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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  • D Cottingham says on

    I don’t know where or when you went to seminary, but I DID learn most of this stuff at PLTS in the last 2 years. CPE taught me how to deal with crises of faith and health. Internship taught me how to deal with members. Every seminary class prepares you for real ministry, if you actually pay attention. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but the learning is YOUR responsibility, all of the information is presented in seminary.

    • Not really. There’s A LOT they don’t teach in seminary. I went to a very well respected seminary with an excellent faculty and I came out of seminary with a thorough grounding in theology, biblical history, Christian history, doctrine & polity, preaching, and the bible, all of which are important. But my seminary education did not include conflict management, volunteer management, mediation skills, time management, or very much at all on pastoral counseling, spiritual formation and how to maintain one’s practice of spiritual disciplines in the face of all the pressures of ministry. All of which would have been very helpful, practical knowledge.

      • Grant D. Taylor says on

        Yes, but neither does business school, nor do any of our stressed out bosses take the time to teach you about office, corporate politics, dealing with staff or superiors whom often have emotional problems and conflicts they bring to work. An angry raging person screams at the bank teller, spits at the driver on the bus, starts a fight in the bar while he gets drunk so he can go home a terrorize his wife and children…which ensures another generation of dysfunction.

        That person is sure to hate you even more as you do not join in his codependant world. Feel sorry for them, but do not let the demons of self doubt, anger nor hurt rob a atom of your energy.

        You have to remember that the Devil is laughing at his greatest success, ” convincing most people he does not exist”.. You are fighting people whom have his minions pushing them on. Remember that these mean people are in pain and screwed up and it is not personal, for “they know not what they do.”

        Financial planning, ask a local banker, even if he doesn’t attend your church.. People tend to help, or at least will as it re-enforces their need to feel superior. It worked on me, I was still full of hate, anger from a screwed up childhood (thank GOD workaholism was my only self medication), but his budget crisis was a joke and easily rewritten… It made me feel good, but not enough at the time to give Jesus another chance.

        Ask… ask and you will get help… Hide your shortfalls and a very small unimportant issue becomes a mountain. If you feel self doubt, you made the molehill into a mountain all by yourself… You must try to figure out why you do that to yourself… Confidence and positive thinking does wonders. Or are you already perfect or feel you should be?

        Asking for help, or for their opinions draws them to you, makes them feel needed and good.. You have to learn to delegate as micro managing with destroy you, your family and your church… That is a trust issue you must learn to deal with..

        Although I am not a pastor, but a banker who has worked all over the world… I learned to deal with most of these same problems, but in a different setting. I learned the hard way and surprisingly discovered that most of the time the trouble and pain, had to do with me, my inner self, not them, at least the ones that mattered…

        Good luck and GOD bless.. He will help if need be… Perhaps you have things to learn, just remember HE has a reason. He had one for me and I can now thank HIM for a lifetime of pain and anger that made me – through fire and pain into the man I am today…WOW, wonderous and funny how HE works BUT you knew that already…

  • Paul Y. Thomas says on

    Also I wish someone had of told me about # 2,#3 & #6. To God be The Glory.

  • Paul Y. Thomas says on

    I wish someone would have told me that church floks get upset when the pastor that lives over an hour away from their members and church and cannot get to them as soon as they want them to.

  • Susan Gabbard says on

    Being a woman, and a straight woman at that, I will not be dating a wife anytime soon! However, #3 about dealing with power people in the church would be helpful. Most of the other items I learned through experience in my first career. My seminary taught a lot about dealing with problem people, thankfully.

  • Yes I support that learning in a small church whilst at sementary.
    1. they are more likely to be a family than a business like a big church can be.
    2. as a student you are more likely to listen to “older” people and get the guidance you need.
    3. you will quickly know that your “misconceptions” about your calling or ministry are clearer as a consequence.
    4. discipleship is about quality of relationship with Jesus not numbers through the courses and that will be seen better at a micro level with real relationships in a small church.
    5. your journey with God is more important than theirs – for if He becomes more and you less, then you will fulfill your purpose and destiny in Him.
    Shalom MikeNZ

  • I was fortunate to be required to do at least one unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) as part if my coursework. I learned so much about ministry to the ill and dying, but more importantly, I learned how to manage the strains of home and ministry.

