Originallly appeared at Whirled Views, June 2009
In the last week I’ve spent time talking with three pastors who are about ready to throw in the proverbial towel. Each case is different and no two pastors, churches, boards or any other “part” of church leadership is exactly the same, but what is common among them is a sense of deep despair. Sadly, in the last week I’ve also heard of two colleagues in the ministry who ended their ministry with a catastrophic failure—one of them a rising evangelical leader who admitted to an affair. Not in every case, but in some cases, I’ve noticed a correlation to the thought processes between those who burnout in ministry and those who “flame out” due to sin. But whether you burnout, flame out, drop out or rust out—out is still out.
I am now two years beyond my own decision to step away from the senior pastorate, so I hope I can be a bit more objective about a topic like this than I might have been twenty-four short months ago. As for my own situation, I had my own reasons for changing the nature of my ministry and I am not looking back. For the cynical or others, nothing I write in this article should be construed as anything more or less than what it is—an opinion piece from someone who has sat on both sides of the pulpit for the last twenty-five years of ministry and who is still engaged in pastoral ministry—just from a different perspective in recent months.
I don’t pretend to write for every pastor out there, but I spend a lot of time with pastors and former pastors. There are some trends that are impacting pastoral leadership at this time that I think impact churches and their leaders. There are some frailties and vulnerabilities that any man called to be a pastor is naturally going to carry into his responsibilities. Add to that the spiritual warfare that is incumbent upon being a spiritual shepherd (or undershepherd). It is with these realities in mind that I offer some things that I’m guessing your pastor wishes you knew about him.
1. Bible college and seminary weren’t enough.
I don’t care where your pastor went to school, they did not and could not possibly prepare him for all that a pastor faces. Today’s pastor must be an extraordinary communicator, an effective administrator, somewhat astute to legalities and business procedures, a counselor, a therapist and a dozen other roles that today’s high-expectation church members often expect from their pastor.
Though many will say that’s what boards and staff are for, that thinking simply isn’t based in reality. The expectation is that the pastor should be able to protect the church, lead the church, inspire the church and manage the church. Failure to function in those four primary departments may jeopardize the support level he enjoys from the congregation.
Much of the experience and expertise in those areas needs to be learned and earned over time. That fact has led me to a personal conclusion that we should discuss pastoral internships more seriously in seminaries and church leadership circles.
2. Good sermon preparation takes time.
If your pastor is going to accurately and thoroughly present the Word to your congregation, he must have study time. The best pastors and Bible teachers will tell you that for every one hour of teaching or preaching, about eight hours of study is optimum. Your pastor may make it look simple, but it isn’t. Typically, your pastor may need three to four fresh preparations in a week (particularly if he speaks outside the church a lot or if he is a solo pastor.)
It is not realistic to expect your pastor to attend every function, make every hospital visit, lead every meeting, make an appearance at every social, go to every shut-in and still be brilliant in the pulpit two to three times per week. A pastor should be about leading and shepherding and equipping the church for the work of the ministry. Certainly every pastor should attend “some” functions, make hospital visits on occasion, attend important meetings, drop in at socials when possible and take the time to minister to the shut-ins—but to heap all of those responsibilities on him (plus the administration of the church, personal growth exercises and other important tasks) is not just unreasonable, it is inhumane.
If each Bible study teacher, deacon, elder, and staff member took some of these responsibilities, everyone and everything would be covered and all would be blessed as they fulfill their spiritual giftedness in the work of the ministry.
3. His family is important too.
Your pastor needs time with his children and spouse. If his marriage fails, his ministry is likely over. If his kids don’t turn out right, his grief will be deep, his regrets will be suffocating and his reputation will be diminished. You will bless your pastor and your church by freeing him to be with his family.
For years, I’ve often told my pastors to look at their day in three parts—morning, afternoon and evening—each comprised of about four hours. On average, it is reasonable to expect that those in the ministry will work at least fourteen to sixteen “parts” over a week’s time. That way, we should have at least five to seven morning/afternoons/nights available for family time. Remember that a pastor who preaches and teaches the Word is working—it isn’t the same as sitting in the pew. It is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. Most pastors go into “Sunday mode” on Saturday evening and aren’t much of a “family guy” then. If they have a Saturday night service, move that “mode” to Saturday around noon.
