7 Things Your Pastor Wants You to Know (But Probably Can't Tell You)

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I’ve had more than a few “interesting” experiences in my time as a preacher and pastor over the last decade. Many of those experiences have been met with more than one “Amen!” from friends and colleagues in ministry who have experienced them as well. When we share about these experiences, eventually someone will say something like, “I just wish someone would tell church folks this, because  I know I can’t without risking my job.” Often church members only think about their pastor in “pieces,” that is to say they only see part of what their pastor does, and too often they judge their pastor’s ministry based on those isolated pieces. This creates expectations which are seldom (if ever) communicated and can often lead to conflict.

So, I decided I’d list a few of those things your pastor wishes you knew but feels like he or she can’t tell you without risking termination or the loss of a church member (here’s hoping I don’t experience either of those things myself!).

 Your pastor[1] actually needs time to prepare his/her sermon every week.

 I’ll never forget sitting in a search committee meeting when, after discussing what my typical schedule every week might look like, one of the committee members looked at me and asked, “Why do you need time to prepare your sermon? Our last pastor was from the ‘old school’ and got his sermon ready the night before, and he did just fine.” The previous pastor was bi-vocational, and from what I recall most of the people thought his meandering, long-winded, sermons were anything but fine.

Your pastor needs time to study, pray, write, and reflect for each sermon, Bible study, and devotion he/she has to give in any given week. A good rule of thumb for the time it takes to prepare a good, well-researched, well-delivered sermon is 10-20 hours. However, most weeks your pastor likely spends quality study hours on the phone with a parishioner who just “wants to check in,” or visiting that member who complained to her Sunday school class last Sunday that the pastor hadn’t been by since last month, or any number of tasks that aren’t necessarily in his/her job description (e.g. plunging a clogged toilet, taking the garbage out in the kitchen, etc.). Far too often, sermon writing—because it is not able to be completed during the time set aside as “office hours” during the week—winds up taking place at home, robbing your pastor of time needed for rest and family.

Recognize that your pastor needs time to study, pray, and reflect, and be respectful of his/her time. Your pastor may be on-call 24/7 but that doesn’t mean your pastor can work 24/7.

 Your pastor ministers to more people than just you and your family.

 One of the increasingly frustrating things about being a pastor is the constant criticism and discouragement that can come from one individual, one family, or a small group of people, especially when that criticism is always presented with “I” as the subject: “I don’t think you’re visiting me and my family enough…I don’t like the way you preach…I think we need to do things differently from the way you’re leading us.”

This kind of language usually comes from so-called “powerbrokers” in your church, and it is a very self-centered way of thinking about the ministry of your pastor. This kind of language never takes into account the other members of your church and the broader ministry in which your pastor is leading.

Be mindful of the fact that you are not the only one to whom your pastor ministers.

 Your pastor can’t do EVERYTHING (especially to the level you want everything done).

It seems the smaller the church/staff, the more things the pastor has to do (e.g. clean the church, teach Sunday school, occasionally lead the music, set up tables and chairs). However, the bigger the church/staff, the more the pastor has to do certain things (e.g. more time in meetings, more time administrating the “business” side of the church). It doesn’t help your pastor when, on top of the other things your pastor may be doing at the moment, you complain about the temperature in your Sunday school room. Furthermore, there’s probably someone in your church whose job it is to do exactly what you need, so take a little time, search the church directory, website, or by-laws/policy manual in order to figure out who the proper person is. So much of your pastor’s time is wasted being a “middle-man” between you and that person(s).

Be mindful that there are others on the church staff or in volunteer roles who may actually be more directly suited for some of your concerns (you may even be one of those people to others), and take your concerns to them. Also, keep in mind that if your pastor “hands your issue off” to someone else, it is not because it is not important: it is likely because your pastor has other obligations and that person is able to assist you just as well if not better.

Your pastor has responsibilities that do not directly involve your congregation.

One of the things your pastor does is represent you, your congregation, your denomination/tradition, etc. to the broader community. This may mean your pastor serves on local boards of directors, is a part of a local ecumenical/interfaith ministry group, or your pastor may serve on councils/committees within the broader organizations of your denomination (e.g. your congregation’s district/association/diocese, state organizations, or even national organizations). These are all responsibilities that require portions of your pastor’s time and energy. Furthermore, these are all responsibilities that constitute part of your pastor’s ministry. While these sorts of things shouldn’t consume the majority of your pastor’s time and energy, understand that these things are not only an extension of his/her ministry, but also an extension of the ministry of your congregation. Also understand that there will be seasons when these sorts of responsibilities will consume more of your pastor’s time than normal (e.g. annual conventions, business sessions, etc.).

