Many of us chose to become pastors because we love the church.
We love the strange blend of characters who have been brought to this place. We love the sound of many voices singing the same songs over and over. We love the way a community of ordinary, broken people can somehow express something transcendent to the world.
Given our desire to see people brought together and cared for, it’s a strange, sad reality that often pastors—the ones who love and lead the church—find ourselves without a church. At least not in the same way others have a church. In a cruel twist of irony, the church we lead isn’t really church for us. Some of the biggest challenges we face may come from the very congregation we lead. Maybe someone who reminds you of your estranged father rejects you just like he did, or you endure a sleepless night after receiving petty criticism from a parishioner. Who will be church for us when we have to talk to someone about the pain or loneliness of leading a church?
Scripture describes a unique role for leaders. Paul calls himself and Apollos fellow workers who planted and watered. The recipients of his letter were the field (1 Cor. 3:1–9). James 3:1 cautions, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Clearly the leaders of a congregation are there to serve the congregation, not themselves.
At the same time, as part of our service to the congregation, we need to be personally invested. We do our congregations a disservice if we pretend we have no need for church. How well could a chef cook if he never tasted the food? If we pretend we have no need for church, we minimize the very thing we’re leading. If we are only functionaries, not participants, we risk communicating a closed, distanced kind of leadership. If we only engage professionally in the church we lead, we’ll lose touch with everyone else there who is engaging personally.
I remember the time a prayer training I’d organized became an unexpected opportunity to learn my need for my own congregation. During the training, I raised a question which was obviously connected to some deep ministry disappointment in me. The trainer responded with, “That seems significant, Mandy. Can we pray for you now?” Although I was uncomfortable, I chose to let 15 members of my community gather around me and pray for me. I sat cross-legged on the floor and sobbed while they laid hands on me, and I felt surrounded by the body of Christ in a way I’d never known before. And although I would have preferred to calmly tell the church about a time when people prayed for me, it was more meaningful for them to get to participate in it, to watch me trust in God and in the power of communal prayer. While I gathered myself afterwards, wondering if I should be ashamed for letting my people see me in need, several folks approached me to say it was the most powerful part of the training. Somehow I blessed them by letting them bless me.
It’s a fine line to walk—to know we’re responsible for tending the garden, yet to admit we need nourishment from what grows there. How can we acknowledge our need for church while also leading a church? We can’t just let what feels right determine our engagement since that will likely grow from our personality and family of origin. More extraverted pastors may have a tendency to overshare and become connected in a way that is not healthy for their congregations. Introverted pastors may keep to themselves in a way that feels selfless but actually keeps people at arm’s length. As a peacemaker and people-pleaser, I love connection with folks and have a tendency to be everyone’s best friend in a way that is not always helpful for them or for me. And simultaneously, as an introvert, I tend to process privately and keep my needs to myself in a misdirected effort at selflessness which actually makes people feel I’m trying to be self-sufficient. How do we engage with our congregations in a way that is healthy for them and for us, for the sake of the kingdom?
Without taking a consumerist view of the congregation, it may be helpful to break down some of the key spiritual, emotional, and relational needs that a church often meets. Participants in a local congregation find various spiritual hungers fed by that congregation. The congregations we lead can be our church in some of these ways, yet other needs must be met apart from our congregations.
It’s hard to find people who can think of us as a brother or sister without thinking of how our needs or questions might affect them as a member of our congregation. And even if we have spiritual leaders in place in our congregations or denominations, they may not be a natural connection for us because of power dynamics or personality. Thankfully the Lord has provided several older, wise folks in my congregation who knew me before I was pastor and so can see me not only as their pastor but also as a sister in Christ.
Not everyone is so lucky. It is especially crucial for these pastors to find insight through regular time with a spiritual director. Sustainable Faith and Grafted Life Ministries are both excellent places to find a spiritual director. I see a sister at a local monastery once a month. Since the Catholic church has a rich tradition of spiritual direction, you could contact a local monastery or Catholic retreat center to ask if they offer this service.
While we may not have a pastoral teacher in the sense others in the congregation do, the work of living among followers and watching how they know God is one of our best teachers. In sermons and bible studies I often share things I’m sensing from God that seem significant but vague. Then someone in the congregation takes hold of them and applies them to their life in a beautiful way. The original insight takes on new meaning for me as I watch someone live it out. In conversation with folks throughout the week, I often find myself surprised and edified by the ways they see and live Scripture. And that includes children. They are some of my best teachers.
Of course, we’ll have many opportunities to listen to other teachers through reading, podcasts, and conferences. But some of the best learning opportunities come from attending to the Lord on a daily basis. He, ultimately, is the leader and teacher of this congregation and of this pastor. He somehow knows how to interweave the week’s sermon theme with my personal struggles and what a staff member says on Tuesday morning with what a woman says at Thursday evening prayer group. Out of trust in this possibility, I choose to begin sermon prep by lying in bed and listening to the Bible passage over and over, resting from my efforts to make something amazing for others and resting in the possibility that whatever he wants to say through me he first wants to say to me.
