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Pastorate Temptations

A pastor-friend wrote me this letter. He’s asking what are the vocational temptations of a pastor. What tempts them the most as a pastor? [We’re not talking here about sexual temptations, etc.] What are the major temptations of a pastor as a pastor? We would love to hear from pastors on this one. One of the most common books I hear about in this regard is Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work
Perhaps you have other recommendations.


Morning Scot,

Hope you’re well (especially after your grandfather-fix over the

If you have time I wonder if you could share with me what you think
the top pastoral temptations are that ministers face vocationally.
It can be very brief …

So I’m asking some people I respect and who have been around the block
more than me.


Comments read comments(43)
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Mykl Krause

posted November 4, 2008 at 12:46 am

The thing about temptations is that they are not always all that realistic.
The first one is – anything that pays better and gives me Sundays off.
So I sometimes think about teaching, or chaplaincy or social work.
But more vocationally – because I pastor a house church and have said I never want to go back to a “normal” church again, there are days when I would really like more people in worship and wonder what it would be like to go back to a large church somewhere.
But then I try to count my blessings … or I just lie down for a while and wait for the feeling to go away.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 2:52 am

To be ‘important’ (as opposed to a servant among servants, Matt. 23:11-12). This is sometimes hidden in spiritual language among those of us in ministry as: ‘relevant’ or ‘successful.’
To ‘fix’ people, as opposed to pointing them to the Divine Healer. This often leads to unhealthy, co-dependent relationships.
For many these days, I would also add, to use marketing/self-promotion as a smokescreen to avoid the real, difficult, yet core stuff of ministry… Anyone who’s been in ministry for a few years has probably discovered how to make it look to a congregation (and even other leaders) like a lot is going on, when there is little of substance.
As far as books, a wise older minister once handed me ‘In the Name of Jesus’ by Henri Nouwen… A small, simple/yet profound book. I keep going back to it, and recommending it to others since.

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Jeremiah Daniels

posted November 4, 2008 at 5:10 am

MattR — I think you hit the big three right on the head.
In sects (not sure about main stream), I believe that its a temptation to become an expert in one very narrow topic so as to be considered the ‘authority’ on that topic.
Basically, its an easy way to get speaking engagements and generally you study your material very intensely for a period and never really acquire anything new after that. Nobody comes to you for other questions / issues as that’s not your area :)

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Rick in Texas

posted November 4, 2008 at 6:52 am

The above comments are on target.
The works of Eugene Peterson are so good on this topic. The other 2 that are necessary reads are “Working the angles” and “Under the Unpredictable Plant”. (Odd title, I know… makes sense when you read the book.)
My thoughts, influenced by his books…
-Believing that the frustrations and disappointments I face will be solved at a different church than the one I am serving, so that the temptation is to bail out of where I am for that wonderful congregation that would be perfect. (Peterson says churches know this and play to it in their profiles when they are seeking pastoral candidates. He refers to these pastor-seeking church profiles as “ecclesiastical p*rn” – a graphic but communicative term.
-Believing that the visible tasks of ministry constitute the important tasks of ministry, rather recognizing the importance of invisible tasks like prayer, pastoral counsel, and reading the Bible, and things like being a good spouse, parent, and friend.
-That’s only 2. I will find out what the third temptation is by reading comments from later today, learning from the wisdom of fellow Jesus Creeders.

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Ron Newberry

posted November 4, 2008 at 6:54 am

MattR hit the nail. In my tradition we get moved every few years and I must say that the ‘padding’ of membership numbers and as MattR suggested the idea of looking busy.

