Church · faith · pastors

what I’ve learned about pastors

I know, I’ve been married to one for a whopping 6 months (to the day) and I think I know everything… actually no I don’t. But here are some things I have learned that I never really thought much about as your “average” church goer before I married someone called to be in full time ministry.

10. Pastors need prayer.

That should go without saying, but I think it’s worth saying again. And a lot. Sometimes I think we forget that and we tend toward thinking that pastors spend all their “free” time in prayer for us and figuring our life problems and forget that their lives aren’t exactly free from strife. You could even argue that they need more prayer than just anyone – though I don’t think that’s entirely scripturally sound to argue – but I think you would know what I mean if you consider it. In so many ways, the enemy knows he can attack one good solid preacher and it will have the domino effect of attacking multiple people, devouring them all at their weakest points in one fell swoop. Praying for your pastor to recognize attacks, to be humble and relient on God, to continually strive and walk the narrow path will go a long way to him knowing how much he is cared for and supported by his congregation.

9. Pastors wrestle with doubt.

It’s kind of like your wedding ceremony. You say I do and it’s happily ever after, right? You never question your love for each other again. You never worry that you made a huge mistake. You never think twice about the sacrifices you make day in and day out for that person who is currently sitting naked on the side of the tub clipping his toenails into the toilet. (Editor’s Note: this does not refer to any one specific to our knowledge.)

Same thing with ministry. Except I can’t think of an analogy for toenails. What I mean is he made a decision to follow Christ and he moved forward into full time ministry and he was probably ordained and a bunch of men laid hands on him and walla! He is 110% SuperPastor for the rest of time. Right?

Um sure. Sometimes. Sometimes he feels more like the villain – foiled again! – or worse, the horse he rode in on. He gets discouraged and he wonders if it wouldn’t just be easier on him to get a desk job.

And he even wonders – brace yourselves – if God cares in the first place. He wonders if God is doing anything at his church, if He is changing any one’s hearts on any given Sunday. He struggles some times, especially on a Monday morning (see #3 below) to believe that he’s making any difference at all and that maybe the church will be better off without him. He rehashes the last conversation he had with a congregant who was lost and pastor feels like he was paddling upstream – to find words of encouragement for that person, and for himself.

There have been plenty of pastors who burn out and fade away. They step down, they move on. This isn’t bad. This isn’t wrong, necessarily. God can call you and can recall you to something else. But the ones who are reaffirmed in their calling to stay put and fight the fight will wrestle through the doubt and fear that seek to enslave them and render them useless. They will say I believe, help my unbelief, and they will carry on. They pray to be filled with the Spirit of truth and grace, and hopefully recognize they daily need it.

8. Pastors are special. Right?

Well, it depends on your definition of special. I have long had this chip on my shoulder that pastors are no different than anyone else and they have no “special” relationship with God or any divine blessings over and above what any of us can have.

But that said, there is certainly something to the list of criteria for someone who stands up in front of a group of believers teaching and preaching the Word of the Lord. it is a high calling – a heavy high calling – one that carries with it an enormous amount of weight and responsibility. There is that awful verse in the bible about the elders of the church being accountable for EVERY SINGLE PERSON in their congregation – um, not single as opposed to married – and anyone who willingly puts his life and conscience on the line for every one who comes under his care is indeed a special man.

But it goes to understanding that God chooses people not based on how special they are or what they can offer. We find throughout the bible that God chose some sketchy folks, flawed and by human standards pretty worthless. But God took them not by their own abilities but by their hearts. They had hearts to serve, willing to be broken, forged in fire, and relying on the One who turned their hearts from stone to flesh. And so they are set apart in some ways, receiving an extra measure of blessing to carry out a special task reserved for the few.

7. Pastors struggle with pride.

But oh they think they are TOO special sometimes. Listen to a prideful pastor and you hear things like “My” ministry and “my” church and look what “I’ve” accomplished here. It’s easy to fall into. When you think of the struggle to be a leader and what it takes to rise above all the mess and get stuff done, from a humanistic standpoint, a person can’t help but feel proud of himself. Especially after a particularly well received sermon.

