Pastors At Risk
H.B. London, Jr &Dean Merrill
How To Support Your Pastor Through Prayer, Affirmation and Accountability
In churches large and small, a delightful topic of conversation is always the pastoral family: what they wear, what they drive, where they go on vacation, how the kids behave, what their house looks like, etc. Though many church folks may not stop to view this from the other side, ministers have a common phrase for it: “life in the fishbowl.”
Pastors start to feel that the congregation not only holds a set of expectations but, in addition, intends to help the pastor and family live up to them. Now, that’s pressure! In more than a few churches, of course, the pastoral household never measures up. The inability to be “perfect goldfish” causes them to leave a church prematurely or even to throw up their hands, crying “What’s the use?” and leave the ministry altogether.
What can church members do to prevent this?
The first step is to realize that a pastor is not a goldfish.
Have you ever taken time to watch those beautiful creatures swimming gracefully in their confines? They seem so serene, safe and well-fed as they cruise from one side of the bowl to the other…
But do they enjoy being on display 24 hours a day? What do they think about the piercing eyes of the outside world that stare at them?
I was a “preacher’s kid” in a family filled with preachers, and I’ve been a pastor myself for 31 years. My parents never lived next door to the church we served, but I had grandparents and uncles and aunts who did. Even as a young boy, I could not understand why church people did not respect my relatives’ privacy. It was almost as though the pastor was just the caretaker of the parsonage, and when folks needed to use the phone, get a drink of water, use the restroom—or just pop in for a chat—they did. In fact, I scarcely remember my grandfather without a tie and suit coat. He knew what the church expected of him, and so, from early morning until late in the evening he wore a coat and tie.
The churches my wife, Beverley, and I served were wonderful to us and our two boys. They afforded us special opportunities and marvelous kindness—but I did notice that smaller congregations seemed to scrutinize their pastors more than larger ones. I began in a church with fewer than 100 members and concluded my pastoral ministry in a church of more than 3,000. In my first pastorate I remember having to get the board’s permission not only to paint the parsonage, but even what color to use. Needless to say, as soon as we (with the help of my mom and dad) could scrape up the funds for a down payment on our own home, we did. Unfortunately, that was not until our fourth year in the ministry.
The care and emotional feeding of the pastor and family is often complex and confusing. Here are some suggestions that can make a big difference in the lives of ministers and their long-term ability to guide you.
Salary and Retirement Benefits
The Bible says, “The worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). A pastor should be compensated on par with the people being served, and with other ministers in the same community. The old philosophy of a pastor “suffering for Jesus’ sake” does not hold water, especially if the people are able to provide for the pastoral needs.
Salaries do vary from one section of the country to another, but I talk to pastors all the time who are living below the poverty level. They usually aren’t complaining, but they’re barely existing. Leadership in every church should be more concerned about the physical and fiscal well-being of the pastor and family than about any other area, with the exception of the pastor’s level of spirituality. If merit raises cannot be given every year, at least a cost-of-living increase should be granted.
One of the saddest commentaries on the church is the way some pastors are treated upon retirement. The horror stories that come from many of our retired elders are dreadful. If your pastor does not understand the importance of retirement benefits, please provide some reputable counsel. It is not the pastor’s responsibility alone to plan for the future—the congregation has a role to play, as well.
In all these areas, the point is not to make anyone rich. It is to give a pastor the freedom to minister instead of worry.
Time for Restoration and Relaxation
In a pastor’s life, the “light” is always on. There’s always another phone call to make, another parishioner to visit, a sermon to prepare, a talk to give, a funeral to conduct, a wedding to perform—not to mention a family to manage . . . the list is endless.
All pastors need time away with their families as well as time alone with their God. One very popular minister in the United States compares many pastors to “wagons with their wheels coming off, heading for the ditch.” If your pastor is to do better than this, free time is a must. Specifically:
A day off! Let pastors pick the best day for them, and then respect their privacy. Don’t call . . . don’t stop by . . . don’t interrupt . . . unless, of course, there is a true emergency.
One frustrated pastor wrote to me, “The issue I believe that church people—pastors and laymen—need to hear from you is boundaries. The pastor and the people need to realize that the pastor does not solve their problems. We are not God, and we are not omnicompetent.”
Vacation. Pastors should have at least two weeks each year, and because they are asked to serve on so many holidays, they should also receive replacement days for those occasions. The lay leaders should not only insist on the pastor and family taking the vacation, but should assist in finding and funding pulpit supply when necessary.