According to that formula, your pastor needs one full day off and two-four evenings free. If he can’t get those evenings free, then he should take a morning or an afternoon when he can, to compensate for the lost evenings.
Another blessing you might share with your pastor is to give him a gift card for dinner out on his birthday or at Christmas or if you own a condo at the beach or a vacation home in the mountains, offer to let him take his family there for a few days. These small tokens can be a fresh encouragement when relationships get neglected. Being able to run to a restaurant with your spouse and pay for it with a gift card is a double blessing.
In cases of extreme crisis—a wayward child, substantial marriage difficulty—be willing to send your pastor to professional help, a retreat or some intervention. If you don’t think pastors ever have family problems, then you are naive. This is a great time to practice the Golden Rule and ask yourself what you would appreciate if the roles were reversed. The investment of giving your pastor a week or even a month off to deal with a family crisis is far cheaper than the process of kicking him to the curb and looking for a new pastor—not to mention more biblical.
4. Be kind if you have a criticism.
Your pastor is going to make some mistakes. I certainly made my share of boneheaded decisions over the years. And, if the truth be told, sometimes the pastor won’t see them as quickly as everyone else does. No pastor has a corner on the truth and no pastor is above criticism, correction or simple advice. But when you approach your pastor with something you’re concerned about, address the problem without attacking the person.
Pastoring is interesting in that no decision a pastor ever makes is received positively by everyone. That would also include no sermon, no vision, no counsel, no strategy, no hire, no building campaign and the list goes on and on. So before bringing your offense to the pastor, it would wise to pause and ask yourself, “Is this important enough to complain about or to place on the pastor’s mind?” Some things are—certainly things that deal with theology, ethics, morality and legal matters should be addressed. Some things simply aren’t—personal peeves and preferences, gossip, many traditions and irritations.
Some pastors, when faced with the cacophony of criticisms, suggestions, problems and hissy fits they regularly confront, simply shut down—overwhelmed by the torrent and unable to prioritize, distinguish and discern what is legitimate and what is simply whining. Others will respond defensively at first, but after a while, the Holy Spirit guides them to acknowledgement of the validity of the issue. A stiff-necked and unapproachable pastor will soon lose credibility and will probably require a confrontation initiated by spiritual leadership with the church. But it is wise for all of us to measure our words correctly and to do as the Scripture tells us and “entreat as a brother” as opposed to rebuking an elder with hostility, demands or threats.
5. Give your pastor time to grow.
Sadly, the average term (depending on several factors) of a pastor in America today is somewhere between two and five years. Yet all the research tells us that a pastor’s most effective years take place after the tenth year of ministry at a congregation. It is not until a pastor marries, buries, cries and works with a majority of his congregation that he can really “connect” intimately with them as a family member might. Relationships simply take time—most of us who are married realize that the longer one is married the more we learn about patience, perseverance and unconditional love.
This is particularly true if you have a young pastor. I was twenty-nine when I became a senior pastor. Thankfully, our church was rather small (fewer than 300) at the time. The Lord tremendously blessed and in short order the church doubled in size and then went on to triple. But the growing pains that we went through together were extraordinary. How they put up with me for a decade, I’ll never know. I was so blessed to have some of the most wonderful and godly elders surrounding me that I’ve ever known. They encouraged, counseled, cautioned and sometimes just let me go and in the process—I learned and the Lord blessed. They let me grow up and grow deep and though I was the youngest among them, they respected my position while offering me wise and godly counsel. I love them to this day. I’m grateful for their patience.
Your pastor will make some boneheaded decisions. Sometimes you’ll be frustrated with how he arranges his priorities or handles problems. Sometimes you’ll have to clean up his messes and occasionally, you might have to speak earnestly and honestly with him. But like rearing children, dealing with aging parents, settling in to married life or maintaining a life-long friendship, it takes time and patience and grace.
Dan L. Burrell is a native of Moberly Missouri and has served two churches as Senior Pastor in West Palm Beach, FL and Charlotte, NC. He has long been active in Christian education, holds a doctorate in Educational Administration and served as president of the Florida Assoc. of Christian Schools in addition to serving on the boards and faculties of several Bible colleges.