“Being a pastor was SO much easier than what I’m doing now,” said no former pastor ever. Not one. Instead, I meet pastors every month who say to me, “I thought I knew what this would be like, but being a pastor is so much harder than I expected, and most people have no idea.”
I am not writing this for pastors. This would be a very different article if pastors were my intended audience, but I am writing this for lay people, board members, district superintendents, and anyone who loves his or her pastor.
Here are ten simple things you and your church can do to help your pastor feel fulfilled and appreciated in pastoral work and to try to hold on to your beloved pastor.
10. Think twice before criticizing
Someone is always mad at your pastor about something. Seriously. You cannot please all of the people all of the time, but having some people mad at them all of the time is the harsh reality many pastors live with. And it can wear a good pastor out. There are angry e-mails, scathing remarks in the church foyer, and people who will snub you in public once they have left your church.
On the night I was ordained, Dr. Earle Wilson said to us, “If you fail, you’ll be criticized. If you succeed, you may be even more criticized.” Some studies have shown that 40% of pastors experience significant conflict with someone in their church at least once every month. In my years as a pastor, I cannot think of a time when at least one person wasn’t angry at me about something. Many pastors have said it’s a death by a thousand cuts. To say “pastors just need to have thick skin” is both flippant and it fails to take into account how stress makes a person more likely to suffer from depression, more susceptible to temptation, and also makes a person more vulnerable to illness. Every time someone chooses to leave your church, or complains about a sermon, or ignores you out in the community, or sends an anonymous letter, or feels the need to “speak my mind,” it takes a little bit of the air out of your pastor’s tires. Every week I meet with pastors who carry wounds from years of serving cranky Christians, and I look in the eyes of good pastors whose souls bear the cumulative damage of the relentless criticism and anger vented toward pastors. I can assure you that having a callused pastor is much worse than having a pastor who takes criticism and attacks personally.
Do you love your pastor? Think twice before criticizing, and if you are going to be critical about something, make sure it’s for good reasons (and be calm and kind as you do so). Assume that your pastors’ critics are taking shots at them, even if you don’t see it or hear about it.
9. Housing: be the best landlord in town
If you provide a parsonage, be the best landlord in town. I facilitated a clergy tax event last year where we were talking about how to determine the “fair rental value” of the parsonage, and one person in the group asked, “Do you take into account the fact that no one else would actually want to live there?”
As a rule of thumb, keep the parsonage nicer than is necessary. Never let “good enough” be the standard. Most pastors I know are shy about asking for work to be done on the parsonage, but if you want to keep the pastor you love, you won’t wait for the pastor to ask for work to be done on the parsonage. The parsonage is your pastor’s home, but it is the church’s house. You cannot control everything that happens in the life of the church, but you can make sure your pastor has a comfortable home–a haven to which your pastor can retreat at the end of every day.
Of course, pastors who own their own homes tend to have longer pastorates than those who live in parsonages. Homeownership provides the chance for a family to live where they want in a house that suits their needs, and a mortgage has a way of “encouraging” people to stay in one place longer. If you have a pastor you love, be an advocate for helping them move from a parsonage into their own home.
8. Care for the pastor’s family, and for your pastor as a person
In some ways, caring for the pastor’s home is a big way of carrying for his family (see point #9), but it can go beyond that. Whenever I hear that a colleague is leaving a church, I always pray that their spouse and children get to hear how much their spouse or parent has meant to the congregation as pastor. When I left my last church, I was so touched by the number of people who said they were going to miss watching my kids grow up, and the people who gave gifts to my children. The gifts and cards people gave my children meant twice as much as the ones they gave me. One family gave my kids money for college every year on their birthdays and became like surrogate grandparents for our children. It makes it harder to entertain leaving when people in the congregation have truly become like family to you–and especially to your children and spouse.
7. Vacation time and weekends off
Most full-time pastors work 6-7 days per week (yes, I know of a few lazy full-time pastors who work 4-5 days per week, but those are the exception, not the rule). So if a pastor has a six-day workweek and only gets two weeks off per year, the pastor will work 302 days per year. By comparison, a person working a five-day work week with two weeks off will work 250 days per year. That is an extra 52 workdays per year for your pastor! If you give that same pastor four weeks of vacation, the pastor will still work 38 more days than the person who has a five-day work week and two weeks of vacation!
I am a big proponent of hardworking pastors getting AT LEAST three or four weeks of vacation. Not because they deserve MORE time off than their lay people, but because even with “more” vacation time they will still work more days per year than the average lay person.
