Redefining Pastors

It’s interesting that in current conversations among my colleagues, both current and past, conversations are swirling about what it means to be a pastor.  I have a colleague who resigned his pastoral position in a congregation because he would not reconcile the daily expectations of the congregation regarding how he should spend his time, with the actual purposes for which he was specifically Called.  He could have, and many pastors do, more or less, reconcile these two things.  But he chose not to.  To make a point and seek a different way forward.

Other conversations center on the diminishing of church in our culture as we’ve come to know it – a large, well-maintained physical campus with multiple staff persons (if possible!) offering a broad range of services and programs, some of which are only attended by members, and some of which are attended only by people with no other connection to the congregation.  In light of overall trends towards aging and shrinking congregations, this model is becoming untenable, quickly.  While I pray there will always be some “traditional” congregations, increasingly congregations are going to have to look different, because the economics just won’t support the old model as frequently any more.  
The pastor sits at an interesting juncture here.  Many pastors are traditionally trained in seminaries by professors who have not been in a parish for some time (if ever), and while these professors understand intellectually the changes out there, it is difficult for them to do more than mention them while continuing to teach curricula based on the assumptions of another era.  Pastors graduate from seminary (not all do, obviously) and go into parishes that are full of wonderful people and traditions.  It is a very self-reinforcing environment.  Pastors are often rewarded by accommodating themselves to the congregation’s preferences (over and above the fact that they were likely selected for the position because they already closely conform to these things!).  Routines are established quickly and difficult to change.  
In my polity, pastors are specifically concerned with Word & Sacrament ministry.  We are preachers and teachers of Scripture and the doctrine derived from it.  We provide the Sacraments of baptism, Holy Communion, and confession & absolution to the faithful on a regular basis.  This is the core of our identity.  It is how we are trained, and for many pastors, I’m betting that it is why they decided to answer the Call to pastoral training and ordination in the first place.
But on top of these duties other duties add on very quickly.  Some are natural extensions and alternate applications of preaching and teaching – delivering Word & Sacrament to the ill & home-bound, as well as conducting weddings and funerals.  Bible studies and opportunities for personal growth in Scriptural understanding are other natural extensions.  
Then things get weird.
My only parish experience has been in very small congregations.  I haven’t been in a large congregation since I was a kid.  I can’t imagine the dynamics that must go on there, though from colleagues I learn a little bit long distance.  Pastors are expected to be the public face of the ministry, attending many, many meetings both business and social, to offer prayer and presence.  They are head cheerleaders for the various programs and offerings of the congregation, always on hand to add legitimacy to events and to encourage others to attend and be supportive.  
Pastors have also been told in the last 40 years or so that they need to be leaders, where leader is defined not Biblically but rather from the corporate world.  Leaders are charismatic and inventive and focused and many wonderful things.  They are also successful in corporate terms.  I suspect that a good leader who does not increase company earnings is an oxymoron.  So the same is applied to pastors.  If you’re a good leader, then quantifiable metrics will rise.  More participation in church events.  More butts in seats on Sunday morning.  Higher levels of giving.  Failure to achieve these things – none of which are Biblical mandates or instructions – you are not an adequate leader, and your position may be placed in jeopardy. 
I imagine that pastors have always had to handle administrative work.  I’ll admit to being spoiled in having a very efficient and capable secretary who handles much of this for me, and having dedicated and capable leaders in the congregation who attend to the month-to-month business necessities of the congregation.  I attend at most three meetings a month at this point.  Two of them have to do with the training and development of the congregation’s Elders.  The other is the monthly business meeting of the congregational leadership.  There are many more things I could attend regularly, and I’ve undoubtedly annoyed people by refusing to be at every function of the congregation.  But I remain convicted that my
Pastors have also been told in the last 40 years or so that they need to be leaders, where leader is defined not Biblically but rather from the corporate world.  Leaders are charismatic and inventive and focused and many wonderful things.  They are also successful in corporate terms.  I suspect that a good leader who does not increase company earnings is an oxymoron.  So the same is applied to pastors.  If you’re a good leader, then quantifiable metrics will rise.  More participation in church events.  More butts in seats on Sunday morning.  Higher levels of giving.  Failure to achieve these things – none of which are Biblical mandates or instructions – you are not an adequate leader, and your position may be placed in jeopardy.  
That’s a lot of hats to wear.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  Pastors are to be expert evangelists, fantastic people-persons, deeply effective in one-on-one ministry, skilled preachers, knowledgeable teachers, talented administrators, compelling leaders, effective evangelists.  And let’s be honest – pastors are primed for this.  They are primed for it by watching other pastors.  They are primed for it from seminaries.  They are primed for it by the Christian celebrity circle of pastor-authors, pastor-motivational speakers, pastor-emperors.  
So we’re deeply inclined to take it all on.  The warm fuzzies when we do so are indescribably wonderful and addicting.  You like me.  You really like me!  Pastors want to please people, and the office of Pastoral Ministry has evolved into the awkward situation where we need to be liked at a certain level.  Doing the little things that make people happy, that place us at the center of attention – this is highly addictive.  
I suspect it’s also lethal.  Pastors burn out at an amazing rate.  I’m not sure if it’s an unprecedented rate or not, but there are plenty of statistics out there that say we’re killing ourselves.  Professionally and sometimes physically.  
All of which should give pastors pause for thought.  It should give congregations pause for thought as well.  If your pastor has been called primarily as someone who delivers the Word of God in a meaningful and understandable way, who tends to the faithful while keeping a foot in the world, who is expected to faithfully administer God’s sacraments – God’s gifts to his people – how much time is your pastor putting in to these areas, compared to the other responsibilities that are expected of them?  How deeply involved is
your pastor in budget planning?  How many prayers is he or she expected to offer at how many luncheons or other gatherings in a week?  How is their family doing?  
So conversations are turning more and more to what is the true and faithful role of the pastor, Biblically?  And this necessitates a reconsideration of what does it mean to be a congregation and part of the body of Christ.  How much of what we do is extraneous? How much of what we do is central to the Great Commission?  As congregational sizes dwindle, as fixed incomes make up more of the membership, as economics continue to squeeze and crunch, can congregations continue to insist that being a church means doing all the things we used to do, the way we’ve always done them?
I leave these discussions invariably awed and humbled.  I am blessed beyond measure because of the relationship I share with my congregation at this point.  I have what might be the ideal situation to consider these Big Questions.  Not that there aren’t expectations and pressures, but they’re nothing like what many of my colleagues apparently deal with.  
So we keep talking.  Helping to share vision and purpose and encouragement with one another.  And more and more, I am hearing others agreeing that pastors need to return to their Scriptural roots as preachers and teachers.  The winds of change continue to blow, and that makes for some really bad hair days.  Or years.  Or perhaps even careers.  But I suspect that we will all be astonished and impressed to see how congregations change and adapt in the coming decades.  
For the times, they are a-changin’.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s