What Pastors Wish Church Members Knew

October is Pastor Appreciation Month. Forgive the oddity or self-serving nature of a pastor writing a Pastor Appreciation Month article. But the truth is, I don’t think I would have been able to write this before becoming a pastor. My experience has made me sensitive to things that I wish I had known as a church member sitting under my previous pastors. And I hope current church members reading this will find some value in what I have to share.

I would also like to ask the indulgence of my blog readers who may not share my Christian faith. As my regular readers are aware, this blog is not a church or ministry blog. It is instead geared more toward my activities as a Christian writer, book reviewer, and (hopefully) soon-to-be novelist. Nevertheless, I periodically feel pulled to address matters of Christian beliefs and practice, including church life. This is one of those times.

In April 2010, The New York Times ran an article on pastor burnout. In the article, The Times noted: “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”

The New York Times article is not an anomaly. Search the web and you’ll find numerous, and often heartbreaking, stories of pastors whose families fell apart or who suffered nervous breakdowns, lost their jobs, attempted suicide, or burned out in any number of other ways due to the excessive demands placed upon them.

We’re living in the midst of what I believe is a spiritual and ecclesiastical epidemic — at least insofar as churches of a particular stripe are concerned. And what stripe is that? I refer to mainly Protestant and/or evangelical churches that range from 75 to 200 members and which follow the single-elder congregational governance model. Maybe they have a worship pastor and/or a youth pastor as well, but generally speaking, the lion’s share of the leadership, pastoral care, and teaching responsibilities fall on one pastor.

Depending on the needs and the respective situations of the congregational members, a single-elder, congregational governance model can work well for churches of fewer than 50-75 members. (Note that I use the terms “elder” and “pastor” more or less interchangeably).  If you have a high-energy “superman” type pastor, a single-elder or single-pastor system can work well for churches numbering around 100 members. But once you start crossing the 100 threshold, some unhealthy and stressful dynamics take hold. By the time the church crosses the 200 threshold (if it survives that long or grows to that size), the problems sometimes ease because more pastors are generally brought on board to help share the load. But with congregationally-governed churches ranging from 50 to 200 members, the burdens that can fall on a single elder (even if he is supported by a youth or worship pastor and/or deacons) can be, at times, overwhelming. And it creates an unhealthy environment for the pastor, his family, and for the congregation.

This isn’t to say that churches with different numbers don’t have problems. Many of the issues I will address apply to churches outside the scope I’ve described. If enough individual church members demand an unreasonable degree of attention, service, or “people-pleasing” from their pastors, then even a church with multiple elders will have a tough time. But most churches in America number fewer than 90 members and fall into the scope of what we’re dealing with, so it’s those single-pastor / single-elder churches that will be my primary focus here.

This article can’t presume to fully rectify the challenges with such a church (although church growth consultants are virtually unanimous that a church can’t grow beyond 150 or 200 members without a plurality of elders). But I do believe the situation can be helped and pastors can be spared a considerable amount of pain if congregants in these types of churches knew, understood, and remembered some very basic truths. This article is my humble attempt to put those truths on the table – truths I believe pastors wish church members knew:

Truth #1: Pastors are Human

Human beings are made in the image of God, but they are not God. Human beings have limitations, flaws, and needs. They must balance multiple demands on their time, grow, learn, manage their emotions, make choices, and navigate through difficulties and challenges in their lives. They are limited in what they can do, how well they can do the things they do, and will often fall short of their own standards – let alone the standards and expectations of others. They make mistakes, commit blunders, and hurt others (and themselves). When a church calls a pastor, a church is calling a human being. And no human being can do everything that each and every member of that church expects him to do and certainly not at the level that will meet every member’s need or satisfaction.

In single-elder churches, pastors are expected not only to prepare and deliver quality sermons and lessons (sometimes 2-3 each week), but also to lead/facilitate the various church ministries and activities, evangelize in the community, visit the sick and the shut-ins, sometimes visit all the member families, counsel those in need or crisis, mediate conflicts, officiate all (or at least most) funerals and weddings, be available when people (especially those who consider the pastor their friend) want to just talk or “catch up,” prepare for and preside over church business meetings (and many committee meetings), keep up with miscellaneous office or admin work, supervise the staff (if any), and more. In many cases, pastors are expected to be available on demand (at virtually any time, day or night) to any member who feels the need to talk to his or her pastor. (Cell phones have become more a curse than a blessing for many of the pastors I know). In some cases (thankfully not with either of the churches I’ve served), pastors are also expected to mow the lawn, do building maintenance, and various other things that have nothing to do with the pastoral call. In his excellent book The Disciple-Making Church, Bill Hull writes: “Many hurting, broken pastors have been driven out of the ministry by such unreasonable congregational demands.”

