Every person faces challenges and struggles at work. Pastors encounter a unique blend. The pastor’s life and ministry carry a special responsibility, charge, and set of temptations to confront head-on to serve faithfully over time.

Each day after school, a real American hero named G.I. Joe taught me television lessons about life. Each of his lessons ended with the line, “Now you know—and knowing is half the battle.” That was 40 years ago, and I still remember it! It sounds cheesy, but knowing the temptations pastors face is critical to serving well in the pastorate. Let’s consider, then, six temptations pastors face. After that, I’ll teach you a helpful strategy for overcoming these temptations.

1. To work too hard

Let’s start with a surprising temptation many pastors might not readily recognise. The temptation to work too hard. Is that even possible in ministry? In the gospel, we receive a glorious, soul-gladdening, life-energising mission. How could we ever work too hard at something so good? And doesn’t the Bible send us to the ant to see how he works (Proverbs 6:6-8)? Yes, indeed! 

At the same time, I’m reminded of other ways that good things become bad things when they become ruling things. Money is a good thing. But it goes wrong when we develop a ruling desire for it (1 Tim. 6:10). Sexual desire is good. But we know how easily it can spoil, too (1 Thess. 4:3-5). Think about exercise, an excellent thing, no doubt (1 Tim. 4:8). It, too, turns sour when our investment in our bodies becomes disordered. And it is this way with nearly every good gift God gives.

So, yes, pastors can fall for the temptation of overwork–putting too much time or energy into ministry. Pastors feel the temptation to burn the midnight oil, especially during seasons when their churches are struggling to grow, or ambitious projects loom large. Usually, a change of focus fuels the problem when ordinary pastors like us shift our hope from God’s work to our own, feeling as though everything rests on our shoulders. It’s all on the pastor to build and sustain the church by the sweat of his brow. 

If the pastor doesn’t learn to pace himself in the good work of ministry—to take his time, stay refreshed, enjoy God’s good gifts, and learn to relax—almost invariably, a crash awaits him. Can a pastor be tempted to work too much, then? Absolutely.

2. To work too little

Perhaps some of us are more familiar with the opposite of working too hard. We make friends with laziness far more easily in both life and ministry. Thus the Bible issues warning upon warning (see Prov. 10:4, 12:24 also). 

Newton’s first law states a physical object in motion remains in motion until an outside force acts upon it. The law seems true in a spiritual sense as well, right? As pastors, physical and spiritual forces constantly press in and against us, increasing the temptation to give in to our slowing powers. 

The busyness, burdens, heartaches, and upheavals of church ministry amplify a voice that says, “Come on. Just give in and give up. All your efforts are coming to little or nothing. Best to punt and bring the defense on the field for a while.” 

Have you felt this? Run or pass, it doesn’t matter; the ministry won’t move forward. You see so little change or progress, and before you know what’s happened, your ambitious roll has slowed to a groveling crawl. Once the momentum is gone, it seems impossible to regain. Then the lure of leisure promises relief through cut corners and dropped standards. Pastors must beware of the temptation to work too much and too little to find that happy middle place of wisely measured ministry.       

3. To care too much about the opinion of others

The Bible describes this temptation as fearing man or pleasing people (Prov. 29:25). Our modern world might call it co-dependency or validation hunger. Wherever it’s discussed, we mean to say that a person cares too much about the opinion of others. Do you care too much? If you’re like me, your answer is, “Yeah, sure, sometimes.” I feel the temptation to fear how other people will respond to me as a person and my role as a pastor (Gal. 1:10). And when the temptation surges, I can even say it’s like I live for their opinion or approval. Pastors interact with people all day and regularly make decisions impacting a sizable group of people. And many pastors find their livelihood depends on the support and approval of those people. After all, if you disappoint enough of the right people, they could band together to fire you from your position. So, yes, that temptation is real and common too. 

4. To care too little about the opinion of others

Here lies another equal and opposite temptation, which can sprout from an over-correction, a swinging of the people-pleaser pendulum too far back in the direction of indifference. Just as it’s possible to care too much about the responses and opinions of others, pastors can reach a place of caring too little. A good intention to avoid idolising the members can devolve into a nasty disposition of disdaining their thoughts and opinions. If careless about this temptation, we may unwittingly turn Proverbs 15:22 inside out: “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counsellors they succeed.” If we put up a wall to block out the counsel of our congregations, we will lose. Simply put, everyone will lose.

