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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  • Dick Dutcher says on

    I have served in a number of churches as deacon, elder, bd of adm. and teacher. Been to seminary and hold a Mth. Young Pastors should not try to do it all. Its painful to watch. Nor should they marginalize and ignore those with experience, but of a different generation. And not developing new leaders is a major mistake. The old ones want to hang it up someday.

  • Dennis Irwin says on

    I am currently in seminary and one of my instructors told us every pastor needs a “pack” of pastor friends. We can’t go it alone and need others to walk with us.

  • I have those regrets listed to various degrees. But my biggest are two not mentioned. The first is what I might refer to as the “Plumber’s Syndrome.” I had a friend who was a plumber but his own plumbing was in not-so-good shape. The reason? As he explained ‘I worked on other’s plumpling so much everyday, the last thing I wanted to do was come home and be plumber.” We talked about Jesus all the time around the house – He was portrayed as being real and relevent. In fact when my daughter was getting ready to accept Christ, she did so at VBS. When I asked why she didn’t do it at home? Her response, “We talk about Jesus all the time I wanted to do it somewhere else.”
    But I never led our family to have disciplined devotionals or prayer time together. I regret that very much.
    The second is simple – I let myself get out of shape physically and now at 57 am paying the price!

  • Earlier this year my wife & I finished 30 years of pastoring at our church. We now work with pastors around our nation & overseas.

    So during this transition period I’ve thought about my regrets & my main one would be not spending more time (especially in my earlier years) in developing leaders within our church. While we did develop leaders & plant churches I would do much much more if I had my time again.

  • Hello Dr. Rainer. I´m a associate pastor in a Costa Rica church and I´m also a director of a Bible Institute. I just read your post “Top 7 regrets of pastors” and I was a blessing and an encourage to me. My request is: Can I translate it and post in the B.I. blog?. Thanks for your blog!

  • Excellent points to share wisdom. These items are good food to pray about in ministry. Unfortunately, the average pastor does not have people to go to get relative counsel, training, and support for him and his family on a regular basis. Love this!

  • Amy Rio-Anderson says on

    I’m interested why you only interviewed male pastors. There are a large number of clergywomen with the same amount of experience, and I can’t help but think that some of their responses would be different. I know there have been some very comprehensive studies of clergywomen in recent years, and they have shown that many of them are dealing with different issues – and thus, I believe they would look at their regrets differently.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Amy –

      My denomination and other similar evangelical groups hold a complementarian view of the lead pastor or senior pastor. Most all of my contacts are thus male pastors. Your point is well taken though; responses from female clergy would likely have significant differences.

      • H. Dan Mullins says on

        As a pastor for over 45 years I would be interested to know if the attitudes about women in the clergy have drastically changed. It would be interesting to see the response from the those pastor’s 40 and older and compare them with those of the younger generation of pastors.

      • Miriam bhandari says on

        Great corollary! Great article. I am a pastor’s kid and can identify with all. How about an undergrad in business? Female and minority pastors can also give their two cents…

  • Management. I think the biggest stretch for me growing into my position as a youth pastor has been organizing large teams of volunteers, and helping them to operate in harmony with the ministry’s overall purpose and values. I’ve had to learn on the fly. Learning from mistakes, picking up books on management and people skills, and overall depending on the Holy Spirit to produce in me the quality of humble leadership.