7-regrets-pastors

I recently interviewed more than twenty pastors who had been in ministry for at least 25 years. All of these men were over 55 years old.  A few of them were retired, but most of them were still active in fulltime vocational ministry.

The interview was simple. I asked one open-ended question: “What regrets do you have about the years you have served as a pastor?” Each of the men could provide as many responses as they desired. They could make the answers succinct, or they could elaborate upon them.

Three pastors had as few as two responses; one pastor had nine. Most of the pastors noted three or four regrets. As a researcher, I typically see patterns develop in this type of subjective research. When it concluded, I was able to see seven definitive patterns, and I was able to see the frequency they occurred.

Below are the top seven regrets noted in order of frequency. I received a total of 17 different responses, but only these seven occurred with any degree of repetition. After each regret, I provide a representative direct quote from one of the interviewees.

  1. Lack of practical training for local church ministry. “I was not prepared for 80 percent of my day-to-day ministry after I graduated from seminary. I wish I had taken time to find some resources or places where I could get practical training. I had to learn in the school of hard knocks, and it was very painful at times.”
  2. Overly concerned about critics. “I had this naïve view that a bunch of Christians in a church would always show love toward each other. Boy was I wrong! There are some mean church members out there. My regret is that I spent way too much time and emotional energy dealing with the critics. I think of the hundreds of hours I lost focusing on critics, and it grieves me to this day.”
  3. Failure to exercise faith. “At some point in my ministry, I started playing defense and let the status quo become my way of doing church. I was fearful of taking steps of faith, and my leadership and churches suffered as a result. Not only was I too cautious in the churches I served, I was too cautious in my own ministry. I really felt God calling me to plant a church at one point, but I was just too fearful to take that step.”
  4. Not enough time with family. “I can’t say that people didn’t warn me. One wise pastor told me I had a mistress. When he saw my anger rising, he told me that my mistress was busyness in my church, and that my family was suffering from neglect. It hurts me to say this, but one of my adult sons is still in rebellion, and I know it is a direct result of my neglect of him when he was young.”
  5. Failure to understand basic business and finance issues. “The first time I saw my church’s budget, I thought I was looking at a foreign language. Greek is a lot easier than finance. They sure don’t teach you basic church finance and business at seminary, and I didn’t take the initiative to educate myself. I really felt stupid in so many of the discussions about the budget or other church business issues.”
  6. Failure to share ministry. “Let me shoot straight. I had two complexes. The first was the Superman complex. I felt like if ministry was going to be done well, I had to do it. I couldn’t ask or equip someone else to do it. My second complex was the conflict avoider complex. I was so afraid that I would get criticized if I didn’t visit Aunt Susie personally when she had an outpatient procedure that I ran myself ragged. In my second church I suffered burnout and ended up resigning.”
  7. Failure to make friends. “I know it’s cliché, but being a pastor can be lonely. I think many pastors get in trouble because we can get so lonely. I wish I had done a better job of seeking out true friends. I know if I had made the effort, there would have been a number of pastors in town that I could have befriended. Sometimes I got so busy doing ‘stuff’ that I didn’t have time to do the things that really matter.”

So what do you think of these top seven regrets? What would you add?

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Comments

  1. says

    For pastors it is definitely easy to neglect family for ministry. Additionally, and I speak from experience, focusing on critics too much can rob your family of the time they do get to spend with you. Critics can be emotionally draining, preventing you from giving quality time and attention to your family.

    Mark Dever recently shared some very valuable advice: “Your church can get another pastor; your kids can’t get another father.”

  2. Andrew says

    Not having a vision? The church where I pastor today has had six pastors come and go in the last fifteen years and none of them challenged the church to have a vision of ministry for the future generation.

  3. John says

    I can definitely relate to the feeling of burnout and the ministry taking too much time. While some of the blame can be put on my shoulders for taking on too much at one time, it also needs to be said that many church members and elders (and deacons) seem to expect that if you are on staff and your eyes are open, you are expected to be working. Along with that is the mistaken assumption that if you are not in your office, you are not working. So you wind up over committing to everything in a hope that it will make you look busy enough for the people who think you only really “work” one day a week.

