Thom Rainer’s weekly leadership podcasts and his frequent blog posts are almost always helpful and informative to me as I seek to grow as a pastor and a leader. While I don’t always agree with everything he says, I like his perspective and the clarity with which he shares information and his personal opinions. When it comes to trends in the church, I have found that he is normally spot-on. When he writes about some of the issues pastors face, he does so from years of experience and extensive research.
The blog posted below was written by Dr. Rainer and released last week. I could not agree more with this list. Moving from an associate pastor position to a lead pastor is, to say the least, challenging. The responsibilities of the office are demanding. It is good that young men who aspire to to the office of overseer (1 Timothy 3:1) understand some of the things they will face.
I hope you will enjoy Dr. Rainer’s blog as much as I did. The original post can be found here, my comments are below in blue.
I love pastors. I love their hearts. I love their commitment to God and to the churches they serve.
I also love new pastors. It is fascinating to hear their thoughts after they have served as a pastor for a year or two. I have assembled some of those thoughts in the form of direct quotes from new pastors via social media, my blog, my podcast, and Church Answers.
Here, then, are the top ten surprises new pastors have. I offer them as direct quotes with brief comments.
1. “It is amazing and challenging to see how quickly my calendar filled up.” A number of pastors lamented how little time they give to evangelism and connecting with people in the community. Church members have many needs, as a result, there are many demands placed on every pastor’s time. One of the best things I have done is turn my calendar over to my executive assistant. I prepare a master schedule that blocks out time for study, sermon preparation, staff meetings, church administration, counseling/appointments with church members, family time, etc. My assistant’s responsibility is to manage the calendar. So, when a church member asks for a meeting, or when other needs arise, she plugs the appointments into the appropriate blocks in my schedule. This process helps keep me on track and prevents me from becoming a slave to the calendar.
2. “I really get some weird requests.” I covered this issue in an earlier post. One of my favorites came from the pastor who was asked to euthanize an injured rabbit. But perhaps the request by a church member to euthanize his healthy mother-in-law was even weirder. You will get some strange requests. Not long after arriving at Calvary I was asked if the church would become the legal guardians of a few very unhealthy dogs that had been rescued by church members. Yes, they actually wanted to will the dogs and the money required to care for the animals to the church with the stipulation that the dogs would never be euthanized. What do you do with that?
3. “It’s a lot of work to do new sermons every week.” Yes it is. The primary responsibility of any pastor is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12) and the primary method of equipping is through the preaching and teaching of the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-5). Pastors have different personalities. Some enjoy spending hours in the office studying or accomplishing administrative tasks. Others love to be around people and spend the majority of their time visiting the sick, chasing down unfaithful church members, or being part of the community. But every pastor shares a common responsibility–to provide spiritual nourishment to the people entrusted to our care. For this reason, sermon preparation should be given the highest priority throughout the week. Preparing messages is work–hard work–but it is also worthy work.
4. “Funerals are pretty easy. Weddings are a pain.” Most new pastors were not prepared for the opinions and emotions of weddings. Some commented how the rehearsal and wedding consumed an entire weekend. I wouldn’t say weddings are a pain, but they are time consuming, especially if the couple does not have a wedding planner. In nearly every rehearsal I’ve been part of, everyone in the bridal party and every family member in attendance has an opinion about how the bridesmaids should enter, where everyone should stand, etc. Because there is not one voice making decisions, often the pastor officiating the wedding is called upon to offer guidance (many times the pastor has far more wedding experience than anyone else). In this situation the pastor becomes the de facto wedding planner, offering the leadership necessary to get through the rehearsal. A funeral might require a few hours of your time–but the typical wedding will consume a day and a half of your weekend. However, officiating weddings is one of my favorite responsibilities. There is nothing like bringing a couple together before God in marriage.
5. “I have been surprised at the incredibly loyal support I receive from some church members.” They were not the members the pastor expected to provide so much support. There are those who will provide great support–but support does not mean they will always agree with you. Some of the most loyal people in our church are also the same people who will come to me when they do not agree with, or understand a decision that has been made. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the only people who loyally support you are the ones who never challenge or question you. I would say that those who confront you personally are the people who are most loyal to Christ, to His church, and to you. Be thankful for the people who love you enough to challenge you to grow as a leader.