Not only are pastors expected to have consistently superhuman levels of energy and wisdom to fulfill all the preceding demands, they often must do so without making any mistakes. Many church members look upon pastoral mistakes and shortcomings in the same unforgiving manner that patients look at doctor-oriented mistakes or failures. With a hospital, a person’s health is on the line. With church, people have their spiritual health and their emotions on the line. It makes for a high-stress and often unforgiving environment for pastors.

Church members need to know that pastors are, like them, human. Like anyone else, we fall short of God’s glory. We deal with temptations and sometimes don’t resist that temptation like we should. We deal with worry, stress, and uncertainty. We have our own obligations and responsibilities. And we must learn and grow like anyone else. We are human. We need church members to remember that and frankly extend to us the grace and patience they would want extended to themselves.

Truth #2: Pastors Don’t Have All The Spiritual Gifts

In The Disciple-Making Church, Bill Hull sums up the collective complaint many churchgoers have of their pastor: “He doesn’t preach as well as Chuck Swindoll, counsel like James Dobson, care for others the way Mother Teresa does, manage like Peter Drucker, and motivate like Ronald Reagan.” In short, pastors are supposed to love well, pray well, preach well, teach well, lead well, counsel well, manage well, organize well, fellowship well, and live well.

Here’s a dose of reality: No pastor has all the gifts of the Spirit.

Here’s another: No pastor is talented in every area that the members of the church may want (or even need).

And here’s another: No pastor can perfectly connect with all the personality types as well as with people of every age group, socio-economic status, and background.

If you’re expecting the pastor to be able to teach, preach, counsel, lead, manage, supervise, mediate, evangelize, visit, smile, juggle, sing, dance, and Lord knows what else (and all at a high level) and to also click with every single church member to every member’s emotional satisfaction … you are setting your pastor up for nothing but anxiety, fear, frustration, and disaster.

You will never have a perfect pastor. At least not in this life. Only the CHIEF Shepherd is perfect. Until He returns, we must make do with flawed under shepherds. And guess what?

That’s okay, because ecclesiastical focus shouldn’t be on the pastors but on the churches themselves.

No human being has all the spiritual gifts. And that’s why ministry (including ecclesiastical ministry – that is, ministry within the church) was NEVER – repeat NEVER! – intended to rest on the shoulders of one person. This is why Paul talks so much about the parts of the body in his letter to the church in Corinth and why he says, in Ephesians, the pastor’s role is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” It’s also incidentally why he talked about multiple elders (plural) being appointed in each church. The hope is that all the relevant and needed spiritual gifts (as well as God-given talents) will be evidenced WITHIN the congregation. Ministry is to be carried out by all the members of the church – by all the parts of the body. And leadership is to be entrusted to multiple elders, supported by multiple deacons. The biblical model is never dependence on one man.

Sadly, many churches don’t get this fundamental, Bible-based principle. They expect to outsource most (if not all) ministry to pastors and other paid staff. And many churches are resistant to when the pastor will try to expand the scope and reach of the local church by equipping others for ministry. “As the pastor struggles to give ministry away,” writes Hull, “a poorly trained congregation fallaciously sees his giving away important work as sheer pastoral laziness or complains that he gives away the ‘dirty work.'”

It all makes for a sad and bleak situation.

Truth #3: Pastors Have Limited Time and Energy

Giving voice to the cries he’s heard from many pastors, LifeWay CEO Thom Rainer writes: “Many people in our church have a priority about where I should be: meetings, dinners, church events, hospital visits, home visits, and many more. The problem is that everyone has a different priority. And sometimes church members forget that I have my own family. Please understand my limitations on being in so many places.”

There have been many days where I’ve sat back, considered all the requests, needs, and (sometimes) demands that I get from church members (and leaders) via calls, emails, texts, etc. And I go numb. There’s no conceivable way I can meet all those needs and requests — and still have time to attend to my other responsibilities as a pastor, let alone my responsibilities as a husband and father.

