10 Secrets of Many Senior Pastors

Shocking

I get to hang out and know many senior pastors. I have a great heart for them and understand, firsthand, some of the pressures, frustrations and joys, which are unique to the role of a senior pastor. In my recent blog survey, over half my readers are in ministry and half that number are senior leaders.

When I first shared the points in this post a few years ago it was at a conference for executive pastors. I was asked to give my perspective as a senior pastor, since each of them reported to one.  Specifically, the request was to share some things about senior pastors they may not know. I honestly didn’t realize what I was sharing would be so revealing for some of them. They didn’t know some of these about their senior leader.

And, granted, I can’t speak for every senior pastor in every church. I can only speak in generalities from what I know and personally experience — in my life and among the senior pastors I know. Thankfully, this blog platform and my personal ministry has afforded me access to hundreds of senior pastors.

I share this post simply for the purpose of understanding. I know and have felt the extreme love most of the church has for it’s senior pastor. I’m grateful for that in my own life. Hopefully this helps you love and understand your pastor even more.

Here are 10 “secrets” about many senior pastors:

  • Leading from this position is overwhelming at times. We know Christ is ultimately in charge, but we also know it often seems everyone is looking to us to have all the answers. And, we know we don’t always have them. (Granted, some senior pastors are more honest about this than others.)
  • People tell the senior pastor all kinds of things about what is happening in their life or in the lives of others — many we would rather not know sometimes. And, frankly, some things we don’t need to know — such as gossip, rumors, and information they don’t have permission to share. Many times it’s in the form of a “prayer request”. We don’t always know what to do with this information. (And, again, in total frankness, some senior pastors have abused this information and hurt people in their church.)
  • Most pastors walk with a degree of uncertainty about our abilities to do the work we feel called to do. We intellectually know this is designed by God. It keeps us in prayer and walking by faith. But, we are human and the demands upon us and our insecurities in them can also make us question at times whether we have what it takes to do the work before us.
  • Many senior pastors fear the possibility of failing in their role, so they thrive on the encouragement and prayers of others — almost to a fault. They can become very insecure. If they aren’t hearing constant positive feedback they can begin irrational questioning how people feel about them.
  • A senior pastor’s insecurities can cause them to become overprotective of their reputation and position. At extremes it may even cause them to react with poor leadership, such as playing politics with leaders in the church or using information as power.
  • Senior pastors face the same temptations and occasional spiritual dryness as everyone else. This means we need accountability, but are often afraid to seek it.
  • The pastor’s spouse is sometimes the loneliest person in the church and often feels extreme pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations. Pastor’s children also feel the weight of expectations from the church. Many have told me they feel everyone is “watching” them.
  • The pastor too can experience loneliness — sometimes severely. The encounters through this blog with some senior pastors has revealed that some pastors have no true friends either inside the church or outside.
  • Pastors seldom know who we can trust, which is why we become guarded and may appear harder to get to know. Most senior pastors have been burned by someone they once trusted. Many senior pastors have seasons where it feels the staff, church leaders and congregation are talking about us behind our back. I’ve been asked more than once how to respond when they walk in a room and conversations suddenly stop.
  • Many senior pastors never really feel off from their work. They struggle — without discipline — to enjoy a Sabbath. Sunday keeps coming and there always seems to be one more person to contact. They feel the expectation to be everywhere they are invited and have a hard time saying no, even when it interferes with their family time.

Granted, not every pastor faces each of these, (that’s why the title says “many”). These type things often come in seasons. And, of course, some churches are harder to pastor than others. When these “secrets” are at an extreme it explains why depression and burnout is common for many senior pastors. And, if you need a Biblical example  of this happening in leadership see 1 Kings 19.

I came into ministry later in life and so I know how it feels to be a senior pastor, but also to be a leader in the secular world and a non-vocational church leader. I believe that experience has protected me against some of these. But even still, some of these are real for me at times too.

Other pastors, for reasons on this post, will not want you assuming these things about them. In talking with dozens of senior pastors each year, however, I know this is a representative list for “many”.

Senior pastors find joy in our work and, thankfully, most of us know we are in the center of God’s will vocationally. I don’t intend to take anything away from that in this post. We serve in a called position, so we are doing what we have been asked of God to do.