Do not be too quick to label your pastor as “absent” and “not doing their job” if he/she is participating in these sorts of ministry. The truth is your pastor is doing his/her job as a leader in your community, denomination, etc.

 Your pastor does NOT want to see your surgical wounds.

This one is a bit specific, but I know it is one that is likely on your pastor’s mind. When I became a pastor, something happened that signaled to people I went to visit in hospitals that I surely wanted to see where the doctor cut them—and it did not matter where they cut them! I understand that part of this phenomenon has to do with the level of trust parishioners place in their ministers, but honestly, most (if not all) of us want to see that sort of thing when we come to visit you after surgery. It is beyond awkward: you have to painfully shift in a hospital bed, while your spouse, child, whoever pulls back the covers to (enthusiastically sometimes) show us just how big or small the incision the surgeon made is. Perhaps it’s just me, but I really don’t need you to show me those stitches, especially if they were stitched “where the sun don’t shine”! That can really make for an awkward conversation.

So remember, your pastor doesn’t need to see where you had surgery to believe you had surgery, nor does your pastor need to see where you were cut and stitched in order to pray for you.

 Some of the things you don’t like about church, your pastor doesn’t like either.

So you really don’t like the hymnals your congregation uses on Sunday morning; the music is outdated, the hymns lack theological depth, and practically speaking, their green covers clash with the upholstery on the pews. This is obviously your pastor’s fault because he/she is the pastor and if he/she didn’t like the hymnals they’d be replaced by now. If only congregational ministry was so easy! Your pastor can’t stand the hymnals either, but the first time he/she mentioned the possibility of replacing them he/she was threatened with termination and excommunication! So your pastor picks his/her battles when it comes to some of the things that need to change in your church.

Find helpful, productive ways to voice your opinions about things that you think should be changed in your congregation. Who knows? Your pastor may actually be waiting for someone from the congregation to speak up before he/she voices an opinion about the matter.

 Your pastor thinks about quitting…more than you know.

Pastors become pastors because they feel called by God to do so. Few (if any) good pastors enter the ministry because of money, a desire for recognition, or a lack of other career paths. In many ways a lot of pastors sacrifice a great deal to answer the calling: they may be extremely gifted, bright, and capable of doing any number of things that could lead to a more comfortable, stable life, but they chose to answer God’s call. And with the salaries of ministers stagnating or falling, and the cost of seminary education rising (to say nothing of the cost of the prerequisite undergraduate degree), the financial sacrifice of ministry (especially when held up to careers of comparable education levels and duties) is a growing and persuasive reality. That reality is causing more and more potential pastors to put aside the calling of pastoral ministry in order to embrace a vocation that will allow them to raise a family in comfort and contribute to the global ministries of others.

So please understand that your pastor knows this reality; he/she lives in it every day. And on top of that, your pastor deals with an endless line of criticism, unexpressed expectations, and what can only be described as downright meanness from those who are supposed to be imitators of Christ. Is it any wonder then that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry permanently every month? Is it any wonder that 80% of pastors are discouraged by what they deal with in the ministry? Did you know that 40% of pastors seriously considered leaving ministry…in the past three months!? What’s more, 80% of pastors believe that the ministry has had a negative effect on their families, and 70% of pastors say they don’t have anyone they would consider a close friend and that they have a lower self-esteem than when they entered ministry.[2]

Your pastor goes through an awful lot and carries an awful burden. Even if you may think your pastor has an easy job, in reality, your pastor has one of the most stressful, emotionally taxing jobs in the world, and he/she thinks about quitting…a lot!

 I hope you’ll keep some of these things in mind as you experience life and ministry with your pastor. Above all else, remember that your pastor has more going on than you can ever really know, so pray for your pastor and seek to be an encourager and coworker, not just another critic.

[1] Of course, in your tradition you may call this person a priest, elder, minister, etc.

[2] See J.R. Briggs, Fail:Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. IVP Books: Downers Grove, IL (2014). pp.46-47 for a complete list of statistics and their original sources.