Expectations of the minister’s role are increasingly demanding and unforgiving.

Having spent the past year researching the positive and negative dynamics at work within the church of Jesus Christ, author and editor Marshall Shelley offers some specifics to strengthen the relationships between pastor and parishioner.

While he knelt in prayer at his church in Onalaska, Wisconsin, 64-year-old parish priest John Rossiter was shot and killed by a 29-year-old man who objected to the priest’s decision to allow school-girls to read the Scripture at a children’s mass.

Granted, that episode last February is an extreme example of parishioner dissatisfaction. Many churches enjoy their pastors and find ways to show their appreciation. Assassination, thankfully, is still a rarity; unfortunately, reports of clergy casualties from emotional assaults are not.

“I’m the fifth pastor in eight years at this church,” wrote one Nazarene pastor to LEADERSHIP journal. “In the last two years I’ve found out why. But my congregation is not the only one. There seems to be a lot of hostility toward pastors in our town regardless of denomination. The constant struggle with personal attacks and putdowns has drained me of enthusiasm. I feel like I’m bleeding to death.”

Despite being a gathered community of saints, the church continues to be, as one observer puts it, “the one place where all are welcome … the difficult and the dear … the one public place in the world where one can vent one’s gall, relieve one’s frustrations, reveal one’s distortions, and still expect to be heard.” After spending the last year researching one thorn in the pastor’s flesh—difficult people—I’ve discovered angry individuals are only one of the threats to a pastor’s survival and effectiveness.

The problem of battered pastors is not always caused by specific individuals as much as by the changing expectations of the pastor’s role—expectations that in the last 15 years have become increasingly demanding and unforgiving.

The effect can be seen in the thousands of pastors desperate to leave unhappy situations. It is not uncommon for even small churches to advertise a pastoral opening and be flooded with resumes.

Many come from pastors already placed but eager to move somewhere—anywhere—to escape an unbearable situation. Others come from unemployed pastors.

Part of this is due to an oversupply of Protestant clergy. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reports that of the approximately 410,000 Protestant clergy in the United States, 250,000 serve parishes. Many, of course, are in other professions. (The oversupply sharply contrasts with the number of Catholic priests, which U.S. News and World Report projects will decline by the year 2000 to half the present 58,000.) This oversupply not only makes placement more competitive, but it also has the effect of devaluing an individual pastor.

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At a recent business meeting in a Baptist church to discuss the budget, with the pastor and his family present, one man stood to say, “We don’t need to give the minister a raise. If this isn’t enough for the current pastor, we can always get another one for less.”

Is it any wonder then, as church consultant Lyle Schaller points out, “a substantial number of pastors find themselves very receptive to the idea of moving to another congregation approximately 35 to 45 months after arriving in that pastorate”? They find, however, the grass is rarely greener elsewhere.

What causes this desperation? According to the old adage, “It’s not the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” Most pastors can handle the mountains and survive the crises, but some aspects of the daily grind wear them out and bring an end to their ministry. From my contact with pastors, here are two of the most devastating grains of sand.

Everyone’s Expectations

Despite two decades of emphasis on lay ministry and the priesthood of all believers, people still have distinct ideas about what pastors are supposed to do and be.

“I always laugh when I think of the time we announced we would be adopting our first son,” says Bonnie Halcomb, a pastor’s wife in Milwaukee. “One dear old lady told my husband, ‘That’s how every pastor and his wife should have children.’ ”

If some people think pastors should be sexless, others think they should be sinless.

Researchers David and Vera Mace found that while only about 50 percent of pastors complained of such things as time pressure or lack of family privacy in the pastorate, a full 85 percent said they felt the congregation expected their marriage to be a model of perfection.

A study by the Association of Theological Schools on “Readiness for Ministry” reports that even fledgling clergy are expected to exhibit at least nine personal characteristics while performing their roles—ranging from “serving without concern for public recognition” to “ability to honor commitments … despite all pressures to compromise” to the ability to “handle stressful situations by remaining calm under pressure while continuing to affirm persons.”

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The report, presumably issued in utter seriousness, somehow overlooked the item about walking on water. As G. K. Chesterton said, “People pay ministers to be good, to show the rest of us it doesn’t pay to be good.”

Yes, there are legitimate demands for church leaders to practice what they preach. Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus are clear. Yet some congregations come pretty close to expecting not maturity but divinity. (Do they take an M.Div. literally?)

These personal expectations are not new. Some 1,600 years ago John Chrysostom observed, “The minister’s shortcomings simply cannot be concealed.… However trifling their offences, these little things seem great to others, since everyone measures sin, not by the size of the offense, but by the standing of the sinner.”

What’s new are the functional expectations. Pastoral roles have multiplied in recent years.

“I find very few individuals with an unrealistic expectation of the pastor—it’s the composite image that gets to you,” said one Congregational pastor. “Each person expects something different. And rarely does anyone outside the pastoral family see the composite.”

