Ten Things Pastors Wish They Knew Before They Became Pastors

In an informal survey of pastors, I asked a simple question:

What do you wish you had been told before you became a pastor?

Some of the responses were obvious. For me, a few were surprises.

I note them in order of frequency of response, not necessarily in order of importance. After each item, I offer a representative quote from a pastor.

  1. I wish someone had taught me basic leadership skills. “I was well-grounded in theology and Bible exegesis, but seminary did not prepare me for the real world of real people. It would have been great to have someone walk alongside me before my first church.”
  2. I needed to know a lot more about personal financial issues. “No one ever told me about minister’s housing, social security, automobile reimbursement, and the difference between a package and a salary. I got burned in my first church.”
  3. I wish I had been given advice on how to deal with power groups and power people in the church. “I got it all wrong in my first two churches. I was fired outright from the first one and pressured out in the second one. Someone finally and courageously pointed out how I was messing things up almost from the moment I began in a new church. I am so thankful that I am in the ninth year of a happy pastorate in my third church.”
  4. Don’t give up your time in prayer and the Word. “I really don’t ever remember anyone pointing me in that direction. The busier I became at the church, the more I neglected my primary calling. It was a subtle process; I wish I had been forewarned.”
  5. I wish someone had told me I needed some business training. “I felt inadequate and embarrassed in the first budget meetings. And it really hit home when we looked at a building program that involved fundraising and debt. I had no clue what the bankers were saying.”
  6. Someone should have told me that there are mean people in the church. “Look, I was prepared to deal with critics. That’s the reality of any leadership position. But I never expected a few of the members to be so mean and cruel. One church member wrote something really cruel on my Facebook wall. Both my wife and children cried when they read it.”
  7. Show me how to help my kids grow up like normal kids. “I really worry about the glasshouse syndrome with my wife and kids. I’m particularly worried that my children will see so much of the negative that they will grow up hating the church. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”
  8. I wish I had been told to continue to date my wife. “I was diligent in dating my wife before I became a pastor. I then got so busy helping others with their needs that I neglected her. I almost lost my marriage. She felt so alone as I tried to meet everyone’s needs but hers.”
  9. Someone needed to tell me about the expectation of being omnipresent. “I had no idea that people would expect me to be at so many meetings, so many church socials, and so many sports and civic functions. It is impossible to meet all those expectations, so I left some folks disappointed or mad.”
  10. I really needed help knowing how to minister to dying people. “Some of those who have terminal illnesses have such a strong faith that they minister to me. But many of them are scared and have questions I never anticipated. I was totally unprepared for these pastoral care issues when I first became a pastor.”

How do you respond to this list? What would you add?


Posted on March 9, 2013

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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  • Those points are heart-breaking brother. I feel for these men. Thanks for posting this. Hopefully, those who are considering the ministry will read this list so they will know what to expect in the ministry; both positive and negative.

  • Danny Gilliam says on

    This is probably covered in some of the other comments, but I wish someone would have explained to me the difference between formal duties and perceived expectations. I fill like in earlier pastorates I spent most of my time trying to fulfill people’s perceived expectations of a pastor.

  • I completely agree with all of these. Really enjoy your blog posts. Keep up the good work.

  • Thanks Thom! I’ve encountered all 10 of those concerns directly or indirectly. I recieved a great theological education that focused on the practical application of what was learned. But as good as my education was, there are three factors that have been integral to my success as a Lead Pastor.

    First, I intentionally chose schools that sought to prepare leaders for where the church is headed tomorrow, not for where the church has been. This took time and might require some to choose schools outside their denominational framework.

    Second, I recieved my education while also gaining practical experience. This took a little longer, but it taught me to contextualize, process, and evaluate how to apply what I learned. As a coach, I spend a lot of time helping ministers navigate the gap between their education and its application to a the real world of ministry.

    Third, I served in youth ministry first. I’m a bit biased here, but There are elements, factors, and skills required in youth ministry that effective pastors desperately need. The best pastors I worked under were youth pastors first. In my research on the most effective emerging pastors, the same holds true. The best training I recieved for Senior Adult ministry? 20+ years of working with Jr. High students…they are very similar!

