We live in a violent world. We live in a hostile environment. We live in a rapidly changing culture. Civility has eroded. We are all busy. Some of us are hanging by a thread. Others are at the end of their rope. Some are new to the spiritual journey and filled with unbridled passion. Others are tired, worn out and burned out on religion. Few are resilient. Few, it seems would say, “The abundant life is not the exhausted life.”
As a whole, we need help. Many of us turn to our churches to find some kind of solace. Whether our churches use the word “sanctuary” or not, the simple truth is every soul needs some kind of sanctuary in the crazy world we live in today. We need a place where we can gather or wits, collect our thoughts, sing a few songs and hear something that might inspire us. We’re just made to need that. It’s okay to offer a sanctuary in today’s world.My intent here is to awaken you a bit to the life of a pastor—the life of anyone who is in ministry these days. My intent here is to ask you to express some kindness, some gratitude for them this particular Thanksgiving and Advent season. Pastors are people too!
There, within the walls of the church is a person who, also is just like you and me. A person, who for some reason felt a nudge, call or compulsion to be a representative of God as a pastor or spiritual leader. These men and women know, and they all know, that deep inside they are not perfect—perhaps not even the ideal ministerial candidate—but they step forward and step out and step up to try to make a difference. They are trying. To date, I have never met or sat with a pastor who is not trying. Most are trying too hard to make something work that simply will not work—like putting new wine into old wine skins kind of a thing.
Most pastors and spiritual leaders are ill-equipped to do ministry in today’s rapidly changing world. The world is changing so fast that how we actually help people is changing also. When spiritual leaders were trained a few years back, their training, most likely, did not equip them to minister in a world where social media was rampant and life is “done” on iPhones, and Wi-Fi is now on Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs”—right there with food, shelter and friends. When most pastors were trained to be pastors, it was a different world. There was no text messaging. Today’s spiritual leaders are offered instant feedback on how they “did” in their sermons. Often the criticism received after one has been so vulnerable and exposed one’s own inner life for the sake of other’s souls is instant, often brutal and vicious. It’s abuse actually. To send a critical text or message to a pastor on the day that the message is delivered is a form of spiritual abuse.
Friends, please give it a day. Give it a rest. Don't confuse the urgency of the cadence of the world with your own need to download your feelings or reactions. Look at your own triggers first! Why do you feel the need to say such a thing, in such a way as your choosing to say it? Pause. Please pause.Where has kindness gone in our violent world—especially in the church and among God’s people? No leader I know, who works in a high profile church, was ever trained to deal with harsh, quick, rapid fire comments. No pastor struggling in a small church of fifty to sixty people is well equipped either. Let love be our aim—our only aim.
Such is the world today. One pastor told me recently that he “felt as if he were performing on American Idol or the Voice on a weekly basis—judged by his delivery and content without anyone taking into account his own personal life of three kids under six at home and financial pressures to the max. I am fiercely swimming to try to stay afloat—just like everyone else. But there’s no mercy. No mercy for me.”
The Erosion of Civility with the People of God. Today, we have over 40,000 Christian and Protestant denominations. It’s incredible. Our divisive political culture and erosion of civility has also spilled into the church. There are splits, division and discord that shape the culture of many houses of worship. What you may not know is this: every person who leaves the church is a rejection to the pastor—a rejection that says, “I’m not good enough, gifted enough, jazzy enough.” It all fuels the private, secret inner world of the pastor to baptize themselves in a pool of self-criticism and fearful rejection by God.
There are worship wars where we can’t even agree on how to worship God. So, the pastors are forced or “feel led” to offer a buffeteria approach of traditional, contemporary and here’s a new one, “wired worship” complete with smoke machines and hi-tech lights that set moods and “moments” when pastor’s of another era relied more on the Spirit to work in this way. Each service requires different skills, different songs, different instruments. It all has to be managed. It’s complicated. It all adds up to extraordinary pressure on these folks that have to navigate every day of the week. Is it all necessary? Really? One mega church I know offers three worship services on the weekend. One of those services averages 150 people in a sanctuary that seats 2000. Is it worth it to be all things to all people at the expense of our souls—especially the souls of our pastors and leaders who staff the services?
Sunday Comes Every Six Days. There’s another thing. Sunday comes ever six days. Every Monday, most pastors I know can’t recover from a busy weekend because first, they don’t “get” weekends. So the weekly routine can become, yes, a routine. They feel guilty for being "OFF," so many manage their image of always being “ON” and always “available” when even Jesus Christ as not always on or available. Many pastors spend their ministry still trying to be Jesus Jr. never confessing to the fact that Jesus has no Juniors. He doesn’t need them. So, then, why are we trying to do what Jesus doesn't even want? Then, there are funerals. Weddings. Meetings. Budgets and staff management and personal crisis of affairs within the church body, teenage rebellion in the lives of the elders and the being sandwiched—the feeling of aging parents and too many rivaling priorities. The squeeze and pressure that most pastors I know and work with is simply not comparable to any other profession I am aware of. Doctors get the privilege of being off. Most pastors I know would abandon their vacations and family time if there was a crisis. I know I did and it is a wound that Gwen and I still work on healing today. Too many crises to manage ; to attend to. We are simply not equipped. I had not done my Inside Job. I didn’t even know there as an inside I needed to do. I am not alone in this dilemma.Most pastors I have worked with are exhausted but they can’t tell anyone how “spent” they feel. Why? Because most pastors feel isolated. After all where can a pastor go to be pastored? How can a leader give what a leader does not give?
