Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.
Most pastors are amazing. I am honored to serve them, and my appreciation for pastors grows every day.
For example, I recently conducted a social media survey where I asked pastors to share their most common pastoral care challenges. The volume of responses was huge, a very impressive number. But even more impressive were the stories of love and concern these pastors have for their congregations. They want to care for them. They want the best for them. They want to help ease their pains.
So, for the most part, the challenges are not the members themselves, but the capacity to meet all the pastoral needs members have. Here are how the pastors expressed ten of their greatest pastoral care challenges.
Time. The pastoral care needs are always greater than the time available to meet those needs. A number of pastors expressed the tensions of meeting the needs of their own families while trying to meet the needs of the church members.
Expectations. It doesn’t take a new pastor long to discover you can’t meet all the expectations of church members for pastoral care. Pastors always disappoint someone. They typically get criticized for not meeting needs. It is a burden and frustration for these church leaders.
Emotional fatigue. Pastors see a lot of emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual needs. They see the deepest pains and the direst situations. They are often unable to detach from the hurt they see almost every day.
The fix-it syndrome. Many pastors are fixers by nature and personality. But many pastoral care situations defy fixing, at least in the short-term. Pastors, as a consequence, feel both frustrated and hopeless.
Dealing with toxic members. One pastor told me that half his week is spent dealing with toxic church members and the church members hurt by the toxic people. Pastoral care of this nature has little reward to it.
Aging congregations. To be clear, no pastor said anything negative about the pastoral needs of older adults. Their challenge is the increasing number of needs as members age. Many of the pastors are serving congregations where over three-fourths of the active members are 70 and older.
Communication failures. Pastors are sometimes expected to be omniscient. They will obviously miss a hospital visit if they don’t know the person is in the hospital. When one pastor was confronted for missing a visit due to his own lack of knowledge, the church member responded, “Well, you should have known.” Sigh.
Pastor-only pastoral care. Some church members still believe pastors are supposed to do all the pastoral care ministry. The infamous sentence is repeated too often, “That’s what we pay the pastor to do.” Many pastors would like to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, but those saints will have nothing of the kind.
Hospital visits. Depending on the demographic context, some pastors have to spend most of the day for a single hospital visit. One pastor shared that most of his members go to a hospital in a city almost two hours away. He lamented how little time he had for sermon preparation because he was in the car so much going to the hospital.
The special situation of the bi-vocational pastors. These challenges are exacerbated when the pastor is bi-vocational. Most churches are willing to pay a pastor part-time pay while expecting full-time work.
I love pastors. I love their hearts. I love how they love their churches. Next time you see your pastors involved in some aspect of pastoral care, let them know how much you appreciate them. Many often don’t hear such words of affirmation and encouragement. Your words can make a huge difference to those who serve us so well.
On occasion a church leader at Church Answers will share with the community that he or she received an anonymous letter. The leaders are inevitably hurt, and they are frustrated because they have no way to respond.
Over the years, I have seen a common theme with anonymous letters. I can best delineate it as seven considerations.
Most all church leaders will eventually receive an anonymous letter. It goes with the job and the ministry role. Even though it does not take away the sting of the letter, knowing others have gone through it makes it more bearable.
The typical content of an anonymous letter reflects a hurt or mad church member who has unmet and/or unrealistic expectations. Some church members have weird ideas about what church should be like and how church leaders should act. The cowardly church members will express their frustrations anonymously.
The toss-it principle is still good counsel. It has been common for church leaders to dispose of anonymous letters as soon as possible. Some pastors and leaders have an assistant who reads letters that come to the office. That assistant may be instructed to dispose of anonymous letters before the church leader ever sees it.
The best way church leaders handle anonymous letters is to pray for their own hearts. These evil letters can be an incredible source of distraction and discouragement. The pastor or other church leader must pray for his or her own heart. God can certainly handle the situations we think are nearly impossible to handle, such as dealing with the pain of these letters.
Many church leaders make a point to pray for the author of the letter. It’s hard to stay mad at someone if you are praying for them, even if you do not know them. Though their actions are cowardly, they are obviously people who are hurting, angry, and disappointed. They need prayer.
Where possible, some church leaders are making it known that anonymous letters never get to them. This communication can be tricky. If done in a corporate worship setting, it can distract from the act of worship. It can also be seen as petty or vindictive. But a number of pastors have found ways to get the word out they never see the letters. That usually stops future letters written in anonymity.
