Giving thanks...for your Pastor

Chances are if you’re reading this, you are a follower of Jesus. If that’s the case, you likely attend church, or at least online.

That brings us to the people who lead at your church: the pastors, the staff, and perhaps even those who teach at a Christian school your children might attend.

Imagine, for a brief moment, what it would be like, if none of those people showed up for their role. Imagine the eventual disarray, the gaps, and perhaps even panic that would set in, if all of a sudden, they simply decided to do something else, whether it paid more, meant less pressure, or maybe just because they didn’t have to find creative ways to introduce themselves besides saying “pastor.”

It’s a scary thought, right?

It is striking to think about how much we depend on them to show up every week to help support and strengthen us (and those we love) on our spiritual journeys; for them to do their best to be there for us, when our lives are falling apart, or when we are reeling from the loss of a loved one, (which has happened much more frequently as a result of the Covid-19 crisis). We genuinely need them.  Our lives are so much better because of the commitments they’ve made, and the way they have responded to God’s call on their lives.   The Lord has been incredibly gracious in providing them in our lives.

I imagine a sense of gratitude might be entering your heart right now. If so, then this little blog has already served some of its purpose.  We are very blessed to have as many pastors and other Christian leaders in our lives as we do, especially here in America.

Because our Christian leaders are so important, I believe it is vital for us to grow in gratitude for them, (especially during this week of Thanksgiving!) and beyond, so that we can do our part in supporting them, especially since their roles have become much more challenging over the last few decades, and especially since Covid hit.

Since we often need to understand what someone’s life is like in order to appreciate them more, let me share some of the most important insights I’ve gained over my decades of work with pastors and other Christian leaders, to ultimately help you engage with and pray more effectively for them: for their good, for your good, and ultimately for the kingdom of God.

Demands and Drains in Christian Ministry

While virtually every Christian leader is excited when they sense a call to ministry, it doesn’t take too much time in the actual trenches of ministry to discover how profoundly difficult it can be at times.

Spiritual Warfare

I don’t mean to overstate this, but when a person wholeheartedly devotes themselves to fulfilling their calling in Christian ministry, the target on their back expands dramatically.  I’ve heard this a number of times from people firsthand, that when they accepted the call to ministry, challenges in their personal life somehow increased substantially, with no other apparent reason besides a commitment to fulfilling their calling.  It’s difficult to describe if you’ve not experienced it, but the increased pull towards darkness, towards foolishness, and sin, somehow intensifies in general when one is in ministry, and is often even greater before and after significant spiritual events, such as preaching, or baptisms.  I’ve seen this play out a number of times. The spiritual blows can be alarmingly intense, and sadly darkness wins on occasion, as pastors are human just like the rest of us.  But, because of their role, it’s often far more challenging for them to know who to talk to about it, because to admit one struggles (and occasionally falls) in the battle with temptation as a spiritual leader can be a career and livelihood destroyer. So, they often bear that weight alone, which over time, makes the battles even more difficult to win.

Unrealistic Expectations

This too can often hit pastors and other Christian leaders by surprise. The number of parishioners that look to a pastor to be the true friend they’ve never had, and to always be there for them, (even if there are literally hundreds of other people in the same boat/congregation!), can be staggering.  As pastors have limitations like the rest of us, it can put them in a very dicey place, as nearly all of them long to serve well, and yet they simply cannot be close friends with everyone in the congregation. They cannot visit everyone all the time. And when they invariably disappoint people, the weight can feel even heavier, because when people have high/unrealistic expectations, and those expectations aren’t met, the person invariably expresses implicitly (and sometimes explicitly!), a correspondingly high level of shock, frustration, and disappointment.  It can be really painful to experience this for pastors, because they know they have good intentions, and yet people respond at times as if they have deliberately tried to hurt them.  Sounds hard, right?

One other element to hit on briefly here is when a pastor also happens to have unrealistic expectations for themselves. I’ve encountered this over and over in my clinical and coaching work. For various reasons, they often believe that because they have accepted a call from God, they need to be superhuman. And when they inevitably fail at reaching their own unrealistic expectations, they can really turn on themselves, thinking they are a deliberately rebellious person. This makes it even harder for them to run to God, to receive his grace and mercy and forgiveness in their time of need.  And, given the challenges in being vulnerable with others due to their roles, they often struggle longer in the cycle of trying to work their way back to God by doing better, rather than being able to do what at some level they know is true, to confess and receive that they are forgiven and loved in their brokenness.

Societal Hits

It’s hard to describe the true weight of the societal hits.

The Insanity of the Past Few Years

First, would be what’s happened over the last few years, as we have witnessed a substantial decline in the political dialogue, as the right and left have become increasingly hostile and polarized. Further, the challenges of working through social injustice issues have also, sadly enough, increased polarization in a broad sense. Then you add a massive global pandemic to the mix, which has taken the lives of millions, caused untold economic hardship, and on top of that, the prescriptions for the recovery, such as the vaccine and masks, has in and of itself created even more division!  Imagine trying to lead a church during times like this, where everything you say you have to filter through the above grids, because if you don’t do it wisely, you can easily alienate people who are already on the razor's edge because of the stress they’re going through in light of the same things.

