Recently, during a conversation at a local coffee shop came a comment, "Our pastor sure seems to be off of his game lately." Inquisitively responding I asked, "What seems off about your pastor?" My friend struggled, "Well, I just don't really know. He seems distant, uninterested, and disengaged. It's almost as if he doesn't want to be at church sometimes."
"Hum," I contemplated, "May I ask a few questions about your pastor?" To this my friend agreed. After thirty minutes, my friend's view point changed from a critical disposition towards more of a compassionate caring rescuer. Several factors appeared.
Fatigue. Many pastors are just plain worn out. A recent conversation with a pastor revealed five concurrent weeks of more than 60 hour work weeks. Three funerals, two weddings, nine committee meetings, 16 hospital visitations, nine sermons, twenty-six hours of counseling, and dealing with difficult church members, and well, it was easy to understand the reason for his fatigue. Several years ago, a pastor shared, "If I don't slow down I'm going to have a heart attack." Six months later he suffered a massive heart attack, and lives on disability now unable to pastor.
Loneliness. Many pastors share their abject loneliness. During my twenty-two year missionary career, American pastors often cried, "This pastor thing is the loneliest job in the world." Once I entered the American pastorate, loneliness became a reality. Making close friends in your own congregation is at best a precarious adventure that can end badly.
Transitions. Pastors and their families experience the same transitions of life as anyone else in their congregations. Birth of children, problems, sickness, problems, kids growing up, problems, children leaving for college, problems, empty nest, problems, adult children, problems, grandchildren, problems, and the list continues. During the many transitional phases of a pastor's life, who does a pastor talk to? A pastor shared, "It's as if my transitions of life don't count because after all I am the all wise spiritual pastor who's got it all together." Pastor daughters get pregnant too before marriage. Pastor's children get sick. Pastor's adult children suffer divorce. Pastor's adult children reject God too sometimes. Pastor's grandchildren get sick and die sometimes. A pastor friend of mine suffers the loss of a son, another adult son struggles with cancer, and two of his grandchildren died of cancer.
Losses. On a particular Sunday morning, I suffered a verbal assault by an older female member of my congregation. Entering the hallway from the church kitchen, she bellowed, "What is your problem!?" My response reflected my many years in South Africa with a cultural reply, "Pardon?" She launched, "Last week, I clearly looked straight at you and said good morning pastor, and you just walked by me. Now what's with that!?" Sheepishly I replied, "Well, it might be that two months ago, I conducted my Step-father's funeral, and then three weeks later, buried my mother too performing her funeral, and just last week a grandchild died unexpectedly." With that I proceeded into the sanctuary and delivered the Sunday morning message.
Health. How is your pastor's health? Do you know? Quite a few years ago, a pastor friend of mine, Randy, shared his story. On a particular day, his elders asked for a meeting with their senior pastor. Once Randy arrived the meeting began. The Chairman Elder presented Randy with a Premier Gym Membership. That membership included a trainer. The elder shared, "We want you healthy Randy." Next, they presented him with a six month paid Sabbatical. "Pastor Randy, we, your elders think you need a break." And, lastly, the Chairman Elder gave Randy the name of a Christian counselor and therapist. "We want you to start getting some counseling because we care about you, and want you around for another twenty years." Randy's blood pressure was sky high. He showed signs of burnout at every level. When Randy realized his Elders posed not a mere suggestion, but a demand for health, he complied. He on more than one occasion shared with me, "My elders saved my ministry, and saved their pastor."
Seasons. Did you most pastors go through seasons of spiritual bareness? One of the songwriters in the Old Testament sings, "Why am I so discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?" (Psalms 42:5). Most every long tenured pastor experiences seasons when their prayers feel ineffective. Pastors also experience times when the Scriptures seem dry and lifeless. Want to hear another one? Sometimes pastors don't want to come to church either! Pastors struggle with depression, fulfillment, and disappointment. Want to know a secret? Pastors struggle with marital strife at times too just like everyone else.
If your pastor appears off his game a bit, may I offer several suggestions?
1. Pray for your pastor every day! Pastoral pressures are enormous. The enemy, Satan, targets leaders first and foremost for failure. Intercede for your pastor's marriage, family, relationships, health, and spiritual vitality.
2. Encourage your pastor. In every church exist a small exclusive group of verbal pastoral assailants. I call this group the Gang of Thirty. Their sole purpose is to verbally criticize undermining just about everything a pastor does. While they are a small minority, they make the most noise. Good people in the church tend to sit quietly. Let the pastor know you appreciate your pastor!
3. Defend your pastor when criticized unjustly. Too many times pastors suffer attacks by members of the congregation. One pastor warned, "Elders, if you're not going to guard this pastor's flank, you will lose another pastor." That pastor stayed five years. Upon his departure, he marked that church's sixth pastor in eleven years. On his last Sunday, a member blurted, "I just don't know what's wrong with pastors these days." My reply to that member, "Perhaps it's not the pastors, but the members of this church?" Happy last words on a pastor's last day.
