pastors and expectations [living life without expectations]

My sweet friend over at Kansas Bob suggested I write about this topic, and I hardy feel like an expert, since I am not a pastor. But I have seen the inner workings of a few churches and have seen the struggle pastors go through in leading a church. And the biggest of those struggles, most certainly, involves expectations.

I believe the most damaging expectation I’ve seen people have of their pastors, interestingly, also seems to be an umbrella for all other expectations and it’s this: that pastors are to be all things to all people.

[But that’s in the Bible, Stephanie! How can it be a damaging expectation?]

Simple: context. Paul wrote that in 1 Corinthians regarding his missionary work: to convert Jews. He was a Jew, raised in a Gentile culture. His purpose in life was to evangelize. Not pastor. He related to others so that some might be saved. Is this all that different from what it means to actually pastor a church, though? A good and fair question, and certainly as I’ve witnessed a lot of under and over functioning leaders in church, I’ve had to ask myself, “What is required?”

I’ve heard some say that a pastor is not a shepherd. Jesus is the ultimate shepherd of the church and the pastor is to be a sheepdog. I could not disagree with this more. This implies the pastor’s primary function is to just herd and guard the sheep. For a quick easy pop culture reference, think back to Babe, and how the sheep dogs just yelled [barked] to get the sheep to move and go. I don’t want a pastor to lead me that way and I certainly don’t see how the description of an elder in Titus and 1st Timothy support this theory.

But a shepherd? A shepherd tends. He feeds. He goes after the lost… he oversees. Oversees with love and care. Tending and feeding a flock is much different than simply herding and guarding.

Is he required to do this alone? No. That’s why there are staff members and ministry leaders in the church to help out. Because when a pastor tries to do it all himself, he turns into a superhero leader. The problem is exacerbated when we have superhero expectations of our pastor and think he should do it all.

Rarely would you hear a person use that term “hero” to describe their pastor, but if you listen to them talk about him, you’ll hear it. “That sermon was amazing. I don’t know how he does it!” “His family is so precious. They are doing such a good job of raising those kids! It’s wonderful!”

And then there is the negative side of this superhero pedestal. “I can’t believe he hasn’t called me back yet. He’s my pastor!” “Did you hear about what he said about so and so?” or the “Did you hear what he did?” or the “I can’t believe he hangs out with________” followed closely by, “That isn’t appropriate for a pastor.”

This is tricky, because should pastors be held to a high standard? Yes. Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

But we often fail to quote the following verse (we tend to do that when it doesn’t help drive our point home): For we all stumble in many ways…

It’s hard for men to fail. Perhaps because in the garden, they not only failed God and themselves, but they also failed Eve. The everyday failures of life have to do with the expectations men have of themselves, their family has of them, and then you add this whole group of people that pay your salary? That is not easy to deal with, and because pastors often have a deep feeling personality type, it can become consuming for them.  The superhero mentality forms. When there is failure, they are judged harshly that I’ve seen pastors form a hard shell around themselves, compartmentalizing their lives so that their life looks good on the outside, no matter what is going on inside. (Yikes… Matthew 23:27, anyone?)

And as long as we as congregation members perpetuate the superhero expectation, pastors will continue to feel the pressure to become that superhero.

Going on vacation? Too bad. I need you to come back and do my grandmother’s funeral. 

We have deacons and associate pastors in our church? Doesn’t matter. I want the senior pastor to visit me in the hospital.

I’m going through a tough time, and my church friends are being really supportive, but after all that I’ve done for the church, shouldn’t the senior pastor reach out to me?

We expect our pastors to:

  •          Preach a killer sermon each week.
  •          Have a perfect family with well-behaved children.
  •         Have a wife that either runs the children’s ministry or plays piano in worship.
  •          Be available at the drop of a hat.
  •          Help us when we expect it. But in the ways we want, not in the ways that he deems best.

We expect them to be plumbers, electricians, custodians, singers, intellectuals, comedians, best-selling authors…

… relatable, down-to-earth, walking encyclopedias about the Bible, teachers, shepherds, administrators, hospice care workers, counselors…

Did I miss anything? I’m pretty sure I did.

We may say, “I know pastors are human beings.” But when the rubber meets the road and that pastor acts like a human being (and maybe even falls off his white horse) we struggle with it. When he doesn’t do what we want, all of a sudden he isn’t a good pastor.

Shouldn’t he know better? He’s a man of God. He’s a pastor.

This is sobering. It’s sobering because I’ve witnessed it, I’ve felt it and I’ve done it. That’s not okay. Change must start with me. I’m not done on this topic, I don’t think. It’s time for me to examine myself and we’ll see what the Holy Spirit says. Because change always starts with one.

3 Comments on “pastors and expectations [living life without expectations]

  1. Thanks for taking this on Stephanie. I understand and resonate with the things you have written here.

    Do you think that part of the issue is the professional (paid) vs laity (volunteer) status? Folks are advised (sometimes with very strong language) to tithe to the local church. This scenario can be construed by some as an employer-employee relationship where the folks who tithe think that pastors work for them.

    I have been both an unpaid and paid pastor. I think that many issues could be solved with transparency. The salary of the senior pastor of our church is revealed every year at the annual meeting when the budget is voted on. I find that most people are impressed that he does that. It communicates to them that such things are not secret.

    I also think that church leaders should decide and communicate what expectations people in their church should expect. One senior pastor I worked with would (in a sermon) tell folks in need of counseling that he was willing to meet with them a few times but after that would refer them to a counselor. Folks at our current church are told that the senior guy doesn't do many hospital visits.

    Guess my thinking is that expectations (be they secular or religious) are the responsibility of leadership. Not that folks will listen. 🙂


  2. I think almost all of it has to do with the professional vs. laity issue, but I also see it as “That's what we pay them to do.” kind-of attitude.

    Transparency is key in ministry, no matter the situation or role the person has in the church. Without transparency, there is no health in the church.


  3. I think that (for men anyways) ego plays a big part in this. In a weird sense ego (maybe pride is a more biblical word) and fear are the enemies of transparency.

    Interesting though, how attractive (and compelling) it is when someone lets down their guard and lets you into their world. That said, I have to admit that it is hard to confess my fears. I would rather tell you about my accomplishments. 🙂


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