The 5 most frustrating things pastors do

I believe in pastors. That does not however mean I endorse everything every pastor does.

They’re human.

They tell us the typical pastor in our denomination serves a church with 100 or fewer in attendance, which probably means the offerings are inadequate to provide much of a living for him. In some cases he holds down a second job or his wife works. Or both. Or, most amazing of all, he manages to live on what they pay him.

I believe in these guys. They are my brothers and my admiration of them knows no bounds.

Most of them.

But at times ministers will do the most self-defeating things. Not all of them, thankfully. But enough to warrant our addressing the issue as a caution to the rest of the Lord’s shepherds.

Here is my personal list of the 5 most frustrating things pastors do.

FIRST: It’s frustrating to see preachers cut corners on sermon preparation.

The bizarre thing is that to the congregation the Sunday sermon is 50 percent of his job.

In the more liturgical churches that may not be so, with the ministers’ homilies often appearing as 5 minute reflections thrown together just prior to entering the sanctuary.

But in the world I live in, the only time 90 percent of the congregation sees the pastor is on Sunday morning. If he does poorly there, he has just about sealed his fate with the membership as a whole.

And yet.

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The pastor is journaling; he finds it tough to stay with it.

A friend texted to ask if I would talk about how a minister with a full-time congregation can discipline himself to do a daily journal.  I’m not sure I’m the one to ask, for a good reason.

When I began keeping a journal, back in early 1990, I was between churches.  Long story told elsewhere, but with a 12-month paid leave of absence I had time on my hands.  Knowing that at the end of August 1990 my income would end and finding that pastor search committees were afraid of me–“If he’s so good, why is he available?”–I made a decision to journal.  I figured someday I would look back and wonder what I was thinking during this time.  So, I bought a hard-bound book and started writing each evening. Where to find those books? Barnes and Noble.  Hobby Lobby.  Even Wal-Mart.

Now, since I was unemployed, I had time for this and did not need the discipline my friend seems to need.  In September 1990 when I began pastoring in metro New Orleans, I found it relatively easy to stay with the program since I had formed the habit.

So, what follows will only partially answer my friend’s question.  But this is what I’ve come up with on the subject of “pastoral journaling.”  Hope it helps.

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The pastor’s pain known only to God

“I have nourished and brought up children and they have rebelled against me….” (Isaiah 1:2)

The pastor loves that family and longs for them to do well. Their children are so fine and exhibit incredible potential. He knows their names.  He prays for them, encourages them, and goes out of his way to support them.  And they seem to respond. They flourish spiritually and seem to love the Lord, love their church, and love him. And then…

One day, they up and leave.

The pastor is told, “They’ve joined that new startup church down the highway.  The one where the pastor is so critical of us and our denomination.”

He never hears a word. They just disappear from his radar and he never sees them again.

It’s not that they stabbed him in the back. They did not pull a Judas and betray him.  They just walked away with nary a word.

No one but another pastor knows how that hurts.

My son and his family moved to Mobile from the New Orleans area home where they lived for the previous 22 years.  They loved their church and their Sunday School class.  Neil had coached the men’s softball team for nearly a quarter century.  So, a few weeks after getting into their new home, their Sunday School class drove over to visit one Saturday afternoon.  Bear in mind that it’s 150 miles each way and the entire class made the trip.  Then, a few weekends after, Neil and Julie returned the favor and attended a backyard cookout with their old Sunday School class.  On Sunday morning, they sat in their class and attended worship before returning home.

I told them, “One of many things I admire in you is how you keep your friends.”

A pastor cannot do what they did–visiting friends back and forth.  We stay at a church for years, and in the natural course of events have wonderful friends and close buddies. And when God sends us to another church, we move on.  If friends come to visit us, that’s one thing.  But we cannot keep running back to see them.

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What’s a pastor to do when ousted from his church?

An online preacher magazine says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll skip that article, thank you.  On the surface, I’d say he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher exudes bitterness, that does concern me.

No one has a right to pastor the Lord’s church.

The bitterness feels like he no longer trusts the Lord.  Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes. It’s sort of a divine alchemy.  But the one thing required for that to happen is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (Acts 16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, that you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or that you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

Here’s what you will do: You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever pleases Him most. Period.

Repeat:  Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes years!

Sure, it’s hard.  No one is saying otherwise.

