Lessons from 40+ Years of Working with Pastors

Even More Important Things...

OK. I promise to stop after this one, because it will probably get me in trouble. People seemed to like my list of things I've learned from being a choir director, and the list of things I've learned from being a worship leader, so I thought I'd tell a bit more stuff I've learned. If you've heard me speak at a conference, you know that, by and large, I like pastors. But sometimes I have had to grit my teeth.

Before this particular post went to print, as I often do, I asked some people I trust to read it and give me their reactions. In most cases the responses went something like this: "I agree with everything you are saying, but I'm not sure you should say it." So I let it sit for a while and came back to it, intending to change what needed to be changed.

And instead of changing anything, I decided to add this paragraph. The most important thing that you need to know about this post is this: If you actually read this, you will realize that I am not pastor bashing here. In fact, in most of my items, I am saying let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone...and I don't expect to see any flying projectiles, and I'm definitely not throwing any.

I have been blessed to work with some amazing (and some not so amazing) pastors. Pastors, like musicians, have their idiosyncrasies. I would not want to be one, because the job description is overwhelming, awesome, and, at times, crushing. What follows below are compilations from (look above) 40+ years of experience, observation, and listening to both pastors and musicians complain about each other. This information is MY opinion. YOUR results may vary.

Much of this list is not original...but over a lot of years the things here have repeated themselves often enough to be important. They have stood the test of time, so to speak, and, if you are starting out in ministry, you might want to print this list and put it somewhere that you can find it in 25 years. This is not a "ranked" list. It is just a list.


Some Pastors have a Clock in their Head, Most do Not

Ask a pastor how long he or she will preach on a given Sunday, and the default answer is 25 minutes. Put a stopwatch to that sermon on that Sunday, and most of the time the actual time is 35 minutes. (Yes, I know... homilies are different...and most of the time shorter.)

As a younger person, that bothered me, but I got used to it. When I planned worship, I would just take that "fudge factor" into account.

But then I started doing public speaking...and I found out what the problem is...it is seductively easy to go off script. When you are speaking, your brain does strange things, not the least of which is remind you of what you think are great stories which you think are relevant. Lots of times they are...both great and relevant. But then you get back to the script, which hasn't gotten any shorter to compensate. The more a pastor tends to go off script, the less you can depend upon his or her estimate of the length of the sermon. Which reminds me of a great story...

When I was at UCLA, I had a friend who had a girlfriend who got a job as an organist at a church in the San Fernando Valley. There was a clause in her contract that required her to wear a watch. When she asked why, she was told that the pastor never used notes when he preached. Part of her job description was to note the time that he began his sermon, and, exactly 20 minutes later press a button on the wall next to the organ. She was told that the pastor knew this was a signal for him to stop, and he would wrap up the sermon. Imagine her shock when the first time she pushed the button, a loud buzzer went off in the sanctuary. Imagine her further surprise when the pastor elegantly wrapped up the sermon in less than 30 seconds.

Oh, right, off script...sorry... 

As a church leader, it is good to remember that you have to walk a mile in other people's shoes every so often. Rather than complaining about how much time the sermon takes, concentrate upon what you can control. Learn what the ambient sermon time is, and plan for a fudge factor. I don't believe the length of sermons is a hill to die upon.

Pastors don't have to be great Preachers to be great Pastors

To go back to my buzzer story, I asked how the sermons were. She said they were great. All the pastor did was tell stories, so it was easy for him to stop at almost any point.

I wish it was always that easy. I can't tell you how many bad sermons (bad, in my opinion) I've sat through...sometimes week after week after week... When people complained (and somebody will always complain about the sermon, trust me), my standard line was, "I'm being paid to listen to these sermons. If you don't like them, talk to the pastor."

But a funny thing happened over the years. I discovered that in many churches, preaching is not the most important thing. We who serve in worship ministry tend to think that worship is important. It is. But a pastor is more than a preacher, and often the congregation (or at least a significant portion thereof) will overlook bad preaching because the pastor is an extraordinary shepherd, is a wonderful teacher, or has great relational skills.

As a church leader it is important to look at the big picture. If you just can't stand to listen to another bad sermon, it may be time to take a mental health Sunday, or attend another worship service at a different time or place where you can be personally fed. In some cases it is a big enough reason to leave. But before you bad mouth a pastor about the sermons, look around at what else is going on.

Pastors often Preach about what is Bothering Them Personally

I wrote the above in fear and trepidation. And in light of years of listening to sermons.

I once worked with a pastor who constantly preached about sex. It turned out he had those issues. Another spent a year essentially preaching sermon after sermon on one topic or another but with the same message: wrestling with your faith. He had those issues.

But it is not always personal issues. I worked with a pastor who spent months on sermons that were about conflict. The congregation had those issues. Another pastor never preached about money. Never. Well...except one sermon each year right before the budget was approved that in essence was a "poor me" sermon.

As a church musician I began to think about whether or not I did the same music every week. After some reflection, my honest short answer was no. But the extended answer was that I was only doing music I liked. Same problem, different manifestation. Now I try to listen to the congregation and do things they like once in a while even if I don't like them.

