The Top Seven Regrets of Pastors

I recently interviewed more than twenty pastors who had been in ministry for at least 25 years. All of these men were over 55 years old.  A few of them were retired, but most of them were still active in fulltime vocational ministry.

The interview was simple. I asked one open-ended question: “What regrets do you have about the years you have served as a pastor?” Each of the men could provide as many responses as they desired. They could make the answers succinct, or they could elaborate upon them.

Three pastors had as few as two responses; one pastor had nine. Most of the pastors noted three or four regrets. As a researcher, I typically see patterns develop in this type of subjective research. When it concluded, I was able to see seven definitive patterns, and I was able to see the frequency they occurred.

Below are the top seven regrets noted in order of frequency. I received a total of 17 different responses, but only these seven occurred with any degree of repetition. After each regret, I provide a representative direct quote from one of the interviewees.

  1. Lack of practical training for local church ministry. “I was not prepared for 80 percent of my day-to-day ministry after I graduated from seminary. I wish I had taken time to find some resources or places where I could get practical training. I had to learn in the school of hard knocks, and it was very painful at times.”
  2. Overly concerned about critics. “I had this naïve view that a bunch of Christians in a church would always show love toward each other. Boy was I wrong! There are some mean church members out there. My regret is that I spent way too much time and emotional energy dealing with the critics. I think of the hundreds of hours I lost focusing on critics, and it grieves me to this day.”
  3. Failure to exercise faith. “At some point in my ministry, I started playing defense and let the status quo become my way of doing church. I was fearful of taking steps of faith, and my leadership and churches suffered as a result. Not only was I too cautious in the churches I served, I was too cautious in my own ministry. I really felt God calling me to plant a church at one point, but I was just too fearful to take that step.”
  4. Not enough time with family. “I can’t say that people didn’t warn me. One wise pastor told me I had a mistress. When he saw my anger rising, he told me that my mistress was busyness in my church, and that my family was suffering from neglect. It hurts me to say this, but one of my adult sons is still in rebellion, and I know it is a direct result of my neglect of him when he was young.”
  5. Failure to understand basic business and finance issues. “The first time I saw my church’s budget, I thought I was looking at a foreign language. Greek is a lot easier than finance. They sure don’t teach you basic church finance and business at seminary, and I didn’t take the initiative to educate myself. I really felt stupid in so many of the discussions about the budget or other church business issues.”
  6. Failure to share ministry. “Let me shoot straight. I had two complexes. The first was the Superman complex. I felt like if ministry was going to be done well, I had to do it. I couldn’t ask or equip someone else to do it. My second complex was the conflict avoider complex. I was so afraid that I would get criticized if I didn’t visit Aunt Susie personally when she had an outpatient procedure that I ran myself ragged. In my second church I suffered burnout and ended up resigning.”
  7. Failure to make friends. “I know it’s cliché, but being a pastor can be lonely. I think many pastors get in trouble because we can get so lonely. I wish I had done a better job of seeking out true friends. I know if I had made the effort, there would have been a number of pastors in town that I could have befriended. Sometimes I got so busy doing ‘stuff’ that I didn’t have time to do the things that really matter.”

So what do you think of these top seven regrets? What would you add?

Posted on December 19, 2012

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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  • Thom
    If I had one regret to add to the list it would be that I spent too little time in prayer and searching out the Scripture. A pastor friend mentioned something yesterday that hit home- when did ministry become doing tasks and not leading and investing in people?

  • Garry Benfield says on

    Thank you for this. As I work with pastors, young and old, this list will give me a authoritative starting point for discussion. Points well taken.

  • I’ve been in ministry for about 13 years now, and my biggest regret so far is not being personally bold in sharing Christ with people and encouraging and exhorting people in person. I spend too much time in front of a computer and not enough time with people. I am naturally introverted, so it is a step of courage and faith for me to speak visit people and speak with boldness.

  • Very valuable and timely for those of us just starting out. I would only add a recommendation regarding #5 that any MDiv core should include basic business and accounting principles, including personal finance, retirement planning, tax situations peculiar to ministers and the like. We owe it to our churches and our families to be wise with money.

  • I’m not all that smart .. I flunked out of my first year of college and never went any further. But I have gotten to know several pastors quite well, and one former pastor is my best friend, to this day.

    I think I could have written this list. It’s just that obvious, and it’s just that widely true.Every single point.

    I do hope that many of the laity read this. They’re the ones who need to take the lead in addressing a lot of this, even the part about spending time with the family. When members support and encourage that, the pastor is more likely to do it. Ditto for sharing leadership, making friends, and keeping critics in perspective.

    Wonderful, and sorely needed, post. Let’s hope it intersects the right eyes, minds and hearts.

  • Dr. Rainer,

    Would you be willing to share the entire respnses from the pastors you surveyed? I would love to glean from their experience and perpsectives. Thank you for your blog!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      JW –

      Let me chew on it. The other responses were so less frequent that I am reticent to imply that they have equal weight in my study.Perhaps i can do a more expansive project in the future.

  • Great article. The last one is the best one in my opinion. Friends are hard to make, keep, and find etc. If I added a number 8 to the article it would be “Regret of not doing my “homework” before going to a church and serving. I have made many hard steps through my years of ministry.

  • I can definitely relate to the feeling of burnout and the ministry taking too much time. While some of the blame can be put on my shoulders for taking on too much at one time, it also needs to be said that many church members and elders (and deacons) seem to expect that if you are on staff and your eyes are open, you are expected to be working. Along with that is the mistaken assumption that if you are not in your office, you are not working. So you wind up over committing to everything in a hope that it will make you look busy enough for the people who think you only really “work” one day a week.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said John.

    • Yes, yes, yes. One of my big struggles (of which I have too many) is to feel that I need to justify being supported by the church. This leads to a lot of self-induced stress of constantly being on or being guilty when I am not!

    • Andrew Nightingale says on

      I should have stopped trying to be Bill Hybels, John Maxwell and/or Rick Warren. Those guys have a unique calling, personality and gifting, I have mine. I needed to lead from my own strengths, not theirs.

  • Thanks for this!! Good food for thought!!

  • Not having a vision? The church where I pastor today has had six pastors come and go in the last fifteen years and none of them challenged the church to have a vision of ministry for the future generation.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Well said by you and Mark, Chris.

  • For pastors it is definitely easy to neglect family for ministry. Additionally, and I speak from experience, focusing on critics too much can rob your family of the time they do get to spend with you. Critics can be emotionally draining, preventing you from giving quality time and attention to your family.

    Mark Dever recently shared some very valuable advice: “Your church can get another pastor; your kids can’t get another father.”

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