I am committed to using my voice to give unsolicited advice to congregations and church leaders when it comes to how they care for their pastors as people. In a previous post, “10 Ways to Keep the Pastor You Love,” I urged Christians to care for the pastor at home, but it’s hard for someone who has never been a pastor to know what helps the most.
Here is some of good ways to start based on what I’ve seen, experienced, and heard from pastoral families.
1. Shorten the Distance for a Pastor Who is Far From Family
As a general rule, most pastors do not live near their families. That can be hard for a multitude of reasons. If your pastor has young children, it’s hard to be far from the support of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. If your pastor has elderly parents, it is hard to provide care from a distance. If your pastor has grandchildren in a different part of the country, it can be excruciating. Of course many careers can move you far away from family, but it is the norm for those in the ministry and the military. If your pastor can’t make it home for Thanksgiving, think about extending an invitation to join your family at the table. If your pastor has an ill loved one back home, see if there’s anything you can help with to make it easier for your pastor to make the trip home (consider buying the plane ticket). Those little things can do a lot to alleviate the isolation of living far from family, care for your pastor as a person, and also reduce the temptation to look for a position closer to home.
Consequently, if your pastor is far from family, that probably means they spend most of their vacation time traveling to visit family. That is another reason to be generous in the vacation time you give your pastor (I’m a big proponent for at least 3-4 weeks for pastors since the average full-time lead pastor works 6-7 days per week and 60+ hours per week).
2. Give the Gift of Quality Family Time
If you are going to give your pastor a gift, give the gift of quality family time. One family years ago gave our family tickets to a Buffalo Sabres game for several years, and then gave us season passes to the local zoo. Those were little indulgences that were rare for us, and we made many wonderful memories as a result of those gifts. In the end, those gifts communicated to me that they valued my family in a way that went beyond the cost of those gifts (and they WERE generous gifts). Another year my board gave my family an all-expenses paid trip to the Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY). We had a great little getaway, and created wonderful memories. And I felt both valued and that they understood one of the pressing needs in that season of my life: quality family time. They also set it up so that we could schedule the trip when it was most convenient for us, which also meant a lot. Part of caring for your pastor at home can be creatively finding ways to provide quality family time.
Some people are better gift givers than others, and some people are hard to please with a gift, but give the gift of quality time.
One of the perils of pastoral work is that most of the people we work with serve the church in their free time, so many pastors work normal “work hours” and then also do church work in what would otherwise be their “free time.” You may not think it’s a big deal to call your pastor at home in the evening, but in a church of even 100 people, if everyone calls the pastor at home once every year, that’s two calls at home at night every week. Before you intrude in the evening, on a weekend, or on your pastor’s day off, ask yourself, “Can it wait?” Part of caring for your pastor at home is recognizing that your phone call can usually wait until the morning.
4. Plan for Retirement
An oft-repeated joke about ministry is that the “The pay isn’t great, but the retirement is out of this world.” That’s cute, but one pastor’s son wrote to me: “My dad had a total of about $1,000 contributed to his retirement by churches over around 40 years of church ministry. So, he self-funded much of his retirement out of the meager salaries he received. They’re OK now, between social security and their parents’ estates, but that’s always grated on him.”
My last pastorate contributed generously to my retirement savings, but I know it is not the case for everyone. Helping to provide a secure future can go a long way toward caring for your pastor at home right now.
5. Parsonage & Homeownership
Having a paid-off home is one of the biggest ways for a pastor to prepare for retirement, and it’s one of the reasons I argue against parsonages (a church-owned home). I have searched high and low for a study to prove homeownership results in pastors who stay longer than their peers. While I have not found a study to prove it, I cannot find a study to refute it. I have also found countless advisors who say it’s true (or that it MUST be true). I also cannot find a single person who believes the opposite (that providing a parsonage encourages a longer pastorate, or prepares a pastor best for retirement). In a future post I plan to share my argument FOR a parsonage and my argument AGAINST a parsonage, but suffice it to say that I think helping your pastor become a homeowner is one of the best ways to care for your pastor at home.
It’s a little thing, but it can be quite a boost to find a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup sitting on your desk.
Over the years of ministry some of the most memorable food gifts I have ever received have been:
- a gallon of maple syrup
- fresh concord grapes
- homemade cookies
- homemade pies
- homemade cakes
- candy bars
- snacks for a Super Bowl party
- an unexpected cup of coffee
- restaurant gift cards
Of course, not all food is a treat. My wife and I were once invited over to someone’s house for dinner, and as our hosts were serving us coffee after dinner the milk in my wife’s coffee looked like it had curdled. She didn’t want to embarrass our hosts, but also didn’t want to drink coffee with cream that had gone bad. Our host realized what was going on and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I know it looks bad, but we stock up on milk when it’s on sale and throw it in our freezer. After you thaw the milk it only LOOKS like it’s curdled, but don’t worry – it’s fine!”
Of course it helps if you know what kinds of food or treats your pastor likes (and to avoid your pastor’s allergies), but it can be a real treat so long as you don’t serve curdled milk.
7. A personal story: 4 Deaths in 72 Hours
In the first 72 hours after we brought my youngest son home from the hospital we had four deaths in the church I was serving.
I had planned to take some extra time off to savor having a newborn son in the house, but instead I didn’t even get a single day off for two weeks while I made funeral arrangements with those families. Looking back I can’t think of anything I could have done or should have done differently because I was the pastor: I needed to be there in those moments. But it was nearly overwhelming. I was dealing with (1) my own grief for those who died, (2) my sadness over the lost time with my family and newborn son, and (3) my frustration that this was yet another scheduled vacation that would be interrupted by church work. But then I also felt extremely guilty for being so frustrated. It was really just an inconvenience for me, but these poor people had lost loved ones (this is part of the tension pastors feel).
I may never forget what one friend did in the midst of that dark week, though: he stopped by with coffee. I was surprised to see him, and actually as he walked through the door I was disappointed, thinking, “Oh man – I wish he had called. He went out of his way to see me, and I don’t have time to talk because I have a funeral in 2 hours.” Actually, he drove miles out of his way to deliver coffee to me because I was officiating my fourth funeral in two weeks. It was a simple gesture that said to me, “You’re a pastor, but you’re not a robot. This is hard for you, and I know it.” He didn’t stay long. He didn’t pry. He just showed me he understood by that simple gesture. He drove all that way to be with me in one of my deepest lows of ministry and then turned around and drove back home. And it meant a lot.
Do that even if you don’t ever fully understand what it means to be a pastor, even if your pastor seems unflappable in tumultuous seasons. Be attentive to the highs and lows. Your pastor is often the one who is there for others when they go through a difficult time. If you want to care for your pastor at home, be the one who goes out of your way to be there like that for your pastor.
What do you think?
What did I miss? Anything you would add or take away from this list?
© Steve Dunmire 2015
Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.