Ten Things Your Congregation Probably Won’t Tell You

For all our talk about community and openness in the life of the church, when it comes to the crunch there are several no go areas.  Like it or not there are some hot potatoes which few are game enough to address.  Churches will simply not raise them with their pastors despite there being a pressing need to do so.  Sadly the absence of courageous, honest communication carries a big price tag and often leads to high but unnecessary drama.  Try the following:

#1 – Your preaching is missing the mark

There are very few churches who expect their pastors to preach like an angel.  Mind you they gladly receive, enjoy and are uplifted by sermons which are clearly well prayed over, prepared thoughtfully and delivered with warmth and enthusiasm.  Further, there is also the realistic recognition that every so often even the best preacher will lay an egg.  

What does bother congregations though is when the eggs are laid by the dozen.  A pastor who is constantly unable to make good use of the pulpit may be the last to know about it.  Your average worshipper is radar equipped to detect after a sentence or two just how much has been invested by the pastor in the sermon.  Poor notes, uncertainty in delivery, a lack of energy and a scant regard for Scripture all signal a disaster in process.  

It also needs to be noted that the length of sermon is no guarantee of an impact being made.  A common complaint, rarely communicated with the pastor it seems, is that the sermon could have been half the length with a greater economy of words, less padding and fewer anecdotes.  Worshippers are easily frustrated by the sermon which circles the subject but never seems to land anywhere.  

#2 – You have lost your bounce

There’s nothing new about this one; it happens to us all.  Congregations do get anxious though when the pastor seems to be labouring under a cloud for a protracted period of time.  A sustained loss of energy, a lack of interest in taking initiatives, doing the bare minimum to get by and failing to address obvious issues all communicate that something is up.  

If there is a genuine health problem for example, it is better to say so and get on top. If, however, the whole routine of ministry has become a grind and the call to ministry is frayed at the edges, this will soon become apparent.  It may also be interpreted (probably quite accurately) as a reduced commitment to the church and a lowered stake in the proceedings.  

It is somewhere in this territory that pastoral lethargy and laziness begin to emerge with unfortunate side effects.  There is no easy escape route either.  Not too far away is the ugly embrace of depression and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stage a self-help rescue.  Someone somewhere needs to be gently advised and invited to act as sounding board, counsellor and encourager.

If the lack of bounce is simply traceable to pushing too hard for too long, then there is a relatively easy quick fix.  It is called a day off, or a hobby, or a sleep, or a round of golf or a good book.  

#3 – We don’t know where you are going

For all the numerous styles of leadership to be found around our churches, every congregation expects in one way or another for the pastor to have some idea, or dream, or hope regarding the direction and shape of the ministry of the congregation.  This is not an invitation to be dictatorial or authoritarian but it is an opportunity to be friend, consultant and guide.  

Nor does it mean that every great scheme will get off the ground.  Given some of the proposals which surface from time to time, that is just as well!  But there is plenty of room in most churches and leadership groups for new ideas to be canvassed and fresh thoughts about ministry to be aired.  There is a great stimulus in this and the truly creative and innovative pastor really does have some wonderful avenues open for stirring up the congregation to creative good works.

But congregations get confused and disoriented when the pastor either never floats any new idea or produces so many that there is no apparent cohesion or order.  One is as bad as the other.  Most people are able to respond to ideas and opportunities even allowing for those who have a sincere devotion to the status quo.  But to have absolutely nothing for people to think and pray over is non leadership.  

And it does not always have to be special programs or grandiose projects.  Just to remind people of their need to be prayerful as individuals, families and congregation, or to encourage them to be sensitive to community needs and possibilities for ministry, or to help them find fresh inspiration in the Bible all offer ways forward for refocusing and growth.

#4 – You are keeping us at arm’s length

No one likes to be frozen out.  Nor do congregations expect their pastor to be a happy go-lucky back slapper with a great yarn for every moment, or even a “word from the Lord” to meet every need.  But they do enjoy and appreciate warmth, interest and the chance for a good yarn from time to time.  This does not necessarily need to be a deep and meaningful one either.

