Eight Areas Where Many Ministers Are Unprepared for Ministry

My email inbox is full of tragic examples. They entered into vocational ministry with hope and healthy idealism. They had been prepared well in the study of the Bible, theology, Church history, and other classical disciplines. They were bright, eager, and ready to change the world in God’s power.

And they failed.

Let me say it more clearly: From their perspective they failed.

They began leading that first or second church and they were blindsided by what hit them. Some are still walking wounded in ministry today. Some moved quickly to the next church, only to find that you can’t run from messy ministry. Some are still serving, but they are bitter and disillusioned. And too many quit ministry altogether.

Over time I began to see a pattern or group of patterns. I saw where many ministers were very unprepared for ministry. Indeed, some of the lessons were my own experiences and my own failures. Allow me to share eight of the most common areas where ministers, particularly in America, are often unprepared for ministry.

  1. Relational intelligence. I wish every minister could somehow take some type of relational intelligence inventory. I wish they could be coached on how to relate to all types of people. Many ministers crash because they have never learned how to relate well to others.
  2. Leadership skills. A minister who leads a church of 100 members is leading a relatively large organization, more than many in the secular world will ever lead. In addition, the minister is leading a large number of volunteers. Leadership is tough in any setting, but particularly this one.
  3. Dealing with critics. There is an obvious overlap with this issue and the previous two. One of the most unsettling times of a minister’s ministry is the discovery that some people don’t like him or agree with him. Some ministers never learn to deal well with critics.
  4. Family matters. The unprepared minister often lives a life of trying to please everyone. Those who often get left out of this effort are spouses and children. Many ministers fail because they failed their families.
  5. Finances. A minister is often thrust into an organization where there is an expectation of knowledge of budgets, balance sheets, and banking. Too many ministers are unprepared in both church finance and personal finance.
  6. Consumer mentality. Countless ministers have told me they entered local church ministry expecting to find members who were sacrificial and others-centered. Instead they found members who were selfish and me-centered. Ministers are too often unprepared for this congregational mindset.
  7. Uneven expectations. I recently wrote a post on how many hours a minister was expected to work each week. It created a lot of buzz, because too many ministers don’t know how to deal with these various expectations from church members.
  8. Uneven spiritual growth. I encourage you to read Sam Rainer’s article on messy churches. He reminds us that it is really positive if we have some level of immature believers in our congregations. That is an indication that we are reaching new people for Christ. Of course, we don’t want baby Christians to remain babies, but we do pray for a regular inflow of new Christians. Immature believers present their own unique challenges where many ministers are unprepared.

When a missionary is sent to another part of the world, we typically spend hundreds of hours preparing him or her for a new culture and a new language.  They must understand the context where they will serve or they will be ineffective. They must be prepared for the new culture or they will suffer culture shock and often fail.

American congregations in the twenty-first century represent new challenges and new cultures. Too many ministers are often unprepared for the mission field where they will serve and lead. Too many ministers thus become walking wounded or AWOL altogether.

What do you think about these eight areas? What would you change or add?

Posted on September 2, 2013

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  • Hi Thom…
    Thanks for this list. I think it will be very helpful for most pastors and future pastors. Do you have any recommendations (either personal advice or resources) for someone who hasn’t been to seminary, but who is considering taking a pastor position at a small church, specifically in terms of things to consider and what to expect that you wouldn’t normally think about?

    • Stephen Shumate wrote:
      > in terms of things to consider and what to expect that you wouldn’t normally think about?

      Can your spouse take the strain of being “the pastor’s spouse”?
      Can you set, and enforce boundaries?

      It isn’t as common as it used to be, but two things will disrupt the family:
      * You aren’t home for meals, because you are tending the flock;
      * You are home for meals, but brought the flock with you;

      Instrinsically, there is nothing wrong with being the pastor of a small church.

