October is Clergy Appreciation Month, and we want to encourage believers to take this opportunity to show their support for their church leaders.
In one of his sermons, the pastor of my church talked about an unusual flight he’d had that year. He was talking with the two people in his row; inevitably, one asked what he did for a living, and he explained that he was a pastor.
They were polite but obviously a little uneasy, and the conversation petered off.
A few hours later, the pilot announced that they were about to hit some turbulence. The pastor saw a flight attendant running for her seat in the crew area, and he barely had time to wonder how bad it was going to be when the turbulence hit with a vengeance.
The plane pitched side to side then dropped. Napkins, purses, magazines in people’s laps floated upward. The cabin briefly looked like it was underwater.
Then the air caught them again, and everything slammed back into place.
People began to scream. The woman next to the pastor grabbed his arm. “You said you’re a priest, right? Can’t you pray for us or something?” As soon as she said that, people around them began to chime in, asking him to pray for the flight.
His story was naturally an illustration for a larger sermon point, but through the rest of the service and long after, I couldn’t shake the disturbing image of all these people clutching his sleeves, holding him up like some kind of talisman against any troubles.
Working in the Eye of the Storm
Peter Drucker, in an interview shortly before he passed away, acknowledged the great challenge of pastoring to a small gathering of major church leaders.
Addressing international church-planter and megachurch pastor Steve Sjogren, he commented in his noticeable Austrian accent, “You know Steve, over the years I have made a career out of studying the most challenging management roles out there. After all of that I am now convinced the two most difficult jobs in the world are these—one, to be President of the United States, and two, to be the leader a church like yours…”
We could make Santa-length lists of situations that are hard to handle or the usual pressures facing someone who is up in front, on stage. Overall, though, Thom S. Rainer, the CEO of Church Answers, has created eight succinct points that represent most pastors’ struggles.
Criticism and conflict: Sadly, many conflicts in church are over relational issues and personal opinions, not doctrinal questions or beliefs.
Time managemenT: Everyone wants a bite of your time and often for heartfelt reasons. The problem is when you can’t find time to go home at the end of the day.
Family problemS: Running a large organization like a church can seriously restrict time with a spouse or children if a pastor isn’t careful.
Sexual problems: Remember how we mentioned limited spouse-time? This can easily balloon into pornography addictions and adultery.
Depression: People come to pastors most often with their pain or complaints, but they don’t want their pastor to have problems of his own. All of that can really grind an individual down after a while.
Financial problems: When is money ever not an issue? Maybe if you’re Joel Olsen.
Stress: Any of the aforementioned things can lead to some critical mental weight.
Burnout: Fending off all of these issues in addition to helping your church grow in addition to providing counseling sessions to hurting people in addition to coming up with great sermons every week in addition to raising your own family in addition to…well, you get the idea.
On the outside, it can be easy for us to see situations like with Joshua Harris and wonder how things went so wrong. However, all of these hidden pains and slow erosion can exact a serious toll on church leaders.
Diving Deeper Beneath the Turbulent Surface
Cole Hartin, Anglican priest and writer for Christianity Today, pointed to a more nebulous but deeply troubling aspect of church leadership that lurks beneath the surface of all these louder issues: isolation.
“Many folks think we are either ultra-spiritual gurus or shysters peddling spiritual wares. Until we break down these initial stereotypes, people will engage with us in a superficial or skeptical manner.”
“The empathy required of pastors can take an emotional toll, further exacerbating a sense of loneliness. People are often driven to meet with a pastor because of some kind of trouble. It may be news of a spreading illness or issues cropping up at home, but seldom does someone ask to meet with me to share how well their life is going and how much they have grown in the faith.”
A pastor’s work often puts heavy burdens on them and can leave them incredibly lonely.
In a podcast episode on wellness, Gary Wilkerson reflected on the difficulties that pastors, and many other church people, face and pointed to isolation being a very serious issue.
“…one of these days I want to write a book Practicing the Presence of People because we want this vertical relationship, but we need the horizontal as well. We want to practice the presence of God—that's the Spirit—but the soul and the body need people around them, too.
“You know, the caterpillar changes into a butterfly all in itself, but we don't. God didn't create us that way. There's a community-shaped hole in our heart as well as a God-shaped one. Some Christians try to just do it all: ‘I’m going to pray. I'm going to get alone with God.’
I've even heard sermons on that. That a true prophet is a man who's going to have to walk alone. Please no. You know, that would be awful.”
The only way we can truly grow in our relationship with God and stay spiritually healthy is to have close, real friendships with other people.
Even church leaders—especially leaders—need fellow believers with whom they can be honest and vulnerable and walk alongside as brothers in Christ.
How We Can Help Our Leaders
Paul instructed the church to show particular respect for those who lead in ministry. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 ESV).
Only a few books later, he nearly repeats this instruction. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).
In 1994, Focus on the Family began to promote October for Clergy Appreciation Month as a way to show our gratitude for ministry leaders.
A big part of this is recognizing that ministry leaders are people just like us who can become discouraged or feel overwhelmed. One way we can encourage our pastor or the leader of a ministry where we serve is by writing them a letter or calling them to tell them how we appreciate them. Another way is by volunteering in some way that will help lighten their load.
This month, though, let’s do everything we can to encourage our leaders. They’re not alone, and they should know that they are surrounded by family.