Social activist Elliott Larson* said, “Anger always comes from frustrated expectations.” When I read that I couldn’t help but think of the church, or more specifically, congregational expectations towards their pastor. So often the reason why people are mad at their pastor can be traced back to frustrated expectations.
There are two types of expectations, realistic and unrealistic. It’s realistic for the members of your church to expect you to be prepared on Sunday morning to give a sermon, to be there for them when they face a crisis, to return their calls or emails, to pray for and with them, and to be somewhat of an example. It is unrealistic for your parishioners to expect you, your spouse, and your family to be perfect. It’s not realistic for them to feel like you should be available 24/7. It’s unrealistic for them to expect you to agree with them all the time, to like the things they like and value the things they value. It’s not realistic for your members to expect you to never get mad, frustrated, or make mistakes.
Congregational expectations originate from a few places. These are:
1. Expectations carried over from past pastoral experiences.
I remember a family that joined out church after having recently moved into the area from another state. One of the first things they made sure to do was to tell me how great their former church was and how awesome their pastor was. He was “so this and so that”. As I listened to them go on and on I couldn’t help but think, “Boy, are they gonna be disappointed.” My church wasn’t anything like the one they described, nor did I resemble the guy that formerly pastored them. The opposite of this is when someone comes to your church and they have had a bad experience with their former pastor. So now they’re overly sensitive and just waiting for the first time you do anything that reminds them of the last guy and poof…they’re gone!
2. Expectations carried over from past experiences with authority figures.
Usually this means Mom or Dad. In counseling circles it’s called transference. You become a father figure or a mother figure (it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female). I’ve had projected on me mother and father. Have you ever wanted to say, “Hey…I’m not your father.”? If so, then you know what I’m talking about. People can expect you to behave like their mother or their father did, whether that was good or bad.
3. Expectations based on misinformation about what a pastor should be or do. Somewhere along the line, perhaps from culture, people have learned that pastors are supposed to behave a certain way, do certain things. It’s misinformation but based on that, they now have expectations that you may or may not be able to fulfill.
So what’s the best way to handle congregational expectations?
- Regularly teach on the subject of expectations, unrealistic expectations, and not only expectations towards the pastor but also expectations members have of one another.
- Get in touch with who you are and who you aren’t as a pastor. Now remember, this is not an excuse for you to dismiss expectations that are realistic. “Well I don’t like to talk on the phone, it’s just not me. People shouldn’t expect me to call them back.” Sorry, that won’t fly.
- Once you know who you are, learn to be comfortable with that person. I don’t mean comfortable in the sense that you stop growing, or stop being open to change, or no longer see the need for personal change…but comfortable in the sense that you know who God made you. You are unique. The world might not need more than one of you…but they do need the one they have.
- Finally, be humble, be kind, understand that it’s normal for people to place unrealistic expectations on you, it’s hard for them to do otherwise, but…don’t give in to it. Remember the old saying, “If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
*Responsible for the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act which specifically forbids discrimination in employment on the basis of sex.
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