    I also appreciate the mentor I had for my first year out. He was a blessing. I observed first-hand how he dealt with difficult people, managed the budget, studied for his sermon prep, and took REAL time off. (And no, our being opposite genders was not an issue. There aren’t many women in church leadership in my area.) when he died of pancreatic cancer, I mourned his loss with his family.

    While I appreciate this post, I would appreciate even more if you remembered that there are women serving as pastors for the Glory of God. I realize you’re probably not going to ever invite a woman as your lead pastor, but we are out here, preaching the Gospel, baptizing the converted and celebrating the gifts of God.


  • Rev Melissa says on

    I wish somebody told me how to minister to a “palliative care” church.
    I got out of seminary and was so excited about my first Parish and the new adventures I would be on. Sadly, my excitement was met with trepidation and a firm stance that the parish’s only existence is to maintain the church so that when the parishioners died they would have their funeral service in “their” church done by a priest. I had to leave that parish because my vision wasn’t their vision. 🙁


  • At my first call I was caring for a young man who was very depressed; he was also an abuser of alcohol. I told him if he ever felt he was losing the battle to come to my house at any time, and he did arrive, sometimes at 3 A.M. Sadly he committed suicide by placing a shotgun to his mouth. Nobody prepared me for what I was about to see and certainly there was no preparation for how to deal with such a moment. I would say that, plus the fact we had no financial or leadership training, made ministry quite difficult.

    Also, what does a pastor do for a small congregation that only wants visits, sermons and funerals? I had to come up with things to do, because there was no presented need.


  • I’m not in the SBC and so I have no idea of how your seminary system works, but it sounds like your seminaries don’t have an internship year? Really? I just can’t conceive of a seminary that wouldn’t build this into its curriculum. In my denomination (ELCA), newer seminarians get practical experience first in parishes near the seminary, then in a chaplaincy placement, and finally in a one-year internship, at a church that’s applied for and been accepted as an internship site, prior to their last year of academic study. There are some problems with this system, cost being a primary one — both the cost of an extended MDiv degree, something I think perhaps the SBC doesn’t expect of prospective pastors, and the cost incurred by internship-site churches, which usually means that only large, fairly affluent suburban congregations — atypical churches in our church body — can afford to take on an intern. This means that some graduates may not be prepared for the experience of pastoring a small rural church with a far different set of resources and expectations. But I think it’s a better way of educating pastors than having no internship experience at all.

    • Ellen, SBC churches are very autonomous organizations; it’s built into Baptist theology that the churches are all much more independent than in most of the other mainstream denominations. There is usually an agreed-upon perspective (we call it the Baptist Faith & Message; most other denominations would refer to this as a creed, which for practical purposes it is, though some Baptists bristle when that observation is made), and among SBC churches there is an agreed-upon mission (the Cooperative Program, which allocates monetary gifts from churches designated to CP among administrative, missionary, and seminary needs). But the churches aren’t in any way beholden to the SBC to function as a “training ground” for seminary grads. Many larger churches are glad to bring on interns for this purpose, but it would be challenging for the seminaries to REQUIRE it of their graduate candidates when there is no guaranteed system of assignment.

      Speaking for the seminary I graduated from (Southwestern), graduates from the Master’s level programs were strongly encouraged (read: practically required) to do at least a year in ministry before being permitted to enroll in doctoral work. This isn’t quite the same as the internship you’re talking about, and I don’t know how this is fleshed out in other seminaries (I’m not even 100% SWBTS still does it, it’s been almost 10 years since I graduated), but it’s not across-the-board true that we’re just thrown out to sink or swim.

  • Got any advice or book recommendations on how to deal with power groups and power people in the church… I hadn’t thought about that one.

  • Hello, What an awesome post! I am just beginning in ministry. I was always taught to respect pastors and leaders in the church and even when I was in the world there was a certain etiquette I learned when it came to pastors and those in leadership. So I’m really surprised to hear how mean and bold people can be!

    My question is sort of related to the post. When it came to family members and long-term friends in the beginning did they take you seriously? Maybe you’ve lived in such a way that people have always known what an awesome man of God you are. I’ve found that because I was so lost for so long that when I accepted the Lord and changed my life and now I’ve started my ministry people know that and still treat me like I haven’t changed at all. Like I still want to hear profanity, gossip, etc. What am I doing wrong? I’m not trying to sound self-righteous please tell me if I am because I just want to know. I pray daily because the enemy is always trying to throw that in my face for example: Who do you think you are?” “Nobody cares about your ministry this is just a phase.”

