If, when you turn to Heather Tomlinson’s investigation of how much we pay our pastors (Pay Day, p28) you’re expecting an incendiary exposé of the lavish lifestyles they live, then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. You’ll have to go elsewhere for stories of gold-plated toilet seats and private jets and so on, because the truth of the matter is that most of our church leaders aren’t paid very much at all.
You might ask why we’re even looking into it – what business is it of ours what we pay our ministers? While I can’t imagine that anyone who goes into the ministry does it for the money, how much you pay someone does send a very concrete message about how much you value them. Salary feeds into the much larger issue of how well we look after our church leaders, financially and otherwise. Often, ministers are expected to be everything – great orator, administrator, counsellor, organiser, encourager, visionary, healer… whereas the truth of the matter is that most are either good at the ‘big picture’ stuff or the details, not both. For most of them, their overarching vision is to see the kingdom of God coming in one way or another. They will rarely be excited about, or indeed trained for, the management of a building or an organisation, but it takes up a lot of their time and energy. So we set them up to fail by placing on them an extraordinary and terrifying level of expectation, and then we don’t hesitate to say when they have disappointed us. And what are the effects on the leaders? Either they develop so thick a skin they can’t hear any criticism anymore, legitimate or otherwise, or they crumble under the weight of all the negative feedback. Some learn to pretend to be omni-competent, and refuse to show their failings, creating a dishonest and unrealistic model of life for the whole congregation. In extreme cases it leads to breakdown or burnout. I’ve witnessed what having a nervous breakdown can do to someone and it isn’t good. So here’s what I’m suggesting instead. Accept imperfection. Your minister undoubtedly gets things wrong, drops the ball, says things which are theologically questionable, sends the congregation to sleep, interferes when they shouldn’t, and doesn’t get involved when they should. But, apart from a few extreme cases, they want to do the right thing, they just can’t please everyone all of the time. My own minister quoted Bill Cosby in a sermon recently, who said: ‘I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.’ So expect your leader to do things you disagree with. Expect them to disappoint you. But keep on loving them and cheering them on anyway, holding that together with the thought that it could be you who’s wrong. It isn’t about ignoring your minister’s failings. If anything it is about recognising them, being ok about them, and helping the church find ways to compensate for the gifts they don’t have. As it’s the new year, why not make one more resolution? Think of one thing you could commit to doing to make your minister’s life easier. Pray for them. Bring them cakes. Send them on retreat. Stand up for them if you hear other people moaning about them. Email them to tell them you enjoyed the sermon. Thank them, without agenda, just for being them, and serving you and your church every week. Ask them how they are. Encourage their development. Respect their day off (and that means leaving them properly alone, not bothering them with ‘one quick thing’). If you see that a lot of their time and focus is being used up on one or two tricky issues at church, offer to help.
Above all, remember that the way you behave and serve is the inspiration that what they are doing is worthwhile. There are no SMART goals for seeing people grow in love, faith and wisdom, but for most church leaders, that is the reward.