Ten Ways to Support Your Congregation’s Pastor

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Update: This post has now been published on the Huffington Post.  If you want to easily share this with your network (and thank you to all who have already done so) you can do that here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/ten-ways-to-support-your-_b_4306203.html

Recently another of my clergy colleagues told me they were thinking about leaving the ministry. This happens more often than you might think. At least a few times a year a clergy friend tells me that they are considering leaving ministry, or even the church entirely, behind. These are not unqualified, untrained, or ungifted individuals. They are people who are so clearly called to ordained ministry that it is apparent to almost everyone around them. But the pressures of parish ministry have worn them down to the point where they really begin to wonder whether they were ever called at all.

They are not alone. Clergy attrition is a real issue for the church. Add to that higher than average rates of alcoholism, depression, and stress-related illness, and it’s clear that clergy today face major challenges. Everyone who comes into ministry with sincere intentions knows that much will be demanded of them. It will often be hard. But when the life of a pastor starts to grind them down, everyone suffers.

The good news is that there are many faithful church members who want to help turn that around. Recently one of them, a personal friend, came to me for advice on how to support their own pastor. They worried their minister was about to burn out, and that no one seemed to be noticing. And they asked what advice I would give to a congregation about how to best support their pastor.

I’ve been very fortunate to serve an incredibly supportive parish. This is a place that opened their arms to my partner when I proposed to her, that tells me to take my day off every week, and that makes sure that they compensate me fairly. It’s a blessing to be their pastor, and because we have a good relationship I find joy in even the difficult parts of the work. But I know that’s not the case for every clergyperson. And so, here are my ten pieces of advice for a parish that wants to really examine whether they are living up to their end of the covenant they have with their pastor:

1) Make sure your pastor has sabbath time: Almost all of us clergy agree that we need it. But not all of us (myself included) are great about taking it. Ideally clergy should have two days off a week, just like everyone else. Sunday isn’t one of them. That leaves Saturday and one weekday. We guard our Saturdays as much as possible, but we still have youth events, weddings, last-minute sermon and worship prep, and meetings. So, we often only get one day a week off: our weekday sabbath. By all means, if you have an emergency on your pastor’s day off, call them. They want to know. But if it can wait, give your pastor that time to truly be off.

2) Learn how much your pastor really works: There’s an old joke that pastors only work one hour a week. And, that may well be the only time all week that you see them working. But most pastors put in exceptionally long hours. Over 50 hours is an average week for many. Some put in more, especially if there is a death in the parish or other emergency. Writing a sermon, putting together a service, home and hospital visits,church meetings,  service to the larger denomination, community involvements, adult education classes, youth group, pastoral counseling sessions, and more make up the rest of the week. Add to that the impromptu pastoral conversations in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, and your pastor is constantly working.

3) Compensate your pastor fairly: Add your pastor’s cash salary and their housing allowance. Now divide it by 52. Now divide that by the number of hours your pastor works every week. It’s probably not much. Now think about someone else in your community who works for that hourly rate (with no extra pay or time-and-a-half for overtime). Could they afford to live in your community? Buy groceries? Clothes? Pay utilities? Now, could they also afford to pay student loans from four years of college and three years of seminary? If you have a recently ordained pastor, that’s what they’re going through.

I have known pastors of well-funded churches who have been on food stamps. I have known others who have gone hungry at the end of the month while they handed out grocery cards to others in their community. It’s hard to write a good sermon, listen attentively to a parishioner, or host a youth group when you haven’t had dinner. No one goes into the ministry to get rich, and I know that church budgets are tight, but don’t balance your church budget on your pastor’s family’s back while making endless capital improvements. Invest in leadership, and you will see results.

4) Remember that you called your pastor, not their whole family: Imagine that on the morning after a fight with your spouse you have to take them to work with you. Or, think about taking your kids to your big presentation when they are having a particularly tantrum-filled day. Most professionals have some boundaries between their family life and their work life. That isn’t true for clergy. So often I hear of a pastor being confronted by a parishioner about something they didn’t like about their spouse or child. Pastors are sometimes judged harshly for something a spouse says, or something a kid does. The added pressure on pastor’s families only exacerbates the family’s stress. Ask almost any adult who grew up as a clergy kid, and they will tell you about “life in the fishbowl”. It’s a sometimes brutal arena for a family. Don’t use the pastor’s family as a means to judge your pastor’s worth. Instead, encourage the pastor to spend time with their family and make them their first priority.

