A text message this morning got me to thinking. My thinking went way back in time–October 1974 to be exact. This was when I was appointed to serve 2 small congregations while I pursued licensing as a pastor at the ripe old age of 18 years old. I mention this because we all know that beginning at 18, we tend to be full of vim and vigor; or was the vim and vinegar? Come to think of it, the latter is more true for me than I want to admit. My thinking moved forward through all the years I served as a pastor all the way to right now.
And now? I have less vim, but at times, a whole lot more vinegar. If you have followed me here on this blog, you know it’s true. And you may wonder who is about the become the object of my vinegary thoughts. It is my profession–“the” pastor. I was trained in the classical model of “The Professional Pastor”. I had someone whom I thought was a colleague, tell me once after I made the decision to remain in serving small and medium churches as what we call a “Local Pastor”, “You really need to become one of us.” His poke was that until one was an ordained elder in the UMC, they weren’t really pastors. By the way, I was eventually ordained, but not to be “one of them”.
The text message from this morning, well, it brought me under conviction of the Holy Spirit. Stay with me a moment, especially if you are a pastor. And really hang in with me if you are studying to become a pastor. In reflecting over these past 46 plus years, one picture stands clear to me. The church in the U.S. has been in a steady decline; almost to the stage of an avalanche. There have been all kinds of explanations, even justifications (even though we can never justify decline) for this event. But the biggest thing is the placing of blame on this state of disgrace.
I realize that some of this decline is caused by Churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters who vainly think the local church exists for them–and who fight tooth and nail to keep their control. But from my perspective–we pastors share the major share of the blame. We were trained to be professionals rather than authentic people who are to be servant leaders. I remember an incident at my previous appointment. After a funeral in my first year, the family was gathered for a meal in the church fellowship hall. I noticed the tea glasses, water glasses, and coffee cups were nearly empty. Well, I proceeded to go to each table refilling their beverage of choice. One of the church members mentioned, “This is our new pastor.” and the response was obviously one of shock when she said, “Oh, really?” To my fellow pastors–if you expect church folks to do things you are unwilling to do or think it is beneath your training, then you’re in the wrong place.
I am convinced that Professionally Trained Pastors are the Achilles Heel of the U.S. Church. It did not happen overnight–it took centuries for this to develop and in 2021, we are reaping the harvest of this with declining congregations. When I began this journey, I thought my job was to herd them up and get them moving in the right direction under MY leadership. What I discovered was that this model was more like herding cats. So I started looking for a different model to emulate. Here’s what I noticed over the past 4 decades plus of noticing.
- The Underachiever Model. This is the pastor who really doesn’t care about the flock, just the paycheck, and the next church.
- The Don’t Rock The Boat Model. This pastor is focused on survival–their own and that of their family. These fear confrontation–and as such, cannot guide the church to where it needs to be.
- Then on the opposite end is The Dynamite Model. I do not mean as in dynamic–but dynamite, C-4 explosives, and the like. They are convinced that their job is to correct the problems that they see as the real problems. Their definition of “real” problems are typically about 7 bubbles off plumb. They do catastrophic damage to a congregation and leaves the damage behind for the next pastor to deal with. And you can always count on The Dynamite Model to leave a few unexploded devices behind which will explode at the worst possible moment.
- The One Issue Model. This pastor has defined the one issue that a church needs to address even before they arrive. They are convinced that their own wisdom knows which issue the church MUST address.
- The Goodyear Blimp Model. I’m not talking about their physical size. It’s the size of their ego. It is large and very inflated. They want the church to know that they have the latest Rock Star Pastor. I once listened to a mega-church’s podcast of a worship service. Truthfully, I only listened for about 3 minutes. The person who was going to bring God’s word opened up that “their” pastor and wife would be back next week. And she said, “Let’s give a hand to Pastor ________ and his wife _______ and let them know how much we missed them. I changed to another podcast–it was about herding cats.
- And last but by no means least, The Control Freak Model. Churches are not churches without them. Instead of checking the pulse of the congregation, they are putting the thumb down on folks. Nothing can be done without their permission. If something is done without their permission? Forget that adage that says it is easier to ask for forgiveness after the fact rather than seek permission first. Obviously, whoever came up with that adage never had to deal with The Control Freak Pastor. They make Kim Jong-un look like the second coming of George Washington.
Why do I say that The Professional Pastor the primary cause of church decline? I look at the first Models of the church. There was leadership, trained leadership–but that leadership did not get in the way of the church reaching thousands and thousands of people. Oh, for sure, when a local church lost its sense of its true mission, someone was there to set the record straight. And then turned them loose to be The Body Of Christ. No one had to ask permission to lift up the name of Jesus. No one had to ask approval to feed the hungry, take care of the widows and orphans, and bear witness to Jesus and the power of the Cross to save. No one waited for some Professional Pastor to do the work.
There is another Model, a Model that the U.S. church in particular needs today. I would call us The Pastor Model. This pastor guides the congregation into a deeper relationship with Jesus, first and foremost. Then The Pastor Model challenges and equips the Congregation to BE the Body of Christ. And when the Congregation wants to be that Body–he or she gives them PERMISSION to be the Body Of Christ. The congregation doesn’t have to ask The Pastor Model for permission to do anything that lifts up the name of Jesus–and lifts up the least, the last, and the lost. In recent years, when someone comes to me and asks, “Is it OK with you if I do this, that, or the other?”, my response now is: “If it exalts Jesus, if the honors God and the Holy Spirit, if it touches the least, the last, or the lost, then know you have God’s permission and that’s good enough. Now, can I help you or do I just need to stay out of the way?”
In my tribe, only Ordained Pastors can administer the sacraments–as if we are somehow more holy than anyone else. Local pastors can administer the sacraments ONLY in the church they serve. The irony of my tribe is that it also professes the power and importance of the priesthood of all believers. I guess all doesn’t mean all. Before this pandemic hit, there was a significant rise in the number of House Churches. These are homes where people are hungry for a deeper relationship with Jesus, a connection with other Followers, and believe that the Kingdom Of God is needed in their neighborhoods, towns, cities, communities, states, and nation.
To my fellow Pastors, encourage your congregations. Inspire your people given to your care (not your dictatorship)! Don’t be afraid to give them permission to be who God calls them to be, The Body Of Christ. Support them in what they do. Help them but only when asked. Praise them when they look like Jesus. And if they get off-mission–gently take them aside and remind them who WE BOTH serve. You can’t build someone up (remember Ephesians 4:11-12) if you constantly tear them down, or worse, never give them the opportunity to do the real work of Jesus Christ.
If some pastor (or Churchian or Tenured Pewsitter) is upset with me, understand I will soon be 65, closer to the moment I stand before my Judge. The last thing I want to be held accountable for is my failure to speak the truth in love. So if you are offended–it is what it is. I still love you and my prayer for you is that your heart, mind, and eyes will be opened to the Mission God has called us to do.
Love God with all your heart. Love others the way Jesus loves you. And make sure all the glory goes to Him.