As a young boy I read a book about the race horse “Man of War.” As a small child growing up in the big city, I didn’t know anything about horses, and as a baptist I especially didn’t know about horse racing. But the book told me all I needed to know about the infamous horse. He was incredibly tall at over 16 hands, weighed over 1100 pounds, and ate over 12 quarts of oats everyday. He was more than just his looks though, as he dominated almost every race he was in. He won 20 out of 21 races and was named “Athlete of the Year” in 1920, sharing the honor with Babe Ruth. When he retired to stud his lineage produced such notable horses like Triple Crown Winner War Admiral and Seabiscuit.
I was fascinated by the book and story, and imagined what it would be like to be bigger, stronger, and faster than everyone. I soon found out my athletic career was not to be, but I found my calling to ministry as a teenager. Somewhere in the back of my mind I figured that I would be the “Man of War” of pastors, wowing everyone with my oratorical prowess and leading churches by sheer force of charisma. The adoring public would line up to see me, and I would go down in history as one of the greatest. My dreams of ministry were quickly shattered of course. I struggled to come to grips with the difference in how I thought ministry would be and how it was in reality. But a few years ago an older pastor told me something an older pastor had told him (the best kind of advice) that helped him understand his place in ministry. “There are two types of pastors, plow horses and race horses. And the sooner you figure out which one you are the better off you will be.”
I thought I was a race horse of course, but it turned out I was more suited to be a plow horse. Race horses run fast, dazzle audiences, win awards, and then retire to stud. A plow horse lives in a barn if he’s lucky and walks the same furrows every day. At the end of his life he might become glue, if I understand things correctly. Both of them are horses, but they could not be more different in their daily lives. To turn the analogy to pastors, some pastor serve in front of large crowds and win awards, and other pastors get up every day to walk the same old pastures. They are both pastors for sure, but their lives could not be more different.
The vast majority of those serving in pastoral ministry across the SBC and even the church at large are plow horses not race horses. Over history it’s often the “race horse” pastors who are remembered for their skill, sermons, and service. Often it’s the race horses who get better jobs, higher pay, and are able to serve in fast growing areas. In contrast the plow horse pastors might serve in smaller churches, dying towns, and work multiple jobs to do so. Plow horse pastors also serve in the shadow of a mega church in the big city. But over the history of Christianity these faithful plow horses have made up the majority of the pastorate.
I want to be clear. There’s nothing wrong with being a racehorse if that’s what God has made you to be. This is not a bash against racehorses. I thank God for many of the men who serve in large churches, with large platforms, all for the glory of God. We should be grateful for anyone who preaches the gospel, no matter how big or small their ministry.
Plow horse pastor, be encouraged. As you walk the same pastures, always looking over the fence to see what is beyond, don’t disdain what God has given you. Sometimes a plow hose will get in a nice field with good soil, great demographics, and a church that wants to serve. Make the most of every pasture you find yourself in. Every pastor should make the most of what they have, but don’t spend your life wishing God to turn you into something you are not. By God’s grace we can find joy in doing exactly what we have been created to do.
Being a plow horse is not glamorous by any means. People never speak of an old plow horse with awe in their voice they way did a great race horse like Man of War. Crowds never come to watch a plow horse do his work. The plow horse normally stays in his pasture, and never gets invited to tell others how he does at work at the the big conference about how to plow better. It is tough, backbreaking work, and the reward is seldom the wreath of roses like the racehorses get. But it is honest work that glorified God at the end of the day. It’s certainly not easy work. Sometimes you have to stop the plow every few feet to pull out a rock that’s preventing new growth. Sometimes how hard you work the plow, the ground just isn’t very fertile. And every plow horse pastor I know doesn’t just work the field, but they feed the chickens, fix the fence, shuck the corn, and do anything else that needs done.
And every pastor knows what it’s like to plow around a stump that cannot be moved. But by God’s grace and mercy we can make a difference. You might not win a race as a plow horse, but at the end of the day you can look back and see what God has done through your faithful and consistent work.
I thank God for the plow horse pastors. If you know one, and I’m sure you do, give them a little encouragement today. Maybe throw them an extra bag of oats too. They deserve it.