Not. One. More. Thing. He was physically tired and emotionally spent. For four years he had done everything he knew to get the church growing again, but with no visible results. He no longer looked forward to preaching. Committee meetings had become gripe sessions. The mounting criticism of his leadership was withering to his soul. It seemed so unfair… wasn’t he killing himself doing everything everyone wanted from him? In his efforts to serve the church, he could see his family longing for more time with him… time he just didn’t have. Consequently, he was sensing failure in every area of his life. In the intense cycle of giving and caring assumed by most pastors, this brother was experiencing “the beatdown” of runaway expectations.
WHAT ARE RUNAWAY EXPECTATIONS?
Expectations in relationships are a way of clarifying what we want from others and what we believe about their ability to do what we want. We encounter expectations every day at home, at school, or at work. Expectations are useful for knowing how to please others, meet genuine needs, or accomplish essential tasks. However, excessive expectations can demoralize and discourage the human soul, causing someone to lose heart and want to quit the impossible relationship.
When a caring pastor encounters an expectation from a church member, he will feel drawn to serve that person’s need. In the broader Christian culture, he discovers encouragement and guidance to help him meet the typical expectations he encounters in the church. And within himself, he discovers that if he can meet those expectations, he can experience a measure of acceptance, respect, and success as a leader. However, this becomes deeply problematic as the expectations become unreasonable, unfair, and even unbiblical… and they keep coming, and coming, and coming!
Runaway expectations are those inner unspoken and unwritten standards that can become the agenda for every moment of a pastor’s life. Although they seem to arise from a legitimate desire to serve God and His people, runaway expectations take root in our broken sense of self, and rule through our insecure efforts to become significant and worthy.
Recently, I asked a group of seasoned veterans in ministry to identify pastoral expectations that they believe have intensified in recent years. To protect the privacy of the respondents, quotations below are used without attribution (but with their permission). Here is a brief sampling of the runaway expectations they identified.
To Know Everything. We know the Bible reveals that our Father knows all things, but it seems some church members believe their pastors possess the same supernatural ability! This is the expectation to know “everything that is going on in the church, even when no one tells you.” A pastor offered this example of an actual conversation that took place as he was walking to the platform to preach:
Deacon: Did you know that George was in the hospital over the weekend?
Me: No, I didn’t know. No one let me know.
Deacon: Well, did you go visit him?
Me: No. I didn’t know he was in the hospital. Did you know he was in the hospital?
Me: Well, then why didn’t you call me to let me know?
Deacon: That’s not my responsibility. You’re supposed to know these things.
To Be Available 24/7. Just as pastors can’t know everything, they can’t be everywhere. Pastors cannot “attend all gatherings and activities of the various groups in the church.” He must reserve time for himself, his family, his study, and his own time alone with God. A pastor writes, that “many churches expect pastors to preach and serve with little regard for how the ministry time and expectations to produce place a burden upon the pastor’s personal family time.” Another adds that “because of technology, pastors are more accessible than ever, and are expected more than ever, to be available.” When I sent out my note to the ministers, one responded after several days writing, “Don, my apologies for just now seeing this. I was on vacation with my family last week, and I turned off all notifications, email accounts, etc. so that my devices would remain relatively quiet.” I thanked him for being an illustration of the right way to handle his availability on vacation!
To Preach Like Someone Else. With the proliferation of sermon archives on the internet, church members now have immediate access to some great preachers throughout the week. They can watch a video or listen to a podcast of an outstanding speaker, and then immediately recommend their experience through social media. It’s easy for a pastor to feel his preaching is inadequate in comparison. He forgets that he is faithfully fulfilling pastoral responsibilities through the week that his larger church counterparts rarely perform. In addition to sermon preparation, the local pastor has committee meetings, counseling appointments, building maintenance, calendar planning, and hospital visits that take up his time. He usually doesn’t have a staff to augment his assignment, but he is in touch daily with the needs of God’s people! As one pastor observed, “popular preachers, whose messages are delivered via media… (typically) do not bear the daily pressures of congregational ministry.”
Immature members can fail to appreciate the impact of a sermon preached in real time by a Spirit‑guided shepherd to a people he knows and loves. In that moment, the congregants are not in control as they listen to a message that they did not choose. That person who listens to preaching mediated exclusively through his individual choice and personal preference is missing out on what God is saying to His church right now. We need to hear what God is saying through our local pastors each week.
To Cause the Church Grow Numerically. Because a church owns property, collects contributions, and tracks attendance, members can conclude that the church is an organization like any other business. Since the pastor is a paid employee of the church, he is expected to focus on the success of the “business” by attracting more members. In a consumer-driven environment where people “attend worship only because of what they can get from it,” the pastor is faced with the constant threat of losing members to a more “successful” pastor at a nearby church. A pastor explained: “I think we spend more time than ever figuring out how to reach and catch the attention of our church members.” The average pastor is facing a growing “emphasis on programs and activities that draw people to the church and an increased pressure to bring in the people and move the numbers.” Growing the organization can quickly become more important than growing people as genuine Christ-followers!
ONLY ONE EXPECTATION MATTERS
Paul was no stranger to runaway expectations. He writes, “…do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Not only is it impossible to serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), Paul teaches that my repeated efforts to keep everyone “happy” is just disqualifying me from His service. Pursuits and preoccupations that do not come from the Lord serve the interests of someone other than the Lord, and consequently, they can only carry me further and further away from His heart (Matthew 6:1-18). So what would Paul’s counsel be to the “beatdown” in a pastor’s life? Dear brother, there is only one Person you need to please.
