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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  • Thanks, Rick. I’ve got 137 pastors that I am the DOM for and they need this kind of reminder, encouragement, and check-up. I’ll be “stealing” this for my April meetings! Thanks, bunches!

  • Rodney Hall says on

    Thom, can you nutshell the principles in “Eating The Elephant”? Given the fact that there seem to be so many established churches that are being ground to dust or just being given up on, I am assuming the principles would be very timely! And for my two cents, long before I was called into ministry Dr. Bob Willey at Lancaster Bible College told us that in any ministry your first ministry is to your family. I wish someone had told me that persistence in pursuing that principle would definitely pay off, and that it would be a life long pursuit. For, by the grace of God alone, I listened, and have found it to be true. Thank-you for your ministry!

  • Don Matthews says on

    I wish someone would have helped me understand the importance of lifelong friendships and networks in the ministry. So many of my early friends in the ministry are no longer in the ministry. At the “latter days” of my ministry these friendships have become very important to me.

  • Bert Ross says on

    I wish I understood more of the undeclared vs the declared culture and values of the church. My heart is heavy that no one in our SBC convention wil stand up and own the number issue we face in our churches, that is practical leadership development for pastors and church staff.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Bert –

      This blog has a lot of readers, including those of us who could do something. At least your voice has been heard.

  • I wish someone told me planting a church wouldn’t be difficult regarding the hard south Bronx community we’re trying to reach, but about the challenges of lethargic people who came to help. Just being real.

  • Robby RIkard says on

    I wish someone would have really stressed to me the value of patience and waiting for direction from God. Only after making a lot of mistakes have I come to realize that many times God delivers a vision over months even years.

  • #2 was the biggest for me and still is.

  • Drew Dabbs says on

    I wish someone had told me that trying to lead a traditional, established church through necessary changes that will help reach lost and/or unchurched people is like trying to teach a snail how to run.

    Okay, so that’s not entirely true, but it is slow, painstaking, deliberate, and tedious work that will require much patience, persistence, caution, and wisdom.

    How long does it take?

    Dr. Rainer, you’re absolutely right.

    A lot longer than you think!

  • Spot on with this list. I attended a small school of preaching under the oversight of a local church of Christ. The downside academically is that it is not accredited (though course work can be transferred to college or university). The smaller setting, combined with studying under preachers who not only have academic degrees, but have many years of ministry experience, lends itself to biblical and practical balance. We were blessed tremendously in this way. I have served the same congregation since graduating 9 years ago, and have dealt with all these matters, and more. I cannot imagine having been better equipped for the downside of ministry in just two years. Thank you for the post.

  • I was blessed to have Dr. Drake in my first on-campus class at SBTS. He did train us in his experiences along these lines and I am better for it today as a pastor who is still clueless! I think sheepology was definitely taught well as we studied the Word and ministry together. Also sat by a guy you may know named Sam Rainer in that class. Thank you men for ministering to us pastors out here.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Patrick –

      I have heard countless positive comments about Dr. Drake and how so many got so much out of his practical teaching. And, yes, one of those students who still sings his praises was a guy I know named Sam Rainer.

    • Steve Drake says on

      Patrick, Great to hear from you and I’ll bet you’re not “clueless.” If I remember correctly you were in an evening class. I miss you and Sam and all the students who took Formation for Christian Ministry.

  • John Newland says on

    I wish someone had told me that the ministry doesn’t have to be so serious that you cannot stop to celebrate victories and laugh.

    When you’re always serious, it burdens your family and leaves you uninvited when people want to just have some fun fellowship.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I love that perspective John. We are always to take our ministries seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.

  • I appreciate reading on this issue from the perspective of the pastors/leaders of churches. I’m sure no one does it all perfectly. Now I would like to comment from the perspective of a member of a christian church;
    I am not a pastor, a pastors wife, or related to a pastor. I respect all pastors everywhere and realize the hard work and dedication it takes to lead a church or ministry. Yet I can also give examples of when “the
    shoe was on the other foot.” I say this with caution hoping that there might be one or more pastors or leaders that will take my comments to heart and possibly use diligence and wisdom when dealing with the people in his or her congregation. First, the “mean people” are not always sitting on the pews of the church.
    Sometimes they are standing behind pulpits on Sunday mornings. If you have never been pointed at with an accusing finger from the pulpit and falsely accused in front of several hundred people in a crowded church atmosphere, you would not understand what I am talking about. This particular pastor has done this more than once. Meanwhile, he goes about his business as if nothing has ever happened while the “accused” tries to pick him or herself up off the floor even months later. Pastors complain about mean
    members, yet they have the authority and the power to expel members that won’t repent or that are
    troublemakers. But when a pastor does something cruel to a member, where does the member go? Remember, the pastor has a board of directors usually in his corner. He has “yes” men and women that will agree with him just so they don’t lose thier post or thier salary. If you raise any issues, no matter how legitimate, you as a member are labeled a “rebel”, when you are not rebelling in any way. There is a system of leadership in place and that can sometimes be a “sacred cow”. I am not saying this for any reason except to let pastors and leaders know that one thing most important over all things is to truly love the flock. We as members can tell when our leaders really love us or are tolerating us. I’m not talking about allowing members to be divisive, or troublemakers, or wallowing in sin. But even then the bible says to confront the person PRIVATELY, then with a witness, then if he/she does not listen, tell it to the church.
    How many pastors really and truly do this? Don’t embarrass someone from the pulpit just because you can. And don’t listen to every report given by churchmembers “tattling” on someone else. They could have hidden motives or just simply not like the person in question. Never believe these reports without first talking with the member in private and allowing them to either defend themselves or perhaps confess thier sin and then “let him who is spiritual restore such a one…..”. It is probably very rare that public confrontation is EVER needed.

  • Susan Gabbard says on

    Elsie, that pastor is abusing the pulpit. His behavior is absolutely unethical. It’s sad that the board still backs him up. There are times when pastors are treated badly and the board allows it to happen. That’s also sad, and bad for the church. It’s easy for me to say, but if I were in your shoes, I’d go to another church. You – and no one else – deserves to be abused in this way. Take care.

  • I agree with you elsie. The wearer of the shoe knows where it hurts more. It is not easy to serve and satisfy everyone. None of us is perfect. Coonfront the person PRIVATELY, then with a witness, then if he/she does not listen, tell it to the church.

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