5) If your pastor is single, be careful that you are being fair to them: I’ve been single as a pastor, and I’ve been married as a pastor. Both have their own unique challenges, but I’ll take the ones that come with being married any day of the week. I’ve heard churches talk about how they can expect more of their pastor’s time because they “don’t have a family”. I heard of another parish that justified paying their pastor less because they weren’t married. (The fact they still had all the same expenses as a married person might, without anyone to share them, didn’t seem to matter.) Make sure that your pastor has time to spend with friends and extended family, especially around the holidays. And, if they do end up meeting that right person, welcome them with open arms.

6) If you have a part-time pastor, don’t expect them to work full-time hours. There are plenty of “half-time” pastors out there who work forty hours a week or more. Sometimes a parish will make a choice to call someone part-time, but they will not adjust their expectations of what their pastor needs to do. If you have called a half-time pastor you called someone for twenty hours a week. That means that during that time they need to write a sermon, plan worship, lead worship, attend to pastoral care emergencies, make visits, and attend church meetings, at the very least. It’s hard to squeeze all of that into twenty hours. It’s harder still when you are working a non-ministry job in addition. Check in with your pastor, see how much they are really working, and then either adjust expectations or consider making that part-time call full-time.

7) If your parish has a history of pastors leaving under less-than-ideal circumstances, think about the parish’s part in that. I know. Some pastors really mess up. They have lousy boundaries. They engage in ethically questionable activities. They shirk their pastoral responsibilities. Those aren’t the pastors I’m talking about here. If your parish has a history of firing pastors, or forcing them out, it’s worth taking a look at that pattern. Was the pastor really the only one at fault? Or was there something else at work there? Are there church members who are routinely allowed to get away with creating dissension in the church? Does a minority of negative voices speak so loudly that no one hears the positive ones? Did your parish try to seek outside help or consultants? Did they give their pastor opportunities to work on weaknesses? The grace that a church shows to an embattled pastor shows a lot about their Christian life together.

8) Don’t confuse vacation, continuing education, and church-related trips as one and the same. Vacation is a time when the pastor (and their family) are temporarily completely relieved from church responsibilities. This is necessary time to refresh, get away, and spend time with loved ones. Encourage your pastor to take their vacation time. It can make all the difference when it comes to burnout.

Continuing education, on the other hand, is not vacation. Recently a parishioner of mine who is a retired senior corporate executive was telling me that his company paid for its emerging leaders to get MBAs. The reason? They knew that by investing in the education of their employees, they were investing in the success of their organization. When you give your pastor the time to go to continuing education events, you make an investment in your church. Through my participation in the UCC Pension Boards’ Target 2030 program, and my congregation’s willingness to give me two weeks a year off to participate, I’ve received top-notch continuing education that I’ve been able to directly apply to my parish’s life together.

Finally, a church-related conference or trip is not vacation. I know plenty of harried pastors who have returned from a week-long youth trip only to be asked by a church member about their “vacation”. And this summer, after our denomination’s biannual General Synod which happened to be in Long Beach, several pastors I know who had served long hours as delegates were asked about their time at the beach. No one serving the wider church or leading a mission trip is going on vacation at the church’s expense. If anything, they are going to need a few recovery days.

9) Show up. Nearly every pastor I know has a story about a program or a class that members of the parish asked them to lead. They planned, got all the right resources, asked around about the best time for everyone, and eagerly anticipated the first meeting. And then…no one came. Sure, there were good reasons why people couldn’t make it, but nothing sends a more discouraging message to a hopeful pastor than an empty room. That’s not to say that church is about the pastor. It’s not. But it’s hard for a pastor to feel committed to a church where no one is willing to follow through on their own commitments.

10) Pray for them. I’ve seen this one on a lot of blogs, but it’s really true. Last week I ran out to our local pizza place to bring home dinner. I ran into a couple who attends my church and, while I was waiting for my pizza, we got to talking. Out of nowhere the wife told me, “You know I pray for you every night. I pray that God will bless you and give you wisdom to lead our church in the right direction.” It seems like such a small thing, but for the rest of the week those words lifted me up. To know that someone in the church was praying for me made me remember that God was guiding me. And it made me feel like I was never alone in my ministry to that congregation. It was a real gift to know that, but even if your pastor doesn’t know you pray for them and for your church, you are still doing something real to bless them both.

24 thoughts on “Ten Ways to Support Your Congregation’s Pastor

  1. To No. 4 I would add that spouses/children are not to be used as an extension of the pastor nor as an indirect line to the pastor. Neither should they be expected to intervene in church affairs, be able to take care of things going on in the church or know what the pastor wants done when the pastor is not available. Spouses/children are not the co-pastors (unless they were hired that way and have their own call agreement!).

