Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Imagine yourself and a group of people in a meeting with your church’s pastor. The church has been changing and seeing new life as people explore what it means to be a church in the early 21st century. The group presents a concept for a phenomenal new ministry connecting the community and congregation, leading to radically transformed lives. Excitement grips the group as they explain the concept to your pastor. You are elated when she says “yes!” and you start planning the roll out.
As the group finalizes the plans, you find out about newly imposed guidelines and limitations that cut out the core of the ministry. Influential members of the congregation complain (“We’ve never done it that way, what will other people say?”) and the pastor sets limits out of fear that the church will lose major contributors. Indirectly you hear that the elder board or denominational hierarchy is afraid the ministry will reflect poorly on the church, thus reducing the weekly attendance.
Maybe the group decides on what they believe will be an optimum structure, but the pastor tells them to run it a different way. The mandated changes are not just an alternative way to accomplish the same purpose. They cut the essential core out of the proposed ministry. The group mourns and loses heart, realizing the ministry will end up on the garbage heap of failed programs. You are convinced the pastor follows and loves Christ, so what went wrong? Is the pastor an obstacle, or is the church encountering a larger and systemic problem?
In the overall Christian community, we have been thinking through re-definitions of church, recognizing how much it is a product of a corporate, modernist industrial mindset. Book after book and innumerable blog posts explore how Western society’s transition out of the enlightenment era is a major catalyst for transformation of what it means to be a church. These works examine the structure of the church and propose alternatives but rarely consider how the role of pastors changes with potential transitions. I still think churches need a person or group of people who provide some degree of leadership/followership. I cannot yet envision a congregation larger than a house church (which may be our future) operating without a semblance of a pastor.
Let’s consider a few ways in which pastors find themselves caught between their training, expectations, roles, and changing expectations.
In seminary, pastors encounter a strong academic bias toward Bible as text rather than Bible as story and narrative. This bias minimizes the inherent humanity of God’s self-description through the narrative and image. Emphasis on parsing Greek or Hebrew at the expense of connecting with people in their own personal life situations encourage pastors to rapid-fire verses at people rather than engage in the harder work of coming alongside them. I am glad I learned both languages but I did not trust the narrative of the Bible for years.
Pastors attempt to simultaneous meet expectations of diverse constituencies, and their challenges are becoming more difficult. Shrinking budgets/attendance, more demanding denominational leadership, and long-term attendees who feel displaced by changes increase the stress levels on a pastor. Micromanagement is a typical response since the pastor may feel he is the only one who can simultaneously satisfy so many different constituencies with conflicting goals. Many pastors under such pressure may exhibit health problems, engage in unhealthy behaviors, or decide that what they are doing is not worth the pain and leave the pastorate.
There is also a danger that the pastor grasps only part of the sheep and shepherd analogy(John 10:14). The pastor might see the people of the congregation as simple sheep incapable of making decisions on their own. The movement of a person closer to a shepherding role jeopardizes the pastor’s role as “sole” shepherd. A maturing faith leads a person toward becoming a shepherd. The one good shepherd is Jesus and others become like Jesus in shepherding when they follow him. Thus, the pastor is not the head shepherd or the CEO of a modernist, industrial model church.
I am not even sure that we should even have full-time pastor paid by the congregation. Most pastors are drastically underpaid and overworked. Even with a very inadequate salary, the additional cost of benefits such as health insurance help to drain the financial resources of a congregation. Why can’t several people earn their living in commercial or other non-church settings and function as the pastors or leaders?
Can you share your experiences, good and bad, with these types of conflicts? Looking into the future, how would you define a pastor? Do you have examples of pastors that have recognized the transitions and are in the process of changing?