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The pastor says he intends to write a book. Here’s why he probably won’t.

The pastor said to me, “When I retire, I’m going to write a book.  I have all these great stories and experiences I’m itching to tell.  That’s what I’m going to do.”

I said, “No, you won’t.”

He was taken aback.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’ve heard it too many times.  Preachers who have not written anything more than copy for the church sign think that when they hang it up, they’re suddenly going to transform themselves into authors. And it’s not going to happen.  It never happens.”

“Why do you think that is?” he asked.

“No one can go a lifetime without writing and suddenly flip a switch and write an entire book. Especially one worth reading.”

He agreed to give that some thought.

Let me say up front that I’m no authority on this subject.  I’ve written hundreds of articles but only a few books (seven actually).

For thirty years, I’ve written for Christian magazines.  A few of my articles have made it into seminary textbooks.  And I’ve published books of my cartoons, one series of which sold over 300,000 copies.  But only late in life have I written what Dad once called “an actual book,” meaning a volume of only words and no cartoons.

All my life, I have written. As a seminarian in my mid-20s, while pastoring a small church on Alligator Bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans, I wrote a devotional column for our weekly newspaper.  That was exactly 50 years ago, and I’m still typing away. I write for this blog, have a page in each issue of Lifeway’s Deacon Magazine (“My Favorite Deacon”), and am always working on the next book.

To all the pastors who want to write that all-important book of memoirs when they retire, I have a few words of counsel:

1) Read constantly. The point is, this is how you learn what good writing looks like.  And just as importantly, you learn to recognize terrible writing.

The would-be writer who does not read much will turn out material amateurish to an embarrassing degree. Teachers of music and poetry speak of amateurs with no knowledge of the basics showing them compositions which “God gave me.”

A few years back, when someone sent me several cassette tapes of songs they had written direct from the throne of God, I passed them along to my favorite music professor (who happened also to be our minister of music).  Later, I asked, “What did you think of my friend’s music?”  He was quiet a moment, then said, “Joe, it’s junk.  Trash.  It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Yikes.  My problem then was going back to my friend and giving him the bad news as tactfully as possible.

There is no substitute for learning the basics of writing. And nothing accomplishes this more than reading a great deal of excellent writing.

2) Write a great deal.

“I don’t have time now,” the pastor says. “But after I retire, I’ll have lots of time.”

“I beg to differ,” I say.  “You have plenty of time now.”

Pause. No response.

“You have the same amount of time everyone else does–168 hours a week.  It’s a matter of priorities, of deciding what to do with your time.”

I once asked Pastor Larry Kennedy how he found the time to write books. We were neighboring pastors, he at Amory and I in Columbus, Mississippi.  He said, “I get up early and write an hour every morning.”

That’s how it’s done. You find slivers of time wherever you can, and you write. And if you cannot “find” them, you create them.

If nothing else, Pastor, open your Word program and write for that, things you never intend anyone else to see. You’re practicing, trying to learn the craft, to “find your voice,” as they say.

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Some things, my friend, you just do not want to know

“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3).

Pastor, you do not want to know why that committee turned you down for that position you wanted so badly.

I’m rereading my daily journals for the decade of the 1990s.  Much of it I’d long since forgotten, so in many respects, it’s fun.  One thing struck me, however, about the year 1992.

I was looking for a way out of this church!

By “this church” I mean the one I served as pastor nearly 14 years (1990-2004) and remained as a member through 2016.  It had come through a crisis 18 months before I arrived that almost resulted in its self-destruction.  The Lord sent me to half a congregation, millions of dollars in debt, an odd-shaped sanctuary that had had major problems from the beginning and constantly needed work, and a dysfunctional leadership team of some of the greatest souls in the kingdom mixed with some of the strangest birds ever.

My wife and I were hurting financially and it appeared to be getting worse.  We were living in rented quarters and were cutting into the small savings we kept from selling our house in North Carolina.

Some of the leaders were unhappy with us from the first and looked for ways to undercut everything we tried.

Nothing about this was fun.

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How to say ‘no’ to a wonderful opportunity

“They said to Him, ‘Lord! Everyone is looking for you.’ He said to them, ‘Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth’” (Mark 1:35-38).

Turning down a lousy request is no problem.

