By Victor M. Parachin
So this is the pastorate? Is this the ministry? To be misunderstood, unappreciated, alone, and misquoted with no hope of correction? This is a painful, lonely business.
That lament was a journal entry made by pastor David Fisher shortly after he began ministry. Fortunately, Fisher, author of The 21st Century Pastor, weathered that difficult time. Other ministers, however, are not as fortunate. Recent polls reveal high-level dissatisfaction and discouragement among those in the ministry:
• 1,700 ministers leave ministry every month, an annual exodus of more than 20,000
• 50 percent of ministers quit within five years of starting
• 90 percent of those in the ministry say actual ministry is far different from what they thought it would be
• 50 percent feel so discouraged they would leave ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
Yet, there is an antidote that can empower pastors to thrive (rather than merely survive) the ministry. The antidote is encouragement. The Bible teaches: “And now, friends, we ask you to honor those leaders who work so hard for you, who have been given the responsibility of urging and guiding you. . . . Overwhelm them with appreciation and love!” (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13, The Message).
Here are 10 ways you can encourage your minister.
1. Cut the criticism.
Ministers are very easy targets because they are the public face of the church. For ministers, criticism is like an army that relentlessly attacks. Ministers are criticized for sermons that are too long or too short, too boring, or that strike too close to home. They are faulted for lack of growth, failure to meet budgets, and the inability to be all things to all people. Do your part by dropping all criticism.
Consider this lesson from Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers, an ordained minister, told of the time he was a seminary student and attended a different church each Sunday in order to hear a variety of preachers. One Sunday, he listened to “the most poorly crafted sermon I had ever heard in my life.”
However, when he turned to a friend who accompanied him, he found her in tears. “It was exactly what I needed to hear,” she told him.
“That’s when I realized,” Rogers said, “that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”
2. Speak well of your pastor.
When talking about your minister, speak only in positives. If something in the sermon inspired you, share it with another church member. When you learn the minister has been helpful to others in the community, commend him publicly at a board or committee meeting. And when you hear negative comments about a pastor, come to his defense.
Simple responses like these can often shut down criticisms: “I don’t see it that way”; “I appreciate what the pastor is trying to do”; “I am supportive of our minister’s ideas.”
Take seriously (and remind others about) the words of the Bible, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up” (Ephesians 4:29).
3. Show your appreciation.
A woman suggested two “really easy” ways of showing appreciation for a pastor. “One, sit up front with your family. If you invite friends, have them sit with you, as well. This will show [the minister] both your support and interest. Second, take notes when he speaks. Again, this will let him see how much you value his wisdom.”
4. Speak your appreciation.
Remember Mark Twain’s comment: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Tell your minister how much you appreciate him. Your words have the power to dispel discouragement.
Author Joyce Rupp tells of a minister who had experienced long bouts of depression because of what seemed to be a lack of success in ministry. One day he visited a very ill woman. As the visit was ending, she said, “You have been such an important person in my life. I want you to know that I have great love for you.”
Those kind words penetrated his depression. The minister told Rupp that by the time he reached his office, he could sense a new spirit emerging from within. During the next several weeks, his depression lifted and he experienced rejuvenation in his life and ministry.
One of the most fascinating exhibits at the Library of Congress is a display of the personal effects found on Abraham Lincoln the night he was shot. Those include a small handkerchief embroidered with “A. Lincoln,” a country boy’s pocketknife, a spectacle case repaired with cotton string, a Confederate $5 bill, and a nearly worn-out newspaper clipping praising his accomplishments as president. The newspaper story begins with this sentence: “Abe Lincoln is one of the greatest statesmen of all time.”
Clearly, that clipping was an important source of affirmation for President Lincoln. Although today Lincoln is regarded as one of the nation’s finest presidents, in his day he was extremely controversial and unpopular in some circles. The nation was bitterly divided. Many major newspapers blamed him and his leadership for the Civil War. His life was constantly threatened. Thus, Lincoln needed something in his pockets to remind him that his critics were not his only observers. So he carried that newspaper clipping to remind him that someone believed in him.
Put your encouragement into writing and mail it or e-mail it to your minister. Perhaps he, like Lincoln, will put it in his pocket and pull it out from time to time to reread and draw new strength from it.
6. Respect office hours.
Of course, ministers understand they are always on call. However, that applies to emergency situations. As much as possible, follow normal office hours when seeking to speak with the minister.
One pastor’s wife laments trivial late-night phone calls that come to her husband. “Just this week—and this happens all too often—we were both home enjoying a rare evening together. Then, at 9:45 p.m., the phone rang. Of course my husband answered it; after all, it could be an emergency,” she explained. “However, it was just a chatty church member with a lot of time on his hands who wanted to pass on a ‘thought’ to my husband. Could that not have waited until he was in his office at 8:30 the next morning? There are too many calls like that for us.”
In addition to respecting church office hours, also respect your minister’s day off. Unless it’s a true emergency, never call him on his day off. Postpone the call for a workday.
7. Recognize signs of ministry burnout.
In The Effective Minister, Michael Cavanagh cites the following as some signs of ministry burnout:
• decreasing interest in daily work and overall ministry
• decreasing energy to perform tasks that were once relatively easy to perform
• increasing cynicism and pessimism
• increasing behavioral symptoms of anxiety: “tuning out” people, trouble listening to people, cutting appointments short
• increasing physical symptoms of anxiety: tension headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic fatigue, undiagnosable complaints
• decreasing feelings of renewal after experiences that were once revitalizing, such as enjoying a day off.
Be on the alert for these; they’re signs that the pastor’s health and ministry are in danger.
8. Express personal concern.
If you have a strong, friendly bond with your pastor, ask him how he is feeling personally and professionally. Encourage him to speak frankly, openly, and honestly. Assure him of your friendship and confidentiality. Listen with compassion and kindness, but don’t judge anything you hear.
If you sense your pastor is suffering from ministry burnout, sensitively work with other church members to ease the burden by providing some extended time off.
9. Bless your minister with material gifts.
This was something the apostle Paul found greatly encouraging. He wrote these words of thanks: “It was good of you to share in my troubles. . . . You sent me aid more than once when I was in need” (Philippians 4:14, 16). Material gifts don’t need to be lavish: a subscription to a magazine, a gift card to a restaurant or coffee shop, tickets for a concert or sporting event. One minister was surprised and delighted to learn that a church member paid his health club membership for a new year.
10. Pray for your minister.
Pray for specific areas such as these:
• insight into sacred texts and application to daily living
• a balanced vision, one that focuses not only upon external church growth but internal spiritual growth of individual people
• perseverance through times of discouragement
• trust and confidence in God
• patience with church members who have unrealistic expectations
• the minister’s family, that each member would have a positive impression of ministry.
As you pray, be guided and inspired by this wisdom from 19th-century minister and author Gardiner Spring:
Let the thought sink deep into the heart of every church, that their minister will be very much such a minister as their prayers make him. . . . How perilous is the condition of that minister then, whose heart is not encouraged, whose hands are not strengthened, and who is not upheld by the prayers of his people!
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an author, and a freelance journalist living in Tulsa, Oklahoma.