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Advice for Young Pastors From an Ex-Evangelical Preacher

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

Years ago, I wrote the following post for the Ex-Pastors website. I thought readers of this blog might find it interesting, so I am re-posting it here. Recently, I noticed that an Evangelical writer quoted this article several times in his book. I wonder if he knew I was now an atheist? Regardless of my “relationship” with God, what follows is still good advice for men and women who desire to serve God and man in the ministry.

Young preachers begin the ministry with a lot of fervor and idealism. They go to their first church believing they are going to make a difference, that they are going to be able to do what others before them have not done.

For a time it may seem that they are succeeding in changing the church but then the honeymoon period ends and the preacher realizes that being a pastor is not what they thought it would be. Sometimes this is so devastating to the young preacher that they leave the ministry. The number of one and done pastors is quite high. Being a pastor over a long period of time requires a preacher to lose their idealism and forces them to temper their fervor.

Why?

There are several things that every young preacher must understand about every church: People are people.

There is a power base in every church.

Problems in the church are rarely exposed to prospective pastors.

Moderate, incremental change is difficult. Dramatic, instant change is almost always impossible (because people are people and the power base will resist any change that robs them of their power).

Here are a few suggestions that I hope will be a help to every young preacher that reads this post:

1. Don’t confuse your self-identity with the church. Far too many pastors allow themselves to be swallowed up by the church, losing their self-identity in the process.

2. Don’t sacrifice your children or spouse for the sake of the church. Trust me, 25 years later, the church will have long since forgotten you and your sacrifice will mean little.

3. Choose which battles are worth fighting. Not every hill is worth dying on and not every challenge to your authority of leadership is worthy of a fight. Remember, the church is not your church. You, along with people who likely have been there for many years, are simply caretakers of the church.

4. Be willing to say, I don’t know. I realize this puts you at great risk of being unemployed (since church members crave certainty) but speaking with certainty when you know there is none is lying and dishonest.

5. Be aware of the traps that can destroy your ministry, especially the big 2 – money and women. Never touch the money and never allow yourself to be put in a position where moral compromise is possible.

6. Insist that the church pay you well. Do not be a full-time worker for part-time pay. It is OK to pastor churches that cannot pay you a living wage, but the church must understand that you have an obligation to your family and you must work a job outside the church to properly provide for them.

7. Make sure there is an annual pay review procedure in place. You should not have to beg for a raise. Make sure you have an employment contract where the job requirements, pay level, benefits, pay review period, and termination procedure is clearly laid out. If a church is unwilling to put all of this in writing, what does that tell you?

8. If at all possible, own your own home. Someday you will not be a pastor. Someday you will be old and retired. Then what? Where will you live? Churches can rent out the parsonage and provide you with a housing allowance. Remember, most of the church members are building equity in their home and you should be able to do the same.

9. Insist that the church pays into a 401K that you own. Do not let anyone convince you to opt out of Social Security. It “sounds” OK now but when you are old you will regret it. What happens if you are disabled and have not paid into Social Security? You are out of luck.

10. Make sure that all sacrifice is shared. Remember it is not your church and it is not you alone who is responsible for “saving” the church from whatever crisis it faces.

11. Don’t use your wife and children as gophers and fill-ins every time something needs to be done at the church. Insist that church members take ownership of the church and do the work necessary to maintain the church and do what is necessary to keep the church functioning.

12. Don’t be in a hurry to find a church to pastor. A lot of churches that are looking for pastors don’t deserve a pastor. They have chewed up and spit out the last five preachers before you and, trust me, they will do the same to you. Let them die.

13. If a community already has X number of churches, don’t delude yourself with thinking that if you started a new, exciting church that it would be different than all the rest. It won’t. People are people and churches are pretty much all the same. Don’t flatter yourself.

14. Focus on people that need help. Focus on the least of these. By all means, offer them Jesus but do not neglect their physical needs. The greatest difference you can make in a person’s life it to help them when they are in the gutter and help them rise out of poverty. Above all, be their friend.

15. Visit regularly in the homes of the people you pastor. Get to know them. Allow them to be honest with you and ask you whatever question they want. Eat their food, take them out to eat and pay the bill. Don’t smother them but don’t neglect them either.

