What Do Congregations Want in a Pastor? Surprise! It’s Us!

What Do Congregations Want?If you asked a few hundred church members what characteristics they were searching for in a pastor, what do you think they’d say?

You don’t have to wonder. Thom Rainer asked that question a while ago and published the top ten responses on his blog last week.

When I first read the list, I smiled. For three reasons.

First, it’s a really healthy list. Church members are expecting basic pastoral competence, honesty and leadership. That’s what they ought to expect.

And when you look at some select quotes from church members that Thom included, their expectations look even healthier and more balanced than most pastors might have expected. Good for them.

Ten Things Members Desire in a PastorSecond, I smiled when I recognized that none of the following expectations made the list:

  • Administrative Prowess
  • Great Fundraiser
  • Facility Management
  • Church Growth Strategist

It’s not that pulpit search committees won’t be looking for some of those attributes. They will. Especially for bigger churches. But it makes me smile when my suspicions are confirmed that the skills many of us obsess over aren’t what matter to the average church member.

Third, I smiled because that list looks very familiar. It’s the basic job description of a Small Church pastor. It’s what most of us do every day.

Churches want their pastor to offer a basic level of care, competence and integrity. They’re not looking for perfection or greatness.

As it turns out, what church members are really looking for in a pastor … is us!


So Where’s the Disconnect?

Surprisingly, this list caused a mini firestorm among Thom’s readers, most of whom are in the ministry.

He got a lot of comments on it. Over 90% of them were positive, but 5 – 10% were shockingly negative. Here are a few excerpts.

“That’s right everybody, just keep piling on the expectations :/”

“You’d have to be five or six people to master all the traits on the wish list churches have.”

“Impossibly schizophrenic…this list exactly reflects the causes of stress and unrealistic heartache I wrestle with as a pastor. …Thanks for sucking the mojo right out of my soul.”

Oh my.

So what’s going on here?

I think such deeply negative comments speak to the pain that these pastors are already carrying with them. They’ve been hurt. Deeply. They need our prayers.

I get that pain. I’ve felt that pain. There was a time in my ministry when this list would have triggered my pain like it triggered theirs. But I’ve come to realize that the expectations on this list aren’t the cause of that pain.

The pain that these expectations trigger is often caused by what I recently referred to as The 11th Reason Pastors Quit Too Soon – the drive to build a bigger church.

If those ten character traits were read without prior pain and without the unspoken expectation that you have to do those ten plus grow a huge church, I don’t think pastors would feel as burdened by them.

Doing those ten adequately, but not super-humanly, in my current church, at the size it is now, with no expectation that the church has to get bigger to be successful is what pastoring a healthy Small Church looks like.


What People Want

If you still doubt that this is a reasonable list, take another look at it and answer this question. Which character trait would you remove? Good work ethic? Love of congregation? Strong character? Effective preaching?

No one is great at all ten. But greatness wasn’t asked for. Or expected. But all ten are needed to lead a healthy church, even if they’re shared between two leaders in a co-pastorate.

People want their pastor to be their pastor. To lead by example. To have integrity. To help them grow in their faith. And to love them along the way.

If we stop trying to do what they’re not asking us to do, that’s not a burden. It’s a privilege. And a joy.


So what do you think? Does this list seem reasonable to you? Or is it unrealistic?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Nancy Drew photo from heather_mcnabb • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and is the author of several books. His latest is The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation.

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20 thoughts on “What Do Congregations Want in a Pastor? Surprise! It’s Us!”

  1. There was a time I would have…OK I still look at a list like this and feel a bit intimidated. Thinking there is no way…it’s just not in me!
    But I don’t have to do it all at the same time. I don’t have to keep all the plates spinning. I just have to concentrate on the current plate God has me dealing with. And HE gives me everything I need at the time I need it!!!
    Sure, that list IS what people are looking for, I trust Thom’s insight.
    I trust God even more to give me what I need, as I need it, to meet the needs of my small church folks.
    The REALLY hard part is that fleshly side that tries to do all the “not asking for” stuff!!!
    Jesus met the needs of the people in front of Him at the time, may we all, as small church pastors do the same!