But the trick is to balance that with many other things, not the least of which is the people who influence and encourage and admonish when necessary. A good man will surround himself not with yes men, but with people who will speak the truth in love and will catch him before he falls into arrogance. Good pastors will remember that they are called because of God’s great love and there is nothing they have or will accomplish apart from Him. And it humbles them to think of their part in the building of God’s kingdom.

6. Pastors preach very mediocre sermons.

Maybe this is to balance out the pride thing. No one can have the kind of sermon that sets off fireworks and ends with a rousing chorus of How Great Thou Art with all the high notes every week. No matter how long and how faithful the time of preparation of a sermon was there are going to be times when the sermon falls a little flat for him. And we’ll all feel it. That is not to say the power of the Bible will be void, because it will not, but there will be times when you think that he must not have even read that passage more than twice this week.

But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he did. And that it spoke to him and that our worship will still be powerful. I think it’s partly our Americanness that makes us feel that everything has to be spectacular. Movies, tv, music, concerts, they all line up to keep us entertained and our adrenaline flowing. But no one can sustain that and it shouldn’t be like that every Sunday morning. We rely so much on our emotional responses and our rah-rah-sis-boom-bah culture to gauge an effective Sunday service. But God speaks in still small voices too. And He visits us by a quiet stream, not just in pillars of fire. And it would be good for all of us to remember that EVERY time we are together on a Sunday morning, the Lord is with us and we have been in His house with His people with His word.

5. Pastors don’t have the entire Bible memorized.

I often half-kid Rob when a scripture reference is mentioned and I actually expect him to know what it says. Like every time. And I don’t mean the obvious ones like Psalm 23 or John 3:16. I mean like Habakkuk 4:2.

And there are only 3 chapters of Habakkuk.

That said, I do find it reassuring that what pastors do know is how it all fits together. Seminary does wonders for this. I remind myself when listening to preachers that they sat through seemingly endless hours of church history, translation courses, exegesis, etc etc and on top of all that, they spent at least this whole week pouring over notes and translations and commentaries and CS Lewis quotes (because that’s like a given). And maybe they can’t recall the exact reference or the place in history, but they certainly know how it points to our God and what we need to know of Him. And this is why we pay him. This is why he is standing up there and teaching us. We look to him to lead us as a family and we trust that he is being faithful to the high calling placed on his life. And we release him from all the crazy standards we have for him that are extra burdens (see next point), and we honor him for his mind and heart fully focused on our spiritual growth.

4. Pastors’ kids are not perfect.

I know! It’s a real mystery right? You’d think that because their father is a gifted, spirit-filled man of God who spends his waking hours pouring over Scripture (you might reread #5) that his offspring will be raised to be shining examples of kids of the kingdom. But truth is sometimes they are shining examples of spawn of the part of the animal kingdom where evolution has not quite gotten around to yet. And somehow that factors in to how much you really believe that pastor knows. I mean can he really have it all together if his kids are brats?

And I’m not sure where along the line we thought he should have it all together. Pastors fail at parenting just like you and I fail at parenting. And their kids fail at being who they should be just like your kids fail at being who they should be. Pastors get angry, they get frustrated, they get testy and they get anxious and fearful and disappointed and they act on all these things in moments of weakness, just like we all do.

There’s something my husband has said that really sat well with me. You lead through repentance. It isn’t that you stop sinning, it’s that you are quick to recognize the sin earlier and earlier still, and you are quick to repent. And if a pastor is leading by example, he is quick to repent and shows us what that looks like. And it will flow to his children at home and all the struggles of being pastors’ kids will be met with the grace that extends to them through their dad. But they may not see it for many years. But they, like their dad, are in God’s hands.

3. Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings can be dreadful for pastors.

He comes down from the pulpit and sits in the front row. It’s this mix of energy and no energy at all. He still has to shake hands and kiss babies. He walks out of the church, hopefully not the last one to leave, and he heads home and he sinks into the couch and he spends two hours in prayer…

No. no he does not. Well, I’m sure there are some who do and some who do on occasion when it’s particularly needed. But more likely than not, he throws on the TV and he watches something he has no real interest in and he drinks a beer and takes a nap and finds that he is mostly completely brain dead.