6. “I have been surprised at the intense criticisms I receive from some church members.” They were not the members the pastor expected to inject so much negativity. There are always those who will surprise you. People will claim to support you, but they will tear you apart to anyone and everyone who will listen. When you discover that such talk is happening behind your back, you will be surprised, deeply hurt, and disheartened. When this happens, you must first encourage yourself in the Lord (I Samuel 30:6). You must also ask if any of the criticism is legitimate. I am a firm believer in self-examination. Do not immediately dismiss criticism concerning you, your leadership, and ministry. Do not assign motives to those who are criticizing you. Instead, ask yourself why people would say or believe those things and look for opportunities for personal, spiritual, and professional growth. I have found that not all criticism is deserved, but most criticism can be used as a catalyst to become better.
7. “I never expected I needed to be knowledgeable in so many areas.” Some pastors commented about their lack of knowledge in church finances and budgeting, counseling, administration, leadership, facilities, and Robert’s Rules of Order, to name a few. You will often think “If people only knew everything I do.” Every pastor I know does far more than preach and teach. When I entered pastoral ministry I never knew that I would build VBS sets, learn basic graphic design using Photoshop and Illustrator, film and edit videos, install lighting, aim and program stage lighting, install and operate a sound system, install projection equipment, build and maintain a website, help missionaries through deputation, repair and paint drywall, work with building contractors, meet with bankers, talk with lawyers, etc. Yet, most of the people you serve will only see what you do for 40 minutes on Sunday morning–and some will ask what you do all week–implying that your job is not very demanding. Such an implication is unfortunate, but pastors are called to be servant leaders, meaning we do what we do to serve Christ and His body and we do not expect or need recognition from the church. We are servants.
8. “There is no such thing as a vacation.” Many pastors shared how they have never had an uninterrupted vacation. Take a cruise! When you take the cruise, do not pay for wifi or cellular at sea service. There is nothing more liberating than getting on a ship and being forced to put your phone on airplane mode for seven days. Every pastor NEEDS to get away from the demands and pressures of our responsibilities. Every pastor’s wife NEEDS to enjoy her husband without interruptions. Every pastor’s child NEEDS the undivided, undistracted attention of their dad. Pastoral ministry cannot be accomplished in five, eight hour shifts. Pastoral ministry is 24/7–but a wise pastor will take time to get away and enjoy his family without constant interruptions. If you cannot afford a cruise, at least learn how to activate the do-not-disturb function on your phone.
9. “I am never prepared for the tragedies.” One pastor was confronted with a tragic automobile accident his third month in ministry. In a family of five, the mother and one of the children were killed. You will never be prepared for tragedies–but they will happen. When tragedy strikes, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know what to do. Reach out to other pastors who have walked with their people through similar circumstances. Reach out to members of your church who have experienced tragedy and ask them what they needed when they were going through tough times. Lean on Christ, look to the Word, but also learn from others.
10. “The stress on my family has been so much greater than I expected.” I specifically and repeatedly heard about the surprise of strained marriages. This may be somewhat controversial, but be discerning about what you tell your wife and about what you talk about in front of your children. To be clear, I do not advocate keeping secrets from your wife. I am saying that she does not need to know everything you know. She does not need to hear every criticism. She does not need to know every disappointment. She does not need a play-by-play of every difficult deacon or elder meeting. Remember, she still has to love, respect and follow the leadership in the church. Your kids should not be sheltered from the demands and difficulties of ministry, but you should not put them in a position to carry the burden of ministry that you carry. Do not come home and “vent” about church members or church leadership. Show discernment. Finally, do not neglect your family for the sake of ministry. I started vocational ministry under the foolish idea of “Take care of the church and God will take care of your family.” Pastor, you are first a servant of Christ, then you are a servant of your family, then you are a servant of the church. Make dating your wife a priority, and spend as much time as possible with your children. If your family believes you are more interested in the church than you are interested in them, they will begin to resent the church and they will potentially resent God. You can and you must help relieve some of the stress that ministry imposes on your family.
I can still remember well my first pastorate. I remember how surprised I was to find out a couple did not like me. One of my toughest lessons was learning that I could not please everyone. My responsibility is always first and foremost to please God.
I know you readers have a lot to add to this conversation. Let me hear from you.