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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  • Sharon East says on

    I was informed by my pastor uncle, that I was a girl and I can’t do anything in the church. I feel that was my calling and I have never had a good job my children are doing without nice shoes and clothes.All the pastors I know have so much money the become pompous.

  • James Welch says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    Thanks for this blog! I am 59 and have served our Lord for over 30 years in pastoral ministry. I wept as I read some of the regrets, because I saw myself over and over again. Generally speaking, I regret my self sufficiency instead of relying upon the Holy Spirit.
    Thanks so much for a timely article, perhaps more research and a book might be helpful to us older pastors and to those getting started.

  • I would add that many Pastors burn themselves out because they do not allow others to mount the podium. They what I call hog the pulpit. They do not allow the in house prophet, teacher, preacher, or evangelist to walk in their calling. They preach at each and every service on Sunday and then at engagements tiring themselves and their family out when all they had to do was allow gifted, talented, and anointed others to proceed and carry service so they can rest and receive meat too.

  • H Dan Mullins says on

    I was called to preach at age 7 and started preaching at age 17. I have had the privilege of starting two churches and growing them from their beginnings. The majority of my ministry has been as a bivocational pastor. So my experienced is in both full support and bivocational ministry. I have written two books that I hope pastors and laymen will use to enhance their relationship and fruitfulness with God. They are Orchards a Pastor’s guide to Growing a Fruit Bearing Church, and Orchards A Student Guide to becoming a Fruit Bearing Christian. The pastors guide actually addresses most of these regrets. My regret is that I did not regard my health and the need for rest. It has cost me my health and perhaps has shortened my ministry. I spent too many hours on both jobs and other ministry projects outside of the church. The lack of rest and proper eating catches up with you and robs you of the full ability to do your ministry. Looking back I would have taken my allotted vacation time and the sabbatical that I knew I needed to take but didn’t. The Lord has taken me through stage III cancer to slow me down and actually rest. During my down time was when I finished my books and submitted the manuscripts. You don’t really recover from cancer however, you simply continue to deal with its after effects. My goal is to finish my life and ministry well. God bless his shepherds and those who truly love their people.

    • I disagree with you about cancer because there were many people under my ministry who have been healed and delivered from cancer and who are living healthy and normal lives. The Lord sent down His healing power to transform their bodies. I could tell you the cancer is not of God so please do not say that He gave that to you because He did not my dear brother in Christ but that was a satanic attack on you that was inflicted. I pray that you receive the merciful and gracious healing power of God to restore your health back to its original state.

      • H. Dan Mullins says on

        I appreciate your comments, however, we each can discern what is from the Lord and what is not. There is a sickness unto the Lord that He uses in our lives to fulfill his plan for us. In my case it was a time peace and faith and also a time of rest and healing. During that time I finished many of my writing projects hence my books being published. It was also a time in which my church ministered to my family and I in a very great way so they grew as well. So if I were to say that the cancer was a blessing many people may not understand it. But here is a truth that may or may not help you. I thought I knew how to give my people comfort when they were told they had cancer. However going through chemo and now experiencing its after effects has taught me how to not only identify with them but to prepare them for what they are facing and will face. It has opened many doors to ministry for me. So I hope you know that God has indeed healed me and blessed me and continues to do so. I at no time believed it was a Satanic attack, but simply another part of God’s plan for my life. But thank you for your kind words.

      • Well I will agree to disagree with you. I am in no mood for a debate I have enough of those in theology school but I can say that I am very happy to know that you are in deed in fact alive and well for yourself, your family, and for the ministry so you can continue to do the work that God has given you to do.

  • Sorry about the grammatical mistakes in my above post.
    Computer is acting gimpy.
    (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

  • I think all these issues can be traced back to the Southern Baptistpractice of calling a singular pastor from the outside to essentially do. Amost (sometimes all) of the ministry the saints themselves should be doing. The pastor’s “job” is to equip the church for the work of ministry. really what’s happening is the church pays him to do it all so they won’t be bothered with it.

    It’d be interesting to hear the answers from a preaching pastor who has served alongside other elders. I can almost bet there’s not as much burn-out and regrets.

  • Entering the ministry later in life saved me from many of these pitfalls, although I considered the last one, Friendship, the most critical and also the toughest to succeed at.

    Two great resources taught me many things such as this beforehand, 1) Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors and 2)The Pastor’s Primer by Os Hawkins.

    I was also privileged to be able to read one unpublished resource, “Letters to Matthew: Advice to a Young Pastor” by Wayne McDill which drive many of the struggles of early ministry deep down for me. I hope this resource is able to get published soon.

    • It is hard for Pastors to have friends because those who are true laborers in the vineyard will not go against God and to put it to you plainly a lot of these so called pastors are messing with their own sheep. So then the question becomes who can find a virtuous Pastor? I thank God that I am under a true and fruitful ministry where the Spirit of the Lord dwells and so does His Angels that satan does not get the victory.

  • Matt Svoboda says on

    Great list Dr. Ranier.

    I have only been a pastor for a year and a half and I can relate to most of these.

    I believe there is a disconnect in a lot of areas from what people are getting in seminary to what they need for pastoral leadership.

  • Carson Hilburn says on

    Failure to properly eat healthy, rest adequately, and exercise.

  • I can relate to 5 of the 7 regrets after 21 years in ministry. The two that plague me the most are the failure to share ministry and not enough time with family. I believe the lack of time with family can be directly traced to not sharing enough of the ministry. I forced my children and wife to make most of the sacrifice for ministry by doing life without me rather than calling on my church members to make their share of sacrifices for the ministry.

    But what’s done is done and I cannot get that time back. What I can do is recognize where I’ve failed and commit myself to doing ministry as God designed and redeem the time that I have left with the family God has given me.

  • This is a great list, Dr. Rainer. #4 has been troubling me a lot recently.

    I’ve also had some cause for hope, as I’ve seen some of the more popular evangelical pastors of recent strike a different chord on family-ministry balance than those like Billy Graham and Bill Bright who were so revered by previous generations. A piece I recently wrote comparing them: