As far as months go, October really stands out. Fall colors in the trees, lots of crisp mornings and clear nights, the sudden availability of pumpkin spice-flavored everything, and more.
Unfortunately, it’s also Pastor Appreciation Month. It may seem strange that I, a pastor, would lament that this month has been unofficially but nonetheless nationally recognized as “Pastor Appreciation Month.” And yet, I do.
I have read posts from other pastors, church leaders, and church members expressing the necessity of a month dedicated to appreciating pastors. I’ve read guides for how to give better gifts during this month. But I’ve read startlingly few pieces questioning whether or not we should actually have this weirdly-niche holiday in the first place.
Because I don’t think we should have it.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s biblical to appreciate pastors; I just don’t think Pastor Appreciation Month is the best way to go about it. I understand that I am probably in the minority. If your church still chooses to celebrate it, I don’t plan on fighting you over it. But here are seven reasons I think churches shouldn’t celebrate Pastor Appreciation Month:
1. It is artificial
Pastor Appreciation Month isn’t a natural holiday, like New Year’s Day. It’s not a civic holiday like July 4th. It’s not a religious holiday like Christmas.
It’s an artificial holiday. It was invented by a group of clergy in 1992, promoted by a prominent Christian organization in 1994, and bought into by Christian retailers throughout the country as a great way to unload their overstock of pastor’s office tchotchkes. It’s not the only artificial holiday, nor does its artificiality mean it is automatically unworthy. (I mean, Valentine’s Day is a manufactured holiday, but ask a boyfriend or husband who has neglected it to his own detriment if it is a worthy holiday.)
But, its artificiality is a reminder of its dispensability. The church and its pastors survived for a long time without it, and we can do so again.
2. It is awkward for visitors
Imagine a scene with me: you have just moved to a new area. You’ve never really been a church-goer, but the new setting, loneliness, and curiosity have led you to “check out” the church down the street. You walk in, are warmly greeted, chat with someone you recognize from the office of your apartment complex, and sit down in a well-lit, comfortable room. A guy gets up and prays to start the worship service. A band plays songs that, while unfamiliar, tug at your heart and bring a few tears to your eyes. Then, another guy gets up, directs you to open the Bible you find under the seat in front of you, and shares a message that clearly comes from his heart and touches yours. He closes with a prayer, the band plays another song, and you are suffused with a sense of God’s goodness.
And then someone else stands up, grabs a microphone, and talks for five minutes about how much the pastor does for the church people, and how they should appreciate him every day, but especially this month, and that there will be an usher at the door with an offering plate, and everyone should give whatever they can so the church can buy him a nice gift.
How awkward is it for you, a non-church-going, non-pastor-knowing, first-time-visitor, to hear that announcement? What thoughts run through your mind as your contemplation of God is interrupted by it? Imagine what you’re feeling as you walk past that overeager usher pushing that plate in front of you?
Not good, right? Not only can it be a shockingly abrupt and uncomfortable intrusion, but it can also reinforce the lie that pastors are all about getting your money.
We are often tragically inattentive to the visitor amid our church gatherings, but even more so in our celebration of Pastor Appreciation Month.
3. It is awkward for church regulars
Pastor Appreciation celebrations can be uncomfortable for church regulars, as well.
The typical bon mots about how hard pastors have it can sound a bit contrived to the ears of the single mom who serves in the nursery every week even though she works two jobs to make ends meet while she struggles to raise her kids alone.
The call to give generously in October can weigh heavily on the middle-aged man whose 20 years at the factory have him making a salary that’s half the pastor’s regular pay package.
The widow who struggles with loneliness may berate herself for the jealousy she feels when this person who has never even learned her name is praised as God’s gift to the saints.
Then there’s the false guilt that comes when someone forgets to organize a celebration or when they compare what their church did to what the bigger church down the street did or when the pastor seems ungrateful for what they did do.
Whatever the cause, Pastor Appreciation Month can lead to some awkward feelings and situations for those who are a part of the church but not a pastor.
4. It is awkward for pastors
But it’s not just awkward for guests and church regulars; it is awkward for pastors, too.
