Pastors in training are often counseled by those older and more seasoned in ministry to remember, as they preach, “There’s a broken heart in every pew.” At the same time, those in the pews should remember as well, “There’s a heavy heart behind every pulpit.”
Even in the best of times, your pastor carries a heavy spiritual weight. He’s counseling people through painful seasons. He’s visiting people in hospitals as they prepare to die. He’s pleading with people weekly to consider how their eternity hangs in the balance.
But he’s often grappling with much more. On any given week, a pastor might have to spend considerable energy navigating friction between different groups or individuals in the church. He often must bear with Monday-morning quarterbacking about the music or his preaching. He must regularly listen to grumbling about everything from the color of the carpet to what he should be spending his time on. Unfortunately, he may have to combat unhelpful power dynamics among deacons or committees at the church. All of these things place an enormous drain on the average pastor.
As such, your pastor is often a little battle-weary. Your pastor is doing the best he can, but he’s been clobbered for it more than once. Too quickly, this can leave him fearing the worst whenever someone in the church directs something his way. One way you can encourage your pastor, then, might be as simple as being intentional and conscientious with your language to avoid some common pitfalls.
Here are a few examples of language that can accidentally burden rather than bless your pastor:
Ambiguous questions: “Pastor, can we talk?”
When you ask this question, you’ll almost certainly remind your pastor of a time someone asked him that question only to ambush him. These kinds of moments leave scars and make memories that are not easily forgotten. So your pastor, when he hears this question, may instinctively wonder, “Oh no, what’s wrong?” or, “Great, what problem is going to consume me next week?”
Instead, say something like, “Pastor, can we talk sometime next week? Nothing bad, just wanted to get your counsel on ___.” Where the first question leaves your pastor fearful, the second leaves your pastor thankful for your conscientiousness. By removing the ambiguity about why you want to meet, you put your pastor in a position where he can instead look forward to it instead of entering into his time with you with trepidation.
Not only that, but the mental energy he might have otherwise spent anticipating what it is you want to talk about, he can instead spend on getting his head around the issue you already mentioned. In turn, he’ll be of more help to you than he otherwise would have been. When you’re conscientious like this, everyone wins.
Bare Encouragement: “Praying for you today.”
We are commanded to pray for those in authority over us, but often, we only think to pray for someone when we know they’re facing a tough time. It’s possible, then, that a bare statement like, “Praying for you today,” can leave your pastor thinking, “They never reach out with something like this. What’s going on? What’s wrong?” Should that be the case? Of course not. But Satan loves to twist God’s good gifts. In this sense, being intentional with our language is nothing less than an act of war against the powers who would love to turn an attempt to encourage into an occasion to fear.
Intentionality here can be as little as adding a simple prefix to your statement. “This is prompted by nothing other than gratitude. Just wanted to let you know I’m praying for you today.” When you remove the ambiguity, you choke out fear before it has the chance to take root, and you ensure the gift you intended doesn’t spoil in transit. Alternatively, you can say something like, “Pastor, I pray for you every Saturday, and today I want you to know I’m praying ____.” When you cast your language in concrete terms (e.g., I’m thankful for x, y, z; I’m praying for a, b, c), you supercharge the effect of your encouragement.
Backhanded Support: “Pastor, I know some folks really don’t like you, but I’m with you!”
If your pastor is facing opposition in the church right now, I promise you (a) he knows it, and (b) he doesn’t need to be reminded of it. In fact, he probably carries around some misplaced shame because of it. So when you point it out, it doesn’t matter what else you say, even if it’s encouragement. What the pastor hears is, “You’re toxic, and we all know it.”
Instead, focus on concrete, positive things. “Pastor, if there’s any way I can serve you this week, I just want to let you know it would be my honor. I’m grateful for you, and I’m with you.” Alternatively, “Pastor, I’m so grateful for the way you ____. God put you here in this moment to lead, and I just want you to know I’m thankful for that.” There may very well be times to discuss the opposition itself, but your encouragement will mean much more if you strip it of any landings for insecurity or shame to find footing.
If you’re “guilty” of any of these things, don’t be embarrassed. Odds are, your pastor knew what you meant and took it that way. And don’t let it dampen your efforts to encourage — quite the opposite. Instead, let it spur you on even more encouragement because you realize afresh how your pastor is human, fallen, and a sinner just like you. The New Testament is brimming with “one another” language, in part because God has designed relationships within the body of Christ to be a tool God uses to shape and form and sustain us.
Your church needs your pastor. And your pastor needs you. The encouragement you give might be the very instrument God uses to keep your pastor going and often will be remembered by him long after you even remember giving it. Well-spoken encouragement has an eternal half-life. Let’s embrace it, then, to show and share the mercy of Christ.