In reflecting upon my time as a full-time minister, I’m thankful for the opportunities I had to serve in two different congregations as a preacher. I encountered many wonderful people, many of whom I remember fondly and miss dearly. Unfortunately, many people have no idea what it takes to be a successful minister or how many daily challenges they face.
I’ve created a list of things I wish people had known when I was a minister. I hope this helps you to appreciate your ministers better. It’s a long post, but please take the time to read this entire list. Come back to it in a couple of days and reread it. Then make one of your New Year’s resolutions to encourage your minister more this year.
#1 He is Lonely, and So is His Wife. This is a big one. People usually keep the preacher at arm’s length. It’s almost as if preachers have a holy aura around them that ordinary folk instinctively avoid. Consequently, preachers rarely get invited to hang out with other guys. His wife will get very few invitations to spend time with other ladies. While everyone else goes out to lunch on Sunday with friends or on short trips or vacations with other families in the congregation, the minister’s family will be at home. Few people seem to realize that ministers and their wives need social contact, too—and then they’ll see the pictures everyone else posts on Facebook. Statistics indicate that seventy percent of ministers (1) do not have a close friend in the congregation where they serve and (2) constantly battle depression. Fifty percent are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they had another way to support their families.
#2 Ministers and Their Families are Watched Constantly. Ministers and their families are often the most highly-scrutinized members of a congregation. They live in a fish bowl where everything pings on the radar: the slightest misstep, a word spoken out of turn, a simple error in judgment, looking at someone the wrong way, not shaking someone’s hand every single service. The same goes for his wife and kids. His wife will likely be criticized more often than any other woman in the congregation. Members sometimes feel they have the right to correct his children. In all, ministers and their families are held to a higher standard than almost anyone else.
#3 He Will be Criticized Often, Many Times Without Just Cause. Ministers become experts in receiving criticism from people who complain to them because they don’t know who else to pester. If you want to know the most vicious and cruelest things that one Christian has ever said to another, talk to a minister. They’ve almost got a monopoly on it. But it isn’t just him—his wife and kids get it, too. The minister’s children often get rebuked because it sends a message to other kids or the youth group. And the preacher’s wife will receive similar treatment, especially if she has responsibilities. My wife oversaw the K-6 education program at one congregation. She was criticized for absurd things like the color of the paint on the walls (not her decision) or the decorations in the classrooms (the teachers’ responsibility). For reasons like this, many ministers keep their guard up because we’ve all been burned at some point in the past. Unfortunately, members rarely say anything positive when they’re pleased; they reserve comments for when they’re upset—which means that when members talk to the minister, what he hears is primarily negative. Statistics show that forty percent of ministers have a serious conflict with a church member at least once a month. The church should be full of Christians, not critics.
#4 Members will Gossip about the Minister and His Family. You’d like to think that members would be more spiritually mature, but no. Plenty of Christians will gossip about the minister. He will work hard to care about each person even though he knows some of them would verbally stab him in the back in a heartbeat. I’ve been gossiped about, lied about, and criticized without warrant, but I still had to keep a stiff upper lip about it (so did my wife) because if I reacted the way other people might be tempted to respond, I could have lost my job.
#5 Members Will Challenge the Preacher in His Knowledge of Scripture. The Bible is one of only a few areas where the barest hint of study is seen as the equivalent of a Ph.D. Although the minister is a “professional” whose knowledge and facility with Scripture far surpasses that of most of the other members (it comes with the territory when you spend roughly 30-35 hours a week in sermon and class preparation), he will be treated far less, sometimes with condescension. I had one member who would ask me questions, and if I didn’t answer them the way she wanted (read: in a way that agreed with her), she would throw her hands up in the air and walk off in frustration, telling me that I hadn’t answered her at all. I had another member who would email me questions about my sermons. He didn’t listen very well because he would often get the opposite impression of what I said and then call me to account for it—and sometimes complain to the elders.
#6 He is On Call 24/7. The preacher is the point man for the congregation. If someone needs to get into the building but doesn’t have a key, or needs to help prepare for a wedding, or if delivery needs to be made, the ministers are the go-to guys. They often babysit the church building because they’re the paid staff—even though it’s never part of the job description. According to statistics, the average minister works at least 50 hours a week (in 2020, during the COVID scare, it was far worse; I routinely worked 65-75 hours a week). They don’t have an end to their workday, and three-day weekends are about as common as seeing a real-life unicorn. They rarely get a day off, which might even include their time on vacation. Even when taking personal time for some needed R&R, people still call the minister for advice or for mundane things that someone else could take care of. I’ve spent entire vacations fielding calls almost daily from church members who knew I was out of town. This contributes to burnout—one of the most common reasons why ministers quit.