4. Value your pastor. It's my experience that churches which highly value their pastors enjoy pastors who highly value the churches they pastor. Valued pastors and valued pastor's families don't often look for other churches to pastor. They simply don't want to go somewhere else even when offered a bigger "better" church. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21). Treasure your pastor, and your pastor will treasure you, and most likely remain with you.
If your pastor seems off his game, perhaps the remedy lies within your grasp to encourage, coach, and offer genuine friendship. Pastors need this too, just like me and you.
Just My Thoughts,
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Sitting in the Saturday evening service, the speaker opened with a question. Introducing his topic he asked, "Is God fair?" No sooner than the words came out of his mouth more than just a few erupted, "NO." The unexpected response caused some to burst into laughter. It caught the speaker a bit off guard too. Reshaping his question several times, he tried to redirect looking for a desired answer. "So, are we saying that God is not fair?" Several dozen people continued, "Yes, God is unfair!" Some in the church service that night possessed a view of God as unjust, unfair, and unkind. The pastor recovered, and continued with his message.
Having returned from Haiti a few months ago, seeing immense suffering, it leaves one a bit perplexed. How in just a 1 1/2 hour flight from Miami can a people exist in such incredible need & suffering? The purpose of my trip was to teach on Conflict Management in the State University in Cap-Haitien, and on Leadership Development at Christian University of the North. But, when helping at a clinic, well . . . let's just stay in all my years, the suffering matched the worse I saw in South Africa. One team member even commented, "It all seems so unfair? Why does God allow this?"
Having lived in South Africa more than twenty years, my observations were not that of a novice. An old question returned to me, "Why such suffering, lacking, and need?" Why?" While this subject is written about often, I offer just a few probing thoughts.
Unfair at its core, is Subjective. What exactly does it mean to be fair? One person judges their lot in life "unfair" because one is not where one wants to be in life. Another defines fairness by comparing what they possess or do not possess in comparison to someone else. "Fair" becomes a rather nebulous word lacking substance apart from comparison. Its defining and clarification come by personal perspective, experience, and association.
"Unfair" is often narrowly focused. Once an individual shared with me, "God is so unfair!" "Why do you say that?" I replied. His answer, "I should be making more money for what I do! I deserve more!" Gently I pressed, "How much do you make?" After looking at his gross salary, benefits, retirement, and vacation, we estimated he earned around $70,000.00 per year. "So, do you know that your income is in the top 1.5% of the world?" I asked. He appeared shocked, "Well, ah no . . . not really." "So, now what do you think the other 98% of the world feels since you earn more than they do? Is this fair or unfair?" His reply, "Well, I guess I don't know."
"Unfair" is Self-Defining. Almost every thought I've ever possessed about what is fair or unfair, is defined by me, in me, and through me. See, I think Me becomes the standard for all that is deemed fair or unfair. Me makes those judgments, assumptions, and assertions. Yet, me possess limited knowledge and understanding of the complexities of life. Me simply does not see the whole picture, ever!
Once I shared a video of our family ice fishing in Northern, Minnesota with Zulu leaders from our churches in South Africa. One very old Zulu gentleman exclaimed, "Oh, those people suffer terribly having to acquire their food in such a manner." Ah, hum . . . perspective.
Blaming God is Easy. Here's the thing, God gets blamed for just about everything. I choose to let God speak for himself on this subject. Perhaps, one day God will clarify in some manner or another all the unfairness in this tired old place. Maybe God will speak on this issue. Until then, perhaps a more obvious place to look exists.
So, Who is Responsible for Unfair? My many travels to third world countries witnesses incredible "unfairness." If one truly searches for an answer on this subject, the truth may not be that far away. Maybe it blatantly looks us straight in the eye.
So, here's the big question I wrestle with regularly? How much "unfairness" is actually self-inflicted? Who is actually responsible for what is fair & unfair? Perhaps the best place to look for fairness is first within ourselves. What's really unfair about this world is perhaps more about me, you, and us. Maybe it's not that much about God after all.
Is it God . . .Us . . .You . . . or Me? You see, I can do something about me. You can do something about you. And maybe in this way we can do something about us. In love, God spoke through His Son Jesus seeking fairness for all of us all. Jesus simply said, "Love God with everything you are, and love (treat) people in the same manner that you treat yourself."
Think what a world this place might become, if we all committed ourselves to such an ideal? How fair could that indeed be?
Just My Thoughts,
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What marks most pastors who speak with us is their brokenness. In every case, pastors resigning from their churches are broken, beaten, and discouraged. Pastorless churches are a paradoxical development in the United States. While plenty of clergy abound in the US, fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches. Many churches fail to keep a pastor more than a few years. Usually, congregations blame departing pastors of some lack of dedication.
Their stories, along with my own experiences in the pastorate, attest to several common traits among pastorless churches. Churches who struggle to keep pastors possess similar characteristics and cultures within their congregations. Here are ten observations:
Clergy Competence. For various reasons, a point is reached when a pastor simply is no longer competent to hold this most trusted position in the church. Often, it is a matter of disqualification due to sexual conduct, mismanagement of funds, or some other issue. Surprisingly enough, emotional breakdown, depression, and mental incapacity affect many resigning clergy.
