Pastoring a church is the ultimate challenge, particularly in the current climate. When I answered the call to pastor more than twenty-five years ago, I couldn’t have anticipated the twists and turns of leadership in our current context; eagerly, I put my best foot forward, knowing that God had called me to a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1).
Now, in my role as a Southern Baptist denominational leader in Birmingham, Alabama, I support 180 churches, including around 500 pastors and church staff. Of the 100,000 members in our churches, only a small fraction grasps the complexities of ministry today. I’m guessing the same is true of Christians and pastors across the country. In light of the way Scripture speaks of the relationship between pastors and congregations (Hebrews 13:7, 17; 1 Peter 5:1–5), consider these five realities your pastor wishes you knew.
- He is working harder than ever.
Have you considered the strain on the twenty-first-century pastor? Most haven’t. Ministers have been terminated due to church members’ perceptions of their responses to the presidential election, racial justice movements, and the pandemic. Congregants have asked pastors how they have “enjoyed the time off during the pandemic.” “Time off?” one beleaguered pastor lamented to me privately. “Between Zoom meetings, benevolence ministries, ramping up online church, food distribution, and putting out relational fires, I need a sabbatical or a new career! Plus, my wife and I are teaching our kids at home due to COVID. We have basically zero support because we moved here—away from family—to revive this declining church. My people don’t get it!”
Pastors are working harder now than before the pandemic. Lines between ministry and family are blurring. Balancing work and home life is elusive. Striking the right balance is improbable when church staff bring home computers to study, write reports, and host online committee meetings. Combine increasing demands with shrinking budgets, and you have a recipe for burnout.
- Masks are coming off, but the crisis is still “on.”
The potential for church conflict is at DEFCON one. Due to COVID, arguments over vaccines, and political tensions, tensions are high. Church members have endured periods of functional exile and missed wedding ceremonies, ordinations, communion, and baptisms. Most say they will return when they feel it is safe; only several have. Sadly, some may never attend corporate worship again. Shelved programs, canceled retreats, postponed mission trips, and abandoned ministry projects provoked a hunger for service and fellowship within the people’s souls. The spiritual impact of being alienated from the gathered church is palpable.
In Birmingham, worship attendance is hovering around 60% of pre-COVID numbers. Things have changed, including distanced seating, restructured or eliminated small groups, streamlined programming, and adjusted decision-making processes. Some observed these shifts from afar, that is, while watching services online from their homes. Circumstances may never return to “normal.” Skeleton crews wearily keep many normal-sized churches functional. Most pastors haven’t lost hope . . . but they feel the weight.
Church leaders are taking the brunt of people’s frustrations. In addition to the new worship realities, congregants grapple with depression, job loss, and grief. The wrecking ball of 2020-2021 is devastating. A recent Barna Group survey of pastors shows that 29% of pastors seriously considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year. Shouldn’t you pause to pray for your pastor now?
- Not all are supportive of his ministry.
A few days ago, my cellphone lit up at 11:45 p.m. A message from a faithful pastor appeared: “I packed my office today. I put it off, hoping I would have a new church . . . but it didn’t happen. My wife and I walked one last time through that empty sanctuary, out of the front door and into uncertainty. I felt rejected, unloved, and alone. It seemed that the congregation put us out of the big ‘C’ Church. Why didn’t more support us?” This pastor’s family was the casualty of church bullies. He made the wrong family angry.
According to pastor and psychologist Kenneth Haughk, church bullies—also called antagonists—go out of their way to make “insatiable demands,” attacking the person or performance of pastors. Ministers compensate by trying harder and putting in more hours. However, trying to please a bully is impossible. As a result, pastors feel betrayed.
Bullies—usually a tiny fraction of the membership—raise their shrill, selfish voices to get their way. A tornado of troubles spins up wherever they go; often, the EF-5 scale tornado wreaks havoc on the pastor and congregation. When the bullies strike the shepherd—sometimes forcing him out—many wounded sheep leave the church. Paradoxically, the bully remains—cruelly blaming the former pastor, who is no longer there to give a defense. Other than divine intervention, bullies must be confronted by assertive, biblically-grounded believers to stop the cycle.
- The relationship between his job and family is unique.
Recently, I visited a pastor’s farewell gathering. I had a thought: why do churches wait for pastors to leave before hosting a party or offering a gift to recognize their families? Ministers might stay longer if appreciation was the standard practice. Many pastors are under-resourced and undervalued. Serving in a demanding profession, pastors deserve ongoing support.
Ministers are held to higher standards (James 3:1). Unlike most careers, a pastor brings his family deep into the workplace culture. In fact, managing his household well is a prerequisite to his office (1 Timothy 3:4–5).). A church leader’s children may experience pressure to be something they are not. When school, family, and church activities are in full swing, a pastor and his spouse can become overwhelmed. They need encouragement to devote adequate time to their family. Remember, ministers cannot regain needed time with family once it is lost.
- He needs grace and encouragement just like you.
Ministers aren’t omnipotent or omnicompetent. Although God calls them to serve joyfully (Psalm 100:2), they may not be strangers to loneliness or depression. For those who bear the leadership mantel, the gospel they preach is as essential to them as it is to the congregations they lead. Ministers need grace, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory—including your pastor (Romans 3:23). Don’t expect the pastor to be perfect.
In my role, I provide a listening ear for pastors. Recently, a minister said, “I don’t think [the church members] understand what this year has done to my family and me.” Silently, I sent up a prayer: “God, deliver this dear pastor from feeling misunderstood.”
Does your pastor feel misunderstood? Believer, we are responsible to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Likewise, we must do whatever is necessary to “share each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). By all means, encourage and build up your pastor!
Now that we understand more about the realities of church leadership, may we bear our pastors’ burdens and wholeheartedly support these men and their families.