      Extrinsically, individuals within and without the congregation will find fault with the church, because its resources are limited. That fault finding can range from the subtle “Can we afford it” to flat out in your face aggresion: “You are a pathetic church, because you don’t serve 10,000 meals per week, and shelter 500 homeless people per night. That failure to help those in need proves that you are not a Christ-like organization, but mere money grabbers”. FWIW, I did not make either example up.

  • Great insights. I have another one for you. For me, I have NEVER been given the opportunity to serve the Lord and the church in a ministry setting. This has left me INTENSELY frustrated and confused. I believe God has given me passion and ability, but I have had NO OPPORTUNITY to show that.
    In my view, if I can’t even get the opportunity to volunteer in ministry then count me out. I don’t want anything to do with it.
    God bless.

    • Zack B. raises a point that I think many gifted people experience, and which I focus on in training programs, which is how church leaders should can establish processes for helping them to feel comfortable about delegating. I have spoken with pastors both as an elder and a consultant, and have asked, “Am I hearing you correctly that you have preached to these people for 15 years, and you don’t believe that God has poured into them anything that enables you to trust them?” If this is the case, then I would question what I am not teaching the people God gives me.

      Just yesterday, I met with a group of leaders who have started independent Bible studies because a church pastor told them he did not want to encourage small groups because he was unsure of what would be taught in them. If God has given people gifts, and the Holy Spirit is prompting them to use them, and if the church says no, then one of three things is taking place: 1) God is saying “wait.” 2) God is saying “No.” 3) God is saying, “I am calling you, and you just will have to do it someplace else.”

      In the latter case, if I have a gift and the church refuses to help me use it or gain experience, so I can grow in it, (understanding that few people do things exceptionally well the first time they try them – like Moses first failed to rescue Israel), then the church actually is asking me to come and admire what it refuses to do and does not enable to take happen. I believe these type of experiences are a tragedy for the church as the Body of Christ, which suffers maldevelopment as a result. Ephesians 4:16 “…the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in [due] measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.”

  • Jason Miller says on

    Many of us who went into pastoral ministry, read the latest books, attended the high-dollar lectures, and went into the pastorate expecting to be a CEO-type with multiple full-time staff members. We were going to have a great team, we were going to let them flourish, we were going to equip them and encourage them in their ministry, Then reality: we found ourselves in small churches, with no “staff”, and everything hangs on us. Most of my colleagues don’t even have a secretary, or a part-time one at best. You have to be careful to do what needs to be done organizationally without becoming the janitor. One colleague of mine decided to “help out” his struggling congregation by volunteering to take over the cleaning for a few weeks. “I like manual labor” he told them. They stopped even looking for a cleaning service — the pastor liked doing it, after all! Pastors of small congregations (and we are the majority of congregations) have to learn to pick the slots they are going to fill. They also do the equipping and encouraging, but not of anyone on the payroll. That takes a lot more time, because usually volunteers don’t have an office down the hall, just past the cappuccino machine. And if we’re going to work with volunteers, we need to be prepared to stay there for awhile. Many ministers are unprepared to stay someplace for a while, especially in the small churches. We can always sweat it our for a few years then jump to someplace a little bigger, working our way to the congregation where we can have a staff. Many times we don’t stay in the small churches because our expectations were so different, from the very lectures and books that excited us in the first place.

    • Hi Jason. If I may, let me relate what I saw in two small churches that nearly tripled in size and then lost all the growth. Many churches remain small because some of the congregation members push people out the side and back doors almost as quickly as they come in the front. Sometimes this happens out of ignorance and sometimes it is done out of insecurity (I am afraid to trust “new” people, and at others it results from a spirit of self-control, “How dare these strangers think they can come in here and make this church their church!” Three-Dimensional Leader training based upon the book of Judges is effective at getting people to self-assess where they are and why they are doing what they do.

      Sessions often end with church participants sharing tears of repentance, forgiveness and hope that they are a new path for the future.

  • Hi Thom. You certainly are right on about the contents of this article.