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Jim Martin

posted November 4, 2008 at 8:02 am

1. The temptation to manipulate. Creating “friendships” for the sole purpose manipulating people. Get with one key leader and create a special friendship. Then use information from that relationship to then play one other person off another as you create another manipulative relationship.
2. The temptation to just do a job instead of living out of your call. Consequently, ministry becomes a series of tasks (never ending!) instead of a daily response to the call of God. (See Eugene Peterson’s “Working the Angles.”)
3. The temptation for preachers in particular to begin to see Scripture as “common.” In other words, Scripture becomes more about “getting a sermon together” instead of it being the place where one wrestle’s with the words and will of God. The deadly consequence of this is that the preacher can be living in disobedience to the words of Jesus and it never does really register. The preacher is no longer listening to Scripture as a fellow Christ-follower who wishes to be open and obedient to the words of God. Instead, it becomes a place where one put messages together for other people.
4. The temptation to depend on the self. This minister looses any sense that God is at work through the living, dynamic Spirit. Rather, ministry becomes dependent on human effort and will.
Each on of these has been a temptation that I have wrestled with at one time or another.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 8:05 am

Great words MattR. I’ve read Peterson closely a few times – while in school and then again while in pastoral work and found him to be invaluable. Will look into Henri’s book too.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 8:19 am

My biggest temptation has been a desire for people to recognize my work and give glory to me. It’s a no glory job and one that constantly teaches me humility. Praise be to God.
Scot, I really enjoyed your session on reading scripture this weekend. I was sad the recording didn’t take for your talk on the atonement because I was really looking forward to hearing it.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 9:21 am

Joey hit it right on for me too.
The biggest temptation I have is to push my agenda, my views and my desires on the people God has given me to pastor.
For me it is undoubtedly pride.
And in a close second it has to be the temptation to despair over lack of change in the people’s lives. Sometimes I desire change so much in the people, I forget that it is the Holy Spirit and He alone that can accomplish any change.
Grace and peace,

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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 4, 2008 at 9:30 am

Jim wrote:
“4. The temptation to depend on the self.”
I’m not a pastor but a pastor friend of mine says that he keeps submitting his resume to God in application for the position “Savior of the World.” God keeps returning it stamped, “Position already filled.” :-)

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posted November 4, 2008 at 10:01 am

Great responses above. The temptations are going to vary from individual to individual. There are a few that seem to stick to the ministry, especially thinking: Serving somewhere else would be sooooo much better!
Personally, the temptation to depend on self is huge. I’ve been in ministry for 10 years (youth/worship), but preaching for only 2. Some weeks I work hard on a sermon because I feel like it all depends on me, and other weeks I slack off pridefully thinking, ‘you’re good at this, you don’t have to work hard at it.’
And it turns out we need God the most at just those times when we think we don’t need Him!

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Frank Viola

posted November 4, 2008 at 10:18 am

Jon Zens, a former pastor and prolific writer, gives some insightful airplay to this question in his new book, “A Church Building Every 1/2 Mile.” It’s an incredibly powerful discussion.

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Erik Leafblad

posted November 4, 2008 at 10:24 am

I think Rick in Texas is spot on in that one of the biggest temptations is to lose our heart, so to speak. We opt, instead, to do the *busy* work of ministry, which can all be well and good (in youth ministry we call it connection time with students), but forget that we are called to be spiritual guides for our congregations (among other things). We lose our grounding (if we ever had it?) in Scripture, spiritual formation, and our own soul-nurture. This leads to a second temptation: viewing our congregation as never good enough. We always want them to be more mature than they are, they are never spiritual enough, etc. most likely because we ourselves are not engaged in the process of spiritual formation in the way of Jesus. So, we project, and then create some program to fix the problem with them, and the cycle is goes round and round.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 10:24 am

Good stuff said so far. I think one of the most common reasons for unfaithfulness in ministry (in any sense of the word), is connected to the grind of trying to pursue kingdom now, but being in a world that is still so broken. Obviously, also being apart of the brokenness, and yet longing for the sense of shalom that will only continually come when the kingdom comes in fullness.
This plays out practically for me when I don’t deal rightly with the anxiety that is caused as a result of the brokenness within and without me. I think we all long for wholeness, and pursue it in different ways that many times was show themselves as “the grass is greener somewhere else,” having an affair, giving up on trusting God’s redemptive movements and taking it on our own shoulders…etc. I think all of these are generally birthed from the same place, a deep dissatisfaction with reality. Our hearts long for something truer, more holistic, something more in harmony. Good insights and thanks for posting this question.