Continual Criticism & Abuse. One pastor shared his dread of Monday mornings. With head in hands, he cried, "I know when I look at my emails, there will be at least a dozen messages criticizing just about everything I said in yesterday's message. Then there's social media." Many pastors share their fear of continual lambasting by members who've never pastored. Another pastor shared, "It's as if one Precepts Course or Bible Study Fellowship class makes them an expert." An ex-pastor shared, "The cruelest people I've ever known are Christians. I hate Christians."
Congregational Combat. Members in the pews are in a continual state of war with each other. An Interventionist pastor friend of mine tells of trying to right sinking pastorless churches. His words are haunting, "It's hand to hand combat when I'm called into the situation." The Apostle Paul's words to the church at Corinth resonate, "For you are still controlled by your sinful nature. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn't that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren't you living like people of the world?"
Complete Consensus Leadership. Many churches' Elder or Deacon Boards set an environment of leading by 100% approval. Every member of the church must sign off on every issue. First, this is not possible, and second, it's problematic. When this occurs, individual leaders are nothing more than the elected representatives of special interest groups in the church. Board meetings attend to petty complaints of members unable to see the big picture. One pastor shared, "If there is ever a complaint, the board wants to stop everything and start over." That church did not survive.
Compromised Consecration. Consecration is an old word for holiness. Holiness is grossly absent in our churches and among leaders today. One of the churches I previously served at as Senior Pastor lacked holiness among some of its leaders. The previous pastor possessed a high level of pornography addiction. One elder who now serves a prison term for sexual assault added to the confusion. Questionable sexual conduct by another elder elect remained an unanswered issue. Added to this was hundreds of thousands of dollars unaccounted for with no existing receipts. This marked just a few of that church's problems. None of these issues were known upon accepting the pastorate. Once discovered my exit was assured.
Another church I served at disposed of an elder prior to my arrival. The removal of that elder required a Herculean effort among those desiring to remove him from the chairman position of leadership. It divided the church. The problem: the elder was accused of stealing the 401k retirement plans of his employees. Some of the members of that congregation worked for him. He was sentenced and served time in prison for the offense.
The Bible is pretty clear, "An elder must be above reproach." Leaders serving on Church Boards with strong sin deficits, unethical behaviors, or questionable actions should not sit on leadership boards in the Church.
Closed Church Mentality. Simple truth is that many churches are plagued by a membership thinking, "This is our church." Nothing is further from the truth. The Church clearly belongs only to Jesus Christ. He paid for it with his blood, started it, and founded it it upon Himself. An inclusive attitude makes it impossible for many pastors to lead a church to obey Christ's command to, "Go and make disciples of all nations."
Core Member Centered. Many churches suffer from too few families controlling the life of the church. One of my members once said, "It's hard to get in here, but once you're in you're in." To which I replied, "And the Spirit of God weeps."
Competing Boards. Another pastor shared the plight of his church. Within the church existed an elder board of eight members and a deacon board of eight members. The church barely averaged 300 people in attendance. For years, these two boards refused to communicate, cooperate, or coordinate. Any wonder their church chewed through six pastors in ten years?
Consumed Clergy. Most pastors are just plain worn out. In a recent survey, 802 or 71% of pastors surveyed stated they were burned out, battle depression, and feel highly fatigued on a daily basis. Pastors usually keep 60 hour work weeks, are on call at all times, are required to perform multiple tasks beyond their abilities, and put up with a host of abuses from members claiming to be Christians. Once I took a two week vacation. Upon returning from vacation, several members accused me of looking for another church to pastor during my absence.
Clueless Compensation. Many churches regardless of the size of the congregation require at least a Master's Degree before considering a pastoral candidate. Many clergy hold high levels of qualifications and credentials. Compared to their secular counterparts, they earn far less in wages and benefits.
I'm not making this up. Once a pastor friend of mine was presented a Christmas gift by two of his elders before they left for Hawaii on Christmas vacation. I was there at church, with My pastor friend, when he opened his card. In the card, was a fifty dollar gift card for a local restaurant, and a $15.00 off coupon torn out of a newspaper. The look on his face communicated his hurt, struggle, and disappointment.
In all this, I ask two probing questions, "Where are the leaders of the church? Who protects the pastor?" Or, "Who loves the pastor for cryin out loud?"
If you want to keep a pastor; protect your pastor, provide for your pastor, and value your pastor. Without a caring nurturing environment, most pastors will not stay. Why would they? Why should they? They are human too. So, it's up to you the congregation! The membership must set a loving caring safe environment for a pastor and family. Highly valued pastors highly value the churches they pastor.
If your church struggles to obtain or keep pastors, perhaps the problem is not in the pulpit, but rather in the pews.
Just My Thoughts,
Don was born in North Minneapolis, Minnesota. Having served twenty-two years in South Africa as missionaries with his wife Kathy, and eight years pastoring in the United States, he shares unique perspectives about life, family, relationships, and ministry.