Dear Future Pastor
Dear Future Pastor,
I’m writing to you as someone who’s been in ministry her entire life. My dad was a pastor, and I’ve been married to a pastor for 40 years. Here are some of the most crucial things I’ve learned.
One of the best tips I can give you—one that will save you many hours of frustration and exhaustion—is this: figure out how to differentiate between the people who want to change and those who don’t. My first child spent most of her first year taking her afternoon naps in my lap while I counseled women on the phone—one in particular who was much older than me. She had some serious marriage problems, and I would do my very best to give her good advice. But when I would ask her a few days later if she had implemented any of my suggestions, she always said no, and offered excuses for why she couldn’t do what I had advised. It finally dawned on me that she wasn’t really interested in working on her marriage; what she wanted was someone to listen to her complaints and reassure her that it wasn’t her fault she had a lousy marriage. When I realized that she never put into practice the earnest advice I gave her, I told her to call me back when she was ready to actually make some changes.
It became a bedrock principle of ministry for me: move with the movers, and let go of those who aren’t yet serious about doing the hard work of spiritual and relationship growth. I always explain gently why I’m declining to keep meeting with them, with the hope that it will galvanize those with a sincere but immature heart to buckle down and make the necessary changes. I promise you, this is gold.
Something no one warned me about: numerical growth has a cost. Gaining in one area will mean losing in another. I thought a growing church could only bring greater joy and fulfillment; I was not prepared for the sadness I felt when another leap in numbers occurred. I was sad when I no longer could invite the whole church over to my house for a Christmas Open House; when I stood on the patio and looked in all four directions and realized I didn’t recognize a single face; when I stopped being asked for my opinion on what color carpet should go in the sanctuary or what design to use for the Easter bulletin; when more qualified musicians showed up and my mediocre piano playing wasn’t needed; when people who had been members for 10 years stopped me on the patio and introduced themselves, and I realized I didn’t know them from Adam. I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself a long time, thinking my sadness over these losses was a sign of immaturity. But then I realized that it’s okay to grieve what will never be the same again. Weep when it happens, and then thank God for new people coming to Jesus and finding a spiritual home. Both are appropriate responses.
This is probably obvious, but I can’t help but say it: treat your spouse and children respectfully from the pulpit. I don’t hear it as much anymore, but pastors used to make their wives and children the butt of every joke. His wife’s cooking, her mother, her housekeeping skills, her intelligence, her Bible knowledge—all were fodder for sermon illustrations. The kids’ private thoughts, words, and actions were woven into Dad’s sermon, or they were the used as the point of a silly story. Don’t do it. Know the boundaries of privacy and kindness that your family will accept, and don’t cross those lines. Your family deserves that kind of honor.
If it stops being fun—if ministry becomes more of a burden than a pleasure— pay attention. Don’t keep pushing until you’re just a shell of the person you were. Don’t keep pushing until your wife is bone-tired, weary of criticism, done with living in a glass house where her every move is scrutinized and evaluated. Don’t keep pushing until your children hate you, and God, and church.
If you need help dealing with damaged emotions, or wounds from your childhood, or the pressures and strains of ministry, ask for it. Boldly! Without shame! Don’t lick your wounds in secrecy. Don’t pretend to walk on water, no matter how many board members or cute little grandmas try to keep you up there on the pedestal. It’s easy to fall off, and the fall is usually a hard one. You’re just a person. You don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to do it perfectly every time. Don’t fall for the destructive myth that you have to be there for everyone else, no matter what. Too many broken men and women have, and then were left to wonder who would be there for them in their time of desperation. Pastors, and their spouses and kids, are prone to the same addictions, mental illnesses, hurts, habits, and hang-ups as their congregants. Don’t wait—get help.
There’s so much more I want to tell you, but I’ll close with this: no matter what changes, some things will remain constant. Spouses will always need emotional connection, physical contact, empathy, companionship, and support. Your spouse will need you as a lover, a companion, a shoulder to lean on, a hand to hold, a partner to dream with, a fellow sinner to seek grace with, and a hero to look up to. Marriages thrive on shared history, chemistry, and mystery—the person you married will never be fully known to you, but oh, how fun it is to try! Children will never outgrow their need for parents who are models, instructors, and coaches. They will crave unhurried time, focused attention, the knowledge that they’re special, and a safe and secure home filled with love, forgiveness, grace, 2nd and 3rd and 23rd chances, respect, honor, creativity, and an abiding love for God and his Word. You can take it to the bank that your parishioners will desire a pastor who listens, shows up in the special moments of their lives (births, deaths, marriages, parties, etc.), and genuinely loves them. You might not be the best preacher, but they will probably overlook your less-than-awesome sermons if they know you flat-out love them.
I’m praying for you and your family today!