You can tell a lot about a Pastor by looking at their Staff's Salaries

You think the list item above is flammable? Try this one.

I once had a pastor tell me "There are two kinds of pastors: one kind takes care of themselves financially, and their staff splits up the crumbs that are left. The other kind takes care of their staff first, and trusts that they also will be taken care of." He went on to say that, in his experience (and mine) "the second kind, do very well for themselves financially, and their staff are much more loyal." And productive, I would add. 

As a church leader, I think that fair compensation is imperative. An article I wrote on the subject was, at one time, the most popular item on this website. I know that it is unusual. I often tell churches that ask if I would be interested in leaving my position to come do ministry at their church, "You can't pay me what I'm worth." You'd be surprised at the response I get when they ask what I'm worth. Whether you are a pastor or not, please don't line your pockets at the expense of your staff - and I mean support staff too, not just program staff.

If Everything has to go across the Pastor's Desk, the Church Won't Grow

There is a finite limit to how many pieces of paper you can shuffle, how many problems you can solve, and how many programs you can manage. That limit is different for every individual, but trust me, everybody has a limit.

Most leaders did not get to be leaders because they had self esteem issues. No, wait, lots of leaders have self esteem issues, you just can't see them.

Let's try this again. Most leaders did not get to be leaders because they have control issues. No, wait, lots of leaders have control issues, you just can't see them. 

As Count Basie once famously said, one more once... As a church leader, it is important to know when to say no. It is even more important to know when to say yes -- to allow someone else to do things too. Oh...and to give those other people the authority to do those things. If you can't do that, don't expect to be in a position of leadership of a large ministry. Or, if you are hired to lead a large ministry and you can't delegate, don't expect it to stay that way...

Pastors are not the only ones with these issues, but if your pastor has difficulty delegating, relax and enjoy the fact that you won't have to do much work. Resist the temptation to fill your time by complaining, trying an end run around the pastor's authority, or working on raising your own blood pressure. This one, like most of the things on this list, is what it is.

Congregations are Not Objective about Pastors in Their Role as Leaders, nor are they Objective about Pastors as People

I continue to be amazed at what happens to a person, ordinary as they may seem otherwise, who becomes ordained. Everything changes about them. Suddenly they can make the most stupid (in my opinion) decision, and everybody just goes along. They can abuse their power, line their pockets, and treat people like dirt. Doesn't matter. A congregation will typically cut a pastor an enormous amount of slack.

Some of this has to be because a lot goes into making the decision to hire a pastor. But a lot of it is the power of Scripture.

And I'm not just talking about "bad" things here. I've seen congregants who are landscapers refuse payment for taking care of a pastor's yard. I've seen congregation members who routinely give a pastor an expensive Christmas gift while (sometimes literally while handing over that gift) telling another staff member to have a happy holiday. Even the tax code treats ordination as a perk.

As a church leader, remember two things: Ordination does not make someone perfect, or even better than someone else as a person...and Ordination makes most people treat someone as if they are infallible and much better than everyone else as a person. It will save you a lot of grief, heartache, and ulcers.

Pastors Will Win Every Argument

This is the follow on to the list item directly above.

A congregation will almost always side with a pastor in any argument, even, sometimes, if they know the pastor is wrong. Nobody wins if you have an argument with the pastor, even if you win. Don’t even think about it. Your chances of winning an argument with a pastor are slim and none. And if that argument gets to be public, it doesn’t matter who wins. You lose. One of you will leave, and the congregation will pay the price for that fallout for years...OR both of you will stay, and everybody will pay the price and be very unhappy together.

There are ways to disagree, and I suggest that the best way is behind closed doors. But think several times before you decide to start a battle that is so bloody that the church’s very future is changed.


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2 Replies to “Lessons from 40+ Years of Working with Pastors”

  1. Excellent points and well-written article, Vern! (I just discovered you via your Twitter follow, and mine back… thanks!) I can see you have more than just 40 yrs. working with pastors… you have also been a good observer and analyst, something it would be great if more people were. I like that, from just this article, I can’t tell much about your personal theology, nor that of the churches you’ve ministered in. That shows you’ve identified key UNIVERSAL human dynamics that don’t relate highly to specifics of theology. (At the same time I DO think theology matters… a lot, including how we tend to view things and behave. But mainly whatever theology is actually internalized, not just assented to consciously.) Anyway, thanks for an interesting piece!

    1. Vern Sanders says:

      Thanks for the comment Howard. Interestingly enough, I got the notice about the comment, and when I got here I started reading the article, because I hadn’t done so in some time. I’m glad you caught what I was trying to say. We have more in common than what divides us, and we serve a universal church, no matter what the theological specifics of a certain situation happen to be. (And in the PCUSA, which is the denominational affiliation of the church in which I currently serve, churches are finding those theological specifics to be a moving target shall I say…) Most of all, I’m glad you found us, and that we might be able to help you do ministry better wherever you serve. Blessings.

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