How You Can Help Your Pastor

The following is an except from the book “Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome” by Kent Hughes called “How the Congregation Can Help”. 

The wife of a close pastor friend of ours enjoys telling how she awoke one night to find her husband asleep on his elbows and knees at the foot of the bed. His arms were cupped before him as if he were embracing the base of a tree, and he was muttering.

“George! What on earth are you doing?” she cried.

“Shhh,” he answered, still asleep. “I’m holding a pyramid of marbles together, and if I move, it’s going to tumble down. . . .”

A classic pastor’s dream! First, because it was the subconscious revelation of a pressured parson. Second, because the pyramid of marbles is an apt metaphor for a pastor’s work.

The pastor’s inevitable knowledge of the forces at work among his people—the individual sins of some, the hidden family problems, the conflicts between members, the dissatisfactions, the life-style inconsistencies, the differing perspectives on what the church should be—can make the pastor feel as if one wrong move will bring the whole thing down. This feeling is not a sign of weakness, nor is it new to the church. It is typical of the heart that cares.

What is it like to be a pastor? What can a congregation do to help him and encourage his success?

Understand Your Pastor

As we try to understand something of what it is like to be a pastor, we must realize several things: First, the following are generalizations, and no one pastor experiences or feels all that is here described. Second, the following is descriptive of a serious, hardworking pastor who is trying to do his best. We’re not talking about ministerial dilettantes or sluggards here. Third, what follows emphasizes the “heavy” side of pastoral experience (when the arms are supporting the pyramid), and must be balanced by what has already been said about the joys and supreme privilege of the call in chapter 12.

Your pastor’s calling is uniquely absorbing. A minister’s calling is naturally absorbing precisely because it is a call. He did not choose his vocation, however willingly he pursued it. Rather, he was chosen for the vocation. Therefore, he does not regard his ministry as simply a job.

A pastoral colleague once quipped, when asked how he was doing, “Things could be worse; I could be doing this for a living!” thus making cheerful reference to the fact that his was not a job but a calling. A dedicated pastor cannot, and dare not, approach his calling as a nine-to- five proposition, or even a career. God’s call is upon all his life. It is impossible for him to separate his calling from the rest of his life as is possible in some professions. A divine call to ministry demands absorption.

The call is further absorbing because the pastor regularly deals with life-and-death issues. Other professions may require one to focus on the outcome of a business transaction, an athletic contest, or even the diagnosis of a disease. But the outcome of the pastor’s preaching and counseling can mean, humanly speaking, life and death for eternal souls. This reality alone requires vast concentration. And more, it is compounded by the intensely personal nature of pastoral work; so much of it is eye to eye and heart to heart.

Then there is the time factor that further promotes absorption. No dedicated pastor, regardless of the size of his congregation, can do his job in a forty-hour week. To begin with, if he takes his preaching seriously (which he must!) it will require nearly half that time. My own schedule requires a twenty-five hour commitment, though I have been preaching for years. In a forty-hour week, that leaves fifteen hours for prayer, counseling, administration, staff meeting, visitation, and emergencies. A total impossibility! By definition a shepherd’s time is not his own. He must always be available for the unexpected. Furthermore, most pastors of smaller churches do not have enough office help, so they find their time diverted from their main pastoral responsibilities.

The time-consuming nature of the pastoral calling, coupled with the fact that it is a divine call that deals with life-and-death issues on an intimate, personal level, makes the ministry uniquely absorbing. This in turn, presents great dangers to the pastor.

Foremost among the dangers is that he takes himself too seriously. Some preachers, though thankfully not so many today, fall into this error. Spurgeon once characterized them as having their neckties twisted around their souls. They are the doleful parsons whom novelists delight to caricature. A helpful pastoral epigram here is: While we cannot take our xvork seriously enough, we must never take ourselves too seriously. The Master’s servants are at best clay pots—cracked, at that!

Another similar danger is the messiah complex. This is seen in the pastor who is so engrossed in his work that he imagines nothing can be done right without him. He is the ubiquitous preacher, present at every committee meeting, presiding at every function, a voice on legs. He has lost touch with the liberating truth that he is expendable.

