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.