    Pastor search committees that put aside resumes from applicants who have been veteran youth ministers are passing on the best candidates. At a conference recently, Reggie Joiner shared that churches should not consider a pastoral candidate that has not had at least 5 years experience as a youth minister.

    Get a future-focused education, combine education with experience, and serve as a youth minister. You’ll be well prepared you’ll be to lead through all 10 of the concerns above.

  • What I most wish is that I’d been apprenticed to a faithful pastor. Which is a more directly Biblical model, strictly speaking, than any seminary can manage.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Dan. You are spot on. I would love to hear a discussion how we could make this need a wider reality.

      • Thanks. And let me add that your list has many good items. But (as you requested) I was personalizing it and thinking the difference being told something would have made.

        Telling is important; but it needs to be mixed with doing, as Paul did. Some of us are, by turns, both slow-witted and stubborn. Or sometimes in combination. In such cases, merely hearing won’t do it.

        What’s best I think is instruction along with apprenticeship. That gives the info, then the freedom to test it out and fail in the context of a patient, loving, longsuffering experienced brother who will lift us back up and kick our butts as needed.

        For instance, when a pastor said “If you can do anything else, do it,” I thought he was just being sour. Experience taught me the truth to what he said. But merely hearing it didn’t do it.

        And so forth. (c:

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Again, well said Dan.

  • Kent Hackathorn says on

    Great list – What format would you use to communicate the needed info (actual Training) to the young future pastors within the context of the local church. What is one resource per category you recommend – Thanks

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Kent –

      I wish I knew of such a resource. Maybe the readers can help. I do think all of this information can be taught in a mentoring relationship.

  • The problem of time management, as much when there is nothing pressing as when there is. Basically, how to take a Monday when you serve a rural church and there’s no one in the hospital, no events, and you have to sit down in your study and start working on the next sermon, get the mail, process the information from the day before. There are several things to do but no real order they have to be done in, and no one to really work through them with.

  • Great post – dead on. Only thing I would add is: I wish someone would have told me about the importance of taking regular breaks, if only for a few days, every couple of months. The demands on a pastor spiritually, emotionally & physically are often overwhelming. I’m thankful I’m now in a place where I can take a 2 week break between most sermon series and can take the month of July off each summer. These breaks are refreshing and give me time to refocus. My personal physician, who is a committed Christian, told me when we first met to take at least one week off every three months. His father was a pastor who left the ministry to drive a truck because of the constant stress with no relief.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I hope all pastors read your comment BJ; and I wish more churches would allow pastors to take this time off.

      • There are some churches that would just about fire a pastor for even asking for such a thing. For those who get some kind of sabbatical or break time between series count it a major blessing. One thing I would add to the list is some kind of training in how to determine the health of a church up front during the interview process. I think a lot of heartache, for pastors and churches, could be avoided if there were a better way to get to the root of a church’s health and intentions. Some churches are content in ignoring the great commission and are happy with their exclusive country club atmosphere. I learned the hard way…

    • Our Presbytery put in a requirement a few years ago that all Pastors are required to take one “Holiday Day” each month outside of Vacation Days. Some months the holiday will be defined already (Christmas, Thanksgiving, July 4); in months without one of the major holidays the Pastor gets to pick. He just needs to notify the leadership (session, board?) about that day. It has been a huge blessing both to Pastors and congregations, since their Pastors are de-stressed a bit.

  • Thom,
    Thank you for this post. I am now beginning my third month as Lead Pastor. Reading this post caused my heart to overflow with gratitude to God for the preparation he allowed me to have prior to taking this role. As you know, I served as Associate Pastor for almost 10 years under Dr. Bill Bowyer at Wake Cross Roads Baptist Church. Because of that time of observing, and learning from, Bill (and other men who invested in me and my ministry), I would say that I felt at least somewhat prepared in all of the areas you noted above. I still see much room for personal growth in all of the areas. But, none of them have been overwhelming. I would encourage anyone who believes God is calling them to serve as pastor to look for an opportunity to serve alongside a seasoned, godly pastor (whether formally in a staff role, or even as an unpaid volunteer/intern). I do believe the seminaries must do a better job in the practical training of would-be pastors, given that their charters say they are to equip God-called men and women to serve local SBC churches (which means making sure they are “equipped” both theologically AND practically). There is simply no substitute, however, for learning practical ministry through first-hand observation and practice. Thank you for all of your posts. As a new Lead Pastor, I glean helpful information from them all.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you Randy. You were indeed blessed to serve alongside Bill. Blessings to you as you continue to grow in your new role.

