It’s Sunday morning. Nobody talked much on the way to church today. Mom and Dad had words. But the kids were quiet. They knew better than to speak up when the air was thick with the tension of an argument.
They got to church, parked the car, and put on their public faces. By the time they walked into the sanctuary, they were warm and kind and no one could have known that behind the smiles were pockets of hurt. For the first while, worship was a challenge.
Scenes like this happen to all of us at one time or another, and could easily describe a pastor's family. Sometimes with the extra tension of a not-quite-as-polished-as-I-had-hoped message adding to the madness of the morning dash, the last minute details at home and the drive to church can be difficult. But then, once the car is parked, the public faces are set in place and yes, for the first while, worship—and leading worship—can be a challenge.
The point is that before anything else, it is the simple ordinariness, the honest humanness of a pastor which needs to be honored. Pastors are people. They have hopes and fears, and aches and pains, and hobbies and quirks, and their faith journeys are as wonky and real as any of our faith journeys—filling us now with comfort and joy, now with questions and doubts. Pastors are serious and silly both. And why not? Pastors are human beings who sometimes get it right and sometimes get it wrong.
So that’s the first thing: pastors are utterly ordinary human beings who need to brush their teeth. Pastors are persons.
And then there’s this other thing: the utterly extraordinary demands of their position within the community. These persons are pastors.
Part of the challenge of caring for pastors is trying to understand what it is like to walk in a pastor’s shoes. If we can gain some appreciation for the dynamics which are part and parcel of a pastor’s place in the community, we may be better able to care for them appropriately. Let me suggest at least seven ways in which the pastoral role carries extraordinary demands. And it’s not that each or that any of these seven is overwhelming on its own, but together, they add up like straws on a camel’s back.
- The rhythm of a pastor’s weekly schedule is at odds with the rhythm of most of the rest of the congregation, and certainly at odds with the rest of his/her family! When others are winding down towards the weekend, pastors are winding up. On the weekend, when the family has the most time to be together for visiting and play and errands, a pastor generally has the least time available.
- Pastors participate in every major moment of the church community—not just some of them. Whether it is grief, anxiety, conflict or celebration, the work of pastoral care can be very draining. And how does one measure emotional drain? When combined with the challenge of preaching, and the vulnerability which honest preaching requires, the stress on overall health and vitality is significant.
- Just passin’ through? This is a challenging point. For their own mental health, pastors need to settle into their church community as though they are at home. But it is also true that pastors are not entirely at home in the way that many others are. There is an unusual tension that exists for a pastor and family: they need to live as though they are at home in a community which will one day not be home.
- While a pastor is one of the people, and lives among the people, he/she is also by virtue of ordination, set apart for service—and that very role, of calling attention to the presence of the Other, sets a pastor apart. There is a certain “otherness” that a pastor wears as part of his/her ordination.
- Pastors and their families live in the public eye. This reality is part and parcel of being a public leader. And there are often unwritten expectations which pastors and their families discover along the way.
- Special holiday seasons such as Christmas and Easter can be challenging. These feast days in the church seem to call for the regular presence of the pastor, while congregants are free to join with distant family and friends. I know a pastor who “worked” Christmas Day for 25 consecutive years without ever considering that it might be an option to ask for the day off. Nor did the suggestion ever occur to anyone in the church.
- Pastors find themselves in the odd position of seeming to be accountable to many—as in, to the entire congregation, and at the same time seeming to be accountable to no one. Job descriptions do not exist for many pastors, and matters surrounding reporting, evaluation and the setting of short-term and long-term goals at the Council level are often underdeveloped.
It is difficult for any of us to understand what it is to walk in another’s shoes, and this is certainly true when it comes to understanding what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a pastor. As much as possible, we do well to honor the pastor as an ordinary human being whose role carries extraordinary demands. Ordinary and extraordinary both. We may not forget that a pastor is a person. And we may not forget that this person is a pastor. These two realities are mysteriously distinct and true at the same time.
The question comes—given the unique position that pastors and their families occupy within a church community—how can they be given appropriate care, and what shape might such care take?
I would suggest thinking about this on three levels.
1) Each and every member of a congregation participates in the pastor’s care by virtue of personal interaction. This is a call to engagement—not as a silent partner but as a communicant. Speak a word of appreciation, ask a question, raise a concern—simply acknowledge the pastor’s presence as real. Words of encouragement are always welcome, and prayers are the baptismal obligation which bless every child in the Christian community, pastors included! And do take an interest in the pastor and spouse which goes beyond their role, and honors the reality of their persons, families and social needs.
2) At the level of a council, there are a number of things which can be especially helpful:• View the pastor as a partner in ministry; with the elders, a shepherding team.
- Ensure healthy conversation around matters of expectation, purpose and accomplishment. A well defined job description can assist in setting goals, offering feedback and providing regular evaluation. It can also be helpful in monitoring whether a pastor is overachieving or underachieving, and help to focus his/her energies.
- Build on the areas of a pastor’s strengths, and then complement with staff or volunteers in areas of lesser strength.
- Be generous in the area of continuing education. Continuing to learn is essential to a pastor’s wellbeing, and a clear way for a council to nurture the pastor’s health, growth and creativity.
- Institute a sabbatical policy. The long-term health of pastors in this demanding work makes extended periods of rest and renewal vital. Rested, respected and loved pastors—those who receive sabbaticals!—make for pastors better able to respect and love their congregations.
- Encourage the pastor to participate in some form of mentoring with peers. These are people who know what it is to walk in a pastor’s shoes—both the joy of it and the burden. The opportunity for healthy vulnerability can be immensely refreshing.
- When it comes to “pastor-appreciation” be cautious about splashy public moments. These may be awkward for members of the congregation, for the pastor personally, and for the pastor’s family.
- Encourage the pastor to spend time with the full range of congregation members, from those who are distressed and needy to those who are soaring, and the many walkers in between.
- Know what your pastor considers to be play and encourage it!
3) Beyond the care given by a council and the congregation, pastors and pastor couples need to take some responsibility for their own care—which is another conversation altogether.
One last note—a bonus point, if you will—we can show care to pastor couples by the way we care for their children. Treat them not as pastor’s children, but as children.