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I always appreciated not receiving much appreciation during Pastors’ Appreciation Month.
Invented by the sellers of greeting cards and trinkets, pushed by “Christian” media, it’s one more of those made-up holidays. The lack of cards and trinkets I received told me that the people of my church weren’t listening to those voices — thankfully.
Still, pastors, like everyone else, need appreciation. What they don’t need is some bauble declaring them to be “The World’s Greatest Pastor!”
Below, I’ve come up with ways to truly please and appreciate your pastor. Some of my suggestions are undoubtedly peculiar to me and my context. Many others, I would venture, are nearly universal.
Pastors are fully human. They have spouses, children, and parents. They have the same thin skin and tender hearts as you. They have the same obligations, needs, and baggage that you carry. Years ago, one of the greatest gifts I received from people in the church was encouragement to go spend time with my ailing parents. Be glad, don’t grumble, when you see your pastor on a walk, when they are gone for Parents Weekend at their child’s college. Encourage them to have close pastoral colleagues. Find out when they take their day off and respect it.
Of course, welcome and hospitality are key qualities of a pastor. Some of the best advice I received as a young pastor was “Remember that the interruptions to your work are your work.” But don’t assume your pastor is always available. No one expects to drop in unannounced to see their doctor or financial advisor. It varies from church-to-church, pastor to pastor. Sticking your head in the door for a quick “Hi!” might be normal and appreciated in some contexts. But if you need a longer, focused time, make an appointment. Complaining “the pastor is never in” when you randomly appear feels like a cheap shot — especially when you also want your pastor to be out and about, making contacts, visiting, and more.
Give your pastor the benefit of the doubt. Like an iceberg, there’s a lot below the waterline in the life of the church. Things you don’t know. Things your pastor can’t share. I was always irked by the condescending remarks that began “I’m sure you don’t know…” Once in a rare while I was surprised by new information. But most of the time, the response in my head was “Oh, I do know, and I know much, much more.” Also, be glad if your pastor doesn’t know everything. How to work the electric mixer in the kitchen, where the extra sno-melt is stored, or in which room the second grade Vacation Bible School group will meet might be things it is better if your pastor doesn’t know.
The sermon is not the measure of a pastor. Don’t evaluate your pastor’s performance on the sermon alone. There is so much more to the job. Some weeks will be better than others. “Consistently adequate” is about as much a congregation should expect from sermons.
Early in my time, I let it be known that I didn’t like to hear “You gave me a lot to think about” as a response to a sermon. I was reacting to the too-common notion that we go to worship primarily to “learn,” to have our brains filled. Unfortunately, I think all I accomplished was to make people feel self-conscious about saying anything at all. Of course, compliments and comments are always welcome. Nonetheless, words that are personal, specific — and for me at least, more heart than head — are especially appreciated.
Be an engaged participant during worship. I’m not very good at this when I’m in the pews. But I know when I lead worship how much I need those people whose heads are lifted up, who are looking at me, maybe smiling or subtly nodding, who speak the responses and sing heartily. When it felt like everything in worship was flat and coming undone, I would desperately look for those familiar faces I could count on to appear energized.
Revere the sacraments. One of my favorite times as a pastor was serving the Lord’s Supper. It was a moment of holiness, face-to-face contact. I loved the people who met me with solemn joy, hungry, a bit like a baby bird longing to be fed by its mother. It might seem like good manners, but please don’t respond, “Thank you.” I’m not the one giving the gift. I loved those who responded with a solid “Amen” or “Thanks be to God.” Stand square and upright. Come close. A few former Catholics would cross themselves or genuflect. Of course, you don’t have to do that, but it signaled to me that they recognized this as an amazing moment and that they were eager to receive.
Sunday morning is not the time for long conversations. As a pastor, almost nothing is worse than three minutes before worship being told there’s no toilet paper in the men’s room. It’s not the time to share in great detail about your niece’s medical condition or why you disagree with a recent board decision. A quick “Please pray for my niece” or “My neighbors came along and I’d like to introduce them after worship” is wonderful. After worship, things are more relaxed and there is more time. Even then, in my situation, it was impossible to talk with everyone each week. Often a pastor can only give a “Good to see you” or “Great to have you here.” Don’t be that person who thinks they need ten minutes of the pastor’s attention every single Sunday. And if you have something controversial to discuss, a complaint to bring — don’t do it on Sunday.
If you have an idea or want to see something happen, then expect to be involved with making it happen. When people came to me wanting this program or telling me that we ought to be doing this, my go-to response was to ask them if they would take the lead in seeing it happen. Ideas without do-ers and follow-through usually aren’t very helpful.
Your pastor doesn’t necessarily appreciate or agree with everything that happens at the church. In a community, no one gets their way all the time. There are likely traditions, programs, music, and decisions that the pastor doesn’t especially care for, but knows that they’re meaningful to others in the congregation. Long ago someone said, “A wise DJ doesn’t only play records they like.” A wise pastor knows this too.
Be careful about comparing pastors, about putting pastors of the past on a pedestal. We all will click more with some pastors than others. But from the pastor’s side, when we hear you say “I always liked it when Pastor Vander X did…” it often hits our insecurity button. We feel like we aren’t measuring up. But then from your side, when you find yourself harkening back to a pastor of the past, ask yourself are you stuck there? Have you over-idealized a person or an era? Are you open to the gifts this other pastor might bring?
Please don’t say “I sure wish we could pay you more.” It may be meant sincerely, but to me it always felt like a patronizing pat on the head. You are paying me what you are paying me. Let’s all own that rather than talk about what we wish. No one goes into the ministry for financial reward, but salaries are a way to convey affirmation. I was fortunate. I was almost always satisfied with my compensation. A firm “thank you for all you do” felt so much better than an insipid excuse about wishing you could do more.
Write a note of gratitude to your pastor. Even make a habit of it. When I was emptying my study, I came across the file where I kept all my warm-and-fuzzy notes. I was touched as I re-read them — some, now decades old. Try to be vulnerable in your writing. A few sentences written from your heart are way more meaningful than a signature on the bottom of a store-bought card.
Go to worship — faithfully, regularly. We all know that we don’t go to worship to prop up the pastor’s fragile ego. And pastors know that in today’s world people travel. Kids have sports. We live hectic lives. But the feeling that worship is a “if I don’t have any better offers” event is very hard on pastors. Nothing you can do will be more appreciated by pastors than simply showing up.