  • The servant-shepherd, quietly meeting personal needs without regard for personal acclaim.
  • The prophet-politician, dominating local headlines while fighting for truth and justice.
  • The preacher-enthraller, attracting the unchurched with entertaining, uplifting sermons.
  • The teacher-theologian, challenging the most serious Bible student with verse-by-verse “meat” of the Word.
  • The evangelist-exhorter, winning converts through both private conversation and public crusade.
  • The organizer-promoter, administering an effective Christian education program, music ministry, and social activities for all ages.
  • The caller-comforter, visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved, playing checkers with the lonely.
  • The counselor-reconciler, offering guidance to the distressed, therapy for the disturbed, mediation for those in dispute, and restoration for the divorced.
  • The equipper-enabler, personally training motivated lay people to serve, prophesy, preach, teach, evangelize, organize, call, and counsel.
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As Methodist minister Pierce Harris puts it, “The modern preacher has to make as many visits as a country doctor, shake as many hands as a politician, prepare as many briefs as a lawyer, and see as many people as a specialist. He has to be as good an executive as the president of a university, as good a financier as a bank president; and in the midst of it all, he has to be so good a diplomat that he could umpire a baseball game between the Knights of Columbus and the Ku Klux Klan.”

Not only are individual expectations different and sometimes mutually exclusive, but the basis for judging has changed in the last 15 years. Until the age of Christian mass media, pastors were compared, if at all, only with their predecessor or colleagues across town.

Today, however, standards have been elevated. Jerry Falwell has become the standard for measuring political involvement. Evangelistic effectiveness is judged against the most recent film series. Counseling techniques are compared with seminar leaders and authors of religious psychology. Preaching is stacked against Swindoll, Graham, or Schuller.

No longer are pastors allowed to be generalists, jacks of all trades; today is an age of specialization. It is not even enough to be a master of one area. Different church members expect pastors to be specialists in almost every area.

“I appreciate the Christian leaders who have become prominent in one field or another,” said one minister. “But some of their devoted followers in my congregation make life miserable by expecting me to duplicate the work of all the Christian achievers.”

One Colorado pastor has found that despite marching in several prolife rallies and emphasizing the sanctity of life regularly in sermons, some church members are not satisfied. “They tell me that abortion is the single most important issue of the day, and if I don’t condemn it at every opportunity, I’m selling out,” he said. “I support their cause, but I try to explain that God calls different people to different roles. As a pastor, I need to attend prolife rallies, but being prolife also means ministering to nursery workers, troubled junior highers, searching college students, harried young parents, and suffering older folks.

“Zealots can’t understand that … until their junior higher is the one with a problem.

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“Too often they seem to think that because God called them to a specific task, he’s necessarily called me to it as well. Some friends of mine are called to be missionaries in the Philippines, and I support them; but that doesn’t mean I’m supposed to go there, too.”

In some ways, thanks to these expectations, the pastoral pedestal is higher and more precarious than ever.

Everyone’s Evaluations

In other ways, however, the pastoral pedestal has been removed. The office is no longer guaranteed respect. In a sense, pastors today must continually work against themselves: To the degree that they move laity toward more significant ministry, they remove some of the mystique of the pastoral profession and limit its power.

Today, few positions are so open to public evaluation as that of pastor. Like quarterbacks and presidents, pastors are fair game for second guessers. Often sermons are received not so much as a word from God to be obeyed but a suggestion from the pastor to be debated.

Everyone, regardless of training, has an opinion on what a church service should be. The dilemma for pastors is that they know these evaluations are often unfair, but they need feedback from the congregation. Even pastors who know faithfulness cannot be measured in quantifiable terms are desperate for encouragement.

“No matter how many times I tell myself not to, I always wind up asking my wife as we walk home from church, ‘Well, how was it?’ ” said one Presbyterian who has pastored his church 23 years. “I know I shouldn’t be so concerned what people think, but I can’t seem to help it. I have to know.”

Not only do pastors need the informal encouragement, but formal support as well. But sometimes, if poorly handled, feedback can actually hinder the ministry.

One pastor suddenly found his board wanting to operate in a more “businesslike” manner. For instance, they asked him to log his time so they could monitor his priorities. With detailed schedules in hand, they then began instructing him to “spend less time in sermon preparation and more in counseling.” They also wanted him to set “specific, measurable goals.”

“I don’t mind them being more organized,” the pastor said. “But if they’re going by business standards, I wish they had been consistent. Unlike a business, they offered no annual review, no pay raise, and no recognition of my ten-year anniversary with the church. Not wanting to seem petty, I didn’t bring these things up, but their new ‘efficiency’ has only made ministry a joyless and literally thankless task.”

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How can pastors and churches develop expectations and evaluations helpful for both sides?

A Realistic Role

Obviously, a spirit of mutual appreciation and respect is the essential foundation. “With the right spirit, a clumsy church structure will work. Without the right spirit, an ideal structure won’t work,” says Malcolm Cronk, pastor of Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

But in addition, three suggestions, while not providing the solution for every situation, may prove helpful in dealing with the realities of role confusion.

Look for gifts, not greatness. Congregations are rightfully concerned about the minister’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, their concern sometimes focuses solely on attendance or financial growth. A better test of a whether a pastor is effective is to look for signs of the pastoral gift.

