What Every Lay Leader Needs to Know About Their Pastor
To the deacon, elder, or other church leader,
This is the lengthy letter your pastor wishes he could write to you, but has neither the graceful words, nor the inclination to put his relationship with you in jeopardy, by telling you these things you ought to know. However it found your way into your hands, whether by link or email, please take these thoughts to heart. They’re meant to be helpful to you in your relationship with your pastor, and with respect to your lay leadership role in the church.
Surprise! The pastor is human. On average, a pastor serves a church in the United States for less than five years. The majority do not survive to retire as a pastor, often leaving the ministry altogether because of the stress involved. The man who leads your church, then, is most likely neither the first nor the last person to hold that role, and knows that. He is trying to lead as effectively as he can. He will make mistakes, will have victories and experience some losses. He is only human, and he hopes and prays that you will remember that every time you pick up the phone to call him or punch send on a text or email to him. He would also like you to know:
The pastor leads with God-given authority. No matter what the polity in your church, the biblical role of leader has been given time and time again, and the pastor is cut from the same cloth. Throughout Scripture we see God choosing His man as leader, then revealing His instructions to the leader, who then recounts those words to God’s people. Never, not once in Scripture, do we see leadership by committee working out very well (See Exodus 32). Often, God does not even tell his leader the whole plan. He simply asks the leader to walk in faith, and to lead others to do the same.
The pastoral role, then, works best when the pastor has elders or deacons acting in a supporting role, as peers in Christ, seeking to support his ministry and serve the entire church body, rather than a gaggle of bosses of varying opinion. If individuals in your team assert their influence or agendas at will, this is not a biblical model for leadership. In fact, in many cases, it is really creating dissent and factions, the fruit of the ungodly (Galatians 5:19-21). If your pastor has been given a leadership position, for God’s sake let him lead. Support him publicly. And when issues arise, deal with them as a friend in Christ and not like you’re a board member of a corporation. The pastor’s responsibility before God pales in his responsibility before you as a peer.
The church is first and foremost a family of faith. So act like a brother. Handle conflict and ministry work with grace, dignity and mutual respect. And a warning: If you show a willingness to burn bridges with your pastor over an issue or even his job, he will talk. As a result you’ll find it much harder to replace him with a qualified person later. Nobody—including pastors—want to work for a board of judgmental authoritarians. As a lay leader you want to make sure you’re thought of as a lay group who truly support their pastor and want him to succeed. Your church has a reputation in your community, but never doubt is also has a reputation among pastors.
The pastor’s goal is not to please everyone, including you. Your church is typical in that it has no lack for opinions. On worship, on Bible teaching, on the pastor’s choice of tie, on the carpet color, on the budget allotment, on the pastor’s kids, his wife, his family, how he eats, how he talks—your pastor has no end of critics and opinions. And people tell him their opinions bluntly, rudely, at the worst possible moments, in tones they would not use for their worst enemies. And those are just the comments the pastor receives to his face. The murmuring and whispered opinions are usually worse and, of course, it would not be “Christian” to say them in any other way than by pure gossip. You must realize that your pastor lives in a fishbowl of opinion, all the time.
If you consistently leave your church on Sundays thinking to yourself whether or not you were satisfied with the worship and teaching and everything else, then frankly you have missed the entire point of being a member of the body of Christ. Your pastor’s job is not to please you. Your pastor’s job is to preach the Word, and to lead your church to fulfill the mission of Christ. If your pastor is being a heretic, then handle that biblically, privately and with grace as mentioned above. If, however, your issue is that you just don’t like something, there is only one thing for you to do. That is to quietly, quickly and without backstabbing commentary, leave. The church needs your seat more than it needs your critical tongue.There are more than 5 billion people in the world without Christ. That means that neither you nor your influential group of opinion makers are the objective of your pastor’s leadership or the church’s mission. Ask not whether the pastor’s leadership is pleasing to you, but whether your leadership in the larger cause of Christ is pleasing to God.
The pastor hates comparison as much as you do. Would your mind just bristle with hurt if your spouse were to make a comment like, “I wish you were more like Bob across the street?” Of course you would, because you are your own person. You have no desire to be Bob across the street, or act like Bob or live up to Bob’s reputation. You’re trying to be the best “you” that you can be. So, how do you think your pastor reacts if you constantly bring up another pastor’s teaching, or the cool thing that First Other Church is doing, or the fact that First Bigger Church is growing faster than your church is?