An allied danger of ministerial absorption is a preoccupied soul. Such a minister’s mind is always somewhere else. He faces you when you speak, but he always seems to be looking past you. It is an ugly trait.

The classic symptom of pastoral absorption is overwork. He puts everything into his work and thinks that he is justified in doing so. And the tragic result of such absorption is neglect of family.

We say all of this because the congregation must realize that absorption is endemic to the pastoral call. One cannot be a good pastor without it, but unchecked it can ruin him. The congregation wishing to understand its pastor and help promote his success must understand this and take proper steps to assist him, as we will later see.

The Difficulty of Your Pastor’s Calling

In 1925, when Karl Barth was offered the church of Neu- munster near Zurich, Switzerland, he remembered his previous pastorate and demurred:

I am troubled by the memory of how greatly, how yet more greatly, I failed finally as a pastor of Safenwil. . . . The prospect of having to teach children again, of having to take hold of all kinds of practical problems … is really fearful to me.

Karl Barth, whom many (though they may take issue with his theology) consider to be the greatest theological mind of the twentieth century, found the pastorate to be terribly difficult.

Likewise, William Barclay, professor of New Testament at Glasgow and well-known popularizer of biblical scholarship, wrote candidly of his memories:

I began by being the pastor of a congregation. I can honestly say that that part of my work was the most difficult and exhausting that I ever had to do . . .it was also the most humiliating, in that it could have been done so much better.

Thus two men, whose names today are veritable household words among pastors and students, testify to the difficulty of the pastoral ministry, publicly affirming what all pastors know from their experience.

Why is the pastorate so challenging and difficult? Because it is opposed by Satan. The devil hates Christ, his church, and those who lead it. And because of this, church leaders are regularly subjected to special attention from his demonic hosts. This is especially true if one’s ministry shows particular spiritual progress. There is a diabolical wisdom coordinating the forces of evil that makes ministers inevitable targets for difficulty. Every congregation must understand this and accordingly pray for their pastors if they wish them to succeed.

But apart from this fundamental spiritual reason for ministerial difficulty there is also a natural reason, namely, that the pastorate demands that one do so many things well. The pastor is called to be a competent leader, administrator, counselor, and preacher all at the same time. This may not seem daunting from the outside, but from within it is formidable.

To begin with, the pastor functions as the chief executive officer of a volunteer organization! No one, except his secretary and his assistant (if he has either), is compelled to do anything he says. His situation would prove impossible for a business-world CEO, whose wish is his subordinates’ command. The pastor cannot lead by command but must lead by example and influence. And if at any point a parishioner disagrees, he can tell his CEO what he thinks and walk out or form an opposition movement. This functional egalitarianism makes leadership a most delicate art.

This is compounded by the fact that the church, so simple to the uninformed, is an immensely complex structure. The church, though the names of the boards and committees will vary, will normally have separate boards of elders, deacons, missions, and education, which in turn will have a welter of standing and ad hoc committees. The hierarchical structure may look good on paper but the daily functioning will reveal a web of confusion of responsibilities and territorial breeches that would tax the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin.

Not only must the pastor lead a complex volunteer organization, he must also be a skilled personal counselor. In more than twenty years of ministerial counseling, I have dealt with just about every sin and problem conceivable. I can no longer be shocked. The idea of a naive pastor is a laughable myth. It is doubtful if a professional psychologist has confronted things any more complex and bizarre than I. And as any counselor will tell you, such counseling is intensely draining. There are psychologists who will book no more than fifteen hours of counseling per week because of the emotional stress. Most pastors have several hours of counseling in their weekly schedules! And because sins often affect other members of the congregation and the sociology of sin can extend back for years, pastoral counseling can be even more stressful. Counseling is a major element in making the pastorate difficult.

