Five Common Pastoral Mistakes

A confession to begin this article: I am not a pastor. I have worked for some excellent ones, and I have observed many, many more over the years. In communications roles in churches I have spoken with scores of pastors and other church leaders to help them solve interesting communications issues. I think pastors are underappreciated, overworked and stressed out, as a group. And any such group is bound to make some mistakes.

This is not to take pastors to task on being human. Rather, I just want to share in a constructive way what I believe are among the most common mistakes I observe among pastoral leaders. As you serve the Lord in leadership in your congregation, consider whether your actions and attitudes fall into any of these traps.

Lines versus leading. Seldom does a pastor who leads by drawing lines in the sand with his decisions and direction enjoy a long-term tenure in a church. In the denomination I am a part of, pastors enjoy more autonomy than in other churches within the Christian world. I wish seminaries taught more on the exercise of power and authority in the church. Pastors who adopt a “my way or the highway” attitude in their leadership aren’t leading at all. They’re simply segregating people into those who agree and those who do not.

Rather, a pastor must realize where his people are, and lay out bread crumbs to lead them from one place to another. A practical exercise is to avoid “no” toward staff and lay leadership, and instead find answers like “yes, and…” and “yes, or…” Parishioners are much less likely to be offended by alternatives and options than they are by mandates. Now of course there are moral, spiritual and decisional lines that are necessary, but a wise leader will always find a to bring people along versus leave them behind a decisional line.

Strategy versus spiritual. Perhaps most disappointing in my observations are those pastors who simply fail to lead their staff and close associates spiritually. Often this manifests itself as a “CEO mentality” where they often impart strategy and hierarchy, but seldom spiritual influence. Are you praying regularly with your staff, teaching them the Word, discipling them, deeply concerned about their families and life circumstances? To pastors who would delegate these tasks, I would point you to the example of Christ, who invested His life not into the multitudes, but into the 12 people closest to Him, for three solid years.

Strategy—the direction or scope over the long-term–is important in any organization. In the church, though, strategy always takes a back-seat to spiritual leadership. Christ calls us to do many things—give ourselves to the poor, value the least over the greatest, preach to a hostile world—which in an organizational sense would be considered poor strategy. Never choose a strategic goal over a biblical one. And the way to keep goals biblical is to be in the Bible, with your key leaders, regularly. A pastor who does not personally lead his team spiritually will likely never see a true biblical strategy emerge and flourish in his congregation.

Delegate versus decide. Whether in a small congregation or a mega-church, a pastor’s role as shepherd means he must be involved in the decision-making regularly. In the leadership circle, this can lead to the pastor delegating many decisions that he should have a role in both determining and supporting. As an organization grows and becomes more complex, or in the case of a church takes on a broader range of ministry initiatives, the pastor through delegation can become dangerously disconnected from the “heart” of his congregation. Sure some decisions should obviously be delegated—but not all decisions.

A good leader is a part of the team conversation—even if at times he’s just a fly on the wall. The most respected pastors know what their team is doing and are engaged in supporting them from the pastoral level. Pastoral involvement in decisions also gives the congregation greater confidence in the church’s leadership—after all, the involved pastor will be more likely to mention those ministry leaders and decisions from the pulpit and encourage participation if he himself is involved in them. A pastoral leader must delegate some responsibilities, but he should not take himself out of the circle entirely. Often the relationship and conversation among leaders is more important than what exactly is being decided.

Withdraw versus within. Many pastors distance themselves from their congregations and even their leadership teams, adopting the same “professional distance” common among doctors, and I don’t think this is healthy for the church. A pastor must know his leadership team and a pastor must know his people. He cannot do this from afar. He cannot be just preacher and relegate shepherding to someone else.

Jesus didn’t spend lots of time with everyone, but He did spend some time with everyone and He did spend lots of time with a few. He withdrew spiritually at certain points in His ministry, but did not lead a life of withdrawal. Most often when I see staff changes in a church due to poor performance, a clear sign that something was wrong is that the minister was disconnected—he had few close, personal relationships among other staff and members. To a minister or pastor, the church is more than a workplace, it is a life-place, the center of our fellowship with other believers and a vital place of connection between Christ-followers. A pastor who withdraws and isolates himself as a lifestyle is cause for concern.

Minutes versus marathon. Pastoral burnout is a rampant problem across the United States. The number of former pastors is growing, which is discouraging. I like Bill Hybels view that ministry is a marathon. He said, In a marathon it is not the first few miles that are a struggle; it is easy to get off to a good start.  The last few miles are not as challenging because the finish line is now in sight.  The hardest part of the journey are the long miles in between.” Indeed many pastors burnout because they have not prepared themselves for a marathon of ministry.

Pastors who push themselves and their staffs without a proper balance of time for family and time for personal growth in Christ do so at their collective peril. Circumstances may force someone to work for a taskmaster for a while, but they’ll bail when the road gets rocky. So too is the risk that pursuing ministry initiatives without pursuing depth can lead to staff and leadership that accomplish great things in years of blessing but fall apart entirely in a year of drought. A pastor who fails to ask, “How will this affect us in 5 or 10 years?” or even “Will this thing I’m so focused on now even matter in 5 or 10 years?” will often fall out before the marathon of a life in ministry concludes.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.