Healthy leaders move on quickly after they get an anonymous letter. They know it will hurt them and their ministry if they dwell on it. The best way to move on is to focus on the ministry God has given them and forget about a letter where you can’t respond.
Anonymous letters are common. Anonymous letters are painful. Healthy church leaders deal with the pain (if they see the letter), and then they move on.
There is simply too much good work to do for God’s congregation to be distracted or discouraged too long from such a cowardly act.
About once a month, I am contacted by a person serving on a church staff voicing a similar concern. The pastor has retired, resigned, or been fired. A new pastor will be coming at some point in the future. Life has changed for the staff member with one announcement by the pastor. As an executive pastor recently asked me, “Where do I go from here?”
The question is legitimate. Many church members do not fully grasp how disruptive a pastor’s departure is to the remaining staff. The staff are left behind, even if it’s not in an eschatological sense. Look at some of the possible consequences for church staff.
The staff member and his or her family’s life is disrupted. This consequence is almost universal. It is not just the staff member. The family is uncertain where the next job, town, school, or income will be.
The staff member may be terminated. It is not that common anymore, but some churches “clean house” so the next pastor can choose the staff. Some ask for a written letter of resignation that can be accepted or rejected by the next pastor.
Those closest to the pastor are most vulnerable. It can be rewarding for a staff member to have a close working relationship with the pastor . . . until the pastor leaves. The closest staff members have their ministry identity tied closely to the exiting pastor. And that can be a threat if the next pastor is uncertain where loyalties lie.
The on-boarding of the new pastor is fraught with tension for the staff members. They, in many aspects, have to prove themselves worthy to the new pastor. “I felt like I was having to prove my value for over six months,” a student pastor told us.
The staff have to adjust to a new culture even if they are allowed to stay. Of course, this adjustment applies to the entire congregation, but the staff members live in that culture every day of the week. The adjustment can be uncomfortable and tense.
The staff members may have to live in two worlds for a season. They may stay at the church, but they have to keep their eyes and ears open for new jobs and ministry opportunities. And they remain in both worlds until they leave or have a high level of security with the new pastor.
Some staff members may have to change their job responsibilities significantly. Even if they do get to stay, it is not unusual for the new pastor to change ministry responsibilities. Some of the changes can be dramatic, so much so that the staff member may have a totally different job.
I don’t expect to change the reality of these challenges with this article. It is my prayer, however, that this post will provide a greater awareness of the issues with the congregation. And it is my prayer that church members will have greater compassion and concern for the church staff members as a result of their heightened awareness.
Whenever I write about vision statements, I tend to get some visceral reactions. Some people simply abhor the idea of a church having a vision statement. For them, it’s total compromise with the secular culture. It’s treating the church like a business instead of the body of Christ.
Another group responds with intense enthusiasm. They absolutely love the clarity and energy a vision statement can bring. They can’t imagine a church without one.
I tend to see more positives than negatives with a vision statement. For certain, it can be used for the wrong reasons. But it also can bring focus and clarity to what a church should be doing. It can be a healthy and biblical guide to keep a church on track.
Many church leaders will admit the vision statement they use was adapted from another church. They often wonder if it is lazy and unethical to do so. I don’t think so. Indeed, it is really a common practice for many common-sense reasons. Here are five of them.
Churches have similar purposes; they, therefore often have similar vision statements. The biblical purposes of a church are consistent: prayer, evangelism, corporate worship, discipleship, fellowship, and ministry in the community and beyond. It only makes sense that those purposes become common language in many church’s vision statements.
Churches contextualize their vision statements for their specific situations. So, even if vision statements sound similar, their application is different for every congregation. A statement borrowed freely from another church often is very different when it is specifically applied in another context.
Too many church leaders spend inordinate amounts of time wording a vision statement when a borrowed statement will suffice. Not every leader is a clever wordsmith. I have seen pastors and other leaders agonize over minutia in a vision statement when they don’t have to do so.
The application of a vision statement is more important than its wording. I am not concerned about borrowed vision statements. I am concerned about ineffective and unapplied vision statements. Too many times, church leaders will spend countless hours wording a statement and then doing nothing with it. The vision statement becomes nothing more than a cute saying on the church website and publications.
