Weathering the storm: Solutions to 4 major pastor problems
By Tricia Brown
Henry Ford once said, “Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.”
As the “go-to” person for calming the storm, where do you turn when you find yourself in the middle of one? Let God guide the way and be proactive. Here are the most common pastor problems and a few problem-solving tips to guard against the winds and help you weather the storm.
Dealing with criticism
Everybody can be a critic, but criticism in the church is especially disconcerting. When members of the congregation begin to complain and gossip about you, your preaching or your leadership, divisions among the church body can quickly arise. Giving and receiving criticism can be tricky. How should you, as a pastor, respond to criticism?
Consider the cause.
When you first begin to hear the whispers of complaints, you should do your best to effectively determine if they are something that need to be addressed or ignored. For example, some complaints result from people who seem to derive enjoyment from the act itself. Others are just a temporary side effect of change or transition within the church. By considering the cause, you can discern when it is wise to take a deep breath, take it to the Lord, and give it time. In many cases, the situation will work itself out.
Contemplate the complaint.
When you have determined the cause of the complaints, you should also take time to seriously evaluate the validity of them. Carefully consider and pray about what is being said. Ask yourself if there is any truth in the complaints. If so, don’t be too proud to admit it. Don’t be afraid to apologize when necessary. In every situation, ask yourself if there is anything positive you can take away from what is being said. Is there anything that you can use to help better yourself or your church?
Care about communication.
It takes humility and a teachable spirit, but as much as possible make it clear that you are open to suggestions from congregants. In doing so, you may be able to thwart behind-the-back criticism and divisive attitudes.
Sometimes people just want an opportunity to express their opinions. You don’t have to agree or accept what they say; there is value in simply being willing to listen. Learn how to be a gracious listener and take your time when responding. “I hear what you are saying.” “I will definitely pray about that.” “I haven’t thought of it like that before.” “I will take that into consideration.”
These types of statements can help diffuse tensions and convey a sense of respect to your critic. Of course, you will still need to ensure that critics understand and respect the appropriate times and places for such discussions. Don’t be afraid to set and enforce boundaries.
Confront the criticism.
Whenever possible, take steps to avoid church conflict. However, when criticism is ill-founded, hurtful, malicious gossip, you may have to confront it head-on. If left to fester, that kind of infection can grow into a debilitating disease within your congregation.
It is sometimes necessary to address the issue personally. When doing so, always precede a meeting with lots of prayer, always have a Christ-like spirit, and always follow biblical guidelines. In addition, you would do well to check your own emotional state. Try to stay as calm as possible, and avoid getting defensive or taking the comments personally. Don’t make the situation a battle, and definitely refrain from retaliation. Read more about resolving church conflict.
Time management is a problem in most professions, but for pastors it can be an especially sensitive one. How do you manage a schedule that is often filled by the spiritual and physical emergencies of others? The very nature of your job requires a certain amount of spontaneous availability. Still, there are many benefits of project management and several steps you can take to make the best use of your time.
Be selective when making appointments and time commitments. Establish your priorities and think carefully about them. You don’t have to say yes to everything. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to delegate.
Schedule breaks, lunches and family time. Put those “appointments” in ink. Too often, pastors willingly and easily forgo these times for the sake of others. While emergencies that require your attention are sure to occur occasionally, you should be very protective of your personal time.
Be organized. Organization may not be your strong point, but it is perhaps one of the best time-management tools. Staying organized helps avoid wasting time. Free online programs such as Google for Nonprofits can offer great resources to help you get started.
Create “to-do” lists and tackle the hardest things first. There is freedom in knowing you won’t forget things because you have written them down, and there is a feeling of accomplishment in marking off completed tasks. Don’t worry if you don’t accomplish everything on your list everyday; simply carry over uncompleted tasks to tomorrow’s list. Consider using simple personal productivity apps like Any.do to schedule tasks. Any.do will send you push notifications in the morning and reward you with positive messages when you finish.
