Anyone who has ever served in a staff or paid ministry position knows how hard these roles can be. That’s why frustration, hurt feelings, burnout, exhaustion, and isolation are such big problems today among pastors and other church staff.
But maybe those problems are symptoms of a larger illness — the divide between ministers and parishioners. Though rarely discussed, this division involves professional, interpersonal, educational, and financial components, and I wonder if it’s that cultural boundary that causes misconceptions to arise between these two groups of people. After all, put ten pastors and ten churchgoers in a room together, and both groups will tell each other “we’re just like you” while thinking, privately, “you’re not like me at all.”
The perception exists that we’re not alike, and that perception results in posts like this. Right or wrong, intentional or not, there are things we just don’t understand about each other.
In the interest of bridging the divide, today’s post is directed toward pastors, ministers, and church staff members. I spoke to a wide selection of churchgoing friends on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. Here are five of the things these church members wish their church leaders understood:
1. Who you are reflects upon your membership. Churches reflect the character of its most visible pastors and ministers. “It’s not always fair,” one church member told me, “but people associate churches with the pastor. If the pastor is one way, people assume the church is the same.” In other words, a pastor who wants to lead a community-minded church needs to be community-minded himself. A pastor who wants his church to be seen as loving must himself be loving. Likewise, an egotistic, demanding pastor is not likely to have a church that’s viewed in the community as humble and willing to serve. Even worse, people who look negatively upon a pastor may transfer that prejudice toward members of his church. It’s not just a matter of steering clear of major public scandals like sexual affairs. Individual traits matter, too. If a pastor comes across as arrogant or aloof, his parishioners may be identified that way as well. Guilt by association isn’t fair, but it’s a reality. Be mindful of how you treat people.
2. Churchgoers have lives (and ministries) outside of church. “I don’t eat and breathe this church,” a parishioner said. “Church is still important to me even if I miss a week or two,” another told me. Whether it’s the most accurate gauge or not, the easiest way to grasp the health of a church is to look at its numbers — but attendance figures are of much more importance to staff members than to their church members. While most members believe in the value of corporate worship and being part of a church community, the compulsion to attend every church meeting or event seems to be waning. “When a pastor talks about how important it is to get involved and serve others,” a friend noted, “you know they mean ‘serve others here at church.’ They want you to help in the nursery or the youth ministry and make you feel guilty if you don’t do that stuff. But I feel like coaching my son’s soccer team is part of my ministry. My wife does PTA and volunteers at school. We think we’re serving right where we need to be. It’s just not inside the church building.” Church members need to be empowered and encouraged to serve, but leaders should remain flexible in how they define ministry. When churches legitimize community service as ministry — and inspire their members to view it that way — great things can happen.
3. They value excellence but not showiness. Everyone makes mistakes. Every speaker, worship leader, or musician can have a bad day on-stage. Church members realize this, but at the same time appreciate good preparation. “I’m afraid of inviting a friend to church and it turning into a train wreck,” a friend e-mailed. “You can tell if the pastor hasn’t worked that hard on the message. You can tell when the band doesn’t know a song very well. I’m not looking for a concert, but I don’t want to be embarrassed.” At work in the “real world,” church members are paid to do their jobs, and do them well. They expect the same of their leaders‚ especially in the most public, Sunday-morning aspects of their job.
4. They want to be led…with honesty. Stories abound of churches that embarked on an exciting new vision only to backtrack a few weeks into it for a variety of reasons — too few volunteers, lack of funds, complaints from prominent church members, or some other kink. And that’s OK, unless you wrapped up the change in spiritual language. “We trust that you’re making decisions based on prayer and God’s guidance,” one churchgoer explains. “So why did you announce a big new ministry focus and then pull the plug after a couple of months? If God was supposed to be behind it, shouldn’t we be more patient?” As a church staff, if you sense God pushing your church in a certain direction, don’t hesitate to lead your church down that path, even if it makes certain members uncomfortable. If God is truly behind it, what does it matter if someone complains? But if you’re making a change based on a hunch or knowing that it’s a risk or just to try something new, then be honest about the reasoning behind the change. Lead your church, but don’t try to over-spiritualize it or justify the idea by attributing it to God. If you do, and it doesn’t work out, then they are totally justified in asking hard questions.
5. Sometimes, it looks like you have it easy. Anne Jackson, the author of Mad Church Disease and a former church staffer, once blogged about the perception — which she felt was well earned — that church staffers can be lazy. The post’s comment section should be required reading for pastors and ministers across the board. “There are so many things you can get away with working on a church staff that would never happen in the real world, and many of us take advantage of it,” she wrote. Long lunches. Little accountability. The safety of low expectations. Church members may be hesitant to bring it up, but they are aware that their financial sacrifices — their tithes and offerings — pay your salary. If they regularly see the youth minister engaging in Nerf Gun wars during office hours or the worship minister posting YouTube videos to Facebook, you might find your autonomy being questioned. No, you don’t get weekends off. Yes, occasionally you have to work strange hours. But appearances and perception matter. Whether justified or not, you don’t ever want a church member to look at your staff and say, “I wish I could goof around all day and get paid for it.” You are a steward of their tithes. Don’t forget that.
Like the previous list, this is far from complete. If you’re a church member, what things do you want your staff to know and understand? And if you’re a staffer, are any of these items off base?
This article by Jason Boyett first appeared at FaithVillage.com, the blog for a new social network for faith resources launching in late 2011.