–“Hey Joe! Wanna go bungee jumping?” Ha. Not in this lifetime.

–“Hey preacher! How about a night of bar-hopping on Bourbon Street!” You talking to me, Leroy?

–“Pastor, would you write a book on the superiority of your theological system over all others?”  Uh, no.  But have a nice day.

Saying ‘no’ to something you hate to do, do not want to do, cannot do, and would not be caught dead doing–piece of cake.

No one has to counsel you on how to do that.

It’s all those other requests that you find difficult to turn down.

“Would you judge our city’s beauty contest?” Okay, no one has actually asked me to do that, but I live in hope. A preacher, if asked to do this, which I find inconceivable, should turn it down for a hundred rather obvious reasons.

Anyway, back to the subject with more plausible invitations…

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59 things not to say to a preacher

1. “I enjoyed your little talk.”

2. “Is what you said true, or was that just preacher talk?”

3. “I heard (famous preacher) preach that same sermon on television.  He did it so much better.”

4. “Could you come to my home and preach that sermon to my husband?”

5. “You ought to hear the pastor at our church.  He’s been to seminary.”

6. “Our church is so much bigger (better, friendlier, whatever) than yours.”

7. “The restroom is out of paper.”

8. “My cousin said I would like your preaching. It’s all right, I guess.”

9. “Someone–I’m not saying who–told me to tell you….”

10. “Can I come by your office in the morning?  I might need a couple of hours of your time.”

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The pastor’s passion

A 10-year-old girl said something that has had me thinking about passion ever since.

Interesting word, passion. It gives us compassion, passive, dispassionate, and a host of related concepts. At its core, from the Latin, “passion” means “to suffer.” It’s opposite, passive, or impassive, means “unfeeling.”

I was teaching cartooning to children in the afternoons following vacation Bible school. At one point, I had to take a phone call and turned the class over to my teenage grand-daughter who was assisting me. Ten minutes later, I told the children about the call.

“One of the editors of a weekly Baptist paper in another state called about using a certain cartoon. I found the drawing in a file and scanned it into the computer and emailed it to her. Next week, that cartoon–which is still in that file cabinet in my office–will be seen in 50,000 newspapers in homes all over that state.”

Then I asked the question on their minds but which none dared to raise.

“Now, how much money do you think I made doing that?”

Some kid said, “Thousands.” The rest had no idea.

“Zero,” I said. “Not a dime.”

“Very few cartoonists make much money doing this. Almost all have to have ‘day’ jobs to pay the rent.”

“So why,” I asked, “do we keep drawing cartoons when it doesn’t pay much money?”

That’s when the 10-year-old girl raised her hand and said something I had never really thought of.

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“Oh! How long it’s been since I’ve seen you!”

Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Hebrews 11:16). 

What do you do when you know you should recognize a person, but you can’t find their name in your head?  My answer: Admit it, and save yourself some stress.

Not everyone agrees, however.

Songwriter Robert Sherman was attending the birthday party for Will Durant, the 85-year-old who with his wife Ariel had recently produced the enormous set of volumes on The History of Civilization.  It was a feat of incredible magnitude for which they had won all kinds of awards.

One month earlier, Sherman had spent several hours with Dr. Durant during which they discussed literature and film.  But now, in the crowded reception, as they greet one another, Durant just cannot place Sherman.  He knows he’s supposed to know him but cannot get beyond that.

Bob Sherman said Dr. Durant would stare, smile, and try to make the connection. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head.

Finally, Durant said, “It’s good of you to come.  It’s been a long time since I have seen you.  Too long.”

Sherman, relating this story in Moose: Chapters from my Life, called Durant’s words  “an all purpose statement.”

And, he says, Sherman understands the problem.  The older we get, the more prone we are to forgetfulness.

In his retirement years, news anchor Walter Cronkite loved to visit with friends in his boat off Martha’s Vineyard.  Now, he was hard of hearing but rarely admitted it.  When Cronkite, his wife, and friends stopped at a lakeside store, they went inside.  Some stranger greeted him and asked him a question.  He figured it was “do you know this person or that?”  So, Cronkite answered, “We get together once in a while, but I’ve not seen him lately.”  Later, in the boat, his wife said, “Do you know what that man asked you?”  “No, not really.”  She: “He asked if you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior?”

Do you have a similar story?  Here is one of mine.

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