  • Brian Prucey says on

    I wish someone had told me that some churches don’t want a visionary pastor-leader. Some churches only want a pastor-caretaker to help them maintain the status quo.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Sadly true Brian.

      • Why is that sad? What exactly is wrong with maintaining the status quo? Why does every group need a “vision? What’s wrong with the vision that brought them to their “status quo”?

      • Fantastic point.

      • I’d like to suggest that every church should be interested in discerning and following God’s vision and not being satisfied until He calls us Home. We can watch in awe of God as He maintains the status quo of awesome perfection in heaven, but until then, I suggest we still have a ways to go and should be open to the ongoing work of sanctification and transformation that God has for His Church.

      • BroRick says on

        Proverbs 29:18

    • Man is that true!!! You’re in for a painful time if those expectations aren’t clear from the get-go…and they usually aren’t. What folks say they want and what they actually want are two different things.

    • Michael Mays says on

      This is true for us music ministers, too. Really frustrating when a church brings you in with the stated expectation to “take our worship to the ‘next level'” and then complain when you do so. I’ve also found it doesn’t really help to point this out. Apparently people don’t like being reminded of what they’ve said.

      • Travis Prince says on

        I could not agree more. A lot of churches(especially aging churches) see the positives of changing worship styles, but when the “rubber meets the road,” they are unable to step out of their comfort zone. It’s difficult to make even small changes. Often, these are the churches that are closing… not, I believe, because of their worship style, but because their inflexibility is only demonstrated in their reluctance to change worship style. The problem is deeper and often goes unaddressed. We, as worship leaders and music ministers, are just the low-hanging fruit.

    • I have seen pastors advertise themselves as a “visionary pastor-leader”, but what does that mean? Of all the qualifications in the Bible for an elders I do not see anything about being a visionary. Preach – keep on keeping on (status quo); Administer the Sacraments – keep on keeping on (status quo); Disciple people – keep on keeping on (status quo); Pray with and for the sheep – keep on keeping on (status quo); Evanglize the lost – keep on keeping on (status quo); …

      Why would a church need a “visionary”? We need faithful pastors who pass down the Gospel to the next generation.

      • Michael Mays says on

        Dean, it may seem to be a semantic argument, but “keep on keeping on” is not status quo. Besides the fact that for most church laymen, “status quo” means “don’t ask any more of us than we’re doing,” the admonition of pastors to keep on preaching, keep on administering the sacraments, keep on discipling people, etc., is not status quo behavior. Just because our commission doesn’t change, it does not follow that our communication styles need not adapt nor our skills be refined. As in physics, there is no such thing as true, self-sustaining balance. We are always regressing or progressing–and the latter only ever comes, I believe, with your “keep on keeping on” encouragement.

        That having been said, the idea of being “visionary” is kind of a moving target–it could mean anything. In that context, the prospective minister would need to vet out what kind of “visionary” the church expects. And even then he’ll be wise to assume that the church may not really MEAN they want all that “visionary” after all.

        But I would contend that any “keep on keeping on” is, by nature, pressing forward (which we’re commanded to do–“toward the prize of the high calling”); anything else is, inevitably, regression. Status quo is a euphemism–we’re either moving forward or backward.

  • Steve Drake says on

    I can raise my hand to say I have experienced all 10 of these statements. Seminaries often fail to train students in the very important area of practical ministry. They are rightly concerned with teaching Bible and theology. We can’t preach what is right if we don’t know what’s right. But for those who are called to shepherd the sheep, we need training in “sheepology.” For pastors who did not get that kind of training or for pastors who entered the pastorate with no formal ministry training, I encourage them to find a group of pastors with whom they can fellowship routinely. It will be a place where less is discussed about soteriology and more is discussed about sheepology.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I like that Steve: Sheepology. You might be on to something.

    • I agree with you Dr. Drake. I took The Practice of Ministry class when I was at SBTS but we never touched on these “where the rubber meets the road” issues. I would be great to be able to have a more experienced pastor as a mentor in addition to having a small group of pastors to meet with on a regular basis.