Without Jesus leading each step, my well‑intentioned efforts to establish priorities, set goals, create margin, improve productivity, cultivate relationships, and improve oneself are wasted… and exhausting! I cannot escape the beatdown of runaway expectations by managing or replacing them with a “better” set of personal expectations. I not only need to be freed up from everyone else’s expectations, I need to release my self‑imposed expectations. They can be the most debilitating expectations of all!
THE WAY OUT FOR THE WORN OUT
Jesus said, “ Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
What is Jesus offering? He says, “I will give you rest” (v. 28). And Jesus is very specific about the kind of rest He wants to give us. It’s not a rest from physical labor. It is a “rest for your souls” (v. 29)… a cessation from the life-sapping labor of our inner, immaterial self.
Soul rest comes in two forms… first as something He gives (v. 28). Jesus gives soul rest to people with a soul problem. Jesus calls out to people “who labor” (in their souls) and who “are heavy laden” (in their souls). Those “who labor” are doing something to their own souls. The word describes exertion to the point of exhaustion. Those who “are heavy laden” have soul burdens that have been laid on them by others, something done to them. Clearly then, the gift of soul rest can only be received by abandoning the effort to live up to the expectations of ourselves or others – that inner approach to life that depends exclusively on us! Jesus is offering an entirely new way to live.
Soul rest is also something I “find” (v. 29). I find soul rest when I enter an intimate “yoke” with Jesus. Yoked animals are in a close relationship – one cannot move without the other. Jesus clarifies further what He means when He adds “and learn from Me.” Taking on His yoke is to learn from Him, and to learn from Him is what it means to take on His yoke. So in the context of an intimate relationship with Jesus, what do we learn? We learn a new way of living on the heart level directly from Him, because He adds “for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” As I learn to live in intimate communion with Him, relying on Him for direction and refusing to do life apart from Him, He becomes the ever-present and primary guide within my soul. Finding His rest for my soul means I am no longer controlled by runaway expectations. I am living my life yoked to Christ.
What is the way out for the worn out? Jesus!
“Come to Me,” Jesus says. There is no program to implement, or conference to attend, or book to read… this is an intensely personal invitation. He wants you to be with Him. It’s a relationship.
“Come to Me,” Jesus says. You cannot go to Him as one solution among many. He is the only source of soul rest. There is no other way.
“Come to Me,” Jesus says. This is an immediate option you can seize right now. Yes, it takes time to learn to live in His yoke, to stay in step with His heart, and to turn to Him with every need. He promises to teach you. But there is an urgency to His invitation, isn’t there? Why wait?
“Come to Me.”
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” ~ Philippians 4:13
the abundant life is a constant internal supply
flowing from the One who said He came to give it
to the ones who would abandon their overloaded lives
in order to walk with Him daily
through a joyful union and a lingering submission
eyes on Him and cares fading
finding rest then fully resting
as He steps ahead of me into every moment
with me, through me, in me
He is enough
(John 10:10, Matthew 10:38-39, Matthew 11:28-30, 2 Corinthians 3:18)
“…being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Does the Bible really say that? I was stunned sitting in that pew on a Sunday night… and deeply moved.
A few months earlier I had been sitting in my dorm room at the University of Texas in Austin, when someone knocked on my door. David Procter, a staff member from Hyde Park Baptist Church, had dropped by to invite me to their college ministry. He later introduced me to a deacon, Alphonce Brown, who soon started picking me up for church on Sundays. As a year-old Christian, I had nothing to offer the church, but they invested time in me. Their love for Jesus was infectious… and their influence on me would last for decades.
So that’s how I came to be sitting in that pew on a Sunday night. That was the moment when I heard our pastor, Ralph Smith, mention a verse of scripture I had not heard before. I don’t recall anything else about the sermon, except I couldn’t wait to figure out where that verse was located in the Bible. After the service, I moved down to the front, surprised that no one else was lined up to speak to Dr. Smith (usually there was).
“Pastor,” I asked, “you quoted a verse… something about God completing a work that He begins.” He smiled. I was one of those who regularly queried him after his sermons. With a notebook in hand, I wasn’t challenging anything he said, but I always had questions. He told me where to find Philippians 1:6 and then, as we briefly discussed what it means, a truth formed in my heart that has never left: what God starts, God finishes! I really needed to hear that.
As a young believer, all I could see were my ongoing struggles with sin and my failed attempts to live for Him. I wanted to get it right, but it seemed like I was always getting it wrong. I was focusing on what I wanted to do for God, instead of what God was already doing in me. I needed to understand that when I first trusted Jesus, God began a work in me that is unstoppable. What God starts, God finishes!
In me — just me — nothing good dwells (Romans 7:18). On my own, I will always stumble and fall.
Every failure reminds me that I cannot live without Him. Jesus Himself said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Today, I am thankful that He never fails to finish what He starts, and that He long ago started to work in me. Steadily, unfailingly, and relentlessly…
He is finishing what He started.
“Things are not as bad as they seem, things could get worse, but they will get better.” ~ Ralph Smith (1931-2017)
Dr. Smith was the pastor of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, Texas for 36 years. Click here for a brief account of his life from the Austin-American Statesman newspaper.