Most pastors, myself included, really struggle with receiving compliments and gifts when it’s just one person giving them. We know that any good in us, any ability, any quality, are solely of God, not ourselves, so the compliment or gift ought to be directed at him and not us. And yet we don’t want to seem hyper-spiritual or falsely humble by denying the giver’s gift. So we stumble through a “thank-you” and feel like it isn’t enough and yet is too much, at the same time.
Now, compound that by 100, and you have the typical struggle of a pastor facing his congregation after they just feted him with a celebration dinner, had several church leaders speak about his excellencies, and handed him a generous financial gift.
What can he say, and how should he say it?
Or, the awkwardness can derive from another angle. Imagine a pastor who just accepted a call to his first church. He remembers October as Pastor Appreciation Month from his time as a church member. He thinks of the cruise that church sent the pastor and his wife on, the cards he made in Sunday School as a kid, the deacon chairman’s pat on the pastor’s back.
Then, his first October rolls around, and it’s crickets at his new church. Nobody says anything, does anything or acknowledges the occasion. His expectations weren’t met.
That’s awkward. But it could have been avoided if we simply got rid of Pastor Appreciation Month.
5. It cheapens pastoral ministry
One of the chief arguments for Pastor Appreciation Month seems to boil down to the fact that pastors have a hard job. But most pastors I know don’t need the reminders about how hard ministry is: they’re living that reality. But most pastors I know are still glad to serve. They didn’t get into ministry for recognition or an easy life: they did it to follow Christ’s commands. They don’t want to be singled out, they don’t want to be rewarded on earth: they’re looking forward to Jesus being exalted and joining with the saints in a heavenly reward.
Pastor Appreciation celebrations and gifts can give the impression, however unintentional, that the hard work of ministry can be rewarded here and now. That cheapens it. Pastoral ministry is not about what it gains the pastor in the here and now, and any pastor worthy of the title is not looking for such menial reward anyway.
These gifts can also be potentially manipulative or coercive. A church that gives a large Pastor Appreciation gift may be trying to keep a pastor in line. A pastor who receives such a gift may feel pressure to avoid saying or doing things that God’s Word demands of him for fear of offending his generous congregation. Either way, the ministry is diminished, changed from something that is God-directed to something that is financially-steered.
I understand that the same could be said for pastoral salaries. However, most churches provide a salary to free up the hours a pastor would generally spend working to provide for his family so that he can focus on his ministry. In such cases, the salary is not a reward, but a substitute designed to enable his service. The argument would stand, however, if a church or pastor viewed his salary as the bait on the hook for keeping him around or the stick for keeping him in-line or as payment for services rendered.
Regardless of your stance on that broader discussion, however, Pastor Appreciation Month doesn’t diminish the difficulty of the task; it cheapens it.
6. It reinforces the unhealthy clergy/laity distinction in our churches
Frankly, I was torn on whether to put this reason first or last (the places where “science” tells us things are remembered most). I ended up not putting it first because it is too heavy a topic, and you would have quit reading. I didn’t want to put it last, because I wanted to not just be a Debbie Downer and actually give some positive statements about appreciating pastors at the end. So, here is where it landed and I hope you don’t forget it.
That October is Pastor Appreciation Month is one of the funniest ironies in all of Christendom. Why? Because it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther first posted his 95 theses. While this document was basically an extended argument against the pope selling salvation to the highest bidder, it sparked the widespread movement we call the Protestant Reformation. (Ok, the funny part takes a while to develop). One of the fundamental tenets of the Reformation was the priesthood of every believer. This was opposed to the Catholic Church’s insistence that there was a distinction between the clergyman and the layperson. (Still developing…). The Reformation sought to reestablish the New Testament principle that, while every believer is gifted differently to serve, every believer’s gifts are essential, and all believers are equal. Yet, in October, the same month that kicked off a movement that sought to abolish the clergy/laity distinction, we reinforce just such a division with our celebrations (Hahaha! Get it? Ok, maybe it’s not as funny as I first thought).
The point is that Pastor Appreciation Month can, by definition, reinforce the perception that the pastor is the “professional” Christian and that the “amateur” Christian’s job is to recognize and encourage him and be his audience rather than his co-laborers. This continues the Catholic error of separating out one class of Christ-follower apart from all the others and elevating it in importance. Pastors may have God-given authority for their flocks in Christ, but they are also still sheep in need of the gifts of their fellow flock-members.