      • Steve Drake says on

        Todd, I agree. The Practice of Ministry class is exactly where these topics should be discussed. So sorry your class “never touched on these issues.” Hopefully now you will be able to join a group of pastors or start a group. Coming your way is a young pastor who also didn’t get to study “rubber hits the road” issues. Be ready when he moves into the pastorate down the road from you, to be the source of wisdom he will need to succeed in the sheep pen.

      • Basic Peacemaking would have been a good skill to be taught.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Good word.

  • I wish someone would have told me that dealing with dying parishioners will cause me to have to work through issues of my own mortality on a regular basis.

    (Not a bad thing, but one for which I was unprepared)

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks for the insight Rick.

      • Greg Hyche says on

        I am not trying to impress anyone but it should be of no surprise, but I learned more about practical real world ministry from Dr. Rainer Dr. Kevin Ezell and Dr. Chuck Lawless than from anyone during my studies at SBTS. All three men have walked and are walking the road we as pastors travel. I have learned to listen and follow those who understand the world of practical ministry. I also pastored 2 churches while in seminary. Sometimes you can’t learn until you get out of the classroom and shepherd. It helps to make your mistakes in a small church during seminary.

      • Eva Marie Wolfe says on

        You seem to be implying that it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes in a small church, as if somehow those people don’t matter because there are less of them. I’m sure that couldn’t be what you meant. Could you explain your last sentence?

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Eva Marie –

        Are you asking me? I am unclear with the question you asked.

      • Eva Marie says on

        I am replying to Greg Hyche

      • Eva Marie – Notice how no one has responded to your comment? Writing off small congregations is all too common as pastors have their eyes focused on the tall steeple church. Wee Kirks are considered stepping stones… and yet they have loved and equipped many for highly effective ministry in congregations of all sizes. I have spent almost 30 years with small membership churches – 12 years in my current call. What a blessing.

      • Hi Pat,

        I responded earlier with an issue that I wish I had known as a new pastor; however, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t moved by the conversation about the smaller churches or ignoring their plight. My career has involved serving a variety of sizes of congregations. Currently I co-pastor with my husband and we serve both a 350 member and a 27 member church. We love them both and there is much to appreciate about each of them. We have served other small congregations as well and recognize that they often fall through the cracks. I don’t; however, think it’s fair to cast judgment on pastors and suggest they’re looking for tall steeple positions and don’t care about small congregations. I have known a number of clergy who have preferred small churches. We can’t overlook the fact that many small churches cannot afford to pay a full time pastor, and so clergy simply have to look for a place to serve that can. That is particularly true when both spouses are clergy, and/or have children. With the level of debt most seminary graduates have, the salaries offered by many small churches just aren’t enough.

        As to the question about making mistakes in a smaller church before moving to a larger. Perhaps this is pastor who did aspire to a tall steeple setting. Perhaps not. It isn’t fair to suggest that pastors think they can go to small churches so they can “work the kinks out” of their ministry skills and nobody will care about their mistakes. No pastor wants to make mistakes, and no pastor could honestly believe it’s okay to dump on the little churches as if they don’t matter. It’s about serving God and God’s people, not the size of the church. That said, I will say that I have personally found that smaller congregations have a different atmosphere about them and some even see themselves as a place to train new pastors, or they have been through a spiral of decline and are more open to new ideas and a few more mistakes than in the past. This pastor may have been blessed to serve such a congregation and thus learned valuable lessons without being cast out by an angry mob. Tall steeple churches often operate in a more “corporate” style, following the models of the business world where expectations of clergy can be about producing results that if aren’t met, spells certain doom. (Granted this can also be true in smaller churches, but perhaps the fact that they have a harder time finding a pastor makes them a bit more patient.) Some of the ugliest pastor/church dissolutions I have seen have happened in larger churches.

        It may be that those commenting on the small church are overlooking one of the gifts that smaller congregations may offer a pastor, and that’s a more relaxed spirit or a slower pace that affords a pastor a chance to learn together with the congregation in a way that can’t happen in larger churches. This may be true simply because there are not as many members, or it may be a very special kind of community that can be a blessing in helping a new pastor develop skills. I would also say that the opposite may be true for some pastors, that the larger church has been the place where it was best to make mistakes on their way to gaining more experience. I was disappointed to see assumptions made about the pastor who wrote his/her comment and about the aspirations of clergy. I would prefer to believe that if all are being called by God, the right sized church is there for every pastor – and that location is about gifts and talents more than top dollar paychecks. I pray for the day when all congregations have the resources to call the pastor they believe God wants for them; if that were true today, I am certain there would be many more pastors seeking smaller congregations.