    Like any job, being a pastor requires continuous learning AFTER one has graduated with a degree. I was 21 years old when the first church placed me in an elder role during which time I was trying to learn leadership from the other board members, who were in their 50’s and 60’s. I perceived that our church was in danger because the first two pastors who served during my tenure liked “helping people” so much that they never prepared decent messages that were needed to feed our congregation, so we could overcome our carnality, which was negatively impacting our walks with God, our families and our church fellowship. The board and the pastor resisted my desires to help the pastor structure his week, so he would have adequate preparation time. I decided to work with the pastor and the church staff directly to see this happen, and after a few months, the staff assured me, they too had tried to help the pastor structure his time so he could prep and provide a coherent sermon on Sunday, and he just refused to sit still in his office and do it. If the phone did not ring, he would find someone else to call and reach out to which occupied his time.

    What I discovered from this experience and now over more than 30 years of additional ones, is that most pastors I have known lack in gifts of leadership and preaching-teaching, but are strong in mercy. They often enter the ministry because they want to “help” people. The more they talk to people throughout the week, however, the less time they have to get alone with God and His word, so that it can speak to them, so they organize what the desperately needs when gathered together on Sunday mornings. Churches hire pastors, however, thinking that Bible school and seminary has equipped them with leadership and with executive management gifts/abilities that enable them to take charge of their schedules, so they do what is “best” by saying no to some of the many “good” things that can consume their time. Leaders establish expectations that enable pastors to be able to preach well on Sundays and mid-week if necessary.

    The pastors who have attend my leadership seminars or who have asked me to provide conferences for their churches, tell me they have tried to learn leadership. But most leadership training, however, provides little more than a repeating of the word “leadership” and often do not provide Biblical examples of what good and poor leadership is and how it applies to the church. Thus I believe God has given me Three-Dimensional Leadership from the book of Judges to fill a gap in leadership compendium and knowledge. Please use these two links to see in 333 words or less per article what I mean. (Read: Three Ways to Lead a Church: http://bit.ly/zB3890, Change Your Church to Change the World: http://tinyurl.com/ChangeChurch-World. I know God has given me a leadership technology to help pastors and churches. (Contact me, and reference testimonies will be provided.) I am asking God to open more doors so more can be helped with what I know He has given me.

    Perhaps Bible schools also will do well to incorporate some of the courses I have developed based upon The 3-D MRC leadership perspective and point of view. Downloading this PDF explains the 3-D philosophy found in the book of Judges. Links to EW’s Brochures:

    Learn Leadership from Judges:
    Download File


  • Thank you for this article. It’s very insightful Ps. Thom. God bless you!

  • Hector Franco says on

    What books do you recommend in the area of Relational intelligence?

    What about inventories?

    I appreciate your ministry Tom.

    • Sandy Cormack says on


      I find that clergy who are certified to administer some personality type assessment – for instance, Myers-Briggs -become quite adept at relationships, interaction and communication. Part of the training for these assessments involves interpreting how people of a certain personality interacts with others. They can administer the instruments and then coach their parishioners.

      On the other end of the spectrum, I have met clergy who don’t even understand their own personality type and how it impacts their relationship and communication styles. I think this sort of insight is an essential first step.

  • Dr. Thom
    So where does a young minister find these answers and this training. I got sit under dr lawless at sbts a while and have been blessed with some mentors to ask. But not everyone is that blessed, so where do we go?

  • One problem is unrealistic expectations of what a pastor/minister should be, or perhaps wrong views of how a church should operate. For example, point No. 2, leadership skills. Too often churches operate under the single-pastor/lead pastor model no matter the size of the church. Asking one man to be the be all/end all of ministry is unrealistic. Some ministers excel in leadership, some excel in teaching, etc. This is not to say that we shouldn’t improve our weaknesses, but the plural elder model alleviates this problem as each minister brings his particular gifts to the unified whole. Another example, point No. 5, finances. Every Christian ought to have some knowledge of proper financial management, including pastors. But if a pastor needs to be a CPA to be a pastor, the church probably looks too much like a business and not enough like a spiritual gathering of baptized believers.