7. It can be a substitute for biblical pastor appreciation
Finally, celebrating Pastor Appreciation Month can serve as a substitute for what the Bible actually commands as pastor appreciation. It is so much easier to write a card, write a check, and write off the much harder ways in which Scripture calls us to express our appreciation for those who lead us in the faith.
Look at Hebrews chapter 13:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
“Consider their way of life…imitate their faith…obey…submit” so that they can “do this with joy and not with groaning.”
That’s much harder, but I assure you that every single pastor I know would find such a lifestyle of appreciation much more valuable than any once-yearly gift or public thank you.
If that isn’t enough, look at 1 Thessalonians 5:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
“Respect…esteem…love…be at peace” all the time, not just once a year.
Most pastors don’t ask for a month dedicated to appreciating them. But God does ask his people to live a lifestyle that speaks to an appreciation for their pastors, but that is ultimately devoted to Christ every day of the year.
I don’t want to just be the pastoral neighborhood curmudgeon, scowling and mumbling about confetti in my yard. I totally understand that most churches, church members, and pastors celebrate Pastor Appreciate Month with no intention of making things awkward, cheapening the ministry, or avoiding biblical commands. And many churches, either because they can’t pay their pastor enough, or because they love him so much, enjoy the opportunity to take up a collection and bless their pastor. And many pastors probably take what is given to them and use it to bless others. For these, and many more reasons, I hesitated to post this piece.
Still, for all the good that is intended with Pastor Appreciation Month, I worry about the perception of a money-hungry ministry, I struggle with the reinforcement of a professional ministry, and I long to elevate every Christ-followers’ ministry. The organizational declaration of a particular month dedicated to pastors isn’t helpful in any of those regards.
And, ceasing to observe Pastors Appreciation month in our churches in no way hampers individual Christians from expressing their gratitude for their pastors. In fact, it probably opens more opportunities, and more genuine ones, at that. If a husband only showed his love for his wife once a year, on Valentine’s Day, how do you think his wife would feel about their marriage? Just so, a pastor will feel more appreciated when he receives cards, calls, texts, conversations, etc. from genuinely thankful church members all year long, than just during the “official” holiday.
So, it is with genuine feeling that I’m asking us to stop celebrating Pastor Appreciation Month. Instead, I want to challenge us to prioritize a genuine “building-up” among the saints all year long.
With that in mind, here are some closing words for various readers:
Fellow Pastors: Sorry if I rained on our parade. And if I am in error in my views here, please reach out and correct me. (brandonmckayboone @ gmail.com, minus the spaces, is the best way to get in touch).
Personnel/Other Committee Responsible for Pastor Appreciation Month Plans: If you are in charge of coordinating your church’s corporate celebration of your pastor in October, consider going a different direction. Write a letter informing the church members of the church’s commitment to biblical pastoral appreciation. Encourage them to send individual cards to their pastors if they feel led. Point out the Hebrews and 1 Thessalonian passages and urge them to prayerfully consider how the Holy Spirit would lead them in response. Share this post with those who have concerns: blame me, if you need to. And feel free to email me at the same address I mentioned above in my word to fellow pastors if you have any questions.
Disgruntled Church Folks: Please don’t send this post to your pastor or others in your church on November 1st as a form of protest against their celebration of Pastor Appreciation Month. Be at peace with one another. Matthew 7 is still in the Bible. Don’t ignore your Lord’s commands. Don’t cause your pastor to serve with groaning.
Other Church Folks: Pastors are just like any other people. They love to be encouraged; they want to feel appreciated. But not only does Pastor Appreciation Month not check those boxes most of the time, but it’s also not sufficient when it does. Instead, look to the Word and seek to encourage your pastors by following Christ whole-heartedly all year long. If there is a message that is particularly helpful to you throughout the year, take time to let him know (be specific as to how it helped you if you want to be extra encouraging). If you see an admirable quality in him, write him a quick note saying how grateful you are for his Christ-like example. Appreciate your pastor, not just once a year.
Non-Church Folks: Why did you read these 2300 words, exactly? If you’re not committed to a local church and submitted to its leadership, there are no pastors for you to appreciate, once a year or every day. Find a local church, commit to it, submit to its leaders, and then figure out where you stand on the issue. Email me at the same address I mentioned above in my word to fellow pastors if you need help finding a local church.