What is a real problem though is when the people feel that their pastor is keeping everyone at bay, when there is a studied distance and lack of rapport, when there is never any baring of the soul even in small ways.  People do not necessarily want the pastor’s heart to appear on the proverbial sleeve but they do cotton on very fast when the barriers are up and conversation is limited to matters of function and operational necessity.

Not only is this an undesirable model but it stifles sharing and leads very quickly to superficial relationships.  Pastoral distance also inevitably reduces the likelihood of the pastor’s counsel being sought in one-on-one situations.  The unapproachable pastor is one who has a very limited ministry indeed.  The sad truth is that some pastors agonise over their congregation’s seeming reluctance to confide in them without realising that they are actively discouraging this by their own personal remoteness.

#5 – You need to organise yourself

Nothing produces congregational discontent quite as rapidly as the pastor who simply cannot or will not get organised.  Now everybody forgets something sooner or later.  But that constant disorganisation which spawns regular lateness to services and meetings, a general lack of preparedness, and a failure to attend to agreed responsibilities all combine to create the image of someone who is simply not cut out to lead.   A pastor who becomes known for unreliability is engaged in active Hari-Kari.

It is better to undertake fewer commitments and see them through than tearing all over the ship offering magnanimous guarantees to every man, woman and child in sight.  It is probably not surprising to discover that those who set out to help on every front are frequently the least organised.  They have not identified their priorities, have not considered the implications of spreading themselves thinly and then collapse in their comprehensively created mess.

The lesson is that the rewards are great for those who invest time in pondering the present, planning, thinking ahead, all without attempting to do more than a day may allow.  The well ordered life also allows for that essential nurturing of the spirit which often suffocates in the continuing oppression of disorganisation.

#6 – You have thrown in your lot with the powerful

The process of becoming clearly aligned with an identifiable sub-culture within the congregation occurs all too easily and usually unconsciously.  But it is spotted very quickly by those who perceive themselves to be on the outer.  There is a dangerous possibility that those who feel this rejection may come to believe that when it comes to the crunch, their view of life is not valued, their gifts for ministry are usually ignored, and they too often are made to feel that they are the church trouble makers.

Seen from any angle, it is not a good scenario.  The pastor who flirts with the power brokers, for example, will soon be in their grasp.  Power may take many forms: it could be the spiritual heavies, the old time families who run the place, the well heeled who finance the work or the political manipulators who bob up at opportune moments in difficult church meetings.  

Let there be a gentle reminder that the pastor is there for all the congregation, to listen and to learn, to teach and encourage all without regard to status, experience, influence or competence.  It is one of the toughest aspects of leadership and few other vocations require such constant sensitivity and wisdom to such a broad range of people and needs.

#7 – You are missing opportunities for pastoral care

Pastors are forgiven for many shortfalls in the exercise of ministry.  Grace regularly prevails in the majority of congregations although there are some notable for their tough treatment of pastors.  But most churches find it near to impossible to accept that a pastor has good reason for failing to keep tabs on the seriously ill and the grieving in particular.

Even in large congregations where there will almost always be visitation or pastoral care teams, a visit from the senior pastor carries a blessing which is often not understood.  It is a deep sense of being valued, of being remembered, of being affirmed as a person in their own right.  Sometimes, of course, a pastor fails to show because the information was not passed along.  When this is unravelled, all is well provided there is follow up of some kind.

But let it be known that the pastor was not able to visit (without good reason) and the ramifications are not good.  This does not mean that you have to be there on the door mat at the first sign of illness or bereavement (although that always carries a special touch) but if the days pass and there is not so much as a word, this is construed as an active lack of interest and support.  The message sent to the individuals and families concerned soon flows more widely around the church and it is just about impossible to make up for lost ground.