  • Heartspeak says on

    The church model with which our pastors and congregations have been thoroughly trained for the past several hundred years seems to me to be a significant issue. Where do we really expect to find these ‘super’ men? Does God not provide all ‘parts’ of the Body? We often have deacons and elders but they are either advisors or guardians and directors, not fellow team leader members and very seldom selected because of their giftings. More often it’s ‘their turn’ or ‘they always have’ or ‘no one else would take the slot’.

    While I am not opposed to supporting those who lead our local bodies, I do believe that when the ‘pastor’ is compensated but the elders and deacons are not, there is a natural divide that lead to all sorts of consequences. This is not to deviate to a compensation discussion but rather to comment that it does seem to set up, in part, a set of cascading expectations which lead us to desire and hire our ‘super’ men—and be disappointed when they fail to meet the expectations.

    As a layman in the Body, I’ve seen the ‘failures’ all too often, that Thom has described. God is sovreign in the lives of each man and woman and in the lives of our local bodies but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a better way.
    I’m sure that even as we weep over the real and apparent failures we pray for God to do His work in them and in ourselves.

    I’ve watched several Pastors up close and personal as they ‘blew out’ and know of others which I can reasonably anticipate are well on their way to it. In each case, they’re trying to ‘do it themselves’ and despite having Godly men available, have chosen not to engage with them and not to seek them out. Shepherding and equipping the flock is not a singular job, it requires men and women who share the load and who each function as they have been gifted and embued with passion to serve those for whom they care.

    Admittedly, many congregations just want someone to rule over them and feed them but this is not and has never been, God’s way. I am ‘concerned’ (I was tempted to write, ‘afraid’) that until we really move into a different model for the Body, we will continue to see good men buckle under the load they were never meant to carry. And we wll see many hurt and wounded disciples as well.

    Yes, God has worked mightily over times past even with our broken system, but I keep thinking of how much more Kingdom impact might occur were we to try another way!

  • This is my second day as an unemployed senior pastor. Your points are very valid, but not all that comforting.

  • Barry Bishop says on

    This post is not what I want to read on a Mon. morning. It’s hard enough being a pastor without others telling you that you are a failure or that you weren’t adequately prepared, etc.
    I don’t tell you how to do your job as president of Lifeway, so why do you keep telling me, small-church pastor, how to do mine?
    If you want my job then let’s switch places for a week. You can be an organizer, administrator, and leader of my small church. I am sure it would grow and flourish. In turn I can be a spiritual leader for the publishing arm of the SBC. I’m sure my seminary classes on spiritual formation, and theology will finally come in handy.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I’m sorry I offended you Barry. I am sure you are a better leader in your church than I am at LifeWay. I still have much to learn.

      • Barry Bishop says on

        I accept your apology and I’m calmed down now. I know that my frustrations with ministry runs deeper than your post. I commented because I thought it would be a helpful critique and that you could take it. I was right. Thanks for your humility.
        Here’s a different question: Is it possible for a pastor to be prepared in all 8 areas? Using the missionary example, there is the time of preparation but the reality on the mission field can be very different. No one really knows until they get there. Similarly, when a pastor goes to serve in a church, it takes a while to even know who you can trust and what are the strengths and weaknesses of that local church. Many times the pulpit committee will present a skewed picture of the church. Pastors learn after a while what the local condition of that church is. Too often, if you are a pastor who is gifted in teaching, preaching, and people skills you will be tasked with administration, promotions, organization, leadership (which means leading a coup on the present leadership). “Well,” someone might say, “just get people to help you in the areas where you are weak.” Agreed. But look at point #6 you made in the article above.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Thanks Barry. I am on the road and will be home late. I hope to get to your comment tomorrow.

        By the way, a true leader readily accepts the sincere apology of someone who wronged him. You just demonstrated that leadership.

      • FWIW, and I know this particular comment drama has passed, so I don’t mean to open an old wound, but I’ve heard Dr Rainer speak, at least a good 2-3 times, of his years of pastoral ministry, some of which were in a small church. Just saying… I think he writes as an empathetic insider and not as a disengaged critic speaking merely pejoratively.