But perhaps the greatest challenge in pastoring is preaching. This first issues from the huge responsibility one bears in preaching the Word. C. H. Spurgeon gave eloquent testimony to this when he said:

It may be light work to you men of genius and learning; but to me it is life and death work. Often have I thought that I would rather take a whipping with a cat-o’-ninetails than preach again. How can I answer for it at the last great day unless I am faithful? “Who is sufficient for these things?” When I have felt the dread responsibility of souls that may be lost or saved by the word they hear . . . [it] made me wish that I had never ventured on so bold a life-work. How shall I give an honorable account of my commission at last?

For Spurgeon and anyone else who sees the greatness of the responsibility, preaching becomes difficult because it can never be good enough.

In this connection, preaching is difficult because it demands the best of the preacher. Uncovering the exegetical meaning of a text in its context can take hours of work; giving the central idea of the text sermonic shape takes even more hours; applying and illustrating it, still more. And then, even if the preacher is St. Augustine, the sermon may not measure up. “My preaching,” said Augustine, “almost always displeases me.”

Not least among the challenges of preaching is that the pastor speaks to the same people week after week. In awe of this, John Bright, the famous English statesman and orator, said, “Nothing that I can think of would induce me to undertake to speak to the same audience once a week for a year!”6 Nevertheless, God calls his pastors to do it once, and often twice or three times a week. Any congregation that has sat under a pastor for several years has heard just about all his “silver bullets,” favorite stories, anecdotes, and illustrations. The challenge of preaching to the same people increases with time!

Finally, preaching is intrinsically difficult because of the self-exposure it entails. Phillips Brooks, the redoubtable preacher of turn-of-the-century Boston, said, “Preaching is God’s truth mediated through personality.” Brooks was stressing the necessity that the preacher internalize the truth and then present it through his own experience. Ultimately this involves some exposure and pain. Bruce Thieleman puts it this way:

The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors; and like the sea, it batters and bruises, and does not rest. … To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time and to know each time that you must do it again.

This is not to say that preaching is an onerous task. Far from it—it is a glorious calling! Rather, it is to stress that preaching is a uniquely difficult task because it is so personal, so time-consuming, and such a vast responsibility.

Any congregation that cares about understanding its pastor must understand and believe that the ministry is uniquely difficult; first, because the pastor is a special target of Satan’s opposition; and second, because he is called to do so many required things well—lead a volunteer organization, give discerning counsel, and preach God’s holy Word. In this connection, the congregation must believe that the pastorate is work. Every pastor has heard a variation of this line innumerable times—”What’s it like to work one day a week?” It is almost always a good- natured, playful remark and should be regarded as such. But it also voices the common folklore (no doubt deserved by some) that the pastorate is a soft job.

A young teenage girl once asked Barbara, “What does Mr. Hughes do?”

“You know, Suzi,” Barbara replied, “he’s pastor of College Church.”

“Yes, but what does he do the rest of the week?” My wife suggested that she go ask her parents, who were missionaries!

The bottom line, in terms of understanding your pastor, is that the difficult nature of his job makes him a likely candidate for stress. Moreover, if he does not learn how to cope with the pressures of his work, his divine calling can tragically bring harm to both him and his congregation.

But, happily, there are things that both he and his people can do to avoid this, as we shall see.

The Vulnerability of Your Pastor

C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket— safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you will be perfectly safe from all dangers and perturbations of love is hell.

Certainly Lewis is right. The greater one’s love, the greater one’s vulnerability. And for the Christian especially, a safe, insulated life is not an option, because a Christian is commanded to love (Mark 12:30-31). This is emphatically true for the pastor, because he is charged with an official love relationship with his congregation. By giving himself to his people in ministry and involving himself in their lives, he multiplies his vulnerability. This is no sacrifice, because love normally begets love (1 John 4:19). But it does make the pastor’s heart vulnerable to a sea of sorrows from which an unloving heart is safe. When one of his flock hurts, he hurts; when one is bereaved, he is bereaved; when one backslides, he agonizes. As Paul says: “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29). It is a privileged vulnerability because it is a vulnerability to joy as well as sorrow; for as Paul also says, his beloved brethren are his joy (Philippians 4:1). The pastor is profoundly vulnerable because of his office. This must be believed by those who would understand him.