Some of the most powerful vision statements are the result of taking the best from other vision statements. I did a consultation with a church where the vision was known and applied by most members. That reality does not often take place. When I asked the pastor how he derived the vision, he shared that the statement was really the combination of the best of several other church vision statements. He was able to take those parts he felt best fit the context of his church.
To be clear, I am not advocating plagiarism. I would certainly get permission before using a vision statement of another church in its identical or near identical form. But neither would I fret if I researched other vision statements to derive the vision statement for my church.
It is one of the most common and painful issues pastors face.
A number of people leave the church around the same time. The exit is painful for the exiting members, the members who remain and, of course, the pastor. I have walked with hundreds of pastors through these scenarios. It is painful. It is messy. And, though I wish I did not have to say these words, it is often inevitable.
Allow me to share five perspectives on what is often taking place when a group leaves the church. For certain, there will be a myriad of exceptions. But these five issues are common in many of these situations.
The exit usually takes place when the pastor’s leadership becomes clear and established. It is, therefore, common for these exits to take place somewhere between the second and fourth year of a pastor’s tenure. The exiting members may have had unmet expectations of the pastor. The vision the pastor cast and the direction the pastor was leading them were not aligned with their own hopes and dreams.
Hurt exiting church members do not often leave well. Please hear me clearly. I am not pointing fingers and placing blame. But, in many of these exits, the departures are handled from a posture of hurt. Letters are written. Unhealthy conversations ensue on social media. Matthew 18 is not followed. The departures are messy and engender more conflict.
Those often neglected are the members who remain. The pastor is hurt. The exiting members are hurt. But, on too many occasions, we forget the pain experienced by those still in the church. They had friends leave. They saw relatives get angry. They know the church budget was hit hard. Relationship patterns are sorely disrupted. One of the most difficult but necessary things a hurting pastor must do is to minister to the remaining members with compassion and hope.
The recovery period usually takes months. I don’t have a neat guideline for church leaders to follow. I can say that most churches begin to feel some degree of normalcy somewhere around nine to twelve months. That period can be tough on the pastor and the church members, but it is a part of the healing process.
The other side is a place of hope. As painful as these exits are, there is usually a better church on the other side. A church with unaligned members creates an unhealthy situation. It holds the church back. The culture is conflicting and sometimes toxic. Exiting members can offer a time for healthy re-alignment. The departing members find a place where they are better aligned. The church from which they departed has an opportunity to get everyone on the same page.
While I don’t wish this situation on any church, any pastors, or any church members, I do think two points are worth remembering. First, these departures are common, more common than most people realize. Second, if the pastor and the remaining members handle the situation with prayer and grace, the church is usually much healthier on the other side of the departures.
Many of you have been there and done that. You’ve accepted the call to a new church. You are excited about the possibilities. Your mind is filled with energizing ideas. You are ready to move forward.
Then it happens.
“It” refers to the event that takes you by surprise. You really did not see it coming. Even if it happened to you in a previous church, you viewed it as an exception. But here you go again.
I have been working with local church pastors for over three decades. I love these leaders. I love their hearts. And I hurt with them when they tell me these stories. Six of these stories are so common, I can almost predict them for new pastors. Of course, I hope they don’t take place; but too often they do. Here are the six challenges new pastors did not see coming:
The search committee really does not want the church to change. But they told you they were looking for a pastor to lead change in the church. What happened? Why have their minds changed? To be fair, the search committee members (or their equivalent) aren’t liars. They really wanted the church to change . . . as long as it didn’t affect them.
The deacons/elders really don’t want you to lead. Again, they told you they were looking for a strong leader. They told you they were ready to follow you. And they were ready to follow you . . . until you started leading them somewhere they didn’t want to go.
Your biggest supporter became your most vocal critic. He was there when the moving van pulled up to your church. He wanted to be the first to welcome you to the community and to the church. He let you know he loved you. And he let you know he had your back. But now you feel the knife he placed in your back.
The church is not really excited about evangelizing the community. When you had the town hall meeting with the congregation, the excitement was palpable. So many of the members talked about moving forward reaching people with the gospel. Then God blessed the church, and a number were reached with the gospel. Those same members then began to complain about “those new people messing up our church.”
The budget cannot be changed. But the treasurer told you the church would be flexible. She said to let her know if you saw a need not in the budget, and she would find a way to make it happen. That was shortly before you became pastor. Now you are discovering the budget is more set than dried concrete. She really didn’t expect you to ask for her help.