Make your meetings more efficient. Set time limits. Learn how to graciously end a meeting with a firm beginning, such as, “We only have an hour to discuss the budget today, so let’s get started with a word of prayer.” Set a timer on your watch or phone a few minutes before the time is up. Say, “Well, that means we only have three more minutes. Let’s see if we can recap what we’ve talked about today.” Remain standing in order to shorten long, unannounced visits, or simply suggest that you schedule another meeting when you have more time.
Limit social media and other communication chores. Set aside a specific time of day when you will check and respond to emails, check your social media pages and even return messages. While some issues may arise that require more time, by setting aside a specific amount of time each day for these tasks, you can help avoid making them time-wasters.
Keep an accurate calendar. Be sure to review your calendar at the end of your “business” day and again first thing in the morning. The official program calendar of The United Methodist Church will help you make time in your daily life to minister to others and invite people into a life of faith, learning and giving. It will help you plan for sermons, church seasons and special offerings.
Physical and mental health issues
Too many pastors have the mistaken belief that self-care is selfish. Even if they don’t say those words out loud, they act as if they have no time to take care of their own needs. But God’s work can be physically and mentally exhausting, and pastors are no different than any other human being. The work will take a toll on the body. To take care of yourself, you have to do the same things you would encourage your congregants to do.
Pastors should schedule regular meals, physical exercise, routine medical check-ups and plan for vacations. If you feel guilty about the time or expense of these things, consider that God requires you to be a good steward of all that He has given you, including your mind and body. In addition, bad health is more costly than good health and more worrisome to those who love you.
Remember that mental health is also a part of your well-being. As a pastor, you most likely experience an extraordinary amount of stress. Pastors aren't immune to depression. Don’t deal with these things alone. Even pastors need a pastor. Find a trusted confidant with whom you can share your struggles, and if you think that you are suffering from depression, anxiety or any other form of mental illness, don’t hesitate to get professional help before you burn out.
You are not Superman or Wonder Woman. You are human, with human limitations. And taking care of yourself is not a weakness. It is a God-honoring way to best utilize the physical and mental resources God has given you, and it will help you be a better pastor and person.
Pastors are not immune to economic downfalls. Like every other person in your congregation, you have bills to pay, children with braces, or teens heading off to college. In addition, you may be saddled with costly student loan debt or worried about retirement funding. But when it comes to financial struggles, many pastors feel completely alone. What can you do?
Be a good financial example to your congregants. The Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary offers free resources to help pastors better understand and manage their personal finances. The site reminds church leaders that “our basic responsibility as Christian stewards is to manage our personal financial resources [...]. This is especially true for clergy who are expected to teach and model faithful stewardship within our congregations. Mastering personal finances is both a personal and a pastoral responsibility.”
Don’t expect people to just know. All church staff should have a liaison to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee to whom they can confide when unexpected needs arise.
As soon as possible, establish an emergency fund and begin saving for retirement. Even if you are only able to set aside a few dollars a month, it will add up. Start now.
Check out internet sites such as Encouraging Pastors or Pastor Care to find free or reduced-cost services, getaway weekends and other resources for pastors and their families. For example, The Florida Conference has a program called Shade and Fresh Water that offers low-cost retreats; the North Carolina Conference has a low-cost clergy retreat cottage at Don Lee Camp and Retreat Center; and the Soderquist Center in Arkansas offers the no-cost RENEW retreat for clergy and their families. Other spiritual retreat centers, especially United Methodist-sponsored ones, may offer special deals as well.
Explore college websites for scholarships and financial assistance offered to the children of pastors. United Methodist schools may give special tuition rates. Other colleges offer scholarship opportunities for the children of those in the ministry or on the mission field. If you can’t find any listed, talk to a financial aid advisor at the college.
Remember, many ministries to pastors are community-based and not nationally advertised (such as restaurant discounts given to clergy), so do a little research and don’t be afraid to ask around.
Despite your unique calling, you as a pastor are not immune to difficulties. In fact, because of your position, you may be more vulnerable to certain struggles. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Take a serious look at the problems you and other church leaders are facing, and take positive steps to help correct them today.