Comfort for the Ghosted Pastor

By Matt Henslee

They join your church. You minister to them with the proclamation of God’s Word week in and week out. You pray for them regularly, send them notes on their birthdays and keep them up to date on all the happenings at church.

They sit across the desk in your office for counseling. You take them out to eat or for coffee, you visit them in the hospital and you go to their son’s ballgames. They ask you to officiate their daughter’s wedding and their grandpa’s funeral.

And poof! They’re gone. 

In the blink of an eye, it’s as if they disappear from planet Earth. No, they didn’t die or move away; they ghosted you … and it happens a lot. I shared something along those lines recently on Twitter:

Earlier that day, I spoke with a pastor friend who found himself in the same situation. I wanted to share the tweet because getting ghosted as a pastor is pretty common, and I thought I’d encourage pastors on Saturday night before they gathered with their flocks on Sunday.

The replies rolled in fast and heavy with comments like, “I saw someone in a restaurant last week who passed us like strangers. Our daughter was there and recalled how 10 years ago, I was in the ER all night with her husband as he died unexpectedly.”

Another said, “Yeah, that’s hard stuff. Tears at you because you really do care about these folks. Regardless, when you stop caring, it’s time to quit.” Another replied, “There’s an apt quote from Terry Wardle: ‘Ministry is a series of ungrieved losses.’ It really hits home for me.”

It can be especially difficult in the wake of the pandemic when Lifeway Research found pastors were concerned with caring for members from a distance, maintaining congregational unity, and the health and safety of their people—all while dealing with personal exhaustion.

Even before the pandemic, a 2015 Lifeway Research study of 1,500 pastors revealed:

  • 84% say they’re on call 24 hours a day
  • 80% expect conflict in their church
  • 54% find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming
  • 53% often are concerned about their family’s financial security
  • 48% often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle
  • 21% say their church has unrealistic expectations of them

It Happens to All of Us

Ghosting” happens to all of us. We preach the gospel each week, pray for our folks daily and pour ourselves into their lives week by week—but then one disappears into thin air. They won’t return calls; you see the read receipts on the texts they ignore. And it hurts.

When someone dies or moves away, there’s closure. But when people ghost you, you’re left to assume the worst: I didn’t do enough; I could’ve done more, etc. That’s a rough place to be, but pastor, please hear me: “Good job!”

I know it hurts, but you were faithful. And remember that you’re not alone. Not only have other pastors experienced it, but our Savior did, too.

It Happened to Jesus

Jesus walked with His disciples, taught them all day, every day, ate with them and then, when He was facing His sacrificial death, poof! They were gone.

Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him and they all pretty well tucked tail and ran. The disciples ghosted the Savior—our Savior!

If you read 2 Corinthians 4:7-18, you see the reality of suffering. We’ll be afflicted in every way, we’ll be perplexed, we’ll be persecuted and we’ll be struck down. But you also see the promises. We’ll face all those things, but we won’t be crushed, in despair, abandoned or destroyed.

Instead, Paul uses these things to give us a proper perspective, encourage a right reaction and remind us of our coming reward.

Ministry is Hard, but It’s Worth It

Ministry is awesome, but it also can be hard. It’s made even harder when the people we love disappear into thin air. When people ghost and we lack closure, you must have friends and advisors in your corner.

Have some experienced pastor friends you can reach out to, so they can encourage you. And make sure your identity isn’t in what “so-and-so” thinks about you, but in the Lord who saved you.

It’s also important to note that some church members don’t ghost you out of malice. One of the things I learned among the replies to my earlier tweet is that some folks don’t want to intentionally discourage you. So, instead of meeting with you and explaining their reasons for leaving the church, they simply slip away.

I also learned some members felt pastors ghosted them for a variety of reasons. In other words, this is a complex topic, and we should all—pastors and parishioners alike—err on the side of grace.

So, I’ll close with one of the most poignant replies I received: “It stings, but I’m reminded: If to men … a major waste of time, heart and energy; if to the Lord … never in vain.”

Those sermons, prayers, visits and hours and hours of ministry? Do them as unto the Lord, and you’ll do good. It’s worth it!

This post originally appeared at Lifeway Research.

Published September 8, 2021

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Matt Henslee

Matt Henslee (@mhenslee) is the pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, New Mexico, D.Min student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of a few books, including Evangelize to Revitalize and Text-Driven Invitation.