When I share any post like this I have come to expect three things. First, someone will email to ask me if I’m okay. I am. Thank you. This is a good season in ministry and I’m serving in a healthy church. Second, I’ll receive a lecture on the need to depend on Christ for these issues, which only further demonstrates my points. Third, there will be someone who will say that these “secrets” are no different from any other person in the church. That may be true, but I can’t speak for everyone else.

Senior pastors are to fully rely on Christ’s strength, as is every other believer. This is just a reminder that we happen to also be like Elijah — ”a man just like us”. (James 5:17)

Pastors, anyone honest enough to agree? 

Please know I’m praying for you as I post this.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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57 thoughts on “10 Secrets of Many Senior Pastors

  1. I would agree with much what was shared in this post. In my first pastorate, I experienced quite a few of the negative effects of a number of those 'secrets' in the list. As a result, I have been much more intentional about my self-care (I regularly see a spiritual director, schedule regular personal retreats, etc.) and also decided to never be a senior or solo-pastor again. Currently I co-lead a faith community with two other staff; although this presents challenges as well, at least we can share the burden and work through challenges as a team.

  2. I am keenly aware of the fact that I am “always on duty” and of the effect it has on my family. My wife and child give up time in the evenings and on the weekends that other dads with strictly 9-5 Monday-Friday jobs have available. My daughter, who is five, will tell me its time to put my laptop away and play with her; and I try at least some of those times to do just that. We plan family time but it takes purposeful planning and thoughtfulness to make sure it happens.

    I sometimes answer the phone to an apologetic “I hope I didn’t wake you.” My cell number is on my business card and printed in the church bulletin – but I turn it off when I go to bed at night! So no, if I answer the phone you didn’t wake me up.

  3. Thank you Ron for darin your thoughts and experiences. I am touched by you word because somebody understands our struggles. God bless you.

  4. BTW – Ron, all your posts are spot on. This is just the first one to which I have commented. Thanks for your ministry.

  5. Excellent post. I never knew being a Sr Pastor would be so hard. I was a staff member for 6 years at a large church before transitioning to a Sr Pastor role in a medium size church (300). I have been a Sr pastor for 8 years now. Wow. So much harder than I ever imagined. Thanks for summarizing many of our struggles.

  6. Ron, thank you for this post. It serves as a reminder that our strength isn't from ourselves, but from God who has placed us in our field of service. We are imperfect beings that God has chosen to be His vessel to a broken world. Happy Easter my friend! I hope God's blessing abound.

  7. I agree and #7 breaks my heart. As a husband I need to protect and encourage my wife even more. Thanks for putting into words what we are feeling and going through.

  8. I know that you write "many" because some are in denial. I have not met a pastor yet in 14 years of vocational ministry that does not struggle with one, many, or all of these items. Any pastor that says they haven't is either been in vocational ministry for no more than a day, got their heads stuck in the clouds and not reality, or just is flat out lying.
    I appreciate the fact that you are writing out what "all" pastors (senior or otherwise) feels but may not realize how many others feel this way too.
    Thank you for TRUTH being spoken and keep it up.

    • Thanks Chad. You're right. I believe the correct word is “all”, but I didn't want to lose the audience from those who aren't willing to admit it yet.God bless you man!

  9. Alright, Amos. I noticed that you conveniently left out Acts 15:6, that says "the apostles and elders" met to consider this question. The whole church didn't meet to decide. And your explanation still doesn't deal with the other passages I provided. Why are there elders mentioned in the Bible if we're not supposed to have them?

    If Jesus is the only leader, then how do you explain Philippians 3:17, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9, and Hebrews 13:7? Passages where it's clear that we are supposed to imitate someone else in addition to Jesus. I'm all for leaving the "abusive religious system," but we can't leave the Bible.

  10. I don't want to be involved in a debate here, but I really think you need to reconsider your answers to these rhetorical questions. The word "leader" is not used in the New Testament to refer to a "disciple of Christ" but the words "elder" "apostle" "deacon" "overseer" "pastor" and "teacher" are, and the concept of shepherding is definitely present. Church leadership was instituted even before the church was in Acts 2. Why was it so important for the 11 apostles to find a 12th man in Acts 1 after Jesus' ascension? Why was Peter the one on the microphone in Acts 2? Why do the apostles appoint 6 men to serve as deacons in Acts 6? Why do the "elders" meet together in Acts 15 to get on the same page theologically? It's because leadership is necessary, and God establishes leadership in the church from the get-go.

