The Pastor’s Travail

In Galatians 4:19, you can hear Paul’s words of angst about the Galatian church. They had fallen into legalism, which Paul described as being deceived into choosing a state of slavery. In this passage Paul says, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (ESV). This is an excellent picture of the pastoral condition.

While it would be inaccurate to describe Paul as the pastor of the Galatian church, he does have a pastor’s heart for them. Remember that “pastor” comes from the word for shepherd. It is someone who leads people from one place or condition into another, by example and guidance. So, while Paul did not hold an office of “Pastor,”[1] he does express the heart experience of all good pastors.

In Paul’s statement, he speaks of being in the anguish of childbirth. He had addressed them as little children. This idea of anguish involved in childbirth would be very well known to the ancients. It was not uncommon for women to die from the exertion and complications of childbirth. All people understood this. Also, since there was little privacy in ancient homes, and children were born at home, most if not every individual would have heard or seen the travail of a woman in the throes of labor. Paul draws upon this shared experience to illustrate his own personal experience in dealing with their wayward behavior.

Think for a moment of this image which Paul uses. I’m a husband and father. I have watched my wife labor with four children.[2] Now, I know the worst thing a husband can do is imagine he understands what she is going through.[3] But we can see and understand that great pain and suffering is involved. We also understand that there is great promise as well. Push, struggle, strain, suffer and in time a new life is brought forth. This is what Paul is speaking of. This is also the common lot of the pastor of any church.

The pastor sees what God wants his people to be. He has been tasked with bringing forth the fruit of that, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. He sees what should be, while also seeing what is. He knows the great work that is needed and the great travail that will be involved. He struggles and strains to inspire, to teach, to transform. Of course, true transformation comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, but one tool used by the Spirit is the pastor. As just as the wrench in my hand must be tempered to take the strain of a stuck bolt, the pastor must be tempered to take the strain involved in transforming fellow sinners into saints.

The life of a pastor is often marked with depression. He is taught to keep his eyes on what should be. He is taught to expect the miraculous. But he also experiences the failures. He is with people when they confess their failures. He is there when his people reap the whirlwind because of their sin. He is there when people question his teaching. He is there when people demand he stop calling them to holiness and only speak to them of nice things. He sees them kicking against the goads, and knows (from his own experiences and studies) that discipline will be brought to bear upon God’s wayward sheep.[4] He also knows, as under-shepherd, the Chief Shepherd may task him and the other elders with enacting and enforcing the discipline. The pastor’s heart breaks. He struggles and strains expecting final fruitful delivery often to only find himself anticipating the next spiritual contraction.

This struggle is the spiritual basis for the authority which a pastor (elder) wields. The author of Hebrews tells the church to submit to the elders because the elders are working so hard for the people’s own good. They should not make it harder on them, because that would be self-destructive (Heb 13:17).

Paul gives vent to the struggle of every pastor. It is a life of travail to bring forth fruit in the lives of their people. It has its own benefits, of course. But it also has unique problems. How many times have you lost sleep over the spiritual condition of someone who was not even your own kin? I can assure you ever good pastor in this country does this regularly. He prays for you. He seeks to model the Christ-life at all times—failing miserably as often as you. But when he fails he worries about the effect on you. He sees where you are and where Christ wants you to be. He bears very heavily the weight of duty to do his best to get you from here to there. His life is defined by a powerful contradiction. When you are transformed and become more like Christ, the pastor declares it was only by the work of the Holy Spirit. But when he sees you untransformed he doesn’t place blame upon the Holy Spirit and only places part of the blame upon you. The lion’s share of the blame for your failings, the pastor takes upon himself.


[1] In the first century, there was no office of Pastor. The two offices in the local church were elder and deacon. Pastor/shepherd was a gift given for the transformation of God’s people into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

[2] I saw three born, because one was delivered by C-Section because of being breech.

[3] The only thing worse thing he can do is say that he understands what she is going through while she is in a full-on contraction. Take my advice—just don’t go there! I promise you I’ll never do that again.

[4] Scripture uses the image of sheep for the people of God for good reason. Sheep can be very docile and obediently follow a shepherd from location to location. But the same creature can also put itself into the stupidest, dangerous situations then bawl for help. Sheep kick, butt with their heads, bite and stink. There is no better metaphor for the Church and the people who populate her.

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Ken Cluck
Senior Pastor at Resurgent
Ken has served in various cultures and settings, including two Native American reservations, rural communities, Korean churches, and has worked with Asian refugees living in the US.

Ken's passions are Theology, Philosophy (especially Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Logic), History and Politics.

Ken has been married to his wife, Yong, since 1987. She is the center of his world and the greatest joy of his life.