In Defense of Your Pastor

I have wanted to write a post about this for quite some time (years), but I did not want it to come across as self-serving. Since I am in paid ministry, this might seem like I am “airing my grievances” for my own benefit. But, I truly am not writing this to defend myself. If you are a member of a church in any capacity, I am writing this because you need to know it for the health of your church community and the health of your pastor and his/her family.

Let’s be honest. Some pastors do a bad job. Maybe they are just a poor fit for that church’s culture (I’ve been there). Maybe they have some personal issues that are really distracting them. Maybe they are burnt out. Undoubtedly, some pastors have some deep issues that are detrimentally unhealthy. They are like anyone else. Some need time to grow through experience (I took my first ministry job at 23). Some need to develop better leadership qualities. Some need to stop being so arrogant. So no, this post is not about letting them all off of the hook. They are far from perfect and sometimes that has to be dealt with. But, for the most part, they are people that, rightly or wrongly, feel called, are sincere and truly want to “pastor.”  With that, I by no means claim to speak for all of them. These are my personal observations and conclusions (obviously).

This post is about perspective and I hope that it can aid, again, in creating healthier relationships in our churches. We undoubtedly need them. So, here are six points (in no certain order) you need to know.

  1. They have all of their eggs are in one basket. For most (not all) secular jobs, there are natural, healthy boundaries between work, family, friends, and faith. If something goes south at work, you can at least find some solace at home, with your friends or at church perhaps. If something is troubling your marriage, that does not necessarily put a lot of extra stress on your work life. It might, but again, there are some natural boundaries there. Plus, church and friends might actually help. Something wrong at church? Well, you can step out of the role you are in to ease the conflict, create some space between you and the other person, or, if all else fails, you can find a different church altogether to invest in. That is not a great option, but I have seen it be necessary.
    But, for a pastor, all of those areas are intertwined. Something wrong at work? That means something is wrong at church and your family and friends are all in that mix. All of a sudden, stress in one area of your life can pour over into all of the other areas very easily. A work conflict is a church conflict which can easily turn into a family conflict. Stress in your family? Well, your family goes to work with you at least once per week and everyone knows them. Privacy is hard to find. Learning to create healthy boundaries is part of the job of a pastor, but it is not easy. I hope you can appreciate that.
  2. Moving is hard.
    A lot of people move for work, but they do not always have to. If you work in IT and live in a large enough area, you can change jobs without relocating. If a pastor needs to find a new position, they are going to have to move and most of the time they are going to have to move a considerable distance and not just from the north side of town to the south. I have lived in seven states, nine cities, both coasts, the South and Northern Midwest. Sometimes I wanted to move, a lot of times I simply had to. I have seen the average tenure at one church for a pastor reported as low as three years and as high as seven. My average is four. Either way, three or seven, pastors and their families move a lot and moving is hard. With that, a ministry degree and ministry experience, at least in the mind of a recruiter, does not translate easily into any other line of work unless you can afford to take a pay cut back to entry level or work a sales, commission based job. My biggest piece of advice to someone majoring in theology who is planning to be a pastor? Double major. You need a plan B that does not involve having to relocate or for when you cannot wait out the six months or longer duration of the typical church hiring process. Plus, I know more ex-pastors than I do pastors. The chances that you will do this for life are not in your favor.
  3. Pastors are criticized by the people they are trying to love and it always get’s back to them.
    Criticism comes with any job, but not every job requires you to be emotionally available to and invested in a large group of people. Ministry requires a certain level of vulnerability and that will always, at some point, be exploited. With this, people like to talk. So, you might think that you are just airing some criticism or concerns privately among friends, but it never, I mean never, stays private. Your kid will tell the youth minister what you said. The pastor’s friend will hear about that conversation and warn them about so-and-so. Your comment will be repeated. Again, please hear me, what you say about your pastor will get back to them. Always. 
  4. A lot of people think they know how to do the pastor’s job and maybe even better. (Especially of you are a youth minister)
    Imagine that you are an accountant. You have an accounting degree, maybe even a CPA and you have a few years of experience under your belt. A family from church invites you over to “get to know you” and after the small talk, the husband starts asking you more about your job. At some point, he says something like “You know I used to do some accounting in my day (he used to do his own taxes). If you don’t mind, let me give you some advice.” Advice is tolerable, but too often it is assumptive and condescending. Now, imagine that happens all of the time. It does in ministry, especially if you are a youth minister. Almost every time someone invites you over, the topic of church will come up and opinions will be shared. It can be exhausting and disheartening. Just because you did two years of youth ministry back in 1995 does not mean that you know how to do any of it today. You used to volunteer in ministry? Cool, that is completely different than doing it for a living. If you ever start a sentence with “We used to do x,y or z…” just slow your roll. The key phrase there is “used to.” That means you stopped doing it at some point for a reason. You are remembering the good, but forgetting the bad.
  5. Volunteers are messy and progress is slow .
    A church is basically a non-profit organization heavily reliant on volunteers. This means that it takes a long time to get things done and maintaining a level of excellence is difficult, to say the least. To begin, at some point you will have a bad volunteer in your ministry. Maybe they are in the wrong role, or maybe they are volunteering in the completely wrong ministry. Some volunteers need “fired” or “reassigned.” Now, think about how complicated that would be to do in a church. Pastors need all of the volunteers they can get. Plus, a good pastor ministers to their volunteers beyond just putting them to work. No matter how delicate you are, their feelings and/or ego are going to get hurt. If they are emotionally healthy, things will eventually heal to some degree. If they are not, and a lot of people aren’t, the situation could become very volatile very quickly.
    Ministry is heavily reliant on volunteers. People are busy and spread thin. So, volunteers do not have time to be as thorough and prepared as you would like them to be. Set the bar high, but know it will not be reached very often. If you push too hard, you will burn people out and you need them to stay. Because of this, so and so’s small group leader may not be up to their standards or such and such program may be a little less than ideal. You will hear about it and someone will want it fixed fast. It is never that simple. Nothing in the church world happens fast. We are steering a cruise ship and not a fork-lift. (If you don’t know, those things turn on a dime.) In a volunteer based organization, change is always messy and drawn out and some people are not understanding of that.
  6. The pastor’s spouse (and possibly kids) will get hurt.
    Remember point one about all of the eggs in one basket. Also, remember point three. Not only will the negativity get back to the pastor, but it will inevitably get back to the spouse and maybe the kids. If a pastor is doing a decent job at creating boundaries, they will shield their spouse and family from a lot of the negative, but they cannot block it all. Sometimes, the spouse will hear about it first. I’ve had people disguise their personal criticism as a “suggestion” and ask my wife to pass it on to me. Please… This can make church a stressful environment for a pastor’s family and it hurts. It can really hurt.

This is not an exhaustive list of what makes being a pastor somewhat uniquely challenging. And, again, this is not an effort to excuse a pastor who is doing a poor job. Maybe in the future, I will give my two cents on the healthiest way to share suggestions or critiques with your pastor. But for now, I hope this at least provides some context and insight into some of the challenges that your pastor and his/her family face and that it will inform your thoughts and actions as a member of a faith community.