#7 He Will Probably be Underpaid. Most people don’t realize that ministers are typically underpaid for their skills. Finding a comparable job in the public or private sectors would be generously compensated by comparison. Ministers also pay self-employment tax. Although they get some pretty good benefits (such as a housing allowance, which designates a portion of their salary as tax-free), self-employment tax devours a large part of it. Many people feel like the preacher shouldn’t do well (to keep him humble) or shouldn’t make more than the lowest-paid elder or deacon. They also don’t get retirement, medical insurance, or many other benefits that other jobs offer. (If I were to write an honest job description but leave out the fact that it was for a ministerial position, you wouldn’t want it.) Elderships may even justify paying the minister less because they believe the real reward is doing the Lord’s work.
#8 Ministers Will be Blamed for the Church’s Failings. Even today, too many people see the minister as paid labor for the church. They sit back and expect him to do the lion’s share of the work. Not enough conversions? Not enough baptisms? Not enough people placing membership? It must be the minister’s fault. And if the dry spell goes on long enough, the church will fire him and hire another one, and another one, and another one—all the while failing to understand that a church will not grow when it has a minister who works himself to death while members sit in the pews like spectators. The real problem is often within and has nothing to do with the minister’s performance. Lots of ministers get blamed for bad leaders or individuals and families who run people off.
#9 Preachers are not Pastors, but Members Expect Them to be Pastors. Scripture says nothing about going to ball games, plays, or other school activities, although many ministers choose to do that. It also says nothing about the minister being the only one to visit shut-ins or the sick. There are a lot of pastoral responsibilities that elderships cede to the minister because he’s the hired hand.
#10 Preachers frequently deal with discouragement. They work long hours, weather criticism and gossip, and are commonly expected to fix or apologize for others’ mistakes. It should come as no surprise that 35-50 percent of ministers don’t last five years, 60-80 percent don’t last ten years, and only one in ten will retire from ministry. Many people in your congregation wouldn’t last a year as a minister.
#11 When a Minister Loses His Job, He Starts Over from Scratch. Most people don’t have to leave town, sell their homes, and uproot their families if they lose their job—they find another one. Ministers losing their jobs lose their friends, homes, and communities. But so do their wives and children. There are countless stories of a minister fired because one elder didn’t like him or he was unpopular with a tiny group of individuals at church. Maybe one of the well-to-do members who held the purse strings wanted him gone, or he was the victim of an influential member who conspired against him. Maybe the eldership expected him to fix something that was beyond his power to repair. There are many unfair reasons why a minister may be let go, but it doesn’t just affect him; it affects his entire family. Some churches treat preachers like fast food fry cooks and then have the audacity to wonder why so many former preacher’s kids leave the church or become unbelievers. Who helps turn ministers’ kids into atheists? Look at the person in the pew beside you. Or the mirror.
#12 The Minister Serves the Church, but He Fights for His Family. One of the most significant areas of concern for any minister is his family, especially his children. Imagine what a child thinks when they see their father (and mother) criticized, gossiped about, verbally challenged, and blamed for things beyond their control. When their father has to cut short family time because of a church emergency—or what someone thinks is an emergency. When they get blamed for things because they’re the preacher’s kids, and it’s “safe” to rebuke them to send a message to the rest of the youth. When they’re trying to figure out why their family doesn’t get invited to social events like their friends’ families do. Why their parents don’t seem to have any close personal friends in the congregation. The list could go on and on. Ministers are cheerleaders for the church. They also have to put up a rearguard defense for their children against some of the very people they’re serving.
My family and I have dealt with every one of the twelve problems listed above in almost every church I’ve served, whether as a pulpit minister, involvement minister, or teacher in a school of preaching. These are my observations from personal experience; there are other issues ministers face that I haven’t experienced. Please read this carefully: the list above merely represents what is often par for the course. There are worse things ministers endure that didn’t make my cut.
Thank your minister for doing all the things that most people never see. Invite him to spend some time with you and your family after lunch next Sunday. You might even think about giving him a token of your appreciation. Then make a plan to do something every few weeks to show him and his family that they aren’t just hired hands but are truly your spiritual family.
Chances are, they really need it.