The pastor is not only vulnerable because of involvement with his people, he is also vulnerable because he leads a public life. Though it is not nearly as intense as it was in past decades, the pastor and his family still lead a fishbowl existence. Almost everything the pastor does can be scrutinized by church people—selection of house and cars, tastes in clothing, choice of entertainments and vacations—to name a few possibilities. This fishbowl syndrome has given rise to the circulation among pastors of some inside humor about the “Ideal Pastor”:

The Ideal Pastor: is always casual but never underdressed— is warm and friendly but not too familiar—is humorous but not funny—calls on his members but is never out of the office—is an expository preacher but always preaches on the family—is profound but comprehensible—condemns sin but is always positive—has a family of ordinary people who never sin—has two eyes, one brown and the other blue!

This overdrawn parody gives expression to the vulnerability all have felt at one time or another. And this fishbowl factor can have a debilitating effect on the pastor, especially if his family senses that it is under the microscope.

Another similar hazard of being the focus of public attention is that it can open one to irrational hostility. That happens through transference. Someone may be suffering intense anxiety or anger over a personal problem, possibly an illness or a professional conflict, but there is no safe outlet for the anxiety. So a safe subconscious transference is made to the church or the pastor. This can be destructive emotionally and sometimes even physically.

Finally, we must mention that the pastor is vulnerable simply because he is human. Despite his pressed suit and starched shirt and his weekly ecclesiastical air of wholeness, he is a sinner who wrestles with his temper and self- discipline. He has his dreams, foibles, and blind spots. He has insecurities and irrationalities.

In short, the pastorate increases one’s vulnerability because, though it is a divine calling, it is intensely human and public. But most of all, it increases vulnerability because it is a calling to love God and man—and to love at all is to be vulnerable.

The Onslaught of the Success Syndrome

Pastor Brown had served First Church for fifteen wonderful years. During those years the church had experienced slow but steady growth. It had become a rather large church of more than a thousand. The pastor was grateful for the growth and looked forward to more. But numbers had never been Pastor Brown’s thing. He liked to preach, was a good preacher, and sometimes was invited away to speak. But he best enjoyed being with his people and involved in their lives. He had performed so many marriages that he had lost count, and it was the same with funerals. Only he never forgot the people. Many in the church owed the health of their marriages to his prayer and counsel. Missions was his special joy. Most of First’s missionaries had gone out under his ministry. Pastor Brown was a man who loved his people and was loved by them.

He had no reason to expect what was coming. It began when several executives of a large corporation became elders. Their energy and interest in First Church’s ministry was refreshing, though sometimes Pastor Brown sensed their shared impatience. The bombshell came over a business lunch with one of the men. “Pastor, several of the elders and I have been discussing your future with First Church—and let me be frank—we do not think you’re the man to take us into the next decade. In our business, we are expected to show a designated percentage growth per year. We’ve done some research, and in the light of the demographics. First Church ought to be growing 10 percent annually. Under your leadership it’s been between 2 and 4 percent. In our opinion, your style is excellent for a shepherd, but what First Church needs is a rancher.”

And so it began. The people wanted Pastor Brown, but the leadership did not. It was too much for the pastor. Infighting was not his style, and there had already been some innocent casualties. After two years of struggle. Pastor Brown, a man faithful and hardworking, one who loved and served God with a servant’s heart, a man of prayer and holiness, a person whose attitude was upbeat and positive, resigned. The quantifiers had their day. First Church has never been the same.

Tragically, Pastor Brown’s experience is not unique, for secularized ideals of success, straight from the business world, are increasingly being applied in the church. A church must “turn a profit,” so to speak. Thus, whatever else can be positively said about a church, it is not succeeding unless it is growing numerically. Big, growing churches are, by definition, the most successful. In some instances, a secularized competitiveness grips the church. If Second Church outgrows First, it is more successful. And, in some, like Pastor Brown’s church, a cold quantity- based pragmatism is in the driver’s seat.