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Steve Anderson

posted November 4, 2008 at 10:34 am

22 years into pastoral ministry the temptations that seems most apparent to me are the temptation to keep people happy and create a busy church, instead of listening to and obeying God.

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Phil Monroe

posted November 4, 2008 at 10:39 am

I’m not a pastor but my private practice is almost exclusively pastors or family members of pastors. I agree that pastors frequently struggle with despair over the lack of growth in their parishioners (which leads to self-criticism), and frequently do their work without much prayer. But when thinking about their temptations, I think this is the number one:
The temptation to avoid conflict, hoping that it will go away. The temptation to see conflict as an evil and not an opportunity for growth for all involved.
I also hear that DA Carson has a book out this year, “Memoirs of an ordinary pastor” about the musings and journals of his father as a Canadian pastor of small churches. Might be worth checking out.

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Ethan Magness

posted November 4, 2008 at 11:01 am

These echo some that have been mentioned, but I would say my biggest are
1. The desire to be important (sell books, influence people, etc.)
2. The desire to be liked and followed (agreed with, trusted, etc.)
3. Having an entirely utilitarian devotional life, prayer life and even just regular life. Every moment is grist for sermon illustrations, blog posts, curriculum ideas. Eventually no moment is sacred or lived for its own sake. I am always subconsciously asking the question, “How can I use this?” This damages so much of my life from my prayer life to the time I spend with my kids.
4. Envy of other pastoral positions.

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Leland Vickers

posted November 4, 2008 at 11:04 am

This is not exactly an answer to the question posed, but I think it applies.
A few years ago I met a man who has an active ministry of “drinking coffee with pastors.” He lives in East Tennessee. His reflections on the top two reasons that he has seen for pastors struggling were:
1. Not spending time in the Word for themselves in addition to studying for their preaching.
2. Not having a sabbath time each week.
These are not direct quotes, but depend on my memory of what he said and what I wrote in my notes 2-3 years ago.

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Chaplain Mike

posted November 4, 2008 at 11:16 am

The temptation to be a spiritual “technician” rather than a “farmer.” That is, to think that spiritual formation, growth and progress is a matter of using the right materials, programs and organizational tools. Instead, we (that is, I) must always remember that all life is organic and flourishes only through organic means. For a pastor that means planting and cultivating living “seeds” by close attention to the living Word, a conversational relationship with the living God through prayer and worship, and full commitment to the interpersonal work that true pastoring requires.
Peterson is so spot on with regard to all of this. I always respected his commitment as a local church pastor never to pastor a church that was larger than the number of people he could know and interact with personally.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 11:25 am

For me the it boils down to thinking that the church is about me. That success or failure (however we choose to define those terms) depends on me. Which is essentially not living in the Gospel.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 12:20 pm

I believe it is the temptation of success. Instead of focusing on God, there is the pull to serve people and pride.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 12:31 pm

I have a friend who says that two sins often committed by pastors after they enter the ministry full time is that they eat too much and turn their brain off.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 12:33 pm

Peterson wrote _The Unnecessary Pastor_ with Marva Dawn, and it is magnificent. Along with Nouwen’s _In the Name of Jesus_, it’s at the top of qb’s list in regard to the question you’ve asked.
One could be forgiven for wondering in today’s pastor-driven, cult-of-personality megachurchism, “where’s the humility of Moses in all of this?” Peterson, Dawn, and Nouwen nail the 10-ring.

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Doug Wilson

posted November 4, 2008 at 12:54 pm

Years ago in the little “Mastering Ministry” compilation volume Mastering Personal Growth, Maxie Dunnam had an article called “Cultivating Closeness with God,” in which he said that “the pastoral role is both a boon and a bane to spirituality.” It “hinders closeness to God in several ways”: busyness; the professional side to ministry; scheduling freedom; lots of affirmation; regular contact with the sacred. His exposition of these challenges is clarifying and catalytic. However, Dunnam goes on to point out that “fortunately these spiritual hazards are balanced by the unique opportunities ministry offers to the spiritual life”: we are regularly confronted with our need for God; constant contact with the holy; and interaction with “saints.” He closes with a list of six things that he finds “especially helpful in keeping me close to God”: attend to the emotional; practice spiritual disciplines; retreats; practice the presence; keep stretched; and nurture relationships. It is an article well worth hunting down and reflecting on.

