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Choosing Pastors and Church Continuity

churchandpeopleLast week I encounter two posts that got me wanting to say something about the same topic: pastoral leadership and church mission and continuity. The first was The United Methodist Church Should Give Up Its Game of Musical Chairs, and the second was not obviously related, 5 Reasons Why the Sunday Sermon Is Boring (both HT Dave Black Online). I do tend to see them as related, and I’ll explain why.

The United Methodist Church has an approach to assigning pastors. We call it itinerancy, because it grew out of the system of circuit riders, but we Methodists should admit that it bears very little resemblance either in theory or in application to circuit riding. And yes, it has its problems, sometimes serious ones. Bigger churches get preference. Places that are well established and have good income are more likely to get experienced and effective pastors. Places where the ground to be ploughed is hard often get pastors who are tired or inexperienced.

I would also say that quite frequently churches get what they deserve under this system. If a congregation is lively and active and wants to impact its community for good and for God, then it will often get a similarly lively pastor. I once heard a United Methodist district superintendent say she wasn’t going to waste a good pastor on a church that wasn’t going anywhere.

But the system has the bottom line problem of all systems: People. One can write a similar list of problems for almost any system. A call system often results in similar disparities, this time because the same pastors the bishop would have assigned to more active or larger churches are chosen by such churches, while the smaller or less active churches are left to choose between the remnants. On the other hand, pretty much all systems have at least one plus: People touched by God’s grace.

We often believe we can rewrite the rules for church polity and thus solve the church’s problems. But our rules do not solve problems. Our rules provide a framework for us to live in community. Yes, they can encourage or discourage various kinds of behavior, but they will not make a successful church. For the church to be successful, we need to proclaim the gospel and act on it in our community. That will require discernment and listening to the Holy Spirit. There are independent congregations that find their way and there are churches with a pastor assigned by a bishop that do so. There are house churches that proclaim the gospel. There are also house churches that go nowhere. The building, furniture, and human rules won’t make it all work.

So what about those boring sermons. How does that relate?

I’m glad you asked! The sermon is another point at which we hope certain rules or procedures will solve the problem and make the sermon “work.” But like a pastoral call, we get stuck with what happens. If the called or appointed pastor is a good preacher, we’ll get a good sermon. I know there are classes on homiletics and good books on sermon preparation and presentation. I even publish one. But some people simply aren’t preachers. I know more than one person who was a deep thinker, perhaps an excellent discussion leader, certainly someone who did her or his homework, yet the sermon was just not the right medium for the person.

But the pastor has to present a sermon!

And there is our problem with both elements. We have churches that are pastor centered. Why is it that a church cannot function with a change of pastor? Why is it that a church cannot function in the absence of a pastor? Why is it that a change of pastor will bring active ministries crashing down?

In all cases, I would say, the ministries are too pastor-centered. We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Paul doesn’t tell us that the pastor is the body of Christ and we are the pastor’s minions. Rather, we are the body of Christ and “pastor” is a gifting and calling exercised within that body. A pastor won’t necessarily be a good preacher. And despite those who advocate pastor-teachers (and there are many of those), I believe that the two exist separately as well as together, though the work overlaps. Both pastors and teachers (in one person or not) equip the saints (Ephesians 4:12) for the work of ministry. The means may be different, but the goal is the same: To produce disciples who go forth and minister.

Now teaching and preaching are not necessarily the same, either. One friend of mine told me that the sermon was more a form of art than of teaching. It carried the worship service forward in an artistic way. I don’t really object to this except to say that if this is worship in the form of an art, it shouldn’t be an individually-centered thing, but rather something in which the whole congregation participates.

I would suggest that the needed response to the problems addressed in both these articles is to make our churches less pastor-centered. We need to spread out both the work and the leadership. If a church needs to call a new pastor, they should have continuing, active ministries waiting for the new pastor’s added touch, not for him to revive before moving forward.

Am I against pastors? No! Am I against professional pastors? In some cases. I see a problem when churches that are small spend too much money on having a professional pastor. There is a place for a lay-led congregation or a pastor who is bi-vocational. But whether the pastor is a full-time worker who is paid, or a lay person volunteering part-time, the church shouldn’t center on that one person. Pastoring or teaching should equip others and help them find their place of service in the church and in the community. Further, churches need to recognize this as work. When the pastor sits down in his office with someone for an hour or so, that’s not wasting time. That’s equipping. When the pastor teaches people how to visit and encourage others, that’s not trying to get out of work, she’s doing her job.

I’d further suggest that we, as a church, should not reserve ordination or commissioning for pastors. We should discover the gifts God has given to each member and commission them for that service in the body. Do you have gifts of administration? Let’s pray over you and lay hands on you commissioning you to administer the church office. Do you have the gift of encouragement? Let’s pray over you and lay hands on you, commissioning you to go out and encourage, recognized by and supported by your church.

Recognizing, equipping, sending! Sounds like fun! And we might even find that we had fewer discouraged pastors if we did it.


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One Comment

  1. Rev Dr. Bob Larochelle says:

    Good, thoughtful post….Your comments re bivocational pastors resonated

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