Thom Rainer: Five Challenges for Pastors

Thom Rainer sketches here five typical challenges for a pastor. What would you add? Or correct?

It may be one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Indeed, it may be an impossible job to do in our own strength.

I know. Before I was LifeWay‘s president or a seminary dean, I served as pastor of four churches.

I know. I have heard from countless pastors in countless churches. Their stories are similar to mine. So I asked the question: What specific part of being a pastor is the most difficult for you? In the weeks ahead, I will share a more exhaustive list. For now, let’s look at five tough challenges for pastors.

1.Responding graciously to someone right before you preach. The pastor has put hours into the sermon. He has prayed for God’s power for that moment. He is focused on God’s Word and its proclamation. All of his energy is devoted to the upcoming moment. Then someone rushes up to him with a piece of paper and says. “Pastor, you need to announce about the garage sale we’re having this week.” Most of the times I showed grace. A few times I did not and showed something else.

2.Knowing what do with a staff member who is not making a vital contribution to the church. Many churches will not let leaders make the tough decision of letting a staff member go, even if he is not really productive and obviously an ill fit for the ministry and the church. Such a move is considered “un-Christian” and will not be tolerated, even if it would ultimately be best for that staff member. Many pastors have lost their own jobs when they made such a move. So we often move those persons to innocuous, low-accountability positions, even though we know it is poor stewardship.

3.Loving a person in the church when that person is your critic. We want to be Christ-like, and love people unconditionally. I admit that I often saw those people through their critical words instead of seeing them through the eyes of Christ.

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4.Preparing more than one quality sermon a week. When I was a pastor I had to prepare a Sunday morning sermon, a Sunday evening sermon, and a Wednesday evening Bible message. Frankly, it took all I had to prepare one good message. I know many churches no longer have the Sunday evening preaching service, but tens of thousands of pastors still prepare more than one message a week.

5.Doing the funeral of a person who was not a Christian. We can always hope the person had a deathbed conversion of which we are not aware. And we can always preach messages of comfort to the family and friends. But it is extremely difficult to talk about the deceased if he or she was lost.

What are some of the most difficult times for you as a pastor? Feel free to comment in anonymity if you wish. Pastors, what wisdom can you share with other pastors regarding these challenges? And laypersons, what can you or your church do to support these pastors?


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  • Leading up. Serving under an unqualified leader or one who is not willing to take risks for ministry.

  • Pat Pope

    On #1, some of those people that approach before or between sermons not only have innocuous requests such as was listed above, but actually want to critique the pastor’s sermon and theological points with no regard to timing or sensitivity. When it happens week after week with the same people, that can be quite a challenge to graciousness.

    As for #2, sometimes the most gracious/loving/wise thing to do is to move that staff person along. It’s a hard decision, but many who have been let go have ended up having successful ministries elsewhere. But what has to be endured during this process can be horrendous.

    Another difficult thing is dealing with discipline of members and having to deal with their supporters who will stop at nothing short to convince you that you’re wrong and accuse of everything except being a child of God. Like #2 above, it’s a hard decision but one that is often needful in an effort to restore. Learning how to do this well is a challenge and still the decision won’t be respected by everyone. There are those who do not have all the facts, are clouded by their friendships and think the Church is supposed to be about us all getting along and holding hands, when the reality is, we are fallen people, each with our own sometimes misguided agendas, making discipline necessary at times.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Here’s another one that is so difficult that Bible college and seminary do not prepare ministers for: Dealing with a person who has become mentally ill, who is making it difficult and causing problems for their family and the church.

  • I’d add: holding the big picture in tension with dealing with the day to day jobs that need to be done.

    And secondly: maybe the biggest challenge for me is being the person I’m asking people to be at the end of my sermons each week.

    Thirdly: finding the balance between inside focus and outside focus. Between member care and evangelism to put it crudely. Between jumping through hoops and breaking the rules.

  • Andy J. Funk

    How does one deal with the senior pastor who thinks you are not the right fit for the church and can not be ok with your divergent view of a concept such as hell? If the senior pastor believes there is only one approach to such theological topics, should the associate pastor follow suit and not be entitled to any exploration of alternative narratives? For me, the ultimate issue has to do with rigidity and lack of openness to the voices of the “other”. There are others within this church who hold to other understandings as well, but it is the senior pastor who makes it hard for the associate and frequently questions their rightful place and calling to this particular church. Also significant to note is, the senior pastor is on his last year of ministry in this church, before retirement.

  • Parishioners often expect pastors to be biblical scholars, and yet the time for scholarship is difficult to find amidst the hundreds of urgent needs that pop up every day.

    I could probably expand this: one of the hardest things about being a pastor is delivering thoughtful messages that are biblically, theologically, and historically informed, with some contemporary illustrations and applications, while also being an administer, manager, mentor, visionary, and whatever else. Every week!