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Steve Cuss

posted November 4, 2008 at 1:42 pm

Great question and great post responses.
here are a couple of mine:
1) relate to God more like an employee than a child.
2) subtly use my role as public relations for myself.
3) own strength, own strength, own strength

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Dennis Lugo

posted November 4, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Power. Learning how to use it correctly. How to delegate power and not act like you have it all. Also the temptation to do everything yourself instead of relying on the church as a whole to complete the mission.

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Tim Schultz

posted November 4, 2008 at 2:21 pm

Discouragement may not be classified as a sin, but it certainly is a temptation (is that a contradiction?). All it takes sometimes is a small group of disgruntled folks to make ones ministry very challenging. So the temptation is there to define ourselves and our ministries through that limited lens of the few and not keep the larger picture in sight.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 2:42 pm

Wow… great stuff since I last posted!
Avoiding conflict(Phil Monroe) can also subtly become political and manipulative… we can be tempted to try to move people ‘behind the scenes’ to get things done, as opposed to directly (yet gracefully) dealing with the core issues.
And maybe this is a bit off topic…
But I feel like the pressure comes not just from pastors themselves, but also expectations of congregations, and really the way the job is often set up…
Pastors are expected to be the ‘spiritual technicians’ (thanks Chaplain Mike) that solve everyone’s problems and create programs that bring in the masses. And then we neglect our own soul care to the point often of breakdown… or at least extreme dryness.
That’s when too often those ‘other’ temptations set in.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 3:03 pm

Ministry is demanding, who would have guess? But, some of us want to be Christ (Savior complex?) to the world around us while forgetting the two most important things in life, our family, and our self needs. Is it because we naively think that is what pastors are suppose to do? Could it be that our pride and identity is tied to how much people “need” us? Workaholicism may not be listed as a sin, but certainly creates pastor kids (aka “PKs”) who grow up with a distaste for God and the Church and for Christians. Even when we are home, are we mentally and emotionally engaged with our family or are we still doing church work? Unfortunately, I know too many lonely preacher wives because their husbands are too being ministering to the multitude instead of focusing on his first priority.

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Your Name

posted November 4, 2008 at 3:15 pm

I am not a pastor, but I have a question for Scot.
Scot, what possible purpose could justify holding this discussion in such a public forum? Little pitchers, and so forth. All things may be lawful for you, but all things edify not. Nor, in this instance, do they edify others, in my opinion. So pastors are human. We knew that already.
You may now tell me that my quotation is out of context.

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Bob Brague

posted November 4, 2008 at 3:17 pm

Sorry. “Your Name” was me.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 3:17 pm

How about spending too much time reading blogs rather than getting minstry done? :)

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posted November 4, 2008 at 3:23 pm

The temptation is to speak about that which we do not have knowledge or authority; to be less silent than we ought to be.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Chaplain Mike’s comment reminded me of a friend who observed the tendency to manage our spirituality problems and spiritualize our management problems.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Dear Bob,
This discussion has edified and encouraged me. I feel there’s hope for the world when I read what the pastors above have written with such humility, grace and insight. I also would say that these same temptations can invade any career, so I take the insights to heart.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 5:12 pm

I think I get your concern, but I don’t think this has been a pastor-bash. Not speaking for Scot, but I think the hope is for pastors to be able to see some things that are common pitfalls, find out if they’re stepping in them and do something about it. How is it that discussing common pitfalls for parents, husbands, wives, etc. can be edifying, but not for pastors?

