The pastor is inevitably caught in an Image Gap.

One congregant doesn’t like the way you wear your hair, another criticizes how you spend your time. Some think you are too familiar; others consider you aloof. Some look askance at your new automobile or sniff at your wardrobe (or lack of one). Some want you to be a social functionary, joining every service and fraternal organization; others resent any community involvement beyond the obligatory benediction at the Memorial Day parade.

There is no escaping the Image Gap.

Most congregational expectations are grounded in one simple assumption that you may not share—that you are different. Your ordination, in their minds, was the church’s affirmation of your uniqueness. Like it or not, you’re expected to live up to their pastoral image.

These expectations can be placed into three categories.

How You Look

Don’t be surprised if your congregation wants you to look like their idea of a minister. That may mean expensive clothes so they can point out how well they take care of you. Or, they may want you to look humble. They may want clerical clothing, feeling that the “uniform” makes a public statement about your allegiance. After all, Gandhi looked different, Mother Teresa looks different, even Jesus had that special robe without seam, right?

Appearance is governed by more than clothing. It is also hair style, weight, hands, complexion, stance, and bearing. One of the unfortunate consequences of living in the twentieth century is that people are conditioned to judge on appearances.

And yet, Jesus looked so ordinary he could blend into a crowd unnoticed. At the height of his ministry, he had to be pointed out by his betrayer. I listen to the Lord who exhorts me not to worry about what I will wear or eat, and I wonder if my appearance blinds some people to the presence of Christ.

What You Have

In a consumer-oriented generation, the value of a human being is often determined by his possessions—with one exception: you. Don’t be surprised when members of your congregation question your new car (“Are you sure you can afford it?”), or your wife’s new dress (“Isn’t it a little extravagant?”), or even your pedigreed puppy (“You bought a dog? When dozens are being destroyed at the pound?”)

Of course, it makes no difference that they have all these things and wouldn’t think of doing without them. You are expected to find your delights elsewhere. While I try not to allow my congregants’ expectations to dictate my purchases, I do remember that possessions have a way of interfering with ministry. It is hard to forget the rich young man whose possessions kept him from following Jesus.

What You Do

Here is the most serious battleground, and it includes two major areas: your personal commitments, and your job performance.

If your faith and sensibilities lead you to march in protest against nuclear weapons, you do so not only as an individual horrified by the potential of nuclear war, but also as a Christian minister—specifically, the pastor of Saint So-and-So’s. To many members, you are not a private citizen: you are their minister, representing them no matter where you are.

Most problems, however, begin closer to home. “I know a good churchman who didn’t come to worship for five weeks, and he says that you never came to his house to find out why!”

I can vividly remember the look of anger in my senior warden’s eye when he confronted me with this little gem in a public meeting. I resisted the urge to ask, “If he was a good churchman, why wasn’t he in church?” and tried instead to redirect his attention to the real issue, which was whether or not my primary function is to serve as some sort of ecclesiastical cop.

I suppose you could rise up in righteous indignation each time you are caught in the Image Gap, demanding that people alter their expectations. But I suspect such behavior would accomplish only two things—alienating your congregation even further, and increasing your blood pressure. There must be a better way—something between indignation and conforming to avoid further conflict.

How do I deal with those people whose expectations leave me feeling vulnerable, open to hurt?

I must look to the Lord who was often in situations where someone was surprised at his behavior. He ignored a 700-year-old blood feud and social convention to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink. He rendered an unexpected verdict to an adulteress. He surprised wedding guests at Cana. It is almost as though he welcomed the astonishment of others, as though the Image Gap was a challenging and exciting place.

He also used that surprise as an opportunity to teach. He dealt with them kindly. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” Perhaps the real opportunity being offered to us is not the prospect of altering the expectations of others, but yet another chance for us to become like Christ, who spoke with them intelligently and dealt with them kindly.


Mr. Scott is rector of the Church of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, in Smithtown, New York.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.