16. Don’t get sucked into buildings and programs that the church does not need. Rather than building a fancy new building, complete with gymnasium, think about maximizing what you have so more money can be given to the poor. If church members want to play basketball or do Pilates, they can go to the gym.

17. Do everything you can to integrate the youth into the church. They should be stakeholders. After all, they are the future of the church. This does not mean that you must become one of them. There is nothing more embarrassing than a pastor who tries to act like a teenager. Grow up and be a good example.

18. Work hard and be honest. Don’t be the kind of preacher that gives all preachers a bad name. Just because you are the pastor of a church doesn’t mean you are entitled to special treatment. Don’t ask for discounts and don’t expect people to favor you just because you pastor X church on Main St.

19. Don’t tell anyone you are a preacher. Don’t self-promote. Don’t insist people call you Reverend or pastor. Be an authentic human being, complete with faults and frailties. Don’t be afraid to admit to the church that you are a failure, that you are no better than anyone else.

20. Don’t let people put you on a pedestal. Trust me, falls off the pedestal are nasty.

21. Above all, understand that life is more, far more, than the ministry. Stop and take time to enjoy life, to enjoy the world you say your God created.

The advice I give here flows out of a lifetime in the Christian church and 25 years in the pastorate. I hope some young preacher might find what I have written above helpful.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Infidel753

    Don’t sacrifice your children or spouse for the sake of the church. Trust me, 25 years later, the church will have long since forgotten you and your sacrifice will mean little.

    Good advice for most jobs, not just pastors. Whatever company you’re working for now won’t be part of your life 25 years from now, but your family will.

  2. Avatar
    Bob

    Again, not expecting this to be posted, but I will comment. I do not think that you being a proclaimed atheist has anything to do with what you wrote. Those words of wisdom come from years of experience and my guess is, that you would share those same words if you were still a religious pastor.
    I have seen people walk away from church and God for a lot less reasons and when someone commits their entire life and being to the cause you are writing about and they end up being on the short side of the stick a number of years later, they have even more reasons to walk away. Some of your bullet points are some of the reasons I stopped pursuing “ordained ministry”.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Why the adversarial tone, Bob?

      Why wouldn’t I post your comment?

      I wrote this post when I was still a Christian.

      While some of the points played a minor part in my deconversion, none of them are THE reason I left Christianity. Read the WHY page if you don’t understand why I deconverted.

      Glad we could get that straightened out. 😀

  3. Avatar
    Matilda

    The pastor I had most respect for was one who, when someone described him as ‘the man at the top,’ said he preferred ‘the man at the bottom.’ When the ancient church central heating boiler was unreliable, he was the one who went to check on it at midnight on Saturday, for example, as he lived next door to the church and the caretaker lived some miles away. He was very ‘hands on’ with physical labour, which always surprised some church folk who expected he’d act like the boss.

  4. Avatar
    mary

    former pastors kid here. wish parents had taken this advice. they put their all into every church and moved on every few years none of the churches even exist now. we have a distant civil relationship but no further. the church was the cause. now i can’t even go into a church. thanks for your writings.

  5. Avatar
    Yulya. Sevelova

    I read this post with great interest. I think that the points are very balanced. Most of the pastors one encounters, especially these days are lazy,remote and hard to engage without their entourage, and also they have too much power and abuse it. Most budding student-pastors won’t get the benefit of these warnings,which is a shame.

  6. Avatar
    Bob

    There was a possibility that you would not post because I was told a while back that my post would no longer be published due to my attitude when posting my thoughts. Something along that line, so whether you posted or not, was irrelevant to me.

    Adversarial? I actually gave you a compliment concerning your wisdom of writing. You may read too much into my posts? I always seem to be too disrespectful or negative or something along that line.

    You may have written that as a Christian, but republishing as an atheist didn’t matter to me, it was more about the content.

    Did I say that these were the reasons you walked away? I said no such thing. That was a general statement concerning what I have witnessed and even some of what I have experienced in life.

    I was actually sharing a little bit about myself and my experience. Not every believer is out to get you Bruce.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Sorry, Bob, but I don’t keep track of those who have lost their commenting privileges. I’ll have to go back and see why you ended up on Santa’s naughty list.

      I stand by my reaction to your comment, though I see how you might view the matter differently.

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