  • Jim

    Making discouragement your new best friend.

  • MattR

    A great list and great comments so far.

    I would add… a lot of the challenges I have faced in pastoral ministry come from one issue; differences of opinion about the role of the pastor. Is she or he to be a manager, a spiritual director, a CEO, an evangelist, your buddy, a therapist, a world renown preacher, or the person who is there at a moments notice to help you load the truck when you’re moving?!

    The truth is the pastor, especially of an average or smaller size congregation, takes on multiple roles. But the reality is one person cannot, and is usually not gifted to, do everything It is vital that you are very specific about what your vision for pastoral ministry is, and that it is clear and in harmony with the leadership and those fellow servants on the ‘front lines’ of the church. I have found nearly every member can have a different definition of your role, based on their needs… if there isn’t clarity and communication (and even if there is sometimes!), that’s where biggest challenges come up.

  • MattR

    Sorry, editing error… above should read “everything. It is vital…”

  • I would add:

    … Being encouraging without easy answers and always balancing messages of hope with realism about loneliness, the hiddenness of God, the truth that disaster catches us unaware, and assurance that God does not judge bitter reactions and severe doubts.

    … Disappointment with the slow progress of change, from who we really are to the ideal person we can envision from the instruction of scriptural wisdom, in ourselves and in those we teach and pray for.

  • William Lipp

    Failure of the leadership to deal with and accept the real grief church members experience when there is a pastoral change. It is vital to prepare congregations for this phenomenon.

  • Kevin

    @Andy: I’m now a Lead Pastor, but spent twenty years in various associate roles. My advice is that unless the pastor is doing something immoral or illegal, you need to respect the leadership the church has entrusted to him/her, and understand the expectation the church has and needs for you to be subservient to that position. If you cannot leave your views on hell out of the mix of conversation / teaching, and you cannot support the pastor and church’s position on the issue, you need to graciously and respectfully move on.

    You stand to do great damage to the church, the pastor, and yourself / family by forcing the issue.

  • Kevin

    The pastor must become comfortable with both delighting and disappointing their people. We can’t be everything to everyone, we cannot please everyone, and will die if we try to do so. Give God the praise when your ministry delights and give God the pain when you disappoint. Remember that you remain God’s beloved either way.

    One more bit of advice…forget being superman. Be spider-man instead. Spin webs of relationships, networking, and equipping / empowerment among your people. It’s much more rewarding and will multiply your ministry…even superman can’t be in two places at once…unless you count the Bizarro world…but I digress…

  • David

    As someone who has recently been on the ‘being let go’ end of #2, I would add that it is essential to be fully honest about why the change is being made. It’s much more comfortable to couch the discussion in “spiritual” language only. For example, I was told during the meeting where I was let go that I “hadn’t done anything wrong” and that I was “doing a great job”. The reason given for the change was that the pastor felt my “gifts” were in another area and they wanted to see me ‘flourish’. Now, that may be the case, but I had a hard time reconciling ‘doing a great job’ with the determination that I had another calling and needed to be moved on. I suspect he was nervous about speaking to specific examples of how my lack of gifting was expressed in a lack of performance. I don’t doubt that there were valid reasons, I just wish that he could have shared them with me.

  • –knowing how to talk to people who have left your church in unflattering ways when you meet them around town, or are asked about them and why they are gone, etc.

    –trying to help people who don’t seem interested in being helped.

    –not only dealing with my own frustrations but the frustrations my wife has as she’s just as involved in everything as I am.

    –knowing how to handle success with humility and dependence rather than saying “OK God, I got it now.”

  • Brian

    – Surrendering the standards of success to the calling of faithfulness. I left behind a legal career to go into the ministry, and I find the success drive both from academia and from that career stretched me as I entered a field where real success is always elusive. Pride is an ever-present temptation. I want to be admired and impressive to all that meet me, and of course that is really just a way of destruction (in most fields, but especially in ministry). Embracing the anonymity in the role isn’t easy, but it helps me as I continually re-acclimate to make more of God in my work than I am making of myself.

  • Matt Edwards

    Leading through change.

  • Shibui

    The challenge to make the person who is leading an organization that tends to “conform to the world” and the person who knows the called to “transformation of the mind” be the same one, working the same in both roles… erring mostly on the side of transformation.

  • Michael

    Cultural apathy, growing perception of social irrelevance, helping people without encouraging dependence, nurturing authentic commitment to discipleship in laity, and balancing personal life needs with vocation are some of mine.

  • Female Pastor

    Dealing with those people who always refer to clergy in the masculine. Female clergy are just as Spirit-driven and Spirit-filled! And we deal with an awful lot of discrimination and sexual harassment from community members, parishioners, colleagues, and supervisors.

  • Creating three great sermons a week is the tough one for me. Very difficult.