    • Guy says

      Yes, yes, yes. One of my big struggles (of which I have too many) is to feel that I need to justify being supported by the church. This leads to a lot of self-induced stress of constantly being on or being guilty when I am not!

    • Andrew Nightingale says

      I should have stopped trying to be Bill Hybels, John Maxwell and/or Rick Warren. Those guys have a unique calling, personality and gifting, I have mine. I needed to lead from my own strengths, not theirs.

  4. JSmith says

    Great article. The last one is the best one in my opinion. Friends are hard to make, keep, and find etc. If I added a number 8 to the article it would be “Regret of not doing my “homework” before going to a church and serving. I have made many hard steps through my years of ministry.

  5. JW Brewer says

    Dr. Rainer,

    Would you be willing to share the entire respnses from the pastors you surveyed? I would love to glean from their experience and perpsectives. Thank you for your blog!
    JW

    • Thom Rainer says

      JW –

      Let me chew on it. The other responses were so less frequent that I am reticent to imply that they have equal weight in my study.Perhaps i can do a more expansive project in the future.

  6. says

    I’m not all that smart .. I flunked out of my first year of college and never went any further. But I have gotten to know several pastors quite well, and one former pastor is my best friend, to this day.

    I think I could have written this list. It’s just that obvious, and it’s just that widely true.Every single point.

    I do hope that many of the laity read this. They’re the ones who need to take the lead in addressing a lot of this, even the part about spending time with the family. When members support and encourage that, the pastor is more likely to do it. Ditto for sharing leadership, making friends, and keeping critics in perspective.

    Wonderful, and sorely needed, post. Let’s hope it intersects the right eyes, minds and hearts.

  7. John Horn says

    Very valuable and timely for those of us just starting out. I would only add a recommendation regarding #5 that any MDiv core should include basic business and accounting principles, including personal finance, retirement planning, tax situations peculiar to ministers and the like. We owe it to our churches and our families to be wise with money.

  8. Steve says

    I’ve been in ministry for about 13 years now, and my biggest regret so far is not being personally bold in sharing Christ with people and encouraging and exhorting people in person. I spend too much time in front of a computer and not enough time with people. I am naturally introverted, so it is a step of courage and faith for me to speak visit people and speak with boldness.

  9. Garry Benfield says

    Thank you for this. As I work with pastors, young and old, this list will give me a authoritative starting point for discussion. Points well taken.

  10. says

    Thom
    If I had one regret to add to the list it would be that I spent too little time in prayer and searching out the Scripture. A pastor friend mentioned something yesterday that hit home- when did ministry become doing tasks and not leading and investing in people?

  11. John says

    I can relate to 5 of the 7 regrets after 21 years in ministry. The two that plague me the most are the failure to share ministry and not enough time with family. I believe the lack of time with family can be directly traced to not sharing enough of the ministry. I forced my children and wife to make most of the sacrifice for ministry by doing life without me rather than calling on my church members to make their share of sacrifices for the ministry.

    But what’s done is done and I cannot get that time back. What I can do is recognize where I’ve failed and commit myself to doing ministry as God designed and redeem the time that I have left with the family God has given me.

  12. Matt Svoboda says

    Great list Dr. Ranier.

    I have only been a pastor for a year and a half and I can relate to most of these.

    I believe there is a disconnect in a lot of areas from what people are getting in seminary to what they need for pastoral leadership.

  13. says

    Entering the ministry later in life saved me from many of these pitfalls, although I considered the last one, Friendship, the most critical and also the toughest to succeed at.

    Two great resources taught me many things such as this beforehand, 1) Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors and 2)The Pastor’s Primer by Os Hawkins.

    I was also privileged to be able to read one unpublished resource, “Letters to Matthew: Advice to a Young Pastor” by Wayne McDill which drive many of the struggles of early ministry deep down for me. I hope this resource is able to get published soon.

    • Kyia C says

      It is hard for Pastors to have friends because those who are true laborers in the vineyard will not go against God and to put it to you plainly a lot of these so called pastors are messing with their own sheep. So then the question becomes who can find a virtuous Pastor? I thank God that I am under a true and fruitful ministry where the Spirit of the Lord dwells and so does His Angels that satan does not get the victory.

