Seven Distinguishing Habits of Highly Effective Pastors

Determining the effectiveness of a pastor is a highly subjective exercise. While certain metrics may prove helpful, they do not tell the whole story. In that context, I reviewed my 40 years of serving churches in a variety of capacities and noted several very effective pastors I knew well. My list was lengthy: nearly 30 pastors total.

Since I knew each of these pastors so well, I began to write down traits that distinguished them from most other pastors. I wanted to know what made them tick; I wanted to know how and why they were so effective.

There are many characteristics most pastors have: prayerful; committed to the Word; dedicated to their families; high character; and others. My interest in this exercise, however, was to find the traits that set them apart from most others. When I finished this assignment, I found seven distinguishing characteristic or habits.

  1. They have genuine enthusiasm. I am not referring to the vocal cheerleader type. These pastors may be quiet, but their passion and enthusiasm for their churches, their families, and their ministries are evident in all they say and do. It is not a contrived enthusiasm; it is real and contagious.
  2. They are great listeners. When you are around these pastors, they genuinely want to focus on you. They seem to have little desire to talk about themselves; they would rather hear your stories. They can make you feel very important because they genuinely care and genuinely listen.
  3. Their identity is not their vocation. They don’t have to climb a perceived ladder of success because their greatest reward comes from serving Christ in whatever manner He directs them. You don’t have to worry about these pastors manipulating the network or the system for their own advancement. Their identities are in Christ, not their vocations.
  4. They are intentional about personal witnessing. These pastors don’t see the Great Commission as an abstract concept or something that others are supposed to do. They love to share the gospel personally with others. They are also highly intentional about personal witnessing.
  5. They have unconditional love of their critics. So many leaders, pastors included, have limited effectiveness because critics constantly hound them. They are drained emotionally and sometimes walk in fear of the critics. These effective pastors, however, include in their prayer lives intercession for their critics. They learn to love them because they are asking God to help them to have that love.
  6. They have a gentle spirit. We often forget that gentleness is part of the fruit of the Spirit. In this hypercritical social media world, aggression and negativity have become normative, even in our churches. These pastors, to the contrary, have a calm and gentleness that can only come from the Holy Spirit.
  7. They persevere. Ministry is not easy. Local church ministry can be especially difficult. There are too many wounded warriors in our churches. Unfortunately, most of their wounds have come from friendly fire (though I’m not sure the word “friendly” fits well in this metaphor). Highly effective pastors hang in there. Sure, they get hurt. Sure, they get discouraged. But they ultimately keep on doing ministry in God’s power. Though it’s cliché, they look for strength to keep on ministering one day at a time.

At the risk of redundancy, let me remind you that these seven traits are not necessarily the same as the biblical qualifications of a pastor. They are, according to my subjective research, those traits that set them apart from most other pastors. They are thus the seven distinguishing habits of highly effective pastors.

Let me hear from you on this topic.

photo credit: 7 via photopin (license)

Posted on March 16, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Walter I. says on

    As a new pastor in an old church, I find that discouragement comes easily when I make comparisons to my previous church. This list is a reminder for me that I am not serving this church, I am serving God through this church. It is because of His desire that I am here, and it is His desire that will be tended to. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  • Enjoyed reading this, thank you. I always appreciate a call to spiritual formations that really matter. Have you ever read Eugene Peterson’s contemplative Pastor? A lot of nice over lap between the principles you laid out here and that book. A great read as well if you haven’t. Thanks.

  • “There are too many wounded warriors in our churches. Unfortunately, most of their wounds have come from friendly fire (though I’m not sure the word “friendly” fits well in this metaphor).” Ain’t that the truth. Thanks, Thom.

  • Don McCutcheon says on


    I totally agree with your keen insights. As I have known and served pastors over the last 20 years (1/2 your experience!), highly effective pastors exhibit and focus on these traits. One pastor share with me wisdom from his mentor, Love your people and allow them to love you. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom.

    Blessings, my friend.