How can this be?!?

All this makes it so much more difficult for pastors to create momentum, because of how hard it can be to gather people in light of the substantial concerns that people can have about gathering, (such as masks or no masks), and as a result, pastors often have to work that much harder to try to nurture hope and rebuild community while the pandemic drags on and on at some level.   Are you feeling some of the weight they likely feel?

Well, there’s more!

Difficult Historical Trends

Over the past 50 years or so, things have not trended in favor of pastors. While I don’t believe anyone, including church leadership, has conspired here, the net effect on pastors has been pretty tough, to say the least. It’s hard to know how to rank these because they all are difficult to talk about. First generally speaking, societal respect for pastors has gone down significantly. Historically in America, to be a pastor was a position that garnered significant respect. While it may be easy to idealize the past, thinking about how pastors were honored and esteemed early in our country’s history (think “Little House on the Prairie”), versus how they are viewed now is a dramatic and sobering difference.  Further, in many ways, the salaries for pastors have not kept up well in comparison to many other occupations. Up until the ‘70s or so, it was much easier for a pastor to support their family on their income without their spouse working. That is not typically the case today, and can create tougher strains in the home.  Further, it’s not hard to see that our society in America (and beyond) has become much more broken, as the depth and breadth of dysfunction have increased dramatically. As a result, the weight of ministering to those people has become much more difficult to bear as the sheer numbers of people struggling have increased so much.

Yet, even with all the above, these folks continue to show up week after week to help us on our journeys to be more and more of who God has called us to be.  What a gift for us as followers, what a precious gift we get to enjoy again and again and again.

What can we do to help?

I imagine some of you might be feeling a sense of heaviness as you read this. That is totally normal. Pastors have a heavy load, a load that can be hard to lighten, even when they know all about the “easy yoke.”

What can you and I do, to help lighten their load?  Well, as the title suggests, thinking of ways we can express thanksgiving for them is the first place to start. When any of us feel clearly appreciated, it goes a long way in lightening our load.

So first, of course, would be to express your gratitude for them when you see them.  Try not to go over the top, but simply saying, “thank you so much for continuing to serve, it means so much to me and my family,” can be a huge gift to them. And, I’m confident they rarely mind receiving a gift card every now and then, (especially outside of pastor appreciation month!)

But perhaps the deepest way to give thanks for the Christian leaders in your world is to pray regularly and intentionally for them.  Your diligent prayers are likely needed more than you know, as the spiritual battle your pastors face is often so much bigger than we can fully appreciate.

So as I have thought and prayed about this, here are my top three areas of recommendation for your prayers for the pastors and other Christian leaders in your world:

Areas of Prayer for your Pastor(s)

That they might consistently embrace godly self–care

Given all of the above challenges, the importance of pastors and other Christian leaders faithfully, (and yes religiously!), embracing godly self-care cannot be overstated. By this I mean, praying that they would have the grace to daily make ample time to drink deeply from the living well of the love and grace of God. And, that through their time in the Word and prayer, they would have their core identity as a deeply loved and highly valued child of God more thoroughly established in their soul.

Further, please pray that they would consistently make time for their spouse and children, to enjoy and deepen those key relationships.

Another really important thing to pray for is their support system.  Pray that they may be active in developing relationships where there is lots of room for them to be human, including tried and tested friendships, mentors, and a therapist if needed, to help them heal and grow in fullness as a part of their calling.

And lastly, to have the courage and faith, to make time for Things. They. Really. Enjoy.  So often, pastors end up profoundly drained, partially because they haven’t done anything that is truly fun or renewing in ages. Taking regular time for healthy, godly enjoyment is an avenue for renewal that is frequently neglected, often to the detriment of the pastor.

That they might grow in understanding God’s expectations for them

Growing in clarity about God’s expectations for them, is in many ways the ultimate antidote in the battle with expectations…from others and themselves.  Please pray for them to be able to discern when to say “yes” and when to say “no,” and to grow in trusting God with how others will respond if they disappoint them.  Pray for them to have the courage and security to tactfully share when they can’t invest in a relationship that they just don’t have room or time for.  And, lastly, to grow in turning to God for His counsel about what they should expect from themselves, rather than relying only on their own judgment.

That they might more deeply sense God’s delight in them

When we can sense God’s delight in us, deep in our souls, it makes such a profound difference. Sensing that God is pleased with how we are responding to the trials God allows our way, and that He is proud of how we are growing in cooperating with His work in us, brings some of the greatest fulfillment and motivation that can be found.  Please consider praying for your leaders to grow in their ability to sense God’s delight in them…for how they are persevering, loving, and growing as His servants and leaders, particularly during tough times.

Phew, this has been quite a journey!  I hope you have a greater sense for the load that Pastors can carry, and how hard that road can be.  I hope you as well are growing in gratitude for the gift they are to you and so many others in this heavy world.

May God bless your time of Thanksgiving, and help you be more and more of an ally with the Christian leaders in your world.