  14. says

    I think all these issues can be traced back to the Southern Baptistpractice of calling a singular pastor from the outside to essentially do. Amost (sometimes all) of the ministry the saints themselves should be doing. The pastor’s “job” is to equip the church for the work of ministry. really what’s happening is the church pays him to do it all so they won’t be bothered with it.

    It’d be interesting to hear the answers from a preaching pastor who has served alongside other elders. I can almost bet there’s not as much burn-out and regrets.

  15. H Dan Mullins says

    I was called to preach at age 7 and started preaching at age 17. I have had the privilege of starting two churches and growing them from their beginnings. The majority of my ministry has been as a bivocational pastor. So my experienced is in both full support and bivocational ministry. I have written two books that I hope pastors and laymen will use to enhance their relationship and fruitfulness with God. They are Orchards a Pastor’s guide to Growing a Fruit Bearing Church, and Orchards A Student Guide to becoming a Fruit Bearing Christian. The pastors guide actually addresses most of these regrets. My regret is that I did not regard my health and the need for rest. It has cost me my health and perhaps has shortened my ministry. I spent too many hours on both jobs and other ministry projects outside of the church. The lack of rest and proper eating catches up with you and robs you of the full ability to do your ministry. Looking back I would have taken my allotted vacation time and the sabbatical that I knew I needed to take but didn’t. The Lord has taken me through stage III cancer to slow me down and actually rest. During my down time was when I finished my books and submitted the manuscripts. You don’t really recover from cancer however, you simply continue to deal with its after effects. My goal is to finish my life and ministry well. God bless his shepherds and those who truly love their people.

    • Kyia C says

      I disagree with you about cancer because there were many people under my ministry who have been healed and delivered from cancer and who are living healthy and normal lives. The Lord sent down His healing power to transform their bodies. I could tell you the cancer is not of God so please do not say that He gave that to you because He did not my dear brother in Christ but that was a satanic attack on you that was inflicted. I pray that you receive the merciful and gracious healing power of God to restore your health back to its original state.

      • H. Dan Mullins says

        I appreciate your comments, however, we each can discern what is from the Lord and what is not. There is a sickness unto the Lord that He uses in our lives to fulfill his plan for us. In my case it was a time peace and faith and also a time of rest and healing. During that time I finished many of my writing projects hence my books being published. It was also a time in which my church ministered to my family and I in a very great way so they grew as well. So if I were to say that the cancer was a blessing many people may not understand it. But here is a truth that may or may not help you. I thought I knew how to give my people comfort when they were told they had cancer. However going through chemo and now experiencing its after effects has taught me how to not only identify with them but to prepare them for what they are facing and will face. It has opened many doors to ministry for me. So I hope you know that God has indeed healed me and blessed me and continues to do so. I at no time believed it was a Satanic attack, but simply another part of God’s plan for my life. But thank you for your kind words.

        • Kyia C says

          Well I will agree to disagree with you. I am in no mood for a debate I have enough of those in theology school but I can say that I am very happy to know that you are in deed in fact alive and well for yourself, your family, and for the ministry so you can continue to do the work that God has given you to do.

  16. Kyia C says

    I would add that many Pastors burn themselves out because they do not allow others to mount the podium. They what I call hog the pulpit. They do not allow the in house prophet, teacher, preacher, or evangelist to walk in their calling. They preach at each and every service on Sunday and then at engagements tiring themselves and their family out when all they had to do was allow gifted, talented, and anointed others to proceed and carry service so they can rest and receive meat too.

  17. James Welch says

    Dr. Rainer,
    Thanks for this blog! I am 59 and have served our Lord for over 30 years in pastoral ministry. I wept as I read some of the regrets, because I saw myself over and over again. Generally speaking, I regret my self sufficiency instead of relying upon the Holy Spirit.
    Thanks so much for a timely article, perhaps more research and a book might be helpful to us older pastors and to those getting started.

  18. Sharon East says

    I was informed by my pastor uncle, that I was a girl and I can’t do anything in the church. I feel that was my calling and I have never had a good job my children are doing without nice shoes and clothes.All the pastors I know have so much money the become pompous.