6. Salary: give your pastor raises
Finances are always a factor, and every pastor would be able to work for free in an ideal world, but you can’t afford to do your job for free, and neither can your pastor. People often have the idea that a pastor ought to make sacrifices for the sake of the ministry, and, therefore, they ought to make less than they deserve. Many pastors, likewise, know the financial needs of the church better than their lay leaders, and will decline raises or even voluntarily take pay cuts for the sake of the ministry. Even if the pastor declines the raise, it is important for morale that you are generous in what you offer. A cost of living increase (at the least) should be offered as standard operating procedure every year for your pastor.
As I was writing this, I realized something: the only way I ever received anything more than a cost of living increase in my years as a pastor was by moving to a new ministry. I never thought of it that way until now, and I never went looking for those moves, but they always found me. Again, I’m not writing this as career advice to pastors, but as a word of advice to congregations who want to keep the pastor they love: if you don’t give your pastor a raise, someone else will.
What can you do when there isn’t money in the budget for a raise? In the current financial climate, many workplaces and institutions have experienced years when raises weren’t an option, or even years when painful cuts were necessary. Your pastor will understand better than anyone (and sometimes before anyone else) if a raise isn’t possibly because of the budget. I have heard of churches who told their pastoral staff, “There isn’t room in the budget for a raise this year, so instead we are giving everyone an extra week off this year.”
Pastors enter the ministry for the call, not for the money. Pastors pay the same price for milk, gas, and coffee as anyone else, though. Make it happen, somehow, someway, and be creative if you must. If you don’t give your pastor a raise when it is deserved, eventually someone else will.
5. Give your pastor tools to get the job done
Your pastor’s reimbursement account is not part of the pastor’s compensation: it is the tool the pastor needs to get the job done. Reimburse the pastor’s ministry mileage, provide a pastoral expense account, and a budget for buying books. An adequate computer, office space, books, mileage, and reimbursed expenses is not a luxury–these are the tools your pastor needs to be effective. Don’t ask your pastor to make bricks without straw.
4. You want your pastor to be flexible, so give your pastor flexibility
Take in to account how much of a pastor’s ministry conflicts with family life on weekends, evenings, and holidays. Free your pastor up to attend school functions,and to use the flexibility of the pastorate to be there for family during “normal work hours” because weekends and holidays are so often crowded by ministry responsibilities. The old saying fits some pastors who are “invisible for six days and incomprehensible on the seventh,” but most of my friends who are pastors work too hard, not too little. Flexibility is a free benefit your church can afford to give your pastor.
3. Be dependable
When a pastor leaves a church, the hardest people to leave are the dependable ones. Make it hard for your pastor to think about leaving by your actions: be dependable, be consistent in your attendance, and be the type of person of whom your pastor can say, “We’re building with people like that.” When workers are not dependable and members are sporadic in their attendance, it doesn’t take much for the grass to look greener somewhere else. Do you have a pastor you love? Then be there, and be dependable.
2. Send compliments over your pastor’s head
Your pastor probably reports to a board, elders, a bishop, or a district superintendent, so make sure you tell them that you love your pastor. And do it now, before those types of people ask you what you think. The chronic complainers will not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head with their criticisms, so you should not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head when you have a pastor you love. It will be refreshing to everyone involved.
1. Send specific, handwritten notes to say “thanks”
In an age of tweets and text messages, a handwritten note is a lost art, and a rare treasure. Here’s a little secret: many pastors have a file of handwritten notes they’ve received over the years. A handwritten note is most likely the sort of thing your pastor will not quickly discard. Express your appreciation in writing and it will stand out.
Research has shown that possibly the greatest predictor of career satisfaction for pastoral ministry is for pastors to know that they are making a difference. Don’t be vague when you say thanks. Be specific. Don’t just say, “Thanks for all you do.” Say thanks for things your pastor does or characteristics your pastor has and ways your pastor does things.
Did you learn something you didn’t know during your pastor’s message, or find yourself thinking about it days later, or did God speak to you in a powerful way through a message? Then tell your pastor what it was, specifically. Tell your pastor, “That sermon helped me understand . . . ” or even, “That story you shared in your sermon really helped me see . . . ”
Other examples are:
“Thank you for taking time away from your family to be with ours in a difficult time.”
“I know that situation was difficult, and I appreciate the way you handled it.”
“I can tell you put a lot of time and preparation into your messages, and I just wanted you to know that it shows.”
Pastors are willing to endure a lot if they know they are making a difference. So show them. Tell them. I have never once heard a pastor say, “My congregation expresses too much appreciation to me.” Write it out with pen on paper and put it in the mail.
I spend an average of almost 30 hours per week with pastors and ministry leaders. Believe me or not, but if any of these ten things seems like “too much,” or if you neglect these ten things, I guarantee the pastor you love will leave sooner or later. On the other hand, I don’t know of any pastor who would casually leave a church that does these ten things consistently.
Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, director of ministry resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY), and a commissioned ministry coach.