Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

The Hardest Thing About Being a Pastor

Part 10 of series: Grace in the Rearview Mirror: A Pastoral Retrospective
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In yesterday’s post I explained several things I found difficult about being a parish pastor: the difficulty of certain decisions, the heaviness of people’s burdens, the painfulness of receiving criticism, and the implications of personnel decisions. For me, these were indeed troublesome. But the hardest thing about being a pastor, in my experience, is dealing with people’s expectations.
People in churches expect many things of their pastors. They expect us:


• To be good oral communicators and to have truthful theology.
• To be caring counselors, good listeners and people of prayer who can help folks get through hard times and grow in their faith.
• To be present in personal emergencies, like unexpected hospitalizations or deaths in a family.
• To guide then through the intricacies of planning and performing weddings and memorial services.
• To be visionary leaders who can help churches both remain strong and grow in their ministries.
• To be wise and attentive managers of staff (if that’s in our job descriptions).
• To be decent writers, at least for the church newsletter and for other pastoral communications within the church.
• To be able to respond intelligently to a myriad of personal and theological questions.
• To be readily available to the congregation.
• To represent the church well in the community.
• To live exemplary moral lives.
• To be prayerful both in public and in private.


I’ll stop here, though you could certainly add to my list.
Let me say clearly that I think many of these expectations are quite fair. I think almost all pastors should be good at preaching or teaching, and should be caring people who set a good example in the way they live and who are indeed people of prayer. So I’m not complaining about the fact that people have expectations for pastors.
Also, you may have noticed that I said the hardest part of pastoring is “dealing with people’s expectations.” This is the responsibility of the pastor. The fact that I sometimes had a hard time dealing with the expectations people had for me isn’t necessarily their fault at all. It often had to do with my own insecurity, need to please, and lack of clarity about my own calling.
But I think it’s certainly true that it isn’t quite fair to expect pastors to be good at all of the things on my list. For example, people who are visionary leaders tend not to be great managers because different skill sets are needed for the different tasks. Strong managers often have to be tough with people, which is not a trait easily found among tenderhearted types who are good pastoral counselors. Or, if a pastor is going to be an effective preacher/teacher, this requires time for study. Devoting such time means that the pastor cannot be available to the congregation in the way some folks would like.
I found the diverse expectations of people difficult because it was absolutely impossible for me to fulfill such diverse expectations, and that meant I had to live with a measure of unhappiness with me. This was not easy for me. But some good things came out of it.
For one thing, I was continually forced to evaluate myself and my work. Was I doing the most important things? Was I shaping my priorities according to God’s truth, and not according to people’s wishes?
Toward the end of my tenure at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I began to ask my board of elders for help with my “diverse expectations” problem. How I wish I had done this years earlier! They were willing to help me, and so a conversation began. That discussion wasn’t an easy one because, as you might imagine, the elders themselves had differing views on how I should spend my time. Some wanted me to focus on teaching and preaching. Others preferred that I spend more time in personal counseling and discipleship. Others thought my priorities should be in the area of personnel and program management. Nevertheless, I’m glad we began this conversation, even though it ended up not being relevant to my particular ministry. It is the beginning of a crucial conversation about the job description of the pastor who will replace me.
By far the best thing about the hardest part of being a pastor was the fact that, when I felt overwhelmed by people’s expectations, I was forced to turn to the Lord, to seek God’s wisdom and guidance, as well as His comfort. I had to remember who my one true Boss was, and whom I most sought to please. Knowing God’s pleasure in my pastoral efforts gave the strength to do what I believed to be most important, even if in doing so I wasn’t winning any popularity contests.
Of course what I’ve just said about living to please God isn’t simply for pastors. All of us will find our true meaning and focus in life when we seek God’s pleasure above all else.

  • seeingdifferently

    How sad is the married preacher’s life. How sad is the preacher’s wife’s/children’s life. A man cannot be a preacher, husband, and father at the same time. Somebody or everybody gets robbed.
    Why is sister Susie’s hospitalization more important than the preacher’s son’s birthday or graduation or football game?
    Why is wife, Jane, never known as Jane, but as “the preacher’s wife”?
    Why does the preacher have all the answers when the the preacher or theologian down the street have a different answer?
    It’s unfair. The calling is either one or the other–preacher or husband.

  • nuclearworship

    Thank you so much for this blog, Mark. It reminds me of the rich times I shared with you in class at HOPE International.
    Without a doubt: Self expectation is one of the most difficult factors that a pastor has to deal with…
    I don’t think there is a single minister who hasn’t set the bar high for themselves. We all want to succeed for the Lord. We all want to make an impact upon the world around us.
    But then, when you mix in the expectations of others – which can be in so many different areas of expertise – and tends to be centered upon weaknesses that are in the blindspots of our own character and gifting – it is so easy to get overwhelmed by it all.
    I have found that is in this place of feeling “overwhelmed,” by my own expectations and those of others, that I have to stop and remind myself that I am God’s child. I am loved and accepted for who I am and not for what I do. And, as I take the quiet time to lay my head against Jesus’ breast and receive His love and acceptance for me – where I’m at – then I find the grace to begin to change what I can, while resting in “who I am.”
    The sad thing is: That even as I take the quiet time to put myself into this place of spiritual rest and wholeness, in my flesh I feel guilty for not having “done” something in a more tangible way to show that I am working to meet my expectation.
    What a vicious cycle this is!

  • Mark Roberts :

  • Matt Gough

    As a young pastor who is feeling this frustration thank you for the encouragement to begin these discussions now!
    Dealing with expectation sis part of the job but we also have to hold up the expectations of the elders and members. They are called to BE the church not simply GO to church. This is tough to do in a consumer oriented society but nevertheless it is essential that pastors turn it around and confront the people with expectations for greatness in the name of Jesus Christ.

  • Michele Riley

    I am in agreement people’s expectations of pastors are very high, within the last 2 months I have also been dealing with the heaviness of people’s burden’s who were not my members, but came to me for help. You really have to be in that place to hear God for those that He will allow you to speak into their lives, because I never want to do anything out of my emotions or because of the person’s situation, I want it to be because it’s God will for me to come alongside them and help them through their struggle or situation, and God dosen’t always provide the intervention that the person maybe looking for, and that makes the burden even heavier, because some people look at pastors for the answers to their problems instead of God.

  • pastoring now tougher than ever :

  • Pastor Wil

    Outstanding post! Thank you for the encouragement. I found your site while googling “when to stop being a pastor”. It was because I was dealing with some of the same issue you have outlined and by the Grace and Mercy of God I’m inspired to stay the course. Although I know that I’m working for God and it’s his approval I’m concerned with sometimes I just need to be reminded. Thank you!!!

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