    1. Scott, I think one of the reasons this list seems so intimidating, is some that some of us are reading it like it’s a must-do list. But it’s just the top ten responses from hundreds of people. If Thom had listed every response, there may have been 100 or more different characteristics mentioned, including (literal) plate-spinning. But it doesn’t mean anyone thinks every pastor ought to be an expert on them all.

      It sure does inspire some strong reactions and conversations, though.

  2. Hey Karl,
    I understand your “11th reason” above, but do not agree.
    My own reactions tended to drift toward the “pile it on” mentality, but this is a reaction to the lack of inauthenticity in relationships among leaders that I have experienced.
    Good post. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks, Brad. Just for clarification, what is it that you disagree with? I have no problem with the fact that you disagree, I’m just wondering about specifics. I’d love to have a better understanding of it.

      1. Thanks! I understood you to say that the 11th reason was the pastor’s drive to build a bigger church. Eureka! I see my “disconnect”. That’s not what you said. Glad you asked.

        1. OK, cool. Glad that got clarified. I don’t need to be agreed with, but I’m glad we have a clear understanding. Thanks for taking the time to re-read.

  3. This may seem like a really naive question from a young pastor, but I grew up in a strong tradition of focus on making disciples and on mission – even carrying on to my time in my Bible College the focus remained. It wasn’t the main focus, but it was definitely always one focus. I imagine you wouldn’t say that we should forget about the great commission, and I know that for myself personally it is a conviction that I believe Jesus spoke about quite strongly; but I guess my question would be how does a pastor in a small church rectify what Jesus spoke so clearly about in the great commission with the desire of small church parishioners who are part of a small church because they like small churches. I mean unless you’re turning away people, in a church community where the parishioners and pastors are loving the community around them it’s eventually going to grow right? Even if not by leaps and bounds at some point I always had in my mind that a healthy church was a church that was growing – because church growth then reflects the church’s conviction that Jesus sent us into the world to make disciples (thus not just hanging out with them for a “coversion experience”, but rather taking the time to disciple them and likely to ‘invite them in’).

    Just some thoughts. I think it came more from an earlier post where you had said that many people are in small churches because they prefer the small church setting where they can interact with the pastor etc. etc.

    1. Great question. One of the biggest challenges in supporting healthy Small Churches is to fight the perception that we’re settling for “us four, no more, shut the door.”.

      The quickest way to explain this is to say that being faithful to The Great Commission will help THE church to grow, but may not always result in MY church growing – at least not necessarily numerically.

      For example, in my church, we’ve raised up a lot of college-age people, training them in ministry and sending them back to their home church, full-time pastorates and into the mission field. We invest in them, give them hands-on ministry experience, then they help other churches grow numerically. The size of our church allows that to take place. Because we’re small, they can be involved from day one in multiple aspects of church life. They’re not pegged into one department and they don’t have to wait until they reach a high level of excellence before they can activate their gifts.

      Another example is a friend of mine. He pastors a church of about 100, but they planted 3 churches last year and plan to plant dozens of strategic Small Churches in neighborhoods around their city in the next decade.

      The innovative Small Church is all about The Great Commission, but realizes that the fruit of evangelism may land in places outside our bucket.

      Does that help?

      1. That’s awesome Karl thank you so much! That helps a lot. I’m living in a small town in the Yukon right now 1500 people during the Winter (and many more during the Summer – up to 80,000 passing through because it’s a tourist town), so when you made the point of “4 and no more” that’s literally what we have so far, not the mindset, but the numbers (just started up a church a few months back). But we do find that it’s easier to feed into the ministries of others that are already established rather than start up something of our own to be in competition. For example there’s a church just down the street that has a youth group with a number of students, whereas there are no youth at all in our church so far – so the other pastor I’m working with heads over there on Friday nights to help out there.

        I’m reminded of something that Darrin Patrick said – “churches fail because the story and the glory of the church become bigger than the story and glory of God” – I like how he makes the point of not obsessing so much over making the church bigger to the detriment of our focus on God and what He’s doing. That sounds kind of like what you’re saying I think – if I’m not misunderstanding.