One of the saddest stories I ever heard was about the church board that docked the pastor for vacation time while he attended the funeral of his daughter, who had been killed in an automobile accident. A church like that does not even deserve a pastor. All pastors should have personal and bereavement days, just like you do on your job.
It is my feeling that vacation time should be determined by the number of years the pastor has
served in full-time ministry—not the tenure at a particular church. For instance, someone who has been a pastor for 15 years should receive at least four weeks vacation, despite the fact that he or she may have been in the present post only two years.
Conferences and Retreats. So often pastors go dry from giving and giving without any spiritual nurturing of their own. Who pastors the pastor?
When possible, the church should provide at least one opportunity a year for its pastor to be fed. This might be a conference, a spiritual retreat or a denominational function. Every church will be better served if its leader is filled with new insights and motivation.
“Dates.” Spending time alone with your spouse is essential to a healthy union. Married pastors need it, too. I must confess that in the early years of my ministry, Beverley and I did not set aside much free time together. I am excited to hear that more pastors and their spouses are dating again—at least once each month.
Caring parishioners can offer themselves for babysitting duty. It is a proven fact that when a pastor and spouse are communicating and happy in their relationship, their effectiveness in the church is greatly enhanced.
Prayer, Love and Encouragement
These three words form an unbeatable combination!
As a very young pastor, I had folks who stood beside me when I really didn’t deserve their loyalty. I was inexperienced, prone to error, and frightened by the magnitude of my assignment. But people believed in me and saw the potential I could not see.
Pray for your pastor! This is, in fact, the very best thing you can do (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Not only is prayer the greatest show of support, but it is very difficult to pray for someone and be critical at the same time. I personally believe a great degree of discord in the church today results from inadequate prayer. People have allowed differences to divide them.
Prayer not only changes things, but it empowers pastors to be the persons God called them to be. Of all the phrases that thrilled me, the greatest was when someone in my congregation would say, “Pastor, I’m praying for you.”
In addition, love and encourage your pastor. Don’t let little things get blown out of proportion. Sometimes this happens to the point of dividing a church and even triggering the pastor’s dismissal. This results in a kind of pain that never goes away.
As a church body, we need to show the world and one another that good conquers evil and that love is the greatest force in the world. Jesus said it is easy to say, “I love you,” but love needs to be exhibited. How? Show it! Send a note of encouragement. Remember your pastor’s birthday and anniversary. Recognize your pastor’s employment anniversary each year in some tangible way (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Launch a Pastor Appreciation Sunday each year. Perhaps you might even provide each church member with a copy of this booklet so your vision can be shared.
I can almost guarantee you that, in return, your pastor will give the very best to you and the congregation. Encouragement begets faithful service.
In many ways, the laity can make or break a pastor. You have an awesome responsibility to see that your pastor can stand before you with heart and soul prepared to open the Word of God and deliver a message that is anointed truth. Your pastor’s mind should be free of distraction and controversy.
The Willingness to Dream
In nearly every letter I read from pastors who describe their dreams for their congregations, I hear a cry for people committed to fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Many pastors are literally at their wits’ end because so many people are simply not involved in the major assignment of the body of Christ—spiritual reproduction. “Tell me how,” they say, “to get my people to realize that spiritual reproduction is not an option; it is expected of every person who calls himself by the name of Christ.”
The great mission we are facing cannot be clergy-driven. The clergy must teach and lead, but the laity must respond out of love for God and people. The battle against abortion, pornography, immorality and an ever-increasing demise of traditional family values must be fought by convinced believers—not simply committed clergy. For this to happen. there must be a renewal within the church. The church must repent—and feel sorrow for its unwillingness to be “salt and light” ( Matthew 5:13-16).
In a magazine editorial called “America’s Toughest Job,” Moody Bible Institute president Joseph M. Stowell writes,
Pastoring is tougher because of our culture’s consumer mindset. Once, the work ethic prevailed in America. People went to church asking, `What can I do?’ Today we ask, ‘Do I like this preacher? Is the youth program good for my children? Do I like the feel of this place?’ Few people enter church saying, ‘How can I contribute to the work of Christ here?’
As a pastor, my most exhilarating moments did not come from large crowds, great sermons or successful finance campaigns, but rather from a layperson who had been touched by the power of God and would say, “Pastor, I really want to make a difference in my world. I don’t want to remain stagnant and removed. I want to put on the armor of God and enter the fray. Pastor, will you help me? Will you train me? Will you pray for me?”
