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 I confess, I haven’t given too much thought to Pastor Appreciation Month in years past. Most of my career was spent as part of vocational ministerial teams in local congregations. Asking for “appreciation” for oneself is certainly not apropos. Truth is, pastors enjoy hearing a good word (like most people) and seeing their teaching/preaching put into practice all year-long.

That said, 2021 has been different in powerful ways. Several real-world experiences inform my conviction that this year’s Pastor Appreciation Month is unique and calls for thoughtful action.

  • Current-day clergy stress exceeds anything I experienced in 27 years of congregational ministry. To fully understand what I mean you would actually have to “walk a mile in their (pastors) shoes.”
  • Pandemic realities have demanded much from clergy emotionally, spiritually, and physically—especially the constant pressure to make hard decisions you know will not please everyone.
  • Because of unrest in our culture, incivility has found its way into local congregations. Pastors often become targets of cruel words and ugly behavior from congregants who feel justified in imposing their personal understanding on vocational leaders.
  • I frequently hear frustrated pastors say they are accused of “being political” when they simply, responsibly preach/teach Jesus’ words which, admittedly, are often political, but never partisan.
  • Most congregations are experiencing some level of conflict tied to the protracted COVID-19 season. Your clergy feel this conflict deeply because – inside-trader information – most pastors love people and hate conflict.
  • Many clergy have far exceeded their bandwidths then must contend with church members who actually have the uninformed nerve to say “they don’t have anything to do” or “they are spending less time in the church office.” (Insensitivity like this makes my blood boil.)
  • Most congregations are facing declining membership, aging constituents, and waning attendance. Who gets blamed? The pastor and/or staff, of course. Isn’t it ironic how Baptist congregations boast about “being lay-run churches” then immediately scapegoat and hold one person (usually the pastor) responsible for the church’s issues? Decline we see in today’s churches actually results from complex cultural variables. What ails the church today is a system-wide problem; the system is responsible to fix what is broken or out of alignment with the Way of Jesus.

I could go on, but you get the picture. This is not your typical Pastor Appreciation Month. Your clergy are stressed to the max; some have even spent time as patients in hospitals for stress-induced illnesses. Pastor burn-out is real; many are either leaving congregational ministry or are seriously considering it.

CBF is acutely aware more than usual has been expected of clergy the past two years. Some CBF partners are coordinating efforts to fill pulpits to give pastors needed breaks. Other partners are conducting official surveys to determine why Baptist pastors are leaving their churches. At this time, we can only speculate what the long-term ramifications for clergy and congregations will be.

So, what do your pastor and ministerial staff members (I strongly recommend including all ministerial staff in your recognitions) really want this year during Pastor Appreciation Month? Acknowledging a wide variety of needs and desiring not to be prescriptive, here are a few suggestions to help you imagine new and better ways to support your pastors in this difficult season:

  • A typical way to express appreciation to a minister is to write a note of gratitude. This is a good option however, I encourage you NOT to simply say, “Thanks for all you do.” At face value, this looks like an acceptable general word of gratitude. Unfortunately, this expression communicates your pastor is primarily valued for what s/he does. Your pastor is not a human-doing; s/he is a human-being. Use words that show you know your pastor beyond what s/he does for you and the rest of the faith family. Hearing tangible examples of what a member loved and appreciated about me as a person was most meaningful for me during my years in local church ministry.
  • Give your pastor a gift card to his/her favorite restaurant. I encourage you to do this not because your pastor needs to eat out. I offer this suggestion because your pastor needs downtime with family thinking about something other than church details. Mention your objective for the gift in a note of gratitude.
  • CBFVA’s Advisory Council did something this year that is replicable in local congregations. Acknowledging the difficulty of the pandemic season, the Advisory Council granted full-time staff up to three Mental Health Days within the next twelve months that do not count as vacation or sick time. What a powerful message to send to your ministers: we love you and want you to take care of yourselves!
  • Grant a mini-sabbatical. This option would look different in every church, but the concept would be the same. There is great value in offering time for staff to “get away” and “spend time with God and nature” and “de-stress” or simply read for pleasure without expectations to “produce” something. Even offering a long weekend is a huge gift that sends the message someone else is covering ministerial responsibilities and you don’t have to show up at church on Sunday.
  • If you own vacation property, offer your clergy a stay free of charge. This show of love weds nicely to the mini-sabbatical or weekend get-away mentioned earlier.
  • Perhaps the most powerful gift you could give during Pastor Appreciation Month is to create a no-complaint zone. Think about how impactful it would be for church and staff members if everyone covenanted at the same time to refrain from sharing their perspective about what’s not right, what doesn’t suit me, or what is out of alignment with my understanding of church. Pastors could relax and enjoy being with their people and be the presence of Christ to them instead of always feeling on the defensive or worried about when the next shoe is going to drop.
  • Last, but certainly not least, make certain your minister(s) have access to coaching, counseling, or therapy (whichever is needed). Ministers bear the burden of congregational leadership all year long. During this season of pandemic and social and political upheaval the struggle is even greater. Remove any attitude or barrier that implies a pastor who needs help is weak. The truth is actually the opposite – strong, aware, and reflective leaders know they benefit from outside, objective insight from time to time.

That’s my take on Pastor Appreciation Month 2021. I hope and pray folks in congregations across Virginia acknowledge this unique and defining season for clergy and the congregations they serve. Of course, practicing healthy relational habits should not be confined to one month on the calendar. Discipleship demands we strive to show love, support, and encouragement to one another every month of the year. They will know we are Christians by our love, that is, the active, willing and working, for the good of another!