The denomination is not really there for you. Your arrival came with great fanfare. Some of the denominational leaders showed up at your installation service. They told you with great aplomb to call on them “if you ever need anything.” Now you need something. And they won’t respond to your emails and calls.
To be clear, not all of the experiences of new pastors are negatives. Not all expectations are unmet. But a number are. These are six of the most common.
I received yet another inquiry today: “Do you have any recommendations for a student minister? We just can’t seem to find one. We’ve been looking for over six months.”
For several years, I would get similar inquiries about worship leaders or worship pastors. Today, there seems to be a dearth of both worship pastors and student pastors. So, where have all the student pastors gone? I asked some key leaders I trust on this issue. Here are their and my perspectives:
A number of young leaders decided to plant a church rather than enter into or continue in youth ministry. Youth ministry traditionally has been a field dominated by young males. Many of these young males began narrowing their vocational choices to student ministry or church planting. A large number decided to plant churches. On the one hand, that’s a really good development. We definitely need more church planters. On the other hand, many churches are now pleading for student pastors.
Fewer schools are offering training in student ministry. It’s a chicken or egg question. Are fewer schools offering this training and, as a consequence, fewer young people are becoming student pastors? Or, are fewer young people seeking the training and, thus, the schools are closing the programs because of diminished demand? Either way, there are fewer trained youth ministers.
It is becoming increasingly common for many churches to call a student pastor from their own congregations. These youth ministers then do not always seek training from a college or seminary and, thus, the schools often close their programs. Smaller churches typically do not have the pool of internal candidates the larger churches do. And these churches are among the most frustrated in their search for student pastors.
Some churches have eliminated the position of student pastor and replaced it with a family pastor position. Family pastors often have much broader roles than ministering to middle school and/or high school students. Thus, these churches have lost a specific focus on student ministry for adolescents.
Fewer middle school and high school students attend church. The Gen Z generation has fewer in church than previous generations. This development is not new. It began with both Gen X and the Millennials. But the trend continues unabated. Fewer students means a diminished need for student pastors.
A number of churches that contact me believe a good student pastor is the magic bullet solution to help grow their churches and make them younger. If a church is in decline and growing older, it is unlikely that one person can reverse those trends. The church as a whole must change first and follow in greater obedience to the Great Commission.
I am curious. Are you seeing this same dearth of student pastors? Have you been looking for one for your church unsuccessfully? I would love to hear your story on this topic. Let me hear from you.
Most pastors and other church leaders have heard this objection at one point or another. It might be a point of contention when the leadership suggests the addition of another worship service. Similarly, it might be the cry when leadership begins looking at the option of creating a new venue or adding a new site.
A pastor in our Church Answers community recently shared his frustration when a similar objection was raised because of the growth of the church. A church member really told him the church needed to stop growing because the longer-term members don’t know most of the new members.
Sigh. I guess we can start a new emphasis and call it “reverse evangelism.” Ask the newcomers to leave so we can maintain the integrity of our holy huddles.
There are so many problems with this attitude and argument. Let’s look at a few of them.
The maximum most people can know well in a church is around 30 people. That number may double if you add casual acquaintances. Once a church’s worship service gets above 50 to 75 people, you can no longer really know everyone.
Worship services are not the best venues for community. Church members connect so much better in groups like community groups, life groups, home groups, and Sunday school classes.
This attitude is the opposite of a Great Commission mentality. The clear focus is inward, not outward. Jesus told us to take up His cross and follow Him. This attitude tells us to lean on our crutch and follow our whims.
There are often unarticulated and underlying meanings to these objections. It is not uncommon to start a new service with a different worship style. Some of the objectors may not really be concerned as much with the additional service as the style of worship.
This attitude is likely divisive. Often these objections result in members taking sides. The church becomes divided. Unity is harmed, if not hindered.
The objection is sometimes rooted in power and control. Multiple services, venues, or sites may result in more people being reached. More people being reached means power, in its more carnal sense, becomes diffused. Additionally, multiple services mean that power brokers in the church cannot have their hands on every activity. Thus, the issue may ultimately be one of control.
While there are a few people who have theological concerns about multiple services and sites, most objections grow from the foundation of self-centeredness and preferences. And for a number of church members, the issue may be connected to one of “the three deadly Cs”: comfort, control, and carnality.