  2. Sometimes I, as a lay person, feel “churched out”..what with suppers, fairs, pies, meetings,etc. So how much more must a pastor feel? We do have a “Pastoral Relations Committee” to help identify when that happens, but we tend to forget she is not Superwoman, any more than the rest of us. So I agree, take care of your pastor, feed her, pamper her a little, and let her know how dear she is!

  3. Last March I left the ministry and the church – the primary reason was that I never worked for adequate pay – I could not support myself and now for all the hours and hours of work that needed to be done there is not even a thank you – “but that is what you were supposed to do”.
    I think I have a kind of ministerial PTSD, and none of the people in my conference even checked out my blog or my book reviews – my writing was ignored, is ignored. I have to do all my own marketing and self-promotion. I did all the service works…
    This is a good article and good words to share.
    Now no one wants to employ me, so I must be the problem (and let me tell you the conservatives and tea party folks make it even harder) Clergy are an easy mark and often a scapegoat. It is a big, big issue

    I do not think the Conference even knows that I am gone

  4. i took a “What Color Is Your Parachute” weekend seminar when I was pastoring a difficult church. I found that I was still called to the ministry and still feel that I did pretty much my most effective work in that parish, running a a summer intern program for seminary students, protecting the church windows by installing Lexan, taking care of the “old folks” healing one split in the congregation and easing another, yet at the end of ten years, the longest tenure of any previous pastor in 100 year history, I got fired by a registered letter sent to me at my mother-in-laws near the end of our family vacation. I was never given the reason for the firing and was accused later of taking the carpet pad from the parsonage. I did, but it originally came from my parent’s house and not bought by the congregation. Nothing was said about the carpet I bought and left in the front room. some of the congregation passed petitions to keep as pastor but I was not financially able to fight the church council and the denomination was able to arrange a quick transfer although to a church which was not a good fit. I am retired but still feel a call to ministry. Fortunately my last church was a joy although doomed to fail because of an aging congregation (all officers over 78 and very few young people.) Thanks to my wife’s teaching career, we were able to prepare for a comfortable retirement.

    1. Thank you for sharing this David. That is a horrible experience that I think is all too common among clergy. I’ve know clergy who have been fired in the worst possible manner, with no warning at all. I’m sorry that happened.

  5. I have been in really good churches with really good pastoral relationships and some with really bad pastoral relationships. I would add that in supporting the pastor, that realizing that it is a relationship that takes work on both sides. In one congregation they consistently planned ‘Congregational Fun Days’ on days that I was away and they knew I was away. They complained that I never had a good relationship with them.I agreed, but pointed out that they had a responsibility too.

    Another piece that comes from experiencing burnt out. Discourage your Pastor and your fellow congregants from worshipping business. Fifteen hours of visiting in a week doesn’t do anyone any good if the Pastor can’t be focused and present during that time. Better to have eight hours of really good visiting that is grounded in seven hours of prayer time. I had a church that refused to put prayer time in the job description or allow it as work time. So I put it in as a staff meeting.

    Your article is good, but I thought I’d push it a little.

  6. Excellent thoughts, and thank you for posting this. In my first parish in a half-time and temporary call, the needs are 24 x 7, and my hours are certainly more like full time. This will help me better negotiate the next contract.

  7. OK, pastors . . . how about we add really supporting one another? We say, “I’ll pray for you” and maybe really do pray, but when you know that someone is being treated wrongly by a congregation, congregational member, or CLERGY—-Do something, call your superiors, expect change. Stop the cycle! Be brave & stand up for the witness of Christ in the clergy and church community.

  8. As yet another sad statistic of burned-out, former-clergy, I appreciate the article deeply. If only parishioners, in particular, parish leadership would truly take -even a little- this to heart. After what I went through and what I see other clergy friends going through, I’m not holding out much hope, though…

  9. We have been truly blessed by several pastors (full time senior, full time associate, part time, and interim) over the last 18 years that I have been a member of our church and I think a significant part of it is because we do pay attention to at least most of the above mention items. This is a calling but it is also a job and it should have the same basic benefits and responsibilities as any other profession. Our pastors are awsome! We know it, and they know we know it. This should be recommended reading for every pastor parrish relations team in every church. Thank you for posting it. As Pastor Bruce regularly reminded us,
    God is good, all the time.
    All the time, God is good.

  10. What a timely message! I would include in addition to spouses and children as extensions of the Pastor, also siblings!!! The congregation calls the Pastor and that is a good thing to remind them of more often than not! Thanks, Pastor Emily!!

  11. I have always thought that Pastors and their families should have regular counseling sessions built into their compensation package. It can’t solve everything, but I know it could help.

