Pastors in a No Win Situation

“How many people should I be visiting a month?” I asked them.

They blinked at me, confused by the question.

“What I’m asking is, what will satisfy you? Is it ten people? Twenty?”

“Well,” she asked, “how many are on the shut-in list?”

“Currently thirty-two,” I said looking at the list. It was a little outdated, but fairly accurate. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is a shut-in and who just isn’t showing up at church anymore.

“Well, that sounds like you could do a visit or two a day and get done with the list each month,” they said.

“Sure,” I said. “It appears that way. But each visit is between two-three hours, with driving and sitting with them and all, which is basically one half of a work day. And not all of them can be scheduled each day, due to doctor’s schedules and all. Oh, and how late in the day should I visit people? Is 7:00pm too late? We usually eat dinner around then. Oh, and should I be doing visits on Saturdays and Sundays? ‘Cause I’d need to according to that schedule. And what about emergency visits to the hospital?”

They sat there, blinking.

“And when am I supposed to research and write a sermon? Or attend the meetings already on the calendar? Or plan for Sundays, holy days, or read and write like you want me to? And prep for Bible Study?”

They blinked.

It was an awkward meeting. They didn’t think I was visiting people enough.

The problem, though, is “enough” is not a number. There is never “enough.”

In fact, this–and so many other situations–are a “no win” situation for a pastor.

If they talk about politics too little or too much, it’s a problem.

If they put in too many Covid restrictions, or too few, it’s a problem.

If they’re too academic, or too colloquial, it’s a problem.

If they choose to show up at this committee meeting, or this club meeting, but choose not to do another one, it’s a no-win situation.

My solution to the above, by the way, was to miss most all of them except for once a year…”favorites” are a thing in the church, and once a pastor is viewed as having one, well, the fall-out is rough.

Pastors generally cannot win in any situation.

In the Book of Revelation there’s this church that the writer calls out, the church at Laodicea, because they are what he calls “neither hot nor cold.” The writer calls them out because they are essentially “fence-sitters,” as we might say.

I always felt bad for that church, because I imagine they had a pastor who was trying to walk the fine line expected by people who, by and large, want vastly different things out of her.

The well of need in a church is a vacuum. The well of expectation has no bottom.

Endless, Beloved. It is endless.

Many nights I went to sleep feeling like a failure because this or that need was reportedly unmet by this or that person. You might say my skin wasn’t thick enough. Maybe not. But it’s hard to do your work under a microscope that has no benchmarks for success.

I’m not sure any skin is thick enough to withstand that.

So many pastors are sacrificed on the altar of need, the altar of “not visiting enough,” the altar of “too political,” the altar of…well, think of the altar you’ve erected and imagine the sacrifice.

It’s a no-win situation.

So, Pastor, let’s do something different: don’t try to win.

It’s OK to not win.

Winning is a game that suckers play who’ve forgotten that their vows ask them not to give “illusory hope,” as ours do.

Illusory hope is that a pastor will fulfill your expectations.

What they will do, I think (and hope), is serve faithfully.

8 thoughts on “Pastors in a No Win Situation

  1. It’s okay not to win…until a congregation demands that you win or else.
    For me, “win or else” meant agree to their demands to lead worship the way they wanted (in-person, indoors, with no required safety protocols even as the pandemic continues) even though I am immunocompromised… or resign.
    I resigned.
    I agree with the general point; some congregation members put unreasonable expectations on their pastors, and pastors should not try to keep up with unreasonable expectations, if only so the next pastor does not have to deal with the same unreasonable expectations. But if the congregation insists on putting unreasonable expectations on the pastor and demands that the pastor meet them or else, choosing not to win means choosing to leave.

  2. I decided after twenty years to quite playing these foolish games. It requires me from stepping away from congregational ministry altogether. That was a year ago and I’m still looking for a full time wage. It’s very hard to translate twenty years of church work and three theological degrees of experience to corporate headhunters. You lose if you stay. You lose if you walk away.

  3. This article describes the many struggles I’ve experienced over the 29 years. I think, in some way, I have let go of the expectations of the people I’m called to serve. Only two years into this space… It’s taken me more than 2.5 decades to stop judging my success by such framework.

    I finally decided to have fun servicing and be grateful for those who benefit from it. Prior to this discovery, I wrestled with depressions, feelings of failure, and responsible for other people’s happiness and spiritual growth. I learned that these things were completely outside of my control. I’m much better now, and this article is a clear reminder that I’m on the right track.

    I’m a better version of me! And I love what I do more than ever!!

    Pastor Terry

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