Your pastor doesn’t need to be compared to another pastor, or your church to another church. His issues are his own and your church is her own. He needs to preach solid biblical sermons because that’s what pastors are called to do—not because Pastor Otherguy does it better than he does. And your church needs to grow because it’s a sign that people are responding to the Gospel, not because you are in some kind of informal contest with First Bigger Church. Most of all, avoid comparisons to entrepreneurs and businesses outside of ministry. Your church is not, nor will it ever be, the “Apple” of ministry. There is no Apple of ministry. That’s just a lie. No pastor aspires to be Donald Trump or Steve Jobs or Ronald Reagan—mainly because though all of them may have been effective leaders not one of them was an effective pastor, and therefore most of their experience is inapplicable. A pastor is not the CEO of a non-profit corporation called the church. That’s another blatant, unbiblical, unholy lie.
Comparison-based ministry will kill your pastor’s confidence and your church’s vision and mission. It has no place in the church. Stop comparing. Be content with what God has entrusted to you and compassionate toward those who are far from God. Rejoice when other pastors and churches are doing effective ministry. It’s not a contest. There are no teams or rivalries. In the end, every knee bows and every tongue confesses, remember?
The pastor is overworked and underpaid. It might seem your pastor has a lot of free time. Time to study the Bible, time to have breakfast or lunch with church members. Time away from the office. God forbid, perhaps even a Friday here and there to spend with his family. The thing is, when your father dies suddenly on a Tuesday night and you expect the Pastor to make a house call, he will—even at the expense of his family time. And when your daughter is getting married, the Pastor is going to give up his Saturday for that, not to mention the rehearsal, and pre-marital spiritual counseling and other commitments involved. And don’t forget those deacons meetings and planning for the Christmas outreach and the Men’s accountability group. The price of his schedule flexibility is his obligation to be a spiritual parent to a congregation of people.
For every minute you think your pastor has free to himself, he’s spending five more overworking somewhere else. A 1998 pastoral survey found that 80% of all pastors in America felt discouraged in their role. So, the odds are 4 out of 5 your pastor feels that way. He works hard, he has a tremendous responsibility and since most church budget meetings are the stuff of legend, he probably makes “just enough” in the finance team’s esteemed judgment.
Appreciate your pastor. Tell him regularly what he means to you. Encourage his teaching and spiritual leadership. Give him a reason to like coming to work each and every day, because 70% of all pastors according to that 1998 survey consider daily whether or not to leave their job. Yes, daily. Pastors are one of the most stressed-out vocational groups in all the country. Make it your mission in life to take some stress off your pastor. Bake him a pie for no reason. Yes, go, do it right now. If you don’t know his favorite flavor make it your mission in life today to find out, to bake that pie and to lavish him with appreciation.
The pastor hungers for meaningful moments. If pastors, as a group, are so stressed out, criticized, over-compared, led by committee and expected to perform with superhuman perfection, then that begs the question, “Why would anyone want to be a pastor?” Sure, they are called by God, but when you think about it, the majority of their burden comes from their own body and not the unchurched world. A man chooses to willingly serve a group of supposed like-minded who are, in reality, thorns in his flesh? The answer, to some degree, is that pastors are fed by the impact God is making in and through their lives.
Pastors love to hear people talk about responding to God’s Word. They enjoy seeing moms and dads lead their kids to Christ and partaking in their baptisms. They love being of comfort to those who are grieving. They are excited when the church responds to the needs of the lost, and the poor and the outcast. In short, they hunger for those meaningful moments—times which make all the criticism and babble and second-guessing pale in comparison to the glory they are able to heap on God’s Good Name due to their effort and leadership and the congregation they support.
A man, who may have been successful in the marketplace, determined that he would follow God’s leading for his life, and wade through the politics and tangents of today’s church culture, so that he could have the privilege of leading you spiritually, supporting you as a Christ-follower, holding you accountable as a brother, grieving and celebrating with you as a friend, and accepting you despite your own imperfections. How can you respond?
Love your pastor. Respect him, thank him, appreciate him, cut him some slack and treat him like the treasure he is. Repent of attitudes that are self-serving and self-glorifying. He is not laying awake at night reminding himself how blessed he is to have you as a church member. But you, dear lay person, are encouraged to thank God and be reminded that you, and indeed your congregation, are blessed to have him.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.