  19. says

    Management. I think the biggest stretch for me growing into my position as a youth pastor has been organizing large teams of volunteers, and helping them to operate in harmony with the ministry’s overall purpose and values. I’ve had to learn on the fly. Learning from mistakes, picking up books on management and people skills, and overall depending on the Holy Spirit to produce in me the quality of humble leadership.

  20. Amy Rio-Anderson says

    I’m interested why you only interviewed male pastors. There are a large number of clergywomen with the same amount of experience, and I can’t help but think that some of their responses would be different. I know there have been some very comprehensive studies of clergywomen in recent years, and they have shown that many of them are dealing with different issues – and thus, I believe they would look at their regrets differently.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Amy –

      My denomination and other similar evangelical groups hold a complementarian view of the lead pastor or senior pastor. Most all of my contacts are thus male pastors. Your point is well taken though; responses from female clergy would likely have significant differences.

      • H. Dan Mullins says

        As a pastor for over 45 years I would be interested to know if the attitudes about women in the clergy have drastically changed. It would be interesting to see the response from the those pastor’s 40 and older and compare them with those of the younger generation of pastors.

        • Miriam bhandari says

          Great corollary! Great article. I am a pastor’s kid and can identify with all. How about an undergrad in business? Female and minority pastors can also give their two cents…

  21. says

    Excellent points to share wisdom. These items are good food to pray about in ministry. Unfortunately, the average pastor does not have people to go to get relative counsel, training, and support for him and his family on a regular basis. Love this!

  22. says

    Hello Dr. Rainer. I´m a associate pastor in a Costa Rica church and I´m also a director of a Bible Institute. I just read your post “Top 7 regrets of pastors” and I was a blessing and an encourage to me. My request is: Can I translate it and post in the B.I. blog?. Thanks for your blog!

  23. says

    Earlier this year my wife & I finished 30 years of pastoring at our church. We now work with pastors around our nation & overseas.

    So during this transition period I’ve thought about my regrets & my main one would be not spending more time (especially in my earlier years) in developing leaders within our church. While we did develop leaders & plant churches I would do much much more if I had my time again.

  24. Jeff Box says

    I have those regrets listed to various degrees. But my biggest are two not mentioned. The first is what I might refer to as the “Plumber’s Syndrome.” I had a friend who was a plumber but his own plumbing was in not-so-good shape. The reason? As he explained ‘I worked on other’s plumpling so much everyday, the last thing I wanted to do was come home and be plumber.” We talked about Jesus all the time around the house – He was portrayed as being real and relevent. In fact when my daughter was getting ready to accept Christ, she did so at VBS. When I asked why she didn’t do it at home? Her response, “We talk about Jesus all the time I wanted to do it somewhere else.”
    But I never led our family to have disciplined devotionals or prayer time together. I regret that very much.
    The second is simple – I let myself get out of shape physically and now at 57 am paying the price!

  25. Dennis Irwin says

    I am currently in seminary and one of my instructors told us every pastor needs a “pack” of pastor friends. We can’t go it alone and need others to walk with us.

  26. Dick Dutcher says

    I have served in a number of churches as deacon, elder, bd of adm. and teacher. Been to seminary and hold a Mth. Young Pastors should not try to do it all. Its painful to watch. Nor should they marginalize and ignore those with experience, but of a different generation. And not developing new leaders is a major mistake. The old ones want to hang it up someday.

  27. says

    whoah this blog is wonderful i like studying your articles.
    Keep up the great work! You realize, a lot of persons
    are searching round for this info, you could aid them
    greatly.

    • Thom Rainer says

      John –

      Decide where the greater good takes place by giving your time, even if other areas have to suffer.

  28. Bill says

    I just asked one of our laymen to lead Bible Study this Wednesday night, because for the second Wednesday in a row, my teenage daughter is being inducted into another Honor Society at her school. I missed last week because I was afraid of criticism for being gone, but I’m not missing this week. She’ll never be recognized for this honor again, and deserves to have her Dad there supporting her.

  29. Andrew says

    My addition: Trying to lead like a Warren, Hybels and/or Maxwell. Those guys have a unique personality, calling and gifting, I have mine. Sure, I can take some of their principles, but I have to lead out of my own strengths, not theirs.

  30. says

    Great list and reminders. I was just sharing with one of my young men who feels called to ministry to never sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry. Your wife and children are your first ministry.

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