Instead, we must learn to strike the healthy, godly balance of caring. I admit that, at times, I’ve worn disinterest in pleasing people as a badge of honour. “I don’t care what people think of me,” I said. It wasn’t true, but I said it. Everyone cares what people think. We find more than two ugly extremes, one marked by fear of people and the other marked by disdaining them. As in much of life and ministry, a middle place offers the best of both worlds. We don’t need to worship at the altar of opinion or shun the critical member. We can do what Christ commands in loving God and loving people (Matt. 22:36-40).

5. To “rule over” instead of shepherd the people

Sheep work is rewarding yet messy and complicated. It’s not easy to care for God’s redeemed yet fallen people who live in a sustained yet suffering world. Every pastor is, by nature, a leader, controller, driver, and director. And in it all, he must prove himself a shepherd of sheep. It takes a certain kind of leader to care well for the congregation. Churches are not companies with liabilities, assets, human resources, and bottom lines. Therefore the type of leadership that often works in the corporate world will not translate to the church world.

But the temptation translates. When conflicts and troubles arise in the church, pastors can fall into the temptation to “take the church in hand,” “lead like a man,” “call it the way I see it,” and other macho actions. But this tempting approach is ill-advised. Screwtape and Wormwood urged such a temptation in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters: “Fix in his mind the idea that ‘Authority’ is always ’a good thing.’ Thus while he is at first neutral as regards the proposal that he should become a [pastor’s] warden, all the reasons which make him an admirable warden will come bubbling to the surface, and one of those reasons will be ‘I’m the sort of chap who’s just the ticket for looking after a place like this.’” [1]

Do you sometimes feel the pride of pastoral authority welling up into a kind of authoritarian leadership that lords it over the people rather than the grace of shepherding among them (Matt. 20:25-28)? Yes, you and I know it well, I’m sure. Let’s beware together.  

6. To neglect personal growth

A final temptation for our list involves a personal problem. As a pastor, you have a lot on your plate and many spiritual (and maybe literal) mouths to feed. You don’t have time for yourself, I know. I don’t either, but I’ll tell you this: we better find it. The temptation to neglect spiritual or physical growth often arises from the good place of concern for others. Striving for balance makes all the difference. It’s good to pour ourselves out like Paul did (2 Tim. 4:6). But if we wish to continue pouring out, we need to take some time to pour in (and allow others to pour in). Every pastor needs a pastor and some friends who can receive his encouragement and dish it out, too. Remember, even Jesus modeled for us the solitude that can help us recharge and remain cheerful vessels for long-term ministry (Mark 1:35, 6:31). It won’t happen without some personal attention to our growth. 


Finally, I’ll share a concise and helpful tool I learned to use when facing these temptations: R.R.P.P. 

R—Refuse the Temptation in Jesus’ Name 

At the first sign of temptation, we must stand ready to refuse it. Say with Polycarp—a disciple of John threatened with a fiery death unless he betrayed Jesus—“86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” [2] 

R—Replace the Temptation with Scripture 

When temptation looms, search the word of God for a verse or passage that will call you away. Sin crouches at the door; drive it out in the earliest moments of temptation by actively engaging in the fight according to God’s word. Like Jesus did in the wilderness, replace temptation with Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11)! 

P—Pray the Other Way

Pray toward the window of God’s rescue. When tempted to overwork, pray toward trustful rest. When tempted to walk the easy path, pray toward courageous dependence and self-discipline. When tempted to fear the responses of others, pray toward greater interest in the opinion of God. When tempted to care little for the thoughts of the flock, pray toward a humble, listening ear. When tempted to rigid rule, pray toward a ministry marked by mercy. When tempted to neglect your soul, pray toward the refreshing stream of grace to revive you again. English Puritan Thomas Manton wrote, “One good way to get comfort is to plead the promise to God in prayer … show him his handwriting.” [3] Pray the other way!

P—Praise God for His Victory 

As we’ve seen above, our responsibility to recognise and respond to temptation is enormous. But God’s role is far greater. He supplies us with the weapons of our war and the strength to fight the good fight. When we find new or continual freedom from temptation, the highest praise should magnify his fame. As you experience any measure of success in pushing back against the curse of sin, lift your head to see who has ordained and secured your rescue (Ps. 91)`. Praise God for his victory! [4]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2001), Letter 15.

[2] Kirsopp Lake, trans., The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Putnam, 1917), 2:325.

[3] Thomas Manson, One Hundred and Ninety Sermons on the Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm, 3rd ed. (London, 1845), 1:223.

[4] R.R.P.P. Is adapted from my book Diehard Sins: How to Fight Wisely Against Destructive Daily Habits (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2018), Appendix B.

© 2023 Rush Witt. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

Rush Witt

Rush Witt (DMin) is lead pastor of Paramount Church in Ohio, and author of books including "Diehard Sins," and "I Want to Escape."

Tell your friends