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.
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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.