        And thanks for the bucket analogy too – that’s also super helpful to realize that it’s not all about the fruit landing in “our bucket”.

        Such a learning process.

        1. It sounds like you’re starting well, Andy. The kind of cooperation you have with the other church’s youth group.is far too rare, and it speaks well of you. It’s important to have that spirit of cooperation between churches. News like that travels fast in a small town, and it will glorify God.

          I love that Darrin Patrick quote. You’re absolutely right when you assume that’s what I’m all about.

          Thanks for stepping up, asking a great question and sharing your story. You and your church are exactly who this ministry is for.

  4. One thing I’m always amazed at when I see a list of what’s expected from pastors or now the catch phrase is ‘leaders’ is how often the lists are ‘good’ but are they Biblical. I mean, for example, the list above: it’s a good list – really is – but I don’t know if I’d have all those in the top 10…for example I don’t see on the list: temperate, self-controlled, respectable (could go with strong character), hospitable, not given to drunkneness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money (that’s a big one), must manage his own family well (that’s huge too, how many pastor’s work to win the souls of the world, but lose the ones in their own homes…God help us)
    I mention the above only because they come right from the Word. I feel this list tells us something else – it tells me, that the “language” isn’t there, the words of Scripture aren’t there as to the qualifications or expectations of pastor (business words were used: visionary, leadership, character)
    Again – this is a good list, and based on your question there aren’t any that I’d remove, I’d just move some of them down (not all) to make room for the Biblical qualifications.
    Could it be that our people (in general – across the board) don’t know what the Bible says are qualifications? That they’ve bought in to some of the CEOism of doing church?
    Maybe not. But it is strange that what the Bible specifically says isn’t found on the list.

    1. That’s a great point, Cindy. I’ve been thinking about that disconnect since reading your comment about an hour ago.

      I think it comes from the nature of the question. Since he asked a self-based question in “what are YOU looking for in a pastor?”, he got self-based answers. I wonder if the question had been “what are the biblical qualifications for leadership?” would the responses have been different? We’ll never know, but I suspect that would change things.

      1. Yes, I see. Wouldn’t it be great though, if the question, “What are you looking for in a pastor?” and “What is God (from Scripture) looking for in a pastor?” produced the same answers?
        I saw a post on FB from a man who had an open ended question regarding leadership. He wanted to know if there was anything out there that spoke of leadership qualifications for a pastor that did NOT include those of a CEO or as he put it “a hip emergent pastor.” Once again, the list of responses included books, opinions, quotes from ‘leadership experts’…but not one Scripture. Very interesting and very telling.
        (REALLY enjoying your book by the way! Circling and underlining…and reading to my husband…he always jokes that he never has to read a book because I tell him everything! lol)

  5. you have always an outstanding post, keep them coming I share these on my FB page COG ministers Fresh Bread, love it, can use it, will learn some thing every time I read your post, thanks and God bless You Karl.

  6. Karl – thank you for these insights and the comments are also helpful. I really appreciate this resource. There is a lot of frustration that comes with questions about church size and attendance. Occasionally if someone asks how big our church is, I humorously might say, “Around 3500 sq ft I think or maybe 10 acres of land?” I am especially impressed with how your church brings others in and releases them into ministry. I am also encouraged and challenged by the lists both here and in scripture. I wonder what typical church size was in the NT? – Charlie

    1. Thanks, Charlie. Yeah, that last question is a good one. The bible says they met from house to house, so I’m thinking most NT churches were bite-sized. But on the Day of Pentecost they added 3,000+ and then grew at an alarmingly fast rate, so the meetings they had in the temple courts were probably pretty big. It could be that the Jerusalem church had a ratio of big to small churches similar to what we have today, while churches in other cities were almost all small. Just a guess, but fun to speculate.

  7. I love lay people. This list is so beautiful. I know for sure that the most important thing I can do for my people is stay connected to Christ. If I abide in Jesus then these ten things are simply the fruit of that abiding.

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