    1. I wish I had seen your comment a few YEARS ago. My marriage to a pastor broke up due to pressures from two bad church fits in a row. Counseling would have DEFINITELY helped!

    1. I’m not actually sure that’s true. I don’t know my doctor’s family, and I didn’t know my teacher’s growing up. I live in a small town and am a firefighter, and I don’t think most people know us, let alone our families. But pastors literally bring their families to work with them.

      1. Also, the responsibility for turning around budget deficits is not laid at the door of people in those professions.

  12. How about basic respect and courtesy? I’ve had people say to me, “I have no idea how you put up with the way you’re treated [at church council meetings].” All it takes is one pain-in-the-rear to make working with a group a miserable experience. It doesn’t take long for a minister to thinking, “Enough already!” And, no, I don’t think I should have to develop a “thicker skin” (one church member’s comment). And, yes, I have a great therapist. She’s heard all of the stories and still shakes her head in disbelief.

  13. I have heard many abused pastor stories and yes, a lot of them are incredibly awful, sometimes literally criminal. The problem with many of the suggestions and posts, to my way of thinking, is that they may be seen or used as an invitation to ask your congregation to set boundaries for which YOU are responsible (taking your time off; what you will accept for compensation; whether you ask your family to participate in church functions; how you will respond to intrusive people; etc.) It is an incredibly difficult and unfair part of the pastors role that they will be abused by less healthy people, but those people are not paying attention to these suggestions and you cannot expect the other healthier people to heal them, make up for them, or make them go away. (After all, pastors- you would do that if you could, right?) While there are legitimate concerns about the difficulty of the pastoral role, I have also seen much deep resentment cloaked in the language of “clergy killers”. (I’m not hearing that in your comments per se, but I think some take that next step). The resentment can be as big a “killer” as the congregation’s unrealistic expectations. It is also important that denominations do their best to help candidates for ordination understand the demands of the role, the emotionally maturity required, the difficulty of merging public and private lives, and the lack of compensation and understanding. (In the “old line” churches we are shrinking so, that a large percentage of our churches can neither repair our roofs nor compensate our pastors appropriately. In my home denomination this is true for perhaps 80% our congregations.)

  14. So very thankful for my Pastor; She’s “always” on call, upbeat, brilliant as our “teacher, very much community/family, shows concern not only for little children of the church, is currently working with a program “Youth Rocks” for teens… As a member, this lady was an answer to the needs of my place of worship..!!! We are truly blessed in Northern Vermont..

  15. Having been out of parish ministry for three years and working as a minister for a service agency (homeless shelter, soup kitchen, mental health services, etc.) I have two thoughts to offer.

    First, parish ministry is a very unique thing. The only really comparable profession I have come across is an Elementary School Principal. You are generally required to hold a masters degree (In mainline denominations anyway)… and one that usually takes three years in stead of 1 or 2. there is lots of administrative work, lots of meetings, lots of engagement with families generally around problems, going to the hospital when someone is hurt (yes, lots of principals do this when a student is hurt in school, and others I have known visit students who are in the hospital for other reasons), lots of community engagement and endless requests for it, ties to a larger organization (school board/denomination/association) that want your involvement, and your institution is an anchor in the community. I’ve known lots of principals, some good some not so good. The good ones work very hard (run themselves into the ground) doing all they can to meet all those needs. They do it because they believe in their profession and what it espouses– education matters. The really good ones feel called to this work as a responsibility they are entrusted with. Does all this sound familiar? It should.

    On top of all those responsibilities that a principal has, add the following to get a pastor: a large and central weekly gathering where you are required to develop the program AND be the keynote speaker. Also add in being not just responsible for the overall education of the members of your institution, but also being responsible for preparing AND teaching at least one class– if not more. Generally you get only one day off a week, which very often is interrupted by phone calls. Oh, and your spouse is often expected to work at your job for free.

    The average salary (not including retirement benefits or healthcare) for an Elementary School Principal varies. But, here are some interesting numbers. The first two are from studies a few years old and the third is more current but from self-reported data:

    $85,200 – https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009323/tables/sass0708_2009323_p12n_05.asp

    $88,062 – http://www.naesp.org/resources/2/Principal/2009/M-J_p27.pdf

    $77,087 – http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Elementary_School_Principal/Salary (this one is the mean, not the average, of the sample)

    Just some food for thought.

    The Second thing I will add is this: It is a really rewarding job. For most of us it answers a spiritual need that runs very deep. That is really why we do it. As has been said, Parish Ministers are generally not in it for the money. But neither are we in it to be undervalued and treated unfairly compared to others with similar work.

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