I am grateful to the Church Answers’ community for raising this issue and for the incredible discussion that followed. Now, I would love to hear from you.
The recent articles from the Houston Chronicle about sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are convicting to me. What can I and others do better to prevent such abuse? How can we better serve, help, and show compassion to the victims?
I know many of you readers are not a part of the SBC, but please allow me to have this “family” conversation. It is too great of an issue to treat lightly.
One of the issues we have in SBC life is how we license and ordain pastors and staff. Each local church has the authority to ordain and license people because of our belief in the autonomy of the local church. In many cases, because our ordination process is so weak, we “bless” new pastoral candidates who may not be ready for ministry at the least, and who are sexual predators at worst.
Here are some of my thoughts on how we ordain, and how we could do so differently, particularly to protect our churches from predators and others who are not fit for vocational ministry.
Autonomy is not an excuse for irresponsibility. Every local church that licenses and ordains has a heavy and sobering responsibility. We need to examine our processes and how we communicate those processes to the full congregation. No church should vote on a candidate until they are confident the candidate has been vetted in every way possible.
Background checks should become normative in the ordination process. Some of you may be shocked to learn we likely have more churches doing background checks on church volunteers than we do ordination candidates. And let me confess my own neglect. I have sat on many ordination councils, and I have never asked to see a background check of the candidate. In fact, I doubt a background check was done, because it was not mentioned. Shame on me.
We should not assume the ordination of a pastor or staff member from another church is sufficient for our church. When churches call a pastor or pastoral staff member, that person should be examined as if a new ordination is taking place. Unfortunately, we cannot always have confidence that the ordaining church did its homework.
Leaders should insist on vigorous examinations of candidates for ordination. Our polity does indeed advocate local church autonomy, as I note above. But our structure should not be an impediment for good practices. The influence of leaders is often more powerful than the rules of a structure. Leaders, like me, should speak up more clearly and more quickly.
Solving the ordination problem alone will not solve the sexual abuse problem. But it’s a start. Many predators in the pulpits and on church staff got there because we did not ask the right questions nor put them through thorough screening processes.
The previous pastor did not visit enough. We need to get a pastor who visits a lot.
The previous pastor was not evangelistic. We need an evangelistic pastor.
The previous pastor did not like to counsel church members. We need a pastor who is good at counseling.
You get the picture.
Too often churches choose new pastors largely based upon the perceived weaknesses of the previous pastor. While the change in pastors may indeed afford the congregation the opportunity to make necessary shifts in ministry priorities, the church should be wise not to overplay this issue.
When churches become players in the pendulum swing game, they are prone to overlook other issues, some of which may be far more important than compensating for a perceived weakness. I have heard numerous church leaders and members bemoan the bad fit of the next pastor simply because they did not ask sufficient questions.
In order to make certain churches do not intentionally subject themselves to the pendulum swing syndrome, I urge them to consider carefully these five questions:
What are the perceived weaknesses of the previous pastor? No pastor is perfect. No pastor can meet all the needs and demands of church members. Let’s get this issue on the table and in the open, so we can be certain we don’t overcompensate.
What are the clear and pressing needs of the congregation right now? This question is different than asking what everyone wants. It is a high-level question seeking to find the critical needs of the church so that the next pastor may be a good fit. The church should move toward this profile rather than a perceived deficit profile.
What are the greatest opportunities in the community? The transition period between pastors is a great opportunity to assess anew the needs and the opportunities of the community. Has there been significant shifts in the demographics of the community that would inform the profile of the prospective new pastor?
How might an interim pastor help the congregation see more clearly? I am a huge proponent of intentional interim pastorates. That is why we began offering certification of them at Interim Pastor University. The interim pastor can offer an objective perspective of the past, present, and future to help the congregation avoid the knee-jerk reactions common with pendulum swing emotions.
What strengths of the former pastor might be needed in the next pastor? The emotional reaction of a congregation is to seek characteristics opposite of the previous pastor, to address perceived deficits. But it is likely the previous pastor had strengths that would be important for the next pastor to have. Don’t always assume the next pastor should be the opposite of the previous.
Too many churches let the pendulum swing too far when seeking their next pastor. Such emotional responses can result in the next pastor just not being the right fit for the church. It happens too often. Then the church finds itself looking for yet another pastor, probably with the pendulum swinging back the other way.
It’s an unfortunate cycle.
Don’t let your church fall prey to the pendulum swing syndrome.