Letter to a (Real Life) Hurting Pastor
Chris Surber more from this author »
Of all the communication I receive in response to my writing ministry, among my favorites are those from fellow pastors. Even prior to entering full time ministry I was sympathetic to the unique challenges and pressures that pastors face. As one commentator put it, “People expect the clergy to have the grace of a swan, the friendliness of a sparrow, the strength of an eagle and the night hours of an owl—and some people expect such a bird to live on the food of a canary.”
I recently received the following email from a man who signed his email only as "Hurting Pastor." “I am a local pastor. I have been serving a church for 10 years faithfully. During these years, I have never had an appreciation service of any kind. I know it is biblical for the church to do this for their pastor in love. Is there ever a time when this should be preached? I have addressed this matter with my leadership team. Should I just teach on this matter from the pulpit? What do you think?”
What should a pastor do when he feels underappreciated? Sadly, this man’s story is not exceptional. It isn’t hard to find real-life accounts of hurting pastors. Many reports suggest that pastoral tenure is at an all-time low. Pastors stay shorter and look harder for bigger and better opportunities. This is often attributed to excessively ambitious clergy. That may be true in some cases. However, is it not possible that in at least as many cases pastors are hurting more than church culture allows them to admit? Perhaps churches could use training on the unique challenges placed upon pastors and their families. Here is the core of what I wrote back to Rev. Hurting Pastor:
1. Pastor, your first and deepest "appreciation" comes from the Lord.
We really do have to learn to rest in Christ and find our value and purpose in being a child of God, not a servant of the Kingdom. There is a difference. It’s easy to think that being a pastor is what we are, but it’s not. It’s our vocation in the Kingdom. It’s what we do. We are foremost a child of God, just like everyone we serve.
2. Pastor, we all feel similar struggles to varying extents.
We have to learn to "get life" from multiple sources so we don't dry out. I write a weekly column in a newspaper, contribute to various ministry-related websites, and write books and tracts. I get life from these activities. They help me stay focused and refreshed in the sometimes arid times of pastoral life. While you may not consider yourself a writer, consider a blog—even blog as "hurting pastor" anonymously—and you might be surprised the impact you could have on other pastors wading through the often mucky waters of pastoral life.
3. Pastor, don't stop being who God created you to be.
Invest in your interests outside of ministry. Like many pastors, I’m guilty of investing into precious few activities that are not directly related to my work in the local church. Do you have an interest in travel? Incorporate your pastoral life into a trip to visit a missionary your church supports. I’m presently planning just such a trip with my wife and tribe of kids going along.
4. Pastor, we are servants of the King and His Kingdom, but we are not without value ourselves.
Even a slave should have his needs met. Churches will unwittingly take as much life from a pastor as he is willing to give. People are needy, but we are people, too. Don't forget self-care. You and I are among colleagues who seldom seek health care or spiritual care for ourselves. It doesn’t honor God to focus so much on others that we let ourselves burn out.
5. Pastor, teach on the subject of pastoral care, but be careful how you do it.
Early in ministry, a mentor advised me wisely to take care every sermon is a "we" thing, not a "you" thing. A sermon titled, "You chumps don't know how to care for a pastor to save your life” is probably not a good idea and won’t be effective. Whereas a series of sermons on the topic of community care in the Church, which includes teaching on pastoral care and concerns, may be effective. Educate them on this subject with some degree of subtlety for, as most pastors have discerned, it’s altogether too easy to look self-serving in the pastorate.
Highlight biblical passages where it is seems obvious that a person’s faith is connected to how they think about the church and its leaders. Look at the example in Acts 16 of the Philippian jailer: "At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized." (Acts 16:33 NIV84) After he received faith, he cared for the Lord's servants. Perhaps bring in a guest speaker to talk on this subject. It is not selfish to help the body of Christ understand that healthy pastors make for healthier churches. Pastoral health is good for the Kingdom and therefore it matters.
While the pastoral journey is a long and arduous pilgrimage, I wouldn't trade it for anything. Pastors do get a lot of blame they don’t deserve and little of the credit they do deserve. We need to care for ourselves, and the body needs to appreciate the work of their pastor. However, at the end of the day, all of the glory belongs to the Lord. Pastor, sincerely, earnestly, cast your cares upon Him (Matthew 11:28-30).
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