    Here are some more references:
    Overseer- Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1
    Elder- Acts 20:17; 1 Tim 4:14; 1 Tim 5:17, 19
    Shepherd- Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2

    Leadership is not the enemy. Should leaders understand that their position is a stewardship? Absolutely! But let's not act like they are sinning by taking a "position" that God never intended. God did intend for there to be leadership and structure. You might have a case that the current structure isn't the most godly, but that's another issue.

    • It's all good. Amos and I have an understanding of sorts. I like his passion for what he believes.But I believe what you have to say here, which is of course why I continue to blog as I do.

  11. Ron,
    Thanks for sharing…and thanks for all these insightful posts. I, too, share your heart for pastors and the struggles they share. It is the reason for my ministry. I join you in praying for pastors and ministry leaders. I also pray for you as nobody is immune to a fall.
    Blessings,
    Keith http://www.pastor2pastors.com

  12. Great article and thank you for posting it. I saw it linked from a friend's FB page. I fell in the ministry after committing adultery and many of the things you discuss lead pastors to failure. Their failure is their own fault. The pressure that weakens them can be prevented.

  13. I think it can way on Pastors more these days because there is more and more pressure to perform. Churches have become almost as commercial as buying a tv. If you don't like it, just go get another. So some pastors feel the need to stay current with big productions, websites, electronic delivery, campuses, etc.

    This can put too much pressure for church growth from the elders and leaders who might not understand that it is more important to create true Jesus following disciples. The church maybe healthy and growing spiritually but not quickly in numbers so questions get bandied about regarding leadership qualities of senior pastors.

    And as stated, it can be difficult to find people to trust when a pastor needs to talk freely. I have seen it happen before. It's is a high calling and requires a very tight relationship with Christ.

  14. I'm a pastor of a great community church in Dar Es Salaam Tanzania. All these thoughts on taking the Lord name in vain, just the encouragement every senior pastor needs at the end of a hard day. For every one who encouragemes me, I can find 15 who can quote 45 verses about something i'm doing wrong, but don't walk in my shoes, haven't had to cry with the abused battered wife this week, the poor man, the dying marriage, the pregnant business woman, the struggling wife. How about starting with the plank?

  15. I grew up as pastor's kid and am now an elder in a church. While in some cases this may be true, I would also argue that sometimes the expectations of the congregation put the pastor in a very awkward position. If the church members expect the pastoral staff to do all the ministry, then burnout will eventually happen or the church will stagnate. The church members must be educated as to the role of the pastor in equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11). Then the pastor will be with the members shoulder to shoulder and won't have to constantly be looking back to see who is following.

  16. As I read this post, I remember reading an August 2, 2010 article in the New York Times, entitled, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work”: It states —
    "Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”

    Also, PastorBurnout.com reports that:
    (i) 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention in their churches.(ii) 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation. (iii) 70% don’t have any close friends. (iv) 57% would leave the pastorate if they had somewhere else to go or some other vocation they could do. (v) Clergy have the second highest divorce rate among all professions.

    Hence, I too feel that they need prayer cover from people like me. And, I am upholding pastors shepherding people in my prayers.

  17. I agree that these are correct and not necessarily just senior pastors. And with that, I've found more and more pastors, missionaries and spiritual leaders don't often share life openly with someone else without the fear to showing weakness or the threat of losing support from their followers or donors. Even though there may be networks or people they can go to, I'm finding many don't. We think we can just get through this. It's why my desire is to start some type of encouraging ministry to pastors, missionaries and spiritual leaders. A person that seeks them out. Offer ways to encourage them and their ministry and to be a person without judgment that they can talk through how to regain incitement and joy of their salvation and ministry. Thank you for sharing this insight.

    • I am involved in Quiet Waters Ministries based in Denver, CO. Our ministry is to pastors and missionaries and their spouses, especially those in stressful situations but also to those on sabbatical. We have a beautiful Retreat Home in Parker, CO where pastors and missionaries, and their spouses come for one or two weeks of intensive couseling and for time away from their normal activities. The Home is in a beautiful, secluded setting. Almost without exception, everyone who has been there reports revival in spirit and energy and renewed enthusiasm for ministry.

      • Thank you for sharing that. I have a domain called hurtingpastors.org. If I launch that siteI would love to share your ministry there.