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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  • This is a wonderful piece! Thanks for bringing these issues to the forefront. As I read through these issues, I can see area of weakness for me, but there was also another thought that I had in my mind – one of gratitude. After graduating, I was a pastor of student ministries for 8 years. During the first 5 1/2 years, the senior pastor shepherded me beyond what I could have expected. It hurt at times, but it was a very helpful hurting. Looking back, I can see that he was doing “shephardology” with me.

    Now, I still know I have blind spots and there are areas where “I don’t know what I don’t know,” but I also see so many more things because God used a very godly lead pastor to shape and sharpen me in ministry.

  • Dan Narva says on

    First time commenter, not a pastor. I did lose a very faithful pastor a couple of years ago who did all that he could to pastor according to a biblical model. Reflecting on this, being savvy to a church’s ethos, “identity”, culture, soil – whatever you want to call it – would seem to be critical. When the pastor fulfills his role as a prophet, he will be loved by some but hated by others. Reform according to Scripture’s authority and sufficiency can be very painful if not deadly; teaching Scriptural truth that hasn’t been taught in a few years serves as a good “soil test”.

  • Fran Lane-Lawrence says on

    I attended LPTS and feel the seminary addressed each of these issues the best that it was able in the time set aside for formal theological education. What I haven’t seen addressed in the comments or the article is the local congregation’s responsibility to help theologically educate pastors. Theological education does not just take place in seminary – if it does then we are in REALLY big trouble. Theological education is a partnership between seminaries, churches, parents, and other sisters and brothers in Christ. Theological education should start when we first bring our children through the doors of the church and last until we join the Church Triumphant. There are flaws and gaps in the system of theologically educating our pastors and those who serve Christ’s church in ministries beyond the church walls. I don’t think all those flaws can be placed squarely on the shoulders of our seminaries. We need to realize the ways each of us, elders and church members, have failed to be good partners with our seminaries.

  • I am thankful that I was taught all of these things or exposed to the issues in seminary at NOBTS 1998-2001. Can’t speak for now…been a lot of changes. However, most of these things are common sense or they are really things that can’t truly be taught by a seminary. In many instances, it is the pride of “I got this” of youth that rejects the need for mentorship or wisdom of older pastors and church members that hinder leaders. With the available resources in our modern age, there is really simply no excuse to be so blindsided by so many of these issues raised. I served in LA, MS, and TN and I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a convention event that didn’t offer resources for issues dealing with finances and business issues for the church and minister. I am no longer SBC. But not having the resources and helps to navigate all of these issues is simply not an SBC problem. They might not be utilized by young pastors…but they are certainly available, easy to access, and sufficiently promoted. My convictions may have changed and I had many frustrations with SBC leaders….but the support for the ministry is simply unmatched by other groups.

  • Rev. Susan Wallace Moriarty says on

    I can honestly say that I too have experienced all 10 at one time or another in the last almost 25 years of ministry. And ministry has given me some of the best and most painful experiences of my life. I was so not prepared for the mean spirited, unhealthy personalities of so many in the church. I have come close to leaving ministry more than once, I did leave parish ministry for the last 8 years doing hospice ministry. What I can say I learned in Hospice that I wish had been taught in Seminary or at least that I would have learned it earlier, was the maintenance of healthy boundaries. Had I learned that early on, I think things would have been less painful. But, there is a need to teach the church members again that although they do pay our paycheck, they do not OWN us.

  • Thanks for this article, if for no other reason than the affirmation that we don’t go through these things alone. I am thankful that many aspects of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at LPTS influenced their practical theology. The one thing I wish I’d known before entering the ministry is that no matter how much training and knowledge you acquire, there will always be surprises. I have served congregations with reputations for their conflict and clergy killing. (That probably says something about my sanity since I went into them with eyes open.) I took classes on conflict management in Seminary, took the Healthy Congregations training, and even got to work with Speed Leas of the Alban Institute as he consulted with the church where I was employed. I began ministry thinking I was prepared. What I learned is that all the training in the world can help you see when it’s time to put on your crash helmet; but once you’re the target, you can’t do much to work on conflicted situations anymore. AND, if you are diligent about dealing with unhealthy patterns there’s a good chance you’re going to become the target. Sometimes the best you can do is model grace under fire. You learn to celebrate the times when conflict is resolved and healthier behavior is practiced – but it sure is hard work.

  • Teri Summers-Minette says on

    Haven’t seen this one yet . . . maybe it’s just the part of the country I serve. But I really wish someone had told me what to do when congregation members wear their guns to church. I’m serious. Open carry laws are making for some strange situations.

  • This is a great article, but it brings up a point that I’ve been wrestling with that really grinds me, and that is – You can’t really learn these things until you’re hit by them a few times. I think that some of the best learning I had for ministry was when I was doing full time work at both Seminary at GordonConwell and doing Youth Work in Lexington MA – it was good to learn in two different ways. But for those who are more deep into the books and putting the lessons to the grind during school didn’t happen – it is important to have a few older, wiser pastors who can mentor you while you go through the process. With modern communication, having a mentor and holding onto them throughout your life is a good goal to have. Some of the brokeness happens in the midst of isolation, and feeling you have no one who cares about the craziness in your own life. Shepherds need shepherding and that’s a good thing. I like the concept of Sandwiching. Being mentored while mentoring someone else. It gives and gets and all of it brings growth and can help relieve the feeling of aloneness that occurs periodically in ministry. Oh, and you don’t feel as ignorant of dumb after hearing stories that retired ministers can sometimes laugh about.

  • I just finished reading Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp and this book will prevent a couple of those. I wish that it were a requirement for every Pastor and minister.

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