Friendship and Community
I haven’t always done this perfectly. One time I spotted a church member in the park on my day off. At first I enjoyed chatting with him without being in pastor mode—until he began to complain about our church. Instead of my usual pastoral response, my guard was down and I responded from hurt feelings.
Then there was the time I was grieving, but because I didn’t want to “burden” anyone, I soldiered on resentfully. Folks were (understandably) hurt that I didn’t trust them enough to care for me. Even the work of discerning this balance puts us in a unique situation in our congregations.
Because of these difficult dynamics, we need friends outside of our congregations to help us learn how to be friends with those in our congregations. Perhaps your denomination offers opportunities to gather with other leaders. If not, I recommend reaching out to pastors in your city for a monthly time to pray and support one another. I’ve found it meaningful to join a network of churches—Ecclesia Network—since my church is nondenominational. Every year at our national gathering, I say, “Here I can just go to church instead of planning it!” I also had a great experience with Fuller Seminary’s Micah Groups where pastors participate in an online curriculum and then gather with a closed group of other pastors 12 times for one or two years.
Opportunities to Serve
In addition to the things outlined in our job descriptions, pastors have opportunities—often unknown to others—to serve outside our professional roles. My church building is on a busy, urban street corner, and every Sunday morning the street shows evidence of the previous night’s parties. I don’t look forward to finding this mess early on a Sunday morning, especially when the sermon is defying my efforts to shape it. But on the days that I grab a broom and trash bag, my heart changes. I move from irritation to calm. The task invites me to pray for the folks who were on the street late the night before. The sweeping slows my racing heart, reminds me why I’m here, why I’m even writing a sermon. By the time I finish, the street and my heart are better off.
And, just like others in the congregation, we sometimes need permission to say no to some service opportunities, taking into consideration our capacity, our health, and how much else we’re doing on any given day. When we can’t get to the store in time for a food drive or we aren’t able to visit a person in the hospital, we have to trust that we’re helping to shape a community that will help meet those needs. The many hours we invest developing other servants also counts as service.
Practical Help and Assistance
Our own churches can and should walk alongside us in the daily things and provide practical help in times of crisis. Of course, we have to be thoughtful about how we share our needs and the needs of our family. For example, one of my greatest sources of pain is living far from extended family in a culture not my own. But if I talk about it too much with my congregation, I fear they will hear me saying I’m not invested in this neighborhood, in this culture. But if I communicate this loneliness carefully, it can be an opportunity for connection with my congregation—especially those who are also far from home. When I’ve most missed my family in Australia, folks here have been my family, and I have been blessed by knowing they can meet that need in my life. As humbling as it is to confess my needs, if I am blessed by blessing them, why would I withhold an opportunity for them to be blessed by blessing me?
Being Part of Something Bigger Than Ourselves
Pastors bear significant burdens. Within one week, we may chair a tense meeting, take a midnight phone call about burst pipes, get bad news about the offering, and walk a parishioner through a suicide attempt—all while managing our personal lives. And no one in the congregation may know all that we’re carrying.
Yet pastors also have a front row seat to miracles. We get to hear stories of healing and hope, sometimes stories no one else will know. Some of the most transcendent moments of my life come from the unique place from which I’m allowed to watch God at work in his church. I get to see many different stories blend into one voice. Every Sunday morning, when I end the service by leading the doxology, all I have to do is sing the first note and then the rest of the congregation comes in. The sound builds and washes over me. My voice blends with many others, and what I began grows so much bigger than me.
As always, our best model in this is Jesus. He took the risk to call his disciples friends, letting three of them into his closest confidence. He let them see him in his moments of greatest brokenness. Yet he found his deepest connection with the Father, always returning to the Father’s guidance and comfort. Jesus did not lose himself in an effort to please people. His connection to the Father gave him wisdom about how and where to share himself. I need to remind myself to follow his example, as described in John 2:24–25: “Jesus would not entrust himself to them ... for he knew what was in each person.”
We will not get it right every time. We will overshare and under-share. We will become codependent and self-sufficient. Even the process of discerning this is a spiritual discipline teaching us God’s grace. When we’re having a hard day and a mature congregant asks how they can pray for us, will we share? And if so, how much? When our own marriage needs some help, will we participate in the marriage class alongside our congregants? This teaches us, as pastors, the experience that all church members have: to have grace for human beings’ and the church’s imperfections. As people learn to set appropriate expectations of us and we learn to share ourselves with them, we will all be released from our temptation to idolize human leadership (even our own). And we will all learn to find our deepest connection in the One who is our truest friend of all.
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.