as well as my service as a hospital chaplain), I sense God’s favor as I strive to add value to fellow journeyers.

  28. Funny to be conjured up in someone’s blog. But if absence inspired, as did presence, then I guess we can call it even. Good to see you’re hanging in there–even thriving.

  29. Wow, Todd. I still can’t understand you!🙂

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