Most of us see our pastors on Sundays telling funny stories and explaining important principles. As we watch them listening, reassuring, and welcoming, it’s easy to assume they have it all together. Some of us see a little behind the scenes, but few of us really know our pastors. And few pastors really feel known.
This is partly because the work of a pastor is unlike any other work. It is a vocation, a calling upon their whole life, requiring complete engagement. Even when pastors are resting, it has something to do with their work. And while pastors are working, they do a huge amount of resting in God.
An Impossible Job
The role of a pastor shouldn’t be entered into lightly. David Hansen, author of The Art of Pastoring, knew being a pastor was an “impossible” task for him, so his prayer was, “Lord, being a pastor is impossible, so if you will be with me all the way to help me, I will be a pastor.” But unlike Hansen, many pastors don’t realize how impossible their work is until they’re deep into it.
Even the most transparent pastor knows that it’s inappropriate to share themselves fully. But when they do share in a healthy way, some things still remain theirs alone to carry. As a result, pastors often feel lonely.
In an effort to break through that pastoral loneliness, I’ve asked various pastors to share behind the scenes of their lives and work. Here are some things they said they’re not telling their church members.
1. We Feel Pressure to Live up to Your Expectations
Pastors shared that they often feel the presence of previous pastors hovering over their work. “The greatest challenge was dealing with the church’s expectations for their pastor,” Graham shares. “Churches usually don’t look for the unique gifts and strengths of their current pastor. Instead, they take the top strengths of the last two to three pastors combined and expect the current pastor to excel in those areas.”
2. It’s Hard to Tell You What You Need to Hear
Other pastors feel torn between their perceived obligation to keep people happy and their biblical calling to voice godly challenge: “I think every pastor deals with the balancing act of being both pastoral and prophetic,” Howard says. “We love people with such a whole heart that pointing out things that need to change can be difficult.”
3. We Put a Lot of Pressure on Ourselves
Many churches place high expectations on their pastors, not realizing the many expectations and pressures pastors also have of themselves. “We have an image, or a hope, of what the church could be,” Rob says. “When the church responds with apathy or anxiety, that can feed our own apathy and anxiety. It’s incredibly hard to be a source of stability for your congregation and community without tying your personal identity to it.”
4. We Long to Know We’re Making a Difference
Pastors also have a hard time gauging if they’re getting anywhere. “There are few milestones where you feel you’ve arrived,” Monica acknowledges. “It’s nice when someone says ‘good job’ after a sermon, but what I want to say to them is, ‘If you want to let me know my work is fruitful, open your heart to God.’”
5. Many of Us Struggle Financially
Several pastors commented on the practical realities of providing for a family on a ministry income. “Although we’re a very transparent community, there are still things I wish people knew,” Josh says. “Nobody knows the extreme financial burden my wife and I share. It’s hard on our marriage because we barely make ends meet.”
Financial issues also bring pressures at church: “We can’t dress too nicely or drive a car that’s too nice without feeling like members wonder how much we are paid,” David shares. “And I can’t tell the church that my wife works as much as she does to help us dig out of overwhelming debt.”
6. Church Life Can Be Hard on Our Kids
Pastoral work can take its toll on the pastor’s family. Brent says that he longs for his family to be connected with church people in meaningful ways. “I also know that it can be hard to connect with the pastor’s family. My odd schedule can take a toll on my children. I want their social interactions at church to seem normal, but that can be hard,” he acknowledges. “People have expectations of my family that I think are unrealistic,” he adds. “The thing ‘I'm not telling’ is that we are a normal family—not super spiritual or holy, just normal.”
7. This Work Is Emotionally Draining
The work of pastoring can weigh heavily on the heart of a pastor, as Tori shares: “Your pastor isn’t telling you that she sometimes fears she will have nothing to say for her sermon, that the anonymous letters from disgruntled members can be extremely painful, that letters of appreciation are kept in a special file for dark days in the ministry. Your pastor isn’t telling you that she can’t do it all, but she sometimes feels like the congregation expects her to do it all.”
8. We Have Needs Too
Pastors are three-dimensional beings with needs and interests of their own. “When you do small things that let me know it’s okay for me to rest, it reminds me that you care about who I am and not just what I do,” Sigrid says. “And please choose the moments when you want my undivided attention carefully. On a Sunday morning or in the middle of a baby shower are not the times to vent or tell me something personal. Also, I have feelings, so please check your baggage before you hand it all to me.”
9. We Are Often Lonely
All these factors come together in the most common response I received from pastors: They are lonely.
“At times parishioners confess things I can’t even tell my husband,” Diana shares. “I will carry certain secrets to my grave—in particular, peoples’ infidelities. This is one way to pray for a pastor, that God would help him or her carry others’ pain.”
Andy admits the loneliness of dealing with “people who don’t understand what our life is really like.” This lack of understanding “makes it hard to build and maintain friendships,” he says.
“There is always a loneliness,” Doug reveals. “I think it just comes with the traditional clergy role, which is why I’m not in that role anymore.”
That sobers me. How many pastors are on the verge of leaving the ministry because of the pressures, expectations, and constant loneliness they feel? Can we find a way to let them be human? What practical steps might we take to support them in their valuable work?
Each pastor’s situation is unique, so each of us must take the time to learn our pastor’s gifts, needs, and burdens. Perhaps share this article with your pastor to discover where it resonates and ask: How can I support you? How can I make it possible for you to do something for yourself? How can I pray for you?
Your Pastor’s Most Powerful Message
Though there are many things pastors feel they can’t tell their congregations, there is one big thing every pastor does share: the message of their own life of faith. Beyond their preaching or praying, the most powerful message they present to us is the example of a life lived by following God. Like all disciples, each pastor has a unique way of following Christ. God has gifted each congregation with the unique blend of traits embodied in their pastor. These are blessings the congregation may not see or appreciate.
So watch the way your pastor follows God according to her own gifts, passions, interests, and personality. Celebrate his unique way of showing faithfulness. While it’s easy for us to expect great things of our church leaders, it helps to remember that pastors are not called to be God but to model what it looks like to follow him.
Mandy Smith is lead pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati and is the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Making a Mess and Meeting God. She and her husband, Jamie, have two kids.