Different churches have different emphases, but at bottom, they all need someone with a gift of pastoring. The signs of such a gift?

1. A mature understanding of God’s Word.

2. The ability to communicate that Word, whether through preaching or through interpersonal skills.

3. Growth in people’s lives. When a genuine gift is exercised, something happens; perhaps it is not seen in spectacular numbers, but the Word of God is having an effect.

If these are in evidence, the church probably does not need to be looking for someone “greater.”

This pastoral gift is different from other gifts—fund raising, for instance, or even evangelism.

Recently a Bible college that promoted itself as a training ground for pastors called as its president a well-known traveling evangelist. He has never pastored a congregation and as an evangelist has understandably focused on a successful but one-dimensional ministry. His priority for the school is to equip students to “win the 3 billion lost souls in the world.”

One of the school’s alumni, now a seminary professor, said, “I have no doubt [the new president] will succeed in his goal of equipping students to be evangelists. I also have no doubt that many congregations will suffer from the lack of priestly ministry necessary to sustain them in the celebrations and sorrows of life. There is a difference in the call of an evangelist from one who is a shepherd of souls.”

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Some congregations thrive with a “pastor” who is an evangelist (or administrator or social activist or …), but they must recognize that the real pastoring will have to come from another source, either a lay person or pastoral staff member.

Let the pastor lead with personal strengths. The healthiest churches admit their pastors cannot be specialists in every area, so they let the pastor major on two or three areas of strength.

Building a Healthy Church

There are several keys to building a healthy church atmosphere, including:

A positive tone. This can be modeled personally:

  • By praising publicly the congregation’s strengths.
  • By enjoying and taking pride in the diversity among church members.
  • By thanking critics, at least initially, for their candor and concern.
  • By assuming anything uncomplimentary you say about anyone will be repeated—because it probably will be—and by trusting very few people with your private criticisms and suspicions.
  • By being slow to step into other people’s problems—balancing Paul’s instruction to carry, with some qualifications, each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:1–5) and Jesus’ refusal to intervene in the disputes of others (Luke 12:14).

One pastor who has seen his church transformed from a defeated, divided group to an enthusiastic, high-morale congregation says, “Obviously the Holy Spirit is responsible for this kind of change, but I think he honored some of our efforts in that direction, too. We began focusing on the joys of life rather than bemoaning our discouragements. You don’t cover up your disappointments, failed programs, and lost votes, but neither do you dwell on them or announce them from the pulpit.”

When the fruit of the Spirit becomes characteristic of the church’s daily life, it becomes painfully clear whenever someone violates that spirit (“That’s not the way we do things around here”), and the body itself will work to take care of the irritation.

Adapted from Well-Intentioned Dragons (LEADERSHIP/Word, 1985)

This means both the congregation and the pastor must admit something is being relinquished. Congregations must overcome their assumption that the pastor can do everything other pastors do. Pastors must overcome their desire to retain control over every area of church ministry. Relinquishing an area of personal weakness means entrusting it to someone else—not always an easy task.

But unless it is done, pastors find themselves increasingly ineffective, and both congregation and pastor grow increasingly dissatisfied.

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In his book Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald, until recently pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, says, “Because I had not adequately defined my sense of mission … because I had not been ruthless enough with my weaknesses, I found that I normally invested inordinately large amounts of time doing things I was not good at, while the tasks I should have been able to do with excellence and effectiveness were preempted. I know many Christian leaders who candidly admit they spend up to 80 percent of their time doing things at which they are second-best.”

Unless the congregation allows the pastor to focus on areas of strength, his or her time will inevitably flow in the direction of relative weakness, depriving the church of the best the pastor can offer.

Let commitment mean something. Too seldom is the relationship between pastor and congregation a happy marriage; more often it is a temporary live-in arrangement based on “as long as we both shall love” instead of “as long as we both shall live.”

Commitment can mean something, even in the church. Some congregations condemn divorce but sever their relationship with a pastor as soon as he displeases them. Yes, there are times for ministers to move, but the call of a pastor, like any other commitment, is not negated just because of differences, even serious differences. Perseverance is the ultimate test of commitment—whether to God or another human being.

Sooner or later, we all must accept the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect marriage—neither between husband/wife nor pastor/people. And if there is, it will not stay that way long. No relationship is static. In fact, it is doubtful that any marriage can even be called good unless it is continually growing, admitting the growing pains, and reaffirming a commitment to work together in the new circumstances.

David Schuller, an ordained Lutheran and associate director of the Association of Theological Schools, points out that our responses to tension and ambiguity are the essence of maturity: “A sense of peace and stability may be a delusion and a false expectation. Some clergy talk longingly of becoming personally ‘freed up’ in order to be able to serve more fully. Only slowly is the truth learned: Ministry ‘happens’ most authentically in the midst of suffering and ambiguity. One’s own human predicament forms part of the response of ministry.”

While we continue to long for the glorious ideal, it is faithfulness in the less than ideal that brings glory to God.

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