Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Pastors

Most people have their favorite Willie Nelson song that they like to sing. My favorite is Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys (it wasn’t written by Nelson, but it was popularized by him). Probably a better title for that song would be, Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Willie Nelson. But, when I sing that song, I like to change it up and turn it into a cautionary tale for wannabe pastors out there. There are good reasons for mammas and others to steer people away from pastoral ministry.

Do Something Else

I know I’m not the only one who has ever been told this. When I was in college, and feeling called to ministry, I sat down with a pastor who told me, “Try to do something else, anything else, other than pastoral ministry. And if you are truly called, you won’t be able to escape it.” Why such fatalistic advice for a conceivably noble calling? Don’t we want more pastors in this world? Part of the reason this particular pastor gave me this advice is because he had been through a really difficult pastorate, and he wanted to spare me the pain of serving in that capacity. Maybe I reeked of naiveté and idealism.  

There is, however, wisdom in steering people away from pastoral ministry.

There is, however, wisdom in steering people away from pastoral ministry.

The Bible speaks menacingly about teachers who will be judged with greater strictness (Jas. 3:1). Paul tells Timothy that a day will come when people will ignore sound teaching, but he also tells him that’s exactly what he is required before God to do (2 Tim. 4:1-5)! Maybe Timothy thought the OT days of ignoring God’s prophetic voice were over, and now that Jesus has come, everyone would respond positively to the message. 

A Noble Calling

The difficulty as I see it in our modern world is that pastors are viewed with increasing suspicion. The largest protestant denomination (with the most pastors), the SBC, seems to be dealing with one back-breaking crisis after another. Also the most popular “Religion & Spirituality” podcast right now is “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” I assume other cautionary tale podcasts telling the dirty secrets of failed and flawed pastors will top the charts for years to come. There’s an insatiable appetite for that content, and nobody produces popular podcasts about faithful pastors who dedicate their lives to faithfully preaching and pastoring in a local church (not even Christianity Today). 

Additionally, the demands of pastoring continue to grow. No longer do you have to just be competent to preach, you have to be competent in a number of different skills: leadership, technology, evangelism, crisis management, team-building, counseling, and competent cultural analysis. This, coupled with the fact that opportunities for gainful employment are decreasing as churches shrink, and as American churches continue to consolidate in the multimedia age. Again, don’t be offended if your mamma tries to steer you away from pastoral ministry. She probably has more wisdom than you realize.

Silver Lining

There is something positive about this development. It’s a lot easier to discern a genuine calling than it used to be. There’s less delusion of grandeur regarding a pastoral call. The cost associated with a commitment to church ministry is just too high. Nevertheless, I think the caveat that the experienced pastor gave me when I was a young man feeling called to ministry is still a good one: “Try to do something else, anything else, other than pastoral ministry. And if you are truly called, you won’t be able to escape it.” Maybe I would add to that the following questions: 

  1. Are you okay with living a life of obscurity leading a few faithful saints in a church for a few decades?
  2. Would you continue serving the Lord even when two or three of your most trusted friends and co-workers deserted you or even backstabbed you and attacked your ministry?
  3. Are you willing to preach and uphold God’s Word even when you are physically sick and/or emotionally exhausted?
  4. Can you resist the temptation to preach on hobby-horse issues or resist the pressure to constantly address cultural issues?
  5. Are you okay dying an early death because of the stress and pain that comes from the continual burdens of pastoral ministry?
  6. Can you forgive quickly and without holding a grudge?
  7. Are you able to cultivate a joyful environment at home so that your children don’t resent your role as a pastor and grow up hating the church and what it has done to you?
  8. Can you celebrate the successes of others who prove to be more talented than you and are capable of accomplishing more for Christ than you?
  9. Are you willing, for the foreseeable future, to endure the awkwardness of telling people “I’m a pastor,” when they ask you, “What do you do?” and seeing the confused and annoyed look on their face?
  10. Are you able to be both emotionally vulnerable and emotionally intelligent so that you can sympathize with hurting people, and yet still maintain your temper when people attack you without cause?
  11. Can you be ready in and out of season to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:2)?

Joy and Sorrow

Don’t get me wrong, I am eternally grateful to God for calling me to be a pastor. God has affirmed my calling, and he has given me the strength and fortitude to serve him well. There are some beautiful and cherished aspects of being a pastor. Baptisms are a high point; so are baby dedications. Preaching God’s Word every week is an immense delight (FYI – if you don’t enjoy God’s Word, please do everyone a favor and don’t become a pastor). There’s also the unfading crown of glory for those who serve well (1 Pet. 5:4). If these things don’t excite you, and if you can’t embrace them in a life of anonymity and obscurity, then pursue something else.

Encourage wannabe pastors who are filled with the wrong kinds of ambition to look elsewhere.

Encourage wannabe pastors who are filled with the wrong kinds of ambition to look elsewhere. “Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be pastors… Make 'em be doctors and lawyers and such.”

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