I could not be a pastor today. In my 40+ years of ministry, the speed of which we live and the time-sickness that has affected us, the litany of all I have written above, makes me realize that in today’s world, I could never pastor a church. My shoulders are not that strong any more. My capacity has diminished. I don’t have the bandwidth anymore to tolerate what most spiritual leaders have to navigate. That kind of stress almost did me in and took a heavy, heavy toil on my marriage with Gwen. Now I pastor pastors.
Every pastor needs a pastor and woe to the pastor that does not have a pastor to pastor them!As I am aging, I'm finding my skin is getting thinner, not thicker, so criticism especially when expressed in a negative and derogatory way hurts. Sometimes it really hurts. Most pastors I know would agree. It's a noisy world today. Social media has given everyone a platform to say anything they want to say and there are "kindness" barometers built into the way we can reply to each other.
Inner Work and Outer Work. I had not done my inner work when I was a mega-pastor. My outer work of leading an exploding church exposed the reality that I had no where to rest inside my soul. I was always on. I did not know how to be off. Most leaders are like me. We need more training. More re-education. More unlearning of what we were taught. Looking back, I did not know what I know now. I ran on empty. I lived an unsustainable life. I was a shell of a man—a shell of a pastor and what’s more, I had to hold it all a secret because no where felt safe for me to vent or lament. To be truthful, I did not even know the words: soul care, self-compassion. I was not trained in silence. Silence was for a monk and I was no monk. I’m still not. I never heard of Sabbath keeping. My mantra and personal ethos was “Get ‘ur done!” All my doing imploded my being. When one burns out, it takes a long, long time to recover. You don’t recover when your soul is scorched by taking a day off. It’s a long, slow, perilous journey to regain what you lost when you realize that you have lost your soul when trying to save everyone else’s soul.
Three Ways to Express Your Gratitude. As we approach Thanksgiving as a nation, I am inviting you to do three things:
Write a hand-written note to your spiritual leader and express your heart to them in your own words and in your own handwriting. A handwritten note is where you take a card or a piece of paper and find an envelope and put a stamp on it and put it in the slow-paced mail. I can personally guarantee you that your note will be like apples of gold in settings of silver and it will bring a wave of grace, comfort, cure and care to your spiritual leaders. Trust me on this. It will have far, far, more benefits than you can possibly understand. Why, because you may not be a pastor or a spiritual leader and their life might really be unknown to you, if the truth be told. An email is not the same and by all means, do not send a text to express your thanksgiving on this level. It will not reach their soul. It will not.
On an upcoming time of worship, go up to your pastor. Some of you will have to work your way through body guards and “handlers” (yes, it’s true) but go ahead and try. Look in their eyes and express verbally your gratitude to them and for them. Stand in the line. Wait your turn. Choose to be grateful and just do it. It’s an extraordinarily busy time for pastors and leaders. Advent services. Year end stuff. Multiple Christmas Eve services ( by the way, have you thought about the fact that your church, if it has multiple Christmas Eve services, does not allow the pastor to have that day or often Christmas day with their own family?) I think what I’m asking for is some consideration. Some love and some gratitude.
Ask your Pastor or spiritual leader, this question this upcoming season. “What do you need?” or “How can I help you in ministry this season?” Your interest; your initiative will be like balm to their soul. Often pastor’s feel guilty for having to ask us all the time to do stuff. Volunteer. Serve. Show up.
Here are some more considerations you can think about and explore that will help your pastors and spiritual leaders.
Build a sabbatical policy for your pastors. Give them time off for rest and renewal. They need it and they and the church will be the better for it. We can help you with some resources if you need them. Ask.
Encourage your pastor to take their entire vacation allowance at one time. Every pastor needs a month off; and a full month off looks like this: it takes a week to come down off the steroid of work. The second week is rest. The third week is deep soul renewal and the fourth week is where the gift of being off and away is really experienced. Asking a pastor to be on for 50 weeks a year is simply too much and unrealistic. Give grace and grace will be returned.
Encourage your pastor to take one whole and complete day a month as a “soul care day.” We have some resources to help a leader know what to do rather with a whole day alone with God. It does not take a PhD to know how to spend a day with God. It’s actually simple and really rewarding.
Make sure your pastor is paid on the level and in the way as the majority of the church. That’s important but often ignored. Every pastor I know is worth their wage and the vast majority works very hard and very well.
Make sure you choose one of the three suggestions I offered above this Thanksgiving/Advent season.
A Short Blessing for Pastors: May God bless the souls of our pastors. May the grace of the Father be given to you in the deep places of your hearts where you need it most! May the love of Jesus Christ hold you together as you seek to hold others together. May the Spirit of God brood over you to help you realize that you are not alone—never alone. May you learn to humbly learn to be human and to remain human all the days of your life for human is what you are and it all you need to be. You are enough! Amen.