It only takes a visit to most any church in the PCUSA, and most any other denomination for that matter, to see that the Church is living in difficult times. Popular culture tends to portray Christianity as extremist, judgmental, and hypocritical; a badge Christians have to admit we have earned to varying degrees. The result is that while many people consider themselves to be Christian; fewer and fewer practice their faith in a church community. Inside the Church, congregations are struggling to re-vision themselves in order to take the good news of Christ into our communities. We are striving to be missional even as we shrink from being evangelical. Old structures and patterns are resistant to change while fresh ideas and energies fight to take root. Heap on top of this a poor economy and poor or declining stewardship and you have an elixir of turmoil and anxiety. It’s not an easy time to be the Church.
Church professionals have long known that challenging times sprout anxiety and conflict in congregations. There are specialists who council church leaders and congregations in healthy ways to deal with conflict, how to assess a congregation’s viability, and how to create a new vision. There are also resources for pastors to help them lead through conflict, guide a process of discernment, and facilitate a visioning process. There are even resources to help pastors deal with the stress that comes from being a leader in times like these.
Being the captain of a sinking ship is a tremendous burden. On the one hand the pastor is looked to for guidance. Church members put their eggs in the pastor’s basket hoping and expecting them to save their dying church. When that doesn’t happen quickly enough, the pastor becomes the target of blame. Problems that have been in the making long before the current pastor walked through the door become his or her fault. Pastors become the victim of gossip and ridicule. Expectations of the pastor become elevated in the eyes of some, which fuels their disappointment in the pastor’s leadership. While the pastor strives to do all the things necessary to help a church thrive and grow, just as the congregation said they wanted; some will complain when that change begins. Precious and few are the individuals who go to their pastor to talk about their church’s situation. The conversations happen in the hallways and parking lots, in church kitchens and even in the pews. In case after case this struggle between the pastor and congregation escalates until the pastor is marched before a governing board or congregational meeting like Hester Prynne with her scarlet letter. The result is another painful separation that leads many pastors to leave the ministry and many members to leave their congregation.
Every minister knows that leadership brings challenges. They know that they will rarely be recognized for what goes well and will be held responsible for everything that goes wrong. They are taught Systems Theory and how to encourage healthy dialogue. They attend workshops and training seminars and seek to bring these to their congregations. All of this is helpful, but the truth is that not everyone will be receptive to a pastor’s attempts at healthy dialogue. Not all will enter into conversation or be willing to resolve conflict. There will always be some who choose to work in the shadows causing conflict and destroying relationships between members and the pastor. Being equipped to deal with conflict does not ensure that conflict will or can be handled effectively. The years of broken relationships between pastors and congregations suggests that it is time for congregations to be held accountable for their patterns of conflict and clergy abuse. While pastors are learning to be in relationship with their congregations; congregations need to learn how to be in relationship with their pastors.
Peter Steinke’s “Healthy Congregations” program is an excellent way to help congregations think about these dynamics; however, a pastor telling the congregation they need to participate in such a program can create resentment toward the pastor. In cases where some church members recognize the need, they can also face resentment and become polarized by other members. If the program is agreed upon, the next challenge is to get members to attend the workshop. But in reality, by the time the pastor or congregation recognizes the need for this training, damage has already been done.
Year after year the PCUSA has crafted new ideas for revitalization and redevelopment, evangelism and mission; but it just may be that the number one thing that is killing our congregations is hardly being addressed. Our Presbytery Committees on Ministry are designed to enter in when the conflict has bloomed. Our Interim Ministries are designed to help congregations envision the future and be prepared for change but rarely focus on how to function in relationship to a pastor. What if our interims spent more time teaching congregations how to treat their pastor? As a pastor and trained interim, I have observed that the work of visioning and writing mission statements might best be done, not with the interim, but after the new pastor arrives. Time spent speaking honestly about the role of the pastor and what a congregation can expect from him or her might go a long way to building a healthy relationship between the new pastor and congregation. It is something that needs to be addressed particularly as the stresses of decline and change become even greater.
What do congregations need to know about pastors? Here are a few ideas.
1. Pastors come as servants of God. Their desire is to work with the congregation to do Christ’s work in their community and in the world. Few are motivated by ego or a big salary.
2. Pastors are trained to preach, teach, lead congregational structures, offer pastoral care and help discern God’s call upon the congregation. Administration, financial planning and fund raising may not be their strengths. The help of those who can is better than complaining that the pastor can’t.
3. Preaching is a serious responsibility that takes a great deal of preparation and effort. A pastor knows that they are proclaiming the word of God and are inspired and humbled by the privilege. A congregation that appreciates this is a blessing.
4. Every pastor wants to grow his or her congregation, but their success depends on the cooperation and support of the members. It takes everyone to grow a congregation and it is hard work.
5. Pastors bring a great deal of expertise and some have many years of experience. They appreciate being listened to and respected for the gifts they bring; just like everyone else.
6. Pastors put in a lot of hours, even if you can’t see them. They work at home and sometimes in a coffee shop. They are busy visiting individuals, families, attending meetings, studying, preparing sermons, officiating weddings, funerals, developing programs and ministries, getting out into the community and participating in the life of the church. If they are not in the office when you drop by, please don’t assume they aren’t working. It is best to schedule an appointment at a time that is convenient for both of you.
7. While a congregation may have an idea of what they want a pastor to do, the pastor is better equipped to understand the scope of their job than most church members. Please accept them as a leader rather than treat them like a hired hand.
8. Pastors want members to talk to them. It is far better to hear of complaints and concerns face to face than through the grape vine.
9. Pastors are human beings. Gossip and criticism hurt them just like everyone else.
10. Did I mention that pastors are human too? That means they will make mistakes sometimes. They will be grateful when members grant them grace and forgiveness.