A few weeks ago, I spoke with a pastor friend about his recent day off. He was shopping at Home Depot, quickly grabbing a few items for a home project. After checking out, he bumped into a congregant in the parking lot. You can probably guess what happened—a short greeting turned into a much longer conversation. The congregant shared a number of difficult things happening in the church and in his own spiritual life. Each question from the pastor uncovered five new frustrations. Forty-five minutes later, they finally parted ways.
I asked the pastor how he felt in that moment. “It was my day off,” he said, “but I don’t really have a day off. I mean, when am I not a pastor?” This always-on, week-in, week-out grind takes a toll on pastors and their families. It’s why leadership guru Peter Drucker said this:
Over the years I have made a career out of studying the most challenging management roles out there. After all of that I am now convinced the two most difficult jobs in the world are these—one, to be President of the United States, and two, to be the leader a church.
Ministry is an amazing call, full of great joys and significant moments in people’s lives: officiating weddings, presiding over funerals, seeing first-hand how lives are changed for Christ. But it’s also full of tension: intense conflict, unrealistic expectations, relational strain, and, at times, soul-aching loneliness.
I know this firsthand. I served as a local church pastor for 15 years. Now that I’m no longer serving in that role, I want to share an insider’s perspective about your pastor’s sacred yet difficult calling. Here are a few things your pastor is probably thinking, but won’t tell you during Pastor Appreciation Month.
Pastor Appreciation Month (originally called Clergy Appreciation Month) was established in 1992 by a group of pastors and church leaders to honor those who serve in ministry. They grounded the celebration in Paul’s words to Timothy: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). No, it’s not an official holiday, but it is nationally recognized, like Boss Appreciation Day and Administrative Assistant Day. And chances are, your pastor is thinking about it this month.
Last year a pastor called me on November 1. When I asked my friend how he was doing he said, “Another year, another Pastor Appreciation Month …” his voice trailing off into silence. I knew exactly what he was saying. He wasn’t fishing for compliments or looking to be congratulated, but he couldn’t hide his disappointment. He felt invisible, like his congregation was taking him for granted. “As long as people are pleased,” he told me, “they say nothing.”
This pastor is not self-serving. He’s humble, faithful, and gracious. But during that phone call, I realized that one of the greatest gifts someone in his church could have given him at that moment would have been a simple, hand-written card or a quick text of gratitude for his faithfulness to the congregation. I was also struck by another thought: How was the congregation supposed to know he was in such need of encouragement?
Pastors who serve with proper motives feel like they can’t say anything about Pastor Appreciation Month—especially to those in their own churches. Doing so would seem grossly self-serving. Can you imagine your pastor stepping up to the pulpit on Sunday and saying, “Good morning, church. Before I begin my sermon, I want to remind you this month is Pastor Appreciation Month. And, if you’re wondering, I’d love some gift cards to Starbucks”? Of course not.
I transitioned out of my pastoral role in the local church about a year ago. I now focus on caring for and investing in hungry kingdom leaders—mostly pastors and church planters. I’ve thought about writing this article for years, but I never could do so while serving within a local church. It felt too self-serving and … complicated. My family and I were part of a healthy church. I was loved and supported, and I’m deeply grateful for dear people in our congregation. But most Octobers I couldn’t stave off these conflicted feelings. I share these things on behalf of pastors who feel what I once felt but who do not feel comfortable saying anything about it.
You don’t have to throw a big party, invest a great deal of time, or take up a collection to send your pastor on a two-week Caribbean vacation (although I am sure no pastor would complain if you did). Instead, it’s the little things that matter. Here are a few of the most memorable gifts I received from people in our church for Pastor Appreciation Month. Hopefully they’ll inspire you to think outside the box to show your pastor how much you care.
For a handful of years, a family in our church ordered the pastors a tin of gourmet popcorn and gave it to us with a card at the end of October. This was a small gesture, but one I won’t soon forget. Each mouthful of popcorn was a tangible reminder that my presence was appreciated.
Two years ago, a gentleman used his company’s allotted season tickets to bring me and another pastor to a Sunday evening Eagles-Giants football game. It didn’t cost him a great deal of money since the tickets were available for his use, but it would have cost me and the other pastor an arm and a leg. It’s important for pastors to have fun and sometimes to just hang out. It was a shared memory with good friends that remains with me.
Last year a landscaper in our church planted tulip bulbs in our yard. I love flowers, and he knew it. When they bloomed this spring, I smiled each time I walked by them as I was reminded that he and his family were grateful for us. I felt seen, loved, and appreciated.
Pastors have told me they wept tears of joy when they read an out-of-the-blue note of encouragement. Whatever you do—a sincere Facebook shout out, a two-minute word of affirmation during the Sunday announcements, a heart-felt email, a handwritten note, or an arm around your pastor in the hallway between services—know it carries more weight than you may realize.
Pastors don’t always get this ministry thing right. They may not preach as well as you prefer, pray as much as you deserve, counsel as well as you need, or lead as well as you desire. They know this because they feel it deep in their bones and because congregants are often quick to tell them so. Ministry can be difficult.
Still, most pastors are trying their best to serve and lead and pray and listen and preach and love as faithfully as they can. They won’t say publicly that they think about Pastor Appreciation Month every October, but many of the pastors I talk with do. Everyone needs a little encouragement now and then. That includes your pastor.