last updated October 7, 2019
I’m grateful for the positive response to My 22 Best Practices in 22 Years of Pastoral Ministry, but I’m also very aware that those “best practices” represent just one slice of a much larger picture. After all, thriving in ministry doesn’t depend solely on what any one pastor does or doesn’t do. Congregations play a critical role, and I know that my church has done a great deal to support and enable me to thrive.
So in honour of my now over 25 years of pastoral ministry, in this article I share 22 best practices for congregations to love and empower their pastors, whether paid or unpaid, full-time, part-time, or bivocational. As with my 22 best pastoral practices, all are borne out of my own experience, although some may be more appropriate for certain settings than others.
- Pray. Pray during the call process. Pray during the honeymoon, the good years, the lean ones. I’m grateful for all those who pray for me regularly, irregularly, and I know that some even pray for me daily.
- Address systemic church issues. I’m putting this one high on my list since I haven’t seen it on any other list of how to love your pastor. While complete resolution may not be possible, the healthier the church, the better the environment for a pastor to thrive. Since I followed a difficult pastoral departure, I’m glad my church was willing to face some hard questions—what happened? what structures and supports need to be in place so we don’t find ourselves in a similar place down the road? .
- Say thank you. Some churches observe October as Pastor Appreciation Month, but why wait for fall? Say thank you for a sermon, a listening ear, wise counsel, the gift of administration, for just being you.
- Give a tangible gift. I’ve been the happy recipient of journals, jars of jam, honey, fresh rhubarb, cut flowers, a rose-bush, chocolate, fruit, salmon, teddy bears, a surprise plate of spring rolls, a handmade pair of slippers, and many other gifts. For a special birthday one year, some of the women pieced together and knotted a quilt for me in a “Trip Around the World” pattern.
- Give the gift of time. Offer to babysit (okay, so this is the only thing on my list that hasn’t actually happened to me, but for any pastors who are parents, I can’t resist adding this. Besides, if I did have children, I’m sure someone would have offered), house sit, allow release time for professional development, the use of a timeshare or vacation home.
- Give financially. In thanksgiving to God, for the work of ministry, for the needs of others, for your pastor’s financial support.
- Be practical. Offer to come early to set up for a meeting, stay after to help clean up, bring a meal to keep in the freezer for a busy day.
- Respect time off. Urgent pastoral care situations can happen at any time; otherwise try to respect vacation or other time off. One year when I cut short my vacation to lead the funeral of a dear church member, our council chair phoned me the following week to make sure I would take some other time off to compensate.
- Engage with the sermon: a word of affirmation, a question, a practical application, sharing on social media.
- Share your joys and ordinary times. A pastor from another church once told me that a lead pastor’s job is “mainly trouble-shooting.” While that may be part of it, ministry doesn’t need to be all bad news. I’m glad I get to hear about the joys and ordinary times of life too.
- Celebrate birthdays. Send an email, a card, a Facebook message. One year, a mom and her four children sang happy birthday to me on my voicemail. (true confession: I was so touched that I left it on my voicemail for an entire year!).
- Respect cultural differences. When my mother died, I let my congregation know about a practice from my Chinese heritage of not visiting in other people’s homes for 30 days after a death in the family. I suppose the custom is rooted in the idea of not taking the bad luck of death into other people’s homes, but I saw it as a way of honoring my mother’s passing, as a way of saying to myself and to us as a community that her life mattered, so it could no longer be life as usual for me. While I was still available for hospital visits, meeting in coffee shops, and having people over, not visiting people in their homes represented a change at least for a time, and my church responded graciously to what was an unfamiliar custom to them.
- Provide funding for books and/or professional development. I valued this early on, since I was not specifically trained as a pastor, and rather than leaving me to struggle in the areas I was lacking, the church supported my learning which enabled me to grow and thrive.
- Designate a support group. This may take the form of a pastor-congregation relations committee, a more personal reference group, deacons, or other support team.
- Give the benefit of the doubt. Even with the best intentions and the best effort, your pastor won’t say or do just the right thing every time. Forgive as you would like to be forgiven.
- Set aside stereotypes, and let your pastor’s family be who they are. This goes for spouse, kids, siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, whoever. Each has his or her own unique personality, gifts, and relationship to God and the church. As we were discerning my call, my husband joked that he might need to learn to play the piano (!) but thankfully that remained a joke, and he’s been free to be himself.
- Volunteer. For last Christmas Eve, I was delighted when just one announcement raised up enough Scripture readers in several different languages.
- Be part of the team. Work together, instead of against one another. I lead a small group, but I don’t lead alone–others take responsibility for email and phone reminders, locking and unlocking the church, welcoming people in, leading singing, making tea and coffee, bringing a snack.
- Communicate in a positive manner. Avoid speculation, complaining, and gossip. If you have a concern, talk with–not about–your pastor.
- Give regular, constructive feedback. Evaluations can be scary for both pastors and congregations, but healthy feedback can be constructive. Our Worship Committee reviews our worship services at our monthly meetings. Our Personnel Committee will be conducting a pastoral review for me in the next couple of months.
- Do regular congregational reviews. In my observation, churches often search for a particular kind of pastor, and less often ask themselves, what kind of church do we need to be to have that kind of pastor?
- Be creative. When I returned from my first sabbatical, my church presented me with a binder in which each household had been invited to put together a page of what happened in their lives while I was away. It was wonderful to read their letters and see photos of family gatherings, birthday parties, vacations, and other activities. It’s a gift I still treasure.
For anyone who has other ideas on how to love your pastor, I hope you’ll leave a comment to expand this list. If this article is helpful to you and your church, please share and let’s thrive together!
Writing/Reflection Prompt: Which of these ways to love your pastor resonate with you? What can you share from your own church experience?
For more on writing and other acts of faith,