The dreadful truth is that the careless pastor who is consumed by many distractions is often not aware that significant damage has been done and then wonders what the fuss is all about. 

#8 – Your partner is spoiling your ministry

Here’s a real toughie.  Any leader who raises this one with the pastor automatically qualifies for an honourable mention in dispatches. The truth is that almost no one will ever tell a pastor that their partner is spoiling their ministry. People are rightfully afraid of causing hurt and few want to enter into territory where the reactions are bound to be strong ones and near impossible to manage.

The chief complaint almost always revolves around the partner’s uncontrolled tongue: it may be gossip, or constant talking which dominates every conversation, or unkind and unwise comments about others in the church (behind their backs, of course), or endless promotion of self and pastor.  Sometimes it is the partner’s exercise of ministry which is seen to be a problem.  Most churches warmly welcome the involvement of the pastor’s partner.  They are not so enthusiastic, however, if that translates into active control of individuals  and groups.  The pushy partner is a liability and there are always negative reactions within the congregation which can very effectively damage an otherwise worthwhile ministry.

Let it be added that the other option is a much better one: partners who are warmly supportive and who find their niche in the life of the congregation have a price beyond that of rubies with many rising up to call them blessed.

#9 – The ministry here is beyond you

This one is tinged with sadness.  When it is considered that a call to ministry starts off with rich anticipation and near to full support and good will (if not total), it is clear that not all has gone well when thoughtful people judge that the task is beyond the pastor’s gifts and graces.  

The signals may rest in a variety of areas: it could be an inability to handle the diversity of the congregation, or an unwillingness to attend to the inevitable difficulties which flourish in any church from time to time, or a perceived discomfort in taking a stand on key issues knowing that not all will agree, or ignoring the concerns of those sharing in the leadership, or mishandling of team situations.  Any one of these is not in itself the end of the world.  But a combination of several over a period does spell trouble.  

It is the absence of leadership, the vacillation, the refusal to give a lead which in time will lead even the most supportive to the view that the situation is out of hand simply because there appears to be no genuine hope of anything really turning around for the better.  This conclusion is generally reached with a profound reluctance, even guilt that a pastor has been placed in a position which the wisdom of hindsight now demonstrates was unworkable probably from the start.

#10 – We think your time is up

This is the real crunch and particularly so when the thoughtful and sensitive people in the church start thinking this way.  Rarely will anyone give clear voice to such a view though.  There are always the messianic few who will gladly offer a direction from the Holy Spirit on any going issue and who are ever ready to straighten the pastor out.  Usually they do not have to be taken too seriously unless they are hunting in packs.

But when the real workers in the church, the people who have invested time, energy, prayer and finance begin to feel that the pastor should move along, then it is time to start loosening the tent pegs a little.  The only problem is that the pastor is about the last one to wake up to the score.  It is not kindness, of course, to allow ongoing ignorance of these perceptions.  But it does happen.  Even reducing numbers, downward giving and difficult leadership and church meetings are no guarantee that the penny will drop. 

When the unrest takes full flight it is common for a key lay person to ask for outside help in acquainting the pastor with the real situation.  The church is never far away from a potential split at this point.  There will always be a small group who believe that the pastor is still walking on water and any thought of an initiative to move the pastor on may create mayhem.  Not surprisingly it is this group which has the pastor’s ear with the pastor giving scant attention to the widespread concerns being felt elsewhere in the congregation.  It is a tragedy in the making.


The absence of caring and honest communication in the life of the church is, of course, an indictment on everybody.  It is a far cry from fellowship, mutual support and good old fashioned love.  It also indicates a total lack of genuine sharing, review and accountability (again, of the mutual variety). Pastors need not let such terrible gaps develop in communication.  

An effective leadership group which reflects regularly on the life and health of the church together with the pastor actively seeking suggestions and comments is a good place to start.  It calls for a rugged internal security which can hear both encouragement and constructive criticism without being unnecessarily flattered on the one hand or becoming angrily defensive on the other.

Rev John Simpson