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Why Appreciate a Pastor?

I was forwarded an email yesterday about “Pastor Appreciation Month.” I think I vaguely knew that this was a thing, but I had no idea that it was upon us. Apparently, one of the ways that my church can show appreciation to me is to give me a gift certificate for a discount on books. It’s a nice gesture. But honestly the last thing I need is more books. I already have a dozen waiting to be read and I have probably reached that stage of life and ministry where I am less optimistic than I once was that a book holds the key to whatever intellectual, pastoral, or administrative deficiencies I daily inflict upon my church. But, again, a nice gesture. And it got me pondering a rather simple question: Why appreciate a pastor?

Well, the short answer is because while being a pastor is incredibly rewarding in many ways, it’s also kinda hard. Not harder than being a farmer or a nurse or a builder or a business person or a professor, I should hasten to add. Just harder in different ways. I spent some time this morning enumerating some of the things that I, personally, find most challenging about this utterly unique position that I never imagined I’d find myself in.

I want to be explicitly clear at the outset that this is not a plea for sympathy or some kind of passive aggressive dig at my church for not being sufficiently appreciative. Nothing could be further from the truth. My church is generous and supportive to a fault. But for those who only darken the door of a church a few times a month and wonder what on earth pastors spend the rest of their time doing or how it could possibly be hard to work for twenty minutes once a week (wink, nudge), here’s some of what might be going on in your pastor’s brain when they stand up on Sunday morning. It’s what’s often going on in mine, at any rate.

To be a pastor is to wonder and worry about the future of the church. It’s natural, when one’s professional identity is tied up in the ongoing existence of an institution, to feel this anxiety. Not admirable, perhaps, but natural. These are not the best of times for the church in the West. The church is (rightly and wrongly) associated with all kinds of sins, past and present. People have walked away and continue to walk away in droves. The research and the statistics show only downward trajectories. This can be a demoralizing space to inhabit. It can also be invigorating, I should add, because it can clarify priorities and sharpen theological vision. But it takes work to see the glass as half-full when the world “out there” often sees the thing that you have given your life to as irrelevant at best. And many of us, if we’re honest, have no idea how to “fix” this or turn around trends that aren’t terribly encouraging.

To be a pastor is to often feel incompetent. It’s no secret that people can expect a lot from pastors. A pastor should be a gifted orator, a compelling theologian, an efficient administrator, a sensitive counsellor/caregiver, an intuitive asker of the right question at the right time, a thoughtful event planner, a cheerful networker, a social butterfly… The list goes on and on. A friend of mine was recently on a search committee for a pastor. When I saw the job description at the end of the process, I cringed and said, “Jesus wouldn’t qualify for that job!” Larger multi-staff churches can adopt a divide and conquer approach to this impossible list of demands, but smaller churches can’t. Often it’s one or two people that are expected to cover all that terrain. And speaking personally, after ten years in this gig I know for a fact that I am terrible at some of those things. It’s easy to feel like you’re constantly disappointing some people at least some of the time.

To be a pastor is to constantly fight the temptation to measure your worth and success in the role by unhelpful (and un-Christian) metrics. How many people are in the pews? How many of them are under fifty? How much criticism or praise did the last sermon receive? How many disinterested yawns? How many programs, articles, baptisms, meetings, and pastoral visits can I point to in order to justify my position? How’s the budget looking? Who hasn’t been around in a while? Are the customers satisfied?

To be a pastor is to sometimes feel like you are having faith on behalf of others. Not only are churches emptier and older than they were a generation or two, they’re more skeptical. Those who come aren’t necessarily buying what the church is selling. They’re there for community or some other felt social need, but they’re not at all sure about this “faith” business. It all feels rather exclusive and intolerant. Sometimes it can feel like people are relying on you to keep a faith that they couldn’t.

To be a pastor is to often straddle the fault lines of difficult issues. Our cultural moment is dominated by a constellation of hot-button issues (race, sexuality, gender, identity, etc.). And of course, people bring their issues to church. These issues have the potential to tear families, communities, and churches apart. They have done so in the past. As pastor, people look to you to have something definitive (or at least helpful) to say. But to be a pastor is not simply to dutifully pronounce upon the correct theological conclusions about issue x. It is also to feel a deep (and appropriate) obligation to the real human beings who are wrestling with these issues. It is to know that sometimes it’s best not to have something definitive to say for the sake of preserving a relationship. Sometimes it’s best to withhold judgment. And sometimes? Well, sometimes you just don’t have a damn clue what to say. Sometimes you just don’t know. But “I don’t know” isn’t something pastors are supposed to say.