Wow! If you want to take your pastor to a new plateau in effectiveness, offer yourself in this way. Be open to new ideas. More than ever before, your pastor has access to resources and new concepts from the world’s greatest religious leaders. That means your pastor will probably come to you and your church leaders with ideas and dreams for your congregation that might seem a bit grandiose and unrealistic. But stay open. Work to keep your pastor dreaming and alive. Please don’t let the creative juices dry up.
Phrases like “That won’t work,” “It costs too much,” and “We’ve done it before,” are deadly. The Holy Spirit is the author of dreams. If your pastor is in touch with God’s Spirit, allow the opportunity to witness God’s touch on the life of your church. Don’t be guilty of squelching the Spirit simply because the dreams and hopes seem farfetched and unreachable.
How sad it is when the power structure within the congregation will not allow the Spirit to bring renewal, to break out of the mold, to realize new truth. It’s hard for human control to entertain the thought that God may be wanting to “do a new thing” where you worship (Isaiah 43:18-19). But let your pastor lead. Let your minister be the shepherd as God ordained.
The above is not meant to portray a one-way street. Giving is an important word for your pastor as well as for you. If you are taking the above steps, here is what you have a right to expect from your pastor.
• A full-time effort (if your pastor is engaged full time). It seems unlikely to me that any pastor could do justice to the position in less than 50 hours a week. For me it took longer; for some, it might take less. But to cover the long list of a minister’s duties takes time, and lots of it (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
• Your pastor need not be the best preacher in the world, but he or she should never step before an audience unprepared. That takes reading, Bible study, prayer and practice (2 Timothy 4:2).
• A shepherd should know the sheep and their needs. In other words, the pastor should care for you, be a good listener, full of compassion, and a seeker after wisdom (John 10:14).
• Your pastor need not “know it all” but must be secure enough to search for answers, even if the answers lie with another pastor (Proverbs 4:10-12).
• Your pastor needs to be a person of faith and prayer. A prayerless pastor is a powerless pastor (Matthew 17:20-22).
• Your pastor should be a person of courage, willing to confront evil and injustice. A cowardly pastor is not in close fellowship with the Lord. Pastoring is not for the faint of heart (2 Timothy 1:7; Joshua 1:9).
• Your pastor and family should be an example to the congregation. No, they do not need to be perfect! The kids need not be the best behaved in the church. The spouse need not head every committee. But they do need to be a family, totally committed to the principles of the Word of God regarding the family unit (Ephesians 5:22-6:4; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).
• Your pastor should spend time training and equipping others to assist in the ministry of pastoral care. We are not all called to be evangelists, but we all are expected to know how to share our faith. Your pastor must prepare you for the responsibilities of lay ministry by helping you find your gifts (2 Timothy 2:2).
• Your pastor should teach the value of Christian stewardship. If you grasp the significance of tithing your time, talent and treasure, it will not only open up God’s special resources for you and your family, but it will also ensure the blessing of God upon your congregation. He promised to pour His blessings upon you (Malachi 3:10; 1 Corinthians 9:6-8) in response to your stewardship.
• Your pastor must be a person of integrity. There should be no hint of immorality (Ephesians 5:3-5).
• You should expect your pastor to be vulnerable and transparent, willing to admit when mistakes have been made, and committed to continued growth in every aspect (Psalms 139:23, 24).
• Most important of all, your pastor must be committed to personal holiness. So many clergy are successful by the world’s standards but woefully lacking when it comes to a relationship with God (Psalms 51:10-12; Romans 3:22).
Strength for the Swim
Life in the fishbowl—for your pastor and family it is reality. It is not an easy assignment. Satan’s task is to hinder and undermine those who have been called by God to represent Him as shepherds of the sheep. Pastors can survive life in the fishbowl, but not without your tender love, prayer, encouragement and affirmation.
When I look into the pastoral aquarium these days, I’m seeing more and more of my colleagues floating slowly to the top . . . just like a goldfish that has lived its life. Many of my colleagues tell me they are burned out, worn out, frustrated and fatigued.
If ever there was a time when pastors needed to know they are viewed not with a critical spirit but with encouragement and affirmation, it is now. As Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses when he grew weary, every pastor should have the stabilizing forces of a family and an extended church family—colleagues who will stand alongside in understanding and camaraderie.
As I look back at my life in the pastoral ministry, I have few regrets. I wish I had studied more, traveled less and given my family more time—but I can’t do much about that now. I can, however, try to help churches, pastors and their families realize their hopes and dreams. Please join me in this very worthy calling.
The above article, “Pastors at Risk” is written by H.B. London Jr, and Dean Merrill. The article was excerpted from a pamphlet published by Focus on the Family in 1992.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.