The Top Seven Regrets of Pastors

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I recently interviewed more than twenty pastors who had been in ministry for at least 25 years. All of these men were over 55 years old.  A few of them were retired, but most of them were still active in fulltime vocational ministry.

The interview was simple. I asked one open-ended question: “What regrets do you have about the years you have served as a pastor?” Each of the men could provide as many responses as they desired. They could make the answers succinct, or they could elaborate upon them.

7 Regrets of PastorsThree pastors had as few as two responses; one pastor had nine. Most of the pastors noted three or four regrets. As a researcher, I typically see patterns develop in this type of subjective research. When it concluded, I was able to see seven definitive patterns, and I was able to see the frequency they occurred.

Below are the top seven regrets noted in order of frequency. I received a total of 17 different responses, but only these seven occurred with any degree of repetition. After each regret, I provide a representative direct quote from one of the interviewees.

  1. Lack of practical training for local church ministry. “I was not prepared for 80 percent of my day-to-day ministry after I graduated from seminary. I wish I had taken time to find some resources or places where I could get practical training. I had to learn in the school of hard knocks, and it was very painful at times.”
  2. Overly concerned about critics. “I had this naïve view that a bunch of Christians in a church would always show love toward each other. Boy was I wrong! There are some mean church members out there. My regret is that I spent way too much time and emotional energy dealing with the critics. I think of the hundreds of hours I lost focusing on critics, and it grieves me to this day.”
  3. Failure to exercise faith. “At some point in my ministry, I started playing defense and let the status quo become my way of doing church. I was fearful of taking steps of faith, and my leadership and churches suffered as a result. Not only was I too cautious in the churches I served, I was too cautious in my own ministry. I really felt God calling me to plant a church at one point, but I was just too fearful to take that step.”
  4. Not enough time with family. “I can’t say that people didn’t warn me. One wise pastor told me I had a mistress. When he saw my anger rising, he told me that my mistress was busyness in my church, and that my family was suffering from neglect. It hurts me to say this, but one of my adult sons is still in rebellion, and I know it is a direct result of my neglect of him when he was young.”
  5. Failure to understand basic business and finance issues. “The first time I saw my church’s budget, I thought I was looking at a foreign language. Greek is a lot easier than finance. They sure don’t teach you basic church finance and business at seminary, and I didn’t take the initiative to educate myself. I really felt stupid in so many of the discussions about the budget or other church business issues.”
  6. Failure to share ministry. “Let me shoot straight. I had two complexes. The first was the Superman complex. I felt like if ministry was going to be done well, I had to do it. I couldn’t ask or equip someone else to do it. My second complex was the conflict avoider complex. I was so afraid that I would get criticized if I didn’t visit Aunt Susie personally when she had an outpatient procedure that I ran myself ragged. In my second church I suffered burnout and ended up resigning.”
  7. Failure to make friends. “I know it’s cliché, but being a pastor can be lonely. I think many pastors get in trouble because we can get so lonely. I wish I had done a better job of seeking out true friends. I know if I had made the effort, there would have been a number of pastors in town that I could have befriended. Sometimes I got so busy doing ‘stuff’ that I didn’t have time to do the things that really matter.”

So what do you think of these top seven regrets? What would you add?


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About Thom S. Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources. This column first appeared at ThomRainer.com.

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  • http://tomjamieson.com/ Tom Jamieson

    As someone who has been in ministry for 18 years, I can concur with this list. I would say from my experience, #s 1 and 5 are the most glaring. Pastors would do well with more training in the practical side of ministry, which includes what many consider to be the “business side” of church work. In the pastorates where I have served, I have tried to spend a good amount of time educating the church staff and membership that there are really two sides to church work — ministry and business.

  • Andrew Waugh

    how about “failure to maintain non-Christian friendships”?

    • Doug

      Professional Christians. One of the criticisms of Christ by the religious leaders of the day was that he had the audacity to be a “friend” of sinners. Eat dinner with them, etc. Most pastors today don’t personally know one non-believer.

  • E in Texas

    Thom, I am a Pastor’s son and I have heard my father speak of all these issues through the years. My upbringing has positioned me to become close friends with several Pastors I have encountered through my years. I would offer a comment, I think it is covered in your list but not in the context that I want to communicate here, the skill of delegating. Picking the right person to lead a project/task and getting out of their way and accepting the process being different than what you envisioned. You can clearly describe (prescribe) the outcome but normally the “right” person will have a better way of doing the process to accomplish your outcome. It’s when you manage the process that you become a micro-manager and if you can only be happy with your exact vision of the process and outcome, you will make yourself and everyone else miserable. I work with business owners and frequently tell them, “You will never get bigger than that which you cannot let go”, meaning, eventually you will have so many tasks that only you can do, that you will not be able to do a single more thing that is critical for your business and you will stop growing. Churches are no different in that respect.

  • Kurt Bubna

    GREAT post! I wish I would have read this about 30 years ago. Thank you!

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