Hull concedes that “most congregations would deny they expect such performance.” That’s true, but as Hull notes, “If you tabulate corporate expectations, they spell impossible.” You may have reasonable expectations of your pastor, but what about the other members of the church? And even if all the members have reasonable expectations, do all those expectations, when added together, represent a reasonable sum? You may consider it highly reasonable, for example, that the pastor visit you while you’re in the hospital. But what if five other church members are in the hospital the same week? And what if, at the same time, a marriage in the church is breaking up? And a conflict has erupted between two church families? And what if all that is happening while the pastor is getting little sleep and is fighting a cold? And let’s not even talk about what might be happening in the pastor’s own family.

Why is it we assume or expect the pastor should visit everyone who has a need whenever they have one? According to the Bible, the congregation (not the pastor) is to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6). No apostle taught that pastors are to carry and try to meet the burdens of the entire flock. And yet churches across America expect this. And both they and their pastors are paying the price via burnout, frustration, acrimony, and (in the end) unmet needs.

In my own case, I’ve neglected family, friends, and neighbors. I hardly know most of my neighbors and those I do know sometimes only get a brief hello or greeting. I’ve lost complete touch with some family and friends. Why? Because the church I serve takes most of my time and (most weeks) drains virtually all of my energy. And it’s not just me. I know of many pastors who face the same reality week after week. And they and their families – and their friends – suffer for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I serve an amazing congregation full of wonderful people. And the church I served previously was likewise a wonderful congregation. I love the people God has privileged me to serve. I understand that people come to church with needs and often with brokenness. And I count myself honored to be a part of their lives. My appeal isn’t to push people away from me (or from any pastor), but that they simply understand the limitations of myself as well as my colleagues in ministry. And that they reevaluate, in prayer and according to the Scriptures, what it is they should expect from the local church and from the local pastor.

Truth #4: Pastors Have Needs

Since pastors are human beings, they have the same needs as other human beings: water, food, shelter, love, relationships, encouragement, and so forth. In the case of pastors, however, they often find themselves in giving mode so much that they rarely have a chance or opportunity to receive. Pastors often feel guilty, in fact, when they take time to rest, enjoy their families, indulge in a hobby, travel, or do something fun.

Recently, a church member who felt neglected complained that I was too much on social media. In his mind, I should use that social media time to attend to his needs and other needs in the church. When I encountered this complaint, I asked (in my mind): “How much of my time each week is the church entitled to?” That may seem selfish, and perhaps it is. But, in a “normal” job, an employee is expected to give 40 hours a week to the employer. In high-demand jobs, sometimes more. But, even then, as a general rule, it’s understood that employees need some down time, some time to themselves. Taking a couple hours each week on social media (often while I’m sitting next to my wife at home) is part of that down time. And yet, from this member’s perspective, I shouldn’t have such down time – not while his perceived needs are unmet.

The reality is that pastors need time to relax. They need time for hobbies. For many pastors, it’s golf, tennis, or hiking. For others (like me), it’s reading or writing fiction. For others, it’s playing games or painting or watching movies or going to ball games, etc. For some, it’s all of the above. Guess what? When done in moderation, these hobbies are healthy. Don’t begrudge your pastor that time.

Pastors also need time for exercise. For walks. Numerous pastors have health and weight issues. Why? Because they have to eat on the run and rarely have time to work out.

Pastors also need time for friends. Numerous surveys attest to the fact that pastors feel incredibly lonely. They spend most of their time serving the members of their congregation, and have very little time for friendships outside the church. And yet (for obvious reasons) they can’t fully confide in or let their guard down completely with anyone in the church they serve. And they have to guard against showing favoritism. Pastoring can be lonely.

Bottom line….pastors need down time. Time for themselves. Time to refresh. Time for friends (outside the church). And churches need to give them that time.

Pastors also need money. It’s not “greed” for this to be said. It’s factual. And it’s scriptural. Financially supporting your pastor is a responsibility that you, as a Christian, should embrace, especially if your pastor is doing a good job. Paul wrote Timothy that the elders (or pastors) “who rule well [should] be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.'” (I Timothy 5:17-18, NKJV)

In some cases (dare I say in most cases), the financial needs of a pastor’s family often exceed what a church is able or willing to give. In most cases, this isn’t due to a pastor’s wasteful living or any kind of greedy spirit, but rather to legitimate family needs (health care, retirement, college tuition for kids, paying down debt, car repairs, etc.) often in high cost-of-living areas. If the church is unable to meet these needs, that church should pray for God to bless them with the capacity to do so, while giving the pastor permission to make extra money on the side through a home-based business, a part-time job, writing, or some other means. The Apostle Paul, as you recall, helped support himself in such cases by making tents. If the church is able to meet the pastor’s needs and compensate him at a level commensurate with his education, skill, and the area’s cost-of-living, but is simply unwilling to do so, then such a church needs to repent of its sin.

