Around this time last year, someone forwarded an email to me about “Pastor Appreciation Month.” I think I vaguely knew that this was a thing, but I had no idea that it was upon us. Apparently, one of the ways that my church can show appreciation to me is to give me a gift certificate for a discount on books. It’s a nice gesture. But honestly the last thing I need is more books. I already have a dozen waiting to be read and I have probably reached that stage of life and ministry where I am less optimistic than I once was that a book holds the key to whatever intellectual, pastoral, or administrative deficiencies I daily inflict upon my church. But, again, a nice gesture. And it got me pondering a rather simple question: Why appreciate a pastor?
Well, the short answer is because while being a pastor is incredibly rewarding in many ways, it’s also kinda hard. Not harder than being a farmer or a nurse or a builder or a business person or a professor, I should hasten to add. Just harder in different ways. I spent some time enumerating some of the things that I, personally, find most challenging about this utterly unique position that I never imagined I’d find myself in.
I want to be explicitly clear at the outset that this is not a plea for sympathy or some kind of passive aggressive dig at my church for not being sufficiently appreciative. Nothing could be further from the truth. My church is generous and supportive to a fault. But for those who only darken the door of a church a few times a month and wonder what on earth pastors spend the rest of their time doing, or how it could possibly be hard to work for 20 minutes once a week (wink, nudge), here’s some of what might be going on in your pastor’s brain when they stand up on Sunday morning. It’s what’s often going on in mine, at any rate.
To be a pastor is to wonder and worry about the future of the church. It’s natural, when one’s professional identity is tied up in the ongoing existence of an institution, to feel this anxiety. Not admirable, perhaps, but natural. These are not the best of times for the church in the West. The church is (rightly and wrongly) associated with all kinds of sins, past and present. People have walked away and continue to walk away in droves. The research and the statistics show only downward trajectories. This can be a demoralizing space to inhabit. It can also be invigorating, I should add, because it can clarify priorities and sharpen theological vision. But it takes work to see the glass as half-full when the world “out there” often sees the thing that you have given your life to as irrelevant at best. And many of us, if we’re honest, have no idea how to “fix” this or turn around trends that aren’t terribly encouraging.
To be a pastor is to often feel incompetent. It’s no secret that people can expect a lot from pastors. A pastor should be a gifted orator, a compelling theologian, an efficient administrator, a sensitive counsellor/caregiver, an intuitive asker of the right question at the right time, a thoughtful event planner, a cheerful networker, a social butterfly… The list goes on and on. A friend of mine was recently on a search committee for a pastor. When I saw the job description at the end of the process, I cringed and said, “Jesus wouldn’t qualify for that job!” Larger multi-staff churches can adopt a divide and conquer approach to this impossible list of demands, but smaller churches can’t. Often it’s one or two people that are expected to cover all that terrain. And speaking personally, after 10 years in this gig I know for a fact that I am terrible at some of those things. It’s easy to feel like you’re constantly disappointing some people at least some of the time.
To be a pastor is to constantly fight the temptation to measure your worth and success in the role by unhelpful (and un-Christian) metrics. How many people are in the pews? How many of them are under 50? How much criticism or praise did the last sermon receive? How many disinterested yawns? How many programs, articles, baptisms, meetings and pastoral visits can I point to in order to justify my position? How’s the budget looking? Who hasn’t been around in a while? Are the customers satisfied?
To be a pastor is to sometimes feel like you are having faith on behalf of others. Not only are churches emptier and older than they were a generation or two, they’re more skeptical. Those who come aren’t necessarily buying what the church is selling. They’re there for community or some other felt social need, but they’re not at all sure about this “faith” business. It all feels rather exclusive and intolerant. Sometimes it can feel like people are relying on you to keep a faith that they couldn’t.
To be a pastor is to often straddle the fault lines of difficult issues. Our cultural moment is dominated by a constellation of hot-button issues (race, sexuality, gender, identity, etc.). And of course, people bring their issues to church. These issues have the potential to tear families, communities and churches apart. They have done so in the past. As pastor, people look to you to have something definitive (or at least helpful) to say. But to be a pastor is not simply to dutifully pronounce upon the correct theological conclusions about issue x. It is also to feel a deep (and appropriate) obligation to the real human beings who are wrestling with these issues. It is to know that sometimes it’s best not to have something definitive to say for the sake of preserving a relationship. Sometimes it’s best to withhold judgment. And sometimes? Well, sometimes you just don’t have a clue what to say. Sometimes you just don’t know. But “I don’t know” isn’t something pastors are supposed to say.
To be a pastor is to watch people suffer. This one is the most difficult for me. Watching people descend into the abyss of a debilitating disease, watching age steal people’s minds and bodies, listening to the heartache of parents whose kids are carving a swath of chaos and destruction through the lives of everyone around them, watching marriages fall apart, watching faith and hope wither… These things take a psychological toll. Prayer and listening and co-suffering love all matter and make a difference. And to remind people of Christ within them, the hope of glory is the truest thing I will ever say. I am as convinced as I ever was that the church must be a place where human suffering can be interpreted and lived theologically, where it can be anchored in and tethered to the suffering Christ. But it’s easy to feel profoundly helpless in the middle of it all.
This has been a bit bleak, I know. I’m (sort of) sorry about that. This list doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story. And it can feel kind of small and petty when set alongside the realities faced by pastors in situations of persecution and trial around the world. But I still think it tells an important part of the story at this particular time in this particular place. I know many pastors who have walked away from the role because they found it too exhausting or frustrating or whatever. I know other pastors who struggle to put on a brave, happy faithful face on Sunday morning, while inside they are falling apart. If nothing else, the preceding might inspire you to say a prayer for your pastor as they clear their throat behind the pulpit next Sunday morning. Or to remember that grace is among the best forms of appreciation.
Ryan Dueck is the pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta. He blogs at ryandueck.com, where this post originally appeared.