Sunday, January 2, 2011
Before You Fire Your Pastor ...
Scribbled by Jailer
Now, knowing my very humble and godly friend, his "explosion" was probably not nearly as bad as he makes it sound. In fact, I found the fact it happened at all to be especially remarkable, given what a mature and even-tempered man he generally is. It also got me thinking afresh about what the "pastor" is in 21st century America.
Now, I'll leave to smarter people the question of how we got here, but I'd like to begin with a basic premise about the church today: The entity which we currently refer to as "the local church" in America is substantially different that it was in the first century, in part because the environment in which it operates is so much changed.
For example, the church is a legal entity under state oversight (think tax law, building codes, insurance requirements, etc.) The pastor himself generally is not merely the shepherd of the flock, he is the flock's sole or primary employee. While he is indeed ultimately responsible to God, he is judged tangibly and routinely by those he leads ... those whose commitment to him is only as high as the perceived cost of either leaving the church or of firing him and hiring a new leader.
Moreover, the Reformation forever changed the local-church environment, in that there is no longer a single "local church", but an eclectic collection of local entities which alternately cooperate and compete for the hearts and minds and attention of the surrounding population. One effect of this on the local congregant is to erode his or her commitment to any particular body of believers. Switching churches is easy and makes a host of problems go away, rather like "no-fault" divorce. Angry? Disillusioned? Frustrated? Embarrassed? Bored? No problem! There's another church in your neighborhood waiting with open arms to take you in with no questions asked!
These developments have a cumulative effect on the individual we call our "pastor". Today's pastor is more than just the shepherd of the flock. Because he has been hired into a full-time position, the church expects him to take a large share of the workload. While Scripture may instruct us that "God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues", in reality we generally expect the pastor we've hired to be most or all of these things, as well as the church's chief administrator and errand-runner, and to deliver a relevant, timely and uplifting sermon every week. Oh, and of course to lead the church through disciplining the wayward member firmly and gently without offending anyone or dividing the church. Good luck with that.
With such a daunting list of demands, what is the threshold for entry into the cadre of pastor candidates? For most churches, it is a theological one; that is, graduation from an approved seminary and acceptance by the denomination's endorsing body. Generally there has been some amount of training in counseling, administration, teaching, preaching, etc., at least in seminary. However, actually possessing any of these gifts and talents is another matter. For the congregation, however, it is assumed that anyone who is qualified to be pastor must have sufficient training to handle the job description, regardless of gifts. After all, we're all very busy and the pastor is getting paid to be all things to all men (with God's help, amen?).
This brings me back to my friend's pastor, who declared himself "answerable to no one but God." You might find it remarkable that anyone in this environment might fail to see the extent to which he is dependent on the warm feelings of his flock. Well, insecurity takes many forms, and one common to pastors is to become isolated and defensive. Because the pastor is expected to be all things to all members, the temptation to hide behind a facade can seem necessary to avoid being perceived as weak or flawed in any way. This is in addition to the role that arrogance plays in turning us from correction.
Ultimately, of course, the pastor is not just the leader but also a member of the church. He faces the same temptations, some with greater frequency and intensity than the average congregant. He will sometimes need help: personal, financial, emotional, spiritual, etc. He will also probably be more hesitant to ask for it, because he is both pastor and employee and therefore feels the pressure to keep up appearances and show himself fully capable.
A wise church will try to provide the pastor a zone in which he can feel safe in seeking the fellowship of the saints -- and can receive some accountability and honest feedback -- without the threat of rash judgment or gossip. The church's elders should regularly meet and pray with the pastor, establishing an environment of openness, trust and confidence. This is far from easy, and is why my friend felt so frustrated with his pastor; as an elder he had been trying to fulfill this role, but had been unable to penetrate the pastor's defenses.
Before you fire your pastor, consider that he is also a man. Consider that he has been hired to fulfill a near-impossible set of demands. Consider that while he is seldom alone, he may be the loneliest member of your congregation. Most importantly, remember always that God has raised him up, for "Who can lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless?"