Maybe Monday morning he’ll start thinking about everything he did wrong. Maybe he left out a good story. Or he thinks about how the entire 5th row on the right side seemed to be asleep. Or maybe he feels like just holding his head in his hands and weeping for hours and hours until he passes out.

There is this great weight set squarely on the shoulders of the one who brings the good news. That’s not a verse I don’t think – I don’t have the bible memorized or anything – but I think it’s biblical. It isn’t something to be taken lightly to get up there on a Sunday morning (or evening or whatever) and to preach, to tell the people of God the word of God in its fullness and richness and weightiness. It’s why people like John Piper get mad when pastors use the time for cutesy quips and stories about their kids. Not that this is intrinsically a wrong use of the sermon time, but his point goes to just how much a pastor carries with him to the pulpit. These are the choices he’s made – of what to say what not to say and how to do the most good with the time he has.

And when it’s all done, and he sits at home, the doubts and the fears and the responsibilities weigh on his brow. The enemy attacks him and says how he just isn’t good enough, or how he struggles himself and doesn’t feel particularly victorious let alone worthy to bear the cross of an elder. And the monday morning quarterbacks send their helpful emails and phone calls, and they ask their questions, and the good pastor welcomes it. By Tuesday maybe. Because this is the work he is called to do and God gives him the grace and strength and endurance to meet it well.

2. Pastors were not always pastors.

Sure there are those men who knew early on that they were called to ministry. This is great. But there are many more who had no idea for long stretches of time, or who had some idea but had another life before they headed to full time churchin’.

I’ve always had a great respect for those who are more of the tentmaker model – the ones who get “real” jobs whatever that means. They gain experience that will go far in their ability to relate to the rest of us peons who sit at a desk or have a boss to answer to, I mean other than God, and who don’t really have the room to say, you know, that’s not my gifting and so I will find someone else to do it.

And added to this, there are many pastors who continue to struggle with their calling. They may find, for a season, that they are burned out, they need to step away and do something else for awhile. Whatever their story is, they have one – a story – and so few congregants really take the time to know and understand that story in any real way. Unless they use their own lives ad nauseum as examples in all their sermons… which leads me to…

1. Pastors poop.

I realize I cannot with any real authority confirm this about ALL pastors everywhere, but I am fairly confident in this statement. My point of course is that they are human. They wrestle with pride. They dabble with sin. They draw lines that shift with the times. They have flaws and they show them. They need grace and redemption and they are being formed into the image of Christ just like you and me.

The pastor I would follow is one I expect to be human and I don’t put him on the pedestal that is reserved for Jesus alone. When he falls, no matter how spectacularly, it will not take my faith with him. When he gets caught stealing money or having an affair, my understanding of the Bible and my need for the Gospel won’t change, in fact it will strengthen.  When he has a bad sermon and the whole 5th row on the left side falls asleep, I won’t think that I wasted my time. When he has a crisis of faith and he can’t get himself to get out of bed some days, I won’t be reeling into a vicious cycle of what does it mean and why are our leaders so frail and why can’t we find anyone worth following? Because the bottom line is we will never find a perfect man to follow. We will never find a shepherd who cares perfectly for his sheep, who knows exactly what to do in every situation or who has some divine insight into the will of God which isn’t available to us mere mortals. But there is One who is perfect, who cares perfectly, who gives divine guidance and who will lead us safely home. It is Jesus and Jesus alone where my faith lies and nothing, and no one, should ever shake this faith.

And there it is. The top ten things I’ve learned so far. If I learn anything else, I’ll be sure to let you know.

6 thoughts on “what I’ve learned about pastors

  1. Privileged to be a lay leader, this is a good Emmaus walk and talk about matters which should give us a more profound appreciation…and a need to lift up our Pastor of Pastors in prayer.
    albert jabs

  2. Great commentary…I would just call out that there are women who are pastors too..but the struggles are the same with an added burden of still needing to “prove” (at times) that they are called by God to serve as pastors. So far that’s been my experience as a pastor.

  3. All of this is true for us female clergy as well. It would be nice to see this article written with gender inclusive language. Rev. Karen

    1. Thanks for your comment. In some ways, this post could be for all leaders of any organization, so I certainly could see benefit in having more inclusive language. Thanks for taking the time to point that out.

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