Remember to Say Thank You

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, October 12, 2023

Remember to Say Thank You

My mother was a stickler for thank yous in all their forms.  Reminders such as “Don’t forget to say thank you” and “What do you say?” were common in my childhood.  Thank you notes were a non-negotiable after Christmas and my birthday for anyone I didn’t see in person.  As much as I, perhaps, found these reminders annoying growing up, as a parent myself, I found myself repeating the same lines to my kids because, well, saying thank you is important.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a newsletter article that I targeted specifically to our clergy members while believing it had relevance for all of us.  This week, I’m reversing that trend and am specifically writing to our non-clergy members with a simple request: Tell your Pastor thank you.

A while back, there was an article where a PC(USA) Pastor chronicled his decision to walk away not only from his church but from ministry altogether.  The article highlighted many of his reasons for doing so, and those reasons resonated with many who serve the church in professional roles.  There was, however, one part of the article that surprised the author but did not surprise me.  The author remarked that he was “blown away” by the number of people who came to say goodbye at his farewell.  This was the least surprising part of the story for me.

The vast majority of clergy departures within our Presbytery are, more or less, positive and healthy.  The pastor is either retiring or has accepted another call and is moving on.  While there are a range of emotions involved with every departure, most of them are pretty smooth.  But, that isn’t always the case.  Difficult departures do happen and have been happening more often since March 2020.  The interesting thing that happens, nearly without fail, is the pastor finds themselves surprised by the number of people who, after they announced their departure, expressed their support and appreciation for them and their ministry.  One pastor’s spouse once told me, “If we had heard all of that six months ago, we never would have left.  It was nice to hear, but it was too late.”

My observation is this: the critics of a pastor’s leadership are often stubbornly persistent in their criticism.  On the contrary, those who are mostly satisfied with the pastor’s leadership, usually don’t say anything at all and often are unaware that there are those who are dissatisfied.  What happens, though, for the pastor, is that the amount of criticism so vastly outweighs the affirmation and support that it seems as though everyone is against them.  I am not, in any way, implying that criticisms of a leader’s work are always inappropriate.  What I am saying is that the imbalance in criticism vs support sometimes becomes the death blow to a person’s ministry.

A few years into my ministry, I was talking with a wise and seasoned pastor.  He described a situation at a previous church where a certain faction of the congregation was unhappy with him and wanted him removed.  He said that, at points, it felt like everyone was against him, and he considered resigning until his Clerk of Session pulled him aside and assured him that that wasn’t the case.  There were people who were fully supportive of him, and, more importantly, there were those who were fully supportive of him and thought his critics had a few points that he should take to heart.  Coming out of that situation, he said his vantage point on church conflict became this: “Figure out what is going on and fix it; don’t just run away.”  What I can say is that that’s good advice, but that path is only possible if the Pastor knows that there are those who are supportive of them, even and especially if they think their critics may have a few good points.

October is clergy appreciation month.  While the background on how this came to be is a little uncertain, Hallmark has picked up on it, and therefore, it is as official of a holiday as it can be.  All kidding aside, I’m grateful for it, and this week, I am writing specifically to our non-clergy members and asking them to take the time, in some form or some way, to say thank you to the pastors you’re connected to.  The COVID years took a toll on all of us, and for many of our Pastors leading congregations through that season, it took a toll that we are just beginning to understand.  A well-timed thank you won’t fix that, and it won’t (and shouldn’t) silence the voices of fair criticism, but it will provide a much-needed sense of balance for our Pastors.

As my mom would tell me, “Remember, say thank you.”

In Christ,

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