A 2001 Barna study shared the following information: “Church-goers expect their pastor to juggle an average of 16 major tasks. That’s a recipe for failure – nobody can handle the wide range of responsibilities that people expect pastors to master.”
That was one of the most interesting statistics I found while doing research for my book, Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World. That statistic reflects what I believe many pastors feel is the cause of killer expectations – the congregation or a controlling group of church leaders. What I discovered in writing was that blaming one side was incompatible with what was really going on in today’s churches.
Before I wrote my book, I thought I knew a lot about high expectations for pastors. I had practical experience, but it was nothing compared to what I learned after studying statistics and interviewing fallen pastors. If a pastor does not understand expectations rightly, misperceives them, or does not have the right center, he stands the danger of burnout or worse.
It’s important to understand where high expectations come from, where they should come from, how to understand them and how to take it all in. In this post, I’ll address where expectations come from, and at the end I’ll throw in a curveball for those who stick around and read the whole thing.
Where do high expectations come from? Whether you’re a pastor, plumber, architect, ambassador to Korea or stay at home mom, you have a set of expectations you deal with. Specific to this post, if you’re a pastor of a congregation of 20, 200 or 2,000, those expectations are very real and if they get out of control, they can become overwhelming.
Expectations come from many places. First, there are congregational expectations. What does the congregation expect out of their pastor? What did the pulpit tell the pastor when he was hired? Have those expectations changed as the church has grown or declined in attendance? Does the church setting make a difference? Is the church’s set of expectations based on Scripture, bylaws or any written standard that can be measured quantitatively? Do church expectations come from a leadership council or the entire congregation?
All of these questions can help sort out where congregational expectations come from. I had a friend in seminary who pastored a rural church that voted on whether to keep him every year. It had been in the bylaws since a pastor had fallen over six decades earlier. I know of churches who pass out pastoral satisfaction surveys on occasion.
Expectations also come from within the pastor. These are typically the strongest expectations pastors wrestle with. Pastors who are perfectionists are rarely satisfied with the job they are doing. These men often work long hours with the idea in mind that they are never quite fulfilling every need in the church. Somewhere in their brain, they perceive unmet needs among the congregation that they could be fixing or making better. They are hard workers, but without a system of checks, these men experience tremendous burnout.
Pastors can experience several things that can warp their view of expectations upon them. One is pastoral competition or self-competition. A lot of guys love to talk about numbers. When pastors meet, they may not say it, but they intrinsically measure success by the number of people in their congregation or total budgets. While many give lip-service to the idea that, “I’d be happy preaching to one person each Sunday,” there seems to be an innate drive to move forward to the next big thing. Even if they aren’t comparing numbers with other pastors, a lot of young pastors are taught a business model of church where moving on to the next big position is just a natural progression.
Of course, this isn’t always true. There are always exceptions and we all know of men who are content with the congregations they serve. The point here is that this drive from without or within can lead to a warped view of success and high expectations.
The final place expectations come is from God. This is where proper expectations should come from. God has a high expectation for those He calls. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is the most common passage quoted when listing the moral qualifications for an overseer: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” (ESV)
There is discussion over some of the specific ideas in this passage, but for the most part, it is agreed that God expects His leaders to have a certain level of morality and moral leadership. Ultimately, God’s standard is the greatest standard. Any idea outside of Scripture attributed to the pastor should be discussed and agreed upon between pastor and church leadership. Any unspoken or assumed expectations can be harmful for both parties.
The warped view of high expectations (whether from congregations, from within, or both) can be seen in one of two examples, although there are surely more.
If congregations or leadership have expectations that are too high, unspoken, or unrealistic for the pastor, he can become frustrated in his duties. Despite his normal duties of teaching and preaching, he can become overwhelmed with a myriad of other tasks. He can become party to this as well if he takes on tasks without asking for help or communicating clearly to his people. Pastors who believe they can or should do everything will experience a large amount of frustration, leading to potential burnout.
Sometimes, churches are unaware they are adding to these high expectations. Many people mean well or are unsure of how to approach the pastor but can say things that come across as hurtful to the pastor: “Our old pastor didn’t do it like that,” “You only work one day a week, surely you can do more,” “Why haven’t you visited more people?” “There sure haven’t been many people here lately.” People often mean well or aren’t thinking when they make statements like this, but need to be aware of the weight their words carry. Most pastors spend all week concentrating on the church and the duties he performs and takes his job very seriously.
Now, for the curveball. I’ve mostly been talking about how pastors get burned out when expectations are too high, but there is another issue at stake. The other problem that can occur is when the pastor perceives high expectations on the other end of the spectrum. The high expectations become adoration as he fulfills them and accolades begin to pour in every Sunday. If his set of expectations are not from God and he fails to be humble, danger can lie ahead.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview several fallen pastors who allowed this to happen. The church appreciated the fact that the pastor was fulfilling the high expectations through long hours and hard work (sometimes at the expense of time at home) and was praising him each week. The pastor begins to compare the high accolades from the people at church to his marriage relationship, which is an unfair comparison. Often, the pastor would say to his wife, “How come you can’t appreciate me like the people at church do?” Much more about this in a later post.
High expectations happen to everyone, but understanding their source is of great importance. Pastoral/Church communication about correct expectations can prevent church disappointment, pastoral burnout and can also promote proper church health and focus on Christ’s community and everyone’s role within it.