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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94 Comments

  • David Blair says on

    At the risk of sounding humanistic I believe a great and unrecognized problem is the psychological framework of those of us in our society today. I am currently 67 yrs. old. I have come to believe one cannot see the forest for the trees. The Baptist Sunday School Board (Lifeway) at one time published a workbook entitled “UNTANGLING RELATIONSHIPS” a Christian Guide to Codependency”. It took me about three or four trips through it before I finally could see the problem was with me and not everybody else (including mu wife and family). The problem is that one doesn’t think there is anything wrong with “me”. It wasn’t until The LORD allowed me to be hobbled by a malignant, terminal, inoperable brain tumor that I began asking the hard questions. I was your typical “Type A” personality. (GOD healed me of the cancer, but, not the disability the tumor caused). So, I know how nearly impossible it is to stop long enough to be taught by our wondrous, magnificent, Heavenly FATHER. Until we AND the new pastors learn to love the LORD our GOD with all our minds, as well as our hearts, there will always be the problems our flesh tries to fix. (Romans 12:1).

  • wayne burns says on

    Thanks for an interesting article. While at seminary, I went to all J terms and took Religious Education courses. One of the best things I did as my ministry unfolded. And, I met some great religious education teachers. This is where you learn about the church functioning….keep up the good work.

  • Great article. Thank you for posting. And I would add to this list Biblical Peacemaking. Much of what I do that Seminary never prepared me for, is walking people through conflict. I am so very grateful to Peacemaker Ministries for what I have been blessed to learn through their efforts that I can now coach our congregants through. And I would also add to your list Spiritual Disciplines/rhythms. This was a two credit course in Seminary confined to journaling. Not enough to help me find what practices I needed to incorporate into my life to sustain my calling … especially in the challenging arena of being a female called. I am so very grateful for what I am learning from Ruth Haley Barton in Transforming Community. It is helping save my own soul as I continue on the ministerial journey.

  • Add prayer to the list … not merely personal praying but especially facilitating meaningful corporate prayer experiences for the congregation. Teaching, preaching, leading all begin and flow through Holy Spirit led prayer.

  • Jonathan Webb says on

    You might consider dealing with traditionalism. Pilots, doctors, accountants, lawyers are expected to be and stay at the leading edge of their field. Ministers (in some churches) are constantly up against the ‘this is not the way it’s been done here’ mentality, especially when the congregation is predominantly elderly….

  • Thom, thanks for your insights! Always appreciate your articles. I currently serve in the role as Staff Development Pastor for the exact reasons mentioned above – mentoring and coaching young leaders. When I was hired the elders said, “We want you to take 42 years of ministry experience and put it inside of them.” : )
    Lack of clarity and miscommunication always seem to be the two primary “enemies” in ministry. The two life experiences that helped prepare me the most were 1) serving on a local school board – art of negotiation; and 2) coaching high school football – clear words determine winning or losing.
    Letting matters slide, not following through, and “hoping for the best” always create tense ministry environments.
    Equipping pastors is not just a classroom experience and any young pastor entering ministry without a coach or mentoring leader is a prime target for failure. My best counsel to a young pastor – the best “leadership book” out there is the guy with gray hair around his muzzle who’s STILL in ministry. Sit down and read him.

  • I really liked this article. Sadly, it is not anything new to hear these concerns. It seems that I read articles all of the time that have many of your points listed in them. I am certainly guilty of them all at one time or another. One of my biggest concerns is in the area of church planting. It would seem as if this area of ministry is the “flavor of the month” in our Christian circles these days and I’m concerned that too many are getting into church planting and failing at most of what you mentioned in your post. Every church in this country was a church plant at one point but now many of them are dying so we decide to plant more. What, if anything, are we doing to prepare our church planters in such a way that their church plant doesn’t become a revitalization effort twenty-thirty years down the road? A lot of church planters get into this arena of ministry simply to avoid the stereotype of the older more traditional churches which leads them to believe that they don’t have to be concerned with some of the issues that you present in your article. In my three churches as serving as a youth and associate pastor I have sat under men who have not been concerned with becoming better leaders but rather were concerned about pleasing people while they rode off into retirement. Two of these pastors were voted out of their churches. It amazes me how our denominations don’t seem to have stronger protocol and oversight of our pastors in ways that would challenge them to be better. Thank you for your article. Great read!

  • Spot on! And unfortunately we are stuck in a seminary model that refuses to teach them and ordination models that don’t test for them. I recently just started a second masters in business and am having a blast

  • David Martin says on

    in a word: yup!

  • Under Finance, I would add supervising and dealing with personnel issues, including how to fire a staff member legally and ethically, and how to conduct effective interviews. This is for both clergy staff and nonclergy staff. I learned those things in my pre-ministry life in government and the nonprofit sector. My seminary touched on it. Some of these things are learned only through experience, though. No seminar, workshop, class, or book could have prepared me for the “icky” feeling I had the first time I fired an employee (in business, not the church.)

    A key point about leadership: the first obligation of a leader is to listen. Becoming a better listener improves almost all of these areas. And with regard to trying to please everyone, well, that is the key to failure!

  • Thom,

    You nailed it. I may have missed this in the comments but would add one more–Create a support community among colleagues (NOT parishioners). Many clergy are vulnerable to crossing boundaries with parishioners in order to have friends. It is a real shock to go from the active, stimulating, fun of a bunch of fellow seminarians and profs to the long, lonely days of parish ministry.

    As I approach my last month before retirement I would advice, cajole exhort every new clergy–find a colleague in ministry close enough to meet with weekly and make it a priority to do so.

    • I don’t believe the idea of a “parish” or a “parishioner” fits the Biblical pattern of the church of a regenerate membership. A Biblical church is made of called-out “members” who have covenanted with fellow members. The idea of the “parish” admits the unregenerate functionally into the membership of the church.