My three part series “How to Fire Your Pastor” sadly continues to remain the most frequently searched title that lands people on this website. I hope the title of this series will change that statistic!
Recently, Dr. Thom Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, undertook a small research project involving twenty-two experienced pastors, all over the age of 55 and most of whom were still in active pastoral ministry. He reported his findings in an article entitled “The Seven Top Regrets of Pastors.”
Unsurprisingly, these seven pastoral regrets coincide with the most frequent church conflicts I have experienced in my twenty years of work as a Christian mediator:
- Lack of practical training for local church ministry
- Overly concerned about critics
- Failure to exercise faith
- Not enough time with family
- Failure to understand basic business and finance issues
- Failure to share ministry
- Failure to make friends
So what do we do with these findings? Is it sufficient to merely note and lament them? I would say no. Instead, as I will attempt to show in this blog series, it seems to me that we should all:
- Explore and understand how each of these pastoral regrets can lead to (or be birthed from) destructive church conflicts that could have been avoided; and
- Carefully consider what we as church leaders and members can do in order to preserve our pastors and prevent regret-related conflicts from leading to the hasty dismissal of pastors.
In other words, rather than sitting idly by as our own pastors move through their lives with these seven regrets, this blog series will challenges us to ask, “So what?” and, “Now what?” What preventive action should we be taking as members and fellow leaders to avoid pastoral burnout, distraction, discouragement; and to save our pastor and church from destructive conflict?
Part 1: Lack of Practical Training for Local Church Ministry—The Problem of Misguided and Misstated Expectations
The role of the seminary in the training of a man for pastoring a church is largely academic. The study areas of Greek and Hebrew, all fields of theology, church history, evangelism, church polity, preaching, missions, and so on, are not focused on the development of a potential ministerial candidate’s Christian character, social skills, personality, relational wisdom, and peacemaking/conflict resolution abilities. For years while on the staff at Peacemaker Ministries my colleagues and I tried to provide a vision to seminaries for such training but were routinely met with the response:
“We don’t have room in the curriculum for such courses and that is the responsibility of the church, not the seminary.”
It was the expectation of the seminary that the home church of the seminary student had, prior to seminary attendance, screened and determined that the future student/pastor was Christian character qualified, emotionally mature, and spiritually gifted to care for people, being able to relate to all sorts with tact and wisdom. It was similarly the expectation of the seminary that the church a student was attending during their seminary years was also training the potential candidate in practical ministerial skills. Some churches were doing that, but many were not. Some denominations have internship requirements before a candidate for pastoral ministry can have their name considered for ordination, but many do not. Those that do can list practical matters that are to be developed during an internship program, but it is well known that these requirements are usually not strictly monitored or enforced. The local church, when calling a man for the pastoral office, is left with a hit-or-miss level of expectation of the true nature of a candidate’s readiness for the practical requirements of local church ministry.
The call process itself in most churches primarily consists of the focus on the candidate’s ability to preach. Taped sermons are pored over; visitation to the local church is centered on preaching and short social gatherings with the candidate and their spouse. Infrequently is a candidate examined on the topics of day-to-day shepherding like counseling, compassion and care, leadership of strong personalities (those who usually serve on church boards and councils!), and the ability to deal with budgets and contracts and general business matters. Large churches, of course, have staffs that deal with many of these areas but there is usually an expectation that the pastor has adequate knowledge and experience to effectively supervise every area that is part of the running of a church in today’s culture. When expectations go unmet conflict frequently follows.
The problem is one of misguided and misstated expectation. The associated comment with this “regret” in Dr. Rainer’s report is that “I had to learn in the school of hard knocks, and it was very painful at times.” During those times of pastoral pain church members can be very harsh, lack empathy, and move quickly to judgments about the inadequacy of their pastor to do “the job.” Unfortunately, many lay people can irrationally jump to equating pastoral ministry to a “job” like the one they have centered on satisfaction of a customer or client through specific performance criteria.
So what are some things other church leaders and church members can do to avoid this “regret?”
- First, everyone should understand the dynamic of “expectations” and be ready to control the damaging effects of their unmet expectations. Rather than being quick to ask, “What happened?” we should all ask “How can I help?” and “What can I do to assist the man we have called as our shepherd become all that God would have him be in our midst given his spiritual gifting?”
- Second, the pastor himself must be quick to help set expectations by not trying to muddle through his weaknesses (faking it/keeping up appearances). Instead, he should be quick to admit his shortcomings and to ask for help. If people begin to grumble about the quality of the preaching, he should admit that additional coursework or coaching from a more gifted preacher would be helpful so that his preaching will improve in order to meet the real needs of worshippers. The same is true, of course, for every area of ministry as well.
- Third, church members need to undertake careful self-examination and question their own spiritual maturity so that they can be sure they are ready to commit to a shepherd who doesn’t just live to please them. The pastor is called to please God and guide the sheep even when the sheep (church members) don’t like where God’s Word may be leading them. That is what makes pastoring very different from a “job.” The shepherd’s call requires him to lay down biblical principles that will guide the church. Frequently such principles will clash with practical reality, but the pragmatic must never be elevated above the biblical ideal (the eternal truth of God’s Word).
- And finally, everyone must exercise the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Being intentional about your faith can preserve your pastor. Helping him model these spiritual qualities by modeling such behavior ourselves can set the right kind of expectations that should govern life in our churches.
Too many pastors have undertaken ministry with a belief that the apostle’s words at 1 Corinthians 9:22 “to become all things to all men” means they must be the expert in every area of church endeavor. We, the sheep who follow, must be very careful to not feed such an attitude by having and placing expectations on the men we call when we know that what they really need is a group of faithful followers who reward humility and joyously seek mutual ministry as partners.
For the glory and peace of the Church,
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8