After 33 years in the local church pastoral ministry, sitting on the receiving side of the pulpit is a very different way to spend a Sunday morning.
The transition is proving to be a provocative, illuminating and sobering experience. Some parts are extremely gratifying, others completely frustrating. Beyond the change in Sunday routine, I’ve been thinking a great deal these days about the interchange between clergy and laity and how to help encourage healthy conversation in those relationships.
I recently led a workshop called “Seven Things Your Pastor Wishes You Knew But Is Afraid to Tell You.”
Here’s my list:
1. It’s not their fault, but your minister didn’t learn everything they needed in seminary to be a pastor. Like doctors leaving medical school, clergy need a time to do their “residency” and learn to practice in the field what they’ve learned in the classroom. Actually, that theological education never stops. So give your minister permission not to be perfect and always to be learning.
2. Every pastor must learn to “choose their guilt.” There is always more to do than there is time to do it. Every minister must come to terms with an inherent guilt around what he or she did not do today. Too often that means their own family gets the leftovers. By the way, this is a dilemma for all of us regardless of our vocation.
3. Be kind if you have a criticism. Healthy clergy welcome constructive criticism. Everyone abhors petty nitpicking. Make sure you engage in the former and not the latter.
4. Have some realistic expectations for the pastor’s family. How many ways can we say this? Please give your minister’s family an extra measure of grace.
5. Err on the side of generosity. I’m not just talking about money, though I am talking about money. I also mean be generous with your attention, questions, interest, ability to remember family names, laughter, food, jokes, invitations to ball games and your life.
6. Your pastor loves you, but he or she may or may not like you. As in your family, there are days when your spouse, child or parent loves you, but is frustrated by you or wondering what they did to deserve you. That ambivalence is part of being human. Own it and expect it.
7. Your comfort is not your pastor’s primary concern. Hope you know this. If not, read the Bible and remind yourself why your church exists in the first place. Trying to be priest (comforting the afflicted) and prophet (afflicting the comfortable) to the same people is confusing, messy and an invitation to misunderstandings.
Our workshop group engaged in fine conversation around each point. I sensed a genuine interest in doing some additional thinking along these lines. I did request that the laity present tell me “what you wish your pastor knew but are afraid to tell him or her.” We’ll look at that tomorrow.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.