Appreciation or Obligation?

Color-12What crosses your mind when you hear the phrase “Pastor Appreciation Month?” While it really is a noble idea, it is striking that it stirs up so many mixed emotions in congregations and clergy alike. There is seldom a church that doesn’t want to express appreciation to their pastor, and it would be difficult to find a pastor who didn’t want to be appreciated. Yet the unsettledness remains.

I took the opportunity to communicate with a number of pastors about Pastor Appreciation Month, and there were several issues that surfaced. In fact, I was surprised by how often the same issues came up. Some of those issues are things that churches ought to hear, and some are things pastors ought to hear. It is my hope that both pastors and congregations could have a better understanding of Pastor Appreciation Month so that the experience could be the positive and loving thing it was intended to be.

First—to congregations—let’s explore a few issues. It probably won’t surprise you that most pastors would rather be appreciated year-round because it is already a part of the culture of the church rather than to have one day or month set aside for that purpose. Otherwise, it feels less like appreciation and more like an obligation the church is fulfilling. Let’s face it, Pastor Appreciation Month, in a congregation where little mutual appreciation exists, seems forced and even out of place. Appreciation that matters is authentic!

Did you know that many pastors find Pastor Appreciation Month one that is filled with anxiety and awkwardness? Most often, materials about Pastor Appreciation are mailed directly to them. Most feel it is inappropriate to pass those materials on to their congregation. Consequently, many miss out totally. Be sure, then, that your congregation is alert to the fact that each year, Pastor Appreciation Month is observed in October, and designate someone to be watchful for those clearly marked promotional materials. Intercept them before your pastor even sees them.

Another of those things pastors would like congregations to know is that a poorly planned observance, or one that is just “thrown together,” seems more like an afterthought than appreciation. One pastor put it, “Plan, plan, plan.” Even in times when relationships might be strained, remember, the purpose is to honor not only the pastor and family but also the position or office of the pastor.

Make your appreciation specific. For example, instead of saying, “I appreciate you,” tell your pastor why. Let them know that a particular message helped you or that his or her presence during a difficult time made a difference. Make your expressions of appreciation personal.

Make your appreciation practical. Pastors’ salaries often are unable to keep up with rising costs as giving to the church reflects our current economic struggles. Gift cards to restaurants or grocery stores, home improvements (pastors’ spouses especially love these), or even movie theater tickets, provide things that just don’t always fit into the pastor’s family budget. And, don’t forget the babysitting! Many pastors are called to serve far away from family and close friends and need the church to become their family. Very significantly, pastors often say they would like their congregations to realize how important pastor appreciation is to their families. Why not make it about the whole family? It was incredibly meaningful to our children when they received their own cards, often with a personal gift inside.

There are also some things pastors need to consider when it comes to Pastor Appreciation Month. The very first of those is that pastors have to learn how to appreciate their congregations, and their efforts at pastor appreciation. It is way too often that pastors compare what other churches do for their pastors and come away frustrated, hurt, and even angry about the whole process. But churches think differently, their leadership have different backgrounds, and they have varying resources. Pastors, let’s quit our comparisons and be thankful for the people God has called us to serve.

For some churches, written personal expressions of gratitude are a far better and more personal way to say thank you than a monetary gift or a weekend away. Other churches think differently, and their expressions are going to reflect that difference. And, let’s be honest, the relationship we have with the church will without a doubt speak into this process.

Pastors, be practical in your expectations. You know all too well what your church can afford, so understand that during Pastor Appreciation Month. We sometimes are disappointed because our expectations are not practical or realistic.

To pastors, I would add this: Every October you have the built-in opportunity to teach your family that the church is a very good place with a lot of very good people in it. They are people who really do care about you and your family. Don’t miss this chance to allow your family to experience the love of good but imperfect people. Even if the whole idea makes you uncomfortable, your family needs to know that all of you are appreciated.

To both pastors and congregations, let’s remove the anxiety and awkwardness from what ought to be a month of celebration and love. Churches, do your best to appropriately express your appreciation to your pastor. Pastors, do your best to appreciate the congregation and their efforts. After all, appreciation modeled can become appreciation expressed!

Wonderfully Difficult

Leading God’s people has never been easy. Just ask Moses. After years of struggle to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, it was only a short while until they began to grumble, a month and a half, to be exact (Ex. 16:1). The complete lack of logic found in their complaints is so very telling. We’d be better off dead in Egypt, because at least there we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. Imagine trying to address that kind of complaint in a business meeting.

The complaining did not stop there, but the point is well illustrated. Leading God’s people has never been easy. Because of that fact, ministry often takes its toll on pastors. Discouragement, disappointment, anger, bitterness, and burnout are frequent results of the difficult task of leading the church. Nearly 70% of the pastors in the US feel as if they have no close friends. Depression is a struggle for 40%. Conflict with parishioners is not uncommon, and many pastors and spouses feel that ministry is an outright hazard to the health of their families.

There is nothing quite like ministry. It is exhilarating and perplexing, joyful and discouraging. It is awesome and at the same time leaves us feeling powerless. Ministry can address some of the grandest issues in life and it can force us to face the pettiest of ideas and attitudes. It can bring the most phenomenal sense of the divine, and the most awful awareness of evil – sometimes on the same day. We can experience the richness of Christian fellowship right alongside the pangs of loneliness. There is nothing quite like the ministry.

Yet, with all its challenges and struggles, there is nothing greater than the life of ministry. Our call comes to us from the very heart and grace of God. Imagine, he chose us to this high task. To live a life of partnership with God, sharing in his work, joining him in what he is doing, what could be more fulfilling? Where else can one participate in the wonder of God’s activity as he puts a broken marriage back together? What could be more powerful than partnering with God as he breaks the chains of an addict, forgives the sin of a wayward teenager, or brings home the life-long prodigal? Only in ministry do we see God apply words we speak to change lives. Only in ministry do we have the joy of baptizing that new believer into a brand new life. Only in ministry do we daily walk with people, leading them to the life they were created to live. Only in ministry do we experience the joy of seeing a congregation become ignited by a passion for the mission of the church, and only there do we have the privilege of leading them as they do so.

Yes, it’s true. Leading God’s people has never been easy. But that is not the end of the story. Ministry is the most amazing and fulfilling life imaginable. Why not celebrate the wonder of ministry, and the grace of God that allowed us to live this incredible life?