How does this affect the pastor? Incredible as it may sound, he is treated differently according to the size of his church. This may be expected in the business world, but not in the church! I well remember the change that took place when I went from a small to a large church: how a new light of recognition came to people’s eyes when I was introduced and how my opinions became more cogent and important. Respect, it seems, is proportionate to the size of one’s ministry.

This means that there are untold numbers of pastors whose self-worth is affected by the size of their churches. This means that many pastors of smaller churches feel discouraged and insecure. In a word, this means pressure.

Your pastor’s situation, his disposition, and his maturity will determine how much pressure he feels. But it is there. Believe it, if you wish to understand him. The unhappy goddess of secular success is taking its toll in the church.

All Those Marbles

Every pastor has times when he feels as if he is holding a mountain of marbles together because the pastorate is an intrinsically difficult, absorbing, and vulnerable position, and because he is sometimes assaulted by wrong thinking about success.

A congregational understanding of this can go far in encouraging him—and keeping all those marbles in place.

We have given lengthy consideration to understanding your pastor because that in itself will ultimately encourage him. A congregation that understands the ministry will support it intelligently and practically. But there are some more specific ways in which a congregation (especially its leadership) can encourage its pastor.

First, you can encourage your pastor by living biblically successful lives yourselves. There is little that will lift the pastoral heart more than people who are successes before God (faithful, serving, loving, believing, praying, holy, and positive), for this means that the fullness of Christ is active in the congregation and that the vision and burden of ministry is being shared. It means that the pastor will have some people around him who are cheerful, hardworking, selfless, and supportive. The heartening effect of this cannot be overemphasized.

But it is more than heartening, for it also encourages the pastor to pursue ideals and programs consonant with true success. The presence of just a few people, even if they are not in leadership, who understand what success is and live it out, will be of immense help to the pastor in keeping his perspective. It is a fact of life that character and ideals are most powerfully communicated from life to life, rather than imposed.

So in encouraging your pastor, the place to begin is with your own heart. As a layperson and not a professional, you perhaps have read the preceding chapters with interest, but without thinking of personal application—much like reading someone else’s mail. If so, we must emphasize that the teaching is transferable and applies in principle no less to you! And we must ask you: Are you committed to a truly successful Christian life? If not, we suggest that you turn now to the end of chapter 10 where the elements of success are applied, and confirm your commitment before proceeding.

Second, encourage your pastor by your personal commitment to help him know true success. In doing this we are not encouraging self-righteous presumption: “Now pastor. I’m concerned that you be a success. So I’ve committed myself to help you live out these seven things”—whether lie likes it or not! Never do anything like this, ever! Such an approach projects a proud, condescending spirit that has sat in judgment on the pastor and found him wanting.

Rather, we recommend that you work out your commitment practically. To begin with, commit yourself to freeing him from a ministry of numbers. This does not mean that numbers have no significance. They do. The Scriptures record that three thousand were converted at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and that Jesus fed five thousand (Mark 14:21). Numbers of souls saved and ministered to are important. They are substantive causes for rejoicing, because they indicate that the gospel touched many. But, as we have seen, numbers do not mean success. In point of fact, if only three had responded at Pentecost and a mere five were fed by Christ, neither would have been less successful.

This does not release the pastor from the significance of attendance as an aspect of the evaluation of ministerial effectiveness, but it does release him from the delusion that numbers mean success. Neither does it mean that the pastor is free from accountability in matters of work habits, administration, creativity, preaching, and even spiritual discipline. Many ministers would profit from the church’s caring enough to demand more accountability.

Positively, this means that the church must commit itself to creating an environment in which its pastors are encouraged to be men of God and to pursue biblically defined success. And here, the congregation, apart from being people who understand what success is and live it can do some specific things to create an encouraging environment, as the next points will show.