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Craig Querfeld

posted November 5, 2008 at 6:36 am

Here are some of the temptations I have been aware of and fought against as I carry out a pastoral ministry:
1- Feeling I am indispensable. I am the only one who can do what I do and therefore,am indispensable which opens the door for many, many possible pitfalls.
2- Creating a fortress around me. There are times that I have caught myself thinking that the people in the pew do not and cannot see what I see so therefore I will pull away from them into my fortress.
3- Using my position/title (so very common down here in South America)to tell someone what they should be doing and not leading them to the grapple with how they are going to apply scripture in their own life. It is tempting to fall into their “external-locus of control” mindset (others tell me how to live) rather than working against it and helping them develop an “internal-locus of control” mindset(Spirit led).
Should I continue?? Great post helped me take a look at myself and my ministry.

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Travis Greene

posted November 5, 2008 at 10:25 am

Bob, Worried that somebody might find out pastors are human?
Whoever said they struggle with relating to God as an employee rather than a child…genius. Good insight.

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John W Frye

posted November 5, 2008 at 10:46 am

I, too, have been shaped by Eugene Peterson’s and Henri Nouwen’s pastoral wisdom.
1. to stop reading and thus petrify theologically, feeling honorable for defending a 1950s theology in a 21st century world
2. (for older pastors) to think that experience and faithfulness somehow earn us “the right” to be adored and followed, and we get petulant when we aren’t.
3. to treat ministry as “a job” rather than as a privilege; and this happens when eternity loses its grip on our hearts.

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Jon Zens

posted November 5, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Having observed what goes on in the evangelical/fundamentalist sub-culture for 44 years, I would suggest that the best thing we could do is to back up and take a close look at “The Pastor” practice itself. The practices, traditions and institutions that cluster around the notion of “The Pastor” have created an ethos in which certain temptations are guaranteed. The most historically prominent view is reflected in Puritan John Owen’s words: “on this office [pastor] and the discharge of it He hath laid the whole weight of the order, rule, and edification of His church.” The fact that such a burden is placed on the shoulders on one person would go a long way to unraveling why traditional pastors fail morally and burn-out so often. I would suggest that the Lord never intended for one person to wear so many hats. The clergy-centered system that emerged in the course of church history has done untold harm both to those behind the pulpit and those in the pews. The practices within this system inherently tend to foster temptations in the areas of (1) pride, (2) self-sufficiency, (3) authoritarianism, (4) isolation, and (5) marital unfaithfulness. If “The Pastor” office in the form it is practiced today is without divine witness in the New Testament, then is it any wonder that the practice of it creates an unhealthy environment in which certain temptations come with the turf?

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posted November 5, 2008 at 1:58 pm

John Frye,
That last statement was powerful. “…this happens when eternity loses its grip on our hearts.” Thanks for the reminder.

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Chaplain Mike

posted November 5, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Jon, I respectfully disagree. Changing the system won’t eliminate temptation, merely change which temptations we face or the form we find them taking. After all, the NT itself testifies to a NT church leader like Diotrephes, “who loves to be first among them” (3 Jn 9). Cracked Eikons are cracked. Put ’em in one system, the light shines on one set of cracks. Put ’em in another, and others come into view.

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Jon Zens

posted November 7, 2008 at 12:54 pm

Chaplain Mike — Of course, temptations lurk everywhere. Putting someone in a monastery does not eliminate temptations. But I think you are missing a vital point. If people are trying to deal with many surface concerns, when the real problems are systemic, then you end up trying to put band-aids on open, infected sores. It’s not a question at all of trading one system for another. In this case, if “The Pastor” practice is in reality a unhealthy system, then we will end up perpetuating disease by not re-visiting our fundamental assumptions. In the end, isn’t the issue really what healthy patterns of ministry emerge in God’s Word? Temptations exist even where non-pastor-centered ways of ministry are practiced. But it is clear that the pastor-centered tradition inherently fosters many temptations that more biblical patterns would check. In the medical world, if a certain method of doing surgeries kept resulting in serious infections, wouldn’t the doctors want to look closely at the root causes, and not just deal with surface topical matters?

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