    I’m not who I was and I still have my struggles, but I don’t want to hear gossip anymore. I don’t want to hear cursing anymore I don’t want those things anymore but I’m thinking maybe because I’m not a “pastor” or in an official leadership position they don’t take me seriously. I’ve tried changing the subject, I’ve tried directing them to my podcast. It’s difficult to be honest to say “Can’t you see I’m not the same person!” because to me that sounds self-righteous. I feel like although they hear my messages, read my manuscripts i’m trying to publish, see my blogs, know me personally they still feel like it’s just “Amber” and don’t respect the fact that I love them, but I almost want to ignore their calls because I feel convicted just listening. Can you give me some advice? I’m praying for a mentor and because I’m not ashamed to say I don’t know everything LOL I’m using my name. I hope I’m making sense.

    Thank you and God bless you!

    • Amber, a couple of thoughts:

      Jesus took junk from His brothers (well, step/half-brothers) who knew him growing up. We believe Jesus was perfect and sinless even as a child, but just as natural children have no mental framework for perfection or sinlessness, his brothers remembered only the animosity they felt about their “goody-goody” brother when they were grown. Is all this childhood history in the Bible? No, but the fact of this sibling rivalry is (Matthew 13:53-58, John 7:3-5). Jesus Himself handled these episodes in different ways, but in all cases He spoke directly to their unbelief rather than any insecurity in His own identity or in His mission.

      Feeling defensive is normal, but that’s not really what you’re asking. At least, you can’t really do anything about your feelings (they sort of happen on their own). Some will counsel you to be meek and mild, and “pray for those who persecute you.” Well, for certain, you should pray for them. But if Jesus’ example means anything to us, it is that the authenticity and presence of the message is more significant than the audience’s esteem of the messenger. The Gospel is good news, whether your drowning friends & relatives will take it that way or not. But it is the Gospel that is the offense, not your conversion, per se. This is why (a) your feelings of insecurity are just that–feelings; and (b) your friends & family need the Gospel even more, even though it is precisely the call of Christ that really offends them.

      This is not to say you should beat them over the head with a Bible when they’re “running off at the mouth,” but there is no reason at all to be insecure or taciturn when confronted with your past or having to listen to things contrary to what Paul told us to think about (Philippians 4:8). We all have a past, all of us are sinners, all of us are as guilty of offending the whole law as any one part of it. Their throwing your past in your face has no more to do with you than it does with them. Be motivated rather by the notion that they need Jesus.

      As to bad behavior in your presence, if you feel uncomfortable with it, there’s no need to feel self-aggrandizing to walk out on it (there IS that whole “abstain from all appearance of evil” bit) or to speak truth to it, and doing so in love. Whether it is RECEIVED “in love” is not your responsibility; people got mad at Jesus’ words all the time, and walked out on Him. The purpose isn’t to make friends for this earth, it’s to present truth that leads to salvation and make saints for heaven.

      I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but I’ll be praying for you. The Holy Spirit producing holiness and righteousness in your life is nothing to be ashamed of, or to worry if it will be received poorly. If Jesus’ example teaches us anything, it’s that it WILL be received poorly. This is not about you, but worrying about how you’ll come across sure would be. So DON’T worry–be honest, and love them the way Jesus would: He did it with a call to self-sacrifice. If your family members don’t “straighten out” right away, take solace in the fact that neither did His. 😉

      • Michael, I really appreciate your response and your prayers! If you’re looking for someone to mentor “Here I am!” I agree with you 110% and it makes PERFECT sense. Thanks again it really helps! Copying and pasting!

      • Amber, I would be glad to help you, but I always feel mentoring is best done face-to-face, and preferably between people of the same gender (saves lots of confusion… and other stuff. 😉 ). If you click on my image, you should be able to find some contact info for me so we can communicate without sagging down Dr. Rainer’s blog. Then I can try to be more helpful hooking you up with someone near you.

        Something I failed to mention in my previous post may give you some further comfort, and are some of the “Christianity 101” basic assignments: if you haven’t already, memorize Galatians 2:20 and 2 Corinthians 5:17. About every way you can turn these verse, they will speak directly to your situation.

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