To be a pastor is to watch people suffer. This one is the most difficult for me. Watching people descend into the abyss of a debilitating disease, watching age steal people’s minds and bodies, listening to the heartache of parents whose kids are carving a swath of chaos and destruction through the lives of everyone around them, watching marriages fall apart, watching faith and hope wither… These things take a psychological toll. Prayer and listening and co-suffering love all matter and make a difference. And to remind people of Christ within them, the hope of glory is the truest thing I will ever say. I am as convinced as I ever was that the church must be a place where human suffering can be interpreted and lived theologically, where it can be anchored in and tethered to the suffering Christ. But it’s easy to feel profoundly helpless in the middle of it all.

This has been a bit bleak, I know. I’m (sort of) sorry about that. This list doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story. And it can feel kind of small and petty when set alongside the realities faced by pastors in situations of persecution and trial around the world. But I still think it tells an important part of the story at this particular time in this particular place. I know many pastors who have walked away from the role because they found it too exhausting or frustrating or whatever. I know other pastors who struggle to put on a brave, happy faithful face on Sunday morning while inside they are falling apart. If nothing else, the preceding might inspire you to say a prayer for your pastor as they clear their throat behind the pulpit next Sunday morning. Or to remember that grace is among the best forms of appreciation.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff Kisner #

    When I once taught undergrads preparing for ministry/seminary, I likened the pastorate to juggling an egg, a bowling ball, and a running chainsaw. I would get the “deer in the headlights” glare from most of them.

    October 17, 2018
    • That’s quite an image! 🙂

      October 17, 2018
  2. Elvira Dueck #

    All the more reason to keep on praying for you as well as our own pastor regularly.

    Love, Grandma.

    October 17, 2018
    • Thanks, grandma. Your prayers mean more than you probably know.

      October 18, 2018
  3. Kevin K #

    Thanks for waking up and taking on the challenge of being a pastor each day… Appreciated the thoughtful and honest reflection about the profession. Grace indeed is the best kind of appreciation. Well said.

    October 17, 2018
  4. Paul Johnston #

    It must be more troubling for those in ministry to acknowledge God’s absence from their profession and in their own lives, than it is in others. The best priests I know bring God with them, they pray constantly.

    Norman Greenbaum sang it well in the 70’s…”I got a friend in Jesus and you know that when I die, He’s gonna recommend me to the Spirit in the Sky”….that belief that you are with Christ and saved is the very first step to focusing your gaze outward and away from yourself. God is with you, always. Wherever you go then, one thing is certain, the Holy Spirit is present with you and to others.

    Know Christ is with you. Bring this Christ to others. The rest is indeed grace.

    October 18, 2018
    • It’s not immediately clear to me why you would interpret a post about the challenges of the pastoral role as an acknowledgment of “God’s absence in my profession and life?” I don’t think that is true at all. I believe that Christ is around and within me everywhere I go.

      October 18, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        The acknowledged, “bleakness” of tone, for starters. The litany of complaint. Not a word about the honor, priviledge, joy and pleasure of serving. How blessed is a man whose employment is found in service of God and community?….wash dishes for a while, work a call centre….

        All the uncertainty of outcomes and the despondancy such uncertainty creates, in this post. The faithlessness of the statement, “inside they are falling apart”.

        Really! Someone can be aware of God’s presence, can be in relationship with Him through prayer, mediated by the Holy Spirit, and still feel like their life is falling apart. That is not the truth as I know it.

        This program is a bad idea. Puts the emphasis on the pastor, not the Lord.

        The spirit of worries listed here are entirely rational from the human perspective but they are not of God.

        Suffering to the faithful is redemptive. You acknowledge this and yet still feel, “profoundly helpless” as if this was a bad thing. As if a pastor or a priest for that matter? can play God.

        Take comfort in your awareness of your own helplessness. Rather then see it as a fault, know it is this awareness that keeps you tethered to God.

        October 19, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Here’s a thought for a new post. Rather then beginning with the throw away line, “of course there are rewards” then immediately pivoting into several paragraphs of the challanges and difficulties, start by acknowledging that there are difficulties and give us several paragraphs of the joy you encounter in service to the Lord.

        Just a thought. 😊

        October 19, 2018
      • Perhaps you’re right, Paul.

        October 19, 2018
  5. Great column; I want to send it (with appreciation) to my pastor, as a way of saying “I know, I know…” Thanks for hanging in there, and for writing too.

    October 18, 2018
    • Much appreciated, Dora.

      October 18, 2018
  6. mike #

    I appreciate you, Ryan, and I appreciate you being here. I know that if I ever need pastoral advice,you would make yourself available to me, and for that I Thank You.

    October 19, 2018
    • Thanks very much, Mike. I appreciate this.

      October 19, 2018
  7. mike #

    Francis Chan is, I believe,on the cutting edge of a fresh revelation from the Holy Spirit. This might be helpful to all the pastors out there who’s model of doing church is failing.

    October 19, 2018

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