Finally, pastors need time with their families. Do you wonder why “pastor kids” (PKs) have such a bad reputation? It’s because churches often don’t give their pastors sufficient time to raise their own children. Wonder why clergy have such a high divorce rate? It’s because congregations take time and energy from pastors that they (the pastors) could otherwise give their marriages. You can’t expect your pastors to have model families if you don’t let them have time with their families.

Truth #5: Pastors Are a Poor Substitute For The Holy Spirit

Recently, I read the social media post of a woman who angrily pulled her pastor into his office and berated him for not paying her more attention after the death of her father. Still seething with anger, she excoriated her pastor saying that “he should’ve known the pain I was dealing with.” She didn’t provide enough details of the situation for me to know to what degree the pastor was at fault. Perhaps he did completely neglect her. Or perhaps he got swept up in other matters. Or perhaps he did try to help her, but the pain she was dealing with exceeded the help he was able to give. Whatever the details, one thing stood out: To paraphrase an old country song, she was looking for comfort in all the wrong places.

Even taking this at a human level, very few pastors are trained psychologists or therapists. Most pastors are neither trained, nor wired, to give the kind of emotional, therapeutic support that many people need today, especially given the multiple kinds of situations that people face today. Society overall is broken. The family is in disarray. People are suffering from emotional and mental health crises like never before. The needs confronting pastors now are far greater than what pastors faced 50 years ago. Most pastors are simply not able to keep up. And, while some churches are fortunate to supplement their ministries with lay counselors or even trained professionals to help. Still, the emotional and spiritual needs of the people in any church often exceed the ability of the church (and its pastor or pastors) to meet such needs.

And guess what?

It’s always been that way. It’s certainly become worse and more noticeable in recent years. At least in America. But it’s always been that way. Why? Because the church isn’t intended to meet your needs. Neither is the pastor.

No one in the church, including the pastor, can be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for any member who has an emotional crisis or heavy spiritual need. No one can mend every broken heart, comfort everyone dealing with grief, address every mental health challenge, or help steer every family or individual through whatever trouble they are in. No one. Not the pastor. Not the deacons. Not your Bible study leader or Sunday school teacher. No one. And yet…

The needs are there.

We need spiritual comfort. And some need that comfort desperately.

And to meet those needs, Jesus didn’t leave pastors. (He left them for a different purpose). Instead, Jesus left us the Comforter. He left us a Comforter who is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Everywhere Present. He left us a Comforter who has Limitless Energy and is Always Available. That Comforter is the Holy Spirit. We get into trouble when we look to people (pastors, deacons, anyone) for the kind of comfort that only the Holy Spirit is intended and able to provide.

In saying all this…I’m fully aware that there are some bad pastors out there. Some are corrupt. Some are lazy. Some are abusive. Many pastors have hurt a lot of people. But while all pastors are sinners (and some are notoriously so), most pastors try to do the best they can with the calling God has placed on them. So long as they are being held appropriately accountable to the biblical standards of an elder, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. And they deserve you giving them all the support and help you can so they can give you their very best.

Let me also say once again that I love the people of the church I currently serve, as well as the church I previously served. I don’t want anyone to perceive this post as “sour grapes” or an expression of anger. If this comes off as simply complaining or as fault-finding, please forgive me. Know that I love being a pastor and, like I said, I love the people I’ve tried to serve, and am currently striving to serve. Don’t interpret this post as any kind of attack. It’s simply me sharing from my heart what I hope church members will realize and understand about their pastors.

Let me also say to all the lead pastors and associate pastors who have served the churches I’ve attended over the years and who often poured into my life and that of my family: Thank you. I appreciate you very much. I love you and am forever grateful. I’m sorry I took you for granted. I don’t now. I appreciate you all and thank you with all my heart.

This Pastor Appreciation Month, let’s all see our pastors the way God wants us to see our pastors. Let’s treat our pastors as Paul encourages in his letter to the church in Thessalonica when he writes: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13).

May that be the commitment of all church members everywhere toward their pastors.