When I was in seminary, my pastor told me, “I feel sorry for people in your generation who become pastors. You’re going to have to face a lot of issues that many of us pastors never had to face.”
After 36 years in church ministry, I’m pretty sure that I’ll never pastor again. Even though I have the requisite training, experience, skills, and knowledge, I don’t know if my emotions could handle the rigors of pastoring anymore.
Why is pastoring so rough?
First, pastors always have to be “on.”
A pastor has to be careful with every email he writes … every phone call he makes … every joke he tells … and every conversation he has. If he lets his guard down for one minute, he may say or do something stupid … and some people will use that against him in the future.
While Christians are fond of saying that we’re “not perfect, just forgiven,” most people expect their pastor to be perfect … and pastors instinctively absorb that expectation.
I recently had a conversation with a pastor who had once been verbally attacked. He shared some of the complaints against him. You would not believe how petty they were. Nobody could stand that kind of scrutiny.
Pastors don’t just have to be “on” when they’re in the pulpit. They have to be “on” when they’re in the men’s room at church … when they’re driving out of the church parking lot … when they’re answering the phone at home on a Saturday night … and when they’re attending a social event anywhere.
In fact, pastors get so used to being “on” that at times, it’s difficult for them to hit the “off” switch and just relax … and without knowing it, they can easily burn out.
I once heard Chuck Swindoll tell a roomful of pastors that churches that require their pastors to be out too many nights eventually lose them. And yet, when I was a pastor, evenings were the only time when I could meet with a small group … meet with the programming/worship team … attend board meetings … attend men’s ministry meetings … and on and on. While I wasn’t driven, I felt like I was shirking my responsibilities if I wasn’t working at least three nights a week.
What’s the solution? Let your pastor be a person before he’s anything else. Realize that he has his limits … that he gets weary and tired and frustrated … and no matter how energetic he seems, he can’t always be “on.”
Of course, neither can you.
Second, pastors have few confidants.
During my first pastorate, I was asked to be a guest speaker several times in other venues, and they all went well. Eventually, I was asked to speak for a district men’s rally … kind of a big deal.
It just so happened that our daughter Sarah decided to enter the world that morning. I remember working on my talk while trying to assist my wife in the hospital.
When I got up to speak to those 80 men … I couldn’t speak. I had a great talk prepared, but I had trouble delivering it. Looking back, it was probably “stage fright.”
I bombed so badly that nobody asked me to do guest speaking for years.
When I went home that evening – my wife was in the hospital – I needed to talk to somebody about what happened to me. I was in bad shape emotionally.
But who could I contact?
*I couldn’t be vulnerable with anyone from church because they wouldn’t have understood.
*I couldn’t speak with my wife because she was dealing with her own pain.
*I couldn’t call a Christian counselor because I didn’t know any.
*I couldn’t call most of my old friends because they wouldn’t have understood, either.
I finally called a friend who was a pastor, and he gave me lots of time … as he always has.
But this is a recurring problem for pastors. When a pastor has a major problem, who can he confide in?
The solution? Most pastors need a pastor … and preferably several pastors … because there are times when a pastor needs someone to listen to him … to accept him … to understand him … and to assure him that no matter how he feels today, he’ll eventually feel better.
And if the pastor makes his wife his only pastor, she may not be able to handle the strain.
Third, pastors are never done working.
There’s always one more person to call … one more parishioner in the hospital to visit … one more letter to write … and one more sermon to review.
And if you’re a perfectionist, things can take twice as long … and you feel guilty about the work you haven’t finished.
The smaller the church, the more access that churchgoers expect to have with their pastor. Some want the pastor to be their personal buddy.
The larger the church, the longer that TO DO list gets. Growth can become a monster.
During my last pastorate, I took Fridays off. But invariably, I didn’t finish my message … or my outline … until almost noon that day, even though I worked on my message at home all day on Thursdays. My wife would say, “Just finish! You need to stop!” But sometimes I needed another story … or to research one last thing … or I felt I could make a point a little better … and I couldn’t stop until I felt good about that message.
Some members do expect their pastor to work superhuman hours. Every time they drive by the church, they expect to see the pastor’s car there … and if they don’t, they assume the pastor is goofing off somewhere.
Some pastors internalize the ridiculous expectations of these critics and tell themselves, “I may not be the best preacher or leader, but maybe I can prove my worth by overworking.”
I once heard Christian author/counselor Norm Wright say that anybody who works more than 60 hours a week is crazy. By that measure, many pastors are certifiably insane.
Solution? The church board needs to tell the pastor, “Here’s what we expect you to do … and not to do. And if we see you exceeding your limits, we’re going to love you enough to call you on it and insist that you take care of yourself.”
Sometimes I was aching for even one board member to tell me that.
Finally, pastors are haunted by their critics.
I’m currently watching a series of DVDs presented by two experienced church consultants.
One of them told his class, “I don’t know that I’d like to pastor a church again.” After pastoring three churches in his younger days, he went on to become a seminary professor.
The second consultant stated, “The meanest people I ever met didn’t hold a candle to people I’ve met in the church.” He said that the attacks of church members against pastors often become personal, nasty, and mean.
It doesn’t take many critics to bother a pastor. It only takes one.
In his biography Moon River and Me, the late singer Andy Williams recounts a conversation he once had with comedian Bill Cosby. Cosby was performing in a venue where everyone seemed to love his act … except one guy in the front row who wouldn’t laugh at anything Cosby said. Williams encouraged Cosby to forget about that individual, but Cosby said that he couldn’t.
I know the feeling all too well.
I’ve been criticized for growing a beard (30 years ago) … for not making my toddler son sit through church services … for wearing a suit … for not wearing a suit … for using the word “guts” in a sermon … for letting drums into the church … for letting women into leadership positions … for not being profound … for being too deep … for not preaching John 3:16 every Sunday (I’m not kidding) … for not giving altar calls (even though they’re never found in Scripture) … for not being Chuck Smith or Chuck Swindoll … for not leading forcefully enough … for leading too strongly … and on and on and on.
Give me five minutes, and I can recall ten more criticisms … because like most pastors, I remember the complaints far more than the compliments.
And although pastors learn to shrug off many criticisms, the cumulative effect begins to wear them down after a while. They start being guarded … isolating themselves … staying away from people … and barking at those who do criticize them … even if they mean well.
Solution? Test the criticisms with a trusted confidant.
Last winter, my wife and I flew back east and visited a church that was considering me as an interim pastor. Much of our time went well, and we met some wonderful people there … but some people did and said things that were insensitive, and on the drive back to the airport, we decided we couldn’t do church ministry anymore.
The latest statistics are that 70% of seminary graduates are quitting ministry before their fifth-year anniversary. It’s rare to hear anymore about a pastor who has completed 30 or 40 years of ministry.
If you’re a church leader or a church goer, pray for your pastor … and let him know that. Encourage your pastor … verbally and in writing. Accept your pastor … for his weaknesses and his strengths.
And remember: public ministry can be so difficult that Jesus only did it for 3 years.