“What do you do for a living?”
This seems like a simple question. When normal people are asked this at a party or in some other social setting by a person they’ve just met, it is an invitation to more conversation. There’s any number of acceptable answers:
“I’m a consultant.”
“I work for a defense contractor.”
“I’m a web developer.”
When I’m asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” I know what comes out of my mouth next, “I’m a pastor,” will produce one of the following outcomes:
a. It will kill the conversation immediately. We could be having a great conversation, even laughing, and then as soon as I come out with my man-of-the-cloth-ness, it’s over. They find a reason to be done talking to me.
b. The person I’m talking to will become the most religious person I’ve ever met. They’ll start saying things like, “The Lord is just really blessing us ... I see him everywhere ... as it says in the good book, God helps those who help themselves” and other religious-sounding things they think will resonate with me.
c. They will want to talk. This is my favorite reaction, but it's unfortunately rare. Sometimes being a pastor is a great way to engage in more conversation, because it makes spiritual topics easier to talk about.
If you’re a pastor, you know exactly what I mean.
Being a pastor is unlike just about any other profession. Because of the holistic nature of the work, we tend to take on “pastor” as an identity and not just a career. Add to that the spiritual component: We are not just providing a service to people but showing them how life is supposed to be lived for God’s glory (no pressure there).
Most people don’t quite know what to do with us, because we seem like non-persons. They don’t understand us, but we really wish they did. We don’t feel any different than anyone else, and sometimes we feel like explaining ourselves, but most of the time we just live with it.
Pastors, I want to speak on your behalf today. I want to help you put into words what you might be feeling and wish people understood about you. I’m sharing from my thoughts and experiences of being a pastor for ten years, so you may not relate to everything I say, but I bet you’ll find some common frustrations.
Here are four things you wish people understood about you:
1. Pastors are just normal people. We don’t feel any different than anyone else. When I became a pastor, I felt like the same person inside but was immediately treated differently ... usually in an esteemed way, but it felt foreign. Out of nowhere it was, “Pastor Lane this” “Pastor Lane that.” To me I’m just Lane. I have struggles, doubts, hang-ups, good days, bad days and mediocre days. I have to lean on God for strength, and I’m not Superman. And guess what? If I don’t seek intimacy with Christ, I become spiritually weak like everyone else.
You probably feel the same way. The more you are treated like you are super-human, the more the expectation will haunt you. You’ll either try to meet that standard, crumble under it or both. You can’t handle the expectation of perfection. God is perfect; you are not. And that’s okay.
2. Pastors tend to want to please people, especially people in their church. The longer you have the pastor title, the easier it is to live for the expectations of others. It becomes easy to forget you originally became a pastor because you felt like God called you. Somewhere along the way, it becomes a pursuit in keeping the people happy with you. This is a huge trap and yet so tempting for every pastor. I have to constantly remind myself what Paul says in Galatians 1:10: For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ. (HCSB)
3. Having true friendships with church members is difficult for pastors. Some of my dearest friendships are with people inside my church. I truly feel blessed by this, because it is not the norm. Sometimes it feels like church members expect you to perform for them. “After all, you’re a pastor … You’d better be perfect … We’re watching you …” It’s hard to be friends with people for whom you are performing.
It gets a little tiring when every conversation centers around what the church is doing, or what the church is not doing, your role, your ministry, what they used to do in your ministry, what they should do in the future, what you should start doing, what you should stop doing and on and on. It starts to feel like a job interview every time. Like you have to provide last quarter’s sales numbers.
To anyone reading this who is not a pastor: Here’s how you can be a breath of fresh air to your pastor: Next time you have time with you pastor, ask how he’s doing, but leave his ministry out of it. Ask about his family, his golf game or his dog. Ask how his kids are doing. Ask about his wife. Basically, talk to him like he’s a normal guy you consider a friend. He will thank you for it. Most conversations center around how he is performing in the ministry, but pastors are people who, just like you, like to have normal conversations about real life stuff. Again, we just want to live life in community with others, walking through life together with God.
Finally, although I have very close friendships with people inside my church, I have always sought friendships with people who do not attend my church. These friendships are near and dear to my heart. Without friends outside your church, you can begin to lose perspective when things get difficult (they do from time to time no matter where you are).
4. I can’t speak for every pastor, but I’m not judging you. I recently performed a wedding where most of the members of the bridal party were not church-people. The bride and groom were super nice, and I enjoyed officiating their wedding. They invited my wife and me to the reception. It was there that we noticed something … nobody would talk to us. It was the weirdest thing. I’ve conducted weddings for close friends and have had a blast at the reception, but this one was different. It made me think of a middle school lunch room and we were not the cool kids. At one point some people actually did talk to us which made us so excited. We later found out that they were not at the ceremony so they didn’t know I was the pastor.
One guy caught us as we were leaving. He told us it was probably a good thing we were getting out of there, because we “must not be having a good time because of all the shenanigans.” When we left we could feel a collective sigh exhaled because the party could finally get started. It felt like we were pouring cold water on everyone’s fun just by being there.
What made this so discouraging was that we had not said anything judgy. We had not “condemned” anyone. We were just there to celebrate the bride and groom like everybody else. The truth is, we were the ones being judged. We were the “pastor and his wife” and were to be avoided at all costs. I wanted to say, “I’m not judging you! I’ve got plenty of problems of my own. I don’t have the energy or time to place judgment on you.”
As a pastor I long to be like Jesus was. He hung out with “tax collectors and sinners.” Luke 15 says when he taught about God’s heart for the lost, it was repulsive to the religious people of the day, but the tax collectors and sinners “were drawing near to hear him.” These people must have known that this man, Jesus, was not there to condemn them but point them to a better way. Pastors are often thought of as judgmental. I can’t speak for all of them, but I am not.
This is just the way it is. But we are not helpless.
Some of these things we will not change. As pastors, we are always going to be viewed differently. It just goes with the profession we’ve chosen. But let me suggest a couple things that might help. First, tear down the pedestal you’re placed on every chance you get. Say, “I’m not perfect, I struggle just like you. We’re all in this together.” And secondly, always remember that you’re a follower of Christ first and a pastor second. Not the other way around.
What are some other things you wish people understood about you? If you’re not a pastor, does any of this surprise you?
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