      • Marshall Larson says on

        As a Seminary student, I have served in small churches as a student pastor. Many of these small churches see themselves as a teaching church that equip new pastors in their first steps in ministry. It is their mission. It is good to make mistakes in a loving, nurturing environment.

      • I started outside of seminary. As a new person in Christ I found a calling to the streets. It’s funny to read this. In the last 15 yrs preaching on the street. Most problems I have dealt with, was preachers coming out of schools and learning in small churchs pushing people away from our Christ Jesus. Only to leave the church looking for there next preacher JOB for more money. If our Lord truly calls you to the ministry, people get saved and there life changes for the good. If not you need to rethink what you do. If our Lord sends you in to battle, no matter what or where it is, you will prevail. So my wife and I minister to save and teach the way of Christ to the lost. Not for a business in financial gain.

      • I want to second the concern about small churches. I have been on ordination committees in which we have seen marginal candidates, and inevitably some kind-hearted person will say, “but they’ll be fine somewhere, they’ll find a small loving congregation who’ll just be glad to have him/her.” The trouble is, small congregations are not merely cuddly old folks (such romanticism!) who are already strong in their own faith. Now I work with professional young adults, and I’m growing weary of hearing the stories about incompetent clergy who turned them off. You see, they were sitting in the pews in those small towns right next to their grandparents. We treat small churches as if they are churches with training wheels. How much harm can a young incompetent pastor do? –we think. I’m here to say, plenty.

      • Mike Bodnyk says on

        Within the ELCA, students are required to do a one-year internship before ordination. Many of those original ten ” I wish’s” are dealt with, or at least begun to be dealt with, during the internship. Then, following internship, most ELCA students go back for a final year of seminary prior to ordination. During the final year, they can take elective subjects, based upon their internship experiences.

      • I feel, personally, that this is a GRAVE error. I currently run a multi-million dollar business, and have (for some time) become interested in ministry; however, my “toe dip” (if you will) has been with the smallest, most marginalized, group of people – the infirmed elderly. Am I to understand, that because this is a small congregation, and because I am new to the “business” of God, that slack should or would be given? These are ETERNAL souls. I do not care that they may not “respond”, but should their heart hear me; should the LORD convert them under my care, I will strive for my best. Hard knocks to come? I am in the LORD’s business; so most assuredly. Will I change my message? I would far prefer to be the enemy of man, than the enemy of God.

      • Praise the Lord, I am Pastor Joshua in Kenya. And i love your ministry so much, i welcome you to reach in Kenya, i am here praying God to join and be part of your ministry. My email [email protected]

      • HUMBERTO ZUBIA says on

        Honestly and not trying to be better than others cause that’s selfish and unrespectful. I just want to say that I i feel peace and knowledge to teach others about death and our brothers that are confused on this world and need our help! God bless

      • Thank you!

      • Now you have realized you can still correct. Let her understand that you have realized the mistake and you will correct. Turn back and save your marriage.I You have to lead by example. I would wish to advice you to try and balance.

    • JW Johnson says on

      I can completely understand where those questions would be at the forefront of Pastors minds (after) getting in to full-time Ministry. I’ve seen so many situations in various churches that would be enough to drive even the most devout of Ministers to re-think there profession! I’m interested in Pastoring a church, yet I am in the process of evaluating whether I would be better off planting a church, or taking over an existing ministry! I’m willing to do whatever God would lead me to! The world is a very (what can you do for me) society. I have this odd, yet hopeful belief that I can make a difference in people’s lives by showing how important it is to believe in Gods desire to have salvation for all! I do firmly believe that the Word of God has to be presented, and taught by people that are firm in their dedication and belief that Jesus will return, and that he wants everyone, not just a chosen few to be ready to join him for eternity! I hate to use this term, but because of how the world operates today, it’s a hard sale. And what’s sad is, it’s the best decision anyone could ever make, if they could just see through all of the nonsense and garbage that the world has to entice them with!

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