  • Mary Ellen says on

    I love this list! Each one speaks to the heart of a pastor, not the mechanics of leading. I also like that you didn’t define effectiveness by size of congregation. Kingdom, eternal effectiveness is all about growing people, not about growing churches. As someone I admire (Pastor Wayne Cordeiro) once said (and I paraphrase), “Tasks are about completing people; people aren’t about completing tasks.”

  • How could these seven areas (domains?) be used in a Pastor’s annual performance review? How might one collect data in these areas? Gentleness seems to be the most challenging. I don’t think a 7-point Lickert scale would work, but what might that look like? Dr. Rainer – what do good performance reviews of pastors look like?

  • Jim Watson says on

    I think highly effective pastors also have a heart and sense of urgency for the community around the church. It is not enough to be enthusiastic about your ministries. We need to find new ways to reach out to people who are not being reached. It is not enough to be intentional about personal witnessing. We need to lead people to go out into the community. It is not enough to be a good listener if all you ever hear is what people inside the church are saying.

    I have seen pastors that exhibit all of the qualities in this article who are leading (or failing to lead) dying churches because they never get outside the walls of the church except to visit members in hospitals, nursing homes, or their own homes.

    Highly effective pastors keep a kingdom vision and not just a church vision.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good input, Jim. Thank you.

      • In other words, whatever a pastor does, it’s never enough

      • It really should never be enough. The things that he is describing are more the role of the body as a whole, so not really grounds for judging a pastor, other than the degree to which he is working to build them up for such ministry.

        The ministry of the pastor is not confined to the four walls of a church building, but it is primarily confined to ministering to the body.

      • Jim Watson says on

        In other words, if the pastor is not leading the congregation beyond the church, the pastor is not shepherding the flock properly. There are many tasks within the church that can be filled by others. But, being the lead shepherd is not one of them.

        If the shepherd keeps the sheep in the pen and never leads them out to pasture and water, the sheep never grow and eventually die.

        We were never intended by God to stay inside the church building. The Great Commission tells us to GO. If we don’t go, we aren’t Christ’s Church.

  • Effective pastors also are genuinely happy. Take a wedding or baptism for example. Some pastors seem happy to conduct one and those have likely married half the couples and baptized most children/people in the city. These are the pastors who have been in their positions for decades and are all well-respected even by people not of their denomination or religion. The attendees can tell that the pastor is happy to be there. His/her advice to the couple/person/family is genuine and not harsh.

    This is so refreshing after seeing other pastors who did not want to be there, did not want to deal with infrequently-attending young people packed in the pews, and who expected the baptism to occur regardless instead of being glad the family decided to baptize their child/person decided to be baptized.

  • Hi Tom,

    This list is very helpful as my wife and I are getting ready to start a career in full time ministry. I am challenged and will keep this list near to my heart thoughout this upcoming journey.

    Thank you,


  • I know I can often be a dissenting opinion on this site, but these are spot on.

    In regards to number 1, a pastor is obviously more than just a teacher, but I think that if you look back over your life, the best teachers that you have had would have shared this same quality. Teaching, in a way, is directing your own passion for a subject in a way that it spreads that passion to others. In that way it actually makes sense that they have a heart for personal witnessing as well, as it is essentially the same thing.

    I think that your second item can often be a problem because of the first item. Sometimes there is such a passion that it overrides good judgement and rolls over other people. Having good listening habits, and being able to reign in your own tongue is an invaluable asset.

    Thanks for this list, much appreciated.

  • H. B. "Sunny" Mooney, III says on

    Thank you for your encouragement – especially, when it comes at such a reflective time in my life. These seven habits underscore the foundation of leaving a legacy of living with Christian integrity and Christ-like devotion to Him, to His people and to those without Him. I hope that pastors and lay leaders alike will read these and adopt these into their lives.

  • I believe these are all good and spot on. I would add that the Pastor be prayerful and pray for the people he shepherds. In my on ministry I have been reminded while a lot of good may be going on we need to boldy pray as pastors. I remember my father, who is also a pastor, say the greatest thing I can do for the people is pray.

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