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When People Disappoint You: A Common Pastoral Dilemma

28 February, 2019
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Let’s be honest: The dynamics of trying to install a proper growth structure in a small church is difficult!

In most small churches, the pastor is the only staff member. And it is a common concept for many congregations to expect the pastor to do everything at the church from preaching to praying to visiting to cleaning and even cutting the grass. 

However, the other side of this coin reveals that a lot of small-church pastors actually like doing everything. There is the sincere belief of many shepherds that Jesus has called us to do it all. I have observed several sources that contribute to this way of thinking over the years. Here are a few:

1) Doing everything fulfills our desire to be needed.

Pastoring is hard work! It's not unusual to often feel like much of what we do goes unappreciated by our congregation. A consistent lack of encouragement can be a drain on our emotional tank. Therefore, in order to fill our tank again, we'll work harder to accomplish tasks at any cost in order to be affirmed.

2) Confirmation of how we were raised.

It is normal to do things in a way that was modeled for us by our upbringing. John Maxwell says it this way: “We teach what we know, but we model who we are.” The things that we caught tend to trump what we were taught. It takes a strategic and intentional plan to change our behavior from what we experienced through our upbringing.

3) Pastor-burn keeps us from being dependent on others.

I want to be really honest with this point. It is difficult for us to hand off tasks and trust those in our congregation to follow-through because we have been disappointed so many times. Pastor-burn, left unaddressed, can have devastating effects in the long-run of our ministry.

The natural reaction of being burned is to go inward and just do it all ourselves. We may even be convinced that the only way to get things done right is to do them on our own. Plus, a lack of gifted volunteers with an understanding of the need for change within the church adds to our dilemma as well.

However, the adoption of this Lone Ranger philosophy is a guarantee that we will eventually experience burnout and our ministry impact and effectiveness will stay small.


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The Template Set Forth By Jesus

I believe Ephesians 4:11-16 is the model for structuring a healthy church. In verse 12, Jesus instructs us through the apostle Paul that the purpose of the ministry gifts are “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Nowhere in this passage is the insinuation that only large churches are to be equipping churches. It simply says our calling as pastors is to equip the saints.

Nothing limits our ability to equip the saints and hand off ministry more than being disappointed by members of our congregation. In my own experience, I doubt people ever knew the profound negative impact they had on me when they failed to honor a commitment!

In case you suffer from pastor-burn, you may want to use these seven principles to help you soothe your way to healthy leadership:

1) It's alright to recognize that the pool of good volunteers is limited.

I believe one of the biggest mistakes small-church pastors can make is comparison to other larger ministries. Churches that are larger obviously have a much bigger group of volunteers to draw from due to their numbers. However, I believe within every church, regardless of size, are a few faithful folks who want to be used in some capacity. Don’t miss the few while looking at others with the many!

2) Pastors who equip understand the need for training.

Have you ever worked in an environment where no one explained to you the expectations of the job? If so, then you know that you were set up for failure. In order to communicate clear expectations and set our volunteers up for success, try the following three suggestions:

1. Have an honest discussion with the volunteer about your expectations. It's important to listen to their understanding of the expectations as well.

2. Provide the necessary training materials for the job. Almost any volunteer position in the church has training videos and manuals available today -- utilize those.

3. Put the agreed-upon expectations in writing. Once written down, both people should sign off on the agreement for undeniable clarity.

3) Eliminate the “my way or the highway” mentality from my thinking.

I realize as leaders that you and I have a way we want things done. However, a rigid and inflexible approach to having things done our way will always guarantee to result in volunteer turnover. We should not confuse our methods and desire for excellence as the only way to accomplish ministry goals.

4) Understand that failure is not final.

It still amazes me to see the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to do ministry perfectly in the small church. As leaders, we've got to allow room for failure within our volunteer culture and within our own life. Of course, the point here is obviously not regarding immorality. We should never excuse or cover up anything in that arena. But the truth is that all of us make mistakes, fail to follow through, and just get it wrong at times.

So lighten up, pastor! No one can live under the weight of perfectionism at all times. To quote my friend Shane Duffey, “You can’t let God down because you’re not holding him up!” Give yourself, and the volunteers, grace to try until you get it right.

5) I must give myself permission to remove ineffective leaders.

While failure is not final, consistently displaying a bad attitude is unacceptable. It is alright to recognize that some people will never be dependable. So it is the job of the leader to deal with it. I like to say it this way: You perpetuate what you tolerate! There is no place in volunteer leadership for a continual and persistent bad attitude. If I tolerate this for a long period of time, my congregation will assume I think it’s acceptable.

6) Match giftedness to ministry opportunities over time.

I have already acknowledged there is often have a huge lack when it comes to the amount of good leaders available in a small church. However, it is important to keep an open eye for good leaders as people and resources increase. Make it a priority to match ministry opportunities with individual giftedness.

7) Do not allow need to be the motivator for volunteer positions.

This may be the hardest principle to embrace. Everyone knows there are so many needs in the small church that it seems we are always short of help. However, I find it is so much better to continually cast vision as we fill ministry positions, even in the lower attendance days of a small church. Filling volunteer ministry positions according to our specific mission and vision will help inspire volunteers to understand that their service is for Jesus and His purpose!


Scripture teaches us that forgiveness is an absolute! In every circumstance, we are to forgive. However, it does not teach us to blindly trust. Trust is earned!

I know what it's like to be burned by volunteers in my congregation. In some cases, it was my inability to recruit, train, and provide accountability that led to the problem. In other cases, the volunteer had such a bad attitude that it eventually infected the entire church. It is true that pastor-burn, left unaddressed, can have devastating effects in the long-run of our ministry.

Therefore, we must allow Jesus to provide the soothing help we need in order to become the best leaders we can be!


Want to develop a healthy volunteer culture in your church? Learn how VisionBox can help you address five key areas of your ministry to lead to greater impact, healthier leadership, and more unified efforts as a ministry: 

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Dale Sellers

Dale has over 35 years of ministry experience and is dedicated to helping small and mid-size churches get healthy. In 2014, he launched Dale Sellers Leadership to assist organizations in the areas of leadership, inspiration, and evangelism. He and his wife, Gina, have been married for 35 years and have three daughters, two sons-in-law and a recent grandchild!

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