Third, encourage your pastor by not expecting (or allowing) him to be involved in everything. Reject the ubiquitous pastor fallacy—that the good minister must be present and presiding, if possible, at everything. Some congregations think that this is what the pastor is for, and apparently many pastors agree, or at least appear to. Such clerics feel it is their duty to attend all the meetings of every church board and committee, and even conduct a kind of divine shuttle service between those that meet at the same time! They are present and hovering at every church event whether it be volleyball or a bake sale. Every decision must have their imprimatur—from the color of the ladies’ powder room to the logo on the baseball uniforms. Such pastors are perspiring, kinetic figures, the only ones who know where anything is from the church records to the kitchen’s large saucepan.

This tendency may be the result of pastoral absorption brought on by the intense demands of the ministry, or possibly a faulty doctrine of the church that ignores the shared nature of pastoral ministry (see Acts 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-12). At worst, such behavior may indicate personal insecurity (“My work makes me indispensable”), or a distrust of people (a terribly destructive attitude, though, alas, often founded upon some unhappy ministerial experience in the past).

How should the leadership of the congregation proceed to help the omnipresent pastor? Again the approach must not be officious or heavy-handed but loving and sacrificial—for the congregation must be willing to assume much of the burden. This being so, the pastor can be reminded, if necessary, of what the Scriptures teach and of the church’s desire to free him so he can give himself “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The leadership must help him divest himself of the things he does that could, and should, be done by others. The minister should understand which boards and committees he must regularly attend, and those which he should only infrequently visit, say, at the request of the chairpersons. The leadership must insist that as their minister streamlines his schedule, he include ample time for his devotional life, family, sermon preparation, exercise, and leisure.

To be sure, the compulsive pastor may not at first view such concern by the leadership as in his best interest, but if he adjusts his life accordingly, the day will come that he and his family will thank God and the church.

Fourth, encourage your pastor by loving his family. As we noted earlier, the fishbowl life of the pastoral ministry can take its toll—especially on the pastor’s family. Not a few PKs have reacted to the feeling of being under the congregation’s microscope. Sometimes the reaction is unfounded, even irrational; other times it has substance. What can the congregation do to minimize this effect? Simply, love his family. By this we are not emphasizing a public display of compassion but a quiet familylike love that recognizes they are people in process like those in one’s own family. This love does not demand more from them than from other children; it does not say, “Why you’re the pastor’s son, I would have expected …” This love honors then- individuality and gives them space to grow. This love refuses to gossip, believes the best, has a kind word, and prays for the pastor’s family.

The congregation will do well to realize that it is likewise under scrutiny by the pastor’s family. Children who sense that they are loved rather than judged by the people their father serves will have a greater opportunity to become the kind of young people their family and church hope for. This, of course, brings vast encouragement to the pastor—and the congregation.

Fifth, encourage your pastor by treating him with respect. A pastor should be treated with respect because of his divinely given position. This, of course, does not suggest that he be treated with an obsequious obeisance as some nineteen century clerics were—”His Worshipful Lordship, Rev. Dr. Pangloss. …” Nor does it suggest undue deference—”Whatever you say, pastor. . . .” What we mean is that because the pastorate is a divine office, a minister should never have to earn his congregation’s respect unless he has done something to lose it. Furthermore, he should be respected no matter how great or small, grand or humble his ministry is! The church must dismiss the world’s rung-dropping, numbers-counting way of according respect. True, your pastor is to lead by being a servant, but such a call is intrinsically honored.

This understanding must be extended to churches that have several pastors and multiple staffs. The tendency in large churches is for the people to think of the senior pastor as the pastor, and everyone else as almost-pastors. Youth pastors are special victims, for they are sometimes asked by congregants when they are going to become pastors! A huge insult. The implication is that they are something else—possibly zookeepers. Understand that a pastor is a pastor is a pastor regardless of his station, size of ministry, or public exposure, and should be treated with due respect. How so many pastors need this encouragement today!

When the congregation, and especially its leaders, have encouraged the pastor by (1) living biblically successful lives, (2) committing themselves to help him know true success, (3) relieving him of the expectation that he do everything, (4) providing adequately for him and his family, (5) loving his family, and (6) treating him with respect, the church will have done almost everything it can to encourage him—except for the most important thing, which is to pray.

-Kent Hughes (Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome)


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